A couple of weeks ago, the Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts presented Indianapolis with an extraordinary gift. Now in its 21st incarnation, the festival, created by Eunice Knight-Bowens, is named in honor of her brother and one of this city's most renowned poets.
Etheridge Knight lived a hard life, doing time in prison and struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. But he was also possessed of an eloquent, resonant voice, which managed to reach an enormous audience. When he died in 1991, poets from across the country came to Indianapolis for a reading in his honor at the Athenaeum.
Those of us who were lucky enough to be at the Athenaeum that night witnessed what amounted to one of the exclamation points in Indianapolis' cultural history. Something similar took place April 19, in the splendidly refurbished hall of the Indiana Landmarks Center, formerly known as the Old Centrum.
"An Evening With the Legends" was a gathering of four poets, Amiri Baraka, Mari Evans, Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez — all of whom were either founding or pivotal members of the Black Arts Movement that coalesced in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X during the mid-1960's.
To get a sense of the significance of this event, imagine finding such prototypical Beat poets as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure on the same stage. Or, for that matter, a collection of Modernist masters like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.
Let's just say the iconic quotient in the room on April 19 was formidable.
The place was packed. In part, I suspect this was thanks to the participation of local poet, essayist, and activist Mari Evans. If Indianapolis were to adopt the appellation of Living Treasure, as they do in Japan, to recognize the true masters among us, Ms. Evans would surely be first in line. The audience leapt to its feet when she made her way to the stage.
But something else was going on. This was not just any gathering of literary stars. The Black Arts Movement represented a particular and provocative approach to art and society. It still does. As Kaluma ya Salaam has written, "Both inherently and overtly political in content, the Black Arts movement was the only American literary movement to advance 'social engagement' as a sine qua non of its aesthetic. The movement broke from the immediate past of protest and petition (civil rights) literature and dashed forward toward an alternative that initially seemed unthinkable and unobtainable: Black Power."
Since the first election of Ronald Reagan, the arts in America have been under virtual siege. Conservative politicians have, to a large extent, succeeded in caricaturing the arts as pointy-headed, liberal, elitist and commercially out of touch with mass appetites.
Arts advocates have tried to defend themselves against these attacks by arguing for the arts' democratization, emphasizing inclusive outreach programs and cultural diversity — the idea that the arts are the one place in America's multicultural gumbo where we can all hold hands and get along.
The legacy of the Black Arts Movement suggests we tack in a radically different direction. By unabashedly asserting that they were black, other, and systematically oppressed, these artists didn't just challenge the validity so many Americans traditionally placed on the idea of cultural assimilation or the melting pot. Their insistent focus on the nature of power relations in our society — making power's many guises an unavoidable subject in the poetic landscape — also unmasked attacks on the arts as attempts on behalf of the status quo to reduce forms of expression to entertainment aimed at keeping us fat, pleased with ourselves and dumb.
If you read the history, it is tempting to think the Black Arts Movement was volatile but brief, its social impact negligible.As Mari Evans pointed out in her remarks, black males today are in serious trouble, one out of three black males born today is expected to go to prison. Sonia Sanchez warned that, at this rate, a truly African-American population might be extinct in this country come the 22nd century. But then, the country also has its first black president, a fact that doesn't validate Black Power so much as give it a tragic spin.
Art that makes social change part of its aesthetic takes a big risk. It dares to be judged not just in terms of how it affects what goes on in peoples' heads, but by what goes on in the world. This is usually a losing proposition. That's why when artists who have been through a fiery time together reunite, they often do little more than recall the way things were.
But the artists who assembled on April 19 were not looking back. Their performances were driven by unabated urgency. Their language was often charged with the ring of prophecy. They were black, yes, but the power they spoke of — the ways it is abused and how that defines us — is ultimately colorblind.
If you travel to the northeast corner of Indiana, LaGrange County, to be exact, it won't be long before you find yourself in Amish country. In this part of the state, buggies are as common as automobiles. The public library in Topeka actually has two distinct parking lots, one for cars and the other for horse-drawn vehicles. On the Saturday afternoon I happened to be there, horses' hooves clip-clopping on the streets and the occasional whinny provided the ambient sound.
I must confess that the Amish are a mystery to me. I don't know what to make, for example, of their passion for peanut butter. Peanut butter, often cut with marshmallow paste or some other sweetener, is a cornerstone of Amish cuisine. They serve it at all manner of gatherings and get-togethers. Mention peanut butter and an Amish person's eyes light up. It's almost unnerving.
I have nothing against peanut butter. I've eaten it all my life. There is a jar of the stuff in my pantry now. It's the foot soldier of foods, as far as I'm concerned. Handy, but hardly a highlight.
