Sunday, August 30, 2020

Embattled whiteness

 I occasionally sample the wackadoodle political opinions of former classmates at Fleming County High School in Kentucky. 

One of them, after months of reportage about the efforts of Republican governors and legislators to limit access to voting, after the president's unsupported claims that voting by mail is susceptible to fraud (for God's sake, Utah votes by mail), and the ham-handed attempts of the administration to cripple the Postal Service in an election year, insists that Democrats are trying to steal the election. 

Another has not gained a vocabulary beyond libtard to respond to argument and evidence. 

It baffles me. We had the same teachers: Jimmy Johnson for American history in my junior year, who invited us to challenge received views; Lloyd Story, a science teacher who believed in science; Lynda McKee, who taught us how to construct arguments based on evidence. Yeah, I read a lot of books and moved away from Appalachia, but we all had teachers who did not discount external reality. 

True, Kentucky has always been a conservative state, apart from Louisville and, to some degree, Lexington, but it once elected Republican senators like Thruston Morton and John Sherman Cooper, people of integrity and purpose. 

Some of my former classmates flinch at the implication that there is a layer of racism in their views. That's because they understand racism to be individual, that racists, like those spittle-flowing crowds screaming at little Black girls going to an all-white school, are bad people; and if you're a good person, you can't be racist. They don't own slaves; they're not bad people. 

I have the tax receipt showing that my great-great grandfather, John Early, paid $12.30 in property taxes in 1852 on 200 acres, four mules and horses, and four slaves. My grandfather, who inherited the farm a century ago, owned no slaves; neither did my mother, who inherited it in turn, nor my sisters and I. But all of us benefited from the wealth (a modest wealth) built in part by the labor of unpaid Black people. 

We attended the Presbyterian church in Elizaville. It was part of the Southern Presbyterian Church, which split from the Northern denomination in the 1850s over the slavery issue. It took more than a century after the Civil War for the two denominations to conclude that slavery was maybe no longer a live issue. 

This is what systemic racism is about. If you grow up white in Appalachia, as I did, whiteness is the template, the norm by which everything is measured. It is supported by the history textbooks, which shy away from the unsavory aspects of the country's past, by the de facto segregation of churches, by all the customs of the time and place. 

Now that the white template is slowly being dismantled by demographics and other social changes. I understand how upsetting that can be to people among whom I grew up, who feel threatened, who feel that the world as it was meant to be is being taken from them. I understand how fear leaves them susceptible to believing nonsense from dishonest sources, to posting dumbass right-wing memes online in a feeble show of resistance. 

But the tide is against them. Oh, it might be possible to set up an apartheid regime in some states or even the country, after the South African model, to keep the white minority in charge, but over time it could not last in South Africa either. 

So I feel sorry for them, in part for the disappointment in store for them, and in part for the damage they unwittingly do. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

No more chalk dust on the suit

Today I notified Sara Magee, chair of the Communication Department at Loyola University Maryland, that I am giving up the editing class I have taught for twenty-five years.

 I will turn seventy in February, and the pleasure of yelling at undergraduates no longer compensates fully for the effort.


On the first day of class every semester, my efforts to Mirandize the students (see the video here) included this quotation from a student evaluation: “He is a horrible teacher. DO NOT TAKE HIM! The course is interesting but this guy is a stiff who thinks he knows it all. You will leave this class so confused and end up with a grade that definitely deserves to be better than what you actually get. Don't get me wrong, he's a funny guy but not worth it.”


Some of my more than 750 students, though, have managed rather well. Among them:

Kevin Atticks, one of my early victims, teaches at Loyola, overseeing the Apprentice House student publishing operation.


Mike Memoli, who as a member of Tribune’s Washington bureau was, to my knowledge, the only one of my former students to have flown on Air Force One with the president of the United States, is now a correspondent at NBC news.


Jon Meoli is a sports reporter at The Baltimore Sun.

Peter Blair heads the flexible editing desk at The New York Times


Eve Strilacci is an acquisitions editor at Callisto Media.


Christina Santucci is a former night photo editor at the New York Post.


Andrew Zaleski, to be found at, is building a solid career as a freelance writer.


Jenn Ladd is a food writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer.


Katie Krzaczck is an editor at Business Insider.


Lindsay VanAsdalan is a reporter at the York Dispatch.


Anyone I have overlooked is welcome to weigh in with a comment.


In time, I came to leave them on the last day of class with Chaucer’s rueful line, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”


Now it will be someone else’s job.