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Neither arbitrary nor fun

Well, you know, I don’t do ABF Fridays every Friday, now.  And I’m supposed to be on hiatus while I clean my office and put my syllabus together!  But you know what? I did those things. Despite the fact that my office was full of books, folders, mail, offprints, rejected manuscripts, and random pieces of paper stacked on every horizontal surface and stuffed into every nook and cranny, I managed to put everything away nicely and neatly before the students arrive.  And yesterday, I waited for Jamie to get home from his first day of school (eighth grade!), and we ran a few errands, one of which was supposed to be the photocopying of my syllabus for the forty or so students who will show up for American Fiction Since 1945 next Tuesday.

But as I tooled around State College, trying to avoid the crush of New Arrivals clogging the streets and alleys of our fair burglet, I noticed something strange: up in the sky!  it’s a bird!  it’s a plane!  it’s . . . a plane with a banner! And the banner reads “10 WEEK ABORTION” and features a picture which is unclear at this distance but looks kind of pink and gooey!

The effect was stunning, of course.  It’s still stunning today: thanks to the lattice of coincidence, the plane just passed over my house on one of its strategic anti-abortion runs as I was starting to compose this post.  But for all its stunningosity, I have to wonder just what kind of rhetorical performance is involved here.

On the one hand, there’s no question at all about it: this thing is of a piece with the graphic “abortion genocide holocaust” exhibits that appear on college campuses every few months, and it’s the work of people who would get upset about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib only if they were performing abortions there.  So the message itself is clear.  But on the other hand, everything about the context is completely weird.  First of all, there’s the medium: semiotically, “plane flying banner” usually means “something for sale,” as in CHILI’S 2-FOR-1 DINNER or TONITE IS ALCOHOL NITE AT SPUD’S or BOB’S PARASAILING EMPORIUM SPECIAL.  So for an unsettling moment, anyway, the spectacle appears to be offering ten-week abortions.  Second of all, there’s the timing: as our local paper reported this morning, the mastermind behind the enterprise, Gregg Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (a California-based organization which no doubt has a small staff), planned the display “to coincide with the return of Penn State students for the new school year and the influx of visitors for other events” (including the Penn State - Akron football game tomorrow afternoon).  It hadn’t occurred to me that a football game might be the ideal venue for a flying anti-abortion display, but it definitely occurred to me that the plane was timed to coincide with the arrival of the students.

So I’ve been spending the last 24 hours trying to reconstruct the thought process behind this, like trying to recreate the entire dinosaur from a piece of the rib cage. The students are coming back—that means people will be having s-e-x!  S-e-x that will go unpunished unless we act now! Clearly, the good people behind (and in) this plane believe that they are taking the message into the very Den of Iniquity itself, the college campus, where the Gomorrahites (how come the Sodomites always get all the attention?) are cavorting and aborting with abandon.

And how, precisely, is this supposed to go over (literally) with the parents in the slow parade of minivans and SUVs?  Are they supposed to think, “thank goodness someone is watching over my daughter while she’s away at college and having s-e-x”?  Because I know that if Janet and I saw this display while dropping off Nick at Penn State, we’d say to him, “uh, it looks like your campus is located where wingnuts take wing.  Are you sure you don’t want to go to Rutgers instead?”

If I were into book-flogging (which, as you know, I utterly abhor), I would add that What’s Liberal? points out that this campus/ wingnut thing is more common than people think, and that “for a fifty-mile radius around State College, there isn’t a single Democratic stronghold, not even an old-school union town, in the midst of solidly white, solidly rural, solidly Christian, solidly impoverished central Pennsylvania.” One effect of this kind of isolation is that people like me sometimes imagine ourselves to be surrounded by Flying Fetusmongers:

We campus liberals . . . often think of ourselves as inhabiting a kind of tenuous archipelago strung across the rural regions of the country; we’re not all clustered in Berkeley or Cambridge, and only rarely do our campus towns resemble the progressive valhallas of Madison, Wisconsin or Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the recycling laws, like the espresso, are strong and widely appreciated.  In State College, Pennsylvania; Urbana-Champaign, Illinois; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; West Lafayette, Indiana; Gainesville, Florida; Columbia, Missouri; Mount Pleasant, Michigan; Norman, Oklahoma; and Laramie, Wyoming, we talk of Strindberg and Stravinsky with our colleagues while our neighbors in the outlying county march against abortion and gay rights.  In all such locales, the campus culture is like unto a flame in an oil can, with faculty and liberal students huddled like hobos in fingerless gloves trying to catch a little warmth in the night.