That said, there is one aspect of Amish life for which I have an unqualified and increasing admiration. As far as I can tell, the Amish may be the only social group in America that isn't gobsmacked by technology.
Everyone, of course, is familiar with the stereotypical image of the Amish farmer plowing his field with a team of horses, or the families in those aforementioned buggies. But those are just the most outward signs of what seems to be a deeper skepticism about something the rest of us take for granted.
It's that skepticism that interests me.
We Americans, along with just about everyone else, have a long-running infatuation with gadgets. This took off with the Industrial Revolution. Machines changed the ways we lived and worked. They spurred the growth of cities, illuminated the night and made overheated places cool. Machines extended human senses and reach. They effectively shrunk the planet, while investing individuals with a practically limitless sense of self.
So far, so good, right? That's certainly been the dominant culture's attitude toward the rise and development of new technologies. In part, that's because our inventions continue to drive the growth of our economy. We make stuff (or, at least, somebody does — in China, say, or Bangladesh) and then we buy it. Early Adopters, those who are first in line for the newest phone or pad or operating system, are looked to as predictors of what will eventually be in store for the rest of us.
It's been this way for generations. We call it progress. Never mind that progress often means that things we used to think were important get atomized in the process. Many cities and towns, for instance, used to have bustling shopping districts where people gathered. But shopping malls and, more recently, online retailing, have sucked the air out of many downtowns and town squares, turning them into occasional destinations where, after business hours, the only things left to do are limited to dining in restaurants or attending a one-off sports or cultural event. Simply hanging out in these places is difficult, turning many of them into virtual ghost towns on weekends. But then, we have a term for this, too: "creative destruction."
When it comes to new technologies, our inclination has been to embrace them — and ask questions later. Will ear buds make you deaf? Do cell phones cause brain cancer? Will sitting in front of a screen all day wreck your eyes? Since we haven't lived with any of these things through an entire human life cycle, nobody really knows. But such questions have been made irrelevant by our full-body embrace of these tools. Our homes and workplaces are now unthinkable without them.
All of this is not to say we should chuck our smart phones and laptops. We have enough trouble with e-waste as it is. Times, tools and the behaviors they encourage are bound to change. I'd even go so far as to say our proclivity to lose our hearts to the latest algorithm may be one of our most endearing characteristics.
But, on a planet with limited resources and a growing population, it is also worth considering the extent to which this proclivity makes us prone to unintended consequences.
Our problem is that, when it comes to technologies, we don't know how to say no. There is nothing in our culture — no tradition or value system — to serve as a circuit breaker, saying, in effect, "don't go there," "you'll be sorry," or even, "maybe you should sleep on that."
This is why I admire the Amish. It's not that they are against technology. They actually use plenty of tools, and not just the 19th century kind. Visit an Amish home and you're liable to be amazed by the conveniences they've managed to make room for. This doesn't make them hypocrites about technology. It makes them skeptical. I wish I could spread a little of that on a peanut butter sandwich.
There's a scene from an early season of the television series Mad Men that haunts me. Mad Men, as you doubtless know, is about the lives and lusts of a group of people working in a Madison Avenue advertising agency during the early 1960s. The narrative revolves around a creative director named Don Draper, a man whose identity is based on a lie — he is, quite literally, not who he says he is.
Draper's unwillingness to come to grips with his background makes for a fraught family life with his wife, Betty, and their two young children. So it comes as a relief when, in one episode, we are presented with an idyllic picture of the Draper nuclear unit enjoying a picnic lunch on the slope of a grassy hill.
We see the family from middle distance. They are finishing their meal; everyone appears smiling and carefree. This, you sense, is the kind of life moment the Drapers have always imagined for themselves. It's like one of the TV commercials from the era, in which lovers share a slow-motion embrace in a meadow full of flowers.
What haunts me about the scene is the way it ends. As the Drapers pack their picnic things, they blithely fling away their trash. Bits and scraps of newspapers used for wrapping sandwiches blow across the grass.
Then they climb into Don's Cadillac and drive away.
This scene, of course, is a perfect metaphor, not just for the quality of the Draper's lives, but their American era. After living through a Great Depression and a World War, the country was booming. Americans had more of everything than anyone else in the world. We had a feast of houses and food and cars and endless amounts of entertainment. We had so much, in fact, that we could waste it, could live as if someone else would pick up after us.
If this wasn't freedom, what was?
The underlying theme of Mad Men — and the reason this series is about a lot more than the groggy joys of lunchtime martinis, office trysts and smoking three packs a day — is about what happens when people confuse freedom with excess.
Freedom is a word that's easily said, but hard to actually understand. It's an abstraction that can mean different things to different people. Freedom means one thing if you live in a country that outlaws blue jeans and rock and roll. It likely means something else to a person with unlimited Internet access and a Nordstrom's charge account.
