ON THE AVENUES: Are dissidents born or made? A humanities major examines his life and locale.


ON THE AVENUES: Are dissidents born or made? A humanities major examines his life and locale. 

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

Since my mother died in mid-March, I’ve experienced periods of intense introspection.

Are these signs of depression?

Maybe, although I don’t think so. In all likelihood, periods of reflection are natural manifestations of the grieving process. The cosmos can be disorienting even in the best of times, and our reactions change with them.

I believe that it’s never too late to learn something, and accordingly, these past few weeks have struck me as an opportunity to relax and see where these evolving thoughts are leading.

One very big question has moved to the front of the cerebral queue. It’s something I’ve often asked myself through the years.

Why am I here?

Mind you, not here on Planet Earth. There’s no need for existential musing about the nature of origins, at least yet. I’m perfectly content to allow theologians, philosophers and even humanities majors to earn their meager pay, but looking through old photo albums is evidence enough for me.

My parents met, and one thing led to another. Suddenly there I was, all created, pouring pints of Guinness for a living and plotting a beer revolution.

Rather …

Why am I still here, continuing to live in New Albany when I might be residing in another part of the state, country or world?

(Reader’s note: The axiom known as Thrasher’s Razor fully applies to this rumination, because now more than ever, we’re all here because we’re not all there.)

As the missus reminds me on widely scattered occasions — basically, every morning at breakfast — I’ve never been much in sync with the sort of polite poseur’s society mores craved by the likes of Bob Caesar. They’re far too banal an ordeal for me.

After 57 years of give and take, it’s evident that I have lots of buttons – and the reigning poltroons have even more fingers. I’ve never been able to swim a lick unless it’s against the metaphorical tide. Contrarianism fits me like a well-tailored suit, which of course I’d refuse to wear, because you can’t trust anyone who does.

They’re just hiding behind those fashionable costumes (seriously?), anyway.

I trust it isn’t time to face the final curtain, and yet the years dwindle down. Wouldn’t I be happier elsewhere, in a place with a cultural climate more in keeping with my personal value system, as opposed to one that prompts severe allergic (read: aesthetic) reactions?

Might I manage to find the zip code for peace and harmony, even at the advanced age of “I can remember the first moon landing”?

Haven’t “they” always told me to leave town if I didn’t like “their” toxic farrago of ignorance and anti-intellectualism?

To which I’ve always succinctly replied: “You first, my dear Gaston.”

The most recent resurgence of these locational culture reflections came during our April visit to Portland, Maine.

It was a Friday morning at the estimable Tony’s Donut Shop at the corner of Bolton and Congress, and we were equipped with cream horns, black coffee and the bakery’s gnarled regulars seated at an adjacent table, talking current events.

As noted previously, Tony’s is somewhat reminiscent of New Albany’s venerable Honey Creme Donuts, albeit three or four times larger, with more production capacity as well as a half-dozen cozy tables for visitors to sit and converse.

It was impossible to avoid overhearing the amiable patter as locals came and went with their carry-outs, nor to ignore the booming voices of the senior citizens seated nearby. They were talking hockey when we sat down, then shifted to politics — and I caught myself cringing involuntarily, as though expecting to be savagely beaten.

After all, back home again in Indiana, where I’ve insisted on remaining amid the raging right-wing proclivities, this conversational shift inevitably would have segued into the parroting of conservative talk radio bromides.

Or, just the thing inspiring me to respond loudly from the left side of the aisle, a scenario usually culminating in rancor, disharmony and “if you don’t love it, lump it” — or worse.

And so there I sat at Tony’s Donuts like Pavlov’s drooling mutt, conditioned to imagine a fine day about to be ruined, all the while thinking that I can’t seem to escape the mentality of Redevelopment Commission meetings no matter how far I travel – except this time, it wasn’t that way at all.

Instead, these retirees in Portland fiercely criticized Donald Trump’s buffoonery. They mercilessly ridiculed the Republican Party, and scoffed openly at the very idea of a theocratic creature called “Mike Pence” reposing within spitting distance of power.

Me? I’m from Chicago. Never heard of Indiana.

Awestruck, yet aware it would have been impolite of me to kiss these strangers, I settled for stuffing another nut-encrusted Bismarck into my gratified pie hole. Still, it started me thinking.

I’ve lived in Floyd County my whole life, and in the city of New Albany during the latter half of it. Even when Barack Obama won the state of Indiana in 2008, John McCain beat Obama more than comfortably in both my county and city. So did Mitt Romney in 2012, and of course Trump easily carried them, too.

Yes, so-called Democrats have “controlled” municipal government for much of the same period, although it is painfully clear that the retirees at Tony’s would take one pained look at Caesar and accurately place him somewhere to the right of George Wallace.

Back to my original question. If I’ve never been into S & M, why have I punished myself these many decades?

As an old-school Red (Commie) marooned in a new-age Red (Conservative) sandbox, and generally outnumbered, I’ve been compelled for thirty-five or more years to inflict my liberalism on the prevailing Falangist orthodoxy by means of guerrilla warfare, destined almost always to lose, and just as often reluctant to compromise.

Why am I like this?

