Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. He is the author of the novel White Boy.
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World Wide Death
THIS YEAR MARKS the 50th anniversary of the invention of the internet. One day in October 1969, scientists successfully transmitted data from a campus computer at UCLA to a computer at Stanford. Twenty years later, the infrastructure for the World Wide Web went into operation, and the creation of our whole digital universe quickly followed.
Lately, there have been plenty of days that have convinced me that the invention of the internet is one of the worst things that has happened since our first human parents decided that a little bit of “knowledge of good and evil” couldn’t possibly hurt anything.
The Worth of Work
THE AGE OF THE ROBOTS is here. If you didn’t notice, it’s because we’re calling them artificial intelligence (AI) and they don’t look like we expected. They’re the touchscreen kiosk that has replaced the cashier at Panera, the mechanical arms and claws flipping burgers at fast food joints, the drone that may someday deliver your Amazon order. They’re the software that can turn a baseball box score or corporate earnings report into a wire service news story.
According to a recent report from the Brookings Institute, about 38 percent of the adult population could be put out of work by smart machines in the next generation. The choices we are making about our AI future depend upon our answer to the question Wendell Berry posed 30 years ago with his book What Are People For? Up to now, at least in the U.S., the answer has been that people exist to generate corporate profits.
Andrew Yang, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur running for the Democratic presidential nomination, argues that Donald Trump is president because automation eliminated 4 million manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt states Trump narrowly won. Yang expects that blue collar alienation will multiply soon, when driverless vehicles replace 3.5 million truck drivers.
Learning How to Live Life (on Life’s Terms)
A FEW YEARS AGO, I was sitting in a McDonald’s, getting some work done during my son’s orchestra practice, when I looked up and saw an ambulance parked on the sidewalk outside, a team of EMTs at work on a man at one of the patio tables. I pulled out my earbuds just in time to hear the McDonald’s worker behind the counter say, in an exasperated tone, “I don’t know why they have to come here to shoot their dope.”
The man was being revived from a heroin overdose, but life was going on around him as though his situation was a routine occurrence. That’s because here in Kentucky, it is.
It’s even more routine in Huntington, W.Va., a city known as the overdose capital of America, with a rate twice the national average. In 2017, Huntington was the setting for a prize-winning Netflix documentary, Heroin(e), by West Virginia filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon, which profiled three women—a fire chief, a drug court judge, and a Christian volunteer—who had their fingers in the dike, struggling to hold back the overdose deluge.
There’s No Stopping Populism
A SPECTER IS haunting the neoliberal establishments of Europe and the Americas: populism. And the intelligentsia beholden to those establishments is pitching a hissy fit in response.
You can see it happening via publications such as The Atlantic —with headlines such as “What Populists Do to Democracies” and “How to Be a Populist”—and The Guardian, which has devoted an inordinate amount of its cyberspace to “Team Populism,” a transnational network of academics studying the rise of populist movements and leaders. A search of my university library database shows 1,259 books with the word “populism” in the title published just since 2016. The Guardian even offers a “How Populist Are You?” quiz.
The current populist moment gives the international commentariat a lot to chew on. For starters, there is so much disagreement about what “populism” even means. It’s hard to see how a word regularly applied to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can mean much of anything at all. In their work, the Team Populism people try to sort out this left-right mishmash by detaching the phenomenon of populism from its associations with socialism and ethno-nationalism. They consider populism not an ideology for governing but a strategy for attaining and keeping power. According to their June 2018 policy paper: “[Scholars] call something populist if it expresses the belief that politics embodies a struggle between the forces of good, understood as the will of the common people, and the forces of evil, associated with a conspiring elite.”
The New Digital Divide
TWENTY YEARS AGO, when we talked about the “digital divide” we meant things like low-income people’s access to computers and the internet. But according to a recent study from Common Sense Media, that turn-of-the-century gap has largely closed. Seventy percent of families with an annual household income below $30,000 now have a computer at home, and 75 percent have high-speed internet access. In addition, low-income families are near the national average for access to mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets.
But another digital divide is emerging that could have more dangerous long-term consequences.
Researchers have discovered a lot about how brain development and personality formation happen, and their lessons keep coming back to the importance of real-world experiences and face-to-face human interactions, especially in the childhood years. To avoid passivity and mental laziness in their children, many high-income parents are starting to limit their children’s time on digital devices. Common Sense Media found that the children of upper-income families spent half as much time in front of screens as did children of low-income families.
Several private schools are even dialing back their reliance on digital technology. Meanwhile, in many public schools, students are being issued Chromebooks or iPads and shunted into online learning programs. According to Education Week, American schools spend $3 billion per year on digital content, as well as $8 billion-plus yearly on hardware and software, with little to show for it so far in the way of improved learning.
Graceless in ‘Graceland’
ON SEPT. 22, 2018, Paul Simon took to an outdoor stage in his native borough of Queens, N.Y., for the last show of his aptly named “Homeward Bound” farewell tour. After 52 years near the top of the music business, Simon was finally ready to get off the bus for good. Simon’s not taking a vow of musical silence, but he does say that he has no plans for further work.
So, let’s take the man at his word and assume that this could be a good time to assess what the singer-songwriter has meant to his audiences, his country, and, in the end, the great march of human culture.
