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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Tech and Consequences
TOWARD THE END of August this year, more than 100 million potential U.S. voters were exposed to a fake story about the presidential election that was disguised as hard news. The story, which claimed that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had endorsed Hillary Clinton, began on an ultra-Right website called endingthefed.com, but a link to it quickly appeared in the “Trending” box at the top of the Facebook screen. Not only did the fraudulent link slip through Facebook’s legendary screening software, but it stayed there for a full eight hours.
A couple of weeks later, the opposite problem struck when the Facebook robo-censor kicked out posts containing the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photograph of a young naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a U.S. napalm attack. The Facebook Machine didn’t see a gut-wrenching statement about the cruelty of war. It only saw a naked little girl. After an entire day of protests, Facebook finally announced that it would reprogram the software to allow that photo of a naked girl.
Facebook has been cajoled and scolded over the past year by various German officials about the company’s failure to preemptively remove racist material, as German law requires. But Zuckerberg insists Facebook is “a tech company, not a media company.” We build “the tools,” he said, “we do not produce any content.”
The through line in all of these controversies is a persistent question about the role of human decisions versus that of computer algorithms in determining what material appears on Facebook or other digital media intermediaries, including the Google News search engine. Are we just going to see the stories that are generating the most statistically measurable buzz? Or will trained professionals take a hand in guaranteeing that what we see is actually true? The answer has enormous legal consequences for companies such as Facebook. If their human staffs are making choices about the veracity and relative importance of news stories, then digital media platforms may be liable to lawsuits over the content of those stories. But the stakes are even higher for the future of journalism and the functioning of democracy.
A Nobel Prize for the Masses?
ANY REASONABLE person should admit that Bob Dylan’s 54 years as a great American artist deserve some kind of monumental recognition, maybe even a real monument somewhere. But the monumental recognition Dylan received in October from the Nobel Prize committee for literature has generated plenty of argument, much of it among reasonable people. Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh had the best one-liner. “This,” he said, “is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”
But, generational animosities aside, the most cogent complaint about the Dylan Nobel goes like this: “Sure, most of his music is great. But is it literature?”
And of course it’s not. At least not if literature is limited to its dictionary definition as the stuff composed to be read from a page (or, today, a screen). However, in announcing Dylan’s prize, the Nobel committee dodged that whole question. They didn’t call him a “poet.” Instead, they honored his “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
I’m not sure exactly what the Nobel committee meant by that cryptic utterance, but it hits pretty close to the heart of Dylan’s achievement. At his best Dylan has brought the sensibility, philosophical stance, and rough-hewn sound of what Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America” into our postmodern era not as archaeological artifact, but as a living tradition.
The voice of the old, weird America, echoing through Dylan’s songs, is the voice of the medicine-show snake oil peddlers and the Appalachian snake-handlers. It’s the voice of the slave, or his recent descendant, for whom the rising waters of the Mississippi were a metaphor for his entire life. It is the dirt farmer driven mad by the wails of his hungry children. The Southern poor white committing racist violence as a pawn in the rich man’s game. It’s the Sunday morning believer and the Saturday night cynic. The oral culture of Dylan’s America was raw, unmediated, life on life’s terms. And that’s the voice we can still hear in the best of his songs.
Down the Breitbart Rabbit Hole
AS HAS BEEN widely noted, when Donald Trump named Steve Bannon to head his presidential campaign, he brought into the U.S. political mainstream a set of ideas that have, for at least 75 years, been relegated to a disreputable fringe. Bannon has bounced through a number of incarnations in the past three decades—naval officer, investment banker, and film producer—before joining the ultraconservative “news” website Breitbart.com, first as a board member, then, after founder Andrew Breitbart’s sudden death in 2012, as executive chair. In that role, he took an outlet that was already at the far right edge of American politics down the rabbit hole and into the underground world of race-based nationalist theories and the politics of white resentment.
Breitbart founded his site in 2007, and it came to prominence in 2009 when the site promoted the deceptively edited hidden-camera videos that led to the demise of the ACORN community organizing network. A little later, Breitbart was the first outlet to post the again deceptively edited videos that led to the firing of African-American U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod. In 2011, Breitbart broke the story of liberal Democratic representative Anthony Weiner’s penchant for obscene self-portraits.
