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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Up Front and Unadorned

by Danny Duncan Collum 06-07-2016
Loretta Lynn's honest ambivalence about motherhood was disturbing to the male gatekeepers of popular culture.
Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn

For 56 YEARS, Loretta Lynn has rarely paused from recording and touring. A career path that long is bound to have its ups and downs. But the past decade or so has definitely seen a Loretta Lynn renaissance.

It started back in 2004 with the album Van Lear Rose, a collection steeped in the rootsy alt-rock aesthetic of Jack White, who produced, played guitar, and even sang a duet with Lynn. Next came the 2010 tribute album Coal Miner’s Daughter, on which White’s band, The White Stripes, was joined by artists ranging from Alan Jackson and Martina McBride to Nashville outsiders Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle to perform a sampling of Lynn’s greatest hits. This year has seen the debut of a PBS American Masters documentary about Lynn and another startlingly good new album, Full Circle.

Both the title and the choice of material on Full Circle sound for all the world like a lifetime victory lap for the 84-year-old singer-songwriter. Telling the story of her career, the collection starts with a re-recording of the first song she ever wrote (“Whispering Sea”) and ends with a Willie Nelson duet on “Lay Me Down,” a song that features the line, “I’ll be at peace when they lay me down.” In between, she revisits a couple more of her older songs, and, for the first time, records the kind of traditional old-time material she heard growing up in the east Kentucky mountain community of Butcher Holler.

When Loretta Lynn came to Nashville in 1960, she was without precedent—a female country singer who wrote her own songs. She didn’t follow the rules of the music business because she and her manager-husband didn’t know them. Instead, Lynn came to town as a do-it-yourself phenomenon, promoting her records out of the trunk of the family car.

Rollin' on Down the Highway

by Danny Duncan Collum 05-04-2016
HWY 62 is peopled with prisoners, deportees, the evicted, and other 21st-century American outcasts.
Peter Case

Peter Case

HIGHWAY 62 runs from Niagara Falls, N.Y., to El Paso, Texas, and is the only U.S. highway to connect Canada and Mexico. In my home state of Kentucky, it passes the Wild Turkey distillery at Lawrenceburg and the state maximum security penitentiary at Eddyville.

Further north it takes you to Buffalo, N.Y., the hometown of roots music singer-songwriter Peter Case. That’s why he picked HWY 62 as the title for his latest album, a collection that can be taken as a sort of “state of the nation” recording. The Christian Science Monitor even said that the album “plays like a John Steinbeck novel set to music.” And they have a point. Most of the album’s 11 songs are peopled with prisoners and deportees, the evicted and the gentrified, and other 21st-century American outcasts.

Unlike many folkie populists, Case comes by his sympathy for the down-and-out honestly, if a little foolishly. Back on that lost planet that was the1970s, he dropped out of high school to become a musician and eventually landed on the streets of San Francisco, hungry, homeless, and frequently drunk. This part of Case’s life is covered unsparingly in the blog/memoir that he keeps at petercase.com, some of which has become a book, As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport.

After a near-miss with the poppish-punk band The Nerves, Case got his ticket to the music business punched with The Plimsouls, whose hit, “A Million Miles Away,” was one of the high-water marks of jangly 1980s New Wave rock. But then, just before he could become really rich and famous, Case’s contrarian streak reasserted itself. He left the band and started what now looks to be the rest of his life as a singer-songwriter who sometimes records with the likes of T Bone Burnett and Ry Cooder, but most often performs solo with his own acoustic guitar and harmonica.

The Silicon Raj

by Danny Duncan Collum 03-28-2016
The well-meaning 21st century colonialist may come in a T-shirt and a hoodie instead of khakis and a pith helmet.
A billboard in Mumbai, India, promotes Facebook's Free Basics initiative.

A billboard in Mumbai, India, promotes Facebook's Free Basics initiative.

A COUPLE years ago, when net neutrality (the principle that internet service providers must treat all websites equally) was threatened by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Facebook stood firmly in its defense. Google, Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, and other high-tech giants took the same stand. Companies that make their money providing content or mining data from web users need net neutrality in order to function.