And that, I think, is largely where the Myth of the Liberal Elite comes from.  Pinot grigio-sipping professors in the middle of Appalachia and the vast prairie.

The Abortion Plane, however, is new.  Perhaps it will become an annual feature of life in State College, taking off and circling the town every September, and we will gather at the student union building and cry, “the plane!  the plane!” For that, of course, I will need a white suit and matching white shoes.

Posted by on 09/01 at 12:37 PM
  1. I can’t resist:  Who are you going to tap as your tall companion in this effort?

    duck and run

    captcha: “half”

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/01  at  01:58 PM
  2. I was thinking of this guy, of course.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/01  at  02:04 PM
  3. "Destroyer of Wingnuts”—Sounds like just the companion you need.

    captcha: “again”

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/01  at  02:13 PM
  4. It’s gotta be said.

    I am, of course, sick of those mutherfuckin anti-abortionists on their motherfuckin plane.

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  02:15 PM
  5. Can’t wait for the Thanksgiving Turkey Fetus Drop.

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  02:26 PM
  6. I think you’re missing the point, Michael.

    the plane just passed over my house on one of its strategic anti-abortion runs as I was starting to compose this post.  But for all its stunningosity, I have to wonder just what kind of rhetorical performance is involved here.

    Have you had an abortion since you saw it?


    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  09/01  at  02:28 PM
  7. Why, no, Chris, I haven’t!

    Will miracles never cease?  Wonder-working Providence certainly is . . . uh . . . a wonder!

    Posted by Michael  on  09/01  at  02:31 PM
  8. Where are those taxi drivers with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers when you could use ‘em?

    Posted by Orange  on  09/01  at  03:09 PM
  9. You sure it didn’t say ‘10 Dollar abortion’? Sounds like a returning students promo to me. Probably sponsored by one of the bars.

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  03:26 PM
  10. Cedar Rapids, Iowa?

    Having earned my doctorate at the University of Iowa, I really thought the bastion of liberalism in the area was Iowa City.

    Mount Mercy and Coe are there, but Cedar Rapids will never manage to equal that liberal cesspool just 30 miles away.

    But, hey!  What do I know?

    At least, I orded the book!

    Posted by Aaron Barlow  on  09/01  at  03:32 PM
  11. Very clever - offering abortions in the air to avoid our picketers and clinic bombers.  What will you liberals come up with next?

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  03:43 PM
  12. Everyone please wave to our good friends newly arrived and huddled around the oil can in Bloomington, Indiana. 

    Captcha:single, thought they aren’t - they are married to each other.  But since she kept her last name, they are probably just as Liberal Elite as single people would be.

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  03:45 PM
  13. “10 week abortion.” That sounds like an awfully long time for an outpatient procedure. Like I always tell the children, don’t buy anything from an airplane. Blimps, balloons, and Zeppelins are OK. Products and services from fixed wing aircraft are not to be trusted.

    captcha: lived. ‘Till you done it in a Blimp, you’ve never lived.

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  04:04 PM
  14. In Bloomington, you just have to cross College Avenue, visit that pathetic mall (which is on the university side of town), or deal with an insurance agent to know you’re surrounded by wingnuts. And Indiana makes rural central Pennsylvania seem positively left-wing.

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  04:05 PM
  15. Emma Anne, you will shortly be visited by the plane that condemns women who do not take their husbands’ last names.  Look for it over an oil can near you!

