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Lesley Cissell: ‘Know-it-all’ commentators shouldn’t get between me and Ashley Judd

I don’t personally know Ashley Judd, but I have friends who do. What I do know is Kentucky – unlike the legions of know-it-alls who feel compelled to educate us about the dangers of a potential Judd Senate run. From bloggers to politicos to TV talking heads, there is no shortage of opinions not just about Judd but about me as a Kentucky voter and what I should know but obviously don’t.

Ashley Judd makes frequent appearances in Rupp Arena to cheer on the UK Wildcats. (KyForward file photo)

I’m not advocating that they keep their opinions about her to themselves. They should feel free to share them. What I am advocating is that they stop lecturing me as if I’m incapable of knowing what is best for myself and my state. Not by coincidence do these advisers seem to be centered currently or in recent past on the two most know-it-all cities on the planet – New York and Washington, D.C.

Both places, in my considerable and actual experience, suffer from the self-delusion that they alone are the arbiters of all things intelligent, current and correct. Odd that a visitor to these cities won’t be able to count on one hand the number of residents they meet who can claim them as their birthplace. We too have a place that considers itself the lightning rod of the state – my birthplace, Louisville. Other than its title of Derby City, Louisville has little in common with the rest of the Commonwealth. That could explain why Mitch McConnell’s popularity seems limited, in my experience, to other politicians and people who remember his Louisville ties.
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Opinionmakers without ties to Kentucky seem particularly worried that we don’t know Judd’s record or even her address. Former Bush kingmaker Karl Rove is using his Political Action Committee to run ads about Judd living in Tennessee while considering representing Kentucky. Stuart Rothenberg way back in November wrote in his Political Report that he was “guessing that the people of Kentucky think that someone who has spent the past few years living in Kentucky, not Tennessee, should represent the state in the Senate.” He may be right, but at least we’ve seen Judd atop flattened mountains or cheering on the Cats. I attended a press conference in ’93 with McConnell’s new wife Elaine Chao. That sighting 20 years ago typifies the type of Kentucky activity involving McConnell. He makes speeches to likeminded people, but he is virtually absent on the larger, culture front.

No Spin television host Bill O’Reilly worries that “very traditional” Kentuckians won’t like Judd’s personal position on not having children. His Democrat consulting guest Kirsten Powers agrees because we are a “very Republican” state, a fact our governor, a Democrat, needs to know.

Daily Caller columnist Alex Pappas ran a list of comments Judd has made on everything from coal to Christianity and then knowingly asserted such statements wouldn’t play well in Kentucky which he described as “a conservative-leaning state where such liberal comments would be mocked and viewed as, well, bizarre.”

Pappas reported that Republicans and their well-funded super PAC allies “have warned that Kentuckians will see and hear these comments over and over again on television and the radio.” He compares Judd, who is aware she has set herself up for ridicule for “strong language,” to Todd Akin and says that we will find her comments “so outrageous and extreme” that we won’t be able to bring ourselves to vote for her.

Some phantom blogger on the late Andrew Breitbart’s website who refers to himself or herself as the “Ace of Spades” called Judd the “crazy shrieking woman who knocks over your garbage cans at night.” The phantom cited her referrals to the removal of “conflict minerals” in Africa and mountaintops in Kentucky as “rape” to prove her craziness. I don’t know about the phantom’s garbage cans but my daughter didn’t want a “conflict diamond” for an engagement ring and the mountains with tops cut off and Walmarts planted in their place look raped to me.

Rothenberg asserted that Judd’s support for the University of Kentucky “won’t insulate her from charges of carpetbagging or eclipse her past political statements and activities.” Again, that may be true for many, but because the phantom wants to call a Spade a Spade, I’d like to call a carpetbagger a carpetbagger. All these Yankee commentators who want to tell me what I do and will think need to be called on the carpet themselves.

I have yet to decide what I feel about a potential Judd candidacy, but I’ve learned several life lessons along the way that apply:

Lesson 1: I can call my family “crazy,” but don’t you dare!

I am the daughter of a manic idealist who was hated by his in-laws. The more they badmouthed him, the more I came to his defense. No one alive save my sister, my daughter, my brother-in-law, my nephew and my niece is entitled to call him crazy. Anyone who has ever heard “yo mama” in response to an insult knows this simple truth. The 4.3 million of us from Kentucky have the right to call Ashley crazy and to support or not support her candidacy. The rest of you should report on her run if and when it becomes fact, and leave our response to us to manage.

Lesson 2: Spend time with a people and a place before making judgments.

I learned this lesson more than 30 years ago in London, England, where I’d been sent on an English-Speaking Union scholarship. The scholarship was to a summer graduate course at Oxford University, but our first stop was to the London headquarters of the ESU. Shortly after my arrival I was enjoying tea in the courtyard with other students and a woman I assumed was the housekeeper. She had wild gray hair, runs in her dark stockings, and wore a mismatched outfit of striped top and print skirt. She looked like my grandmother, the mother of my crazy dad.

