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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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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Fake News and Real Lies
FORMER FOX NEWS chair Roger Ailes is the single individual most responsible for the toxically divisive and fact-challenged nature of America’s current political culture. So it would be nice to think that Ailes’ disgraced departure from the cable news channel he created might mark the end of an era. Nice, but probably delusional. For one thing, at this writing, day-to-day control of Fox News remains in the hands of Ailes acolytes, and Ailes himself may be back in the political consulting game as Donald Trump’s debate coach. The Ailes era has been a very long one, and the changes he helped make are now deeply imbedded in the way we do politics, and even the way many people live their daily lives.
The scope and magnitude of Ailes’ accomplishments are truly staggering. Forty-eight years ago he helped Richard Nixon become president by devising a media strategy that allowed the candidate to almost entirely avoid dealing with actual journalists. Instead, Ailes staged a series of “town hall” meetings that were designed to look like open forums, with the candidate answering questions from “real people.” But the audiences were carefully selected, the questions were scripted, and the sessions were edited for national broadcast as paid advertisements.
This strategy of disguising propaganda as “real” events became a keystone of Ailes’ career. In the 1970s, he ran a short-lived operation called Television News Inc. (TVN), funded by right-wing brewing tycoon Joseph Coors. TVN aimed to supply local TV news programs with professional, prepackaged “news” stories, reported by real journalists, that were actually thinly veiled right-wing messages. This turned out to be a world-changing idea whose time had not yet come. The TVN motto, by the way, was “Fair and Balanced.”
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.
Up Front and Unadorned
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
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.
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