    And BushYouth, that was basically my initial reading of the display.  The fact that the plane was jostling for airspace with the LADIES NIGHT ALL-U-CAN-DRINK JELLO SHOTS plane made the reading all the more plausible.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/01  at  04:06 PM
  16. Honolulu has an aerial advertising ban, and this Bio-Ethics whatsit took the city to court asserting that they had a right to fly a similar plane over Waikiki.

    Fortunately for all concerned, including the tourists, the 9th Circuit said Nope.  “Ban’s legal, you stink.”

    (Actually, that last is me paraphrasing.  What the court really said was “Preservation of the visual beauty of Honolulu’s coastal and scenic areas is of paramount importance.")

    Posted by Linkmeister  on  09/01  at  04:31 PM
  17. If the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform hasn’t already tried it, I would imagine their next step will be to try to display their “Genocide Awareness Project” on the Penn State campus.  At least that’s what they did in North Central Florida last academic year.

    Posted by Jeremías  on  09/01  at  05:25 PM
  18. Where does the Center for Bioethical Reform get all the money for this stuff? Hmmm… perhaps they have some left over in their charge accounts because they don’t have to spend any on such politically pointless things as actual counseling, medical procedures, and other programs that improve the quality of both individual and community life.

    Meanwhile, I know this is ABF Friday, but I have to take issue with the old binary opposition between liberal academe and conservative country folk that you invoked, and I have to for two reasons. First, there are a lot of liberal people around State College, PA who have nothing to do with the university: e.g., the organizers in various unions, some of the punked out youth, and even some of the churches (and not just the Quakers.) Union meetings, music venues, and churches are sites where academics and non-academics sometimes intermingle on terms other than the ones you mention.

    Secondly, the university and military industrial complex that accompanies it are radically transforming the geography of such areas, creating a suburban sprawl that lacks a real metropolitan center (suburbs of no urb, unless you want to think of the university as the urb) and weaves in and out of the rust belt and the corn belt here in central Pennsylvania. I just started bicycling and have been struck by all the ridiculously huge houses with ridiculously huge yards that take up a ridiculously huge amount of space.

    Posted by Steven Thomas  on  09/01  at  05:29 PM
  19. Ten-week abortion? That’s nothing. I know a Dim Sum place that serves hundred-year eggs.

    (Anyone else besides me see Fruit Chan’s movie Dumplings [Gaau ji]?)

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  05:50 PM
  20. As another doctor of philosophy from U Iowa, I must second Aaron’s dismay. There are few things about this blog and its author I don’t admire, including its offering of mea culpas when it makes a mistake. Calling Cedar Rapids Iowa’s liberal mecca instead of Iowa City is a minor but craw-sticking one. IC is where Cedar Rapids folk have to come to see an independent or foreign film or visit a good bookstore (not to mention escaping the persistent smell of burning oatmeal from the Quaker plant).

    Though I look forward to reading your book, I must wonder: had you no Midwestern proofreaders?

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  07:26 PM
  21. As an Iowan, admittedly a graduate of Iowa State rather than U of Iowa (Go Cyclones!), I think Grinnell has to be a contender for Iowa’s liberal stronghold. 

    Although the entire discussion is akin to arguing about where the best downhill skiing is in Iowa.  Humbolt, would be my nomination there.

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  07:42 PM

    I will actually shed a tear, a tear of freedom drowned in an ocean of blogofascism.

    Posted by Pinko Punko  on  09/01  at  07:59 PM
  23. not even an old-school union town
    I would have thought that Railton Altoona would have fit that bill - but the election results tell a different story, Johnstown a little more so, but it is further than 50 miles from Brasilia University Park State College.

    But after scanning a few sobering voting results from your vicinity (I mean we’re talking Utah in some instances) - I have located your neighborly Dem stronghold. Meet Grugan Twp., located in scenic Clinton County, a short distance north of State College, here 52 hardy souls spread out across 69 sq. miles of Pennsylvania forest fight the good fight - turning out 17-6 for John Kerry in 2004.
    ... so, like, quit exaggerating and all.

