Hot Air

The Writer Speaks

Or not. Andrew Guenther of the IDS got back to me early yesterday afternoon regarding my questions about his Monday article critical of Darryl Neher’s bona fides as a Democrat. Here’s his email response, verbatim:

Hello Michael,

Thank you for your email, but everything I have to say about the subject is in my column. I appreciate your interest!

Thank you,

Andrew Guenther

Fair enough.

More Guenther

Well, how about that? Turns out many of us have been talking about the wrong internet forum on which Darryl Neher supposedly told the world he was a voting Republican at least through the 2000 presidential election. That was one of the assertions of the Guenther piece Monday in the IDS.

The IDS staffer contacted me twice yesterday after emailing me to say he would say no more (see above). His second missive read:

Michael

Also, no, I am not affiliated with either campaign.

Thank you,

Andrew

Not long after that, apparently having read my Wednesday Pencil piece, he wrote this:

Michael:

Also, you used the incorrect forum. The link to the correct one is below.

http://mobtalk.net/bored/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=1210&p=16640&hilit=+bush#p16640

Thank you for your time.

The link takes you directly to a “garvey” comment about how the poster voted for George W. Bush in 2000 because the Republican candidate had promised Compassionate Conservatism. This “garvey” went on to imply s/he was sorely disappointed in Bush for pulling the wool over her/his eyes. Go ahead and read it for yourself.

BTW: We still have no verification that it was Darryl Neher posting under the screen name “garvey.”

Conversions

No matter when and how Darryl Neher made his admitted transformation from Republican to Democrat, the question we’re grappling with, mainly, is how can an adult do such a flip-flop? Doesn’t that show…, um, what? Undependability? Sneakiness? Unbridled ambition — after all, how can a Republican get elected in Bloomington? A mercurial temperament? I suppose those who insist on bringing the subject up might want to imagine Neher’s guilty of all four vices.

Street talk here goes that Darryl Neher saw the light — the light pointing the way toward election in a one-party town — when he had himself certified by the Monroe County Democratic Party in 2007. None of us can know what was in Neher’s heart when he flipped. We can only judge him by his actions and they tell us that in four years on the city council, he’s been quite a dependable Dem. And check his platform: It reads awfully Democratic to me.

So can a person make such a switch as an adult and still be trusted?

Lemme tell you a story. I grew up in a working class neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago. The most successful people living on the blocks surrounding my childhood home were low-level politicians or Outfit guys. No doctors or lawyers, no scientists, no authors, no one, that is, who had excelled. Excelling, as a matter of fact, would have been seen as presumptuous or even insulting to the rest of the neighbors.

The folks in my neighborhood had modest aims and achievements. Mr. LeFemina ran a dry cleaners. Mr. Micci was a cop. Mrs. Panarese, Mrs. Nichols, and Mrs. Lenczyk were housewives. Mr. Mundo and Mr. Matassa, both of whom lived in the most showy homes around, did nebulous work for the Mob but they were by no means counted among its top level guys. The Keating sisters who lived next door to my home had been schoolteachers.

They had one thing in common: They were all white. I don’t know precisely what Mr. LaFemina’s or Mr. Mundo’s or Miss Keating’s views were on civil rights and open housing — the buzz issues of the 1960s and ’70s. I only know that the preferred appellation for a dark skinned human in my old neighborhood was nigger. More open-minded souls might use the term coon. A relative liberal would call blacks darkies and titter nervously.

When Chicago’s blacks were marching on City Hall to demand more teachers, more classrooms, schoolbooks for all black children, and even breakfast for those kids who came from poverty-stricken homes, the whites of the city decided to boycott school one spring day. They wanted to show the world how disgusted they were by these “goddamned black bastards.” That was another preferred term for those who’d identified as Afro-Americans.

Those who sent their kids to school on boycott day and refused to sign a petition calling for blacks to be kept in their place had their homes egged and stoned.

I grew up in this environment. And even though my mother forbade the use of the term nigger in our home, I figured she was just weird. I’d told some pals about how it was wrong to say nigger and they laughed and pointed. The week after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed my sixth-grade classmate Paul Trulsch said, “That nigger got what he deserved.” I told him he was an asshole and so a fistfight ensued. For my part, I was hung with the tag, nigger-lover.

There was no worse thing to be known as.

