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NOTIONS: Collisions of the soul and tradition of white old men

March 26, 2007

Last Tuesday afternoon, I pulled up to the curb at my downtown office building. As I waited for my colleague, John, to join me for a drive to Bloomington, an old man ambled by, the dark skin on his craggy face covered by a salt-and-pepper beard.

Despite mild temperatures, he wore snow pants and a winter jacket. A stocking cap covered his head. And a bright blue blanket hung over his shoulders.

The old man shuffled up to a trash receptacle in front of Pan Am Plaza. He opened the hinged metal lid, bent down and rummaged about.

He pulled out a paper cup from McDonald's, the lid and straw still intact. He put the straw to his mouth and took a long, slow drink. When he finished, he shook the cup to ensure it was empty and tossed it back in the can.

He bent down again. He pulled out an uneaten hotdog bun and a wad of aluminum foil. He opened the foil and, finding nothing inside, tossed it back. Then, holding the bun in one hand, he closed the lid with the other.

After checking another waste container-this one beneath an outdoor ash receptacle-the old man moseyed north on Capitol Avenue, nibbling the bread.

When John climbed in the car, I told him about the man. And he told me about a college student he'd read about in the newspaper-one who'd spent his spring break living as a homeless person in downtown Indianapolis. John said the student had hated having to stand in line at a shelter, completely naked, just to take a shower.

Then John asked about my own spring break. And I told him about the drive my wife and I had taken to Savannah, Ga., and that community's massive St. Patrick's Day celebration, and the hundreds of thousands of people (Irish or not) clad in green, perpetually bearing cups and cans of beer (Irish or not).

And I told John about the four-hour parade, and how all the organizing-committee members were old white men. And how the past grand marshals were all old white men. And how, when the Savannah city council had come along on a float, I'd expected old white men.

But instead, the council members were younger people and older people, men and women, and people of color, too. And I wondered what the old white men thought of that.

When John and I arrived at Indiana University, we went to the Alumni Center for a reception and dinner with journalist and author David Halberstam.

Halberstam is a 74-year-old white man. Nearly everyone in attendance was white. Except for a few students, most were older than 40. Many were older than Halberstam. During the cocktail party, my professor friend lamented that none of his students had come to hear Halberstam during his two-day visit to Bloomington.

I figured that had something to do with Halberstam being older than most of the students' grandparents. And their never having heard of Halberstam before the dean announced his arrival. And Halberstam's chief claim-to-fame being coverage of a war that, to them, is ancient history. And Halberstam's Pulitzer Prize seeming an unattainable and, perhaps, less-meaningful goal for a generation that considers newspapers and books to be slow, antiquated channels for conveying information. And, yes, Halberstam's visit coinciding with the students' recovery from a week-long spring-break binge at Fort Lauderdale (or St. Paddy's Day in Savannah).

But I suspect something bigger and more hopeful is at work here. For while the invitations arrive weekly to hear lectures by, or witness awards to, or sip cocktails with old white men, this middle-aged white chap is much enamored with young men and women who seem more concerned with fellow humans having to dig through the trash, and the possibility that a woman or person of color might be elected president, and the impact of wars happening now (not 40 years ago), and the information that's assaulting them daily versus books that will look back half a century from now.

In other words, history and change happen so quickly for this generation that there's little time left for ancient stuff-like last year or last week.

Halberstam, who's not sure whether he's a journalist or historian, touched on this Tuesday night. Asked about the difference between the Vietnam War he covered and today's Iraq war, he said today's version is faster and more dangerous.

But Halberstam cited a deeper conflict, too-a conflict between the imperial superpower the United States is often expected to be and our roots in Jeffersonian democracy.

"It's like a collision from separate sides of our soul," Halberstam said. "And journalism is caught in the middle."

So too, are old white men who give speeches and march in parades, and students who crave diversity, and homeless people who sort through the trash for a sip of survival and a bite of stale bun.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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