Venting

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Choosing Choice: The Great School Voucher Deception

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2019 at 1:25 PM

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Except for conversations about a woman's right to control her physical destiny, "choice" is a popular word among Conservative politicians and policy makers. For the businessman, it's a near synonym for freedom, and something Rhetoric professors might call a "god word," with high propagandistic value. "Choice," is the banner word on The Beacon Center of Tennessee's page advocating for Educational Savings Accounts, like Governor Bill Lee's re-branded and Tennessee House of Representatives-approved school voucher program. In a similar vein, fear of losing the ability to "choose healthcare providers" is key to most narratives opposing anything approaching universal healthcare coverage, just as it was when the same Beacon Center took credit for defeating medicaid expansion in Tennessee.

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"While stopping the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare was a necessary first step, it is still our responsibility as Tennesseans to find affordable healthcare solutions for our most vulnerable neighbors," Beacon CEO Justin Owen told media. Instead of Medicaid access, Beacon supported  "right-to-try" legislation, allowing terminally ill patients access to choose certain unapproved FDA treatments. A Trump-backed Federal "right to try" bill was signed into law in 2018. As noted in The Atlantic, the catchy name and promise of personal autonomy disguised a decreased ability for people who aren't medical experts to determine if treatments were effective or safe. 

If you don't know The Beacon Center of Tennessee, previously called The Tennessee Center for Policy Research, they self-describe as "an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research and educational institute." They're the group that "exposed" former Vice President Al Gore's energy use as part of an effort to counter "climate change alarmism." They're also affiliated with a right-wing cut-and-paste legislation web called the State Policy Network. It's one of those places where movements to preserve and expand "choice" by way of free market insurance and publicly subsidized private schools are born. Tennessee's decision not to expand medicaid didn't make anybody more free, it put families at risk. Around 71,000 children were left without coverage. Now that Tennessee has moved a step closer toward embracing Education Savings Accounts (aka vouchers), another "choice"-forward initiative from the sewer of America's policy factories, it's important to understand how the word is paradoxical and may not always mean what it seems to mean.

Fred Hirsch, a former professor of International Studies at the University of Warwick, wrote about the limits of choice. In his book The Social Limits of Growth, he showed how choice can't be made available to everyone, no matter how clever we get with technology. This is particularly true in regard to superlatives; the best doctor, for example, or the best teachers. This sounds elitist at first, but means and privilege only mitigate the effects of scarcity, they can't erase the fact of it. Hirsch calls these troublesome things "positional goods," and Barry Schwartz, the  Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, expanded on the concept in The Paradox of Choice: How the Culture of Abundance Robs us of Satisfaction.

"We might all agree that everyone would be better off if there were less positional competition," Hirsch wrote, swimming against conventional wisdom that competition is good in every case. "It's stressful, it's wasteful, and it distorts people's lives."

"Parents wanting only the best for their child encourage her to study hard so she can get into a good college. But everyone is doing that. So the parents push harder. But so does everybody else. So they send their child to after-school enrichment programs and educational summer camps. And so does everyone else. So now they borrow money to switch to private school. Again others follow."

Sometimes the supply of positional goods just runs out — There are only so many spots in the best teacher's classroom. Value also decreases as the result of overcrowding. Schwartz illustrates his point with a metaphor made for sports fans:

"It's like being in a crowded football stadium, watching the crucial play. A spectator several rows in front stands up to get a better view and a chain reaction follows. Soon everyone is standing just to be able to see as well as before. Everyone is on their feet rather than sitting, but no one's position has improved."
 Those not standing, by reason of choice or inability, might as well be somewhere else, Schwartz concludes. They aren't in the game.

Whatever you choose to call them, voucher systems aren't a new idea. The University of Chicago's Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman wrote about the role of government in education in 1955, and choice advocates have been inspired by his arguments ever since. He determined that government should fund schooling. It should not run schools. Friedman advocated vouchers as a means of increasing freedom through choice in the marketplace.

Educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch related this history in her data-laden 2010 mea culpa, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. While working on national education policy for President George H. W. Bush, Ravitch had gotten caught up in choice mania, but came to regret it. Advocates of voucher systems and charter schools, "were certain choice would produce higher achievement," and "reduce the rising tide of mediocrity," she wrote. The collected data told a conflicting story. After reviewing the 20-year history of a voucher program in Milwaukee, Ravitch determined "there was no evidence of dramatic improvement for the neediest students or the public schools they left behind." As with the football stadium metaphor, everybody moved, but nobody's position really improved.

"Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king," Ravitch wrote, taking on presumptions that choice and competition are necessarily a public good. "But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program."

Schwartz concludes that the scramble for positional goods creates what's commonly called "the rat race." That's expressed here as "the burden of locating suitable schools" in a sea of "buyer beware." That parents cannot "take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program" isn't a failure of teachers or public school systems or the communities where public schools are located. It's an enduring expression of political and economic will backed by an unwarranted faith in market-based solutions.

"When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable," Schwartz wrote in The Paradox of Choice.
"As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point choice no longer liberates, but debilitates." 
That's the problem with punishing and stigmatizing needy schools and pumping public education money into private markets. Or, as Ravitch put it, "With so much money aligned against the neighborhood public school and against education as a profession, public education itself is placed at risk."

That absolutely seems to be the goal. 

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Hail Caesar: Gannett Papers Announce Changes in Opinion Strategy

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2019 at 9:10 AM

There's no good way to illustrate these stories but posts without images generate less clicks and "the need to establish consistent expectations about content pushes news outlets to cover stories in predictable ways and to use personalities as a way to build brand recognition." So here's a picture of me in front of weird paintings of fish. I'm sorry.
Today's terrible journalism news: Gannett newspapers saw fourth-quarter losses in circulation and revenue. According to Marketwatch the company is reporting a 12 percent dip in sales, with circulation revenue dropping 9 percent and print advertising dropping 24 percent. The one area where Gannett has been growing also took a hit as "digital advertising and market services declined about 3 percent."

I've been anticipating this news since all three of Gannett's major Tennessee newspapers individually announced changes framed as big improvements to their editorial pages.  Those changes, like the disappointing quarterly report, fit a pattern and seem to be part of a downward trend with no bottom in sight. 

Gannett newspapers across the state of Tennessee, including The Commercial Appeal, have run similar editorials letting readers know they are "listening.” They've heard you and are, per you, developing new and improved strategies for kinder, more inclusive opinion journalism.

Redesigns can be a good thing and the print real estate traditionally reserved for unsigned editorials and nationally syndicated columnists, absolutely should be reappraised. At the same time, relinquishing the former has to also be seen as the final gasp of an era when local and regional newspapers had (or believed they had) some weight to throw around — when thick bundles of newsprint stacked as high and wide as you could see stood in evidence. But as the marketplace of ideas flattens into the marketplace, the land and physical assets these once powerful newspapers own and occupy, are seen as possessing more immediate value than either the medium or its message.   

Gannett Tennessee's new editorial plan, as variously/similarly described in its Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis papers, includes weird Aristotelian ideals for letters to the editor which, in accordance with natural law, should not exceed 200 words in the west, 250 words in the center, and 300 words in the east of the state. The columns also suggest we'll be seeing less national political commentary and “more about solutions than takedowns of the people and organizations trying to do things,” whatever that tragically vague construction means. Of course people and their sense of place/community matter very much, as they often do in communications seeking to persuade people who live in places and communities. Obviously, there will be more local stuff! And there will be more you!

Via the CA:

"By tradition, opinion has long been the section where readers found the institutional view of The Commercial Appeal. It is also where you read guest commentaries, local and syndicated columnists, letters to the editor, editorial cartoons and, of course, the daily Bible verse.

Starting this week, we are moving away from that approach to one that showcases more community voices, puts an emphasis on analysis and an expanded newsroom engagement with Memphis through community events we sponsor.

Readers have repeatedly told us that they want to see more locally produced guest commentaries and letters to the editor. And we want to deliver more of what you want."

What also has to be understood, whether it's spelled out or not, is that all this "more" is the direct result of newsrooms constantly struggling to produce a viable product with less.

