Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Gospel of Andy Griffith

The story -- which I have heard often enough from reputable enough people to believe -- is that "The Andy Griffith Show" dominates the ratings at 5:30 on weekday afternoons where I live. As a matter of fact, again as the story goes, a competing station once paid a vast sum to get rights to the Oprah Winfrey show when she was at her nation-dominating height to run against Andy ... and lost. To this day, at 5:30 pm in the Roanoke-Lynchburg television market, you will hear with the certainty of the sun rising and the tide shifting the whistling theme of "The Andy Griffith Show."

It's one of a handful of anecdotes I always tell newly arrived people moving to the area. (Another is that Roanoke once had a Hooters restaurant ... which went out of business. It wasn't put out of business, it just didn't get enough customers.*) I tell these in order to help people understand in a more visceral (and hopefully sympathetic) way the culture of the area. Call it my gentler version of The Hillbilly Elegy.

But what is it about Andy that holds such rock hard appeal? You would think that the viewership would age out. (The station only airs the early black-and-white episodes, with Goober and Gomer Pyle appearing fairly late. I was once told there are only 107** of them, which run in sequence, and then the line up begins again.) How could anyone born in the 1990s or even 1980s find anything in the small town of Mayberry circa 1961: before the Kennedy assassination and the upheaval of the 60s, before rap and the internet. How dull and figuratively as well as literally colorless it must seem to them, wouldn't you think?

The Word of the Lord

In the Catholic Mass (as in most Christian services), there are rituals of gathering and prayers, and then readings from the Bible: the old Testament, some from the later books (eg: letters from Paul), and finally the Gospel.

The priest takes up the usually ornate copy of the New Testament, which has been on display on the altar, and shows it to the congregation, first to one side, then the other, before walking to the ambo and setting it down to read.

I enjoy that, which to me is a very tangible connection to the 2,000-year history of the Church and its rituals, a remnant of the time when most of the congregation couldn't read and that New Testament was probably one of only a handful of actual books in the community. "This," the priest seems to say with his gesture, "is the real deal. See, right here, I have the book with the writings we have all gathered to hear."

The readings are on a regular cycle (three-year for Sundays and two-year for weekday Mass), so if you're a frequent churchgoer, they're aren't going to be a lot of surprises. Then why bother with all the hocus-pocus and recitation? Simple: to re-enforce the common beliefs and values that bring that community together.

As you've probably already realized, I think The Andy Griffith Show serves a similar function here in Southwest Virginia. It's a vision of an idealized middle south (fictional Mayberry is in the mountains just over the NC border; nearby Mount Airy claims to be the town it's based on), a place where an amiable sheriff rarely feels the need to carry his gun, community members settle differences eventually, and even violent crime is more acting out than a real danger. It's a place where everyone has a role which he or she seems to understand and have somehow organically settled into, where assisting one's neighbor is assumed, and even when someone is insufferable (usually Barney Fife), he is politely tolerated and handled in a way to not hurt his feelings.

While Big City types occasionally pass through (sometimes as criminals, sometimes as government officials or state police), the are briefly dealt with and sent on their way or embraced until their more obnoxious characteristics are smothered and they come to appreciate the True Way of Mayberry.

I can, at this moment, imagine a Marxist academic recoiling in his dashiki-covered desk chair as he does a spit take with the organic, free market chai he (although he prefers some other pronoun, no doubt) just put to his lips. What I have described to this person is the very vision of entrapping horror, a gray flannel world dominated by the white patriocracy, an intellectual and in some cases literal prison without bars, more reminiscent of a dystopian nightmare than an ideal town.

"Be seeing you, Andy."

But that is both to see my point and miss it. Unlike you, professor, these people live by the calming rules that smoothed out the rough edges of life. There was crime and dissension and conflict, but it was the crisis of a family, not the signs of a sick society. You knew where the problem was because you all knew the rules of interaction and behavior, and those rules outlined a path to resolution.

In today's world, the world where our professor would enrage himself over the bigoted, misogynistic, stultifying white male privilege of Mayberry, those foundations shift and sink. It's okay, the Andy viewers ask, to dismiss the faith of evangelicals, but not Muslims? The Other must be welcomed, but members of the tribe shunned? And I have to be careful which pronoun I use?!

Better to flee, even if only for thirty minutes, back to a world where stability was sure and seemed infinite and the rules were the ones I was taught by my grandma.


