Rough and Rowdy in Rural Appalachia

January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

Rough and Rowdy is a form of amateur boxing native to West Virginia.  It appears to me to be the grandson of the 18th-19th century Southern backwoods fighting style known as Rough and Tumble, or Gouging.  It was so-called because the ultimate goal was to gouge out your opponent’s eye.  There were very few rules involved in Rough and Tumble and, while it wasn’t exactly prize fighting, winning was a source of pride in the local community.

The men who fought in Gouging were backwoods farmers, it was common in swamps and mountain communities.  In other words, the men who fought were what the élite of Southern society called (and still call) ‘white trash.’  As an aside, if you would like to know more about the plight of poor white people historically in the US, I cannot recommend Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America enough.  Nevermind the fact that the story is not untold, historians have studied and published on poor people for a long time, but that’s what publishers do to your book, they create silly subtitles to sell more copies.

I digress.  The West Virginia Rough and Rowdy is a continuation.  The Guardian produced a quick 7 minute documentary of a championship tournament in West Virginia, you can watch it here.

I have some serious problems after watching this.  The first is the behaviour of New York City-based Barstool Sports, led by Dave Portnoy (a Massachusetts boy, I might add, from Boston’s North Shore).  Barstool bought up the rights to the tournament, and, according to the documentary, stood to make $300,000 on it.  The winner of the tournament wins $1,000.  The fighters are getting nothing out of this, other than glory or shame, depending on who wins.  Portnoy is walking away with the profits.  He wants to make this the new MMA, to take Rough and Rowdy nationwide.  But he profits,the fighters don’t.  He doesn’t have a problem with that, of course, because he figures they’d be doing it anyway.

The community where this takes place is an impoverish borough in West Virginia, in former coal-mining country.  All of the social problems of Appalachia can be found there, from deep, deep-seated poverty to drugs and everything else.  It is easy to dismiss the people who live there using whatever term you want.  Portnoy calls them rednecks.  He also argues that they would call themselves by the same term.  After living in Southern Appalachia in Tennessee, I would think he’s right. But THEY call themselves that.  I did not think it was my place to use the same term, given its pejorative meaning in our culture.

Essentially, while it is true that this tournament existed before Portnoy came in, he is exploiting a poor community, with a sly grin to his viewers on the web, about the fat rednecks fighting for their entertainment.  The fighting style of most of these men is poor, if you were to look at it from a boxing or MMA perspective.  Of course it is, they’re amateurs, they don’t have training.  They fight as if they’re brawling in a bar.  And that’s what Rough and Rowdy is: amateur fighting.  It is not professional boxing.

The comments on the YouTube site are exactly what you’d expect.  Commentators mock the fighters for their lack of boxing style.  And, then, of course, come the stereotypes.  The documentary centres around one young man, George.  George has recently lost his job and he wants to win the tournament and give the $1,000 to his mother. He’s a confident in his abilities before stepping into the ring with a man a full foot taller than him, and who must have at least 60 pounds on him.  Not surprisingly, George loses the fight.  But the comments mock him. One commenter says that George died of a meth overdose three weeks later.  And so on.

And therein lies the problem.  Too many people seem to think that mocking the poor white folk of the Appalachians is easy.  They’re dismissed as stupid, idiotic, as rednecks and white trash. And worse.  This is universal, too.  This is not a conservative/liberal thing.  The poor white people of Appalachia have been abandoned.  Completely.  They’ve been left to their own devices in hard-scrabble areas where there are no jobs.  The coal mining companies pulled out.  What industry existed there has also pulled out.  Most small Appalachian towns have little more than a Dollar General and a gas station.  People get by, in part due to family connections and grow what food they can on their land.  They scrounge for other things, like roots and scrap metal, that they can sell for next to nothing.  They use food stamps.  And sometimes they just go hungry, or worse.

JD Vance’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy has added to this, and has re-shaped the conversation nationally.  Vance argued that the plight of Appalachia is the fault of the Appalachians themselves.  He blames ‘hillbilly’ culture, argues it has engendered social rot, and has dismissed poverty as secondary.  Put simply: Vance is flat-out wrong.  He simply seeks to continue in the long American tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty.

That’s not how it works.  Appalachia has been struggling for the better part of a half-century.  Politicians, including the current president, continue to ignore it.  And then turn around and pull a Vance and blame the poverty on the poor.  That is a lazy, self-centred, immoral position to take.