The "different but same" nature of Gannett's editorials makes it hard to take their grass roots too seriously. As a rule, newspapers have always cast a wide net but walked a narrow path, as they've attempted to attract and inform readers while also being an exciting, activated, and (most importantly) safe place for advertisers. Not to mention the fact that, newspapers have frequently listened to consumers and then intentionally adapted away from their needs/demands in a misguided effort to attract lost and non-readers. This was always done with full awareness that it made bundled distribution less attractive to the same loyal, long-suffering consumers that sustained newspapers when changing technology screwed all distribution and revenue models. Naturally, we'll observe more content shifts reflecting the relative value of newspaper properties as measured against their tangible assets or lack thereof.
This pic used to help generate clicks, but now I think it makes people think they've already read the post. Economies, content, etc.
  • This pic used to help generate clicks, but now I think it makes people think they've already read the post. Economies, content, etc.
Unbundling content is easily justified on a spreadsheet. Art columns, for example, may be well read, but they aren't given the importance of public affairs reporting (which isn't prime for advertisers), and when it comes to straight clicks, little can compare to food and beverage columns. Restaurants and national food/drink brands buy ads, so if you're a business major working for a holding company that owns a bunch of newspapers, it makes total sense to calculate the small number of readers you'll lose completely by eliminating arts coverage as long as you can effectively sell the perceived public value of hard news while expanding popular dining and related soft/syndicated news. In another example, as page counts dwindle in print space, and digital content is prioritized, sports sections may run trend stories or business/recruiting analysis instead of next day scores and review. Similarly, election results may go digital-only, etc. But as more diverse, professionally created content is stripped away in favor of paid, nonprofessional, or owned off-market content, it becomes evident that the bundle is/was exponentially more useful and valuable than any particular sets of content. And by "the bundle," I don't just mean box scores, election results, stories about street names, horoscopes, and housing, I'm also counting newsprint's famously pejorative applications as fire-starter, birdcage liner, and hand prop for would be demagogues.

To borrow from the Columbia Journalism Review, "Despite all the flaws of the traditional newspaper — and there are many — the bundling of hard news and civic information with soft news, sports, comics, and more is amazingly effective at supporting broad-based political and civic engagement."

"From 2008 to 2009 civic engagement declined more sharply in Denver and Seattle than in other major cities—a result he attributes to the closures of the Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer during that period, which left them as one-newspaper towns. His conclusions are consistent with a 2013 study in the Journal of Media Economics, which similarly found that after The Cincinnati Post closed in late 2007, electoral competition and voter turnout declined in areas of Kentucky where the Post was the leading paper. It’s hard to prove a direct causal connection between the papers’ closings and reduced engagement, but other research has found that residents of areas where the newspaper market doesn’t match up well with congressional district boundaries were less informed about their representatives, which in turn caused legislators to be less responsive to their constituents’ needs."

So, you're a Gannett newspaper in Tennessee and your "readers have repeatedly told [you] they want to see more locally produced guest commentaries and letters to the editor." Have they? What a wonderful coincidence these super-thoughtful consumers are demanding such cost-effective (mostly free) content! Clearly Gannett, you have raised them right.
   
Consumer habits are no big mystery, so it's no insult to observe that allowing the public's interests determine public interest is like letting a toddler determine household nutrition standards. It's also bad business for companies who aren't nihilistically calculating managed blood loss against short-term profit. As an aside, and regardless of whether or not pulp has a future, this last bit touches on one of the reasons why fully digital models for local general daily news delivery, are still a sketchy proposition. Using both the digital-forward CA and Daily Memphian as examples, what's on offer is a basic selection of popular content (food/business/sports) and the kind of hard news everybody used to know about due to the social function of widely circulated newspapers, but which relatively few people may actually read/subscribe for.

As a perceived public good, journalism's power/value has always exceeded the technical reach of public affairs reporting and consumer advocacy. In other words, when newspapers were widely circulated, nobody had to actively consume hard news or advocacy to benefit from it. Going forward, this age-old assumption has to be modified to exclude deep familiarity, and with the understanding that presumed universal benefits for non-readers fade when techno/economic scales tip and enough non-readers can also be described as non-subscribers/consumers. This will be especially so in the absence of strong reciprocity and community engagement. Like newspaper properties whose practical worth is now weighted against tangible assets, once credit is lost, you're discredited.


The clip linked above is from the movie Hail Caesar. In it, you'll see George Clooney, dressed as a Roman soldier for his role in a manufactured religious epic. He's been kidnapped by a gaggle of weirdo communist writers who tell him that a man who understands economics and history can accurately predict the future. Now I don't claim any extraordinary insight into either of these fields, or any gift for precognition. But I did, rather flippantly, predict this change in direction, while ranting about newspaper history and economics, and their relationship to a controversial opinion column published in several of Gannett's Tennessee newspapers. I regret that the political-sounding headline, "MAGA Bro Pens Love Letter to MAGA CAP,"  may have kept some from reading media criticism that anticipates how modern economies and user habits will eventually yield more populist, probably non-professional content.

Welcome to eventually; Hail Caesar. 

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Friday, February 8, 2019

Information Control: Why TVA Ratepayers May Pay For Coal Ash Fallout

Posted By on Fri, Feb 8, 2019 at 1:33 PM

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Reporters sometimes do reckless things to bring home a story. By the time I got to Kingston, TN, in January, 2009, 24-hour police barricades blocked all apparent access to TVA's catastrophic pond breach — a massive coal ash spill NBC nightly news had  described as an environmental disaster 30-times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. National news organizations and environmentalists had gotten in early before safety concerns and concerns about TVA's reputation turned the area into a forbidden zone, off limits to everybody, especially media. Of course, roadblocks are a mere speed bump for reporters armed with scribbled directions on the back of a bar napkin. Team Flyer would make it back to Memphis with photos of the "ash-bergs," as the enormous toxic sludge formations were being called, even if it meant playing a little Smokey and the Bandit.

I'm reminded of the scene in Kingston by Gannett's sobering report highlighting extraordinary information quietly buried in a TVA earnings report. The utility is finally admitting that ratepayers may soon be on the hook for legal settlements against Jacobs Engineering, a contractor working for TVA that has admitted under oath to misleading 900 employees about the  risks of coal ash exposure. This news follows 40 deaths and more than 400 reported ailments ranging from respiratory problems and rashes to heart disorders, neurological disorders and cancer.

Via Gannett:

A jury in U.S. District Court in November ruled Jacobs violated its contract with TVA for the cleanup work and endangered workers as a result. That trial revealed TVA ratepayers had paid Jacobs $60 million for that contract work.

I'm not posting today to revisit past adventures in journalism or to advance Gannett's top notch summation of what's transpired over the past decade. In keeping with a recent theme on this blog, I'd rather look back to the weeks immediately following the disaster. Knowing what we know now, I'd like to look at this in terms of access and transparency and think about what happens when there's a disaster and information is treated like a private concern rather than a public good.  
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If you have the time, I recommend taking a look at "Shades of Gray," my vintage coverage of the Kingston disaster, published as a Memphis Flyer cover story shortly after the event. I think it makes a good companion to Gannett's latest revelation and retrospective. Like the sub-head says, confusion reigned in the early days following the spill. It was driven, in part, by a concerted effort on behalf of TVA and coal-related interests to make sure the citizens of Kingston and Roane Co. had the absolute best possible information for TVA and coal-related interests.

Via me, 2009:

A nattily dressed man with snow-white hair waited patiently, then, when he got his turn at the microphone, erupted like a volcano: "Who can I trust? Tell me, who can I trust?" he asked, his voice quivering.

The man ran down a list cataloging the incongruous viewpoints he'd been subjected to for 18 days — the time that had passed since the waste-retaining wall at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant gave way, and his hometown — once a water-lover's paradise tucked into the postcard-perfect hills of East Tennessee — became the new synonym for environmental disaster. 

"Tell me who I should trust," he pleaded, obviously doubtful that [famous organizer Erin] Brockovich or the panel of scientists — and legal consultants from New York's Weitz & Luxenberg law firm — assembled in the gymnasium at Roane State Community College were less self-interested than the environmentalists, media, or coal-industry spokesmen, all of whom seemed to offer conflicting answers.

"'Who can I trust?' was the most prescient question anybody asked,"  Owen Hoffman, the president of SENES Risk Management in Oak Ridge, told The Flyer in an interview following his appearance on Brockovich's panel. In a conversation ranging from hard science to the social dynamics at play in Kingston, he described environmentalists as being so accustomed to thankless uphill struggles, they can always be counted on to accentuate negatives while acknowledging that industry spokespeople and real-estate developers "trivialize" realistic consequences to protect financial interests.

"The ties between government and industry have been too close for many years, so it's not unreasonable to wonder if the information we get from our government agencies is reliable," Hoffman said.

