Archive for the ‘Law/Jurisprudence’ Category

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Making it Relevant: Villon the Villain

July 27, 2009

My field trip to the new John Dillinger exhibit at the Indiana State Library has done more than make me reconsider my childhood aspirations to become an international jewel thief; it has reminded me of one of the most valuable gems in all of the humanities – Francois Villon. Rogue, rake, and rascal all, Villon was a second-class criminal who wrote first-class poetry. We may very well even consider him the founder of gangsta rap. As the Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg of medieval France, he celebrated his villainy and criticized his society in such style that baggy, underwear-revealing blue jeans dominated the Parisian fashion scene for much of the 13th century. He shot cops, robbed banks, and generally kicked back and chilled “like it ain’t no thang.” His artistic legacy blossoms within the verses of one of his only known published works, Le Testament.

His biography is the stuff of all the best Hollywood films. Born into an impoverished family, his natural ability earned him an excellent education at the University of Paris. In a tavern one evening, he drew a dagger against an attacker who died from the wounds. Thus began the criminal career that had him banished from Paris, robbing cathedrals for their gold, and leading an infamous band of student thieves all across the French countryside. After years of this life, he was condemned to be hanged. As he awaited execution, his Ballade of the Hanged sprung forth from his pen as a marvelous contemplation on death, exile, and forgiveness – ideas proper for the condemned but just as important for us.

Villon’s supplications, of course, prompt us to consider that mysterious land of death. It is Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” which has puzzled people for time immemorial and which the intellect seems entirely unable to grasp. Villon, as one condemned by his society, asked what his own legacy would be after he took that journey – and we all will one day too.

One legend holds that when Villon’s executioners went to his cell to bring him to the block, he had disappeared. History proper holds that his sentence was commuted to banishment. Nevertheless, after 1463, his published works and public crimes vanish from the pages of history. At 34-years-old, Villon vanished like a wisp of wind into the unknown stories of our history and culture. While we will never know what happened to the condemned man, Villon’s tremendous contribution to the humanities, and his notorious villainy, remain gifts to us that no thief could steal.

This weekly series (by Joshua Eskew, a senior at Marian College studying English and communication, and an intern with the Indiana Humanities Council) will help expose the relevance of studying the classics.

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: All the King’s Men

June 10, 2009

By Kristen Fuhs Wells, communications director at Indiana Humanities Council

Somehow, I escaped college and high school without reading many of the classics—a feat I thoroughly enjoyed at the time, but one that I now regret. So, I am constantly trying to weave in a few of those with my ever-expanding list of “new” novels. My current classic is the Pulitzer Prize-winning “All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren.

Set in the South during the 1930s, the story follows the rise and fall of Willie Stark—a farm boy turned governor, narrated by Jack Burden, Willie’s right-hand man. What I love most about this book is not it’s overarching themes—original sin, responsibility, love, hatred, etc.,–it’s that each sentence Warren writes is ripe with imagery—whether it’s Willie’s stump speech, an apartment building or his mother’s demeanor towards men.

Willie Stark is bigger than life–so big, in fact, he has to be fiction. Or is he? Some say he’s patterned after politician Huey Long, and we can all pull a few traits out of ol’ Willie that have infected even our favorite politicians. But what about Jack Burden? Anne Stanton? Like any good novel, the characters are bursting with fictional and non-fictional experiences, choices and thoughts.

There are many classics that I avoid reading, some for sheer length, but this should not be one of them. “All the King’s Men,” is a great, timeless novel that offers a one-of-a-kind glimpse into 1920s and 1930s politics in the South. History? Check. Poetry? Literature? Check, check. Politics and law? Check, check. Entertainment? CHECK.

Does Warren present an accurate portrayal of what you think  politics were like in the South during the 20s and 30s? Why should we continue to read about fictional politics from the past?

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Civics, Immigration, and the Month of May

May 1, 2009

Who are Asian Americans? Derived from different countries and cultures, some are recent immigrants, some are resident aliens, some are naturalized citizens. Many of us are, simply, Americans.

Let’s think about this for a minute. How do you get to be an American? The one sure-fire way is to be born here. That’s somewhat odd, really. In a country that has had no qualms, in the past, about passing anti-minority legislation, we have managed to hold onto the principle that anyone born on American soil is an American citizen — thanks to a Supreme Court case known as United States v. Wong Kim Ark.