I was musing about the inclusion of the help in our summer soiree’ when the woman began unexpectedly to discuss her plans to attend a concert at Royal Albert Hall that evening. Being a musician, I asked where I might buy a ticket. “Oh, my dear,” she admonished. “You cannot buy a ticket to such an event. You must first be invited, and I am sorry but you are not.” It turns out that she was the wife of the former British governor to Bermuda and I was having tea with a distant member of the royal family. Throughout my summer I learned never to judge the British people or the place based on my English literature degree or first impressions.

I pass on Lady-I-Forget-Her-Name’s admonishment to those who think they know Kentucky because they’ve watched Daniel Boone or the recently panned Hatfields and McCoys. Until you’ve run a mile and a quarter in one of our horseshoes don’t presume you know or understand a thing.

Lesson 3: Don’t let the newsworthiness of an event be outweighed by your response to it.

I learned this lesson during the first Palestinian intifada or uprising. I lived in East Jerusalem for 10 years and remain an advocate for Palestinian statehood. (It is ironic that the two places I call home – Kentucky and Palestine – are both lint collectors for people with opinions. Anyone who has ever attended a Sunday School class feels entitled to a position on “peace in the Middle East,” just as anyone who’s ever eaten fried chicken thinks they know what makes us Kentuckians tick.)

My office in East Jerusalem was on the downtown corner of the intersection of Salahaddin and Al-Zahra streets. Young Palestinian boys often chose the noon hour when shopkeepers were closing for the big afternoon meal to set tires ablaze in the middle of the street. Inevitably, five minutes later, multiple Israeli jeeps filled with soldiers in complete combat gear would careen around the corner and set up positions around these burning tires. The kids hidden under awnings would run out and throw rocks at the soldiers who would fire back rubber bullets or, on occasion, live ammunition. Some boys would be injured, arrested, or both; the media would take pictures; the soldiers would speed off; and the tires would be left to extinguish themselves. Two hours later when the local siesta was finished, shopkeepers would return to work, throw up their sashes and open their shops to business. But the lives of some of those arrested, injured or even killed would be forever altered.

Israelis to whom I complained always asked me what I would have them do. My answer: nothing. If the military had not shown up the young fighters would have had no targets for their rocks and no one would have been shot or imprisoned. This was East Jerusalem, after all. There were no Israelis endangered. If the shopkeepers or Palestinian residents had found the show annoying they’d have shut it down. All the military did is guarantee the boys an audience and a regrettable consequence to their foolish actions. A smart parent learns to pick her battles; a smart commentator learns to choose the topic on which to comment.

Lesson 4: To succeed you must have skin in the game.

A lifelong dream of mine to follow writer Jesse Stuart into the mountain classrooms of Eastern Kentucky came true when I taught English and drama for three years in a one-high-school county in the southeastern part of the state. I loved it despite the hour’s drive to and from my home each day. I’ve always maintained that Appalachian and Palestinian cultures are two sides of the same coin when changes in religion and nomenclature are taken into consideration. It was a natural fit for me, but when it came time for tenure I learned it wasn’t a natural fit for them.

The vast majority of the 120 counties in our state are small in population and area, but big in politics. In most of these counties the school board is the largest employer. In fact, if you want to return after college your best bet is a teaching degree. Your best bet for a teaching job is a county full of voting relatives. Education jobs are doled out to those with the largest number of potential voters and are considered valuable political currency. I lived in another county, was born in another region and had no skin in the game as far as local politics went. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get tenure and was replaced by a local who fell asleep at his desk and awoke to find the students had tied his shoelaces together.

Kentuckians have everything from complex opinions to no opinion about a Judd candidacy. I don’t even know yet whether I’d vote for her or not. A lot of it depends on Ashley. Is she willing to establish an authentic ground game in each of the 120 counties as some in our state have suggested? If not, she has little chance and should end speculation for the sake of those who are willing to hit the ground running.

Two people who know Ashley Judd well used to sing a song entitled Why Not Me. The lyrics sung by her mother Naomi and her sister Wynonna, neither of whom currently live here but are considered of us nonetheless, seem apropos. In the song a Kentucky girl is “awaiting patiently” a wandering soul who’s “fi-n’ly come down to your old hometown.”

I don’t yet know whether Ashley is that wanderer who’s finally come home or if Kentucky voters are patiently awaiting her candidacy. What I do know is that we can decide this for ourselves without outside assistance from either political stream. Unlike those people who seek to reinvent themselves on the national stage, maybe even Ashley included, we don’t suffer identity crises. Our license plates may say we’re friendly, but don’t presume you’re family when you’re not.

Lesley Cissell is associate news editor of KyForward.

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