Private industry was a notable player in the Kingston response. And while some residents were thankful for Brockovich's contravening presence, others expressed worry about "out of town interlopers" and "sharks." There was a lot of good reporting around the Kingston disaster, but when distinctive sides present themselves, media narratives tend to favor the controversy over the concern. That was not always the case here, but was generally as the big question became, "is this sludge REALLY ALL THAT toxic?" instead of "what's the best way to get people the relief and recompense they deserve while managing this toxic sludge?" 

"I think the public has been very poorly informed,"
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 one toxicologist said to the crowd at a food-and-drink-heavy event sponsored by the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA). "It's wrong to characterize the ash as toxic sludge. That's a pejorative term," he said. "It's like my wife complaining that she had to drink toxic sludge because she recently had a gastrointestinal exam and the doctor made her swallow barium."

Via me, 2009:

On the night before Brockovich's town hall-style meeting, another group of scientists held a different kind of gathering at Kingston's Midtown Elementary School. Consultants from the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) hosted a meet-and-greet event that included a massive buffet table weighted down with shrimp, meatballs, croissants stuffed with chicken salad, fruit, pastry, cookies, and a selection of exotic cheeses.

There was no official presentation, but Kingston residents could walk around and ask questions of the ACAA's scientists...

There was also a medical doctor on hand to address — and minimize — concerns about long-term health risks and a coal-ash expert who explained how using fly ash in concrete helps mitigate the greenhouse gasses released in the coal-burning process.

"I don't think anybody's going to see Blinky the three-eyed fish in the river," said Dr. Michael Bollenbacher, a radiation expert and the one showman among the ACAA's consultants. He took on tough questions from Harriman resident John Hoage, a retired attorney who has sued tobacco companies.

Bollenbacher's reference to Blinky was likely a response to the opening paragraphs of a 2007 article in Scientific American called "Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste" that had been making its way into e-mails all over Kingston.

Bollenbacher worked the crowd like a blackjack dealer, running a pair of Geiger counters over bags of local dirt and coal ash, as well as over typical household objects. The dirt and coal ash triggered little response from the machines, while the household objects made them screech...

"Did you hear what happened when I held it over the plate?" he asked, as if the red Fiestaware on the table was typical of contemporary kitchenware. But red Fiestaware, which hasn't been produced for decades, is somewhat infamous for containing uranium and lead that can be leeched out by acidic foods such as tomato sauce.

"But what do I know about any of this?" Bollenbacher asked rhetorically. "I'm just a dumb scientist, an independent consultant who doesn't have a dog in this fight."
It's only as radioactive as this plate.
  • It's only as radioactive as this plate.
Let's generously presume that the ACAA's indie consultant didn't know the plate he used to represent an ordinary household object was infamous for tickling Geiger counters. And maybe nobody assembled at the coal-friendly event had a "dog in the fight." But 10 years, and many deaths and illnesses later, it looks like coal ash loose in the environment might be at least a little more hazardous than dinner service. 

John Hoage, a retired attorney who attended the coal-friendly eat-and-greet, wasn't having it. Hoage, who had sued tobacco companies in the past, pulled out a folder of information he'd collected about the ACAA. He said the organization's membership page reads like a "Who's Who" of coal industry heavyweights. He said he didn't think anybody was telling him the whole truth.

"All of this reminds me of the 1950s," Hoag said. "The tobacco industry had scientists, too, and they used similar arguments to minimize the risks of cigarette smoke."

Hoag was particularly interested in cases related to prolonged exposure to smoke — like flight attendants trapped in smoke-filled cabins. He thought this was a more apt comparison to the situation in Kingston, than odd shots of barium related to occasional medical procedures. 
Now here's the real question: Why was there a controversy for media to report and residents/consumers to contend with in the first place? While it might be entirely true that coal ash, an ingredient in various modern building materials, can be essentially harmless when it's stabilized by containment, that information, no matter how accurate, isn't useful to anybody when vast quantities are dumped into the environment. To get to the bottom of things The Flyer found a scientist named Bryce Payne with a 15-year history of working on unrelated coal ash piles. He essentially affirmed the ACAA's most optimistic claims, but that wasn't anywhere near the end of Payne's informed assessment.

If the ash is released from the pond and exposed to substantially different environmental conditions, as happened in Kingston, however, Payne thinks there is then a substantial chance that the previously stable elements will become unstable. If that occurs there could be a net release of the toxins "that will accumulate to potentially threatening levels."
 Also:

"Among humans, the tolerance for exposure to toxic elements can vary widely," he explained. "Some can tolerate high exposures, some only very limited exposures. The same is true among plants and animals. Carp are a rough fish species, tolerant of pretty poor water quality. Other fish species cannot tolerate conditions that carp thrive in."

Payne was extremely reluctant to be interviewed at the time because, in his opinion, the  news media does a terrible job reporting on science. He worried about sensational treatment and that his comments would be decontextualized to support pro-environmentalist positions he wasn't endorsing. As Memphis fans of Dr. Heckle's science news podcast already know, bad science reporting is a legitimate concern. I think I did okay by him though, and four months later he's quoted in The Nation expressing even grimmer concerns about the state and federally backed cleanup project:

Despite warnings that the dredging may trigger a major toxic event, the TVA, backed by federal and state officials, is following through with its plans. “There apparently has been horrendous pressure to dredge at any costs,” said Bryce Payne, an independent environmental consultant who has been working on fly ash for more than fifteen years. “But the fish and similarly vulnerable biota in the Emory and Clinch River system simply will not be able to tolerate additional selenium.”

More from The Nation May, 2009:

Payne, who has offered his consulting services to the TVA and state regulators, wants officials to understand why so many of the best-laid plans could be heading toward disaster. In the March 20 e-mail to Sloan, he questioned the TDEC’s assumptions, pressed the agency to make its selenium data public and criticized Tennessee’s water-quality standards as too permissive regarding selenium. He zeroed in on the state agency’s pledge to follow up on fish tissue studies. The problem with fish tissue tests, he explained, is that selenium “bioaccumulates,” inching its way into fish and animals over months and years, not days and weeks. If you find selenium in high concentrations in fish tissue, the theory goes, you’re already in trouble. “[Fish tissue data] will not tell you how much more selenium may still come after you have finally detected that a threatening amount was there in the first place,” he told Sloan. In a telephone interview, Payne said that the threat was hard to detect: “Selenium, by its nature and chemistry, will sneak up on us,” Payne says. “It’s like the frog in the pot of slowly heating water.”

Among scientific experts, Payne is far from alone. “The folks in charge feel they don’t have the luxury to consider other ways to clean the river out,” said Joseph Skorupa, a biologist and selenium expert with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “But they should understand that letting loose selenium is a momentous decision.”
So why did it take 10 years, possibly 40 deaths, and more than 400 illnesses to get a quiet admission in an earnings report that ratepayers might be on the hook for liabilities resulting from TVA's bad stewardship at the edge of real darkness? There are lots of reasons, obviously, but I'm going to let TVA and politicians off the hook momentarily and answer in words I've typed too often lately — words readers will probably grow tired of seeing as I write more media and information-related posts over the next several months: Markets determine news content.

Let's face it, producers can only squeeze so much reality appeal from the chemistry of  Selenium, an element that, according to studies cited by the EPA,  may result in things like "discoloration of the skin, loss of nails and hair, excessive tooth decay, listlessness, lack of mental alertness etc." According to The Nation the agency "also labels selenium sulfide, a selenium compound, a 'probable human carcinogen'”  But that's not my point. Responsible science reporting doesn't make for gripping, accessible prose or TV news content attractive to the most broadly attractive consumers (to advertisers) who, according to the best sources I know on the topic, don't give a flip about public affairs reporting. Still, many commercial newsrooms thought this story worth investing in. The Flyer, a small, typically hyperlocal newsweekly from the other side of the state, thought the incident was valuable enough to send a reporter when it happened. Regional news teams followed the story year after year and the incident only received sporadic statewide or national notice. But if the Kingston spill was 30-times larger than the Exxon Valdes disaster, it wasn't half as hyped.


Gannett's latest summation, as reported in its various Tennessee papers including The Commercial Appeal, accomplishes everything good newspaper reporting is supposed to do, covering and contextualizing a lot of complicated ground. But from the onset, Kingston's narrative turned on controversy rather than urgent common cause. As is often the case with shocking events, when it stopped being breaking national news, it was never again amplified or sustained by social or legacy media long enough to force scrutiny, build mass-trust or foment opinion in the face of considerable public relations efforts by coal-related interests including, by TVA's own self-congratulatory account,100-million in dollar diplomacy investments "that improved or enhanced Roane Co." Not to mention that generous seafood-laden buffet I once covered. I can't deny, those fat shrimp assured and delighted my disaster-deprived tummy all those years ago.