Then Bannon took over in 2012, and the website began to exhibit a new interest in the far right nationalist movements rising in Europe. This, coupled with a pre-existing obsession with the imagined dangers of illegal immigration, helped make the site, as Bannon later boasted, “the platform for the alt-right.” The term “alt-right,” as we now all know, refers to a loose, mostly online network of white activists gathered around the general notion that the “white race” and its European-derived culture is slated for obliteration by the forces of globalism and multiculturalism.
What Trump Got Right
BY THE TIME you read this, all of the important appointments in the new Trump administration will have been made, and the shape of the disaster that awaits us will be clear. Maybe the new president never did, as New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz suggested, appoint cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. But with the appointment of fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder as secretary of labor, vulture capitalist Wilbur Ross as secretary of commerce, and Wall Street vampire Steven Mnuchin as secretary of treasury, Trump certainly spit in the face of the low-income white voters who put him over the top in the industrial Midwest.
Which brings us back to the recurring question: Why did so many blue-collar white people vote for a greedy, self-dealing billionaire in the first place? One answer is that Trump very effectively pushed the buttons of racial resentment (mostly about immigrants and Muslims) that are especially sensitive in less-educated, white areas. There is certainly something to that theory. But it doesn’t account for the fact that, as New York Times polling whiz Nate Cohn has noted, “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters.”
I would argue instead that Trump won primarily because he finally named the shadow that has hung, unacknowledged, over American life for at least the past 25 years: globalism. On June 28, 2016, during one of candidate Trump’s rare attempts to stay on message and give a serious public policy statement, he said, “Today, we import nearly $800 billion more in goods than we export. This is not some natural disaster. ... It is the consequence of a leadership class that worships globalism over Americanism.”
The Niebuhr We Need
NEARLY 46 YEARS after his death, Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is never very far from the public eye. He’s already immortal as the originator of the world-famous Serenity Prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”). And just last fall, an article in Harper’s took up the eternal question: “Where is our Reinhold Niebuhr?” President Obama once called him his favorite philosopher, and Niebuhr is regularly “proof-texted” by polemicists across the political spectrum, especially on questions of war and peace.
In April, PBS will air a documentary, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, directed by Martin Doblmeier. It will give an even broader public the chance to reflect on Niebuhr’s significance, in the company of such notables as Cornel West, Stanley Hauerwas, President Jimmy Carter, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
I was eager to see the film. I’ve always felt that Reinhold Niebuhr was somewhere in my family tree. As a student at a Baptist-related college in the 1970s, I got heavy doses of his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. Later, I had the opportunity to interview Myles Horton, founder of the mother church of Southern radicalism, the Highlander Center, and learned that Horton had studied with Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary. In fact, Niebuhr helped fund Highlander. And about a dozen years after that, I gave one of our sons the middle name Myles, in honor of Horton. So how many degrees of separation is that?
Corporate Power vs. Common Good
2016 TURNED OUT to be the year that the American people woke up and realized that most of them hadn’t had a real pay raise in more than 40 years while the oligarchs in our top 1 percent had been making out like bandits. As a result, millions of our fellow Americans voted for a democratic socialist presidential candidate. But, as you may have noticed, even more just got really mad, then went to the polls and did something really crazy.
Sadly enough, we all could have avoided many of our current problems if we had just been reading In These Times magazine for the past 40 years.
That’s the takeaway from the recent book The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People, a Forty-Year Investigation by In These Times, edited by ITT contributing editor Jeremy Gantz. The book compiles chronologically arranged excerpts from the Chicago-based publication’s coverage of labor and the economy from its 1976 launch through the dawn of the Trump era. The result is a sweeping chronicle of the slow-motion coup by which the billionaire class seized all the levers of power in our erstwhile democracy and used them to siphon wealth upward from ordinary workers to the corporate elite.
The Pastor of Preschoolers
MISTER ROGERS’ Neighborhood began running on U.S. public television just over 50 years ago, in February 1968. The anniversary was marked in March by the airing of a tribute special, Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like, on PBS and the release of a Mister Rogers stamp by the U.S. Postal Service. In June, a documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? by Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville, will hit the theaters. And, in Hollywood, a Fred Rogers biopic is forthcoming, starring Tom Hanks as the man in the sweater.
