Monday, April 9, 2018

Surrendering to the Lost Cause

The other night I attended a panel discussion about "Confederate memorialization" at a large public university in northeast Tennessee. The four panelists were professors in the fields of history, sociology, religion/public art, and political science. I looked forward to a substantive discussion. Publicity for the event promised that, beyond the history of Confederate memorialization, speakers would "address … social, political and philosophical issues at stake in recent debates around the country regarding the presence of such monuments in the public square." Suitably academic titles were given for each of the speakers' presentations, e.g. "Contesting Southern Symbolism: Beyond the Either/Or of Hate or Heritage."

I came away disappointed. There was little in the way of discussion among the panelists. After each of them gave a quarter-hour presentation, the event was turned over to "questions" from the audience. These questions were largely opportunities for members of the audience -- mostly older white men like myself -- to share their own wisdom on the subject.

Wisdom, such as it was: "Robert E. Lee was a noble man who simply could not fight against his state." And the professors evaded whatever responsibility they might have had to uphold the lamp of learning by collectively nodding their heads, when they did not make matters worse by obfuscation (the sociologist introducing the datum that the African slave trade delivered only a relatively modest number of Africans to North America as compared with the other shores in the hemisphere), indifference (the political scientist showing predictable poll numbers parsing the political views on the subject of the statues and drawing the shoulder-shrugging conclusion that reconciliation won't happen), and outright, head-scratching oversimplification (the sociologist concluding that the memorials were meant to honor the dead, nothing more and nothing less). 

It was almost as if the professors felt themselves to be in a cage with lions that they must be careful not to arouse. Weighty titles aside, their initial presentations were themselves superficial, generic, and anodyne. I knew the event was in trouble when the audience was treated to an explanation about "signifiers" and "signified." Nope, I thought, they're not going to probe this issue. Granted, some of their points might have been subtly aimed over the heads of their audience -- as when the public art scholar insinuated a symbolic meaning to Lee's equestrian persona -- but if so, no one was driving them home.

Only once was there any indication among the professors that the issue had any flesh and blood, and that was when the historian -- finally, after wasting his chance to do so in his initial presentation -- had a testy reaction to one of the sociologist's Confederate-friendly special pleadings by saying that the erection of most of the memorials coincided with the Jim Crow era. It was not so much too late as far too little.

But that was it: One small spark of historical context floated up into the vast ether of opinion and vanished.

For what it's worth, the handful of African-American students in the audience at the beginning of the session drifted away early, so that when one of the many Lee-apologists (who, to his credit, invoked the accomplishments of the Civil Rights era) made a gestural appeal to them, they were already gone. They'd probably already read the handwriting on the wall that said, "there's a lot more to this story, but we sure aren't going to talk about it."

And that's my beef. We need to talk about it. The whole story. Not just the story of Lee the virtuous man who couldn't fight against his state. It's not a bad story, such as it is, but it's far from the only one. Here are some things that the scholars might have used to broaden the discourse:

  • Winfield Scott and George Thomas were Virginia-born generals who stayed with the Union. Where are the Virginia statues to these native sons, attesting to the virtue of loyalty to one's nation? It's not like Virginia doesn't care about the nation, e.g. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc., ad nauseam.
  • And if Lee was only about Virginia, what is the purpose of having statues of him throughout the South?
  • A panelist with some sense of responsibility to the subject might have indicated at least a nodding awareness of places that have actually removed such statues, like New Orleans, whose mayor Mitch Landrieu has just published a book on the subject. What was the process? What lessons are to be learned?
  • Another sad lack was the panel's seeming unawareness of the South African process of public reconciliation over apartheid. Does the US need something like that? Maybe, maybe not. But we can arrive at no consensus if we don't even talk about it.
  • There is also the question, "Who governs the public square?" These monuments are public property. Who owns them, and how do these owners determine their future? There was brief mention -- I believe by the religion/public art scholar -- of the way in which some states in the South have tied the hands of localities in pursuing relocation; that would have been an excellent topic to delve into. What should the options be? When is it truly erasing history, and when not? (My own opinion is informed by the presence, cheek by jowl with Lee Circle in New Orleans, of the Confederate Memorial Hall, a museum of which an ancestor of mine was the curator at its founding. To think that moving a statue of Lee erased history when right across the street is the freaking official museum of the freaking Confederacy is freaking laughable.)
  • Mostly, though, there was a missed opportunity to demonstrate to the audience how our own personal opinions must not be allowed to silence the voices of the past. And the voices that are most relevant to this subject are the voices of the women -- in particular the United Daughters of the Confederacy -- who dedicated their social lives to the construction of these memorials. Were they motivated solely by a desire to memorialize the fallen? To say so is an egregious over-simplification. We must not only say they believed in the Lost Cause doctrine, but we need the opportunity to hear them articulate that doctrine in their own words. We must hear them say that the Cause expressly included slavery as the institution best designed to govern Africans and their descendants, and we must hear them say that, since the Northern victory destroyed the South's slave-based culture, at least -- and at last -- the United States could come together over the belief that the nation is the dominion of the white race, that African-Americans are incapable of citizenship, and that the South should be left to its own devices to keep African-American in the subject state to which they were best suited by nature, and thank the Lord for the Ku Klux Klan, "the very flower of Southern manhood," for rescuing the South from the horrors of African-American citizenship. That is what our ancestors believed, and that is the doctrine that Confederate statues were erected to glorify. No amount of obfuscation or wishing it away can contradict that. If anyone wants to talk about erasing history, let's talk about our craven unwillingness to hear our own ancestors' opinions in their own voices. This is not pointing fingers of blame so much as it is to understand that there was in fact, one upon a time, a nationwide reconciliation over this subject, except it was a white one, and it excluded blacks.


If we do not allow those voices to be heard in the context of a discussion of the statues that the UDC erected, then we will be unable to perceive that it is not just Robert E. Lee the individual that all those marble horses carry, but the full weight of history as it has come down to us. America is still overborne by that weight, and it deserves a public opportunity to be reconciled with it in order to be free of the burden and also to be able to face the future with greater confidence that the unity expressed in e pluribus unum finally applies to all citizens regardless of race. It does no good for scholars to abdicate their responsibility to this public good. 