WBIR's Dec., 2018 retrospective noted that TVA had given $32-million to area schools after the disaster — more dollar diplomacy. The report stated that the $1.2-billion cost of cleanup was spread out over 15 years, at no additional cost to ratepayers. 

There's a lot of blame to go around, but the worst of everything that happened in Kingston was amplified by people not knowing who to trust or to turn to for help finding good information. The death, discomfort, displacement, and personal loss is an indictment of private, state, and federal priorities. But it also represents the failures of an information industry that may never find an economic platform for sustained and meaningful public affairs reporting in the modern age. Absent that, there will always be too many deterrents, distractions and roadblocks preventing consumers from accessing the information they need and never enough barricade-evading directions scribbled on the back of bar napkins. 
Yes, we dumped a bunch of coal ash in your backyard, but aren't you hungry?
  • Yes, we dumped a bunch of coal ash in your backyard, but aren't you hungry?
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Erin Brockovich in Kingston
  • Erin Brockovich in Kingston


  

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Local 24 Quietly Deletes Controversial Tweet

Posted By on Thu, Jan 10, 2019 at 10:00 AM

WATN, Local 24, had an interesting way of framing news about Cyntoia Brown's commuted life sentence.

Brown, the teenage sex trafficking victim who killed a john when she was 16, was granted executive clemency Monday, January 7th.

Here's WATN's original tweet on the story:

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Local 24 quietly deleted the tweet Tuesday, after it started receiving negative attention. The account has made no official mention of the deletion, nor has anybody accounted for the unfortunate framing of a tragic and complicated story.

Commissioner Tami Sawyer cuts to the heart of things:


Over the past week, MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas has been taking local broadcast stations to task for the huge role they play in linking African-Americans and criminality. She's been particularly vocal about the number of black faces linked to crime that show up in local social media feeds whether the news is local or not.


If you want to know just how disproportionately crime is reported in the Memphis market, the Memphis Flyer does an occasional survey.

This isn't a condition unique to Memphis and since, at a national scale, local TV news stations reach more viewers than all the top cable stations combined, it's fair to say that regional broadcasters across America play a huge role in shaping urban narratives related to race and crime. Local 24's tweet is just the latest example, and an especially egregious one. 

By deleting the tweet, someone has acknowledged its inappropriateness or, at least, the potential for controversy. But deletions like this require some accompanying public statement. For example, when WMC distanced itself from a deleted tweet reading: "Nashville is still trash,"  a subsequent tweet explained the deleted post didn't represent the station's "values or views."

Whether there's an accounting or not, here's something to think about. Negligent and incendiary headlines and the over-association of black and brown faces with violent crime isn't new, and neither is criticism pointing it out. The people responsible for organizing and distributing the news in 2019 know exactly what they are doing. They do it anyway. 

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Paint Memphis: So Much More Than Zombies

Posted By on Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 5:50 PM

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Regardless of what we all may think about Memphis' big silly zombie murals, I think we can all agree on one thing:  The Memphis City Council doesn't really get public art, who makes it, or how. Hopefully most of us can also agree that it's in nobody's best interest to induce Satanic panic or base policy on superstition. 

Right Councilman Joe Brown?
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For better context you can follow the links above, and I promise to write more informatively on this topic later. Right now I just want to share a bunch of pictures and think out loud about my drive South down Willett, beyond all the stately Midtown homes and mansions, into the increasingly dilapidated and largely vacant zone where it hits Lamar. Here there be monsters.
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Murals like the ones currently causing a fuss are designed to have a relatively short shelf life. They are destined to become sun-faded or overwritten by fresh coats of paint. In a perfect world the empty buildings are filled, and freshened up accordingly. That's not a free pass on criticism — far from it. There are good reasons to question things like access, community input, how much may or may not have been done to include neighborhood artists and whether or not it's a good idea to paint a big reanimated corpse on a major thoroughfare. It may also be helpful to look at the entire result and not reduce an enormous project like this one to a single beastie.

Contextually, none of the art — not even the most extreme — seems all that out of place on a stretch of Lamar where skateboarders work out their tricks, graffiti-covered boxcars are parked along the elevated railroad tracks, and abandoned properties have been tagged for decades. Most of the work is positive, celebrating the music and moods of a moody, musical town. Some of it's quirky. Some of it's really lovely.
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As this conversation continues, pay attention to the whole street, and to street-life on a corner dominated by empty properties, a gas station, and a skateboarder's hideaway — just around the corner from a public school for the arts. There are lots of good conversations we can have about access, public input, and so on. But those conversations do need to acknowledge that projects like these are infinitely amendable, and undertaken in the absence of industry. Unlike Memphis' Confederate statues, there's no entrenched zombie agenda working to keep buildings vacant and spookily decorated. As one friend put it, "art's messy." And in this kind of temporary, low-stakes arena there's probably room for mistakes, poor judgment and even bad art. Because — barring some regrettable and reactionary policy — there's going to be a next time, and ample opportunity to listen, learn and do better. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Nobody's Banned "Gone With The Wind" in Memphis — Even if the Commercial Appeal Says So

Posted By on Tue, Aug 29, 2017 at 5:21 PM

Beefed up security at the Orpheum.
  • Beefed up security at the Orpheum.
Let's talk about the B-word. No. Let's talk about the C-word.

No.

Let's talk about the fact that there's an armed guard in front of the Orpheum protecting folks with families who spend their days booking Broadway shows, coordinating the High School Musical Awards, developing concert programs, planning summer camps and curating a popular film series. That's a dangerous job now, apparently, and media — local and otherwise — only add fuel to the fire by misrepresenting what happened there this week when it was announced that, after a good, 34-year run, the Downtown playhouse would drop Gone With the Wind from its popular Summer film series. No matter what you may have read at The Commercial Appeal's website this week, nothing has been banned in Memphis. Not Gone With the Wind or anything else. The word "banned" implies a kind of authority the good folks at the Orpheum just don't have over the distribution and screening of media in Memphis. Any mainstream media that uses that word chooses to pour fuel on a fire that, judging from the presence of the guard out front, may get somebody —probably not the author or editor — burned.
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The Orpheum did what every cultural institution in the country does every single day. The staff made a curatorial decision — a decision that would be valid even if Gone With the Wind wasn't controversial. Why should Gone With the Wind be a tradition and not Selma? Or Bambi or The Big Lebowski for that matter? Why should there always be room for Gone With the Wind and never room for Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust, which is more regionally appropriate, and tells a different and more vital story of the American South than the blazing, over-the-top romance of Gone With the Wind.

Never heard of Intruder in the Dust you say? This is why we curate. We also curate because culture shifts, what's relevant now may not be relevant 5-minutes from now. And relevant or not, a 4-hour film like GWTW is ultimately a less valuable  investment for theaters like the Orpheum than a 90-minute flick that also sells out. Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, would save the Orpheum two full hours-worth of overhead on everything from labor to utilities.


So many popular films have been made since 1939, and there are only so many slots on the Orpheum's Summer series. While there's nothing wrong with reviving  popular films, there are too many great films to choose from to guarantee any one a permanent spot on any lineup. Unless, of course, that film somehow speaks  to a community's identity and has a renewing effect for those who attend. If Gone With the Wind is that film, what does it say about our community?
What fresh bullshit is this?
  • What fresh bullshit is this?
Let's also take a minute to talk about propaganda like this article that begins with an admission by the author that, in 2014, he warned everybody that the Left would ban Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles — a paranoid fantasy that hasn't, and isn't likely to come to pass anytime soon. His proof: OMG Look what happened to Disney's Song of the South!

The stat, referenced by Alt-Right-friendly Breitbart, comes from a 75th-Anniversary survey by YouGov.com, a digital polling site described here as, "An online global community of people who like to share their views and opinions on life... marketed more towards individuals who wish to express their opinions about current events and controversial topics." It's an "opinions for prizes" shop so we're looking at a self-selecting sample in a celebratory context, and maybe not an accurate, contextualized example of community opinion.  The money quote:

"If there is one last bastion of racism still accepted in America, it is the racial condescension we always see from the left, this constant treating of minorities, especially blacks, as children who are unable to deal with a statue or a word or a movie."

The problem here is pretty basic — and ironic. Unlike the practically homogenous Right, fighting to uphold this film and its paternalistic race narratives — the Left is made of minorities as sure as Soylent Green (another slot-worthy film) is made of people.