That may sound a little grandiose for a guy who started as a hack songwriter in the Brill Building pop factory and made his first record (with Art Garfunkel, of course) under the name “Tom and Jerry.” But after the whole “The Sound of Silence,” folk-rock thing passed, Simon went on a long, long run in which he often elevated the American pop song to the level of high art. And, from “America,” dropped into the maelstrom of 1968, to the Nixon era’s “American Tune,” to “Wristband” in the age of Trump, he occasionally even captured the spirit of his age in a memorable, hummable verse, chorus, and bridge.
In brief, the guy’s a genius. And, though he started in the era when singer-songwriters were supposed to be the new poets, his real genius turned out to be musical: those infectious tunes and, from the mid-’70s on, those propulsive rhythmic arrangements.
When Zeal Turns Tragic
ON THE MORNING OF June 23, 2014, a 79-year-old retired Methodist minister, Charles Moore, parked his Volkswagen hatchback in a strip mall parking lot in his old hometown of Grand Saline, Texas. For most of the day he stood in the lot, watching the cars go by on U.S. Highway 80. Sometime after 5:30 p.m., Moore set a small foam cushion on the parking lot asphalt, knelt on the cushion, poured gasoline over himself, and set himself on fire.
That act of public suicide provides the starting point for the PBS Independent Lens documentary Man on Fire, available for viewing online starting Dec. 17. The hourlong film is a sustained reflection both on Moore’s life as an especially stubborn perennial dissident and on the life of the town where his journey began and ended.
When Moore died, he left behind a neatly typed testimony tucked under a windshield wiper of his car, which portrayed his suicide as an act of solidarity with the untold numbers of African Americans lynched and brutalized in a town that was still largely unrepentant. On the dashboard of Moore’s car was a copy of his high school yearbook, presumably to prove to Grand Saline authorities that he was in fact one of their own, although he hadn’t really lived there for decades.
On its face, Moore’s suicide sounds like the tragic act of a man mired in depression and possibly even delusions. But the story becomes more complex when you read Michael Hall’s long article, also titled “Man on Fire,” from the December 2014 issue of Texas Monthly.
What Are These 'Facts' You Speak Of?
FOR 20 YEARS, Alex Jones, a radio show host and founder of the Infowars website, has been spreading one off-the-wall conspiracy theory after another, and, for the past decade, social media have amplified his voice and his reach to a level his predecessors on the “paranoid Right” could never have imagined. In early August, Facebook and Google-owned YouTube finally took measures to effectively ban Jones from their platforms. But the way they did it raises more questions than it answers about the possibility of restoring respect for truth to public life in the United States.
Way back in the dying days of the 20th century, Alex Jones started his career ranting about the old conspiracy standbys, such as fluoride in our drinking water. But then 9/11 happened, and Jones took his act to a whole new level, claiming that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were really “inside jobs” unleashed by the secret government to launch a global war and suspend civil liberties.
In days gone by, such a theory would have been passed around on mimeographed fliers, and mainstream journalism, shackled by considerations of fact, wouldn’t have touched it. But the social media era has freed us from all that. Now anybody can say anything, and everybody can hear it. Suddenly Alex Jones had an audience of millions for his Facebook pages, his YouTube channel, and his website; this success seemed to egg him on to ever more outrageous pronouncements. Finally, he hit rock bottom with the claim that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked (to provide a pretext for seizing Americans’ guns) and all those grieving parents were only acting.
After the Battle
TWO OF THIS year’s most compelling music releases so far give a deeply personal voice to the moral, emotional, and psychological struggles of the men and women who have waged our long-term “war on terror.” Healing Tide by The War and Treaty is the first full-length recording from this husband-and-wife team; the husband, Michael Trotter Jr., became a musician during his time in Iraq and has since struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. Meanwhile, Mary Gauthier’s Rifles and Rosary Beads features 11 songs co-written with Iraq and Afghanistan vets through the SongwritingWith:Soldiers (SW:S) project.
Trotter, the songwriter and keyboardist in The War and Treaty, enlisted in the Army in 2003 simply to provide health insurance and a steady paycheck for his daughter and first wife. Within six months he was in Iraq, stationed in the remains of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. One day, a captain who had taken Trotter under his wing and knew that he could sing took him into a rubble-strewn room that held a piano. Trotter had never played in his life, but in his downtime he taught himself and started writing songs.
Then that captain was killed in action. Trotter wrote a song and performed it at the captain’s memorial. The song was “Dear Martha,” which the band still performs, and it made such an impression on all the soldiers at the memorial that Trotter’s colonel tasked him to write and perform a song for the memorial services of soldiers who died in action.
I JUST STUMBLED onto the whole Rob Bell thing in the past few weeks. Before that, I knew the name, and I vaguely associated it with some headlines about the founder and pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan becoming evangelical non grata for writing a book, Love Wins, in which he said some thought-provoking things about the afterlife.
That was it. Then, while researching something else, I watched the new documentary The Heretic (directed by Andrew Morgan, available on Amazon and iTunes). I was astounded. A 40-something guy was on stage, alone, dressed in what seemed like an ill-fitting hipster costume: Cropped pants, shoes with no socks, and a weirdly undersized jacket. He held just a wireless mike and talked, to a theater filled with 500 or so paying customers, about Jesus and the Bible and what it all really means. This apparently happens all over the country, and all over the English-speaking world. This was a revelation to me.
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