Saturday, March 24, 2018

Mappalachia

According to the usual definitions, I grew up in Appalachia and am Appalachian, because my home was located on a fringe plateau of the Tennessee valley. But my grammar school self informs me that something is wrong with that notion. My grammar school self understood that there was a qualitative difference between suburban kids like me and the kids from what we called "the back of the mountain." My grammar school self understood their poverty, but also understood that I and the other suburbanite kids were interlopers in a place where the back-of-the-mountain kids had grandparents who had grown up there.

Following a recent foray into the pronunciation of "Appalachia," and summoning my grammar school self, I have begun really wondering about the entire phenomenon, with its strange, definite/indefinite, geological/cultural, rock/squishy character. What the heck is it?

Source after source seemed to say that the only thing most people agree on is that the region we call "Appalachia" has a geographic definition, and that its boundaries are more or less those of the Appalachian Mountain region from southern New York southwest down halfway through Alabama. Then the qualifications begin: "but in this book you won't hear much about southern New York," says one book about Appalachia that agrees with the definition.

How have cartographers handled it? The University of North Carolina libraries has a nifty series of maps by David Whisnant showing the boundaries as conceived at various times by multiple entities: John C. Campbell in 1921 (in Our Southern Highlander), the US Dept. of Agriculture in 1935, a 1962 survey that was doubly Ford (written by Thomas R. Ford; project funded by Ford Foundation), the map of the 1964 President's Appalachian Regional Commission, and the 1967 map with the finalized boundaries of the territory served by the Appalachian Regional Commission.


The UNC website, in addition to the base map (above), includes a detailed one for each state, with the counties labeled. I had been wondering, for example, if Monticello/Charlottesville (Albemarle County) could be considered Appalachia. Looking at the detail map for Virginia  it's fascinating to see that Campbell's map -- the earliest -- not only includes Albemarle, but all of the counties on the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge, including Loudoun. (Well I never! Loudoun County is in Appalachia!) But the later the map, the more these boundaries get pushed west, so that the 1967 ARC map doesn't include any of the Shenandoah Valley counties at all.

The PARC/ARC maps, however, show considerable enlargement of the region as a whole, compared to the earlier ones. All the earlier ones -- including the 1935 USDA map -- have "Southern" somewhere in their title, but by 1967 this distinction is gone, and Appalachia stretches into New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi.

Regardless of cartographical definition, it is important to note that all of these maps were the results of commissioned studies of a region that was somehow considered a "problem." Campbell's survey was a Russell Sage Foundation project to guide the efforts of aid workers; the 1935 USDA's report was titled Economic and Social Problems and Conditions in the Southern Appalachians; the Ford study updated the 1935 one; and PARC/ARC was essentially an arm of the War on Poverty.

The fact is that none of these maps do justice to the cultural complexity of the region. To say "geographic Appalachia is cultural Appalachia" seems to me a form of begging the question. It would be a salutary exercise to put socioeconomic/cultural matters first and then see what kind of map might result from that approach.

What makes me say that is something I read in the essay "O, Appalachia!" by Harry Caudill, the Kentucky lawyer whose Night Comes to the Cumberlands helped lead to the formation of the ARC. The essay, written a decade or so into the life of the ARC, is bitterly critical of the agency. But it's in Caudill's musing about what might work in Appalachia that he makes a critical distinction: in order to help alleviate Appalachian poverty, Caudill writes, the government
might have aimed at a TVA-like program designed to use Appalachia's bountiful resources in a job-generating cycle within the region. The Tennessee Valley Authority pioneered in an area with few rich vested interests to offend while the equally destitute hill people were never considered for a federally mandated Appalachian Mountain Authority.
Here, then, is a definition that places the Tennessee Valley outside of Appalachia, but every map in the series above shows the valley inside Appalachia.

Caudill has blown up the map, and I think rightly so. He places socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors, rather than geographic ones, at the heart of the distinction.

Campbell, for example, places the Tennessee Valley inside the "Southern Highland Region" for a geographical reason: it is a high valley within an upland region "and not merely two separate mountain areas with a dividing valley." The valley has bordering ridges that are sometimes as remote and inaccessible as the more mountainous lands east and west of it.

But, having included the river valley in his definition, Campbell excludes it from the focus of his study. The cities and towns of the Tennessee Valley are included in the "urban" or "near-urban" category, of which Campbell writes, "We shall in the course of this study have little to this part of the mountain [sic] population."

His geography-based definition has betrayed him. The major cities of the valley -- Knoxville and Chattanooga -- are bustling river cities, and most of the other population centers in "Appalachian" Tennessee are in the valley. They have long been industrial centers, and have had such "high culture" amenities as large public libraries, art galleries, and symphony orchestras since the time that Campbell was writing: they cannot be defined as culturally Appalachian. Campbell all but admits this -- thus belying his own definition -- by concerning himself only with the remote residents of the cities' nearby mountains and rugged plateaus.

While he disapproves of the word "mountaineer" in his sections on terminology -- Campbell naysays the term as "opprobrious" and "resented by all," and twists himself into knots coming up with "highlander" as preferable -- the words "mountain" and "mountaineer" saturate his book. He himself uses it again and again and again, including in one passage that goes to the heart of his sociology: "Others seemingly forget that the ultimate solution of mountain problems must come through convincing the individualistic mountaineer that he cannot live for himself alone, and through enlisting him in co-operative service to create an environment that will breed in his children the community spirit."

Campbell and Caudill agree on the essential feature of mountain life: it is a survival of pioneer or "backwoods" (Caudill) ways. As to their individualism, Caudill adds a political ramification that lies at the heart of the culture and its problems: "The essential trouble lay in this reality: from the beginning Appalachian people nurtured a profound distrust of government, sought to elude its influence and consistently refused to use it as a tool for social and economic enhancement. ... What Toynbee has described as a retreat to barbarism is actually a persistence of the backwoods culture and mores into an age of cybernetics and rockets -- nearly two centuries after the frontier itself rolled westward and passed into history."

Regardless of the cultural manifestations of such factors, it is clear that isolation or remoteness should be held to be cardinal attributes of any definition of Appalachia. What social isolation is to Campbell, political isolation is to Caudill. Yes, geographical isolation underlies them both. But it isn't a defining cause so much as it was a physical aspect that served as a resource to achieve already-existing cultural ends. That those ends may have backfired into important socioeconomic problems doesn't matter. We ain't paid no whisky tax since 1792, and that's that.

