Maybe two people I met in Owensboro, Kentucky this past weekend knew who Judith Miller was. And on Sunday, when I left town, the local paper devoted far more space to listing the names and addresses of those filing for bankruptcy in the Owensboro-Daviess County area between September 30 and October 10 than to Miller, her case and her notes. (As the Messenger-Inquirer reported,”with new, tougher bankruptcy laws taking effect this week, the Owensboro region saw a record number of filings in the third quarter.”)
I don’t head to Kentucky often, but I set off for my third trip to my husband’s hometown of Owensboro last Thursday. Once called Yellow Banks (the city’s name was changed in 1817 in honor of Colonel Abraham Owen), it’s a town of about 54,000 perched high above the Ohio River–with a WPA bridge, the International Bluegrass Music Museum and, possibly, the best BBQ (mutton) joint in America (the “Moonlite”). It’s also the birthplace of Johnny Depp, whose photograph hangs in the Owensboro-Daviess Tourist Commission’s Hall of Fame. (My husband Stephen Cohen’s picture is also hanging there–right between a local diner and a horse who won the Kentucky Derby decades ago. The Hall also has several Nascar drivers, some local basketball players who went on to the NBA, and the actor Tom Ewell of The Seven Year Itch–best known for Marilyn Monroe’s white dress. )
Another local boy is Terry Bisson, a true Southern boy turned radical in the ’60s, who wrote a fascinating “alternate history” book in 1988 exploring what would have happened if Harriet Tubman had been able to join John Brown, as planned, in the Harper’s Ferry raid, leading to a successful slave revolt that could have rippled through the South and led to an African-America led revolution. (Bisson dedicated the book to the Black Liberation Army.)
But this is October 2005 and Bisson moved away years ago. Radicalism in 2005 comes in different forms–like standing up for labor rights in a state, in a country, where labor is under siege. The Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and Oklahoma AFL-CIO chapters were meeting on Saturday in our hotel. And on the grounds of the local courthouse, Owensboro’s Central Labor Council put up a black granite “Workers’ Memorial” in 2002 with the words: “Mourn for the Dead, Fight for the Living, For All Those who Died, Earning a Living, Because all Work is Honorable.”
One of the county commissioners told me that every year, usually around Labor Day, the Labor Council members and others from around the state gather and read the names of those who died that year. “It’s a lot of names, and takes some hours,” he tells me. “So many die from driving those trucks.”
On Saturday night, our friends Burley and Beverly Phelan–he’s the director of tourism for the Owensboro-Daviess County area–took me to the 36th annual Democratic Party Wendell Ford Picnic at the Owensboro Sportscenter. (Meanwhile, Steve and our fourteen year old daughter Nika went off to a local institution–“Goldie’s Best Little Opryhouse in Kentucky”–which presents every Friday and Saturday night a country music variety show, featuring professionals and amateur musicians in a “Survival” like contest.) The turnout wasn’t bad–maybe because Moonlite Barbecue was catering the event–but Beverly lamented that the local Democratic Party was failing to bring in younger people, while the local Republicans seemed so well organized. She thinks it’s because so many local Dems just don’t have time or the money to volunteer; the Republicans have both money and time.
Named after retired Senator Wendell Ford, the picnic’s keynote speaker this year was state senator Dan Mongiardo, from Hazard in the Eastern (and poorer) part of the state. (Mongiardo nearly beat Jim Bunning, the incumbent Republican, last year–losing by 22,000 votes after the national GOP unleashed a vicious smear campaign against him, implying that because he was single he was gay.) Mongiardo, a dark-eyed, intense man, lashed out at the Bush Administration for rolling back prevailing wages in the Gulf Coast, calling it “modern-day slavery.”
I also had a chance to talk briefly with another state representative, Mike Weaver (D-Elizabethtown), who hopes to challenge Republican incumbent Ron Lewis in the state’s 2nd District in next year’s congressional elections.
Weaver, a Vietnam vet, denounced Bush for misleading the country into a war which had made us less secure. Weaver also helped craft–and pass–a freedom of information style bill that protects the public’s right to examine governmental performance. As a result, his legislation has pushed the Associated Press of Kentucky to take on the state’s corruption-challenged governor, Ernie Fletcher, demanding that he release the most basic information about the state government’s role in Vice-President Cheney’s visit to Kentucky. (While Fletcher fights back against the public’s right to know, his administration is the focus of a wide-ranging criminal investigation into politically-based hirings in violation of the state merit system law. Eleven current or former aides have been indicted in the probe, and in late August Fletcher announced a pardon of the first nine people indicted–and anyone else who might be charged, not including himself. The day I left, the local paper reported that the lawyer just hired by Fletcher to weed out political bias in Kentucky’s hiring process had been a blogger who “routinely praised Republicans and jeered Democrats.” “Does he think we’re stupid?” asked Jerry Lundergan, Chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party.)
At a small forum on Friday afternoon at the city’s Museum of Science and History–this month featuring a Monster Truck exhibit–Steve and I talked about our work. (Later that day, Steve spoke about Russia to the Owensboro World Affairs Council.) What I found were people of all ages–high school students, teachers, retired folks–who defy most of the simplistic antinomies: liberal vs conservative, red state vs blue state, freedom of choice vs family values and so on. You know, the categories that a lot of us use to categorize contemporary American life. I get a sense that there’s a hunger for clean government among people who define themselves from all political perspectives, for open and honest political debate, for a media that cares about what matters in people’s lives.
Several of the high school kids said they got their news from the Daily Show; surprisingly, very few used the internet to gather news and info. None read blogs; a few of the older people knew of MoveOn. No one read the papers we take as daily staples–the New York Times, the Washington Post or even the Wall Street Journal. In the best hotel in town, you can find the local paper, a few copies of USA Today and, if you’re lucky, a vending machine with the Louisville Courier-Journal–which even as a Gannett paper, still does some superb reporting and features a liberal editorial page.
Most of those who came Friday afternoon were fed up with the divisive winner-take-all polarization that seems, to them, to afflict the media and the political establishment. They cared about the responsible use of America’s power and worried about how (and when) we’d get out of Iraq. If I had to categorize people I met, they were independents looking for a politics and leaders who would speak to the reality of their lives, their work, their aspirations.
Yes there are Baptist and Methodist and Catholic churches everywhere. And one of the high school kids described the increasing religiosity in the community–how Christian youth groups have started after-school programs with school support. And over the weekend, the local paper featured news of “Elevation 2006”–a local Christian rock festival coming to town in March. And Friday’s Messenger-Inquirer published a letter from a local experimental physicist arguing that Intelligent Design is more plausible than evolution. But at Brescia University–Owensboro’s Catholic college–I met a professor of theology, a man in his forties, who teaches a course every spring on social justice. He had read The Nation, and when I gave him one of our Nation classroom packets he said he would find it valuable in teaching his students. We talked about Dorothy Day and Michael Harrington and the Maryknoll sisters and liberation theology.
I got home Sunday night, after a few days out of New York, away from the parsing of Miller’s testimony and the New York Times‘s treatment of her, and found a comment on my latest blog, about a Central American film I had highlighted. “Are you this out of touch?,” some person named Colmes asks. Why are you “shilling for some Latin American movie when there are real issues right her in the previously good ol’ US of A.” Colmes then lists Rove and Miller and McLellan and so on.
There are real issues right here in the good ol’ US of A. But maybe we need to spend more time paying attention to the record number of bankruptcies being filed in towns like Owensboro, or the workers’ lives lost with an end to safety and health regulations, than to Judith Miller and her notes.