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  09:14 PM
  24. Another Iowa grad here. Iowa City is perhaps not quite so far out on the astral plane as Fairfield (home of Marhareshi International), but we are at least on the astral prairie.

    Captcha: Give. As in “somebody needs to give Michael a Big Ten map.”

    Posted by  on  09/01  at  09:51 PM
  25. I’d say, the wingnuts are on da plane, da plane.

    Posted by kristina  on  09/02  at  01:31 AM
  26. Hey, State College is home to a novelist who killed God.  How can West Lafayette compete with that?

    Posted by  on  09/02  at  06:00 AM
  27. Can I just say, having bought the book and read it during an Ernesto enforced day off, that I was personally offended that the home of my alma mater, Chapel Hill, NC, was left off that list?  I mean, if you look up “tenuous archipelago” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Chapel Hill.

    Posted by  on  09/02  at  08:37 AM
  28. Having endured high school in Williamsport, PA and college in Lamoni, IA compels me to report that Michael is probably right about the militant Christianists with no future (and even less self-awareness of their Buchananite racism) in Pennsyltucky (Missivania?) Although trying to “organize” for the Dems in Decatur Co, IA was an eye opener in 1978 for a goo-goo social democrat from back east.  Tom Harkin managed to be elected despite my efforts on his behalf.

    Posted by  on  09/02  at  11:32 AM
  29. Aaron, Kevin, jpj, bridgett—this blog makes mistakes now and then, but not egregious ones like putting the University of Iowa in Cedar Rapids.  I was thinking of rural campuses, not Big Ten schools, and I figured Iowa City, for those purposes, might as well be Paris or London.  It even says “city” right in its name!

    Instead, the mistake was saying Cedar Rapids instead of Cedar Falls.  University of Northern Iowa, folks.  See?  At Le Blog Bérubé we make subtle, nearly imperceptible mistakes like confusing falls and rapids, which is why you don’t want us in your kayak.

    m.ho:  I didn’t include Chapel Hill because I find your surname offensive.  Actually, having lived in the area for a month, I can say there’s no way you qualify for the tenuous archipelago.  You’d have to be 50 miles from Durham and Carrsboro and Cary and Raleigh to be stranded the way we are.

    Steve (comment 18), any speculations as to why those folks you name aren’t in Altoona or Philipsburg?  Because JP is right—Altoona isn’t a union town, and you have to go to Johnstown (as I have, for—what else?—hockey games) to get to old-Dem country.  Now known as Murthaville.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/02  at  12:44 PM
  30. Liberal elitists sip pinot noir
    real ‘mericans drink beer in the bar
    liberal elitists read jefferson an paine
    real ‘mericans read tim lahaye
    liberal elitists buy organic shoes from LA
    real ‘mericans get shoes from Hubei
    From Cedar Rapids to State College they don’t understand
    our proud and free Dumbfuckistan.

    Posted by  on  09/02  at  01:34 PM
  31. Maybe the owners of that plan took the phrase “on a wing and a prayer” too literally.

    Posted by Dr. Virago  on  09/02  at  02:21 PM
  32. Er, make that “plane.”

    Posted by Dr. Virago  on  09/02  at  02:21 PM
  33. Don’t forget Lawrence, Kansas.

    Posted by  on  09/02  at  02:56 PM
  34. Ah, Cedar Falls.  Nice town unless all that trash from Waterloo comes over.

    Posted by  on  09/02  at  04:27 PM
  35. I figured Iowa City, for those purposes, might as well be Paris or London.  It even says “city” right in its name!

    Yes!!!  Somebody’s been listening to The Autumn Defense, right?

    “and no matter what the miles are between you and i, it’s not very far
    to london and paris and iowa city, adieu....
    no matter how straight the line between the two of us gets,
    it’s sad that we met
    in london, paris and iowa city, adieu.
    i’m talking to you.
    london, paris and iowa city, adieu.
    i’m talking to you. “
    - Iowa City Adieu

    I highly recommend Circles.

