The un-localing

Dear Rebecca:

There’s been a lot of lamenting over the years about the corporatization of America — how, these days, every town looks just like another because they have all the same stores: The same Wal-Marts, the same McDonalds, the same Starbucks, and so on.

In smaller towns, particularly, the “Wal-Mart effect” has been much lamented, because of its tendency to open up, drive all the other retail businesses out of business, and thus become the only source of (cheap) employment and (cheaper) goods in a community. Defenders of the store could say that the company was providing those goods at a price the community desired; critics looked at hollowed-out Main Streets and lamented the loss of local ownership and local culture. (They also usually took a heavy toll on advertising in local papers, something I witnessed personally.)

Turns out that wasn’t the end of the story, though. Welcome to the “retail apocalypse.

J.C. Penney used to be one of three anchor stores at the Shenango Valley Mall. Then, one day last March, both Sears and Macy’s shut down, becoming two of the more than 500 department stores that closed across the country in 2017. Headlines have called the shrinking of these American staples the “retail apocalypse.” In Hermitage, employees called it “the funeral,” because of the way it sounded as customers lined up to make their final purchases. “I’m so sorry,” they said. “I’m in shock.” “What are you going to do?” “What am I going to do?”

The old culprit was Wal-Mart. The new culprit? Amazon. People are increasingly buying online for a variety of reasons — convenience, expense, etc. But the result is going to do more damage to the kinds of communities you and I grew up in than Wal-Mart and its ilk ever did.

For all their manifold sins, those big corporations had a local presence — they employed local people and paid local taxes. Online outlets only rarely have the former and intermittently do the later (though that could change soon.) The Wal-Marts of the world may have displaced the previous business culture, but they replaced it with something tangible: Bricks, mortar, and people. Places that employed your neighbors, where you might run into them.

The online outlets offer no such advantages.

That’s not to dismiss the advantages they do offer. But the advantages they offer belong mostly to the realm of economics, while the disruption they do ripple through the social and cultural realms in ways I think aren’t entirely desirable.

And hey: I’m guilty. I’m an Amazon Prime subscriber.

We all have individual choices to make about whether to engage in the behaviors that are bringing this un-local world upon us. And we also have to decide if the cultural and social ramifications of un-localing require some kind of government response. The markets can give us cheaper widgets. They can’t always give us better communities.

Yours in commerce,

Hellboy, and the difficulty of giving up white privilege

Dear Rebecca:

Are you a Hellboy fan? No? Well, let me bring you some news from the world of entertainment:

After Ed Skrein was cast in the forthcoming reboot of Hellboy, frustration quickly surfaced over the white actor being slated to play Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character from the comic books. It was the latest installment in the Are We Seriously Still Talking About This? chronicles of studios racially miscasting roles in film and television. But, in a big twist, Skrein announced Monday that he will depart Hellboy to make way for a more appropriate actor, explaining his “moral” decision on Twitter.

In a response to both whitewashing complaints and Skrein’s decision to exit the film, Lionsgate has released a statement of their own today saying they are now committed to casting the role of Daimio correctly: “Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”

28-ed-skrein.w190.h190So. We can argue whether the ethnicity of a fictional character is set in stone, but I’d like to leave that aside for now and say that what Skrein did was very, very laudable. He got a job based on a number of factors – he’s a talented prettyboy, after all – but also, probably, because Hollywood still finds it easier to cast white people in Asian roles than the other way around.

To his credit, Skrein didn’t try to rationalize this. He gave up his privilege.

Here’s the tough part: Giving up that privilege was probably, for Skrein, relatively easy. He’s been in movies before; he’s got several more in the process. He wasn’t giving up work, exactly — he was giving up this work. When you’re rich and (somewhat) famous, that’s a gamble worth taking, especially if you calculate that keeping the role might make you look like an insentive racist to part of the viewing audience.

Down the socioeconomic ladder, it’s a little harder.

I understand why a lot of folks don’t want to hear about white privilege. Maybe it means they get harassed by the cops less, or maybe they find it a little easier to get a job, and getting a job is goddamned difficult enough that it doesn’t always feel like much of a privilege. And hey, I’ve got kids to feed, too, so why should I give up my $40,000-a-year job to somebody else who deserves a shot?

