Saturday, May 19, 2018

When the skeleton in the closet isn't the elephant in the room: The Pentecost Pogrom of Erwin, TN

The approach to Erwin on eastbound I-26 is as attractive a drive as anyone could wish for. The Unaka chain of the Appalachians forms a dramatic and picturesque backdrop. The county seat of Unicoi County, one of the easternmost Tennessee counties that hugs the mountainous border with North Carolina, Erwin has a wealth of outdoor attractions in the vicinity: hiking the Appalachian Trail (Erwin is a favorite location for R&R for trail through-hikers), rafting the Nolichucky River that flows past it, exploring the trails at the relatively new Rocky Fork State Park. A small place with an interesting history, Erwin was for many years the headquarters of the Clinchfield Railroad that connected the coalfields of Virginia to the textile mills of South Carolina; it was the location of a significant Blue Ridge Pottery plant, with some of its workers housed in still-lived-in cottage-style homes designed by "Garden City" architects.

Erwin also has the misfortune of having hosted -- if that is how to say it -- a racial pogrom. 100 years ago this weekend -- May 19, 1918, on Pentecost Sunday -- an incident of some kind (local history says cards) enflamed a lynch mob that killed a black man, corralled the town's entire black population to watch the burning of his corpse, and threatened a similar fate to any blacks who did not leave the next day. Suffice it to say that the warning was heeded. With that, Erwin became a "sundown town" in which blacks were not permitted to live.

I drove over to Erwin this morning to look for evidence of any memory of the event.

"I heard about it growing up," said the librarian at the Erwin library, as she led me back into the local history room, an overstuffed room that looks like it might have been a ticket office back in the days when this was the train station.

Libraries often have files of newspaper clippings and other ephemera related to significant events in local history. The librarian unlocked a file cabinet for me and invited me to browse at my leisure, although she herself had only a vague awareness of the event and no knowledge of any information about it.

There was nothing about the pogrom in the clippings file. There was however a big, fat folder about the elephant, though: Mary, the renegade elephant who killed her circus handler in Kingsport, but, in order to be "executed," had to be brought to Erwin where there was railroad equipment big enough to hang her. That was in 1916, two years before the African-American purge, about which people know nothing. Mary, on the other hand ... Mary is the only thing many, many people know about Erwin.

The library has a very quiet cat who kept me company in the chair next to me while I didn't find what I was looking for.










I then walked over to the town newspaper office and bought the current newspaper (a weekly), which covered a couple of annual culinary celebrations elsewhere in the county: a ramp festival over in Flag Pond and a strawberry festival in Unicoi. There were stories about high school students racing solar-powered vehicles at Bristol Motor Speedway, a visit from a gubernatorial candidate, a fatal industrial accident at a tire plant, and an opinion columnist who allowed as how a front porch might be the key to an agreement between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Nothing about a purge of black residents 100 years ago, though.

The day wasn't a total bust. The library in Johnson City had a book that was relevant: Buried in the Bitter Waters, a book about twelve such "racial cleansing" incidents as Erwin's written by Pulitzer-winning journalist Elliot Jaspin and published in 2007. Some previous reader had flagged the chapter about Erwin by dog-earing its first page. I left it that way. "Something in the Air," says the chapter title. On Pentecost Sunday, what would that be?


I feel sure that the feeling in Erwin is probably something along the lines of "why dredge up the unpleasant past?" But don't we commemorate bad things all the time? We make whole religions out of bad events. Disasters from war receive monumental treatment routinely (Pearl Harbor, 9/11). Even events for which the nation must accept blame -- think of the "Trail of Tears" -- are studied, remembered, and memorialized.

Ironically, Erwin itself has done this with the elephant Mary. Hanging an elephant is bizarre and weird and unpleasant. But Erwin thrives on that part of its history. If you go to the town site, you will see that you can "become an elephant artist." The town is having eight fiberglass elephants brought to downtown, and it is soliciting participants for their decoration. After being exhibited for a time, the painted elephants will be auctioned off, with a portion of the proceeds to go to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN, where "retired captive elephants" live out their dotage.