Still, it should be possible to map the actual, cultural Appalachia rather than the bloated, unreal one that has its own encyclopedia (which I love, but which suffers from the same definitional problems as all the maps). I envision a kind of cross between a contour map and a political precinct map that would produce a truer picture of the region by filtering out low or accessible locations; population density; and socio-economic factors relating to income, education, access to health care, etc.

It's not that those filtered-out places are not at all Appalachian, culturally speaking. They are, but so in that sense is Detroit. Furthermore, there are many ways to shade the results by quantification. The community I grew up in, and where my grammar school self still resides and wonders about the "rootedness" of the back-of-the-mountain kids, is a good example. It would be possible (although not easy) to subject it to genealogical, generational demographic analysis and arrive at a weighted score for just how "Appalachian" it was; to this factor could be added dozens of others. All of them together could produce a statistical map of Appalachia.

The real question is how to drill down (now there's an Appalachian metaphor) to an actuality that is invisible to a geographic hegemony because it doesn't translate well.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Time to replace Facebook with Citizenbook

Ah, the joys of fiction! Especially the fictions of marketers. And most especially the fictions of political marketers! As Richard Wolffe says in The Guardian of the data-breach-that-wasn't-a-breach involving Facebook,  "we now know that Cambridge Analytica could happily arrange for a candidate to fall into a compromising scandal with a Ukraine prostitute or a bribery sting. As the now-suspended CEO Alexander Nix put it so well, 'It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don't necessarily need to be true as long as they're believed.'"

As long as they're believed. That, my friends, is how we wound up with the Manchurian Candidate as US President.

As for Facebook itself, it is responding to "furore," not a new revelation of facts. They've known about CA's data misuse since 12/15. There were "thousands" of other apps doing the same thing. Why did Facebook allow so much third-party access to user data for so many years? Jonathan Albright of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism says, "This problem is part of Facebook and cannot be split off as an unfortunate instance of misuse. ... It was standard practice and encouraged. Facebook was literally racing towards building tools that opened their users' data to marketing partners and new business verticals. So this is something that's inherent in the culture and design of the company."

Facebook's response is too little, too late. Furthermore its various iterations of a response -- between initial ones and Zuckerberg's latest -- show that they really don't have an honest clue as to how they can be held responsible. They are saying, in effect, "Hey, if you accept an app with Byzantine terms of service, welcome to Byzantium."

Protecting their users is not in their bones. It's not in Google's bones either. These massive creators of a public information good have a conflict of interest deep down: are they more loyal to their users or to the purchasers of advertising? I think we all know the answer. When it comes to ethical, user-focused values, these guys are rotten to the core.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, is worried. "The system is failing. The way ad revenue works with clickbait is not fulfilling the goal of helping humanity promote truth and democracy." He's also concerned about eroding net neutrality, observing that connectivity should be treated as a utility. But that's a piece of the same problem. Solve one, we solve them all.

Unfortunately, Berners-Lee has no answers, even while calling for them. Being committed to folly, however, I have no such problem. I believe that the answer is simple. In the case of Facebook, the answer is to provide a Citizenbook administered by networked public libraries.

No advertising. None.


And as for the core of such an enterprise being dedication to user confidentiality, have you ever known a librarian? You might think that a librarian's soul is wrapped up in helping people find bedtime reading or information, or maybe even in shushing, but if that's the case, you are wrong. The librarian's core ethical tenet is protection of user information. Librarians have and will fight tooth and nail to see that user records are treated as confidential by law.

Besides, public libraries in particular need a broadened mission that serves a broad base of citizenry, not just those who go out of their way to visit the physical location for connectivity or reading material. Which is not to say that public libraries have nothing of use in the virtual world -- they do -- but this would be an order-of-magnitude transformation of a trusted institution that already exists to enhance the commonwealth.

The only thing standing in the way of this transformation is that it would require public funding. Given the amount of money being churned through assaultive clickbait and political skulduggery, I refuse to see that that is a real issue.

It would be well worth it. After all, everyone had the same "vision" of Facebook when they first signed on. It would be updates from Friends ... and that's it. Ah, but no one imagines the Spanish Inquisition. Look at Facebook now. Advertising and "suggested links" crowd out posts from your Friends because ... it's big biz in Byzantium. Because that's where the heart is, and as long as that's the case, your interests are not even secondary.

I don't suggest that a public Facebook would be completely free of clickbait, but if it showed up on your wall it would be traceable to the conscious actions of a Friend and not to the automated actions of an AI bot with you in its sights. It's the difference between you running over a pedestrian and an Uber self-driving car doing it.

Think about what's happening here. Go back to Alexander Nix's quote at the top of the blog. Facebook has created what functions as a public utility and has allowed -- no, enabled -- it to be subverted by bad actors for nefarious purposes, because it was in Facebook's interest to do so. Facebook has no interest in the truth. Facebook doesn't care if things can be made up out of whole cloth and made to appear true. That's the business model! And it's targeted at you, and thrown at you again and again and again, wearing down your defenses, the ones conditioned to tuning out the old-world, passive advertising in newspapers and on TV.

A new world is here. Grow up, friends. Citizenbook is the only way.




Tuesday, March 20, 2018

"A Well-russianrouletted Militia, being a device for the destruction of a free state ... "

PuppetMaster: Planet 3799 Novgorod, how goes it?

P3799N: It is too easy. I sometimes feel as if we're being lured deeper and deeper, to our own destruction. And then I perceive they really do not have a single clue.

PuppetMaster: And we were taught that birds don't fly into our mouths already roasted!

P3799N: But these birds! Not only roasted but still singing! Milk a chicken!

 PuppetMaster: We say "live for a century, learn for a century." They on the other hand ...

P3799N: They, they're like, "Live for a century, fuhgeddaboudit!"

PuppetMaster: Ha ha ha! You do a very good gangster!

P3799N: Ha ha ha! I was taught well!

PuppetMaster: Not by Torshin, even if he is a mobster! He's terrible at languages!

