Friday, December 13, 2013

Ignorance and Indiana

I have read The New Republic for years. I have become a better writer for the experience. I've long admired the film criticism of Stanley Kauffmann, and read the stuff in "the back of the book," or the cultural writing, especially avidly. (I blow hot and cold on Jed Perl, the art critic, and frigidly just now; his take on Balthus as a "mystic" in the current issue I find particularly unpersuasive.)

But a December 11 item on "The Plank" (the TNR the group blog) by Kevin Mahnken provides a window into a too-clever "elite" perspective, in a discussion of the phenomenon of "carpet-bagging" American electoral politics (and the unhappy tale of Dick Lugar, the former senior senator from Indiana):
There is a great deal that is silly about the politics in the United States, but nothing more fatuous and bizarre than the widely-held belief that an elected representative must somehow form a lasting relationship with a place, or embody its character and traditions, to ably work on behalf of its people. This expectation forced ex-senator Richard Lugar to go to extreme lengths to prove his residency in Indiana—a state that, in normal circumstances, no sane person would willingly claim as their home—and allowed his primary opponent to successfully paint him as absent and out of touch, costing him reelection and millions of Hoosiers a skilled and popular lawmaker.
Leave aside the apparent disdain for representative democracy, or Lincoln's government "of the the people."

For facile cultural knowingness, it's tough to beat "Indiana–a state that, in normal circumstances, no sane person would willingly claim as their home." I cannot guess whether Mahnken has ever traveled to Indiana, which includes such diverse locales as rusted Gary, college-town Bloomington, modern architectural mecca Columbus, and Notre Dame/South Bend, not to mention countless John Mellancampish small towns and the capital, Indianapolis, a surprisingly rich and pleasant place. I hold no particular brief for Indiana, other than to say that it's of interest in exactly the way that humans-in-community are of interest everywhere. And the Indy 500 is cool.

To test the laziness of that construction, insert some other place, like "Syria." Let's assume that Mahnken believes it a hardship to live in Indiana. Such might be said of Syria in 2013. Shall the desperation of contemporary Syrians who love their homeland be blamed on lunacy? Subtract civil war: should life in Damascus "in normal circumstances" be forsworn by sane persons–even be seen as a source of shame? What about isolated indigenous peoples in the Amazon? 

Ugandans? Uzbeks? Utahns? 

No one who has ever thought hard about the relationship between humans and place, or about conceptions of home could have written such a sentence, even flippantly.

Images: historic Indianapolis 500 cars photographed by Steve Zautke.

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