Now, imagine an entire nation putting that kind of thought and care into deriving some ethical or moral recompense for 350 years of slavery, racial apartheid, and the programmatic deprivation of the civil rights of African-Americans. That's a John Lennon-sized "imagine," I realize, but hey, Erwin, you could be the dreamer that starts the ball rolling.

Like what happened on Pentecost.



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Found in translation: helping a town read its Tocqueville

I recently noticed in the Kingsport newspaper's local history column written by Vince Staten a story about Jean Nicaise, a Belgian who spent a year teaching in Kingsport in the late 50's. He recorded some home movie footage during his visit, and it has wound up on Youtube by way of the Belgian Archives and Museum of Literature.

But Nicaise also wrote a memoir in French, which includes some 60 pages describing his Kingsport experience. Vince allowed as how he was having to plug it in bit by bit into Google Translate for an English version, but he provided a link to the original -- also maintained by the same Belgian organization. I took a look at it and thought I might be able to save Vince some time and provide a translation that would be -- it is to be hoped -- more readable and more accurate than anything Translate would crunch out. I volunteered and Vince took me up on it.

He asked how I came to learn French, and the short answer was that it's in the family, what with my father's more settled side steeped in French-speaking Creole New Orleans. Torn from her French Quarter roots and re-settled in Chattanooga, my grandmother maintained her French connection with a weekly "salon" in her home at which only French was spoken. For her services to French language and culture, she was late in life awarded a "palme d'or" (gold medal) by the French government.

I now regret not going to those salons, but at the time I was a heedless teenager. What's more, an episode of antibiotic treatment as a very young child had left me hearing-impaired and oral-language-challenged, and I had a demoralizing chip on my shoulder about the fact that I was a lip-reader with a consonantal speech defect. I didn't realize at the time that the salon would've been an ideal way to practice lip-reading among French speakers. Instead, what did I do? I plugged away in a high school French class, listening to instructional language tapes that were incomprehensible to me -- because, duh, there was no lip-reading -- and completely walling off the idea that it was possible for me to understand spoken French.

But at the same time I loved foreign languages -- because of their music. My parents -- foot soldiers of the international folkie movement, armed with the records and songbooks of Oscar Brand and Theodore Bikel -- sang folksongs in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hebrew, Russian, and even some in English. More formally, I sang German (Bach), Latin (Pergolesi), and macaronic Latin/middle English (Britten) in the Chattanooga Boys Choir. Rarely did I know what any of it meant. It didn't make any difference. It was music.

(Because of my hearing, I have never understood sung song lyrics in my entire life -- even in English -- by themselves, without the help of printed lyrics. Imagine what a revelation it was when the Beatles printed their lyrics on the back of the jacket of the Sergeant Pepper album!)

When it came to the actual meaning of foreign languages, my first introduction was Latin in junior high school. Because Latin is a dead language, you don't learn it for the chitchat factor. That was my kind of language: printed in a book. You worked out the meaning like a puzzle, with a grammar guide and a dictionary. I went on to more of this kind of language learning in French in high school, Greek and French again in college, and finally to German, Spanish, and Italian in my first dream job in a library, where in the downtime waiting for "patrons" to approach me for assistance I was allowed by management to spend as much time with language learning as I wanted.

But it is French that I know best. Bear in mind that my "knowledge" is of a highly artificial kind, as it comes by way of its written rather than its spoken form. Nonetheless, there are so many printed learning tools -- and so many of them speech-oriented -- that it's possible to get some semblance of spoken nuance this way. Here are some examples from my experience:

  • I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Paris with French subtitles. I was grateful to the subtitles for helping me understand what the hell the Python boys were saying in my own native language, e.g. "ta mère était un hamster et ton père puait le sureau!" if you get my drift (plug it into Translate if you don't). I have always preferred subtitled foreign movies to English ones because I could follow the conversation better, thanks to the subtitles.
  • Also in Paris I stumbled upon one of my favorite books of all time, La méthode à Mimile: L'argot sans peine, by Alphonse Boudard and Luc Etienne. This book deserves a blog entry of its own. Argot is slang, of course, but it also carries with it more than a whiff of forbidden fruit, since it often derives from the insider language of the underworld. It's like the hip jive of jazzers, knowwhatimeanbro? In true language-guide style, the book is a series of dialogues in argot, with, on the facing page, the translation into standard, "correct" French. In general it gave me a glimpse into how oral French changes (simplifies, corrupts, enriches) the written language. It was my bible for a few weeks. I took it with me when I visited a friend of my grandmother's out in the Paris suburbs, a very proper if somewhat rigid gentleman who took one look at the book and was absolutely horrified that I would be defiling her memory by learning such trash. I was taken aback at this. But today, after years of reflection, I realize it was like going to a D.A.R. meeting and doing a book talk on something with the title I Moved on Her like a Bitch: How to Trump like a Motherfucker.
  • While in Paris I lived in a pension (boardinghouse) that, quite coincidentally, had once been the residence of the French lexicographer, Emile Littré. (The "coincidentally" became in my mind "providentially" and resulted in a novel whose title was the address of the place.) It also just happened to be right around the corner from L'Alliance Française, where I took a French class. In the French way of things, it is assumed that you will learn to converse on your own, and thus incorrectly, so you must be properly educated in the academic version (the King's English of French, or whatever). This involves a highly structured exercise called the dictée (dictation) in which the instructor reads out a passage and the students have to write it out. This played to my strengths of grammar and spelling, but at the same time it padded my conversational weakness, since the passage was read at least three times deliberately and with clear articulation, such as no conversation ever was in the history of the world. Thus I could be an ace at dictation in the classroom and a dunce at conversation out in the world.
These days I follow Catherine et Liliane on Twitter. These are brief, humorous sketches involving two middle-aged female friends (enacted, quite convincingly, by men) in a cafe or waiting in line for theatre tickets and having their say about "le buzz" of the day. Recently for example they were talking about how women needed to take over the job of leading governments because with men it all boils down to dissing each other about penis size, and this is dangerous in the age of nuclear weapons. Thankfully the Twitter feed automatically includes subtitles, which for me are absolutely essential, as without them Catherine and Liliane could just as easily be discussing the weather or soybean futures.

With all this, then, I do think I have the background to do justice to this memoir, and that is what is uppermost in my mind--doing justice to the author, Jean Nicaise, who in his Kingsport pages wants to get at a larger meaning behind his own experience. This larger meaning is the United States of America. Thus a discussion of the history of Kingsport, the tiny pioneer village on the Holston reborn as a planned industrial city, where the hospital can undergo an orderly expansion on land set aside for the purpose, becomes grist for an extended reverie on the qualities of America vis-a-vis the Old World, and how those qualities, unchallenged by a sense of peerless over-confidence, might lead the country into such missteps as the Iraq invasion of 2003. (Nicaise writes looking back and freely mixes in comments about events that took place in more recent years.)

It's hard not to think of the French nobleman de Tocqueville, whose memoir of travels in late 1830's America has convinced many American readers that he knew us better than we knew (or know) ourselves. Whether this will be the case with Nicaise and Kingsport remains to be seen. I just hope that I can help make him understood to readers of English while at the same time introducing some flavors of the Gallic language that might be, as it were, found in translation. The ear, after all, doesn't discern "sense" from "scents." The nose, on the other hand ...

If you want to get a whiff, here you go. Three installations so far. Many more to come!






Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Shake n Bakespeare

One of the advantages of living in northeast Tennessee is the proximity of Abingdon, VA, the home of the Commonwealth's professional theatre company, Barter Theatre. Every play I've ever attended there has been well worth seeing.

Last night I went there to see Shakespeare's Richard III.  Not surprisingly, another success. No doubt it helped that I had a front row seat in the smaller theatre, Barter II, and the action was "in the round," so that I was immersed in the action (indeed, at one point in the play the hunchback soon-to-be-king with the wild boar tattoo on his right tricep shook my hand).