* However, a new consortium is working on bringing several new Hooters to the area. Perhaps they need to spend some time, while they're up to that, watching Andy.

** Wikipedia says there are 159 black and white episodes (Seasons 1 through 5)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Moment of Clarity: Two Thougths on the Media World

While watching TV today, I grew impatient with an extended ad break. With some 250 satellite channels to choose from, I had already mapped out a couple of alternative shows to view, and switched to the next ... also in an ad break. But I stayed there. Why?

One might argue it's a constant search for novelty (the old show was okay, but now I wanted something different), but I also think it was actually the quality of the ad. The old show had a classic, cable-TV, 1-800-number product pitch on it, while the new show had a creative, artful, high-end candy commercial. Simply put: I found the new ad more entertaining.

Is this a trend? Is this something of importance? As technology allows us to time-shift and skip commercials, is the answer to make more commercials more like actual entertainment? We seem to have discovered this with Super Bowl ads, which now are featured in shows of their own as part of the game run up. Is the old truism that an annoying ad which caused you to still remember the product was an effective ad now obsolete?

Frankly, I can find this only a move to the good. It reduces the amount of garbage in the world, and the increase in the amount of "art" of a form, even harnessed in the cause of sales, can only make the world a better place.

And maybe it will provide work for the truly talented, hardworking professionals who make film and television ... which leads to my second thought.

As news media cut back, trying to do more with less, one of the areas frequently cut is in photography. Much of this is due to a misunderstanding of the skill and professionalism good photography and photojournalism require, as well as a failure to appreciate the necessity for good (if not great) photography rather than just adequate pictures.

Now, I continue to search for a clear, relatively simple of explanation of where the money has gone (old media companies were able to make tons of money producing newspapers and television broadcasts using more people and much more expensive equipment; what's the difference now?), but in the meantime it strikes me that we could be on the cusp of an interesting professional moment.

To back up a bit, corporate media thinks they have found a solution by reallocating news collection resources. They assign several tasks to a single journalist (classically, the Multi-Media Journalist -- MMJ -- or one-man-band of local TV, where the reporter also shoots and edits the story), they accept more handouts both from organizations and from non-profit and other non-traditional journalism organizations, they encourage "citizen journalists" to send in pictures and information, and so on. All of it is driven by the fact that these things cost less than paying professionals to collect news.

What to do, if you -- like me -- treasure the image of a journalist (that being a person who is curious and interested in learning an accurate account of what we call news, who then can take that an present it to the rest of us as an enlightening, understandable and maybe even entertaining piece, no matter what the media ... to be over simplistic)? How do we save the profession of people dedicated to its idea and ideals?

Well, this is not really a new question, though it might be a newish variant. And I think an answer might be found in the past.

The legendary photo agency Magnum was founded in 1947 by some of the great photojournalists of the day, men who had tired of a media environment they saw as tyrannical as we might see today's: a place where corporate management calls the tune by way of available jobs and money, and no room for creativity or deeper coverage was allowed. They decided to fund assignments themselves, then have agents sell the stories for the best possible price. Magnum continues today as a key player in the photography world.

So, if the new media corporate world wants to eliminate staff and the expense of continuous coverage, go ahead. Let's answer them by forming our own world of little Magnums: co-ops of photographers and writers with similar visions and interests, covering stories and making them available to the highest bidder. This will mean some business and bargaining acumen on our part, though we wouldn't be the first. Besides the older example of Magnum and other photo agencies, one can find any number of photographers (like John Harrington) and writers who are also clever businessmen as examples. (Sadly, I am not one of them.) We just can't accept their scraps with gratitude as we have in the past, but insist the work has value.

Now this in turn requires the consumer to discriminate between quality work and crap, but if we go to my first thought, where I reflexively turned away from the bad ad to the good, it should shake out. The question is whether management will see that at the start and avoid the difficult culling period ...

Monday, September 5, 2016

Time and Tide

My Mother-in-law is fascinated on occasion by a book, The Rivers Ran East. It's a story about an explorer's adventures searching for a legendary city of gold, and when she gets onto the subject, one is as likely to be entertained by the lengthy and complicated story of how she first encountered the book as a summary of what it is about.