But anybody can understand the freedom to throw their trash out a window, smoke or drink whenever and wherever they damn well please, or dump whatever bores them, be it a meal, an outfit or an unruly pet.
It was in the '60s that rock bands began making a sport of trashing hotel rooms. Some bands were notorious for the lengths they'd go to in systematically ruining the spaces they rented for a night or two. Was it because the room service was bad, or the mattresses too lumpy? No, bands did it because they could. Their managers paid for the damages. This was freedom.
America calls itself the land of the free. Lacking a definition for what this might actually mean — or the discipline to come up with one — we have, like the characters in Mad Men, hit the default button in favor of excess. Through various forms of government subsidy we have willfully manipulated our supposedly "free" marketplace to artificially suppress the prices we pay for fuel and food. We wonder why our air isn't better or how so many of us got to be obese. But heaven help the fool with the impertinence to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we might be better off if the prices we paid for things reflected what they actually cost.
The same thing applies to one of our most cherished freedoms, the freedom of speech. People pride themselves on being "free speech absolutists," thereby lending cover to commercial interests that use this freedom to send heaping doses of graphically portrayed sexual violence into peoples' homes via an increasing array of media at all hours. Whatever the consequences of this stuff may be, its purveyors say it's not their problem. You see, the rest of us are free to steer clear of what they do — if, that is, we can.
The poet William Blake once wrote words to the effect that we never know what's enough until we experience too much. That is probably true. But the problem with defining freedom in terms of our excesses is that it substitutes imaginative impoverishment for genuine abundance. It doesn't take imagination to keep doing the same thing again and again until exhaustion sets in. On the other hand, a creative leap is required to envision all that might be possible should we set about trying something really new.
In Mad Men, Don Draper, quintessential imperial American male, goes to extraordinary lengths to maintain his false front. This front, he thinks, has liberated him from a suffocating past. We can see, though, that he's running himself into the ground. Whether he has the capacity to change, whether, that is, Don can ever truly be free, remains to be seen.
I was at my doctor's office not too long ago, waiting to settle my bill. The man in front of me, a somewhat portly fellow, wore a bright green t-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan "My Man Mitch!"
I'm not sure what I found more poignant, the vintage quality of the slightly shrunken shirt, or its owner's dogged insistence on wearing it in public.
But this was before last week's revelation that the Indiana Department of Revenue short-changed 91 of the state's 92 counties $206 million in local tax revenues.
This is the second major accounting blunder committed by the state in less than a year. You may recall that last December the state discovered $320 million in corporate tax collections that it failed to account for. At the time, Gov. Mitch Daniels acted as if this was a cause for celebration. He likened it to drawing a free money card in a game of Monopoly.
Indiana Democrats called for an independent audit to find out how such a large sum could have been overlooked at a time when local governments around the state were cutting back on services and laying off workers for lack of funds.
But as far as Indiana Republicans were concerned, this was nothing but sour grapes. Democrats had been trounced in the last election and, lacking majorities in both the House and Senate, carried about as much clout as a tofu salesman at a hamburger stand.
What's more, their man, Mitch, was due to open the 2012 legislative session with his final state-of-the-state speech where he would have the chance to, once again, regale his party animals with the story of how Indiana was managing to get by with the same number of state employees as it did in the 1970s.
Never mind that during the State Fair the previous August seven people died in a stage collapse that might have been prevented had there been a state employee designated to make sure the stage was safe. Hiring a safety inspector is the kind of fat Mitch Daniels takes pride in cutting. That's why they call him "The Blade."
"Throw away the rule book to the extent the feds will let you do it," was Daniels' advice to those building the new I-69 highway extension. These minions had the temerity to suggest the project would cost more than the governor had originally said it would — by about a billion dollars. So Daniels urged them to cut corners, narrowing medians and spreading a thinner layer of cement.
This was the same mindset that thought firing caseworkers at the Indiana Family and Social Services agency in favor of online communications and phone answering machines was a bright idea. So people who needed medicine didn't get it on time. People who needed food stamps went without.
If this hadn't been such a blatant failure, the governor might have been able to brag on having whittled the number of state employees down to Lincoln's boyhood days, when school children did their lessons with chalk, by firelight.
As with the FSSA debacle, the Dept. of Revenue's managing to screw virtually every city and town in the state out of money they need for police and fire departments, schools and libraries, is too big to paper over with pictures of Rich Uncle Pennybags, the bug-eyed tycoon from the Monopoly game. There's finally going to be an audit of all systems and processes in the department.
But what this audit will miss is the underlying contempt for government that has permeated the Daniels administration from its inception eight years ago.
Frustration with the performance of government is not only understandable, it is justified in many, many cases. Unfortunately, this frustration has inspired the rise of a predatory class of people whose interest is not to fix governmental laxity and incompetence, but to exploit it.