There's an even bigger problem with this kind of hysterical, and historically unsupported crankmongering. Let's forget how easily this rhetoric comes apart by inserting nouns like Watermelon and Fried Chicken in place of Gone With the Wind in the headline, and for the sake of argument, let's accept Breitbart's highly questionable stats at face value. Let's allow that 73% of African-Americans do, in fact, love Gone With the Wind so much they want to marry it and have its babies, whether they know anything about birthing or not. So what? That stat doesn't mean the film's cultural value merits a guaranteed slot on any Summer film series any more than any other classic or popular film. It's a meaningless number used in the service of specious rhetoric.

Did I mention that there's an armed security guard in front of the Orpheum? Because there is. Because the folks over there made what should be the kind of uncontroversial curatorial decision that is 100% their's to make. Whether it's in light of the tragedy in Charlottesville, or just because it's Tuesday. Now people feel endangered because this vintage playhouse — a true Southern cultural treasure — wants to mix things up, expanding its offerings and its audience in the process. It's bad enough that propaganda organs like Breitbart have become so influential. But it's shameful when local media turns up the pressure by reenforcing false narratives with badly chosen language.



UPDATE: To be fair as I can be the CA's John Beifuss has done great work all around. The CA's issues stem from Gannett and a culture defined by consolidation not community.







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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Remember When Memphis Comment Trolls Wanted to Remove Public Art?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 23, 2017 at 11:31 PM

This art will be the end of us!
  • This art will be the end of us!
The year was 2002 and five little words had some of Memphis' most prominent white Conservatives frothing at the mouth: "Workers of the World Unite."

From a cover story I wrote at the time:

In 1934, the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers adopted the principle that art should promote only a rigid slate of political and social ideals established by the state. This movement was dubbed Soviet realism.
In November 2001, Memphis City Councilman Brent Taylor, and Shelby County Commissioners Marilyn Loeffel and Tommy Hart, took umbrage at one of nine public artworks sponsored by the UrbanArt Commission (UAC) for the new $70 million Central Library. Their aim was to have an offensive quotation removed from a public walkway because it expressed a sentiment which they deemed to be out of step with wholesome American values.

The irony grows sweeter considering that the offending "Workers of the world, unite!" is excerpted from The Communist Manifesto, which sparked the revolution that eventually birthed the school of Soviet realism whose precepts were unknowingly co-opted by Taylor, Loeffel, and Hart.

A pious group of Memphians led by one William W. Wood of the hastily organized Shelby County Coalition to Save the Memphis Library began a biweekly vigil to pray over the wicked artwork. The same group sent out scorching mass e-mails comparing the presumably elusive UAC with Osama bin Laden and labeling the board and administration of the Memphis/Shelby County Library "a special branch of the CIA."

Toss in the eccentric patriot in a red, white, and blue suit who makes regular protest pilgrimages to the site and you have all the ingredients for an old-fashioned dog-and-pony show. Even The New York Times got in on the action, noting that "The cold war may be over, but Marx and Engels have nevertheless managed to create a small political furor in this old river city."

The backlash came as a complete shock to Brad and Diana Goldberg, the Dallas-based husband-and-wife team responsible for designing the artwork. They intended that their piece function as "a metaphoric record of important events and knowledge that have shaped Memphis, the Mississippi River Valley Region, and the rest of our world" since the beginning of recorded history.

It was less of a shock to local political columnists who practically stumbled over one another to spank Taylor, Loeffel, and Hart for striking such a provincial pose. Susan Adler Thorp aptly observed in The Commercial Appeal that "Tearing down the Iron Curtain and destroying communism were simple tasks compared to accommodating [their] need for political opportunism, and logic."

CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE STORY.

Why mention this vintage kerfuffle? Because debate over the removal of Confederate monuments rages on in comment sections across the World Wide Web. It's nasty, getting nastier, and even the President of the Comment Section himself, Donald J. Trump, weighed in on the side of White Supremacy. I'm revisiting it because there was a time, not so very long ago, when white Conservative Christians — spearheaded by elected officials — thought it was wrong to memorialize the enemies of America.

Thing is, the library sculpture aimed to reflect world-changing ideas generally, and wasn't political in nature. It certainly wasn't ideologically aligned with Communism, and guess what? Memphis didn't transform into a hotbed of socialism. The hullabaloo blew over. People mostly forgot it was a big deal and the piece just kind of blended into the landscape, as it was intended to — like concrete and granite shrubbery nobody ever had to water.
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But let's not kid ourselves. It wasn't JUST the Communist history upsetting the easily upsettable. In a right-to-work environment, it was also the out of context message of worker unity, divorced as it was, of its Marxist origin. Nothing's more terrifying to the unreconstructed set like the idea of a united working and underclass or any unified threat to the hegemony.  This has always been true.

Public response to public art is directly and proportionally-related to public values and the degree to which those values are reflected in the work. That's why modernism in the public sphere met with so much backlash at the end of the last century. As one heartland critic noted in the 1970's: "I think people are tired of New York Arty-art. You can keep it in museums where it won't bother anybody." Coming full circle, abstract work becomes attractive in the public sphere again for the exact same reason — people can't ascribe values, making it harmless. We tend to divorce the Confederate memorials from similar conversations about public art. Probably because it clears the fog of war and makes the question of values (or negative values) so apparent.

 All art speaks to the future, and public art speaks with authority. That's why this battle has been so bitter. It's not about the past, it's for the future. As the City of Memphis, spurred on by united activists, creeps forward with plans to execute this long-overdue removal (a process gummed by Tennessee's regressive and cowardly state legislature) I thought it might be interesting to remember when all those people down in the comments today screeching, "history," and "heritage," were out in the street chanting (okay, praying) "tear it down!"

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

When Boy Scouts are Political Props

Posted By on Tue, Jul 25, 2017 at 11:43 AM

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There's no real point in recounting a story that's been all over social media since yesterday. We all know the President told a lurid story to to the Boy Scouts of America who were gathered at their annual Jamboree, turning his opportunity to inspire young America into a deeply weird political rally. Regardless of one's political leanings, nobody needs an opinion columnist to tell them that's uncommonly bad form, even for this Chief Exec. But there's another question we already know the answer to that may be worth asking: Why didn't somebody cut Trump's mic?

I know — "You don't cut the mic on the leader of the free world, it's just not done, ever." Undeniably true.  Then again, a lot of things just aren't done, ever. Like using the fine young men of the BSA as political props. Only, that IS done, I suppose, and maybe more often than folks realize. I can share at least one example in the form of this video from Memphis' first Tea Party where conservative Mid-Southerners sporting anti-immigrant signs and pictures of former President Obama with bullet holes in his face, got themselves good and radicalized.

4/15/09

I'm not offering this as any kind of evidence that the BSA is overtly political — I know too many Lefty Eagle Scouts who've kept themselves physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. But for anybody wondering why the scouts cheered Trump's political message, there's plenty of not-so-ancient history to consider.

Scouting of all kinds took a membership nosedive during the 1970's. Girl Scouts USA reversed that trend, while the BSA continued to lope forward, declining all the while. Why? University of British Columbia political science professor Barbara Arneil may be on to something:

"A younger civil rights generation, informed by a new set of post-materialist values, did not join traditional organizations like the BSA and GSUSA because their values were deemed to be outdated. The challenge for traditional organizations therefore was how to respond. Using path dependency theory, I argue that BSA and GSUSA—shaped by their own unique origins and identities—responded very differently to the critical juncture of the civil rights generation, which in turn explains the subsequent divergence in membership patterns from the 1980s onward. While the BSA rejects such changes in order to defend traditional values, the GSUSA, which established a commitment to challenging gender norms from its birth, embraces the new values and adapts virtually every aspect of its organizational identity to this new generation."

In spite of its melting-pot image, the BSA's history of racial justice has ranged from spotty to poor. The organization only reversed policies allowing discrimination/segregation in the middle-1970's, and only because they found themselves on the losing end of legal action. Signs of progress appeared in 2015 when the BSA appointed its first Chief Diversity officer and just this year the BSA reversed a century-long ban of transgendered scouts. That doesn't add up to welcoming, and one has to believe that, all real exceptions and exceptional leaders considered, the organization's dug heels, and hard fought battles against acceptance and diversity, have shaped membership and culture.