 

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The Moral Ambiguity of The Man in the High Castle

January 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

I’ve been binge-watching The Man in the High Castle.  It is truly a TV show for our cynical times.  There are no heroes in this show.  Everyone is deeply compromised.  Some are even horrible people.  For those who don’t know, the show is set in a dystopic 1960s in the United States.  The Allies lost World War II, and the United States is split in three.  The eastern seaboard is the American Reich.  The West Coast is occupied by the Japanese, and there is a dodgy, moral vacuum in the middle, the neutral zone, a lawless respite from both.

The main character is Juliana Crain, who is a spoiled, horrible, selfish young woman.  She betrays nearly everyone she meets, and leaves a body count behind her.  Ostensibly, she’s trying to figure out what happened to her half-sister, Trudy, a Resistance fighter killed by the Japanese security forces.  Her boyfriend, Frank, is the closest thing to a hero in this show, as he is drawn closer and closer to the Resistance in the wake of Juliana’s multiple betrayals.

But otherwise, the show gets intimate and personal with Obergruppenfürher Joe Smith, a former American soldier, and his family, creepy as they are.  Smith, not surprisingly, is a murderous, horrible human being.  And he’s a Nazi.  We do get a sense of honour from Japanese Trade Minister Nobosuke Tagami, whose loyalties are never entirely clear.  But he is an honourable man who works for a violent, brutal dictatorship.  Then there’s Kampeitei (Military Police) Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido.  He’s about a milimetre short of being a psychotic killer, so determined is he to make sure law and order is maintained in the Pacific States, and in San Francisco in particular.

The remaining characters are all deeply flawed, morally vacuous, and horrible.

I find it interesting to be watching a TV show that humanizes Nazis, and attempts to play on my sympathies with them.  For example, Smith’s son, Thomas, is a teenaged boy who, it turns out, has muscular dystrophy, which comes from his father’s side.  The Obergruppenführer’s brother had it as well.  As per Nazi ideology, he was liquidated.  And that is what Thomas must be too.  When the diagnosis is delivered to Smith, he is at a loss as to what to do.  He is the most powerful man in the American Reich, though he lives a pretty typical suburban life at home on Long Island (New York City is the capital of the American Reich, as DC was nuked during the war).  He must, he knows, kill his son.  And yet, surprise, surprise, he cannot.  In order to protect his family, he instead kills  the family doctor, who delivered the diagnosis.  I know, a shock. A Nazi being a nasty piece of work.

Smith’s protegé is Joe Blake, who Juliana kind of falls for.  He’s a Nazi undercover, sent to find Juliana, who has knowledge of the secret films of the titular Man in the High Castle (played brilliantly by Stephen Root), and, more than that, has the actual film(s), which Trudy had given her right before she was killed.  He finds her first in the Neutral Zone and then follows her back to San Francisco.  Meanwhile, Juliana has cozied up to the Resistance herself, and appears to be a member of it as she tries to find out what happened to her sister.  She is supposed to lead Joe Blake into the hands of the Resistance.  But she doesn’t.  Instead she betrays the Resistance and Blake makes it back to New York City.

The summary of Episode 5 of Season 2 notes that Juliana will have to betray someone close to her.  By this point in the show, I am left wondering who is left for her to betray.  She has already betrayed Frank.  And the Resistance, leading to at least three of her erstwhile colleagues being killed.  And she seems to have no moral qualms about this.

And this is the thing about the characters of this show.  There is no moral compass.  Each is an actor entirely interested in her/his own fate.  Occasionally there is co-operation, but mostly there is a collection of atomistic individuals who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

And, of course, this is completely compelling TV.  I can’t turn away from it.  And yet, I can’t help but think there is something deeply wrong with being engrossed in a TV show that humanizes Nazis (whilst still showing what horrible people they are).  It would seem to me that perhaps Nazis are beyond the pale.  And yet, they’re not.  I’m not sure this is a good sign for our culture and society.

Captain Charles Boycott and the First Boycott

January 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

Last week I wrote a post about the conundrum we face in dealing with President Trump, hockey rumours, and global warming.  The basic problem is the response of us as individuals, and our feelings of powerlessness, vs. the fact that we can band together to form interest groups in response.  In the case of the latter, I always think of the original boycott.

The original boycott occurred in 1880 in County Mayo, Ireland.  Captain Charles Boycott lent his name to a campaign against him by the Irish Land League.  The Land League was a political organization in late 19th century Ireland with the goal of alleviating the plight of poor Irish tenant famers.  The League’s ultimate goal was to abolish the great landowners of Ireland to allow these poor tenant farmers to own the land they worked.  The Irish Land League was a central component in the radicalization of Catholic/Nationalist Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, following its mobilization by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century.  And this radicalization, of course, led ultimately to the Irish Revolution and Irish independence in the early 20th century.

