Encounters with Strangers Posted by christian h., 26 Jun 2007 06:26 am
In my time at the University of Illinois, I have been traveling a lot - to conferences, to meet with colleagues for a couple days, for job interviews. Mathematics is a very social profession - even in the age of email, face-to-face interaction is preferable. Part of the ritual is getting to O’Hare airport in Chicago from Champaign-Urbana, the town where I live and work - about 2-3 hours to the South of Chicago. There’s a small airport here, but it’s often very expensive to fly out of. I don’t drive myself, and in any event most people like to avoid a three-hour drive to start off a day that is also going to involve several flights. So usually, I take a shuttle bus up to O’Hare, or down from there home - sometimes it’s a van, sometimes an old bus, depending on the number of passengers booked on the thing. This is one experience I am definitely not going to miss when I move up to Chicago in a couple weeks.
The ride can take up to 4 hours, as passengers are dropped off and picked up along the way. The drivers often like to talk while on the road - driving back and forth on I-57 isn’t the most exciting thing to do. Once you leave Chicago it’s Midwestern farm country, flat and featureless (Champaign County, for example, has a maximal elevation difference of about a hundred feet, I think. If that.) Something else many drivers like to do is listen to the radio - and often, that means talk radio. Rush in the morning, Levin and others at night.
One night last fall, I had arrived back from Banff, Alberta and was taking the 9pm shuttle down to Champaign, happy to be the only passenger. Banff is a resort town in the Rockies where the Canadian, US and Mexican governments run a research center for mathematics. They have one or two workshops or conferences a week for the whole year - beautiful surroundings actually help you think (though the temptation to blow off the scientific program and just go hike or ski is quite strong…).
Anyway, I was sitting next to the driver thinking positive thoughts lingering on from a productive week in the Rockies and he’s listening to Sean Hannity on WLS 890 Chicago (”The station liberals hate”). Well, I am in a good mood, so I make some exaggerated face and ask him why on earth he’s listening to a lying scumbag like Hannity (only I left out the “scumbag” part). He says it’s fun, and he doesn’t think Hannity is necessarily a liar - though interestingly, he isn’t prepared to declare him an honest person. Basically, he likes that Hannity is sticking it to the people up there, and the guys who made him take sexual harassment awareness training when he worked for IDOT even though there were no women in the whole workforce, and so forth. And what is my political persuasion anyway?
So I tell him I’m a communist. Which is true, but to be honest I also tried to get a reaction - usually, I’d probably say I’m a socialist (leaving out the “revolutionary” part). And I did get a reaction - but maybe not the one I expected. The driver simply asked if I’m going to vote for whoever the CPUSA would run for governor. I explained that I don’t know if they are running anyone, that I don’t have a vote, and that I’m a Trotskyite anyway, and what I mean by that.
At about that time (10pm) Hannity was thankfully done, only to be replaced by Mark Levin, a true nut. Talking about the trilateral commission and stuff. In any event, my new friend made clear he isn’t really a Republican, he’s just fed up with everyone - “you know, Sandy Berger walks out of the office with classified information and gets off free, but if some little guy does anything, he goes to jail.” I generally agree, of course - but why is he taking that from Hannity and Levin, who make shitloads of money off this shtick? They are not on his side! Isn’t it obvious that things will never change a long as the current socioeconomic system stays in place? (I’d say this kind of talk amuses him.) After some more friendly argument (about “The Chief”, among other things, the Indian mascot of the U of I), we amicably pass ways - meaning we arrive.
A couple weeks later, a friend of mine is taking a late shuttle back up to Chicago. She talks to the driver, yes, she’s a professor of mathematics at U of I - and could you please turn down the Hannity a little? So he says “hey, a couple weeks ago I drove this German math professor - he’s a communist. But he was such a nice guy!” So I think I left some impression, if only that communists aren’t monsters. Small steps.
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