Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hoosier Politics

“In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.”  H.L. Mencken
above, H.L. Mencken; below, Cornel West

Princeton professor Cornel West, an idealist easily disillusioned by politicians, is very down on President Barack Obama, asserting:
He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency; we ended up with a brown-faced Clinton: Another neoliberal opportunist.  It’s a sad thing. It’s like you’re looking for John Coltrane and you get Kenny G in brown skin.  We needed a high-ground statesperson - a Lincoln-like figure who could revive some democratic spirit and democratic possibility - and it’s clear now he’s not the one.”

All liberal Presidents have had detractors on the left carping that the commander-in-chief was too moderate and slow to action.  We need the Cornel Wests of this world to prod leaders to be bold activists, but, like other successful aspirants to America’s highest office, Obama is a product of a flawed political system and, as with Lincoln, TR, FDR, and JFK, limited in his freedom of action.  In a recent Time editorial Joe Klein, another frustrated liberal critic, wondered whether Obama will be content to coast during the final two years of his Presidency or use what power is available to him to leave more of a mark on history.  The jury is still out.  Clinton went out strong, but that was after the 1998 Congressional elections demonstrated voter dismay at Republicans, who had recklessly impeached him.

The dismal record of lame duck presidents is not a hopeful sign.  Some, including Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, brought trouble upon themselves by foreign policy misadventures.  Vietnam foiled Lyndon B. Johnson’s dreams of greatness and turned him into a helpless, pitiful giant.  LBJ compared being president to “being a jackass in a hailstorm: there’s nothing to do but to stand there and take it.”  Vietnam protests played a role in Richard M. Nixon’s self-inflicted downfall, as he didn’t extricate the country from that fiasco during his first term.  Ronald Reagan finished his 8 years “sleepwalking through history” (journalist Haynes Johnson’s words), claiming he couldn’t remember details of the Iran-Contra scandal that tainted his legacy.

Ray Smock replied to my thoughts on Cornel West by calling his rant “intellectual snobbery at its worst that lacks the compassion he is supposed to preach.”  He added:
Only West can get away with racial references to the President as a brown-faced Clinton or a Kenny G in brown skin. He might as well call him an Uncle Tom.  The musical analogy of a black John Coltrane versus white-bread Kenny G is just that — a clever analogy with no insights into the nature of the presidency or the national agenda. Intellectuals like West have plenty of reason to be disillusioned with current politics and the current administration. Hell, I am mad as hell too and have been most of my life. I discovered that my species is a lot dumber than I thought it was when I was a kid. This is one major disappointment in my life that I have never gotten over. But this knowledge helps me cut slack for good people like President Obama who are trying to do the right thing against tremendous odds and no support from the people that elected him.  Three hundred million Americans and millions around the world expect a single individual to save the world. To say that Obama is not that savior does not mean that he has not been a good steward of the presidency and the Constitution during his time in office.” 

James Madison’s account of Indiana politics between 1876 and 1916 stresses the large voter turnouts and strong party loyalties stemming in large part from the Civil War, although religion and the prohibition issue were important as well.  Because the two major parties were so evenly balanced, seven different Vice Presidential candidates hailed from Indiana in 30 years.  Both Republican and Democratic officeholders tended to be middle-of-the-road conservatives and tried to hone a “down home” image, emulating William Henry Harrison’s 1840 “Log Cabin” campaign strategy.  In the 1876 gubernatorial race Democrat James “Blue Jeans” Williams beat wealthy attorney Benjamin Harrison (Old Tippecanoe’s grandson), whom opponents termed the “kid gloves candidate.” By the turn of the century two astute political bosses, Democrat Tom Taggart and Republican Will Hays, were masters at understanding the Hoosier state’s electorate.

Two loathsome practices during this time were lynchings and the eugenics movement.  In the first instance the victims of mob justice tended to be (though not always) African Americans.  An expert on this subject, James Madison wrote a book about a lynching that took place in Marion as late as 1930. In 1907 Indiana became the first state to enact legislation calling for the compulsory sterilization of mental incompetents.  Most victims tended to be poor people from isolated rural areas, whites as well as blacks.  The heinous operations took place mainly in prisons and insane asylums.

Following two decades of moderately progressive reforms, albeit for whites only, came a period of xenophobia, beginning during War World I, continuing through the postwar Red Scare, and culminating with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.  In “Hoosiers” Madison explains the Klan’s popularity in Indiana as a result of people’s fear of rapid change combined with susceptibility to appeals to their patriotism and Protestant Christian values.  Using vigilante methods such as cross burning, Klan leaders opposed Catholics, Jews, immigrants, as well as African Americans.  Madison downplays the importance of Hoosier Grand Dragon David C. Stephenson, who claimed to be “the law in Indiana” in the mid-1920s but whose licentiousness and murder conviction contributed to the racist organization’s rapid decline.

Rather than a fringe group of uneducated hillbillies, Klan members included, Madison writes, “ministers, mayors, shopkeepers, and factory workers, mostly ordinary people from the wide middle of society.”  These groups sought to blame for the loosening of moral standards, especially among the young, during the Jazz Age.  Referencing John R. McMahon’s 1922 Ladies Home Journal article “Our Jazz-Spotted Middle West,” Madison writes:
  All sorts of gyrations could be seen on the dance floors, including the Charleston, a sensuous dance for young women with bobbed hair and short skirts, sometimes without underwear.  To traditionalists such dances were an ‘unholy mingling of the civilized with the savage,’ more so because they derived from African American culture.”