In 1880, Boycott was the land agent for Lord Erne in Lough Mask, Co. Mayo.  He became the object of ire of the Land League due to his enthusiasm for evicting the poor tenant farmers of Erne’s land.  Thus, the League encouraged his employees (most of whom were Irish and Catholic, as opposed to the Englishman Boycott) to withdraw their labour.  And then the League and its supporters in Co. Mayo encouraged local merchants to not serve Boycott.  Of course, some merchants required some encouragement to participate, which the local peasantry was only happy to provide.

Boycott, frustrated by his treatment, wrote a letter complaining of his plight to the Times of London.  And the boycott became national (and international, the Irish diaspora in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand followed the news closely) news.  This led to an influx of reporters from London, who interviewed the locals and explained the issue (not always fairly) to the readers of the London papers.

With no one to serve him in the local stores, and no one to work for him, Boycott was forced to rely upon gangs of Orangemen, protected by the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Irish Constabulary, as well as the British Army, to harvest the crops.  In the end, it cost over £10,000 to harvest around £500 worth of crops.  The boycotters won, at least locally.

What was the long-term effect of the first boycott?  Not much, at least locally.  Boycott left Lord Erne’s service, but he was replaced by another agent.  And evictions continued apace around Ireland.  And the plight of tenant farmers did not improve all that much.

But, the first boycott was a symbolic victory.  It brought greater exposure for the Land League, though it was ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign for the Three Fs: fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure.  But, even then, the Land League was, as noted, part of the radicalization of Catholic Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, which led to the birth of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and, ultimately, the Irish Republican Army (the first one, led by Michael Collins, not the re-constituted IRA that was behind the Troubles in Northern Ireland).

So, ultimately, taken together with other events, the first boycott was ultimately successful.  And maybe this speaks to something else.  We seem to expect that our actions against whatever we see as oppressive to be immediately rewarded, which is no doubt a response to our general belief in immediate reward/punishment in our world today.  Our actions as individuals need to be part of a larger movement, and we need to be patient in that larger movement in order to effect change.

For example, where I live in Western Massachusetts, a collection of like-minded people have created a culture where creativity, tolerance, and inclusivity is central.  But this was’t created overnight.  While Western Massachusetts has a history of alternative subcultures and communities, our present culture was carefully and slowly created and reinforced over the past 30-40 years, beginning first down in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, and that has slowly crept up into the hilltowns on both side of the river valley.  In other words, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The Power of the Media

January 3, 2018 § 6 Comments

Last week I posted this to Facebook, thinking it made a good point about corporate behaviour as opposed to individual behaviour.  I immediately got lambasted by several friends who argued that it is we as individuals who make change and that corporations and the media respond to us.  As far as I’m concerned this is hogwash and the height of American liberalism.  No.  We don’t control corporations.  We don’t control the  media.  We are conditioned not to. We are conditioned to purchase new things, to listen to our media.  And, sure, we can boycott. One friend lives in rural Tennessee and is doing her best to live a life of simplicity with minimal consumption.  I salute that.  I personally do not shop at Walmart due to its odious corporate behaviour vis-à-vis downtown cores around this country.  But Lydia’s actions and mine are small, a drop in the ocean.  And, yes, certainly, if we are joined in our attempts to make the world better in this sense, it would make a difference.  But, until we are numerous enough to make Walmart stop gutting the downtowns of small-town America, for example, I think we need to both carry on keeping on keeping on, but also holding the nose of corporations to the stink they create.

Today, I looked briefly on Twitter and got depressed.  Trump, Trump, and more Trump.  Some of it was useful, like reporting on the actual news.  But most of it was the usual outrage to his rants, raves, and rages on Twitter.  Apparently today he thinks Huma Abedin and James Comey belong in jail.  I don’t care.  None of that matters.  None of it.  It’s just so much hot air.  What matters is the policies and actions of the US government whilst he is president.  That matters.  But that’s not what the so-called resistance seems to be focusing on.  It’s focused on the the newest outrage from the President’s Twitter account.

And so I got to thinking about how we arrived here.  Donald Trump was an outsider when he threw his hat into the GOP race for the presidential nomination in 2016.  He wasn’t an unknown, of course, he was a famous showman.  He had no policies, just a slogan to Make America Great Again.  He ranted and raved at his rallies, he made fun of his opponents, amongst others.  In other words, he ran a circus. He tried to provoke.  And the media responded exactly how he wanted, and therefore, so did we.  The media is addicted to Donald Trump and his off-the-cuff remarks and outrageous statements.