P3799N: Ah, but a better sheep in a wolf's pelt there never was! Cozying up to the NRA leaders the way he has! He has gotten us so close! And they think we are their friends, because we say we are their friends and we give them money!

[Mutual hilarity]

PuppetMaster: And to think that for a while we let ourselves think that Americans really could milk chickens. But you, my friend, the silent dog wagging your tail, you in the background churning out nothing but words and pictures to drive the wedge deeper, you knew about the NRA. It was you who said the American chain will snap where it's weakest--and that is the NRA. You knew where the ford was, so we could confidently step into the river.

P3799N: I didn't get a double doctorate in American history and political science at Columbia University for nothing. What keeps me awake at night is thinking that someone high up in the NRA will wake up one night in a cold sweat and realize that they've been wrong this whole time, and that there's something in the 2nd Amendment that they've been ignoring all along. "Oh my god! It's not the guns! It's the militia! A well-regulated militia! That's actually the important part! Guns in the hands of random, undisciplined individuals with no civic purpose is actually very dangerous to the health of the republic!"

PuppetMaster: That would be the end our little Cossack dance then. But why worry? It won't happen.

P3799N: No, it won't. The NRA is having too much fun bull-rustling. The only thing I worry about is that someone will catch us at our real game.

PuppetMaster: It's like the opposite of immunotherapy, isn't it?

P3799N: Feeding the poison? We seem to do that quite well, and quite often.

PuppetMaster: But not at this high level. This is bringing down a nemesis. This is genius. You came to me and said, "I know where to strike." And then I asked you how you knew, and what was it you said? You said ...

P3799N: I told you that we just had to listen to the founders of America. They said, "If we ever let go of this militia thing, we are screwed." All we had to do was listen to their reasoning, see they were onto something sort of mathematical, and realize that now America is completely unaware of a core doctrine of their own republic. It's republican mechanics. Why not take a chance on it? The best part of it, though -- the absolute best part -- is that the NRA, the so-called champion of the 2nd amendment, is worse than ignorant! They advocate for the opposite of what the amendment was intended to provide!

PuppetMaster: For Russia, the NRA blossomed out of the fruitiest fart that ever was!

P3799N: Pfffft! Just like that, there they were! Of course, they'd been around for some time, but there had never been an enemy who could see that their backside was naked!

PuppetMaster: Like the retreating Frenchmen in 1812 who faced the fire and literally ...

P3799N: ... Froze their asses off in the Russian winter! Except now social technology has given us a potent psychological weapon that is the new winter. This is a war of a blanket of behavioral snowfall that we can win without ever firing a shot, much less a missile. We just need to give a little -- well, maybe not so little -- a substantial, well-placed push by just paying for ads on social media like good capitalists ... and the Americans do all the rest. How the fall comes I neither know nor care. But why it happens is what we already understand -- what I learned from the American founders -- that Americans themselves do not: in a republic, when there is no institution to glue common duty together, the human tendency to divide into partisan factions will prevail, and it will be fatal. Americans are like, "Hey, we haven't had a universal militia since we gave up on it in the early 19th century, and we're still here." My sympathetic side just kind of shrugs resignedly and says, "Time and tide and cluelessness will have their way."

PuppetMaster: And your unsympathetic side?

P3799N: Why chop a rotten tree when it needs only a push?









Thursday, March 15, 2018

The United States of Appalachia, however you pronounce it

Linguistic diversity rules. Southern accents, Northern accents, Midwestern accents, English accents, Spanish accents, Indian accents; white usages, black usages; foreign languages of all kinds: bring 'em on! They are all positive aspects of the rich parade of humanity. I say don't denigrate them; celebrate them. Don't spurn them; learn from them. There need be no "versus" in "diversity."

You might call it a branch of the Jim Wayne Miller school of literary humanism. Miller was a soft-spoken man raised in the country near Asheville, NC, who became both an award-winning poet best-known for his mountain-rooted "Brier" poems and also a professor of German and a translator of Goethe. He spoke once at a conference I attended at the Pine Mtn. Settlement School in Kentucky. What he said has never left me: everyone needs to hear the the stories of people from around the world, because it is the local that informs the universal; it is by sharing the common experience that we permeate the barrier of otherness. I think that is true not only of stories, but of the voices themselves telling them.

Otherness, however, is the brute that seems always to shove its way onto the scene. Nothing quite shakes my faith in humanity like yet another video showing an "American" going ballistic on a complete stranger for having a "foreign" accent or speaking a "foreign" language. What kind of force motivates them? Is it ever justified?

It is a force not to be underestimated, even in connection with what might seem to be trivial matters. I speak from personal experience.

Of all the important issues in the world, the pronunciation of "Appalachia" might not seem to be a big deal. However, I can attest that there are those who consider it to be a matter of extreme importance. With them, it is a black and white issue: you are right, or you are wrong. And being wrong puts you at risk of being shunned or relegated to "enemy" status.

Let me be clear: I have been judged wrong on the issue, and the force of animosity directed at me for my perceived wrongness was, to me, staggering. What made it most inexplicable was that it came from professional educators or academicians.

Furthermore, it's not like I was myself oppositional -- except insofar as I was disagreeing with the opinion that there is only one, correct pronunciation. My position is that there are well-established regional differences in how to pronounce "Appalachia" or "Appalachian." The second "a" is either long or short. Both are respectable. Yes, how you say it will identify whether or not you're from the South, but so what? Vive la difference!

My model for understanding on this matter is the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), which is made up of volunteer groups up and down the trail who work for the same thing and love it the same way, no matter how they pronounce it. Maine isn't Georgia, and vice-versa. We don't expect them to talk the same, and why would we want them to anyway?

No amount of rationalizing on my part did anything to blunt the force of pronunciational correctness. It might even have made it worse. "I thought you were supposed to be from around here. Why are you defending Yankees?" Which is gaslighting, of course. I was not defending Yankees. I was defending both pronunciations. I was defending Southerners who say what they say as well as Yankees who say what they say. That is a clear distinction that the true believers could not see or understand.

Invariably one of the true believers will favor me with what they believe to be the last word on the subject: novelist Sharyn McCrumb's snide dismissal of any other pronunciation than the Southern one, in which she makes an inapposite use of the Derry/Londonderry dichotomy as an analogy for the short-a / long-a controversy of "Appalachia." If you haven't seen it, it's worth a look.