The other thing: The situation isn’t usually so clear-cut as Skrein’s. He took a job that had long been envisioned for an Asian face. When I take an editing job,it’s rarely a “black” job, I take.

This is why folks like Trump win elections. Losing privilege is a loss, especially when it gets down to zero-sum questions of who gets this job.

So what Skrein did was admirable. It’s also not really an example to solving the problem.

Sincerely, Joel

You can’t spell “resistance” without “rest.”


Dear Rebecca:

This morning in church I was asked to read from the writings of “Kansas poet” William Stafford. Stafford died in the 1990s, but these particular passages seemed very well suited to our Internet-Trump era.

He speaks of writer whose work seems to be to

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits…

Fascination with things as they are becomes addictive; stronger and stronger shocks become necessary. People want even their entertainments to satisfy their lust for fear, cynicism, and disgust…

We must suspend the old course in current events, in order to protect the young. And even the old, battered, disoriented, blasé, can no longer register human feelings in the blizzard of our time.

Sanctuary, sanctuary — what lives needs sanctuary.

Sound familiar?

It seems to me these days we are governed by provocation and provocateurs. On social media, we swim in a tide of constant outrage — the “blizzard of our time” — and our passions, my passions certainly, are governed by the need to respond to those outrages, to make them right. “Someone is being wrong on the Internet” is a motto for our generation.

And more specifically, we are literally governed by a man who seems to want to find limits that have prevailed and break them, to be more brutal and obscene and violent.

What if we stopped being provoked?

I’m not suggesting we absent ourselves from politics. As many have pointed out, that’s something you can do when you’re privileged, when politics don’t happen to you.

But I am suggesting maybe it’s time to disarm, to stop responding to every provocation with a torrent of outrage. What if we don’t go apeshit every time our leader pokes us with a stick?

What if we follow the logic of sabbath? You can’t spell “resistance”without “rest” after all.

I don’t know exactly what this looks like. I don’t know how, precisely, to avoid being provoked when our leader’s every action is provocative. But I suspect that finding such an approach would rob the provocateurs of their greatest power, their greatest advantage. Maybe the slyest rhetorical weapon we have in this age is … the shrug.

There’s so much to be angry about. Our rage is earned, and righteous, but I increasingly suspect it’s a way of controlling us. There are benefits to dispassion, after all, to the pulled punch and the shot gone unfired.

Sanctuary, sanctuary. What our lives need is sanctuary.

Restively, Joel

Riding the rails (This is not a post about Donald Trump)

Dear Rebecca:

Sorry for my recent absence. As you know, I took a few days to take a real vacation with my family — the first time we’d taken a trip with my almost-9-year-old son that didn’t involve going to see family for one reason or another. We went to Chicago. And we took the train to get there.

Let me tell you, this is the only way to travel.

Sunset in Missouri, as seen from the Southwest Chief.

The trip happened to coincide with the first anniversary of our return to Kansas after eight years in Philadelphia. The return has brought me a renewed appreciation of the overlooked beauty of “flyover country” — the Flint Hills are as fine as any of God’s creations, and an evening spent on the back patio watching rabbits is probably one of the easier ways I find contentment these days.

My trip on the Southwest Chief added to that sense. We rolled through the rural parts of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois — over verdant rolling hills, crossing the Mississippi River, past the cornrows and wind generators, through tiny brick towns that didn’t look much different from how they appeared 100 years ago.

And you haven’t seen a sunset until you’ve sat in the observation car and watched all 90 minutes of it, from the first pinkening of the skies to the last sliver of red on the horizon, all of it with Masonic cemeteries and backyard fire pits passing through your line of sight on the way.

Best of all: You can get up and stretch your legs without stopping, take a nap while still traveling, and the legroom is far in excess of what you’d get on an airline.

Maybe I’m romantic about the railroad because my dad and grandfather both worked on railroads during their lives. I wonder if I should’ve gotten my hands dirtier. Oh well.

What does this have to do with politics or religion? Nothing. (Unless we want to argue about Amtrak funding, I guess, but let’s save that for another day.) Sometimes it’s just good to reflect on the things that make life a little better lived. For me, a trip across the Midwest on a train in one of those things.