In 1898 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution by ruling that a Chinese man named Wong Kim Ark was indeed a U.S. citizen because he was born in San Francisco. Passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Although the amendment was intended to secure the rights of African Americans, it has also been interpreted to apply to other ethnic groups whose civil rights have been challenged.

So on this first day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I am pleased to note that the Indiana academic standards for high school U.S. history include a mention of Wong Kim Ark (USH.2.3). In Hoosierati recently we’ve been talking about immigration, history, and civics. Here’s a good example of how these lessons matter, to some people, in real and lasting ways.

NOTE: Our Resource Connection partner, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, has an interactive resource that lets you be the judge on this and other civil rights cases.

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Meandering Indiana – 8

September 16, 2008

I was shocked to learn recently that Sullivan County lies due south of Terre Haute, not off in the Hoosier National Forest somewhere as I supposed. Shocked, because that means I’ve driven through the county lots and lots of times without knowing it was there.

Since I’ve visited the “Pocket” (SW Indiana) on countless occasions, I’ve apparently shot down I-70 to Terre Haute, driven straight through to Vincennes, done that ridiculous curlicue to stay on US 41, and then on to Evansville, without paying a bit of attention to Sullivan County, which sits smack in the way. On the return trip, I usually check my gas gauge and think, no, I can make it to Terre Haute and again not stopped. Well, I apologize, and next time, it will be different, so help me.

What finally made me see the light was a grant application from the Sullivan County Historical Society for one of the Indiana Humanities Council’s emergency flood grants (still available). In detailing the story of their trials with the floods & rain, they pointed out that Sullivan County — the county seat of which is Sullivan, Indiana — has had its notable citizens.

For example, the SCHS is the repository of the papers of Antoinette Leach, the first woman in Indiana to be admitted to the bar (June 14, 1893). She was admitted when the Indiana Supreme Court found that an “error” (yeah, right) had been made by the Greene County Circuit Court, which refused to allow her to practice law.

Another remarkable native of Sullivan County was William Harrison Hays, Sr. Not only did Hays manage the campaign for the presidency of Warren G. Harding, but he was also the first president of what became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). As such, he lent his name to the Hays Code of 1930 which sought to uphold moral standards in the making of Hollywood films. It lasted until the 1960s when it was replaced by the MPAA film rating system. The Hays archive is also housed at the SCHS.

Another feature of Sullivan County that I really need to see is Merom Bluff, described as a mountain range (!) and said to have a fantastic view overlooking the Wabash River. So there’s my proposed meandering itinerary, for once not in the past but in the future. All I need is a tank of gas, a place to have lunch, and I’m all set.

This entry was posted by: Nancy
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Meandering Indiana – 7

August 28, 2008

We need to thank our alert friends at Inside INdiana Business for pointing out this piece from WISH-TV8: Shoe Thefts Puzzle Small Town. The story of a beagle, a firehouse, and a crime spree in Waveland, Indiana, needs to be read in its entirety, yet we are thereby reminded that in Waveland people still have porches and they still leave shoes on them. Foolishly.

However, this tale jogged my memory about the next county I’d like to revisit virtually – Montgomery County. The county seat, Crawfordsville, is probably best known as the setting for Wabash College, “A Liberal Arts College for Men,” as its home page declares. Passing over the reasons why this institution still refuses to admit women (about which I have no clue), I will pause instead to recognize a past Indiana Humanities Council chair, Don Herring, who taught at Wabash and brought his love of literature to his work with us. Let me also give a nod to our friends at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum who do wonderful work there.

Yes, Montgomery County is an amazingly rich spot for the humanities, but I have to admit that for sheer remarkableness, it’s hard to beat the Old Jail Museum. This structure is a two-tier cylindrical block of wedge-shaped cells that rotates to allow prisoners in and out of the only opening. I actually saw its mechanism demonstrated once, and it is beyond bizarre. It was only later that I learned about the Panopticon, a prison structure built for covert surveillance and popularized by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. The Old Jail is different from a panopticon, but it too is chilling in an Orwellian way.

Whew, I feel like I just did six degrees of Hoosier associations to get from beagles and front porches to paranoid French intellectuals. Small town Indiana — it’s quite surprising once you get to know it.

This entry was posted by: Nancy

Posted Aug. 28, 2008