I subsequently found it easier at times to say nigger around my neighborhood pals. I learned to shut my mouth when issues of race or civil rights came up. What was most important to me was never again to be referred to as the worst thing you could call a person.

As I grew older, this same pressure came to bear again and again but with relative maturity, more and more I came to reveal my true feelings. I started pulling away from the most hateful of my neighborhood pals. I started  going out of my neighborhood in search of new friends and new experiences. I met black people. Some became friends. There was a greater, more rewarding world out there than that of my all-white, scared, and hate-filled neighborhood.

Still, there was pressure. I worked at one place when I was about 24 years old. It was mostly white. Those whites, again, were working-class folk who thought little of doctors and lawyers and authors and even less — far less — of black people. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to advance in the company. And I sure as hell didn’t want to be called a nigger-lover again.

One day a co-worker who was black made some stupid mistake that meant some of the guys and I would have to work overtime. We sat around grousing about how unfair life was. “What a tutsoon (a Sicilian pejorative for a black person),” one guy said of the person who’d made the mistake. “Whaddya expect from a nigger,” another guy said.

I felt compelled to join in. “Yeah,” I said, “now that’s what you can call a stupid nigger.” Heads nodded all around.

What I didn’t know was another co-worker, a black guy with whom I’d been quite friendly, had just walked into the outer office and heard my line. I happened to walk into that outer office and saw him there, glaring at me. “What’s with the racial shit?” he demanded. I had no answer.

I could see the deep pain in his face. I’d wronged him. I’d hurt him. His eyes, in fact, were filled with tears. He never spoke with me again.

And so my own conversion was complete. Tolerance, acceptance, embracing of The Other race became my “core” philosophies. Racism, I learned that day, was more than a political or theoretical concept. It wounded human beings.

The image of Chris Jenkins’ face, full of rage, his eyes filled with tears, will never leave me.

Since then, I’d like to think I’m as un-racist a guy as can be. Many people think I bend over backward for Michael Brown and Martin Luther King Jr. and Eric Garner and the displaced people of New Orleans and Abner Louima and even Barack Obama. If I’m guilty of that, okay. It’s a hell of a lot better than seeing the distraught face of Chris Jenkins.

So, what does this story have to do with Darryl Neher?

This: Neher himself says he was strongly influenced to be a Republican by his childhood upbringing. As he got older and saw more of the world, he gradually came around to thinking that maybe the Republicans weren’t for him. He had his own epiphany, he says, when he saw how hurt his gay and lesbian friends were by Republican policies and attitudes.

He now says he is Democratic and progressive to his “core.”

A lot of my liberal and Left friends grew up in nurturing, caring, loving, embracing, kumbaya homes and neighborhoods. They never had to grapple with conflicting messages and pressures and even their own contradictory inner feelings. If you’ve never said the word nigger, if you’ve never marked the box next to a Republican’s name on a ballot, you can be proud of yourself. Keep in mind, though, the decision to do or not do those things isn’t natural or easy for many of us — maybe even most of us. Allow some consideration for the guy whose father was a Ronald Reagan idolator. Think about the insecure kid who grew up surrounded by racists.

I’ll never live down using the term nigger. I never want to. I want to remember how stupid I could be forever. It makes me who I am.

Being a Republican, of course, is not precisely analogous with being a racist or even the casual usage of racial slurs — although, the way things are going, that won’t be true terribly much longer. But perhaps Darryl Neher, if he did indeed vote for George W. Bush, keeps that election day fresh in his mind as well. It just might make him a better Democrat.

4 thoughts on “Hot Air

  1. Catryna Loos says:

    Bravo ! Wonderful post.

  2. Joy Shayne Laughter says:

    I second Catryna. Bravo.

  3. Susan Sandberg says:

    I applaud Darryl’s conversion and I respect his gracious and pragmatic leadership on Council. As a lifelong Democrat, are my credentials any more earned than his? We both act on our progressive principles in the here and now, and that’s what counts with me. Very dismayed by all the accusations and attacks on character. And yes, it happens in an election year when competitive races are hotly contested. I just hope folks look deeper and focus on issues that really matter to keep Bloomington moving forward and always with the utmost civility. When the dust all settles, we all have to work together. Please remember that.

  4. So, maybe this issue can go away at this point, along with all of the push poll accusations from both camps, and people can concentrate on which candidate has the experience, and leadership qualities needed to run the city.

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