Lately, she rediscovered the book and has been rereading it, stopping daily to urge me to read it and attempting to press her copy on me with the enthusiasm of an evangelist with a brand new edition of the New Testament and a tribe of undiscovered natives to convert. I unfortunately am in the process of trying to finish my own reading project, an old paperback of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo.* It seems the curse of my work and life that I either have a great deal of time to intensely read, and plow through multiple books in short order, or no time at all, meaning I might get through a single page before unintentionally falling asleep, the book slipping from numb fingers as reading glasses droop on the bridge of my nose.

Which gets me, after this overlong prelude, to the point of all this: time.

Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they'll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we're only mortal.
-Jean Luc Picard
Star Trek: Generations

That's very nice, but I tend to agree with -- or at least feel the same as -- the "someone," actually the movie's villain. He was willing to sacrifice an entire planet and those aboard the USS Enterprise to step into a timeless rift in the universe, freezing himself in any time he chose so as to not be stalked by the predator he feared. Not sure I go that far, but I do have some trouble seeing the grinding passage of time as some sort of amiable companion.

The other day, I heard a book discussion on the BBC with Judith Kerr, the author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. It is a novelized version of her own life as a young Jewish girl in Germany during the rise of Hitler. In it, she admitted that the book's title was not where she started, nor even her idea, but it was what struck me very strongly, especially as it was all I knew of her or the book before hearing the rest of the broadcast. It refers to how, in their escape from Germany to Britain by way of Switzerland, the young Judith lost her treasured pink, plush rabbit, left behind in their home. She writes how, as a child, she imagined Hitler keeping the toy himself, as some treasure of his own. But as a parent (and an unreconstructed child) I am tragically struck by the sad loss of a beloved toy.

What Are You Afraid Of?

When I was a child -- or rather a young teen -- the concept of mortality struck me very strongly. It became finally, inevitably clear that there was no escaping death, and there is no clear answer to what exactly death brings. One can choose faith, or perhaps some vague concept of the supernatural, or one can resign oneself to ceasing to exist -- Pop! -- in a terrifying obliteration of self. It frightened me, and there were long periods where, poignantly self-aware, I saw the approaching darkness with dread.

Now older -- more than four times my age then -- the fear has faded, to be replaced by regret and a deep sense of loss. Time, rather being a fearful treadmill driving me to uncertain obliteration, is now a thief, stealing away friends and family, treasured moments and possessions.

I guess this too is a factor of aging. I no longer fear the future (that inevitable knock to come from the Reaper), but a loss of the past. As a teen, there was more future, and I looked forward. But now there's more past, and I guess I cling to the things that give me comfort.

*About the books: This was started ages ago, and I have finally finished Nostromo. I have not finished The Rivers Ran East, a dreary accounting of discomfort, danger, flesh-burrowing bugs, and cannibalistic natives written by a man who intentionally set out with inadequate support, supplies, or money. I have since moved on and read two other books. My mother-in-law has happily also moved on to other books ... though I'm sure my day of reckoning shall came.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Secret Code of Cartoons

My mother-in-law lives with us. At 90, she is slightly (she would say) hard of hearing, and so generally one can hear what she has on the television. Today, it was "Stagecoach," the classic John Ford Western. And while I of course recognized the music (a compilation of Western melodies and generic period orchestral accompaniment) , it was suddenly the orchestration itself that struck me. I realized it sounded just like the music in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Carl Stalling, the man behind the music in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, was a true genius recently appreciated with a collection of his work. As the booklet in the disc set explains, "Stalling's propensity for flat-out quotations of Warners-owned pop songs and public domain folk tunes is evident from the very first." Indeed, as the publication explains, a key part of Stalling's work was his encyclopedic memory of songs available in the Warner's catalog -- music the studio already owned the rights to and could use without cost or limit.

Now, this meant a lot more when the cartoons were made in the 40s, because these songs were not only owned by the studio, they were well known tunes from feature films, and also pop hits. So when Stalling chose "We're in the Money" for Daffy's celebration of greed in "Ali Baba Bunny," it wasn't just a pleasant piece of music to fill out the audio track.

But what struck me today was the realization that there was a secondary undercurrent in that backmessage. The orchestration itself -- perhaps accidentally, because that's how movie music was done then, perhaps with intent -- also sends its own message. The music coming out of my mother-in-law's room, without the visuals allowing me to pigeonhole it as feature or cartoon, sounded just like the cartoon music.