#notallscouts, of course. And #notallscoutleaders, obviously. But there's a reason why the kids cheered the immoral President, and nobody cut his mic that has nothing at all to do with decorum.  This moment wasn't an anomaly as the BSA's subsequent press release suggests. It was a culmination.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Winning: You Can't Blame Trump for Selling the Sizzle

Okay, you totally can

Posted By on Tue, Jan 24, 2017 at 5:23 PM

The asking continues
  • The asking continues
From "alternative facts" to the claque of shills and yes-persons planted to energize President Trump's rambling address to U.S. Intelligence, it seems fairly evident that years of political punditry telling Americans the country should be run like a business, paid off with a chief executive who believes every piece of it.

I confess to a bit of shock that "alternative facts," a concept recently injected into the American conversation by Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway, shocks so many people. It's like nobody with an internet connection has ever worked in marketing or advertising.  AlternaFacts aren't some exotic Soviet-style plot. (Or, maybe it's better to say they aren't only an exotic Soviet-style plot). They're an American staple, as common as cornbread. Branding is unquestioned in business, and pervasive in government, no matter how adult and dignified. Anybody who's ever held a job marketing, even if that job was just making coffee and answering phones, can tell you, when the facts are unfavorable, it's time to roll out the new improved model. Good salespersons know language is incantatory— a witchy-sounding word for reality altering. Or, as the nonthreatening guy-in-an-ugly-sweater hired to lead trust exercises at the company retreat is more likely to put it, "Winners tell better stories."
President Trump made clear in a murky address, winning is the goal. Not achieving or progressing. But domination in trade and war. And Memphians know — or should know — what it means when Donald Trump wins. Now, instead of taking down Holiday Inn he's coming after NATO and the EU — realigning the axis because, as the man said, "to the victor belong the spoils." Plunder to the people! Or to the right ones, anyway.

Did you hear? (Oh, of course you must have heard, the new administration babbles like Jersey Shore 2.0). Your new Chief Executive has a cropped photo of his inauguration crowd. He's hanging it where the press can observe a mighty failure to tell better stories for the Trump brand. Kinda like how they hang beautiful pictures of sandwiches in BigBox meat departments to make bologna look amazing. Similarly, he's cropping another, much bigger picture by ordering USDA research scientists and other federal agencies to cease public communication. That's called getting ahead of the message. He's also put a freeze on government hiring, and executive orders are coming hard and fast. To some — okay, to many — it looks like we've handed nuclear codes to a thin-skinned extremist who likes to sign his name but would frankly rather be watching television or feuding with Meryl Streep. Isn't it all just a big ol' editorial cartoon of business as usual (in business)? Isn't it the same crummy stuff you hate about dealing with your cable provider? With just a little extra hint of, "I can't believe Bryce prefers Van Patton's Card to mine."

Business serves brand interests and investment. Government serves people. Nothing's quite that cut and dry, but that's the general idea. When the screenplay gets flipped certain words get looked up in the dictionary. And we're not even a week into this horror movie.

Applause sizzles like a nice cut of meat on the grill. As a walking brand Trump knows instinctively what master salesman Elmer Wheeler preached to anybody and everybody who wanted to add to their bottom line — the sizzle sells shitty meat.

Eat it, America.

via GIPHY


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Great White Shark: How Does Donald J. Trump Pay His Debts?

Posted By on Wed, Nov 9, 2016 at 1:25 PM

Hail to the Chief
  • Hail to the Chief
Houston, we have a white people problem.

The rush to determine the big story of the 2016 election is on. Some folks will get stuck on the rural/urban divide or Florida’s love of third party candidates. Other’s will focus on the failure of polling, vote suppression, and Comey’s bogus email letter while Bernie fanfic spreads like polio in a libertarian anti-vax dystopia. But no matter which way you spin, this cycle's only got one really big story — Honkies, WTF?

The Times’ Nate Cohn didn’t say it in so many letters, but he tweeted a helpful rubric for thinking about the election.
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They’re also a scared 40% of the electorate, and between craven irresponsibilities of TV-News, and urban/suburban development that’s been hiding poor people since WWII ended, it’s not strange that Trumpian tales about cities where residents mostly just get shot, ring true. Americans are heavily networked thanks to social media, that doesn’t mean we’re connected a bit.

Within the framework of disconnected connectivity, legacy media — particularly broadcast media with its steady slide toward reality programming — was instrumental in building the bleak fantasy world of Comment Section America. Night after night TV-news links images of brown skin and crippling poverty to criminality, while making the “inner city” synonymous with "urban slum." Day after day, for decades, talk radio and cable news re-enforced those scary images, while railing against affirmative action, public assistance, and other things brown people might be getting that they might not deserve. Meanwhile, rural white poverty, extreme and pervasive as it is, goes comparatively unexamined, giving a lot of lost people plenty of non-hateful reasons to feel screwed and forgotten.

The twilight of American manufacturing happened more than 20-years ago now, and those jobs aren’t coming back. Since then the working class— every segment— has taken hit, after hit. The middle class withered, organized labor failed, and slowly but surely white people went fucking insane. The Atlantic chronicled some of this back in January, in a feature about life-expectancy-shortening spikes in suicide, and substance abuse in white, anxiety-wracked America:

From The Atlantic:

“Free trade and automation undercut the bargaining positions of the working class. Political leaders, bankrolled by the wealthy, rolled back the interventionist policies of the New Deal and postwar period. Corporations, once relatively tolerant of unions, tapped a cottage industry of anti-union consultants and adopted unseemly tactics to crush any organizing drives in their workplaces.

Problems of mental health and addiction have taken a terrible toll on whites in America—though seemingly not in other wealthy nations—and the least educated among them have fared the worst.”


At this point a lot of smart people are probably (hopefully) making the jackoff motion with their dominant hand because, “Oh, boo hoo!” things are tough for working people everywhere, and when we’re talking about life expectancy and and disease, African Americans and Latinos still win the booby prize. Unfortunately, nobody experiences the relativeness of poverty, only the privation, which brings us back to that reactionary thing that happened last night, and the chilling message it should send to women, whose bodies remain a battleground, communities of color, still plagued by systemic racism, immigrants (especially darker ones who don’t look like someone a Trump might breed with), Muslims (of course), Jews (that last ad was scary), journalists generally, Katy Tur specifically, Hillary Clinton, and, at long last, Graydon Carter.

Trump’s poll-defying performance had nothing to do with religious piety, family values, being a pretend cowboy, or any of the old conservative bedrock about silent and moral majorities. His Russian linkage is positively surreal for so many of us who saw Red Dawn and Rocky IV at the Drive In. Racketeering charges combined with Trump’s billionaire status, and adamant refusal to disclose income tax documents, make the Donald an unlikely champion of the fabled Occupy/Tea Party nexus. So whither this pale coalition of patriots, evangelicals and ordinary average guys?

Angry white bros are always with us. When people are so disaffected, prejudices pour in and grow to fill the void. Everybody needs somebody to blame, and this horrible drama plays itself out everywhere, all around the world. The bigger the void, the bigger the prejudice, and there’s no reason it has to be logical or make any kind of sense at all as Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi showed so deftly in his 2009 description of a Kentucky Tea Party rally — “A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries.”

Nous sommes au Mississippi. (You too Moscow).

If there is a bottom line, it’s this. A large, mostly homogeneous, reliably wrong, and often truly deplorable chunk of America feels the political system’s failed them. And, whether they're thoughtfully protesting neoliberal empire, or lashing out at all the wrong people over self-inflicted loss, and the absence of good paying jobs, they aren't wrong about feeling reamed. Because, unless you’re connected to that fabled 1% we’ve all been badly used. Americans spent the last half century divided six ways to Sunday, fighting culture wars one battlefield at a time, and seeming to win some important fights (one at a time), while everybody on all sides conceded one collective economic defeat after another. It's a cliche, but there’s no I in “we the people.” Sadly, nobody bothered to tell a huge swath of America, including all those angry Trump supporters out in the land of meth labs and lottery tickets.

It’s tempting, on the day after the unthinkable thing got thunk, to look to similar elections for answers. But in spite of some superficial resemblances to Bush/Gore 2000 and Truman/Dewey, 1948, there’s no good precedent for an outcome that amounts to a sniffly national temper tantrum. So the questions turn in a different direction What can satisfy this newly awakened white nationalism? And what happens if President Trump can’t deliver?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Russian Roulette: The Resistible Rise of Donald Trump

Posted By on Wed, Nov 2, 2016 at 9:01 AM

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And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!


— The Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime.”

To borrow one more line from David Byrne, “How did I get here?” How did we stagger to the place where a commie rag like Mother Jones breathlessly reports on Russian ops, while real Americans root against the Wolverines? How did I go to bed in a country that elected Barack Obama, and wake in a world where a non-story about Hillary Clinton's emails might put Donald Trump into the Oval Office?