This February, India’s equivalent of the FCC, their Telecom Regulatory Authority, had to decide an important net neutrality test case there. A huge, U.S.-based multinational came into the Indian market offering an internet connection that limited users to the parent company’s own site and a severely limited menu of other pre-selected sites. This company spent millions on an advertising campaign against the principle of net neutrality in India. But finally Indian regulators stood firm and net neutrality was upheld.

The strange twist here is this: The U.S.-based Goliath fighting net neutrality in India was Facebook.

An obvious conclusion here would be that Facebook thinks net neutrality is only good for rich countries. Indians must be too poor, too ill-educated, maybe even too brown to handle the freedom and responsibility that comes with an open internet. That impression was confirmed when a member of Facebook’s board of directors, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, went on Twitter to proclaim: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”

Now That's Grand Theft

by Danny Duncan Collum 03-01-2016
Moore suggests invading other countries to steal their best ideas.
Director Michael Moore in Where to Invade Next

Director Michael Moore in Where to Invade Next

WRITING FOR a monthly magazine requires a long lead time. These columns are turned in several weeks before you see them, so they need to be timely, but not too timely. And that can be frustrating. But from now on, whenever I am tempted to complain about that fact of life, I will instead think of poor Michael Moore and the way current events have conspired against his latest movie, Where to Invade Next.

Way back in the 1980s, with the surprising success of his comic deindustrialization tale Roger and Me, Moore stumbled into a career as a feature-film director. But at heart he remains what he always was: an advocacy journalist. He wants to tell the story of his times in a way that will inspire people to act for change. In fact, his last job before he started making movies was a brief stint as editor of the monthly Mother Jones. Two constant themes resound through all his work, in any medium: outrage at the gross injustice of the U.S. economic and political order and faith in the capacity of ordinary Americans to change things.

But feature film is an even more unwieldy vehicle for telling the story of one’s time than a monthly magazine. The financing and logistics are byzantine and overwhelming, and the lead time is measured in years. A few times over the past three decades, Moore has managed to overcome those odds and get a message into the theaters at exactly the right time, most notably with his fall 2004 release of Fahrenheit 9/11. The national release of Where to Invade Next was scheduled for the same week as the New Hampshire presidential primary, the first primary of the season, apparently with the hope of hitting the election-year sweet spot again.

Vigilantes for a Lost Cause

by Danny Duncan Collum 02-03-2016
We stole the land fair and square.
outdoorsman / Shutterstock

outdoorsman / Shutterstock

WHEN A HASTILY organized cowboy “militia” seized a national wildlife refuge near Burns, Ore., it brought the spotlight of 24-hour-a-day media coverage to a streak of angry alienation that had been building in the West for a long time.

In fact, as Washington Post reporter Amber Phillips noted, the conflict has existed “since the government stopped giving away land and started actively preserving some of it.” That would have been about the time that, in 1890, the superintendent of the U.S. census declared the American frontier to be closed. Shortly thereafter, President Theodore Roosevelt began serious efforts to conserve Western land and resources. In fact, it was Roosevelt himself who, in 1908, created the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that the militia seized.

This armed occupation of federal property was ostensibly in defense of a father and son in Harney County, Ore., who were convicted of setting fires on federal land, but the confrontation was provoked and led by visiting members of Nevada’s Bundy family who, in 2014, staged a similar armed confrontation in defense of their patriarch, Cliven Bundy, grazing cattle on federal land without a permit.

The federal government owns a great deal of the land in much of the noncoastal West. That land belongs to all of us—all 320 million of us. We stole it fair and square, either from its Indigenous inhabitants, or from Mexico, or both. But most of us never see any of that land except in the movies while, for much of the past two centuries, local loggers, ranchers, and miners had easy access to it. As a result, many people in the West came to feel that the public land was not really the common heritage of a continental republic but in some real sense “their” land. Many of them depended upon it for their livelihoods. That’s what they were supposed to do when the frontier was opened. They were supposed to establish settlements, exploit the natural resources, fend off the Indigenous people, and make the West safe for the railroads.