So the cartoon, given a fraction of the time a feature gets, was able to concentrate its message with a range of cultural references, tune choices ... and they way those tunes were played.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

I Must Struggle to Write

I have written before about my irregular habit of posting for this blog, and my desire to do more. But, as I say in the title, I must struggle to write ... as in write more, and more regularly.

Great writers develop habits, like those listed here, and here. I need to make a habit of writing.

As with all things, the problem is time. I've written about time before too, though not in a way useful to this, but it is interesting. The problem is there's not enough time. Like most Americans today, I feel I barely have enough time to do what needs to be done to begin with. (And I'm told I need to accept this as "the new normal," which I refuse to do, but that's another post. Look, I'm ahead of the game already!)

What I need to do is start controlling and carving up my time in some sort of fairly organized fashion. Writing is work too. Treat it as such.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Everyone Is Not a Photographer

Now, with ten million iPhones and fully automatic, digital cameras, everyone can be a photographer, right? Photojournalism can be easily replaced with user-submitted content (after all, we can't be everywhere, while they are) and what story illustration that is needed can be done by reporters with minimal training and smart equipment, can't it? and, as was once said to me by a manager, if you think about it, all the greatest, most famous spot news pictures were shot by amateurs, weren't they?

What crap, and here's just one example of why. Shortly after the bombing in Brussels airport, videos appeared, notably one of grainy, black-and-white CCTV footage, claiming to show the event. But it wasn't. And it wasn't the only example of crowd-sourced deception and fallacy. The BBC in 2012  used a user-submitted photo to illustrate a Syrian massacre. Too bad it was a news photo of bodies in Iraq. (And don't act all smug by pointing out that I'm offering just two examples in four years; I could cite dozens, but just don't have time to do the research. You know this is a problem. Don't be obtuse.)

Quality is usually the argument I make in this area, but it's more than that. It's trust. The entire concept of journalism as we know it today is based on the trust that what is being shown and reported is in some way true, and it's the loss of that trust through technological developments like Photoshop and the self-inflicted wound of wanting more for less and less. Just hire -- and adequately pay -- professionals to do a proper job.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

So This Is Lent

In what is one of the most brilliant episodes of an often brilliant show (masquerading as a snarky cartoon), Futurama addressed the question of God. In one sequence, a group of vaguely Tibetan monks, the Monks of Dschubba, appear. They spend lifetimes using a radio telescope, searching the universe for God.

Protagonist Philip J. Fry wants to use the telescope to search for his lost robot friend, Bender, and pleads for a moment with the Monks' equipment.

Philip J. Fry: Come on, you guys have forever to find God. All I'm asking is one measly lifetime to find my friend. 
Monk #2: Master, he speaks out of love for his friend. Perhaps that love in his heart is God. 
Monk #1: Oh, how convenient! A way of looking for God that doesn't require looking through a telescope. Get back to work!

This is just one glorious little gem in the episode, but one which I always look forward to, because it summarizes how many of us approach religion these days, and it's this attitude that Lent is here to help us reorient ourselves.

This is something that has bothered me for a while. As I said in my last post, so many have lightly "adopted" Lent -- or at least the language of Lent -- without giving any thought to its meaning or putting in a real effort.

So what am I getting at? Am I just being an elitist killjoy, demanding others to quit having fun, stop taking stuff with a sense of humor, and while they're at it, get the hell off of my lawn? I hope not, but by the same token, I want us to take a moment to think about whether we have ceased to take anything seriously as we have rationalized and excused ourselves from any spiritual work at all.

Take those who say, "I go surfing on Sundays, because I think I'm more in touch with God out there on the waves, becoming one with nature ..." And so on. Blah, blah, blah. As the Master of the Dschubba might say: "No you're not! What crap! You're surfing." That's like saying, "God wants me to be happy, so a weekend in Vegas, drunk and with hookers, will bring me closer to the Lord." That may be the Charlie Sheen method (and look where that's gotten him), but it ain't religion, or for that matter spiritual.

If you're going to claim a religion, then do it. Actually put in a little effort, for God's sake. And that -- he says, finally getting back to the start -- is what Lent is all about. It's a time to pause and think. It's a time to stop congratulating yourself, indulging yourself, letting yourself off the hook. It's a time to ask: How can I be better? How can I do more? How can I more properly fulfill the spirituality I claim to have?

