Saturday, May 27, 2023

Children are under assault in the United States--from both the Left and the Right. Republicans won't protect them from guns or exploitative bosses. Democrats put them in the middle of the sex wars.


(To the right, Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1872 portrait by Vasily Perov)

The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky considered crimes against children as the ultimate human sin. He wrote about it in his landmark novel The Brothers Karamazov in 1880.


“Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels,” says the Russian monk, Father Zossima, the spiritual guide of the religious novice Alyosha Karamazov in the novel. “They live to soften and purify our hearts and, as it were, to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child!”


How needed are those words today in the United States, where children are under assault from both the Left and the Right. Where are the Father Zossimas to stand up to the political leaders and activists who would put children back to work into what writer Edwin Markham once called the “Bastilles of Labor”, the factories and farms where they could work cheap and fill the gaps left by adult workers no longer willing to slave away at unlivable wages?


Where are the Father Zossimas who would protect children from the crazed attackers who shot their way through dozens of schools in 2022, killing 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and continuing their assaults today while politicians argue the sanctity of the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?


Where are the Father Zossimas who would protect children from sexualized performances in kindergartens and grade schools by Drag Queens who want to push a Queer theory agenda that would reformulate “children’s relationship with sex, sexuality, and eroticism,” in the words of North Carolina therapist and author Paula Rinehart?


Bastilles of labor


Recent reports by In These Times, the New York Times, and the U.S. Department of Labor show that hundreds of underage children are working at fast food outlets, construction projects, food processing plants, farms, and factories across at least 20 states. “Some were working 12 hours a day and many were not attending school,” Sonali Kolhatkar wrote for In These Times.


Many of these children are undocumented migrants from Central America, the victims along with their parents of neoliberal economic and trade agreements and policies that have impoverished small farmers and blue-collar workers across the Global South and forced them to migrant into foreign lands like the United States in search of jobs and sustenance.


This past March Arkansas’s Republican governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, signed into law a bill that eliminated requirements by employers to verify the age of children before hiring them. Republicans are leading the charge to eliminate such requirements, and they’ve succeeded in Iowa and Wisconsin, and are pushing similar bills in other states. The U.S. Department of Labor reported this month that some 300 children in Kentucky worked illegally at McDonald’s franchises.


Post-pandemic demands by workers for better wages and working conditions have led profit-obsessed employers to seek other sources of labor, rather than simply paying workers what they deserve.


(Child coal miners in West Virginia in 1908. Photograph by Lewis Hine)

Nearly 120 years ago, during the great Muckraking era in journalism, poet and teacher Edwin Markham raged in Cosmopolitan magazine against the child labor practices of the day. “An army of one million seven hundred thousand children are at work in our `land of the free’ … many of them working their ten or fourteen hours by day or by night, with only a miserable dime for a wage!”


Both the robber barons and the preachers of the day defended the practice of sending children off to “the ogre scream of the factory whistle” where they worked so hard that at night “they fall asleep with the food unswallowed in the mouth.” Many of these children were young daughters of the South, sweating away their childhood in textile mills and subsceptible to the desires of their overseers if they happened “to be cursed with a little beauty.”


Markham’s public outrage helped spark widespread condemnation of child labor and passage of laws that largely eliminated it—for a time.


In a land where the 2nd amendment is more important than children


Between 2019 and 2021 the United States reported more than 1,700 mass shootings. Hundreds more came in 2022, and the numbers are climbing in 2023. Children are often the victims of these shootings, and schools are especially vulnerable.


Last month thousands of students in the Nashville area walked out of their schools and  to the Tennessee State Capitol to protest the state’s lax gun laws in the wake of a March 27 shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school where police said 28-year-old Audrey Hale killed three children and three adults before being shot and killed.


Republican Governor Bill Lee pledged $155 million toward increased security at schools but he’s done nothing to repeal the 2021 statute he championed that allows 21-year-olds to carry handguns in public with no requirement for a permit. The state Legislature is considering a bill to lower the age to 18.


Meanwhile in Uvalde, Texas, mourners this month marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Robb Elementary School that left 19 children and two teachers dead. They also watched in despair as proposals to tighten gun laws in Texas floundered before the state Legislature.