What is wrong with her analogy? If nothing else, Derry/Londonderry refers to a change brought to a well-worn, popular, local usage of great antiquity. Unhappily for the McCrumblicans, that is not the case with "Appalachia."

David Walls, who wrote the entry on pronunciation of the word in The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, says in "On the Naming of Appalachia" that "[o]verall, the social movement to obtain recognition for Appalachia as a problem area must be accorded a remarkable success for a movement which never developed a mass following within the region itself," and that "Appalachian" is still not the prevailing way people in the area identify themselves.

Walls's points are amplified by Anita Puckett, the director of the Appalachian Studies Program at Virginia Tech, in her article "On the Pronunciation of Appalachia" in 2000 for Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine. "[D]espite all these feelings on both sides of the pronunciation issue, there is one fact we must keep in mind: Most residents of the region rarely use the word Appalachia in their day-to-day interactions with their friends and neighbors" partly because their "vernacular's underlying sound-and-stress patterns don't lend themselves to either pronunciation."

Further evidence that the term may not have been in wide use as an accepted identifier for the region until after the Federal government created it in 1965 can be found on this Reddit thread (and other similar ones on Reddit) which provide as many data points as Puckett does in an academic paper, and in which south-central Appalachians who use the Northern pronunciation discuss the shallow roots of the word "Appalachia" in popular usage.

What is especially interesting about this thread is a comment that exactly mirrors one made by Puckett in her article. After saying that both (my emphasis) pronunciations have "essentially negative connotations," she then describes a southeastern Kentucky community who "clearly associate the long-a form with media 'spies,' government officials, and missionary 'do-gooders' who 'don't know nothing about us.'" The Reddit comment -- by someone from southeastern Kentucky whose native pronunciation is the long-a -- provides direct evidence of a negative response to the short-a usage that takes the form of a verbal caricature of a "smarty-pants perfessor."

Furthermore, the person credited by David Walls with bringing "Appalachia" as a concept into the modern American literary imagination, Horace Kephart, wrote in 1913 that the highlanders among whom he lived did not use the term for their own mountains, which they called "the Alleghanies."

Meanwhile, for their part, the Yankees got a jump on the modern usage anyway: the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club has published a journal called Appalachia since 1894. Guess how it's pronounced.

What's going on here? With McCrumb and her ilk (a perfectly good Scots word implying no disparagement) I think the answer is political, and has to do with the Appalachian Regional Commission, the "imperialist" (as McCrumb would say) body charged by the Feds in 1965 with regional development. According to Puckett, ARC's official pronunciation is the long-a Yankee one, while most of the region is in the South, where most of the people -- if and when they say it -- use the short-a. Puckett has an interesting insider's take on how the controversy developed: in the "more circumscribed academic setting … [t]here were consistent efforts to promulgate this pronunciation of Appalachia [short-a] no matter what the context. … Both faculty and students considered the [short] a pronunciation a positively valued symbol of membership in and knowledge about the region."

The pronunciational controversy, then, is of recent vintage, and it flourishes in rarefied air. All of my vituperous detractors on this subject are either academics or should-be academics. As far as I can tell, their outrage is a defensive response to the standardization of a pronunciation that is non-Southern. In some cases the outrage is informed by the fact that all the geographico-historical cognates -- the Appalachicolas and the Appalachees -- line up with the Southern pronunciation, which if nothing else lends a quaint air of Biblical inerrancy to their cause.

If in fact the ARC has an unbending policy that privileges the long-a pronunciation, it should change it. It should at least adopt a flexible policy of "say what the local academics say" (c'mon, y'all, laugh). Let the "all pronunciations welcome" example of the Appalachian Trail be the model.

As for the short-a academics, their close-minded attitude of "I've already done all the research" shuts off what could be some fascinating lines of academic inquiry, e.g. how, when, and where did the "standard," long-a pronunciation appear? How did Washington Irving pronounce "Appalachia" in his famous 1839 article -- in which he proposed that the "America" in USA be replaced with either "Alleghania" or "Appalachia" (he preferred the former) -- and which usage Walls says, via A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, marked the first appearance of "Appalachia" in American English.

Also: how widespread in fact was the usage "Appalachia" in the Southern Appalachian region when the government declared it to be a problem area in 1965? David Walls implies that the adjective "Appalachian" or the noun form "Appalachians" (for the mountains) were much more widespread than "Appalachia;" how much moreso? And does this matter? I would say it does: Appalachia Nouveau's most important signification is economic, social, and cultural, while Appalachian / Appalachians is mostly a geographic / geologic signifier.

My hypothesis is that academicians, in their beef against the ARC, have gilded the lily of the short-a "Appalachia" and have promoted it with unintended, xenophobic consequences, as borne out by the anecdote that opens Puckett's article: In 1998 she took an Appalachian folk culture class to visit a potter, who, originally from Illinois, had "lived and worked near Blacksburg, VA, for over 20 years;" the man was "very knowledgeable about the history and lore of Southern Appalachian pottery-making." The field trip concluded, Puckett asked her students' opinion of the experience. One student dismissed the potter as having no value because he had said "Appalachia" with a long a. In the student's words, "I knew he had nothing to say to me."

Here, then, is someone after Sharyn McCrumb's heart, completely devaluing a person's evident knowledge because of the way he pronounced "Appalachia." My bet is that the potter was naive in his pronunciation: that was how he'd always said it, and surely people would judge him for the quality of his bowls rather than the length of his vowels. Sorry, mister potter. The Jim Wayne Miller language of your bowls is too deep for Appalachia Nouveau Cliche. Fail to use the shibboleth at your own risk.

Perhaps, though, the concluding comment in an online thread discussing this topic says it best: "What a total waste of good energy." Which is what my argument about pronunciation comes down to. If that is your shibboleth -- your test for who is friend and who is foe -- you are not just indulging in prejudicial, ignorant, and superficial xenophobia, you are missing the whole point about contemporary Appalachia, which very much comes down to a question of who is friend and who is foe.

That question is best answered by Harry Caudill -- whose description of Appalachia in Night Comes to the Cumberlands served as a goad to the consciences of JFK and LBJ -- in his 1973 essay "O Appalachia!" (Regrettably there doesn't appear to be an online version, but it is anthologized in Voices from the Hills: Selected Readings of Southern Appalachia, Higgs and Manning, eds.), in which he divides Appalachia into Appalachia One and Appalachia Two: the Appalachia of Wealth and the Appalachia of Poverty.

While mostly a scathing twelve-year review of the "costly failure" of ARC -- in his opinion a vastly inadequate, under-resourced response that exists "to please, or at least avoid conflict with, Appalachia One" -- the essay serves as a useful stand-in for determining who the good guys and bad guys are.

The latter include, yes, the long-a pronouncing extractive corporations headquartered in New York and Philadelphia, but they also include "the 'bighearted country boys' beholden only to the corporate overlords who financed their campaigns." And I know from personal experience that some of those corporate overlords have their headquarters in downtown Appalachia; bluegrass is their hobby, and you can't distinguish their pronunciation from the country-boy elected officials: it's short-a to a man, and the more syrup the better.

Other than the "downtrodden" themselves, the good guys include the "platoons" of VISTA workers sent by the Great Society to help. These soon found out about Appalachia One and began to spread the word in the region, "whereupon a lively time in the hills ensued. Boards of education were beset by people demanding better schools. It was all entertaining and encouraging while it lasted. But sleeping dogs were aroused. ... VISTA was decried as Communist and un-American. ... The Great Society withdrew its soldiers from the War on Poverty, and Appalachia One settled back to digest the region undisturbed." I wonder how many of those "encouraging" VISTA workers doing the good work failed to pronounce the shibboleth of the insider? No doubt quite a few, if not most.

Caudill's conclusion is worth repeating:
The modern Appalachian welfare reservation makes few demands on its inhabitants. They are left alone in their crumbling coal camps and along their littered creeks to follow lives almost as individualistic, as backward looking and tradition ridden, as fatalistic and resigned as in those days three or four wars ago before the welfare check replaced the grubbing hoe and shovel as pot fillers. Then a man needed to know the seasons and the vagaries of the bossman if he were to eat. But new skills are required in an age when government is gigantic, when a few men with giant machines can drag from the ground all the fuel a nation can consume, and when the poor are of little use to the well-to-do. It pays to sense winners and vote for them -- and to let them know of one's intention in advance. And one must recognize that there are powers that cannot be overturned or defied, and so one does not resist. Once these concessions are made it is generally possible to enjoy many of the freedoms and prerogatives of the nineteenth century without its toils and dangers. Perhaps Toynbee's 'barbarism' [the British historian who saw in the Appalachians an example of "people who have acquired civilization and then lost it"] is actually a preview of the twenty-first century, when the rich will be truly secure and the poor will not work, aspire or starve. Appalachia was the nation's first frontier. Now it may be foretelling America's final form.
Washington Irving's 1839 idea has now awakened from its Rip Van Winkle sleep. Welcome to the United States of Appalachia. However you pronounce it.





























Thursday, March 8, 2018

Up Shit Creek with Machiavelli


For me there is nothing like a library for serendipity. To wander down a range of books is to buzz at the honeycombed portals of a thousand realms, each of them an unfathomed wonderland.

Even better, though, is when the simple act of picking up a book unleashes a chain of coincidences so profound as to plead divine intervention. This is not so much "seek, and ye shall find" as it is an innocent step into an inescapable floodtide the force of which is outside oneself.

Recently I wandered past the new nonfiction display shelf at my downtown public library. There, staring defiantly at me in complete ignorance of my recent folly, a précis of the current 2nd Amendment situation, was Armed in America: A History of Gun Rights from Colonial Militias to Concealed Carry, by Patrick J. Charles. By what miracle had this happened? The very presence of this book on the shelf meant that it was not inflammatory enough to be a "bestseller" and thus had not generated a spot on that curse of popularity, the hold list, which casts a cloak of invisibility over so many new books in libraries. So, thanking the minor deities of library book selection (Library Journal? American Libraries?), I checked it out and went on my way.

A couple of days later my wife, who is a teacher and who recently volunteered to chair a committee on security for the county's teachers' association--hoping, post-Parkland, to keep elected officiais away from knee-jerk, arm-the-teacher responses--met with a number of those elected officials (and others) in a non-smoky back room in a pizza restaurant called Machiavelli's.

Machiavelli's, right? Meeting with latter-day Princes to discuss gun violence in a place called Machiavelli's? Are you kidding me?

No, you're not. But read on.

So then, this happened: the following weekend I went to my second-favorite temple of Serendip, the annual Friends of the Library booksale, where I always place a strict limit on purchases of 750 books, give or take 747. This year it was a complete Les Miserables (the novel? Remember?) for a quarter, a collection of essays by bellettrist Jacques Barzun (who called out the worldwide virus of "racial thinking" in 1936 and who, as a bellettrist, is a lot like certain bloggers of your acquaintance in that he never footnotes; rather, he bestows.) for another quarter, and a plain-brown-wrapper publication of the U.S. Army's Center for Military History called A Guide to the Study and Use of Military History, for another quarter. Times ten.

What? $2.50? Why so much for a plain brown wrapper of a book? I suspect that whoever priced it for the Friends sale was a librarian who looked at the cataloging info on the verso of the title page and saw the word "historiography," a magic word that you will never find in the WalMart world of low, low prices.

So there I was, settled into the flow in my inner tube of reading-directed consciousness, first with Armed in America, which I will eventually review for my own aide-memoire purposes but which for now let me just say that, as intellectual history written by a lawyer, it is the opposite of footnote-free belles-lettres. And for a reason: it is pointing in the direction of an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of whatever case takes on the task of reversing the finding in Heller v. D.C. that the 2nd Amendment guarantees a right to a firearm for the purpose of self-defense. That is to say, practically every assertion in the book is supported by a textual reference. These quite often far outstrip the root statement in ink-volume, e.g. when he writes, "[In the early 20th century] The habitual or indiscriminate carrying of concealable firearms … was denounced with particular force. Public calls for enhanced enforcement and harsher penalties were routine, and the constitutionality of armed carriage restrictions was virtually without question" (p. 173),  the annotation takes the reader to a full page-and-a-half of supporting, primary documentation.

One of these notes tags a brief sentence that attributes to Machiavelli "the earliest conception of a right to arms." The note supports the assertion with references to writings by American historians who discuss Machiavelli's "impact" on "the American militia system," as well as to a list of "prominent writings of seventeenth-century writers on the subject of the militia" that goes on for a full half-page.

Machiavelli, huh? (file under "Interesting.")

While there is much, much more to say about Charles's book (including "every American should read it") for now let us proceed down the rapids--not that they are leaving us much choice--to the Army historiography, which for someone whose boyhood was populated by Greek hoplites and Roman legionnaires starts out well enough ("you know, one of these days I might actually read Peloponnesian Wars") when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the horizon clears and damned if it isn't a waterfall: mention of a treatise on war written by none other than Machiavelli in which he laid out military power as the foundation for civil society and called for a "citizen army" that would serve as a cure for the decadence of his (Machiavelli's) time by becoming "an instrument for restoring civic virtues lost to society."

The circle now closes in the inner tube, and it all becomes clear in the engulfing roar of the waterfall. This is what the 2nd Amendment means and to interpret it away through a process of legal casuistry is to leave it as a hollow shell that won't survive the wimpy wavelets of Russian election meddling much less the Niagara of a hyper-partisan electorate with no common values. The 2nd Amendment isn't about the guns. It's about why you have them.

And it's about why the why is no longer there in the good old US of A that meant to enshrine it. Why the why, in fact, all but disappeared after the War of 1812. Because most Americans, in fact, don't want to be bothered with civic virtues. They cannot be bothered to vote and will go out of their way to avoid taxes. They will gladly alienate their duty--especially to fight and die for the country--so that their time and money are their own. Alexander Hamilton saw it coming: civic republican rhetoric (and Machiavelli ) notwithstanding, the "great body of the yeomanry" would suffer a "grievance" from militia service, which would in effect impose "an annual deduction from the productive labor of the country." But isn't that part of the point of duty and sacrifice? Not, apparently, when it comes to money.

If some on the Left--most recently Chris Hedges--explain away gun violence by reflexively parroting D.H. Lawrence's statement that "the essential American should is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer" without examining the gibberish from which it springs, they miss an opportunity one would imagine a leftist would all but die for: to find the deeper, truer source of the rot in market-driven acquisitiveness, for it is this that has turned "the gun" from an instrument of civic virtue into little more than a fetish, a militarily useless vessel that has lost the purpose it had at the nation's founding, as proclaimed by the 2nd Amendment. "The gun" is now, civically speaking, just a collectible. Americans are so caught up in their own "productive labor" that they cannot be bothered--unless forced by Germans, Japanese, or Commies--with the common defense. Acquisitiveness is in fact the very means by which to slaughter the sacred cow of civic duty. How better to fight than to pay someone else to do it, if at all possible? Freedom isn't free, we proclaim--because, yeah, you have to pay somebody else to do the killing on your behalf. Because, fellow citizens, we refuse to do it our damn selves.

The ultimate in hilarious comedy comes from those comic-book fantasists who believe that "the gun" equips them to take on their own government. If some splinter group ever does take on the 1% in a serious way, "bloodbath" doesn't begin to describe the fate that will meet an unorganized, ill-disciplined rabble at the hands of a professional army that not only already occupies the ground, the air, and the sea, but that--unlike the British in America or the Americans in Vietnam--acts at the bidding of a governing minority that is already solidly in place.

What violence there will be will accomplish only mayhem and the continuing deaths of innocents. The present, NRA-ruled government has no solution for this, because the very amendment they purport to support means something so very different from what they say it does. This is intellectual bankruptcy with a vengeance. It's tragic to realize--particularly as the waterfall delivers us into the grip of a hydraulic--that the survival of the republic is in the hands of people like those state legislators at a pizza restaurant called Machiavelli's. Will they do something to restore those "civic virtues that have been lost to society"?

They won't. They can't. Their ideas of civic virtue are tantamount to anarchy: an unregulated, unorganized, random pile of what-the-fuck in a society lost to marketing and propaganda. So are we all what the Founders predicted we would become, without the flotation of any virtue-in-common: galley slaves and partisan hacks.

Finally, then, this particular innocent step into an inescapable floodtide ends with us getting spit out of the hydraulic onto the bank. Whew. High and dry. But also up Shit Creek without a paddle. Ah well, there's always the library.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sundown nation

I came across James Loewen's Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (Touchstone, 2005) in the gift shop of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. At the checkout counter the clerk--in that winning way some clerks have--and who was herself African-American--examined the cover and indicated by her look that, you know, this looked like a subject worth reading about.

I had just spent a whole day at the museum, where I was overwhelmed by the national shame of racism but also made thankful for the enormous and long-suffering contributions of African-Americans not just to the country but the world.

In the moment of the clerk's assessment, I thought about Erwin, TN, the only for-sure sundown town I knew of. Most people only know it as the town that hung the elephant. But I know it as the town that--immediately after lynching and burning a black man, Tom Devert, for accosting a white girl--ran out its African-American population (some 200 people) and told them never to return. All a matter of public record with its own Master's thesis at East Tennessee State University and a blognovel with music--Banshee 3:33 (start at Tuesday, January 02)--somewhere over the domain name on the Wayback Machine. This year will be the centenary of the event. I wonder if the town will observe it.


Now, though, having read Sundown Towns and more or less absorbed its worthwhileness, I now understand not only that the pure Erwin phenomenon--the lynching followed by a racial pogrom followed by an abolition, either nocturnal or absolute--was a practice widespread in the United States especially between 1890 and 1968 that profoundly scarred the social imagination of the country.

A truly and depressingly fascinating aspect of the phenomenon is that it is not found in the traditional South--cotton country, as it were. Its deepest imprint is found in exactly those places where, at the time of the Civil War, slaves had not been in any great quantity: the upland South (like Erwin, in Appalachia; Cumberland Plateau; the Ozarks), the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, but especially the Midwest, California, and Oregon.

Perhaps the most tragically ironic example is Springfield, Illinois--Abraham Lincoln's town and the capital of the Union State of Illinois--which tried to "go sundown" in roughly the Erwin manner in 1908, when a white woman claimed to have been raped by a black man, which set off an attempted lynching and two days of rioting, along with the attempted expulsion of 3,000 black residents. The city's business district was destroyed, homes were burned, and two innocent black men were lynched. It was only the "belated" appearance of the state militia in what was after all the state capital that spared the African-American residents of an Erwin-style result. The femme fatale later admitted to fabricating the rape story in order to cover up an affair. There were, of course, no consequences for the reign of terror.

One of the strengths of the book is the use of census data to show towns and counties, across the areas mentioned above, with African-American populations beginning and growing after the Civil War, and then dramatically diminishing and in some cases disappearing from one census to the other.

The exodus was not always accompanied by a riot, as in the Erwin example. In fact, the larger story told in the book is the story of the more subtle means by which whites and African-Americans have been residentially kept apart--in cities, suburbs, and towns nationwide--by real estate and banking practices as well as by civic policy, all the way from the uncodified sundown ordinance to the private suburb with race-based residential covenants required by the Federal Housing Authority.

This is a story that continues up to the present, since--as has always been way, ever since Reconstruction--the correcting law or court decision was not always followed up with enough enforcement to make a difference.

And it goes further, into the national psyche: the carryover effect by which a general and enforced pattern of by-hook-or-by-crook racial residential segregation set in place 1. the template for how Americans understand people should live and 2. the naive idea that the template-casting happened benignly, or maybe willy-nilly, as a consequence of millions of freely-made personal or family-level decisions about where to live.

That whites and blacks in America are segregated by residential community is at least in part because--for a considerable, residential-infrastructure-building portion of recent American history--blacks were not given a choice.

Why did this happen? In general, Loewen's analysis is that the Southern attitude toward blacks-as-a-problem-to-be-dealt-with was exported to the rest of the country after the non-South's war-fueled flush of racial equality idealism wore off. But outside the South, the "answer" to the "problem" was not the Southern-style total control that required rigid servility as the price for limited mingling (you better know your place). Instead, it was a different form of enforced, residential apartheid that later went on, ironically, to determine the approach to racial separation that prevailed in the burgeoning suburbs of the post-slavery ("New") South.

Among these suburbs was the one I grew up in: Signal Mountain, Tennessee, a bedroom community of Chattanooga. There were never any African-Americans in any of my public school classes, nor were there any, anywhere, on the mountain--except for the maids, who every weekday morning came up from downtown on city buses and went back the same way late every afternoon. There were no blacks up on the mountain after sundown, but as far as I know Signal Mtn. was never a sundown town in the classic sense. However, without knowing for sure but having read this book, I'm willing to make an educated bet that the house that my parents bought in 1956--as soon as my father landed his first permanent, full-time, modestly-salaried job--would not have been available to a similarly-situated black buyer, under any circumstances, for reasons having to do with a combination of sub rosa, substantial, and subversive municipal, real estate, bank, and even Federal chicanery.

And this happened all across the United States.

Going back a little further in time, the area where I went to junior high and high school gets a mention in Loewen's book as an example of the high tide of overt residential segregation. In 1915 North Chattanooga (across the Tennessee River from Chattanooga) was at the time its own suburban city. It passed an ordinance saying that no "colored person" could "occupy" an "abode" in a block where white people preponderated, and vice-versa, in true "separate but equal" style. The kicker was that at the time there were only two black families living in North Chattanooga. Even though the two families were expressly allowed to remain, as the Chattanooga Daily Times stated, the ordinance "will consequently make the town practically of an exclusively white population." The newspaper went on to report that the city's mayor "received many compliments on his segregation ordinance."

Such ordinances became unconstitutional in 1917 with Buchanan v. Warley. However, it went largely unenforced, and cities and towns continued passing or maintaining such ordinances despite their unconstitutionality, to the extent that Loewen uses the case to bolster the "scholarly tradition in American legal history that questions whether the U.S. Supreme Court can cause or has ever caused significant social change."

Thus we see in just the last few days a brand-new, fresh look at the 50-year-old Kerner Report that shows the leading indicators of racial inequality in the U.S.--poverty, school segregation, homeownership, and incarceration--getting worse, not better, in spite of legislation and court decisions that should have laid the groundwork for improvement.

There are glimmers of hope in Sundown Towns. Its last chapter, "The Remedy," recounts changes that have occurred, many of them the result of personal factors writ large, as when white families have biracial grandchildren either naturally or through adoption, or when a single African-American school child leads the way to a change in attitudes. In some suburbs, African-Americans followed once Asians or Mexicans--less problematic in general to white sensibilities--broke the mold without triggering white flight, with durable multi-ethnicity as a result.

Still, to read this book is to be awakened to an untold national scandal that is the very definition of "eyes wide shut." Before I read it, I knew of one sundown town. Now I know that the phenomenon in its pure form darkens the entire horizon of my Appalachian vicinage from Grundy Co., TN, to Grundy, VA, and in its attenuated form has likely determined the racial makeup of every suburban neighborhood I've ever lived in.

Furthermore, to read this book is to be overwhelmed by the same kinds of emotions produced by a visit to the African American Museum in Washington: what kind of monstrosity holds up universal ideals only to deny them to an entire set of people?

And as to the modus operandi of that denial, here is a makeshift poem constructed from the words of a 1905 newspaper account--quoted as one of a sickening and infuriating number of examples in Loewen's chapter "Enforcement"--of "the process by which residents maintained Syracuse, Ohio, as a sundown community."

American Heroes

So long as he keeps up a good gait, the crowd, which follows just at his
Heels
And which keeps growing until it sometimes numbers 75 to 100
Boys,
Is good-natured and contents itself with yelling, laughing, and hurling gibes at its
Victim.

But let him stop his "trot" for one moment, from any cause whatever, and the
Stones
Immediately take effect as their chief
Persuader.

Thus they follow him to the farthest reaches of the
Town,
Where they send him on while they return to the city with
Triumph
and tell their fathers all about the
Function:

how fast the victim ran
how scared he was
how he pleaded and promised he would go and never return if they would only leave him
Alone.

Then the fathers tell how they used to do the same
Thing,
and thus the
Heroes
of two wars, recounting their several campaigns, spend the rest of the evening by the old
Campfire.