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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Free-Speech Fundamentalism

by Danny Duncan Collum 11-02-2012
Should America reconsider our open market in bigoted ideas?

DOES THE RIGHT to free speech include the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded social network?

That’s one of the questions raised by the violent overreaction by some Muslims to the 14-minute YouTube video clip, Innocence of Muslims.

Of course, my question paraphrases the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in deciding that speech likely to cause immediate violence could be restricted. However, over the course of the 20th century, the American standard for limiting potentially harmful speech has gotten a lot tougher. For the past 50 years or so, it’s been settled law in the U.S. that the First Amendment protects speech that is, like Innocence of Muslims, false, hateful, malevolent, and even very badly written, acted, and produced. But the Internet Age is bringing new challenges to America’s free-speech fundamentalism.

Tolerance of blasphemous, racist, and defamatory material is commonplace to most Americans. We take it as one of our God-given rights. But, in fact, this is a real example of American exceptionalism. No other liberal democracy in the world protects speech that is plainly intended to wound and insult members of a specific racial or religious group. “Hate speech” prohibitions are the rule throughout the Western world.

How to Be Happy

by Danny Duncan Collum 10-03-2012
Average Americans, the supposed winners of the global rat race, are overworked and overstressed—and still falling behind economically.

THE DOCUMENTARY film The Economics of Happiness, produced by the International Society for Ecology and Culture, begins starkly, with full-screen titles that tell us we are facing an environmental crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of the human spirit. As the film goes along, it strongly suggests that those three crises are interrelated.

In the end, the filmmakers and their multicultural array of talking heads ask that we stop measuring human progress simply by economic growth and give priority to the quality of life, the health of communities and their cultures, and the sustainability of our economic practices. In short, they suggest replacing our mad rush toward globalization with a back-to-the-future move to “localization.”

Early in the film, writer-director-narrator Helena Norberg-Hodge tells us about the people of the remote Ladakh region of the Himalayas, one of the highest spots on earth to be inhabited by a settled human community. When Norberg-Hodge first visited the Ladakhis in the 1970s, she says, they were self-sufficient, healthy, and mostly at peace, with themselves and each other. Then came the great Western world with its bells and whistles and manufactured needs. Soon the people became dissatisfied with their traditional way of life and were  driven to compete in a cash economy. Before long, there was open hostility between Muslims and Buddhists, who had co-existed peacefully for centuries, a fraying of the social fabric, and an atmosphere of gloom and depression.

Roots of the Common Good

by Danny Duncan Collum 09-01-2012
Solidarity may be all but dead in our politics, but it still lives around the edges of our culture.

LATELY I’VE been on a campaign to read some of the classic novels that I should have read decades ago. This summer it’s been John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. There, I confessed it. All these years I’ve been coasting on repeated viewings of the John Ford film adaptation. But I’m reading the original now. And despite the hunger and hardship faced by the Joad family, I find myself experiencing nostalgia for those old hard times.

Americans fell into the Great Depression of the 1930s without the safety net of unemployment insurance, food stamps, or federally insured bank deposits. In fact, victims of the current depression have those benefits because of the things their ancestors did 80 years ago. Back then, Americans pulled together with the sure belief that we are all responsible for each other and that no one of us can, or should, stand alone. They recognized that a common plight required common action, and they gave us a trade union movement and a New Deal.

In The Grapes of Wrath, that recognition is rooted in the primary value of family solidarity, which grows to include neighbors and co-workers, and, finally, in Tom Joad’s famous speech, extends to all people struggling for justice (“whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat”), and even to all humanity, past and present (“maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of”).

A 'Guitarmy' for the Working Class

by Danny Duncan Collum 08-01-2012
Tom Morello's approach to politics is as unique and incisive as his best guitar solos.

Tom Morello

IF YOU EVER wondered what you would get if you crossed Woody Guthrie with Jimi Hendrix, you might want to check out guitarist and activist Tom Morello, also known as The Nightwatchman, whose work combines very modern flurries of feedback and distortion with old-school Popular Front politics. Last year, Morello played a prominent role in the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol in support of public employees’ unions, and this May Day he led a “guitarmy” through the streets of New York, singing “This Land Was Made for You and Me” in support of Occupy Wall Street.