The Substance of Truth

by Danny Duncan Collum 01-05-2016
Courage was sometimes in short supply among the mainstream media.
stocksolution / Shutterstock

stocksolution / Shutterstock

IN 1976, STILL fairly early in his epic career, Robert Redford played Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, a tense and ultimately triumphant retelling of the Washington Post Watergate investigation that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Now, near the end of that same career, in the movie Truth Redford plays CBS News anchor Dan Rather, in the story of how Rather stumbled, fell, and was pushed out of big-time journalism in the course of pursuing the truth about George W. Bush’s mysterious Vietnam-era “service” in the Texas Air National Guard.

The great moral test for many men of the baby boom generation was “what did you do about the draft?” Questions about how he had eluded the draft dogged our first baby boomer president, Bill Clinton. Then the campaigns of 2000 and 2004 brought the historic test of the baby boom soul front and center, pitting Bush, a baby boomer born to privilege and pro-war politics, against two Democrats, also born to privilege, who volunteered for the military and actually served in Vietnam. Al Gore had a noncombat role and was only in Vietnam for five months, but still, he was there, in a uniform, sometimes carrying a gun. As a Navy lieutenant, John Kerry was honored for courage in battle.

Bush, on the other hand, joined a platoon of other fortunate sons in the Texas Air National Guard. He trained as a pilot, then stopped flying and didn’t show up for his mandatory pilot physicals. He got permission to transfer to a Guard unit in Alabama so he could work on a Republican senatorial campaign, but only one Alabama Guard member claims to have seen him. Finally, he disappeared to Harvard Business School and may have never completed his required days of service.

There were stories about Bush’s wartime shirking in 2000. In 2004, the irony and outrage were intensified when W.’s opponent, Kerry, a bona fide war hero, was subjected to slander from the notorious “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” PAC.

Another Way is Possible

An interview with Andrew Wilkes on Christianity and socialism.
Andrew Wilkes

Andrew Wilkes

Andrew Wilkes is an African Methodist Episcopal minister who serves on the editorial board of Democratic Socialists of America’s online journal, Religious Socialism. Danny Duncan Collum interviewed him in October 2015. Click here to read more about Christianity and socialism in this month's Sojourners. 

Sojourners: Why have you chosen to identify yourself as a socialist?

Andrew Wilkes: What began to change my thoughts is when I realized that another way of organizing land, labor, and capital is possible and was already happening locally, regionally, and in some respects nationally. Gar Alperovitz’s book What Must We Then Do?, John Nichols’ book The “S” Word, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s witness of a black social gospel and democratic socialism all proved seminal to me.

What does it mean to you to call yourself a socialist? Socialism, on a basic level, prioritizes human rights over property rights and our obligations to one another over conventions about the natural, efficient operations of markets. Socialism means a way of making decisions about the use of resources that seeks to end preventable human misery more than turning an ever-increasing profit. It’s an ethical vision that also entails shared sacrifice for mutual gain—for instance, paying more in taxes to support health care, education, and other services that are free at the point of access.

I do not take socialism to mean the complete abolition of private property, contracts between individual parties, or the utter erasure of markets. Instead, socialism for me means the ascendancy of meeting human needs through public provision, cooperative ownership, and private businesses that include collective bargaining and government regulation. It also means that working individuals who produce goods and services have a significant say in shaping, owning, and influencing the institutions that shape their day-to-day quality of life.

How do you see those ideas relating to your Christian identity and Christian ministry? I joined the Religious Socialists of DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) to find an institutional outlet for my political commitments. I think it’s inaccurate to suggest that the Bible can be marshaled in direct support of socialism. I do think that every Christian has to inquire about the society that best represents or foreshadows the dreams and desires of God for humanity. For me, the kind of socialism I’ve just described is the best society.

Should Christians be Socialists?

by Danny Duncan Collum 01-04-2016

WE NEED TO overthrow...this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system.”

So wrote Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker co-founder whom Pope Francis recently held up to the U.S. Congress as a great exemplar of the American spirit.

In the centuries since the rise of capitalism, millions of Christians, like Day, have sought not only to bind up the wounds of the poor, but also to create a world in which people will not be impoverished by low wages, unemployment, discrimination, or plain bad luck. Day ended up advocating a sort of communitarian anarchism. But for many other Christians—from Mother Jones to Dom Hélder Câmara to Martin Luther King Jr.—the name for that alternate system has been “socialism.” And, after long decades during which acceptance of the existing economic order seemed inevitable, in 2016 the question of socialism is not only on the agenda again but, in the Democratic presidential primaries, on the ballot.