Madison quotes Hoagy Carmichael as realizing while he was a student in Bloomington that “there was a wide world out there.  Being young, we knew it couldn’t bend and push us around the way it had our fathers.”  “Hoosiers” contains a photo of Carmichael at the piano in Richmond’s Gennett Records studio recording his composition “Washboard Blues” with Curt Hitch’s Happy Harmonists.  Some of Carmichael’s most famous compositions include “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind, and “”Up a Lazy River.”  His movie career included roles in “To Have and Have Not” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
Evan Bayh with Hillary Clinton; Roy Dominguez with wife Betty and Lorraine Guillen-Wentz

Back to the present: Indiana’s former senator, Richard Lugar, is virtually the only Republican backing Obama’s cautious Mideast policies.  Politics no longer stops at the border, if it ever did.  Hoosier politics has regressed since I moved to Indiana in 1970 when the state’s two senators were liberals Vance Hartke and Birch Bayh.   I’m one of many Democrats hoping that Birch’s son Evan, a two-term governor, makes another run for that office in 2016, perhaps with former Lake County sheriff Roy Dominguez as his running mate.
above, Geronimo Patton at Heidelberg Project; Detroit photos by Samuel A. Love

If Detroit and Gary were sister cities and Michael Jackson still alive, he and Eminem could spark a dual renaissance.  Miller resident Samuel A. Love, who loves both urban symbols of America’s neglect and just returned from Motown, wrote: “I always get sad leaving Detroit.  Well, today is no exception.  The people here and their Spirit represent the Soul of America.  I, too, mind dying, so let’s live.”  As it is, Michael’s mother and children will return this weekend for a three-day Tribute Festival of the Arts, and numerous groups are rehabbing homes near where the family lived in hopes of turning Jackson Street into a “Street of Dreams.”   Governor Pence even flew in for a photo opportunity.  Some families have lived in the neighborhood for decades, sending kids to once-proud Gary Roosevelt and then to college and on to meaningful lives. 

In New York Times Sunday magazine Vanessa Marko wrote about her grandfather, a Jewish radical deported to Russia in 1920 during the Red Scare. Manko knew him only through letters sent from all over the world as he tried in vain to rejoin his family in America.  The poignant essay reminded me of a story entitled “Letters from my Father” in Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” about the memories of Vietnamese immigrants living in Louisiana.  A teenager realizes how much her American father loves her after discovering copies of letters he wrote to government officials in efforts to bring her and her mother to America. 

I ran into Jermel Nelson from Student Affairs, who convinced me to get a Redhawk Card.  Taking my photo was IUN grad Annmarie Keller, who was a stellar basketball player for the Lady Redhawks.  I asked her whether about future plans, and she said she was working part-time with Student Activities until she gets a “big girl” job.  Annmarie’s sister Julie, also a Kouts high school grad, was a teammate and during her freshman year set a school record with seven three-point baskets.   
 Annmarie Keller with sister Julie

IUN has Diversity slogans all over campus once again, it being the first week of Fall semester.  One from the Quran goes: “Don’t let your hatred of people incite you to aggression.”  I looked in vain for any advocating tolerance toward LGBTs.  This suggestion imprinted on buttons may be too subtle: “If Gay and lesbian people are given civil rights, soon everyone will want them.”  Here’s one from Rita Mae Brown: “The only queer people are those who don’t love anybody.” 

My Sheet and Tin Bowling League now has a full component of 16 teams, up from 11 in 2013.  A Wednesday Star Dust league in Merrillville folded after its secretary moved his team, D’s Sporting Goods 2, to Cressmoor and several others followed suit.  We bowled the aforementioned secretary’s team, which spotted us 290 pins a game.  Since ours is a 90 percent handicap league, if everyone on each team bowled exactly his average, we’d lose by a wide margin. They slaughtered us the first two games, but when Robbie led off the night’s final frame by striking out, it gave us an opportunity to salvage the third.  After Melvie marked, I had a chance to double and clinch a win but left the ten-pin on a perfect ball.  When Dick, a lefty, picked up a difficult 7-pin spare, the anchor on D’s Sporting Goods 2 needed to strike out but left a ten-pin on his second ball.  We won by 8 pins.

On the next lane Mike Novak had a 300 game going into the tenth frame.  After one strike, bowlers nearby stopped to let him bowl out, customary etiquette in those circumstances.  After he left a 4-pin, Mike turned to one of them and said, “You jinxed me.”  The guy looked confused until Mike broke out in a grin and the two exchanged high fives.  I’d bet Novak has had a slew of perfect games, as he ended with a 750 series.

Electrical Engineers teammate Bob Robinson saw my name in the paper over the summer a few times and asked about Anne Balay.  She’s driving a truck now, I replied, to his disbelief. As bad as I bowled, struggling to roll a 400 series, at least my knee held up, and I got a big welcome-back hug from Shannon McCann, our secretary’s wife.  It was good to see Ray Piunti continuing to recover from a horrendous car accident last year.  After two poor games he finished with a 187.  I asked poppa dad Joe (JP) if it were a misprint, and he flashed a big grin.  On the way home I listened to the Cubs postgame.  The Cubbies lost, but Jorge Soler homered in his first major league at bat.  The last to do that was Starlin Castro.

The Ice Bucket challenge continues to be the rage, as folks YouTube their sacrifice for charity.  My Bucknell fraternity pop Dick Jeary poured the contents from a bucket on himself.  Brady Wade tortured his dad by doing it in slow motion, claiming he didn’t want Tom to get hurt from the ice.

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