I don’t know. After I’m dead, the psychoanalysts can study my brain for causes of contrarianism. In my experience, it’s incurable.

All I know is for as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the notion that opposing points of view deserve a hearing, especially as they pertain to politics, civil rights, religion and individual conscience.

The bland respectability of Babbitt-style conformity invariably tramples “other” competing sides of the story, and so when disposed to tilt, my windmill of choice flies a banner reading “we’ve always done it this way.”

On the other hand, if I’ve been of assistance just once to someone by helping them see that it’s okay to be different, and it’s possible to be responsible, productive and ethical without being duped and hornswoggled by delusions, fantasias and superstitions foisted by the usual suspects, then my career in contrarianism has been well worth it.

As a relevant postscript, I cannot attend Thursday evening’s city council meeting owing to a conflict with my Leadership Southern Indiana graduation ceremony. As you may recall, I’m a proud member of the Discover class of 2017.

Leadership Southern Indiana’s mission is to engage, develop and mobilize regional leaders who will serve and transform our community.

Ironically, the council’s Thursday evening agenda includes A-17-02, an ordinance documenting our legislative body’s annual tithe to One Southern Indiana – and coincidentally, 1Si’s President and CEO, Wendy Dant Chesser, spoke to my class last week during our concluding Community Leadership Day.

Ostensibly Dant Chesser was there to outline steps for effectively leading a non-profit organization, and this she managed to do with requisite efficiency.

However, the second half of her presentation quickly digressed into the customary advertisement for 1Si, although this time with a novel twist.

According to Dant Chesser, the large manufacturing conglomerates most eagerly courted by 1Si (as opposed to independent local businesses and grassroots entrepreneurs, who must settle for trickle-down) prefer employees holding one of the six “top earner” university degrees, including engineering, computers and electronics.

However, according to her PowerPoint slide, higher education insists on disgorging twice as many graduates who’ve been awarded the six least “useful” (and lowest paying) degree choices: English, philosophy, history and the like.

It would seem that both Dant Chesser and the fluffed and subsidized multinational beneficiaries of the neoliberal order, upon whom 1Si depends to make payroll for 14 staffers, are offended by this ratio.

She made no effort to conceal her disdain for those viewing education as anything other than glorified vocational training, and considering the fact that I wasn’t the only humanities major in the room, her summarizing anecdote of choice was tellingly errant.

Dant Chesser told us of her recent chat with an art history major who was having trouble in the job market. Well, what did he expect? Art history? What sort of guidance counselor would recommend studying subjects as perennially useless as art history?

Well …

Perhaps those guidance counselors grasping that the object of education isn’t always to match obedient hamsters to their proper wheel, but to produce humans capable of thinking. The fact that “fake” news is such a concern these days might enter into this paradigm, wouldn’t you … think?

Seemingly nowhere in Dant Chesser’s narrowly defined (read: confined) world exists the type of broad, individually tailored choices of human aspiration that depart from economic development of the “we’ve always done it this way” variety, which by breathtaking coincidence is the type best calculated to advance the specific capitalist format to which 1Si has attached itself like a leech – hence the blood money of its council funding request.

The real problem might be that humanities majors have been made aware of different trends in the history of thought, and as such, they’re the ones most likely to question Dant Chesser’s premises.

Which I did, aloud and joyfully.

Bizarrely, another of her slides testified to the critical importance of every Southern Indiana resident meekly accepting 1Si’s version of the Regional Cities Initiative, so as to provide unanimity in pursuit of a “collective” path forward – and yes, “collective” is precisely the word this crony capitalist enabler used.

Irony is dead, but Trumpolini didn’t kill it.

As a direct result of past concerns proffered by anti-establishment dissidents, at least the money 1Si is requesting of our council will be put to a specific, directed use: WorkHub, a workforce training initiative.

That’s all well and good, but is this workforce training available to art history majors, or must we collectively denounce the pursuit of non-vocational education before disbursing the dollars to applicants?

Until Dant Chesser answers this question (a contrite public apology would be more suitable, but I’m a cynical realist), I recommend to council that the money be withheld. It won’t, and I can hear the backslapping already.

This admittedly has been a long read, so thanks for persevering.

You know, if dastardly parasitic humanities majors like me didn’t combat the angst with alcohol and stick around places like Nawbany, confident that any reasonable definition of leadership includes transparency, the ability to hear opposing viewpoints, to weigh available options and to filter the incessant bilge before charging across open ground toward the machine gun nest – tell me, would anyone bother challenging Wendy Dant Chesser and Bob Caesar when they begin spinning those “our way or the highway” whoppers?

That’s okay. You needn’t answer. It’s my conscience, and it’s not for sale. However, I’m not going anywhere, and you can buy me a beer any time you like.

Recent columns:

May 11: ON THE AVENUES: Would a Canon candidacy compromise Deaf Gahan’s and Mr. Dizznee’s shizz show? A boy can dream.

May 4: ON THE AVENUES: Under the volcano in Catania, Sicily (Part One).

April 27: ON THE AVENUES: Dear Mr. Dizznee: Can you hear me now?

April 20: ON THE AVENUES: The Weekly Wad? It was a modest start.