This is especially surprising because any alternative to corporate capitalism was widely declared dead after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which had called itself a socialist state and imposed its rule by force. Its failure, in the end largely economic, was rightly seen to discredit the Marxist-Leninist version of socialism that relied on centralized, coercive state power to manage the lives of its citizens. In the wake of the collapse, the West flooded the formerly communist states with free-market economic gurus to guide a sort of capitalist extreme makeover, and the end of history was declared.

But then global capitalism had its own collapse in 2008. In the U.S., the dream of upward mobility is dying. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, since 1973 the inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings for workers with a high school degree or less have declined; more-educated workers have barely stayed even. Meanwhile, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the inflation-adjusted income of the top 1 percent has risen 138 percent since 1979. A generation has arisen that sees its prospects declining. For this generation, “socialism” has little to do with the Soviet Union; it’s just another insult that Fox News hurls at the president most of them supported.

So for the first time in 100 years, a democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is waging a serious U.S. presidential campaign. Since his campaign began, the percentage of Americans who say they are willing to vote for a socialist has risen. In fact, for the past five years, U.S. public opinion polls have shown increasingly favorable associations with the word “socialism.” Among millennials, the S-word’s positives are now higher than its negatives.

Even in the Catholic Church, consideration of socialist alternatives no longer seems taboo. Since the days of Pope John Paul II, liberation theology has been on the outs in Rome, but last year Gustavo Gutierrez, who gave the movement its name with his 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation, was welcomed to the Vatican to address a conference. This is the same man who famously proclaimed that Christian theology needs to speak “of social revolution, not reform; of liberation, not development; of socialism, not modernization of the prevailing system.”

The Crooked Path of Iris DeMent

by Danny Duncan Collum 12-08-2015
Russia is as 'Christ-haunted' as Flannery O'Conner's Georgia or DeMent's Arkansas.
Iris Dement / irisdement.com

Iris DeMent / irisdement.com

NOTHING ABOUT Iris DeMent is predictable. She has what may be the most downhome country singing voice in American popular music today, but she really grew up in Los Angeles. Her family fled her Arkansas birthplace after her father led an unsuccessful wildcat strike at his factory job and was rendered unemployable at home.

DeMent was the youngest in a family of 14 children and grew up in the Assemblies of God church. Her personal favorite among her six albums is Lifeline, which features her sitting at the piano singing gospel hymns such as “Blessed Assurance” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Yet her 2012 album, Sing the Delta, featured a song titled “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” and an earlier song, “Let the Mystery Be” (now the theme song for the HBO series The Leftovers), professes agnosticism about the whole business of where we come from and where we are going.

Still, in a recent interview in Discussions magazine, DeMent confessed that she understands her musical work as a “calling” and said, “I’ve always thought more in my spiritual world—and my connection to whatever brought me here and whatever is going to take me out—than any notion of a career.”

The crooked path of her career certainly bears that out. In the great 1990s flowering of alternative country, DeMent popped out three albums that had critics comparing her to her idol and fellow California refugee Merle Haggard. But then came a 16-year silence, broken in the middle only by the aforementioned gospel record.

That silence ended with Sing the Delta, which was a bit of a surprise itself. After decades of living in the Midwest, marrying fellow singer-songwriter Greg Brown and adopting a child with him, DeMent looped back and produced a set of songs steeped in obsession with her Arkansas roots. Now, after only three years, comes another album and another surprise. The Trackless Woods finds DeMent singing poems by the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova, who lived through the Stalinist persecutions.

Why My Family Has an Anti-NFL Policy

by Danny Duncan Collum 10-30-2015
The NFL has lots of secrets...and the money to hide them.
David Lee / Shutterstock

David Lee / Shutterstock 

BASEBALL USED to be our national pastime. But now professional football is America’s game. And why not? It’s a violent, capital-intensive spectacle carried on with reckless disregard for human health and safety. Kind of like our foreign policy, or our criminal justice system.

Last fall, 45 of the 50 most-watched TV shows were National Football League games. It is the most profitable of the major sports. The average NFL franchise brings in $286 million per year, compared to $237 million for Major League Baseball—despite baseball’s 162-game regular season vs. football’s 16.