 Their fellow mourners in Tennessee can understand their frustration. “We all want to live through high school,” Amy Goetzinger, 17, told the Chalkbeat Tennessee publication as she protested her state’s inability to make guns less accessible to potential murderers.


Drag queens and young children


Democrats and left-leaning liberals don’t get off the hook in the multi-faceted assault on children taking place in the United States.


A video filmed in 2022 by BlazeTV host Sara Gonzales showing a Texas drag queen dancing to a sexually provocative song in front of a young girl at a restaurant in Plano, Texas, not only went viral but also sparked outrage by politicians in the state who vowed legislation that would crack down on such performances. Leading the charge were Republicans, not Democrats.


The video was an early volley in a growing battle not only over children and exposure to highly sexual drag queen performances but also to questions of the propriety of allowing children to undergo life-changing gender transition procedures.


A commitment to equality and fairness in the treatment of people who are not strictly heterosexual is admirable, but should such a commitment include allowing blatant sexual demonstrations in front of young and vulnerable children who have enough challenges in their lives without a premature push to assess their sexuality? That includes allowing them to make or be part of decisions that they don’t have the maturity to make?


Paula Rinehart, a therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina, says drag queen culture ultimately attempts to “deconstruct childhood” and thus rob “children of the innocence that protects their maturing process” in the name of liberating “society from the oppression of gender.”


“Children are neither hormonally nor psychologically inclined to explore their sexuality,” Rinehart writes. “They don’t naturally worry if they are `nonbinary’. They must be primed, stimulated, dragged in that direction.”


A final word


A key word in Rinehart’s comment is “dragged”--children forced into back-breaking labor, exposed to life-threatening assaults at schools where they are supposed to learn and not hide under desks, and drawn into adult sexual wars. We adults have a responsibility. We should be not only protecting, educating, and preparing children for adulthood. We should also, as Father Zossima says, admire, appreciate, and love them for their ability “to soften and purify our hearts.”


Friday, May 12, 2023

Atkins gives his "Last Lecture" with a sharp critique of mainstream media and praise for I.F. Stone and today's truthtellers in the alternative media


(Yours truly giving the "Last Lecture" for the Mortar Board May 5. Photo by my student Eva-Marie Luter)

On May 5, with a hundred or so colleagues, peers, family, friends, and students in attendance, I gave what is called the "Last Lecture" to the University of Mississippi Mortar Board chapter (a National College Senior Honor Society), an honor generally given to a retiring professor. Yes, I'm retiring after 33 years of teaching (a reason for the long delay since my last post!) but will continue to write and do my due diligence as a journalist (a writer never retires!). Asked to discuss my "legacy" as well as my message to students, I did so, but I also talked about media and society today, and how mainstream media have failed the public, leaving it to alternative media to fill the gap and strive to bring truth to the people.


This is a great honor for me, of course, and a privilege to be able to give this, my last lecture, before my peers, colleagues, students, and friends and family, including my lovely wife Suzanne. I’ve said I would talk about media and its role in society, and my understanding is I’m also to address what I might consider my own legacy as well as message to students.


I should here acknowledge a few people who greatly influenced the trajectory of my life at key moments: Charles Overby, who brought me to Washington, D.C. to be a congressional correspondent with Gannett News Service, and five years later Will Norton, who hired me to teach at the University of Mississippi when my first wife Marilyn was suffering from cancer and wanted to return to her native Mississippi. I also need to thank my cousin-in-law Marsha Tapscott, who recommended me to Will. When I got here, I wasn’t really sure how long I’d stay, but this university and this town get into your blood, and this became home.


I feel I’m leaving the journalism and new media program at a very exciting time with our Dean Andrea Hickerson and a fine faculty on the brink of great and positive change. Expanding into a school with three departments, and more students and faculty than ever in the program’s history.