Morello first made his name playing with Rage Against the Machine, a 1990s band that blended a potent Molotov cocktail of rock, rap, and revolution. For most rock stars, getting political means promoting Amnesty International or Greenpeace, but Rage’s favorite organization was the Mexican revolutionary Zapatista Army. After Rage fell apart, the guitarist had another successful band, Audioslave, fronted by former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. Audioslave was a great rock band, but it lacked a political agenda. Morello is a great rock guitarist, but one with a political science degree from Harvard who said he finished his degree because he wanted to “learn how to get my hand on the levers and be an effective revolutionary.” So simply making cool noises couldn’t possibly keep him satisfied for long. Soon Morello was turning up for open mic nights at folkie clubs, disguised as his alter ego, The Nightwatchman.

The Nightwatchman’s singing made it pretty clear why Morello had always worked behind a front man. He often sounds like an unfortunate cross between Woody Guthrie and Lou Reed. But The Nightwatchman found his niche in political contexts, such as Madison and Wall Street, where the point was to get the people singing. This new role on the street has also given a new direction to Morello’s music. Last fall he released a Nightwatchman album, World Wide Rebel Songs, that included a full rock band and found Morello beginning to integrate the Hendrix and Woody sides of his musical personality.

Evil is as Evil Does

by Danny Duncan Collum 07-01-2012
Microsoft was an extortionist, but Google is a pickpocket.

FOR MORE THAN a decade Google Inc. operated with a simple unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil.” And for a long time, the search-engine giant really seemed to be a company driven mainly by the desire to provide a truly excellent service in a manner that put the needs of the user first. Well, that slogan may have been good for a super-geek startup, but it doesn’t seem to work so well for the publicly held global empire Google has become.

Here are a few recent examples of Google behavior that is somewhat less than “not evil.” In March of this year, the company launched a new “privacy” policy that basically consists of warning you that you’re not going to have any. In April, the company was fined by the FCC for privacy violations committed by its infamous “Street View” cars. Apparently, in addition to collecting photographs of random sites on Google Earth, those cars have also been collecting data from unsecured home Wi-Fi networks. Google has also been charged with anti-trust violations for entering an agreement with Apple, Intel, Adobe, Intuit, Pixar, and Lucasfilm to never recruit each other’s employees.

The “don’t be evil” line worked well for Google back in the late 1990s when it could compare itself to Microsoft. That company, in its heyday, was an unabashed incarnation of evil in the best old robber-baron style. It routinely did things like programming your computer to sabotage its competitors’ software. Meanwhile, Google’s main competitor in the search business, Yahoo, was making headlines for turning over dissidents’ web activity to the Chinese government. In those days the ethical high ground wasn’t hard to reach, and Google seized it.

The Boss's Musical Indictment

by Danny Duncan Collum 06-01-2012
Springsteen sings what politicians won't say: We were robbed and the thieves have escaped justice.

IN THE GREAT gospel and blues tradition of affirming in the negative, Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, is simultaneously a ferocious roar of righteous anger at what the captains of Wall Street did to America in 2008 and a riotous celebration of American roots. That could make it the perfect soundtrack for a spring and summer resurgence of the Occupy Wall Street campaign.

At this point a new album from Bruce Springsteen is no longer an earth-shaking event, even in the world of rock and roll. After all, the guy is 62. In the past few years, two core members of his band (organist Danny Federici and sax man Clarence Clemons) have died, not from rock-star excesses but from the old-guy ailments of skin cancer and stroke, respectively. And The Boss’ last album of new material, the 2009 Working on a Dream, was definitely subpar.

But with Wrecking Ball, Spring-steen has, for the second time within a decade, stepped forward to assume the role of a Telecaster-toting poet laureate and produced a stirring work of popular art that speaks to the depths of the national condition. The first time was with The Rising, his 2002 meditation on mortality and loss in response to 9/11. The songs in this new collection plainly declare about our ongoing economic crisis what no mainstream national political leader has been willing to say: We were robbed, and the thieves have escaped justice.

Death by Individualism

by Danny Duncan Collum 05-01-2012
There is no vaccine against selfishness.

CHILDHOOD VACCINATIONS have been a rite of passage for decades now. But in recent years, growing numbers of parents have refused to go along. A movement that began in the 1980s over adverse reactions to the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) and mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) shots started to become a tidal wave in 1998. That’s when a British researcher, Andrew Wakefield, published a study allegedly linking childhood vaccinations to autism.

A decade later, an anti-vaccination trend had spread into a broad swath of educated, upper- middle-class Americans inclined toward “alternative” lifestyles. It has been especially strong in the Pacific Northwest. In one county in Washington state, according to the February 2012 New England Journal of Medicine, 72 percent of kindergarteners and a whopping 89 percent of sixth graders were not fully vaccinated. Under pressure from this new constituency, many jurisdictions made it easier to get vaccine exemptions, adding to the existing “religious” exemption a new one for “philosophy” or “personal beliefs.”

