Recent reads (9.15.23)

Recent reads (9.15.23) September 15, 2023

• “Lucinda Williams and the Idea of Louisiana

Like many of Lucinda’s songs, that one is hardly more than a list of unexplained things: the scent of a simple breakfast, the crunchy sound of a rural drive, the names of the singers on the radio, the objects seen out a window, a screen door, a curtain, a suitcase, some voices and “stories nobody knows,” a little girl, dirt, tears. When we were discussing it, Noah posed a question that seemed to him almost too obvious to even ask, “It’s an abuse song, right?” Not that abuse or trauma is ever mentioned, just that everything around it is named. The song works because of what is left unsaid.

Wyatt Williams’ essay is both beautiful and deeply sad, which seems appropriate to his subject matter.

• “Socialist Gym Rats Fought to End Slavery in America

Devin Thomas O’Shea on the “Turners” — refugees from the European revolutions of 1848 who came to America on a mission to democratize the means of production, abolish slavery, drink lots of beer, and get totally ripped from lifting weights.

The Turners first dedicated their efforts to advancing the message of socialism in the United States while defending themselves against nativist thugs. They went on to advocate abolishing slavery, defend the Union, and even act as Abraham Lincoln’s personal security detail. Along the way, they drank a lot of beer and lifted a lot of barbells.

In their home country, the Turners were founded out of spite. Back when Prussia was still a thing, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the “father of gymnastics,” was so disgusted with Napoleonic rule in the German states that he organized a new kind of community center based around the radical idea of lifting weights. Jahn originated the modern concept of getting swole, ripped, shredded, and peeled — all to inspire Germans to reject aristocratic rule.

• “Taylor’s truckers and the sweating of the 1%

Dale McGowan on Taylor Swift, Ted Turner, and the rest of the Billionaire Boys Club.

• Ben Lindbergh on “The Forgotten Former Meaning of ‘Jerk.’

The 1979 Steve Martin comedy, Lindbergh says, is an artifact of the term’s earlier meaning, which had more to do with stupidity than with cruel selfishness and assholery. “Somewhere along the line, ‘jerk’ stopped referring to boobs and dolts and took on a harder edge.”

That harder edge is a moral distinction. Boobery is not a choice; assholery is. This makes the now current usage of jerk more useful. There was nothing to be gained from calling someone a “jerk” back when that mainly referred to their simple-minded naivete. But to call someone a jerk now means to call them out for their choices — to tell them to stop choosing to behave cruelly and selfishly.

Any discussion of such things will inevitably lead a certain type of scold to fret about “name-calling” and “incivility.” Remember whenever you hear them say such things that what they are also saying is, “You must never allow yourself to understand what kind of person you’re dealing with.”

In the creation stories of Genesis, the naming of the animals precedes the Fall. Taxonomy is a Good Thing and a necessary thing.

• “Vanillagate? Ice Cream Parlors and White Slavery

The white slavery panic of the early 1900s focused on the dangers of unchaperoned young women buying ice cream from “swarthy” immigrants. Matthew Wills’ article focuses on two of the big streams of anxiety that produced this moral panic: xenophobia and horror at increased independence of women. I’d highlight another aspect the piece doesn’t get into, which is the thing that makes “moral panics” moral panics.

The vast, massive depravity of American slavery periodically produces spasms of virtue crusades that white Americans desperately latch onto in the hopes of thereby defining themselves, this time, as the Good Guys. The “white slavery” panic was almost endearingly explicit about this, as those swept up in it were literally saying, “OK, fine, we weren’t anti-slavery then, but look who’s leading the anti-‘slavery’ charge now!”

• “The Rise and Fall of the Mormon King of Beaver Island

On July 8, 1850, James Jesse Strang crowned himself the “King of the Kingdom of God on Earth.” There are a few different versions of the scene, but most include a ceremony, complete with a crown, robe, scepter, and painted backdrop. As king, Strang pushed Irish and Native American children into Mormon schools (a failed effort). Allegedly, he gathered the incumbent islanders and told them they could convert or leave. By 1852, almost all non-Mormons had chosen the latter option.

Though the island might seem remote, it was in a strategic location, which contributed to Strang’s growing economic and political influence. ​He was elected to the Michigan legislature twice, and was gaining sway throughout the region. This brought Strang yet more enemies, including the U.S. government. He had been accused of treason and other crimes, which he evaded in court, at least for a while.

The “Mormon King of Beaver Island” is the second-biggest religious whackjob named Strang in American history.


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