This year the TV audiences for football are expected to grow, and NFL total revenue is expected to top $12 billion. Nothing seems to put a dent in the U.S. enthusiasm for the game. Some coaches have offered cash rewards for the injury of opposing players. Multiple players face charges for violent crimes. The Patriots cheat in the playoffs. And the game just gets more popular.

Maybe that will change this Christmas when the movie Concussion, featuring Will Smith and Alec Baldwin, is scheduled to be released by Sony Pictures. Concussion tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who discovered the decisive link between repeated minor head trauma—such as from huge men crashing into each other dozens of times a day—and the bewildering array of mental illnesses that afflicts many NFL retirees.

Elegant Beats

by Danny Duncan Collum 09-23-2015
Black Violin fuses the virtuosity of the classical world with the funk and street-level grace of hip-hop.
Ekaphon maneechot / Shutterstock

Ekaphon maneechot / Shutterstock 

AS KIDS, Wilner Baptiste (viola) and Kevin Sylvester (violin) might have been labeled classical music nerds. They played in the orchestra at their Fort Lauderdale, Fla. performing arts high school and went to college on full music scholarships. They have excelled in an insular and rarified world: one in which people devote hours every day to mastering the subtleties of antique and unforgiving instruments and the difficult repertoire left by the dead white guys. It’s a sphere peopled almost entirely by whites and Asians, and Baptiste and Sylvester are neither.

“Wil B” Baptiste and “Kev Marcus” Sylvester are Black Violin, a duo that fuses the thrilling virtuosity of the European classical world with the booty-shaking funk and street-level grace of hip-hop. In September they released their first major-label album, Stereotypes.

While these two young men were honing their chops in that high school orchestra, they were also typical turn-of-the-century hip-hop kids, tuned into the world of rap. After graduating from different colleges, the two got back together and worked the South Florida clubs, developing an act that involved playing classical-string covers of hip-hop hits.

I know, this whole hip-hop and classical thing sounds like a gimmick, and if I’d read about it before I heard these guys, I probably wouldn’t have been interested. It sounds too much like the prog-rock abominations of the 1970s, when rock operas and rock symphonies almost killed off rock and roll. But I was lucky enough to hear Black Violin live before I ever read about them. They were playing at a banquet honoring top academic achievers from historically black colleges and universities. It was the perfect pairing of artist and audience. Taking the stage backed by a live drummer and a deejay, Black Violin rocked the house with sophisticated sparkle.

Singing the People's Blues

by Danny Duncan Collum 08-11-2015
B.B. King didn't come home to Mississippi just to "give back" philanthropically.
BB

The late bluesman B.B. King, with Lucille. 

/ Shutterstock

THE DEATH of B.B. King this spring was marked by an outpouring of homage appropriate to the man’s talent, his influence on U.S. culture, and his fabled personal humility and generosity.

He started out picking cotton and singing on the street and ended as one of the most famous and honored men on earth—a classic rags-to-riches tale. But King wasn’t just a black Horatio Alger. And his story wasn’t just one of individual striving and achievement. King also understood that his art was rooted in the collective struggle of his people and that he was a part of that struggle.

I grew up about 30 miles from B.B. King’s Sunflower County, Miss., home, but I discovered him the same way most white people my age did, by hearing “The Thrill Is Gone” on the radio. It’s a recording that still jumps out of the speakers and grabs the heart. It starts with a mournful guitar melody. Then, behind verse two, an eerie, quavering wash of strings begins low in the mix and rises through the rest of the song. By the time King wails out to his lover, “I’m free from your spell, and now that it’s all over, all I can do is wish you well,” you knew you were hearing the last words of a dying man.

Revisiting the Sugar Bowl

by Danny Duncan Collum 07-13-2015
As hostilities wane, the patterns of U.S.-Cuban "prehistory" may become important again.
CubanBaseball

aarrows / Shutterstock 

AS THIS IS written, the U.S. and Cuba are in the final stages of the haggling that will likely lead to the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington, and peace, love, and understanding seem to be breaking out all over. Pope Francis, who helped broker the U.S.-Cuba thaw, will visit the island in September on his way to the U.S. After a recent meeting with the pope, Cuban President Raul Castro said, “if the pope continues to talk as he does, sooner or later I will start praying again and return to the Catholic Church.” And Major League Baseball is already working on bringing at least spring training games back to baseball-crazy Cuba.

