Reading Harry Caudill in Trump’s Kentucky


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.


400 Years of White Trash

WT 1b.jpg

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.”

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. 


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.

Piketty > Lewis


UPDATE: Here’s the video of the event that my shop recently hosted with Piketty, Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, and others.

Yesterday the Sunday Boston Globe ran a piece that discusses new books by both Michael Lewis and Thomas Piketty. The piece was initially supposed to be focused on Lewis’s new book Flash Boys and all of the legal action that the book has prompted. The more I thought about that, though, the less satisfying I was with the prospect of writing about that book. So I decided to read Lewis’s book through the lens of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. This was a recently assigned, quick turn-around piece, but I think it makes my point. Here’s a link to the piece. And here are a couple of sections:

In Lewis’s telling the explanation and criticism of HFT seem precise. This is Lewis’s cardinal virtue: his ability to take something cripplingly complex and create a distillation, in narrative form, of how complexity tends to shroud and serves something basic. Sins and virtues don’t change. As complex as our world has become, everything serves the same simple goals, such as victory and greed. People don’t evolve at the speed of their tools.

So why has “Flash Boys” become such a flash point? What is it about this book that so threatens to upend the financial world despite years of similar malfeasance? Lewis readily concedes that his book contains little that’s new. Lewis himself writes the “entire history of Wall Street was the story of scandals . . . linked together tail to trunk like circus elephants.”

——————————–Michael Lewis

Given that most Americans remain seduced by the market, regulatory reform seems the only option. “Flash Boys” feels like virtue, but it fails to inspect the underlying assumptions and potential, damaging implications of our continued blind reliance on the fiction of “fairness” in any financial and economic system, let alone on Wall Street.

In other words, Piketty has written a trenchant critique of our current economic system while Lewis has written a book about gaming the system. “Flash Boys” is a symptom of the wealth disparity, and the denial of the disparity, that Piketty skewers.

So there are two ways to look at the “Flash Boys” chatter. As an indictment of Wall Street, it’s highly effective, even great. It’s inspiring that a book like this can catalyze a broad reaction in our culture. But it’s still a book of its time, a time where the vast majority of Americans can’t even get robbed by the people Lewis indicts.

Appalachia Used to Be Simply Scary. Now Its Hipness Is Frightening.

AppalachiaToday The New Republic posted my piece on the culture’s recent rash of pop-yokelism and our changing cultural depictions of Appalachia. Here’s the link.

Here’s the opening of the essay:

For four decades Ned Beatty has been the unofficial spokesmodel of Appalachian tourism. Even if Beatty, scrambling around in the woods wearing his tighty-whities, isn’t anchored in your somatic memory—even if you have no idea who Ned Beatty is—you know what his character endured in the 1972 film Deliverance. Four words: “squeal like a pig.” With that scene, Appalachia, a complex, beautiful, troubled region running from Mississippi to New York and home to 25 million people, became synonymous with a rape joke. The image of backwoods Appalachian viciousness wasn’t born with Deliverance—the Appalachia of the American imagination took form following the Civil War, when urban journalists scribbled about the hardscrabble mountain primitive for such publications as The Atlantic—but the film did present the most lurid, popular modern image of the hillbilly grotesque.


My review of Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power ran in yesterday’s Boston Globe. Here’s a link.

The first two paragraphs:

Paranoia masquerading as vigilance has been the catalyst for many American witch hunts, from fearful Salem to the wretched House Un-American Activities Committee. During J. Edgar Hoover’s directorship of the FBI, such aggressive suspicion — we think he’s a communist, so let’s prove he’s a communist — was often standard operating procedure. The political, personal, and social damage wrought by Hoover’s bureau is well-chronicled, but Seth Rosenfeld’s “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” offers a grim, powerful reminder of Hoover’s ruthlessness.

“Subversives” is much more than a rehash of Hoover’s previously revealed folly, though. The product of a decades-long battle with the FBI, “Subversives” draws on 250,000 newly released FBI documents. The bureau fought Rosenfeld, a former investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle, every step of the way. But after 30 years, four lawsuits, and nearly $1 million of taxpayer money spent by the FBI to thwart his efforts, Rosenfeld lays bare the bureau’s sometimes illegal, 1960s surveillance and intervention efforts aimed at student and faculty activities on the University of California-Berkeley campus. Rosenfeld also shows us a long suppressed, unflattering side of Ronald Reagan, then an aging actor and fledgling politician.

Our Divided Political Heart

My review of E. J. Dionne’s Our Divided Political Heart ran in last Sunday’s Boston Globe. Here’s a link to the piece.

Something I didn’t mention in the piece how the Tea Party isn’t focused solely on domestic history. It’s not mentioned that often, but at their most hysterical, the Tea Party boasts a strange internationalist perspective, their accusations migrating away from the US to focus on the insanity of mid-20th century Europe. The “socialism” they fear isn’t our version of Britain’s socialized healthcare. Or, rather, it is that, but only as first slip on the slope toward totalitarianism – Road of Bones, Gulag, Hitlerish killing, etc.  This is insane. Perhaps because even the most rabid partisan can’t sustain the argument that American progressivism has been catastrophic (look at the New Deal, for instance, which was unimpeachably salutary, though actual leftists might argue that the New Deal was conservative, enacted to salvage predatory capitalism, not change the country), the Tea Party folks have to reframe American history as a battle against insidious foreign infiltration.

Just a random observation. Dionne doesn’t dig into it in the book.

%d bloggers like this: