Reading Harry Caudill in Trump’s Kentucky

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I wrote about Harry Caudill and the contemporary relevance of his magisterial Night Comes to the Cumberlands for Louisville Public Media/WFPL earlier this week. The piece is here.

Here’s a snippet:

Night Comes to the Cumberlands is one of those strange books that is more known about than read. Similar to W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, much of Night’s power stems from the poetic conviction and narrative verve of the author.

That’s really just a way of saying that if Caudill wrote today, the book wouldn’t survive a dissertation defense. The book lacks footnotes. It privileges robust truth over rigid fact, often playing loose and fast with minor details. The book exudes a manic energy, a relentless moral inertia. This is an ungainly metaphor, but Caudill writes like he’s falling down a staircase — he may not touch each step as he tumbles, but for the most part he ends up at the bottom of things.

Paul Simon

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I was thrilled to get a chance to write for The RS 500 project, an intimate, intelligent, and fierce critical reckoning with Rolling Stone’s kind of silly list of the greatest rock records in history. I took on Paul Simon’s 1972 Paul Simon, one of my favorite records. Or it was. To be perfectly frank, I feel like the seams show on this a bit, but I think it was on to something.

Here’s a link to the piece – and the RS 500 project – and here’s a chunk of the brief essay. Extra incentive: you’ll learn what “Mother and Child Reunion” means.

The ability to be romantic and adopt a philosophical posture toward the dissipation of our youth is a stupendously privileged thing in which to engage. We often—and here “we” means a lot of middle class, literary kids like me—ache in some stupid, forlorn, bad-poetry way, contriving a sense of sentimentality in the moment. This clouds reality, though. The knock-off Keatsian appreciation of the passing moment obscures what is passing. Time, life, sure, but in this context friendship. For years that’s how I approached my history with this dear old friend. The point became the poetic echo of a lost friendship. The loss of the friendship became the point of the friendship.

26 Seconds, A History of the Zapruder Film

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The Globe asked me to take a look at 26 Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder FilmAlexandra Zapruder detailed, fascinating, and elegant rumination on the assassination film her grandfather had the misfortune to create.

From the review:

Alexandra’s book is indeed a “personal” history. And to be sure, it also explores the impact of the film on American culture. But the bulk of “26 Seconds” chronicles the comings and goings of the footage and argues for the decency of the often-maligned Zapruder family, who have largely remained silent about their role in history, one that prevented them from being able to fully inhabit the normal, poignant human obscurity that most of us enjoy. Making use of family and government archives, interviews, and her own memory, Alexandra offers a supple, tender portrait of a family lashed to history.

400 Years of White Trash

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Over the summer I reviewed historian Nancy Isenberg’s masterful White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Along with a handful of other books – such as Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in their Own Land – Isenberg’s ambitious and compelling book has become one of the primary post-election reads.

From the review:

Of course, at heart we know that class marbles American society. Most Americans acknowlege that they come from a class that doesn’t satisfy the definition of an elite. Isenberg attends to this, writing that since the 1980s the idea of white trash has been “rebranded as an ethnic identity, with its own readily identifiable cultural forms: food, speech patterns, tastes, and, for some, nostalgic memories.” Yet this kind of class pride doesn’t assume inferiority. Folks self-identify as white trash while still assuming that there is a promise of class mobility in America. This attempt to co-opt the term fails as a tool for empowerment and becomes merely a cultural designator more than a marker of a position in the economic and political continuum of the country.

The cynical exploit and manipulate this belief, which is something to keep in mind during our strange election season. “We are a country that imagines itself as democratic,” Isenberg writes, “and yet the majority has never cared much for equality. Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power.”

Catching up on some links!

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I dropped the ball quite a bit over the last year or so, failing to post links to most of the pieces. Below you’ll find links.

Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: To flourish, democracy needs both the formal mechanisms of liberal governance and the faith that all citizens will, at the very least, be heard, no mean feat in the society Turkle lays bare. This requires civic trust, something that has been battered in recent years. Across the country, people are losing faith in the promises of democracy — of equal protection, of equal opportunity, of equal treatment — and settling into a corrosive cynicism. Real conversation could be a first step in transcending this distrustful gridlock.

Matthew Battles’ Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word:  For Battles, writing carries its own history. He compares it to a palimpsest, a “writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another.” Despite the erasure, some remnants of the text persist, forming a kind of archeological trail of the object’s use. It is, for Battles, the central metaphor not only for writing but for the evolution of the “clamor and caprice of culture” across human history. The cave painters of Lascaux and today’s computer coders — two ends of writing’s historical sweep — are linked not by form but intent, by the persistent human urge to play with and master the world.

Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence GameGet in shape. Drink less. Just be better. Such typical New Year’s resolutions aren’t usually mentioned in connection with con artists. It is, however, both a strength and weakness of Maria Konnikova’s “The Confidence Game’’ that one can’t help but see both the grifter and the mark in such perennial end-of-the-year optimism. Like most cons, as Konnikova presents them, our resolutions blend desire and optimism to create a convincing delusion — and underscore our own collusion.

Blood and Politics – White Nationalism in America

In 2009 I reviewed Leonard Zeskind’s Blood and Politics, an ambitious overview of American 41bad6mwsrl-_sx324_bo1204203200_white nationalist movements for The Boston Globe. It’s behind a paywall these days, but I’m posting the copy I submitted – the pros at the Globe cut around 150 words and likely helped it to in other ways. Anyway, this may be helpful for folks who haven’t spent much time thinking about what American white nationalism means. I also wrote this piece for The Guardian about the rise of white nationalism after President Obama’s election. There’s at least one turn of phrase that appears on both pieces – that language was cut from the published Globe piece and I re-purposed. Just being clear. 