Sincerely, Joel

Douglas Koziol and the virtues of reading all the way to the damn end

Dear Rebecca:


A conservative friend — I think we’re friends — linked angrily today to this piece at The Millions. It wasn’t hard to see why. Check it out.

So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?

This was offered as proof of the censorious nature of “progressivism.” And the piece’s commenters agreed:

It’s called freedom. It may be dangerous to you, or you may dislike it, or disagree with it, but none of those three personal views gives you the right to stop anyone else from reading it.

The moment you decide your role is to act as a gatekeeper shutting out the unworthy books, rather than a guide opening the door to new ones, you’re part of the problem. You’re no better than any other small-minded librarian/bookseller impeding access to books of which they do not approve.

What a load of elitist arrogant BS. And the author probably thinks they are being open minded. Keep doing you liberals.

One small problem: While the quoted paragraph above does indeed express the problem the writer, Douglas Koziol, was wrestling with, it doesn’t at all reflect his conclusions, or the fullness of his throught process and actions in getting there.


All of this is to say that I’ve yet to find a way to tactfully handle the subject. Even now, I fear that I’m slipping into a haughty and unproductive tone—that of an ideologically perfect soul who can’t seem to break through to the rubes. And that’s the last thing a bookseller or writer should be.


I can hide the stacks of Hillbilly Elegy in the back (if my boss is reading this, I’m just kidding). But I suspect that the most fundamental thing I can do is also perhaps the most trite: I can try to start conversations. Independent bookstores have continued to thrive in the face of the Amazon-ization of everything precisely because of their human component, and what is more human than honest-to-god conversation? But in order for this to be effective, it would require equal parts listening. Listening to what made the person gravitate towards the book in the first place, listening while withholding judgment, listening as if I don’t know all the answers.

What a powerful conclusion! Overcoming a censorious instinct to embrace humility, embrace listening and embrace understanding! We should want much more of this in our society than we’re getting right now. We should be praising Koziol for his honesty and his conclusion.

But instead, most of Koziol’s readers are acting like folks who, having heard the setup of a “knock knock” joke without hearing the punchline, have decided to condemn the evils of doorbells. Too bad. Reading to the end could’ve saved a lot of heartache.

Still reading?

July 4 and Mennonites

Dear Rebecca:

Do you celebrate July 4?

That’s a question I don’t think will compute for many of our non-Mennonite readers. But our church has a long history of eschewing patriotism, particularly where it curdled into militarism — the folks I grew up with in Central Kansas were descended from people who (in the popular telling) had fled from Germany to Russia to avoid fighting in German wars, then Russia to America to avoid being conscripted into Russian wars. Back in World Wars I and II, those folks had grown extremely unpopular: People with German names — a lot of them still spoke the language, assimilating slowly — wouldn’t take up arms against the Krauts! It wasn’t a popular position.

The manifestations of that theology remain unpopular in the broader culture. A few years ago, a conservative talk show host aroused popular anger against Goshen College because it didn’t play the national anthem prior to sporting events. “It is, after all, about a military battle (“bombs bursting in air,” etc.), and some Mennonites believe that any expression of patriotism, placing love of country above love of God, risks idolatry,” the New York Times reported. “Countries rise and fall; the message of Jesus is supposed to be eternal.” Goshen briefly backed down, but ultimately settled on playing a different, less bombastic song, “America the Beautiful.”

(Editor’s note: The second verse of “America the Beautiful” might sound familiar, thematically, in a lot of Mennonite churches:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare of freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

Mennonites have that pilgrim heritage, after all. And oh, how they love self-control!)

Anyway: Independence Day, when this country’s leaders decided to launch a rebel war against their British masters, is unavoidably militaristic. The fireworks!

So: Do you celebrate?

Me? Yes. Ish.

Let me tell a story. It’s one I’ve told publicly before, but it’s kind of a touchstone for me, and so it is here.

