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.
Posts By This Author
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.
Embracing Art's Sacred Power
AMONG THE MANY hopeful initiatives to come from the Vatican under Pope Francis is an attempt to rebuild the church’s relationship with the arts. Francis declared this to be among his priorities in his famous 2013 interview with Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro (published in the U.S. by the journal America). Francis listed among his inspirations painters Caravaggio and Chagall, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky and the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, the music of Bach and Mozart, and the films of Fellini and Rossellini.
Lately the pope’s passion for art has taken tangible form with an interview-based book in Italian, whose title translates to My Idea of Art, and a documentary film of the same name, subtitled in six languages, that tours the Vatican Museum’s artistic treasures. In the book, Pope Francis argues that great art can serve as an antidote to contemporary greed, exclusion, and waste and maintains that “a work of art is the strongest evidence that incarnation is possible.”
Pope Francis came to office determined to downgrade some of the papacy’s pomp and splendor. He lives in a guest house instead of the papal apartment. He wears sturdy black walking shoes instead of those iconic red slippers and a silver cross where his predecessors went for the gold. He seems like the sort who might auction off the Vatican’s art collection and give the money to the poor.
But Francis instead sees the church’s involvement with the arts, past and present, as an occasion for evangelization.
The Divine Comedy for Our Time
THIS SUMMER, in Mississippi, I sat by my father’s bed for three weeks and watched him die. After that, I drove one of my kids from Kentucky to New England for a college visit. Along the way, we climbed a mountain and spent the night in a rest area when we couldn’t find a motel room. Then, with five-sixths of my family and three weeks’ worth of camping gear packed into (and onto) an aging minivan, we drove to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. Along the way, in British Columbia, we went through an active wildfire and saw a tree explode into flames about 50 feet from our van. At Banff we saw a moose, two grizzly bears, and the vast acres of gravel left behind by the rapidly receding Columbia Icefield.
On every step of this long, strange trip, I carried with me a big, fat, well-worn paperback book, its margins filled with my youngest son’s class notes. So, what did I do this summer? I read The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Every night—well, most nights—I spent 15 or 20 minutes accompanying the poet of the early 1300s down into the depths of Hell, up the winding mountain trails of Purgatory, and on to the beatific vision of Paradise.
AS A WHITE native Mississippian, I grew up among Confederate sympathizers. As an adopted Kentuckian, I live among them still. But the news cycles lately have been dominated by some fans of the Confederacy unlike any I’ve ever seen.
First there were the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, who purported to defend the honor of Robert E. Lee by chanting slogans such as “Jews will not replace us!” Those twisted and deluded young men and women are ignorant of so much; how could they be expected to know about the thousands of Jewish Confederate soldiers, or the Confederacy’s Jewish attorney general?
Then came President Trump, a New Yorker, going all atwitter about the loss of the “beautiful” [Confederate] statues and monuments in “our cities, towns, and parks.” Closer to home, our Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, a right-wing multimillionaire businessman who grew up in New Hampshire, accused Kentuckians who want to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis from our state capitol of a “sanitization of history.” (Bevin later denied he said this—though there is a recording—and asserted that he meant to call these efforts “revisionist.”)
Unlike Bevin, I’ve seen history “sanitized.”
How Facebook Is Commodifying Community
YOU COULD SAY it’s been the best of times and the worst of times for Facebook Inc. This summer the social media platform’s number of monthly users reached 2 billion. That’s more than one-fourth of the world population, and Facebook has achieved that global reach while still off limits for more than a billion Chinese. More than half of Facebook users log in every day; in the U.S., one out of every five internet page views takes place on Facebook. The company is currently valued at $435 billion.
This success has come despite what should have been a truly dreadful year for the company’s image. Rapes, murders, and suicides have been live-streamed on Facebook. And at least some of those atrocities may have been provoked by the unparalleled opportunity Facebook offers to sociopaths and exhibitionists. In addition, in the past year Facebook was guilty of helping disseminate false information that helped elect Donald Trump. The social network has also been widely named as a major contributor to our increasingly toxic political culture, in which citizens never have to face facts that might contradict their prejudices. A 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh even found an association between social media use, including Facebook, and depression among young adults.
When Journalism Jumped the Shark
IN THE FIRST half of 2016, O.J. Simpson, who still resides in a Nevada prison for his bungled robbery of sports memorabilia, seemed to be everywhere. First, there was the FX series “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” a high-quality, behind-the-scenes dramatization of Simpson’s 1995 murder trial. Then came “O.J.: Made in America,” a seven-and-a-half hour epic ESPN documentary in which director Ezra Edelman finally gives the Simpson story its due as a landmark event in the history of U.S. attitudes toward race, celebrity, and domestic violence, and in the evolution of our mass media culture.
Among other things, the O.J. Simpson murder trial marked the end of an era in which professional journalists observed events, then summarized and framed them into a coherent narrative for public consumption. This legacy of the print age persisted well into the broadcast era. Until the late 20th century, live, real-time TV coverage was limited to things like sporting events, inaugurations, and moonshots, or national disasters. Otherwise, the world was presented to TV viewers in one neat, 30-minute daily package at 6 p.m.
Like everything else in American culture, this started to change as cable replaced over-the-air broadcasting and specialty channels proliferated. In 1979, C-SPAN started running gavel-to-gavel coverage of the generally somnolent proceedings of the U.S. Congress. But CNN came along the next year to make things such as a toddler falling down a well in Texas into a national melodrama. True, CNN also went wall-to-wall on things such as the Iran-Contra investigations and the first Iraq war, but in the months between legitimate big events it also whipped up essentially local stories, such as child disappearances or shark attacks, into manufactured national crises.
Disconnecting More Than Calls
LAST MONTH we surrendered. We finally cancelled service on our home landline.
Despite the growing expense of traditional home phone service, we’d kept it this long for the same reasons that many people in rural America must. For one thing, cell phone connectivity was very weak at our house. To make a voice call you had to stand next to an upstairs window. And cell phone service goes away entirely when the electric power goes out at the tower. Where we live, the telephone lines are underground and unaffected by weather, which comes in handy when, in the dead of winter, an ice storm knocks out the power and you need to order a propane delivery.
So we kept our landline service, even when the quality deteriorated and dropped calls became a regular annoyance. Finally, a few months ago, they put up another cell tower somewhere near us that somewhat improved the connection, so we pulled the plug.
This isn’t just one rural family’s story. The 19 million Americans (14.5 million of us rural) who depend on landline service because of no or limited broadband access have for several years been the targets of a concerted campaign by Big Telecom to shed its landline phone business. The companies hope to use the transition to a wireless and digital future to wriggle their way out from under 80 years of regulatory history mandating universal service. Toward this end, they have worked through state legislatures, petitioned the Federal Communications Commission and even, according to consumer groups’ complaints to the FCC, simply refused to maintain and repair the existing landline network, all with the goal of eliminating their legal obligation to connect even the poorest and remotest American households.