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Humans have tremendous capacity for ignoring failure. If we can envision something, we struggle to engender it, even if generations fail in the attempt. Science fiction often furnishes inspiration for such dreaming – Jules Verne’s submarine, for instance. Then there are the race-science fictions, misbegotten fantasies of racial purity that have inspired nightmares from the Third Reich to southern bigotry to anti-immigration panic. Hitler and Jim Crow may be dead, but their deaths merely signify the end of eras, not the end of the ambitious ignorance they represent.

Recent weeks have borne witness to the persistence of these dolorous fantasies. Throughout April, reports of hate group activity were alarmingly frequent, culminating with the Office of Homeland Security and the FBI releasing a report on increased recruitment levels for these groups – the numbers of enlistees as well as number of groups in existences have reached levels unseen since the early 1990s. This is not a provincial matter: on April 11 a South Boston VFW nearly hosted a major “POW” rally (a fundraiser for individuals incarcerated for crimes against minorities) co-organized by the relatively young groups, Volksfront and East Coast White Unity. As The Globe reported, after the VFW cancelled the event, the groups relocated to New Hampshire.

Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, Leonard Zeskind’s staggering, painstakingly researched report on the last three decades of American bigotry, dramatizes the back story to the recent upsurge in this septic politics.

According to Zeskind, white nationalism inspires a hard-core following of roughly 30,000, with 200,000 casual fans. That said, his subtitle misleads somewhat. Zeskind employs the blanket term “white nationalist” to denote any group that uses “their skin color [as] a badge of a distinct national identity,” but as he amply demonstrates, there isn’t a movement so much as a loathsome mishmash of corrosive pseudo-science, feckless theology and cynical opportunism. That the Church of the Creator, Aryan Nations, and other like-mindless groups remain riven by sectarianism would be reassuring if not for the fact that, as Zeskind shows, concerted action has rarely been a goal. Chillingly, in its successes and stupidities, the chaos of American hate is the stunted, through-the-looking-glass perversion of American pluralism.

The ballot or the bullet provides Blood and Politics with its major taxonomic categories. Zeskind terms these groups, respectively, “mainstreamers” and “vanguardists.”

“Mainstreamers,” Zeskind writes in a passage of typical clarity, “ believe that a majority (or near majority) of white people can be won over to support their cause, and they try to influence the existing structures of American Life. Vanguardists think that they will never find more than a slim majority of white people to support their aims voluntarily, and they build smaller organizations of highly dedicated cadres with the intention of forcefully dragging the rest of society with them.”

One can often find mainstreamers on talk shows asking, “What is wrong with being proud to be white ?” Their next sentence inevitably opens the door to white “separatism”, a euphemism for “supremacy” which is a synonym for hate. Notable mainstreamers, according to Zeskind, include former KKK Grand Wizard and perennial candidate David Duke, political pundit Patrick Buchanan, and any number of lesser knowns that have attained recognition through local or national elections (Blood and Politics recounts several successful intolerance-fueled campaigns, efficiently disposing of the hope that bigotry is the province of the uneducated or unsophisticated.) With few extreme exceptions, such as Timothy McVeigh, vanguardists remain obscure, speaking through actions – bombings, lynchings – and shrill websites, and organized in Al-Quada-like cells.

There are hundreds of names, dates, and incidents in Blood and Politics. The book sometimes reads as if Zeskind attended every koffee klatch since the Nixon administration and met every one-act clown that donned a robe or published a pamphlet. This rich embroidery of specifics falls, to some extent, beside the point. When it comes to white nationalism, the devil is most decidedly not in the details.

Blood and Politics’ genius resides in analysis of the resilient ideas that have informed white nationalist paranoia. “White dispossession” is the specter haunting their America, and most any development testifies to white power’s deterioration. The fall of the Berlin Wall? Yes. Stagnant economy? Yes. Immigration reform? Yes. All events conspire against white cultural and political hegemony, and from this siege mentality Zeskind locates a unity amidst the factionalism. Despite tactical differences, Zeskind writes, “For both mainstreamers and vanguardists alike, the cultural war [is] not for control of a single culture. Rather, it [is] a war between cultures for dominance over a single piece of North American real estate.” White nationalists have, in effect, formulated and applied a home-grown, domestic version of Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis.

Blood and Politics concludes its narrative in 2004. Things have since changed. As the FBI report mentioned above illustrates, Barack Obama “verifies” nationalists’ terror of dispossession – and the President has become an un-witting co-conspirator in the current resurgence of American hate. Histories that so closely abut the present often feel incomplete, but that Obama’s name only appears once in Blood and Politics does not diminish the book’s relevance. It’s a given that without studying the historical antecedents of Obama’s election one can’t fully understand the current state of race relations in the United States. Likewise, Zeskind’s encyclopedic book reveals the shadow history contemporaneous with the march of civil rights and is essential to the understanding of our present moment. Obama’s presidency heralds a new stage in America’s engagement with the color-line, but as both Blood and Politics and the recent enlistment in the armies of racial purity attest, nothing in the world is single.

All the King’s Men + Livestream

Over the past couple of months, I contributed two more pieces to Louisville Public Media. allthekingsmen Most recently is this, a piece on the 2016 election and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. 

And then there’s this, a piece on an incredible interactive musical sculpture.

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