Thursday, July 29, 2004

Digital Revolution

Recent events in Portsmouth, Ohio, and the recall of the mayor in particular, may reflect the remarkable revolution that electronics has brought about in communication in general and politics in particular.

Several days before the recall vote, I was talking to a solid citizen, Bob Mollette, who was very active in the recall movement. He probably was in a better position than I was to say how the vote was likely to go, but he was curious about what others thought. I told him that I had interviewed a number of people for my video documentary on the recall, and my sense was that dissatisfaction with the mayor was both deep and widespread, as a PORTSMOUTH DAILY TIMES survey had recently indicated.

But the campaign to keep the mayor in office had spent a lot of money in the two weeks prior to the election, and the two local newspapers, the DAILY TIMES and the weekly COMMUNITY COMMON, as well as local radio stations, had carried paid advertisements focusing on the criminal records of several leaders of the recall movement. The COMMUNITY COMMON carried as an insert a flyer that was designed to look like a WANTED poster, with mug shots of the ex-convicts. It was an attempt to smear the widely-based recall movement by identifying it with criminality, in spite of the fact -- or perhaps because of the fact -- that the ex-convicts John Walton and Lee Scott had long since done their time and were now actively crusading against political corruption. The advertising blitz did not mention Austin Leedom, the founder and editor of THE SENTINEL, who is an Air Force veteran and a deeply religious person, nor did they say anything about the Mollettes, a very impressive couple. The blitz was a crude smear job, but I thought it might succeed. In addition, the local media though they did not use smear tactics, editorially advised readers and listeners to vote against the recall. I thought the editorials and the blitz could possibly turn the tide against the recall movement.

However, I added an important qualification. I told Bob Mollette that one of the most striking things I had noticed in talking to people was how many of them were electronically literate. Even if some of them were pretty shaky when it came to using the English language, they knew how to operate a computer and go on-line to read publications like THE SENTINEL and THE SCIOTO COUNTY NEWS and to participate in lively electronic discussions, like DANNY'S FORUM, and read blogs and see digitalized documentaries that cover controversial subjects from an unconventional point of view.

As recently as fifteen years ago, when I moved here, TV, radio and newspapers had enormous almost exclusive power to shape public opinion, especially in a company town like Portsmouth. The proliferation of technology and the internet especially has democratized -- the elite might say bastardized -- political discourse. Once confined to the Letters to the Editor section of the DAILY TIMES, if they were lucky, unempowered people in our river city can now criticize those in power as well as each other, sometimes bitterly, whenever they want to. The people of Portsmouth were communicating with each other during the recall movement not only the old-fashioned way -- by word of mouth -- but electronically and digitally. That is one of the reasons the smear campaign did not work. The people of Portsmouth were not letting the media do their thinking for them.

The privileged class of Portsmouth may have been confounded when their money not only could not keep the mayor in office, it could not stop him from being swept away by a 2 to 1 margin. The voters of Portsmouth had more faith in ex-convicts than some of the con-artists who control this city. Those in the recall movement utilized the new technology to achieve a stunning victory. The digitalized genie is out of the bottle. In Portsmouth, things may never never be the same.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Welcome to River Vices

Portsmouth, 1903. Floodwall Murals

I have started this blog (or online journal) to add my voice electronically to those that are protesting the political corruption in Portsmouth and Scioto County. In the weeks, months and hopefully years ahead, I will share some of my observations on and analyses of Portsmouth's "river vices."

I am an English professor at Shawnee State University (SSU), in Portsmouth, Ohio, a city of about 24,000 located in south central Ohio, on the Ohio River, where I have lived for the past fifteen years. I hold a B.A. and M.A. in English from Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, and hold a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale. I have been very active in the Shawnee Education Association (SEA), the faculty union, which I served as president for four terms. I have also served as president of the Concerned Citizens Group and I have written for the Shawnee Sentinel, an alternative newspaper that was created by students at SSU, and which was instrumental in the recall of the mayor of Portsmouth from office on June 22, 2004, by a 2 to 1 margin. Until a few months ago,  I did not follow city politics closely. I had no opinion on the recall effort and knew very little about Portsmouth politics, but when I began making a documentary video  The Recall of Mayor Bauer (which is available at the Clark Memorial Library at Shawnee State and at the Portsmouth Public Library), I came to understand that the politics of Portsmouth were much like those at Shawnee State. The privileged class of the Portsmouth area tried to control the city the way the Board of Trustees (with a few notable exceptions) controls SSU: mainly for the benefit of the privileged classes. The mayor of Portsmouth and the city council, like the president of the university and the board of trustees, is expected to serve the interest of the privileged class of the area. Mayor Bauer and his chief assistant, a former student of mine, might have dissuaded me from forming this negative opinion, but they declined to be interviewed for the video.

I might not have begun this blog and definitely would not have named it River Vices if it were not for River Voices, the documentary created by my colleague Professor John Lorenz and his son Nathan. After watching River Voices, I felt strongly that in addition to hearing the voices of Portsmouth,  the people of Portsmouth needed to read also about the vices of Portsmouth, which are biblical in character. In beginning River Vices, I had in mind the magazine column "The Prophet," which Theodore Dreiser, author of An American Tragedy,  had written very early in his career, when he adopted the voice of the prophets of the Old Testament, denouncing the corruption of the privileged classes and the neglect of the slum dwellers in cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York. Later in his career, however, Dreiser tried to repress his identification  with the poor and with failures,  and identify instead with the rich and powerful, with the unscrupulous and the  successful in the person of the Robber Baron Charles Tyson Yerkes. I dealt with Dreiser's conflicting values in my Yale dissertation, "The Flesh and the Spirit" (1971). Though not a believer myself, I have adopted the prophetic voice in River Vices

                                                                                                                   Robert Forrey