Trump’s candidacy was pushed not by Trump, but by the media.  His campaign for president was also driven by the media.  He got wall-to-wall coverage.  That most of it was negative, 77% according to a Harvard study, doesn’t matter.  Trump was proof of Oscar Wilde’s observation that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  He was all over the place. And, yes, we lapped it up.  It become almost masochistic for a lot of my friends, having to see his latest outrageous comment or tweet.  Trump as president has been driven by the media.

Right now, the home pages of CNN, New York TimesHuffington Post, and the Washington Post are dominated by the President.  But not his policies, or his ideas to improve the economy or anything like that.  No, it’s mostly noise caused by his tweets and off-the-cuff remarks, as well as that outrageous interview he did with The Times last week.  None of this matters.  But we just lap this up.

Certainly we, the people, have some power.  We could stop paying attention to his tweets, but they get amplified by everyone on Twitter.  His two tweets attacking the New York Times yesterday morning have both been re-tweeted close to 52,000 times and liked another 13,000 times each.  He has 45.6 million followers.  And, sure, not all of them are American, but they’re also not just conservatives.  I can see that 272 of my Twitter followers follow him, and just looking quickly at the first 30 0r so, I can confirm that most of them are progressives.  So, we’re clearly not doing that.  But if we collectively stopped following, re-tweeting, or liking his tweets, he would fall silent pretty quickly.

But. There is the larger issue.  The news media is all over him like a cheap suit.  Because Trump is first and foremost a showman.  I personally don’t believe he believes even 10% of what he says publicly, he says it to provoke people, to fire up his base, and anger his ‘haters,’ as he calls them.  And thus, the media salivates.

And sure, the media is composed of individuals.  And those individuals work for large corporations.  And it is in the interests of those individuals to ensure large ratings/readership/viewership in order to further their own careers.  And those corporations have an interest in those readers and viewers, as this is how profits are made.

Another example: Hockey in Canada.  Canadians, we take our hockey seriously.  And we have two English-language and two French-language media conglomerates exclusively devoted to sports.  And hockey dominates at TSN, Sportsnet, TVA and RDS.  And then there’s all the other media in Canada.  Each has one or 100 ‘insiders’ who claim to know about the inner-workings of the NHL and our favourite hockey teams.  And there is not just the TV stations (multiple streams), but also the social media presence of not just the networks, but their studio hosts, as well as these so-called insiders.  And so viewership/readership and profits must be driven up at all times.  And what drives all of this?  Coverage of the NHL, in particular the seven Canadian NHL teams, but even then, especially the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, who not only play in the two largest cities in Canada, but both of those cities have large diasporas out west (where the rest of the Canadian NHL teams are in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg (and, yes, I am ignoring the Ottawa Senator), but also down east.

But coverage of practices, games, press conferences by coaches and general managers just aren’t enough.  So there are trade rumours, as all of these ‘insiders’ go a-twitter discussing who is going to be traded and to whom.  We are told that our favourite team’s general manager is ‘working the phones’ to improve the team or find that elusive piece that will deliver the Stanley Cup.  My guess is about 99% of these rumours lead to absolutely nothing.  The other 1%, well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  But we lap it up.  Because TSN, RDS, Sportsnet, and TVA have conditioned us to.  It’s irrational human behaviour at its best because we have been trained by this media industrial complex to respond.

So, back to Trump: What if, for just one week, the news media ignored his Twitter?   And what if we, the people, also ignored his Twitter for one week?  What would happen?

Kendrick Lamar Plays Us All

December 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

Years ago, I bought Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ album, Dig Lazarus Dig!!!  Because of the way iTunes downloaded the album to my MacBook and iPod, the tracks were reversed and I didn’t really notice.  Thus, for me, the album began with the epic ‘More News from Nowhere‘ and ended with the raucous title track.  It probably took me close to a year to realize that the song order was backwards and, really, I didn’t care.  I have since re-ordered the album in my iTunes and the tracks run the way they were supposed to.  But, for me, it doesn’t really sound right, though it is  more sensible to start with the raucous and end with the epic.

Last week, Kendrick Lamar, the second coming of conscious hip hop (or Jesus, take your pick), re-released his most recent album, DAMN.  But, here’s the thing, this is the COLLECTORS EDITION.  So what did Lamar do to make this a collector’s edition? New tracks? Remixes?  Remixes AND new tracks?  Oh, hell no.  Lamar just re-ordered the album, from last to first.  And, the world has confirmed his brilliance.