In the U.S. media, discussion of the new détente with Cuba has focused almost entirely on the past 55 years of Cold War-inspired confrontation. However, the U.S. and Cuba had a close and troubled relationship for a full 60 years before Fidel Castro took power, and as hostilities wane and the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba is eventually dropped, the patterns of this U.S.-Cuban “prehistory” may become important again.

That story begins in 1898, when the U.S. empire first extended beyond our North American shores as the U.S. took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico we still hold.

Rock-and-Roll Transcendence

by Danny Duncan Collum 06-08-2015
Brian Fallon's Christianity is less apparent than his Bruce devotion. 

THE CLUB WAS full by the time New Jersey’s The Gaslight Anthem took the stage. Lead singer and songwriter Brian Fallon stepped to the mike in denim jacket and jeans, and the band lit into their song “Howl” (yes, a Ginsberg reference). That’s when I heard a strange doubling sound on Fallon’s vocal. The Gaslight Anthem is very much straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes, guitars-and-drums. Why would they use that weird effect on the vocal?

Then it hit me. That sound wasn’t coming from the sound board or the speakers, but from us. The audience, en masse, was singing along with every word, on time and in tune. It was what happens when rock and roll is working right: The performers and the audience become one and are swept up into something much larger than themselves.

Epic Bad Behavior

by Danny Duncan Collum 05-06-2015
Fraternities have become the tail that wags the dog in U.S. universities.

EARLIER THIS year came a flurry of new horror stories about the abuses of human dignity that are, apparently, common in many of America’s college fraternities. First came the video from the University of Oklahoma in which a busload of “true gentlemen” of Sigma Alpha Epsilon are seen and heard spewing racist bile. Shortly thereafter the revelation that the Kappa Delta Rho chapter at Penn State had maintained a private Facebook page featuring nude photos of unconscious young women became national news.

The old saying “Once a frat boy, never a man” may be just another sweeping stereotype. But the evidence is mounting that many of the nation’s fraternity houses are the breeding ground for an exclusive culture of entitlement and impunity that their mostly white, upper-class members carry into their future roles in the elite circles of business and government.

It should be noted that when we talk about “fraternities,” we are really just talking about the historically all-white social organizations with Greek-letter names. Historically black fraternities have their own problems, especially with hazing, but they have experienced nothing like the epic bad behavior found among their paler brethren.

Rich Songs of Economic Despair

by Danny Duncan Collum 04-01-2015
Singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley paints a heartbreaking picture of what Appalachia has become.

OUT WHERE Kentucky meets West Virginia, you’ll find one of America’s cultural seedbeds, where Scotch-Irish immigrant traditions took root in the New World. But on her debut album, American Middle Class, singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley, a daughter of the Kentucky mountains (and no kin to The King), paints a heartbreaking picture of what Appalachia has become.

The people of this region were once mostly self-sufficient subsistence farmers. In the early 20th century, they were drafted into the coal mines but brought their pride and independence with them, waging often-bloody battles to establish the United Mine Workers of America. For over a century now, the region’s economic fate has been hostage to the ups and downs of the energy market. As a result, the coal fields have become one of the poorest parts of the country.

The music that flourished in this region became, along with that of low-country African Americans, one of the two great pillars of American popular music. So many country music greats have come from here that Kentucky has a “Country Music Highway Museum” just to honor all the stars (Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Billy Ray Cyrus, Keith Whitley, and many others) born along U.S. 23.

Comcast's Net Neutrality Shell Game

by Danny Duncan Collum 03-09-2015
Democracy requires universal access to the means of communication.

THE BATTLE over net neutrality keeps getting stranger and stranger.

For years the lines were clearly drawn. On the “pro-” side were the content-providing companies (Google, Netflix, Amazon, etc.) and the public interest and consumer groups that want to preserve equal access to a potential audience of billions. Arrayed against them was Big Telecom (Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, etc.), which wanted the internet to work more like cable TV, where consumer choice is limited to the menu the provider offers.