Or you can go surfing and give up chocolate or something. Whatever.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


I once told a friend -- happily a frequent viewer then of this blog -- that I had a hard time finding stuff to say. I needed to be both inspired and inspiring, and I still think I do.

There are some pieces in the works, but writing is hard. To find something worthy of your time (I refuse to be the guy who does the word equivalent of posting a picture of lunch on Twitter) and then to make it something that is readable, something that has writing that makes reading easy and ideally a pleasure ... well, it takes work, and concentration, and time. I find I just don't have any of that. Especially concentration.

What is it about days recently that I not only keep running out of time (I'm stealing a moment here while actually working as an audio technician at a radio station) but more importantly focus? I used to consume books wholesale, take time to read news, come up with the occasional original idea, and maybe settle in for a moment to form what I think is an interesting little piece of writing that might entertain others.

But now it's a treadmill of crisis management; the focus just isn't there. I have never had the most patient personality -- I find things like jogging boring; I've always said my short attention span made me perfect for television -- but now no cohesive thought, no structured story arc or well reasoned argument can settle in for production.

It's a predicament ....

Sunday, January 17, 2016


Commentator and columnist H. A. Goodman recently wrote on the Huffington Post: "Americans have never voted for someone they don't like and don't trust, which says something about the Clinton and Trump campaigns. When only one candidate is trusted in a presidential election, and another remembers landing in Bosnia under sniper fire (that never happened), there's only one likely outcome."

"As a general rule, I don't trust many politicians, but I trust Bernie Sanders — the man walks the walk and talks the talk," Shaun King writes in the New York Daily News. "I believe in him, I believe in his team and I believe he can win."

For someone who wrote, back when I first started the experiment of blogging, that I wouldn't do politics, I have been writing a lot on politics lately. But I begin here because an election provides a good, obvious testing ground for what appeals and what doesn't, providing clear metric results rapidly. Politicians must find an image, a simple concept ideally expressed in one word (eg: Hope), that will drive people who don't otherwise pay a lot of attention to the details of government to vote for them.

It can be anything, and you can frequently see campaigns run through efforts to find their theme, and a theme may ring true but not be the one that wins. The successful campaign links that season's Zeitgeist with an image that works.

I think the theme of this season is: Authenticity.

In an age of internet memes (Where's my money from Facebook? What, that's a lie?), "reality" TV, and Photoshopped pictures, it's hard for people to believe anything. For something to be simply true, without hidden agendas or outright deception, seems not just refreshing but unique.

A good example of how it works is the Maroon 5 music video of their song, "Sugar."

It shows the band doing ambush concerts at weddings, surprising happy couples with a special treat. Now, there is some question of just how authentic the video is, but perhaps this makes my point. It has almost a billion views (yes, billion with a B) and has a generally positive response.

When I first saw it, I said it was just the sort of thing the candidates should do right now, while their characters are still being established in the public mind. Once a politician has a fixed storyline (Al Gore is boring, George W Bush is dumb), it's very hard to break them out of their public pigeonhole. No amount of aides saying, "If you only saw him off camera! He's nothing like that!" will fix things.

Maroon 5 comes across as genuine, playful, and appealing, bringing a surprising moment of joy to people who obviously like them. What politician wouldn't do anything for that image? Or, for that matter, what business wouldn't love to have customers feel that way?

And the video brings this across in an almost documentary form, re-enforcing the image by showing it in a form that looks captured on the fly, occasionally peeking behind the curtain (watching them drive to the gigs, setting up the stage, sharing drinks after with the couple) as well as embracing handheld camera work, etc.

In the end, I think people want to know you are what you seem to be, whether you're a politician or a business, and you need to show them that.

Sincerity - If you can fake that, you've got it made.
(At least I think so; I found it on the internet)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

He's Kind of Gray

What's up with the continuing success of Donald Trump in the presidential race? Much of it is a mystery to me, but there's one element that relates, I think, to my last post on the Confederate Battle Flag.

Now I'm hardly the first or only person to be seeking the reason for the unbelievably long run of the Cirque de Trump. When not predicting his imminent disappearance, most all of America's pundits (and the more "important" and "authoritative," the more likely) have been trying to solve the mystery of the Trump supporter.