These carpetbaggers prey on public unhappiness by promising to dismantle government. In the process, they manage to divert public resources into the hands of private interests in the name of pubic-private partnerships. They call this, "Running government like a business."
Except that government isn't a business. If it was, entrepreneurs would be making fortunes cleaning up polluted rivers, repairing streets and bridges, creating safe public parks and, yes, teaching our kids.
Good governance is a combination of art and science that is more complex than a balance sheet. When this complexity is ignored and public needs are reduced to a numbers game, you get the kind of trouble Indiana finds itself in today.
Not only has Daniels' administration lost track of half a billion dollars worth of tax monies, last summer it added insult to injury by demanding local governments return $610 million in what it claimed were overpayments. "There is a definite loss of confidence," is the understated way Matt Groeller, executive director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, described the feelings local officials now have toward the state administration.
But that's what happens when you put people in government who say government's for losers. You get what you vote for — and, I guess, a t-shirt.
I was just getting used to the idea of Obamacare. Now this happens.
Last week, President Obama's law, aimed at reforming the three-legged rhinoceros that passes for America's so-called healthcare system, appeared to get a pummeling during hearings before the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices probably won't announce their ruling on the law's constitutionality until June but, based on what transpired over three days of oral arguments, most observers expect the law to be struck down. The only question seems to be whether the court will settle for throwing out the part of the law that calls for everyone who hasn't got it to purchase health insurance, or scuttle the whole thing.
You like not being discriminated against by an insurance company because of a pre-existing condition, like high blood pressure or diabetes? That could be gone. Have you gotten used to the idea of being carried on your parents' insurance plan because you're not yet 26? That could also be over with.
People advocating for the law seem to have forgotten what kind of Supreme Court they were dealing with. If anything, the court is more conservative now than it was in 2000, when, by a single vote, justices who had built their judicial reputations arguing for states' rights suddenly decided that judges in Florida were unqualified to sort out whether Bush or Gore had won their state.
For the first time in American history, a presidential election was decided by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote at the time, the court's intercession was justified in order to short-circuit a process in Florida that might, "threaten irreparable harm to petitioner (Bush) ... by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election."
It's one thing to be a referee. It's another to have a rooting interest in how contests are resolved. Members of this court haven't been embarrassed about showing their partisan colors. Clarence Thomas' wife Ginni, for example, is head of Liberty Central, a Tea Party group that has stridently opposed Obamacare. This type of thing matters when rulings are likely to be decided by a single vote.
But, whatever the high court's shortcomings — and whatever they decide — we cannot lose sight of the real issue here, which is this country's need to fix healthcare. President Obama was right to see this as the dominant issue facing the country. Want to fix the economy? It can't be done without fixing healthcare first.
Our employer-based approach not only excludes or underinsures millions of people, it also puts big and small businesses behind an expanding 8-ball as managers who want to do the right thing are penalized by the ever-increasing cost of premiums. Let's face it: For years, the healthcare market in this country has utterly failed at correcting itself. The federal government has to intervene, not only to take the side of people who are being trampled by market forces that show no regard for their health and well-being, but in order to keep the larger economy from being sucked dry.
According to a 2010 Commonwealth Fund report, Americans spend twice as much as citizens in such countries as Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia. But this doesn't mean our healthcare is twice as good. The U.S. lags behind these countries — all of which cover all their citizens — in terms of quality, efficiency, access to care, equity and the ability to lead long, healthy and productive lives. The report states that, "when a country fails to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, it also fails to meet the needs of the average citizen."
Obama's fundamental mistake was to confuse the needs of citizens with those of the health insurance industry. Hence the individual mandate that would drive young, healthy adults into the insurance market, resulting in super profits for companies like WellPoint.
The irony is that this strategy was first advanced by a leading conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, back in 1989. Mitt Romney famously adopted the idea and tried it out — with success — when he was governor of Massachusetts. At the time, the individual mandate idea was the rightwing's answer to the single payer approach being promoted by the left.
The funny thing is that it showed signs of working. Since Obamacare passed, health insurers have, in fact, been adjusting rates and readying plans for the consumer stampede supposed to begin in 2014. While skepticism is warranted about how truly affordable the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would be, it's nonetheless disturbing that we may never have the chance to actually see how it works.
Adding insult to this injury is that, so far, there appears to be no Plan B. Republicans who have been hellbent on stopping Obamacare have nothing to suggest by way of an alternative, perhaps because they have basically killed their own idea.
As for the Democrats, it may be time for them to go back to the drawing board. They'll find a good idea waiting there. It's called Medicare for Everybody. If it's good enough for people over 65 (and it is, ask any senior, even a Tea Party member), it ought to work for the rest of us.