Indiana's "So That Happened" Moment

Apr 24, 2015

In the movie State and Main actor Alec Baldwin plays an eratic and irresponsible fellow who at one point manages to get his station wagon airborne on the streets of a small town. When he emerges from the wreckage he laughs nervously and blurts out just three words: “So that happened.”

We’re having a bit of a so-that-happened moment of our own in Indiana these days. Friends visiting from Colorado this week said our legislature was on the front pages of their newspapers for days during the uproar over Senate Bill 101. You know, the bill that supporters said defends religious freedom and opponents said defends anti-gay discrimination. Thanks to gerrymandered supermajorities in both houses of our legislature, Democrats escaped most of the publicity—this time, anyway. In many people’s eyes Governor Pence made himself and the whole state look bad on a Sunday morning political talk show when he refused six or seven times to say that a particular group of Hoosiers who are well-known victims of discrimination should have protection under Indiana law. The Statehouse press corps got its act together most days and pushed hard—culminating in the Indy Star’s full-page front-page editorial that began in gigantic letters with exactly the opposite of “So that happened.” Those giant letters said, “Fix this now.” Behind closed doors, one party did most or maybe all of the wheeling and dealing without conversing with the other party or the press or the citizens, for that matter. They produced an altered version of the bill which passed and was signed by the governor just before he slipped off on a European vacation. I picture him on his way out of town calling up Alec Baldwin and saying, “Alec, what was that line from the movie again?” and Baldwin teaching him how to give those three words the right sort of helpless inflection: “So that happened.”

But “So that happened” is a pathetic approach to civic life. I once saw a professor give a very detailed talk about active citizenship. He said there is an identifiable set of knowledge, attitudes, and skills that make a citizen effective. He said that the knowledge, attitudes, and skills of active citizenship explode any so-that-happened approach to democracy. There, I just saved you forty minutes.

I made a good step forward on the knowledge part myself this spring. I paid more than my usual attention to the Statehouse because I learned how to do that. Of course we subscribe to our slim local paper and listen to vital WVPE reporting, but I figured out that in about ten minutes a day on Twitter a person can assemble a fine-grained picture of the legislature in action. With a free Twitter account and the Twitter names of half a dozen Statehouse reporters from Indiana’s leading newspapers, you can have updates all day long. The tweets are brief, so five minutes a couple of times a day give you the basics. The reporters provide links to the best stories and op-ed pieces, so that fills in the detail. And when something is happening, they live-tweet and you get several perspectives at once on endless testimony in a committee hearing or, say, the PR song-and-dance at a press conference. You find out which politicians are away in a closed session, keeping the light of journalism from shining on the people’s business. You even get to know which reporter, forced to wait outside that closed door, is hoping somebody would bring her a soft drink.

Thanks to Twitter, I have more of the knowledge I need. Thanks to the questionable behavior of some of our leaders, I’m developing a bit of an attitude, too, and it’s not “So that happened.” It’s more like: So that happened, and here’s what we need to make happen next. With my new knowledge and attitude, I’m ready to start thinking about the skills.

Indy Star front page editorial about the RFRA law -- images of it were posted everywhere, including this one by Justin Solomon (@JSolomonCNBC).
Credit Justin Solomon (@JSolomonCNBC)