Jim Dey | Critic of pro-Chief billboard is misreading the rhetoric

Jim Dey | Critic of pro-Chief billboard is misreading the rhetoric

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It's been about a month or so since the University of Illinois community endured another one of those moronic discussions about the Chief Illiniwek controversy — you know, the ones about pain and perception, victims and victimizers, and, of course, racism and resentment.

So the community was due for another round of nonsense when a couple of the usual suspects kicked off another exercise in rhetorical overkill on an issue in which there is zero common ground.

The star of this episode is local lawyer and Chief Illiniwek supporter John Gadau. He arranged for a billboard hailing the involuntarily retired Chief Illiniwek as the permanent symbol of the UI — if not in reality, at least in the hearts of Chief lovers everywhere.

"The Chief, yesterday, today, forever," reads the sign located near the campus.

Gadau's done it before, and he decided to do it again.

The reaction was predictable. Anti-Chiefs, led by retired Professor Stephen Kaufman, were outraged by the expression of what they view as a pure racist sentiment.

The anti-Chiefs routinely denounce those who disagree with them on this issue as racist. Following that time-worn practice, Kaufman cited as the billboard as evidence because it included three nouns routinely used in everyday conversations — "yesterday, today, forever."

Those words have been used in ugly situations in the past, he noted, making the point that repeating them shows malicious intent.

He specifically cited Alabama Gov. George Wallace's 1962 inaugural address, a speech in which Wallace challenged the federal government's authority to desegregate segregated institutions in southern states that included Alabama.

"... I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Kaufman, who is almost as smart as he considers himself to be, is absolutely correct in noting the distinctively un-American ugliness that Wallace's words represent.

Wallace's inaugural speech was written by southern segregationist Asa Earl Carter, who later became an author of some note. Ironically, in light of the subsequent Chief Illiniwek controversy, Carter later adopted the persona of writer Forrest Carter, reputed to be a Cherokee Indian, and penned the book that was turned into the Clint Eastwood movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales."

His biggest success was a purported memoir, "The Education of Little Tree," a work that became a best-seller after the news media revealed Carter's personal background.

Kaufman's contention is that the pro-Chief Illiniwek billboard is inherently racist because its literary construction echoes Wallace's notorious phrase, that by aping the phraseology in support of Chief Illiniwek he's embracing the sentiments expressed by Wallace.

Kaufmann's name-calling is superficially clever, but it melts like an ice cube in a blazing sun under scrutiny.

If the phrase "yesterday, today, forever" used by Gadau demonstrates racial animus — it doesn't — he's not alone.

In fact, the use of that phraseology considerably predates Wallace's speech.

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever," states Hebrews 13:8.

That biblical admonition has been used:

— To sell books: "Yesterday, Today and Forever, Timeless Gospel Messages" by M. Russell Ballard.

— To name plants: "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Plant," identified as a shrub or small tree that blossoms late into the season and is native to the Brazilian rainforests.

— To raise money: "Feeding Children — Today Tomorrow Forever," by a charitable group called Children of the Nations.

— To give a title to a guide for marital happiness: "The 7 Stages of Marriage: Laughter, Intimacy and Passion Today, Tomorrow and Forever."

— To name musical performances: In Berkeley, Calif., a place that doesn't cotton to Wallace's brand of politics, the show was "Today, Tomorrow, Forever," featuring the life story and music of Patsy Cline.

— To embrace the timeliness of one of America's most revered institutions: The Smithsonian Institute, a repository of this nation's most important memories, titled its 2014 annual report "Today Tomorrow Forever."

— To name albums: Nancy Wilson, a black singer popular in the 1960s, titled her 1964 album "Today, Tomorrow, Forever," It includes such classics as "What Kind of Fool Am I?" and "I Can't Stop Loving You."

— To express personal bonds of love in print and musical lyrics: Hallmark has sold "Today, Tomorrow, Forever" wedding cards. In the 1964 comedy/musical, Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret sang a duet whose amorous lyrics read, in part:

"I give you my heart"

"Today, tomorrow and forever"

"You'll always be my love"

"Our vow will never part"

"Today, tomorrow and forever"

One could go on ad nauseum because the unremarkable phraseology the professor finds so troubling fits into so many different contexts. But readers can figure it out — Kaufman's racism ploy represents a hand dramatically overplayed.

His condemnation of the common phrasing in Gadau's poster is so wildly off base that it can be persuasive only to the ignorant. It borders on ludicrous, not just for today, but tomorrow and forever.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.