My retirement this summer comes after a 33-year career here. For 15 years prior to that, I was a practicing daily journalist working at newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi and finally with Gannett News Service. Over the years I’ve criss-crossed many times the U.S. South that I’ve long considered my “beat”, and I’ve traveled as far away as Singapore and Hong Kong in pursuit of stories about real people living real lives. I’ve been a business reporter, a political reporter, a labor reporter, a theater critic, a feature writer, and more recently a film writer of all things. Over my career I’ve interviewed a long list of the good, the bad, and the ugly—from Rosa Parks, Hazel Brannon Smith, Bill Monroe, B.B. King, Ted Kennedy, and Gerald Ford to Jim Eastland, Orval Faubus, Strom Thurmond, and Ross Barnett, to notorious murderers Willie Horton during the 1988 presidential campaign, and Roy Bryant, one of the two men who murdered Emmett Till.


My focus as a journalist was usually on regular folks and their struggles. I come from a blue-collar family. My father was a World War II veteran and a tool-and-dye maker. My mother was a German war bride and a seamstress. From that German mother I learned to love philosophy, classical music, and appreciate the value of religious faith. From my father I learned the value of good, hard, honest work. I hope my concern for the Average Joe and Jane, the working class, is a legacy of sorts—their worthiness, their struggles, their untold stories, their lack of voice in our politics, economic, and cultural life today. Note I said “working class”, not the increasingly meaningless term “middle class”. As a teacher, I never tried to preach to my class. That’s not my job. Confession: I may try to preach a little today. I am, after all, the grandson of a Pentecostal Holiness preacher, a street preacher, no less. In my classes, however, I have tried to make sure students knew our real history, the full breadth of issues in our society, and the ramifications of the decisions of our leaders, the importance of good writing and reporting, and our duty as journalists to tell the truth as best as we can. I’ve wanted them to know that everybody’s got a story. I remember my own encounters—the farmer who still plowed with a mule, the Pentecostal preacher and his tent revival, the Lumbee Indian and his visions of past glories, the Delta blues singer who dug graves on the side. Sometimes, maybe even most times, the loser’s story is better than the winner’s story. The baseball player who never made it out of the minors after 12 years of trying may be a hellavu lot more interesting than this year’s MVP. These were reasons I developed courses in how social issues affect film and documentaries, and finally this last semester, a brand new course on Alternative Media.


I look back across the many classrooms I have faced, and the faces among them—too many to name all, but including a couple of our current faculty members as well as highly successful journalists like Nancy Xu from China and Takehiko Nomura from Japan, those successive waves of Bangladeshi graduate students, my American-born-and-bred students like Barrett Welch, and the Gang of Five—Allie Watson, Lila Nakaidinae, Jaylin Smith, Eva-Marie Luter, and Hayden Wiggs—who’ve followed me through three courses over the last two semesters—and, of course, Rhodes scholar Jaz Brisack and Evan Morrisey in the Honors College, where I was able to teach my beloved Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Chicago writer Nelson Algren, as well as the great writers of nonfiction. I hope these bright young people learned as much from me as I did from them.


As a professor here, I have also continued to practice journalism—to practice what I preach--and it has gotten me in trouble at times. A couple decades ago, there was an effort in the state Legislature to get me fired because of opinion columns I had written that some politicians disagreed with. This was the year I was up for tenure. Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion Ledger legislative reporter Andy Kanengeiser called me and said, “Damn, Joe, they’re coming after you.” Let me say this, then-Liberal Arts Dean Dale Abadie (we were under them at the time) and the University of Mississippi stood with me, however, and that effort ultimately failed. Dale said to me, "Don’t you worry about a thing, Joe Atkins.”


I want to talk about the media. As both a journalist and a professor of journalism, I am very concerned about the state of media in our society and our world today. I love the democratic potential our technological advances promise, but I also know how powerful forces in the past circumscribed the promises of earlier technological revolutions such as radio and television and even as far back as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. A real commitment has to be made to protect the public’s rights as beneficiaries of these advances, yet how difficult that is today when both our major political parties as well as our courts seem to be in the hands of those circumscribing powerful forces.


Perhaps like many of you, I feel sometimes like a stranger in a strange land when I turn to the media to try to understand the world. Mainstream media today—everywhere, not just here in the United States—too often are what crusading journalist Patrick Lawrence has called “merely mirrors reflecting the established ethos of the polity in which they operate. They do their best to keep Americans ignorant. If the ruling cliques wanted America to boast an intelligent populace, the press and broadcasters would do their part—as Jefferson understood this part to be—to inform them.”


