Monday, August 28, 2006


Last week, National Public Radio aired a segment about the privatization of highways--specifically the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road. Republican Governor Mitch Daniels bullied his 75-year lease of the Toll Road through the GOP legislature, just as he pushed Daylight Savings time through earlier. (Indiana is split between the Central and Eastern time zones. Until this year, most of Indiana stayed on Eastern Standard time, so that we'd be on the same time as Chicago and western Indiana for seven months of the year. Now people in South Bend get 10 p.m. sunsets in June.)

NPR correctly stated that many opponents of Toll Road privatization were from northern Indiana, although there was quite a bit of opposition statewide. ("Ditch Mitch" and "Pitch Mitch" bumper stickers abound.) But many of us in north see it a transfer of wealth from northern Indiana to Hoosierland. (Yes, some of the northern counties are getting a sop from the deal, but it's a pittance to what will go to the central and southern part of the state--especially Marion County, home of Indianapolis.)

Northern Indianans, especially those of us in the tier of counties bordering Michigan, are often uncomfortable with the label "Hoosier." Nobody really knows the origin of the term, but the most plausible explanation is that of historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, who traced it to the word "hoozer," from the Cumberland dialect of English. It means anything big, and was often applied to mountains and hills. (The root of "hoozer" is the Anglo-Saxon "hoo," meaning hill.) Thus, Hoosiers are hill people. And it explains the lower-case meaning of the word--an uncouth rustic--which prompted then-Senator Dan Quayle's battle with Merriam-Webster.

Most of northern Indiana is pretty flat. We're not hill folks, at least not literally. Nobody likes to be called a hillbilly. But educated, urbane folks from Indianapolis and Bloomington proudly call themselves Hoosiers, while a lot of us northerners wince at the term.

I suspect a lot of it has to do with transportation. For the most part, the major highway and rail routes lead to Chicago, rather than to the south. Because of that, we go to the Chicago museums, root for the Cubs, Sox, Bulls, and Bears, and make our shopping excursions to Marshall Field's (now, sadly, Macy's). It's just not that easy to get to Indianapolis.

But you really know you're a northern Indianan if you watch the movie Hoosiers and find yourself rooting for South Bend Central. The Hickory High School team of the movie was based on the Milan (rhymes with smilin') High School team of 1954, which beat Muncie Central for the state boys' basketball championship. Milan had actually lost the championship to South Bend Central the previous year. But the filmmakers decided on South Bend Central--an urban, racially integrated team--as white, rural Hickory's opponent. If you're from Muncie, you're a Hoosier, even if you're a professor at Ball State. But South Bend, a city which would be in Michigan had Congress not taken ten miles from Michigan Territory to give Indiana a port on Lake Michigan, isn't really Hoosier. (The border shift is why Michigan City is in Indiana.)

One thing Mitch Daniels says he's going to do with all that cash he got for leasing out the Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium, is to upgrade U.S. 31 from South Bend to Indianapolis. Perhaps his secret plan is to try to make us northerners into Hoosiers.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A time of hope as well as madness

It was the spring of 1973 when I knew the Sixties were over. I was in Kathleen's dorm room late one night when we heard crowd noises outside. "Panty raids," she said. Only a year before, those sounds would have meant an antiwar demonstration. But now that the Vietnam war was over, at least for American combat troops, the mindless college antics of the Fifites had returned. While it didn't dawn on me at the time, I would not have be spending the night in my fiancee's dorm room in the Sixties, when parietal rules were strict and strictly enforced.

What are we to make of the Seventies? Tom Wolfe called it the "Me Decade." Many popular historians see it as just a transition between the Sixties and the Eighties.

In his new book, 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America, historian Andreas Killen sees the decade as one of national paranoia. The book's final chapter is titled "Conspiracy Nation." An epilogue about the Patricia Hearst kidnapping follows.

Killen focuses on 1973 as the pivotal year of the decade--the year of Roe v. Wade and the Arab oil embargo. Yet he discusses these subjects only in passing. Instead, he focuses on the PBS series, An American Family, Andy Warhol, the returning prisoners of war, the New York Dolls, cults and deprograming, the films American Graffiti and Badlands, airline hijackings, and the novels Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong and Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. One chapter focuses on Watergate, primarily to further Killen's argument for the "Conspiracy Nation." Killen devotes more space to the Comet Kohoutek than to the energy crisis. Remember Kohoutek? It was supposed to provide a spectacular light show between Christmas, 1973 and New Year's 1974. Some religious cultists thought it would usher in the Second Coming. In fact, it was barely visible to the naked eye.

I'll admit that my experience of 1973 is not an unbiased one. Kathleen and I were married August 1 of that year. I was young, idealistic, and completely in love. We went to Washington, D.C. on our honeymoon (on the train, of course). I had worked for Dick Clark (not the Bandstand guy, but the Iowa senator) the previous summer, so we had no problem gettiing to see Congress at work. We got to see the representatives lounging about the House floor, drinking bottles of soda while Gerald Ford was arguing that strikerr didn't deserve food stamps. We skipped waiting for hours in the Capitol basement to see the Watergate hearings for half an hour. It was more important to see the National Gallery.

I didn't watch An American Family. It seemed too voyeuristic. I didn't want to watch a marriage and family fall apart. I saw American Graffiti years later. Ditto for Fear of Flying. I had never heard of the New York Dolls, and I've never read Gravity's Rainbow. I haven't ever seen The Exorcist. So when it comes to 1973 cutlure, I'm definitely deprived.

But I remember it as a time of hope--a hope that America's madness was coming to an end. The Watergate hearings were exposing Nixon and his aides for the criminals they were. The Arab oil embargo made Americans reconsider their lifestyle. People began trading in their gas-guzzlers for small cars. Mass transit systems stopped shrinking and somtimes even expanded. When the Nixon Administration proposed to slash the Amtrak system, Congress said no.

By 1974 there was a liberal Democratic majority in Congress. Yes, America went back to its madness late in the decade. By 1980, conservation was out and waste was back in. President-elect Ronald Reagan called the Vietnam War a "noble cause."

But during 1973 and 1974 there was hope for a sane America. I was reminded of that hope last week, when Ned Lamont defeated Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. Once again, some Americans are rethinking the status quo. Perhaps this time, we can overcome the waste, corruption, war, and, well, madness which dominates American government.