Take, for example, Peter Wehner in Commentary:
What’s fascinating to me is that for many Trump supporters, the kind of flip-flops and philosophical transgressions that would disqualify any other candidate many times over doesn’t apply to Trump. The question is: Why? What is it about Trump that causes some people on the right to suspend their critical judgments, renounce fidelity to conservative ideology and policies, and extend immunity to Trump in ways they would never to anyone else?
His is a populist moment – and for them, Trump is Mr. Anti-Establishment. They see him as the confrontational outsider, unscripted and not politically correct, a person who can shake up the system. Donald Trump is The Great Disrupter. In addition, he knows how to “school” the “establishment” types and has their “number.”
Andrew Prokop of Vox also riffed on this idea, explaining that Trump's casual dismissal of his support for politicians in the past was a refreshingly honest moment in the first Republican debate. "Trump's analysis of how money influences politics isn't about straight bribery. It's about building a long-term relationship in which each side does favors for the other. He gives to politicians, and then, he says, 'When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them.'" This, Prokop wrote, is part of the appeal. "One of the main themes I've heard from Trump supporters explaining why they support him is their belief that he 'can't be bought.' And weirdly enough, his frankness about how he himself has tried to buy others helps make this point."

Rush Limbaugh, who has been surprisingly uncritical of Trump through the run (perhaps one showman recognizes another?), once pointed out that many Trump supporters have only the vaguest of ideas of what Trump has actually said. He described how, when he quizzed them about what they thought Trump's policies were, he would either get amorphous responses or projections of what the listener wanted to hear ... but Trump had never said.

In October, Bill Clinton offered his own, somewhat admiring evaluation of the support:
"Because he says something that overrides the ideological differences," Clinton explained. "If you look at the first debate, a lot of those guys were competing for who could be the most politically correct on the answers. Trump says, 'OK, I've supported Democrats, I've supported Republicans. Yeah, I used to be friends with Bill Clinton, who cares? I run things, and I build things. And you need somebody who'll go in there and fix it. And if they don't let me fix it, I'll just get them out of the way.'"
I'm wondering if Clinton remains as impressed, now that Trump has moved his snarky Twitter comments to the subject of the ex-President himself ...

More recently, The New York Times took on the question:
The anxiety Mr Trump supporters betray by looking for scapegoats says most, of course, about themselves. Typically members of the white lower middle-class, they are at once jealous of the small privileges that distinguish them from the toilers below, and bitterly resentful of the faraway government that provides their Social Security and Medicare. Remonstrating in hard times, they are the “radical centre”, in academic jargon, who turned out for George Wallace, a populist southern Democrat who ran for president four times in the 1960s and 70s, and for another pair of crowd-pleasers, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, in the 1990s. Asked who was the last politician to excite them like Mr Trump, several in Sarasota cited Mr Perot. Mr Trump’s big achievement is to have entered the race with a message already perfectly crafted for this group.
Now the "radical center" (Amerifying the spelling from academeze) may not be exactly who I meant to describe as using the Confederate Battle Flag as an emblem for lack of anything else, but it'll do for the moment.
Now, as then, a fear that America is getting weaker, economically or militarily, plays to its members’ fear of loss and change. That also plays to a nationalistic desire for a strong hand on the tiller— for someone, as Linda Miller, a retired accountant, said admiringly of Mr Trump, “to kick ass and take names."
So said The Economist in an article on December 5th proclaiming the Trump Campaign "The Greatest Show on Earth," but with the subhed: "Mr. Trump's support will not collapse, but he is still a long shot for the Republican nomination." They don't know why they like him, but Trump's supporters know he's not the guys that make them feel bad about themselves, their work, their lifestyle, where they shop, who they have as friends, what their entertainment is, what they eat, how they eat, etc., etc., etc. And he lashes out the way they wish they could ... only they can't, because then they would be sent to the Human Resources office, which seems to take that term literally.

But what happens now? Surely, as The Economist said, he can't become our president, or even the nominee of a major party, can he? Surely he's just the satisfying temper tantrum the "silent majority" has been repressing, and then we can return to politics as usual?