I can answer that question with a video I shot at Memphis’ first Tea Party rally in 2009. None of this started in Shelby Co., of course, and the machinery responsible for this year’s election has been grinding away for 40-years, at least. But this is the period when gloves came off. When it became okay for America to stop pretending it wasn’t bigoted at the core. So, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when it was okay to go out wrapped in the flag, wearing a t-shirt depicting Obama caught in gun sights, with a face full of bullet holes.
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Often, though not always, the Tea Party was portrayed as a patriotic, Christian movement, and you’ll hear that point of view repeated even today in places like American Family Radio — an allegedly Christian family of stations that, interestingly enough, began its foray into political programming in 2009. In retrospect, it’s difficult to see this movement as anything but a backlash to the election of America’s first African-American President, creating unusually lopsided momentum going into the typically sleepy midterm. And not just any sleepy round of midterms either, but elections that determined which party would get to redraw congressional districts, gerrymandering for maximum advantage.

In the video I’ve embedded audiences will thrill to the same white nationalist urges Trump taps into, and witness unfocused anger at every turn. Viewers will be amazed by anti-regulation speech built to leverage job insecurity against fair wages and worker protection.

What happened in 2009 was a kind of Right Wing tent revival — a renewal of vows exchanged long ago between America’s white working class and industry tools with no history of reciprocity. It’s a queer relationship with roots in the 60’s, when college draft deferment made education suspect — a class signifier separating those who fought for America (regardless of how they felt about it) from those protesting America.


Ironically, the seed that blossomed into Trumpism sprouted in 1968, while the Donald was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. To make desegregation meaningful, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected freedom of choice in the case of Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, ordering the board to end racial discrimination, “root and branch.” Urban bussing policies that followed created backlash among a newly middle class (and newly suburban) set of former New Deal Democrats, bringing them first under the influence of segregationist Dixiecrat George Wallace, then into the trajectory of Richard Nixon, who made good use of America’s oldest cultural fault lines.

Nixon’s not known for being stylish, but he was a smart strategist. When his people observed that acting like a tough guy increased his support among the white working class, he ran with it, pitting America’s conflicted labor force against a crumbling New Deal, setting the stage for Reaganism, and the not-so-subtle messaging of “Morning in America.” And pretty much everything that's happened since, including a pair of two-term Democrats with Nixonesque tendencies to answer the Left and Right with Conservative core policies.
It’s ridiculous how much Hillary Clinton hurt herself in this election cycle with her infamous “basket of deplorables” comment. While it’s undeniable, that the right side of our political spectrum, is responsible for a lot of clearly deplorable stuff, and tends to feel victimized whenever somebody stops them from victimizing others, America’s fucked up white working class isn’t completely wrong about feeling wronged. They’re just terrible at identifying the real enemies. Labor — which should have been a great progressive unifier — failed them in the 70’s, which is important for two reasons. First, it marked the end of anything like solidarity in a nation that was never that united, and always unable to account for class, factoring in the confounding variables of race and gender. This also relates directly to Clinton’s relentlessly uphill battles going all the way back to her 90’s-era work on universal healthcare since Labor’s historic failures frequently illustrated how sexism was more ingrained in American culture than virtually any other ism. Even in the relatively progressive UAW, multiracial coalitions for fairness on the shop floor crossed picket lines and openly mocked women striking for the same basic reasons. To this day women’s apparent advances are misleading, being more related to declines in male earning power than evidence of changing attitudes.

Pundits like to talk about a "values based" urban/rural divide. But that’s not right. When you break down the pieces, Donald Trump’s brand doesn’t align with anything uniquely rural or urban. His values, as they align with supporters, are best understood as, “classy casino” values” and Saturday Night Live brilliantly illustrated this with the “scratch off,” bit in its widely shared Black Jeopardy sketch. Forget about guns, god, and gays — The 3-G issues, framed and cultivated by talk radio, and cable news to suck consumers into a state of daily outrage, quite unable to explore common cause. The culture stuff is still simmering, but it was all pretext and prelude. People are finally ready to go to war for their God-given right to be as bad off as they are now forever — and the remote chance of inheriting a billion dollars from a rich cat lady they never met, but who greatly admired their work in the local newspaper's comment section.


Speaking of comments, few things from this year’s election reveal more than Donald Trump’s double-pronged scare campaign painting undocumented workers as potential rapists, and the “inner city” — an outdated Morning in America euphemism for “urban slum” — as a place where you can’t walk to the store without being shot. This is the fantasy world of TV news and “comment section America,” where everything exists without context and, in the flyover world of bedroom communities and interstates , often without contact.

Please forgive this momentary theater critic’s aside. But the more I ask myself how we got here, the more I’m reminded of the Vampire play Cuddles, a gruesome hit in New York and Great Britain, currently enjoying its first American production outside New York at TheatreWorks on Overton Square. In addition to being many other things, this nightmare before the apocalypse, is also a special kind of class satire. It tells the story of a joyless caregiver who lives in a lonely castle and locks her life’s biggest embarrassment away, feeding it a steady diet of fantasy, jelly sandwiches, and, on special occasions, a few drops of precious bodily fluids. The embarrassment — a young, deplorably dirty girl —  is kept in an old, deplorably dirty place to insure her safety. She's a vampire, you see. Or we’re told so. And true or not, the small, pale girl's demeanor changes eventfully when the caregiver — a person responsible for everything the little bloodsucker consumes, from a normalized polluted environment, to information that’s almost exclusively fiction — decides she’s no longer willing to open an occasional vein. It’s not a terrible metaphor for the relationship of mainstream politics Left and Right to base voters. But it’s an especially fine reflection of the GOP and its cultivation of the “Silent Majority,” the “Moral Majority,” and the “Tea Party.”

Eventually, the monsters we make assert themselves. Which reminds me of another line from SNL’s Black Jeopardy, about animals that won’t hurt you — “What kind of dogs don’t have teeth?”

If you want to know how Trump happened, just watch the 2009 video and maybe you can take some small comfort in realizing we aren't recently horrible. It’s short, so there's no big time investment. And it's full of revealing moments like when Conservative talker Mark Skoda starts preaching like John the Baptist, about the evils of regulation, and the need to support big Oil. He says all the right things to scare miners into not noticing nobody gives damn about the quality of jobs they may or may not lose anyway, or their place in a viable future economy. Skoda, who says he “loves being radical,” was absolutely paving the way for the unsuccessful person’s twisted image of a successful person to come along — a real man’s man, tough enough to look into the eyes of people who won't abide anybody running down their country — and tell them he’s going to make America great again.

That's how we got here. That's the easy part. How we get out's another story entirely.

Having said all that, go see Cuddles. It's not perfect, but it's not bad. I'm pretty sure the Halloween-loving New Moon didn't intend to stage the season's most prescient political satire. But boy, did they.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Bob Corker Has Tiny Feet And It's Funny When He Stamps Them

Posted By on Thu, Oct 20, 2016 at 1:05 PM

Sitting in a tree.
  • Sitting in a tree.

Last night Senator Bob Corker took to Twitter — like so many brave keyboard commandos — saying it was "imperative" for Trump to accept election results, even if the outcome is unfavorable. It was the yappy lap-dog definition of "all bark," since Corker's endorsement stands. Like so many Republicans this cycle Mr. Corker, a smallish man, and adorable in his junior-sized suits and cute little shoes,  has been rendered almost entirely ridiculous by a candidate he's clearly embarrassed by, but upholds as America's only hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Enough of that. I'm not here to bash Corker — silly as he is — or to criticize Trump either. If anything, I want to express some sympathy for a poor devil, so deep into his own narcissism he couldn't think beyond who was wronging him and who was crediting him long long enough to realize the debate moderator, Chris Wallace, was tossing him softballs made out of pure red meat. Guns? Abortion? Grand bargains— the ultimate Republican Viagra? A reasonably versed Conservative could have grabbed hold of all these opportunities and owned the night. But, unfortunately for both the GOP and America, that candidate didn't show up.