But now the idea that internet service providers should be prohibited from charging content providers for faster downloads has become so popular that even its sworn enemies claim to favor it. They’ve even rounded up some of their most fervent supporters in Congress to push “net neutrality” legislation, which may come with a rider proclaiming that “war is peace.”

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and broadband provider, pioneered this Orwellian strategy. For several months now Comcast has run print, TV, and online ads hailing its support for net neutrality—no “blocking” of sites, no “throttling” of download speeds, and no “paid prioritization” giving faster speeds to the highest bidder. Not only does Comcast support those principles, it says, but it is in fact the only internet service provider that has made a legally binding commitment to abide by them. And, by the way, if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would just approve Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable, it would extend those protections to all Time Warner customers, too.

Time for a Cyberweapons Treaty?

by Danny Duncan Collum 02-05-2015
Cyberwar stories were uninteresting until one involved a threat to our inalienable right to laugh at fart jokes.

MANY QUESTIONS remain about the alleged North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures and the U.S. response. But the Christmas controversy, apparently triggered by the Seth Rogen-James Franco satire film The Interview, has made one thing perfectly clear: A lot has changed on the internet since Al Gore didn’t invent it.

Back in the days of Gore, the net was an attempt to provide a secure and resilient military communications network during our Cold War with the Soviet Union. But by the turn of this century, it had become an unrivaled public forum for democratic activism and an absolute paradise for shoppers and porn addicts. Now the internet is getting back to its military roots. It is both the weapon and the battleground for United States’ simmering low-level wars with not only North Korea, but China, Iran, Russia, and anyone else who gets in the way.

For several years there has been a steady trickle of back-page news stories about cyberwarfare. The Chinese military seemed to be hacking U.S. government and business sites for military and industrial espionage. Two years ago the Chinese were said to have hacked The New York Times in revenge for that paper’s reporting on the financial corruption of China’s leadership. North Korea has allegedly attacked banking networks in South Korea. Attacks said to originate in Russia have hit U.S. and European energy companies. In 2009, the ante was upped when the U.S. and Israel unleashed the Stuxnet virus to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. The virus destroyed Iranian centrifuges, but it also escaped to the broader internet and sabotaged computers at the U.S.-based Chevron oil company.

The Persistent Strain

by Danny Duncan Collum 01-06-2015
White supremacy may have weakened, but it can still make us sick.

(Roman Tsubin / Shutterstock)

THE WEEK leading up to the Michael Brown non-verdict was one in which race was at the forefront of daily life, at least as much as it was in the ancient days of my Mississippi upbringing.

You could say that week started with President Obama’s executive action on immigration. The next morning, I did household chores and listened to NPR coverage of the often-heated reaction to the president’s speech. The next day, my wife and I drove into Louisville to see Dear White People, Justin Simien’s devastatingly clever and thoughtful take on racism and identity politics among the Obama generation.

The movie made me laugh (at a volume embarrassing to my poor spouse) and even applaud in the middle of a crowded theater. It also left me pondering the persistence of the white supremacist virus in the American body politic. Over the past half-century, the film suggests, it may have evolved into a weaker strain, but it’s still lurking in there, and it can still make us sick.

The Internet's Toxic Waste Dump

by Danny Duncan Collum 12-09-2014
Souls are being stained and scarred to keep your internet experience relatively clean.

BY NOW MOST of us know that when we use the internet, we are giving up privacy and exposing ourselves to potential surveillance and fraud. But we probably didn’t know until recently that in poor and distant lands, souls are being stained and scarred for the sake of our internet browsing experience.

There’s an old saying that nobody really wants to know the details of making sausage or passing legislation. Now there’s an update: You really don’t want to know how—in a world peopled by thousands of internet-capable sickos, murderers, perverts, and fanatics—your social media feeds remain so remarkably free of beheadings, snuff videos, and child porn.

Like me, if you ever thought about that, you perhaps assumed that some miraculous algorithm was automatically filtering all the bad stuff. Well, think again.

In the early days of the internet, porn sites occasionally popped up in the course of ordinary, innocent internet use. But search engine filters and various parental control programs seem, to my experience, to have made that a thing of the past. Today, every evil and dehumanizing image and act under the sun is still out there somewhere on the internet, and we are all much more connected to one another than ever before—yet, for the most part, you have to go looking for the dark side.