Now, DAMN was a mighty fine album.  And while I prefer the re-ordering of the tracks to play it back to first, all I can think is, really?!?  This is brilliance?  Lamar is playing us for fools.

Nothing Says Cluelessness Quite Like Joking About Gentrification

November 30, 2017 § 4 Comments

Gentrification is a topic I have written a lot about here (for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, and, finally, here).  And, of course, I wrote a book about Griffintown, Montreal. In other words, I think about gentrification a lot, occasionally curious about it, occasionally appalled by it.

Last week, a Denver coffee chain found itself in the midst of a firestorm over a really stupid sandwich board sign outside of its outlet in Five Points neighbourhood.  Of course, the name Five Points carries with it various derogatory ideas, largely connected to the original Five Points in Manhattan, so the gentrifiers of Denver’s Five Points have re-christened it RiNo (or, River North Arts District).  The Five Points ink! coffee shop placed this sandwich board outside its shop:

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Ok, then.  A few things to note. First, the sign is on dirt/gravel, next to what looks like a new(-ish) sidewalk).  So clearly, gentrification is apace here.  Second, Five Points is historically home to pretty much the entirety of Denver’s African American population.  And, as anyone who knows anything about urban history will tell you, this also means that the congregation of the black population of the city here was not entirely always by choice.  And, of course, who loses in the gentrification of traditionally African American neighbourhoods?  African Americans, of course.

Third, the gentrifiers want this neighbourhood to be a centre for the arts.  Not surprisingly, the arts that are native to Five Points are not all that welcome in the newly re-imagined RiNo.  Why? Because hip hop is still seen as a black art form, and that makes a lot of white people uneasy, even today after hip hop has gone global.

And while the people at ink!’s Five Points shop may have thought they were being edgy and funny, they were not. They were being stupid.  And offensive.  Yes, gentrification usually means you can get good coffee in your neighbourhood, but at what cost?  And who benefits from gentrification in the US?  The answer to the latter question is predominately white, young, urbanites with well-paying jobs.

And that means that those who lose from gentrification are people who do not look like them, these urban explorers.  Gentrification is, I think, as close to an inevitable process as we have.  But, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be brainless and lead to the displacement of the residents, and it doesn’t need to mean a whitewashing of neighbourhoods traditionally of colour.

And to joke about this whitewashing?  Well, that’s frankly offensive and stupid.  And Keith Herbert, the founder of ink!, comes across as especially daft in his Twitter statement, but at least he’s trying.  That’s something, I guess:

Football and CTE

November 27, 2017 § 3 Comments

This past weekend was Grey Cup weekend in Canada.  The Toronto Argonauts and the Calgary Stampeders met at TD Place Stadium in the Nation’s Capital.  The Argos won 27-24 in another classic.  In the lead up to the game, Canadian Football League Commissioner Randy Ambrosie declared that ‘we don’t know‘ if there is a connection between CTE and football.  Around this time last year, the former CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said the same thing and was roundly criticized.  Ambrosie is being suitably raked over the coals.

But here’s the thing, Ambrosie should know better.  He is a former CFL player himself, he was a lineman for the Stampeders, Argonauts, and Edmonton Eskimos (why no one protests this name is beyond me).  Ironically, he retired due to injuries.  And he should know about the damage done to his own body by the game.  I am certainly aware of what football did to my body, between the cranky knees, shoulders, and, of course, the concussions (added to, of course, by hockey, where I played goalie).

More to the point, it looks pretty damn likely that there is a connection between football and CTE.  This is just media one story from this past summer (out of many) that reports on a study that found that 88% of brains donated by now-deceased former football players had some form of CTE.  CTE was also more prevalent in former professional players, as compared, to, say, high school players.

This is not complete proof positive of the link between football and CTE because CTE can only be diagnosed after death, and so far, studies have concluded nothing more than the commonality of the disease being present in the brains of former football players, as opposed to those who did not play.  But this isn’t a direct proof.  But, recent research has found that it may be possible to determine the presence of CTE in the brains of the living.   This may allow researchers to positively correlate football and CTE.

But, we are not there yet.  Nonetheless, Ambrosie’s comments are asinine at best, recklessly dangerous at worst.  And, either way, profoundly stupid.

The CFL has done a lot of good to reduce the stress on players’ bodies, from adding a 3rd bye-week during the season to banning full-contact practices.  But, it is still the subject of a class-action lawsuit focusing on brain damage (in this light, Ambrosie’s comments make some sense, but the better thing to have done would’ve been to deflect the question).

But Ambrosie’s statements last week threaten to undo that.  We should all expect better from the Canadian Football League.