What happened last night wasn't a debate, it was an informercial for Hillary Clinton. When a candidate — in this case Trump — opens with "Nobody has more respect for women than me," then hisses, "Such a nasty woman,"  in the drama's falling action, this is what we in the storytelling business call a narrative arc. Over the course of that arc Clinton was able to talk about policy using clear, connecting language. She was able to make powerful statements directly to women, all of whom know what it's like to be dismissed and belittled by a man. And she was able to get away with a lot of stuff that needed challenge and critique. The new border technologies she was talking about? Probably drones, not forcefields. And can we have more particulars about "no fly zones" that bring us into close quarters with the Russian army? Instead of thoughtful comment pushing his opponent into deeper conversation, the best we got from Trump was, "wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong." Sniff. 
There's no real point in parsing the details of last night's debate — though I could go on for pages about Trump's inner city comments, with all the blacks, and the Latinos, where you can't walk to the store without getting shot. But at this point in the race particulars aren't all that relevant. Trump's trailing. Worse, his downward trend suggests he had to do more than just show improved discipline. He had high benchmarks to hit in terms of clarity and temperament. He never got close, undermining all improvement with his refusal to accept an unfavorable election outcome. That's the thing Corker took him to task for. On Twitter. In his little suit and shoes. While still endorsing the man. While still supporting the man. While, presumably, still voting for the man. 

"Imperative." Ha!

Maybe it's not fair using Corker as the stand in for a Republican party that's failed America by standing steadfastly behind a lazy-minded candidate who doesn't know the difference between a challenge and a threat. But somebody needs to tell him, and all the rest of these little boys using big boy words and playing big boy games, that fake tough is the weakest hand you can play.

I wish I could say America deserves better, but to borrow a line from the comparatively competent Romney campaign, we built this. So stamp away little Bobby. Stamp away. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Andy Holt to Give Away AR-15 Rifle, Would Hand Out More

Posted By on Mon, Jun 13, 2016 at 3:08 PM

screen_shot_2016-06-13_at_2.53.29_pm.png

You know, it's getting easier to see things through the lunatic eyes of Tennessee Rep. Andy Holt, (R)-Duh.

Every unhinged missive he fires off sheds a little more light on the pig farmer's thought process, and finally it's clear to me, per Holt, that the Second Amendment exists, in part, to insure bad guys have access to immense firepower. Because that, in turn, furnishes good guys with deserving targets for their own, even immenser firepower. It's pretty obvious, really — right there in the constitution between the words, "well regulated," and "militia," and not all that hard to see if, like Andy, you squint. 

Holt's been out of the spotlight lately. According to a Facebook post, he's been "toiling away in the dirt," just trying to provide for his family. That honest endeavor provided the  legislator with an opportunity to think, pray, and commune with his Lord. You see, a man with a history of hate and abusive behavior walked into a gay bar in Orlando, Florida Sunday morning and, in no time at all, gunned down 50-innocent people with an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon. Holt had planned to give away one of those deadly, fast-shooting rifles at a campaign fundraiser and turkey shoot called HogFest. But now, in the Orlando massacre's horrific wake, Holt's so consarn mad about the dadgum liberals, he wishes he could give away more.

"I'm furious," Holt writes and — oh hell, I'm just going to copy the whole thing right here.

"I'm furious over the fact that our government literally refuses to recognize the threat of radical Islam. I'm furious that it is no longer an insidious threat; but has been allowed, and even encouraged, to become an all out blatant attack due to the inaction of our irresponsible government "leaders." I'm furious over the fact that reckless 'leaders' like Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) rush to blame the 2nd Amendment rather than radical Islam. I'm furious over the fact that so many are too ignorant to understand that the Twin Towers were not brought down by a firearm, but we're instead brought down by radical Islam. Do you think these people care if they use a gun, bomb or an airplane? I'm furious that so many like Cohen cannot wait to leave us defenseless in the face of such great risk. I'm furious that I get phone calls from the media asking me if I'm still going to give away an AR-15 at our HogFest, rather than asking me how many extra firearms I'll be handing out to ensure people can protect themselves. After all, it was a bullet that stopped the terrorist. Amazing how so many seem to miss that fact. I'm furious that the NSA continues to spy on ordinary Americans like you and me, yet allows suspected terrorists to easily walk away. I'm furious that I see elected liberal democrats rushing to literally blame Republicans for this tragic attack on the LGBT community. While I am a conservative Christian, my heart literally breaks for these women and men on so many levels. I'm furious that these same liberal democrats rushing to condemn conservative Christians that may disagree with a lifestyle, simultaneously rush to defend a religion that readily hangs and massacres gays and lesbians. Ever been to a country where Muslims are the majority? If you have, you'll find gay men hanging in the streets. This is disgusting in so many ways. The media, our government, it's all literally disgusting. I say all this to say that I understand how angry you all are. You have every right to be.

All that being said, I want you all to do 3 things for me.

1.) I want you to call the ones you love most and let them know how important they are to you. I want you to hold onto them for dear life. I want you to cherish every last moment.
2.) I want you to arm yourselves and learn to shoot with deadly accuracy should the need arise. Protect your family. Protect yourselves. Protect your friends. Our government has made it quite clear that it is incapable of doing so. At the end of the day, it's your responsibility anyways.
3.) I want you to pray. Pray for the victims and their families. Pray for our country. Pray for the followers of a deadly, merciless religion. Pray for leadership. Pray for mercy and grace.
Dear media,
You want to know if I'm still giving away an AR-15? You bet the farm I am. And to those that have a problem with it, ‪#‎MolonLabe‬!
How about asking liberals when they plan on banning gun free zones?
Holt, who's introduced his share of faith-based anti-gay legislation, burned his traffic tickets on YouTube, and shown support for antics perpetrated by the Bundy Ranch militia, seemed particularly upset by gun-hating Democrats like Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen, who would "leave us defenseless."

The question, of course, is who Holt means by "us."  

If memory (and Google) serves, Senate Republicans joined together (on the day after the San Bernardino massacre no less) to block a D-supported bill that would have prevented people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns legally. Cohen vocally supported that measure. He's also co-sponsored legislation regulating large capacity ammunition, and closing fire sale loopholes. And yet, somehow, in spite of all that reckless Democrat behavior, even the NRA Political Victory Fund graded Cohen a gentleman's C. Not perfect, but not too shabby for somebody trying to leave Americans all defenseless and shit.

But let's not forget that "a bullet... stopped the terrorist," Omar Mateen, who was picked up and questioned about ISIS ties, but still able to pick up an AR-15 like it was a quart of milk. 

See. The system works. 



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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tennessee Psycho

Posted By on Thu, Nov 21, 2013 at 1:19 PM

Nashville Tennessee
  • Nashville Tennessee
My name is Nashville. I am the state capital of Tennessee, located right on the Cumberland River. Reese Witherspoon has a home in my Belle Meade neighborhood. Jack White has a club here too, and although his early albums with the White Stripes were a little too punk for my taste, I can't get enough of the excellent 2012 single "Love Interruption." I especially admire the line "Stick a knife inside me/And twist it all around."

I believe in looking out for myself and, even for a handsome "it-city" with an NFL franchise and a massive music industry, that's no easy task. I use an expensive deep pore cleanser and a fine honey almond exfoliating scrub. And I start my morning routine by absorbing nearly all film and television subsidies allotted for the entire state in order to prop up my universally acclaimed namesake TV show.

Each morning over a cup of coffee at The Frothy Monkey I read the newspaper. Just yesterday, as my labyrinthine mind contemplated things like RCA Studio B, the Hermitage, The Parthenon in Centennial Park, Cheekwood, the Gaylord Entertainment Center, and Yazoo beer, I discovered that, in spite of having terrible jobs, difficult lives, and low access to healthcare, Memphis, that fat, economically devastated city on the Mississippi, is somehow much happier than I am. Now I cannot stop looking west and wondering what else I need to take in order to change this.

There is an idea of Nashville, some kind of abstraction. You can visit the gift shop at my Country Music Hall of Fame and take in a concert at Robert's Westernwear. You may even get the sense that you know me. But the fact is, no matter what the maps may say, I simply am not there.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Sinkholes and You

Posted By on Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 9:19 PM

The infamous I-240 Sinkhole of 2010... and what emerged from it
  • The infamous I-240 Sinkhole of 2010... and what emerged from it

A lot of people have their attention on the skies above, afraid of unmanned government predator drones, unpredictable weather, or even alien invasions. But it's not the sky you have to worry about it's the ground beneath your feet. No, I'm not talking about mole people. I'm talking about my greatest fear...sinkholes.

You might be thinking, "Mike, what's so scary about sinkholes?". I dunno reader, what's so scary about a portal to HELL opening up in the middle of your city?!?

Oh Im sure its not that.. OH MY GOD I CAN SEE CHINA
  • Honey don't overreact. I'm sure it's not that... OH MY GOD I CAN SEE CHINA!!!

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