Then, in 2011, the Wakefield autism study that had sparked the anti-vaccination movement was completely discredited. The British medical journal The Lancet, which had published Wakefield’s article on his findings, officially retracted it. That should have been that. But it wasn’t. In the last year public health advocates have learned the hard way that once something is on the internet it never goes away and, as one scientist told PBS’ Frontline, “People were much more likely to believe something they had seen on YouTube than the Centers for Disease Control.”

Now doctors and state governments are pushing back, and a new round in the vaccination war has begun. Washington now requires a doctor’s signature on those philosophical exemptions. In March, the Vermont Senate repealed the state’s philosophical exemption. All over the country, family doctors and pediatricians are refusing to see patients who don’t comply with vaccinations.

Diet, Exercise, and Temples of the Holy Ghost

by Danny Duncan Collum 05-01-2012
From Mississippi to Kentucky coal-mining country, churches are taking on the public health crisis of obesity.

Food-related coverage in this issue was supported by ELCA World Hunger (www.elca.org/hunger)

IS OBESITY a “Southern thing,” like drawling accents, gospel music, and excessive devotion to college football? Well, as a native Southerner, I have to admit that increasingly it looks that way.

Obesity is, of course, a national problem. In 1990, 34 states had obesity rates between 10 and 14 percent, but no state had a 15 percent obesity rate. By 2010 every state in the country was more than 20 percent obese.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of 2010 there were 12 states with obesity rates of more than 30 percent. All but one of them are in the South, and that one exception—Michigan—may blame its problem on the many Southern migrants it received during the 1950s and ’60s. And the closer you look, the worse the picture gets. The highest concentrations of obesity were found in six states: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina in the Deep South, and the largely Appalachian states of Kentucky and West Virginia.

The causes of obesity are the same for everyone. You eat too much, you don’t get enough exercise, and you become obese. But why do people eat too much and move too little? As for any human behavior, the causes are complex and ambiguous, but the timing of the obesity outbreak suggests some answers. The upward trend in obesity began in the 1980s and ’90s, when cable TV became widespread in American households, encouraging a couch-potato lifestyle. This was also when the two-income family became the norm. With both parents working full-time, home-cooked meals were often replaced by fat-laden fast-food dinners washed down with giant servings of sugary soda pop. In the subsequent two decades, both of these trends accelerated, with widespread internet access making physical activity even rarer.

Meet the New Boss

by Danny Duncan Collum 04-01-2012

Piano-playing cats or union organizing drives—Google and Facebook don’t care. They just keep a sieve in the flow to collect information that can be sold to advertisers.

Sharia Hysteria

by Danny Duncan Collum 03-01-2012

Muslim cops and football coaches (oh my!) -- the next step in the right wing's efforts to keep Americans in fear.

The End of Rock As We Know It

by Danny Duncan Collum 02-01-2012

Thirty-four years later, nearly two decades into the Internet age, the September 2011 break-up of the rock band R.E.M. reminded me just how right Bangs was. R.E.M. was one of the last traditional rock bands still doing relevant work.

Too Much Talk?

by Danny Duncan Collum 01-01-2012

Consensus decision-making can make an old-style Senate filibuster seem purposeful and engaging.

The Good of Manufacturing

by Danny Duncan Collum 12-01-2011

How blind commitment to 'free trade' throws working people under the bus.

Food for Life

by Danny Duncan Collum 11-01-2011

Why are we still sinking in health-care induced debt?

The Vision of E Street

by Danny Duncan Collum 09-01-2011

Springsteen has always understood that the rock-and-roll story is about freedom.

The Roswell Legacy

by Danny Duncan Collum 08-01-2011

How strange sightings, the Cold War, and the national security state add up to a truth we'll never know.

The Ayn Rand Makeover

by Danny Duncan Collum 07-01-2011

The mainstreaming of Rand is, in large part, the work of one man (and his money).

Solidarity Forever

by Danny Duncan Collum 06-15-2011

In 1886, members of America's fledgling labor movement called a general strike for May 1 to demand an eight-hour work day.

The Civil War's Real Legacy

by Danny Duncan Collum 06-03-2011

"A white man's country" became the multiracial, multicultural democracy we now inhabit.

The Best of Tools, and the Worst

by Danny Duncan Collum 05-01-2011

THE EGYPTIAN revolution started on Facebook. True. The Iranians who took to the streets last year to try to overturn a fraudulent election used Twitter to coordinate their actions and to communicate with the outside world. Also true.