But that was really just a small part of it. The production itself was a miracle of economy. The play's cast is large, but Barter pulled it off with a grand total of eight actors, each of whom enacted multiple roles, in some cases five or six, counting minor characters. One, for example, played Margaret of Anjou (widow of Henry VI), one of the nephews in the Tower, Elizabeth of York, a contract assassin, an executioner, a soldier, and I'm sure I'm leaving something out, which I can't feel bad about because the program itself resorted to "etc." when listing the parts played by these actors. They literally wore different hats -- a simple change in headgear was the most common device for effecting the change in character. The only person with a single role was the actor playing Richard.

Another daring (I felt) approach of the production was that, of the eight actors, six were female. Richard and his vanquisher Richmond (Henry (Tudor) VII) were men. All of the other roles in this well-populated dramatis personae were played by women. While this doesn't take as much liberty with the play as those productions that transfer the setting to another place or time (and about which I'm somewhat meh), at the same time it felt somewhat more fundamental, being a partial reversal of the well-known Shakespearean all-male convention. It had me wishing that Barter had gone all the way and presented the play with an all-female cast. How might that have set off some ripples of suggestive thought in this day of toxic masculinity!

So the Barter upheld its part of the deal in its usual fresh and creative way. With this particular play, the only problem I have is with the playwright. Not with the poetry or the plotting or any of that -- the play dazzles from the very first line: "This is the winter of our discontent." But it is altogether such an ahistorical piece of flimsy Tudor propaganda that it is really quite laughable. And you don't have to know much history for this to be the case. All you have to know, really, is that the good guy who comes out on top at the end -- Richmond (Henry Tudor) is the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, the monarch when the play was written. Once you realize that, the whole thing comes across as a bashed-up piece of folderol to curry favor.

Richard is a self-avowed villain from the very beginning, so embittered at being a hunchback that he seeks only to destroy those unlucky enough to be within his orbit. Along the way there is much self-conscious wit and jest, and it is to be supposed that Richard is able to seduce the audience in the same way he seduces Lady Anne Neville, whose spitting contempt of him (not only does his appearance fill her with revulsion, but her father and her husband were killed by his hand) is transformed into a pledge to marry him in the space of less than ten minutes. I was not convinced, and it wasn't the fault of the actor who played Richard. I'm not convinced by professional wrestling either. Or superhero comics with their mirror-image rotten-to-the-core bad guys.



The real problem for me with this play, however, is that I know that Richard's villainy is based on a number of egregious falsehoods. According to the play, Richard is responsible not only for the deaths of Anne Neville's father and husband, but also Anne herself (so he can then marry the sister of the princes), Henry VI, and Richard's brother Clarence. None of this is remotely true. And I doubt that Shakespeare's reliance on previously-published chronicles can entirely shelter him from blame. When you're trying to impress the queen by blackening the memory of the dynastic bete noire, no amount of tar is too much.

The real history is so much more interesting and full of the kind of human drama that Shakespeare supposedly reveled in. One of dramatic high points in the play is Richard's own mother's diatribe against him. To invite this kind of maternal scornful bitterness is a sure sign of Richard's unforgiveable rottenness, and Barter's actress delivered her lines with spine-tingling verisimilitude. But. Bad history. Richard's mother was in fact his champion. She even went to the extent of engineering doubts about her older son Edward IV's legitimacy because he'd pissed her off so bad for marrying beneath him. Let that sink in. She allowed it to be put about that she was an adulteress whose illegitimate child became king. Why did she do this? In order to strengthen the case for Richard's succession after the death of the then-supposed bastard Edward IV. Now that would've been a play worthy of a Shakespeare.

Instead we get an English Titus Andronicus without all the killing happening on stage. A little transcendence, but not much. Chalk it up to a journeyman's trials: Richard III was an early play, written not much later than the toga slasher Titus Andronicus. It is unfortunate for Richard's reputation that he was played false by the greatest playwright in history.

Perhaps, though, it bodes well for our immediate future if there is to be a future Shakespeare inspired by the events of our own age. The future play (enacted entirely by women, of course) will be about a villain who comes to power over a trail of dead bodies. It will be presented as historical, but the history will be as fake as Richard III. The title of the play will be Hillary I. Lucky for us! And I thought she was dead in the water after 2016.

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?