I may rub some people the wrong way today—like I did with my 35 years of newspaper columns--but I’m going to weigh in on a few things. While we fight among ourselves, retreating to our tribes, bickering and fussing ourselves into blind corners, our nation and world inch toward nuclear war. Look at the superficial coverage of the current war in Ukraine, our proxy war with Russia, and the warmongering and saber rattling of our government toward China. Much of our mainstream media today remind me of the time the New York Times told us Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Where is there a discussion of the history that led up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our own complicity in helping prompt that invasion? Not giving Russia an out here, but we simply aren’t being told the whole story. And why are we preparing to go to war—what would be a nuclear war--with China? Hasn’t the U.S. agreed for many years with a “One China Policy” that essentially asserts Taiwan is indeed part of China? I’ve been to Taiwan and loved the place and its people, and I don’t want to see it invaded, but I also don’t a nuclear war.  What has China truly done other than threaten U.S. economic hegemony over the world and thus the treasure chests of our own nation’s oligarchs? Do we have more right being in the South China Sea than China? I mean isn’t that a legitimate question?


Where are the in-depth reports into the civil war in Sudan? Isn’t it interesting that not long before the current civil war the government agreed to have a Russian naval base on that country’s Red Sea? Do you think the CIA might have something to do with this civil war?


Let us remember that in the last 50 years, our own country has invaded Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Since World War II we’ve helped overthrow governments in most of those countries, plus Iran, Chile, Honduras, who knows where else.


I love my country but I am not blind to its faults or to its potential to be better.


(To the right, I.F. Stone)

In the early 1980s, when I was a graduate student in journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., I was fortunate to get a much-prized internship with the Baltimore Sun’s Washington bureau. Many great journalists came through the doors of that relatively small newsroom—Thomas Edsall, whom I shadowed as an intern, bureau chief Pat Furgurson. These were largely Old School, Gentlemen of the Press journalists, some of whom I believe still banged out their stories on typewriters. One day I was at my desk in my tiny cubbyhole when a little old man with thick glasses walked up to the desk next to me and picked up the phone. “Hello,” the little old man said into the receiver, “this is I.F. Stone, and I’d like to speak to” ….. well, I didn’t hear any of the rest of what he said. “I.F. Stone,” I said to myself. “My gosh, I. F. Stone is standing a few feet from me.” One of the great crusading fathers, along with his mentor George Seldes, of modern-day independent journalism in America, Stone was writing a column for the Sun at the time. After his call, I immediately went up and introduced myself. I’ll never forget that he took notes as I did. “Joe Atkins, huh,” he said as he scribbled on his notepad. I later interviewed him for a story.


To me, in many ways, Stone represented the best of American journalism. He told the stories the mainstream media wouldn’t touch. His “I.F. Stone Weekly” never reached mass circulation, but those who wanted to be in the know read it religiously. He wrote and reported with a passion, a search for the unvarnished truth, and let the chips fall where they damn well may.


“You’ve got to wear your chastity belt as a journalist,” Stone used to say. The seducers are everywhere out there to get you to spin the story or simply not tell the story. We have a few I.F. Stones in our midst today—Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Patrick Lawrence, Eva Bartlett, perhaps the lone Western reporter actually reporting from the Donbass in Eastern Ukraine, and bless his Pulitzer Prize-winning heart, Seymour Hersh, who told us it was the U.S. that bombed the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea last September, an act of war not only against Russia but against our own ally, Germany. His report was met with complete silence by his former employer, the New York Times. No surprise there, I’m afraid.


As a journalist and journalism professor, I stand with the Stones and Hershes of my profession, the storytellers of truth. The great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose works I taught in my International Journalism class, said once, and I paraphrase, “All the intellectuals who sip their tea from their safe posts in Paris and New York look down their noses on us lowly journalists out there in the mud trying to get our stories,” but it’s we, when we do it right, who help our readers and viewers, the regular Joes and Janes, make sense of their world. What a mission to undertake. This is a noble profession, journalism, even reaching the level of an art, when it is practiced the way it should be, the way our nation’s founders meant when they adopted the First Amendment. What a glorious gift it has been for me not only to try to practice but also to be able to try to teach such journalism. I hope I have. What I can say is I deeply appreciate the opportunities this university has given me, and I’ll never forget it.