Ezra Klein, writing for Vox, has a theory or two. First, how has this gone on so long?
Donald Trump is the candidate willing to say things that are truly beyond the pale. He is the candidate who won't be cowed by the media or political elites. Every time he stands tall against a "politically correct" firestorm — wherein "politically correct" means treating people with some bare modicum of decency and respect — his numbers firm up. Backlash is his brand.
But it's gone on and on (Klein quotes Mike Allen in Politico: "It’s 28 days to Iowa, 36 days to New Hampshire, 47 days to South Carolina, 50 days to Nevada and 57 days to the SEC primary. If you think voters will suddenly get serious — and that Trump is a ‘lampshade candidate’ who’ll eventually wear out his welcome — you’re running out of time to be right.") How can it end?
He will lead until he doesn't. His fall will be quick, and it won't obey the apparent rules of his rise. If there is a reason for it, it will fundamentally be, "People get more pragmatic the closer they get to an actual vote." As much as Republicans tell pollsters they think Trump can win the general election, I am skeptical they will truly believe that come Election Day.
 Magical thinking? Maybe. But it is the wise leader who recognizes in Trump, in the Confederate Battle Flag, in the recent prairie rebellions in Oregon and Nevada, in the Tea Party movement, a great, dark, dangerous, rumbling -- but still unfocused -- discontent in the way of things.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

It's Kind Of Gray

One of the things that both frightens and frustrates me as a journalist is when other journalists write as if they understand something when it is clear (especially when I am familiar with the subject) that they know only the barest surface aspects of it. I have seen it happen time and again with areas that I am very conversant with, or cultures I consider myself a part of, and now begin to recognize the problem elsewhere too.

It's a classic situation: I can just hear the reporter on the phone to his boss. "No, I know what I'm doing now. I've got a feel for it!" You can hardly blame him; we are in this business because we're quick learners who empathize easily. We want to listen to your story and better understand you, then artfully play it back for a larger audience. It's just that we're often a little too clever by half.

For example, we've all had our moment of expressing hope for the final dismissal of the unfortunate Confederate Battle Flag and those who provocatively wave it. It seems a no brainer, but I think there's a much subtler story behind a lot of the people who use that symbol for something besides racism.

Brandon Dorsey, Commander of the SCV chapter in Lexington, Virginia, 
marching in a parade through the town marking the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson.

I think the appealingly alliterative motto of "History Not Hate" has actually muddied the debate rather than clarified it. Those who use it, most sincerely, have found it is a simple encapsulation of a non-racist answer to those who criticize the flag. However, as I said in a blog post on this, there are plenty of other Confederate flags that haven't been usurped by hate groups that reenactors and others could use as a tribute to those who bravely served as soldiers.

So why do some cling to the battle flag, angrily refusing to just let it go? Even more curiously, what about the people displaying the battle flag outside of any historical context? I know a lot of these people, and I have talked with many others, and sure, a few have some uncomfortable opinions about race. But I've got to say: in my opinion, most of these people are not racists.

Maybe it is because they have some difficulty articulating it in a way that the Northeastern elite can understand that forces them to use the flag as a symbol. Truly, I think the point is: It really has almost nothing to do with the Civil War at all. What I think the flag has come to symbolize for many of these people is a sense of community and identity.

Take Tracy Hart, a water resource economist at the World Bank who was profiled in NPR's Race Card Project. The piece focuses on her use of the term "white trash" to describe herself and her origins:

For those in the Deep South, she says, the term ["white trash"] has been embraced by a significant part of poor people who feel misunderstood. "They feel misunderstood because of the heavy legacy of slavery and segregation and poverty," she says. "And I think part of their feeling misunderstood is to take on or embrace that term, which is self-denigrating but it also says, 'We've been hurt, too.' "
The battle flag, I think, is a visual equivalent of a similar attitude -- not so much a statement of fellow suffering, but a logo of sorts for a culture that feels ignored at best and misunderstood and attacked at worst. Like everyone else, they try to do the "right thing" and be a "good person" within the rules and mores of their world. Where others get their symbols, and are even encouraged to wave and share them (eg: "We're all Irish on St. Patrick's Day"), the mostly Celtic diaspora into the American South has been generally disparaged as dangerous, criminal, alcoholic, racist, and poor. Even when "Hillbilly" stories were big in the 50s and 60s (at the height of the Folk Rock era) the best they could hope for were the comedically ignorant Beverly Hillbillies. No noble savages to be found among the hicks in the mountains and bigots in the cotton fields of the South, no sir.

So, is it so unlikely that the Battle Flag is a pushback, accompanied by the soundtrack of Southern Rock songs like "Sweet Home Alabama"?

Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well I heard old Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don't need him around anyhow

 -- a reference to Neil Young's hectoring "Southern Man"