Within a few weeks of 9/11, I got in my car and started driving to New York. History was happening, and I’d become a journalist because I wanted to see history with my own eyes. So I drove cross-country on my own. I stopped to talk with people who live outside Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where B-2 bombers were flying attack missions to Afghanistan; I stopped at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana to visit friends and write a story about how pacifists were dealing with events; I visited the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 crashed, and sat in a mortuary with the overwhelmed county coroner, sitting in his socks as he dazedly recounted his efforts of recent weeks.

And then I ended up in the city. I saw what was left of the Twin Towers, saw smoke still rising from the wreckage, and … smelled it.

More importantly, I talked with people who’d experienced the day. Most importantly, I was taken to meet a Puerto Rican family in their home – a tiny apartment where they’d raised their family, and was given lime-flavored coffee to drink while we talked, while the mother of the family talked about watching the Towers come down.

The trip made me love America, but not in a defensive how dare they attack us! way. Driving by myself and covering only the northeast quarter of the country, I’d gotten a taste of how much bigger and more diverse this country is than my Kansas upbringing had allowed me to see. Within a few years, I’d be raising a family in a tiny Philadelphia apartment, even smaller than the place I’d been hosted.

July 4 is problematic for Mennonites for reasons I listed before, and for liberals who don’t hate America, but do want to temper pride with humility, a recognition that the good things we have were often obtained through sinful, destructive means like slavery and Jim Crow and theft of the land from its original owners. And this year, let’s face it, for a lot of us this country seems a bit uglier and meaner than it did a year ago. It’s hard to feel celebratory.

But Mennonites also do community very well. It’s one reason I love them. (And they don’t do it without problems of their own either, as you well know.)

So on July 4, I will go and spend time with friends. We will eat food and my kid will play with their kids. I will enjoy the community I’ve created, and love that America contains so many different kinds of communities, and I will celebrate that as our strength.

We are large. We contain multitudes. That is my July 4.

Sincerely, Joel

P.S.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that July 4 is also the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. It makes the day more complicated for me,  the need to spend time in community even more precious. FWIW.

Our Knee-Jerk Culture


I was napping yesterday when James Comey was fired.

So here’s the thing: When I went to sleep, lots of liberal folks hated James Comey — for his actions that seemed to hurt Hillary’s election, broadly, but also more recently for incorrect testimony to Congress that suggested (again, falsely) a close Hillary confidant had emailed hundreds of thousands of classified documents to her husband.

So when I go to sleep: Comey’s a bad guy. When I wake up, everybody’s outraged that he’s been fired.

It was a little disorienting.

Here’s the dumb thing I did: I started commenting on Twitter, assuming the last bad thing Comey did — the incorrect testimony — was the cause for his firing. Turned out I was wrong! The president says he fired Comey because … Comey handled the Hillary email situation badly. Like liberals have been complaining about for months.

Which, basically, no one believes. And with good reason.

So my own initial reactions were wrong. And it got me thinking: I love Twitter and I hate Twitter.

Good Twitter: Brings me new facts just as quickly as they’re created.

Bad Twitter: Requires the creation of analysis and commentary on that same now-now-now timeline. Which means a lot of us — including me! — make stupid comments until we get properly oriented. (This assumes, of course, that my considered commentary isn’t also stupid. I know, I know.)

Anyway, I was reading Alan Jacobs this morning:

Russell Berman tweets: “15 hours later, not one of the top 4 House Republican leaders have issued a statement on the president’s firing of the FBI director.” This expresses a commonly-held view — just as I write these words I see a post by Pete Wehner asking “Where is the Republican Leadership?” — but I wonder: When did we get on this schedule? That is, when did an overnight wait before commenting on a political decision become an unconscionable delay? I’m old enough to remember when people used to counsel their agitated friends to “sleep on it,” and maybe even seek the opinions of others, before making public statements or highly consequential decisions. Now anything but instantaneous response is morally suspect — at best.

We talk about “resistance” a lot these days. Among the things I feel a need to resist: The speed of the commentary cycle. The group rush to judgment — even when it’s “my” group. The writing off of our political opponents as bad people.

Oh yeah, and Trump.

I feel increasingly lonely in my desire to resist those first three things, though. And I suspect it means I’ll make an occasional error. I might even embarrass myself from time to time! But slowing down, not following the jerk of my knee — hard as it is to resist, it feels necessary.