Rogers, who off-screen was an ordained mainline Presbyterian minister, was most famous as a sort of pastor to the nation’s preschoolers. Every day he looked into the camera and conducted a calm, face-to-face conversation with the kids about their feelings, especially their fears. Usually those discussions would lead into a Rogers-composed song. Then Rogers would dramatize those lessons in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where several puppet characters, most voiced by Rogers, and a few other adult humans populated a fanciful parallel universe.
When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood started, the U.S. seemed to be falling apart.
The Class Undertow
THE TONYA HARDING saga was a Great American Novel of the 1990s waiting to be written—equal parts Theodore Dreiser and Three Stooges. Harding was the impoverished striver who muscled her way to the top of the hoity-toity world of women’s figure skating, only to be disgraced when her ex-husband’s buffoonish associates carried out a bizarre assault on a rival skater, Nancy Kerrigan.
The film I, Tonya delivers this story well, both as tragedy and as farce. It shows us the particular violence of frustrated hopes, malnourished emotions, and internalized self-hatred that passes from generation to generation like a plague in the lives of poor white people in America.
In 1972, when Tonya Harding was 2 years old, sociologist Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb published a book called The Hidden Injuries of Class. That phrase kept running through my mind as I watched I, Tonya. Sennett and Cobb profiled white working-class Americans who felt the pain of being disrespected and looked down upon, yet couldn’t help blaming themselves for that fact. One of their interviewees remarked, “I really didn’t have it upstairs to do satisfying work.”
Less than two years after Sennett’s book arrived, LaVona Golden, a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking wraith of a waitress (played by Allison Janney), intimidated a WASPy skating teacher into taking her daughter Tonya as a student. From that point on, in the movie, the girl’s life is blur of skating and abuse. Her mother torments her into giving her best on the ice, but comes up empty on empathy or affection. And the abuse gets physical. As a teenager (played by Margot Robbie), Tonya moves out to live with her boyfriend and ex-husband-to-be, Jeff Gillooly, and he hits her too.
A Wound That Still Bleeds
OVER THE COURSE of 2017, I spent a lot of time thinking about how the catastrophe of November 2016 came about and a lot of time listening to country singer-songwriter Margo Price. Somewhere along the way, the two activities came together. Price’s artistic rise roughly coincided with Trump’s political one. She won the Americana Emerging Artist Award for 2016 with her first album,Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, and her second, All American Made, was released to much acclaim in October. She makes the kind of rough-hewn, class-conscious country rock that is one of my minimum daily requirements. Both of her albums are anchored by intensely autobiographical songs (“Hands of Time” and “Heart of America,” respectively) that spring from the same historic disruption in her family’s life: the loss of their family farm to foreclosure during the 1980s farm crisis. But here’s the kicker: Margo Price wasn’t even 3 years old in 1986 when her “daddy lost the farm ... [and] took a job at the prison.” She must have little or no conscious memory of farm life, or the foreclosure, but when she sits down with her guitar to pour out her soul, that’s what keeps coming. It’s a wound that, 30 years later, not only hasn’t healed, it hasn’t even stopped bleeding. Maybe that’s where we need to begin if we’re to understand what happened in rural America in 2016.
When the Artist Is an Abuser
IN THE PAST couple of months, since the sex crime revelations about Hollywood kingpin Harvey Weinstein, a historic corner has been turned regarding the fact that some powerful men abuse and degrade the women around them. In fact, we’re already talking about this as the post-Weinstein era.
But the wave of belated outrage that is just now cresting may have started building more than a year ago, with reports about Donald Trump’s sordid record as a serial harasser, molester, and adulterer, a history confirmed, on the record, by no less than 20 women in the weeks before election day.
For reasons that have been pretty thoroughly rehearsed, in these pages and elsewhere, that wasn’t enough to stop the Trump train. But the shock of Trump’s victory must have done something to embolden the next wave of women to speak out, at Fox News. And the example of Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly must have made it easier for some of Weinstein’s victims to speak. And after them, the deluge.