    Posted by  on  09/02  at  05:16 PM
  36. In answer to 29, Altoona is about 53 miles away from Penn State by bicycle, has one WallMart that dominates the retail sector (which is one fewer than State College, PA), one Cracker Barrel restaurant with a sign on the door that says it doesn’t discriminate against black people, and two “not bad” Mexican restaurants, one of which has actual Mexicans working there…

    ... but seriously, the rust belt isn’t in Altoona and it isn’t something you can locate on MapQuest. It’s all over the place. One factory hidden away just outside of Bellefont (ten miles from Penn State) is still going and the area around it will remind you of John Sayles’s movie Matewan, and the two factories in State College closed down just within the past two or three years (cuz of that outsourcing thing.)

    The city-country divide is gone, gone, gone, and one of the reasons is because professors at Penn State, the local engineers at Raytheon (yes, the missile manufacturer formerly known as Hughes), and all the folks who work at the insurance companies etc. that service Penn State and Raytheon are buying McMansions everywhere.

    Union towns? Rural America? Ivory tower? What are those? It’s 2006 not 1974. The reason why both conservatives and liberals are yacking away at each other are precisely because the borders between those three domains are getting more blurry and less distinct, not the other way around. If the geography were clear, nobody’d bother yelling.

    As for local non-university liberalism, while I was organizing the grad. student union here in State College, I met many administrative staff who were locals and sympathetic because of their family histories. And they actually helped us out. I attended an AFL-CIO event held at Penn State’s conference center even though it had nothing to do with Penn State. The nurses union at the hospital was widely supported in the county newspaper (which does circulate in Altoona) when they went on strike. The only people around here visibly protesting the war in Iraq are the Quakers and Unitarians, not the students and professors… I could go on, but I doubt anybody has read this far.

    Posted by  on  09/02  at  05:37 PM
  37. Michael, you should hire another plane to follow it around with a banner, “Now the $5.99 Dinner Special at Denny’s!” Surely many will thank you. Denny’s competitors not the least among them. Seriously, you could advertise the availability of the morning after pill with a chase plane.

    I’ve always wanted to hire one to fly a banner that reads, “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LAND THIS THING!” Never have.

    Posted by  on  09/02  at  06:42 PM
  38. Michael, substitute “Bloomington, Indiana” for West Lafayette, Indiana” in your next edition.  Purdue’s much more conservative than IU, and Bloomington compares favorably to Ann Arbor or Madison, while West Lafayette only compares favorably to Lafayette.

    Posted by  on  09/03  at  12:56 AM
  39. Adam (#33):  Nah, with the growth of suburban Kansas City, Lawrence is now a veritable exurb of KCLand.  Manhattan, KS, on the other hand, is rural.  But not exactly a liberal oasis.

    Posted by Dr. Virago  on  09/03  at  12:52 PM
  40. Michael! i’m so jealous!

    i don’t see why yinz hicks aught dair in State Cawledge Pee-Yay should get a whole flying fetus PLANE, when everyone knows we have WAY more abortionistas dahn tahn here in Da Burgh! no fair!

    and all we get are these really old people in strange vintage formal-wear from West Virgina standing on the corner of Forbes & Bigelow with regular old 12-foot high pictures of bloody something-or-others and directing cold stares at the exposed & be-jeweled navel regions of the passing co-eds.

    i demand that we petition the Provost to get us our very own Flying Fetus Plane! if *Penn* *STATE* has one, then we’d better get one here at Pitt, or risk losing the enrollment contest forever!


    Posted by Librarian  on  09/03  at  02:29 PM
  41. Dr. Virago (39):  Lawrence may end up connected to the exurbs of suburban KC, but It hasn’t happened yet (Lawrence’s population has actually gone down recently).  That said, Lawrence is still an example of the liberal bubble of a midwestern college town.  It is much more liberal than its surroundings (especially suburban KC).

    Posted by  on  09/03  at  04:32 PM
  42. As with any list, Michael’s list has its problems but it makes a good point.

    As a former resident of Indianapolis, whose sibs all graduated from IU, I know that the way IU others Purdue is to stereotype them as conservative engineer dumbasses. I expect there are some white wine sipping libruls in W. Lafayette. But it’s also true that southern Indiana is practically in the South, as in Kentucky.

    Meanwhile the People’s Republic of Johnson County houses the U of Iowa (where I got my PhD and where I teach), but Iowa is as full of remnants of rural populism as is Wisconsin, making the multiple re-elections of someone like Tom Harkin less weird. (Oh, by the way, it was a Cedar Rapids jury in that acquitted a bunch of AIM guys in the early seventies, even though the FBI really, really wanted to get them the way they eventually got Leonard Pelletier.)

    Madison and Ann Arbor (where I did my undergrad) strike me as more urban than the others. Ann Arbor especially was full of students from Detroit and Flint and Dearborn whose parents were union through and through. And Ann Arbor is close enough to Detroit to feel urban. I guess that meant we drank a little Strohs (this was a long time ago) for a break from our Pinot.

    I have to believe the the most embattle enclave has got to be the Colorado College people in Colorado Springs, trapped between the Air Force Academy and Focus on Family.

    Hey, Aaron, how you doin’ bro? Gabe’s lost its lease, but it’s been replaced with a similar live music venue.

    Posted by  on  09/04  at  12:05 AM
  43. Adam—I guess I feel like Lawrence is such an easy drive from, say, Overland Park, Olathe, or Lenexa, that it’s practically next door.  If it’s close enough for my niece to have brought her laundry home...but you’re right that it’s more liberal than the ex-urbs of KC (especially JoCo with its odd combination of wealthy-and-therefore-Republicans and mega-Church Christians a la the ex-urbs of Chicago) and the rural communities beyond it as well.  It’s just not as isolated as some college towns.

    Posted by Dr. Virago  on  09/04  at  10:24 AM
  44. On the matter of “da plane” i can offer that it was not all that expensive to hire one in the distant past: inflation, fuel prices, permits etc. probably have increased the fee substantially, but not that much (a group of us raised some funds [$300 in 1976 for one afternoon session of three hours] to have a plane carry a message to fire a certain executive, and it worked, in SoCal at least).

    I retired and live in Spokane, WA.  It is a extraordinarily conservative town for one that is so filled with universities and colleges.  The downtown university district houses: Gonzaga, Eastern Washington and Washington State satellites, the SIRTI campus that is supported by Univ of Wash and Western Washington, and the main HQ of the Community Colleges of Spokane.  Within the above mentioned 50 mile radius, among the USAF bases, numerous wheat fields, mines, and pipelines, are the main campuses of several other private and religious colleges (five), as well as University of Idaho, WSU, EWU, North Idaho State, et al.  For all of this learning and essential liberal arts education going on, the greater Columbian basin region is home to a nearly disgusting and preverse conservatism (fundamentalist theocrats, white supremacists, anti-government militias, etc.) rich in private and home schooling.  Heaven forbid their children actually attend the local centers of higher education; thus the vast majority of students are imports, many many from overseas.

    Posted by  on  09/04  at  05:21 PM
  45. Michael, you overlook a number of solidly Democratic areas in your neck of the woods, such as Lock Haven and much of Clearfield County.  Little Spring Mills was a raucous Copperhead outpost during the Civil War, and only recently has it had any significant Republican presence.

    Of course Johnstown is outside the fifty mile radius, but their long history of corruption makes them entirely comfortable with the sleazy Mr. Murtha and his bacon hackery.

    Also, how could you fail to note that Gregg Cunningham formerly represented the area around State College in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives before leaving the area to obsess on the abortion issue?

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  03:44 PM
  46. Mr Berube (please forgige me for not using accents) Please visit this site and tell me what you think.

    Tim Berube
    Cartersville GA

    Posted by tim berube (no accents im american)  on  09/10  at  06:37 PM
  47. I’ve read Michael Yon many times, Tim, and I wish him—and all who wear the uniform—well.

    Posted by Michael (some Americans have accents)  on  09/11  at  10:18 AM





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