News with Nuance: July 21, 2023
Your Friday dose of News with Nuance: the week's biggest stories, unpacked + more ..
Welcome to another hot and sticky summer week of News with Nuance. I’ve been a fan of country music since attending college in mid-Missouri in the early 2000s, and I especially love cranking up some country in the midst of a hot summer road trip - so I’m frustrated to see a country music star yet again putting out a song that plays to some of the genre’s worst stereotypes and tendencies - and doing damage to some of the fine work of other country stars to fight against those stereotypes and tendencies. More on this in our top story. We’ll also cover a recent conviction and sentencing amidst the ongoing fallout from the Capitol attempted insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021; as well as stories connected to Christian Nationalism, including left-wing wellness influencers and the candidacy of RFK, Jr., and the hopeful story of a northern Minnesota election.
Let’s get to the news … with nuance …
Screen grab from Jason Aldean’s music video for “Try this in a small town”
Reading about Jason Aldean’s new song, Try this in a Small Town, took me back to an unpleasant and frustrating experience I had 12(!) years ago, regarding a similar country song. It speaks to how much this conversation affected me that it seems like it wasn’t that long ago.
In 2011, country star Eric Church released the song Homeboy. I remember listening intently to the lyrics and being horrified, even in this time prior to the election of Donald Trump, the murder of George Floyd, and my own general awakening on the prevailing racism inherent in my own life and much of America.
You can find the lyrics to Homeboy here, but suffice it to say that the song obliquely points to stereotypical identifying features of a young Black man (referencing a ‘hip-hop hat’ and ‘pants on the ground,’ and later, ‘tattoos on his neck’ and ‘fake gold in his teeth’) and suggesting that perhaps the young man who has taken on these characteristics needs to come home, “boy.”
Given America’s long history of Black men pejoratively being called “boy,” to reenforce racial hierarchy, Homeboy’s lyrics seemed to cover up something more sinister than simply asking a wayward young man to come back home.
This being 2011, I put a post on Facebook explaining some of my issues with the song. As these things went, a good friend of my husband’s (and mine) from my husband’s hometown, angrily disagreed with me and defended the song. We went back and forth for a while, me attempting long, explanatory responses with lots of references as to why the song was problematic; him responding quickly and angrily while failing to read anything I’d said - and the conversation ended in a bad place. This friend later told my husband that the conversation had nearly caused him to cut ties with both of us.
I don’t post many opinions on Facebook anymore, not because my thoughts have changed, but more because it’s not a fruitful place for thoughtful discussion. Still, Jason Aldean’s new song brought me back to that conversation and all that has - or hasn’t - changed in America, 12 years later.
Aldean’s new song is perhaps even more troubling and - I’ll say it - blatantly racist - than Church’s was. Still, in his recent response to criticism of the song (CMT pulled the video from its airwaves), Aldean leaned heavily on the knee-jerk defensiveness I saw activated in that long-ago conversation with my friend.
"There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it -- and there isn't a single video clip that isn't real news footage -- and while I can try and respect others to have their own interpretation of a song with music, this one goes too far," Aldean continued.
As long as we only understand racism as some white-hood-wearing, long-past, n-word-saying stereotype, America will never, ever defeat its racist demons. Aldean’s refusal to merely consider how his song might be heard by Black Americans speaks to the defensiveness and arrogance of many on the right today. Not to mention his refusal to look history in its face, with America’s shameful past of lynching of Black Americans and “sundown towns” that excused and encouraged violence against Black people.
The sad part is, country music could be white America’s conscience, speaking as it often does to poor or working-class rural white Americans. The best country stars of the past and present question social inequalities and give hope to those who find themselves on the underbelly of America. But songs like Aldean’s betray that rich tradition, and instead seek to blame non-white Americans for the current problems (despair, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, poor health) facing poor, rural whites.
Add to this that - for the record - Jason Aldean did not grow up in a small town. So maybe he doesn’t understand what’s actually threatening rural America today, a place that is much less white, especially in the South, than many Republicans would like to admit.
In my experience as a pastor in a rural town in Minnesota, for a community I deeply admired, respected, and loved - what most threatens rural white America is not threats from without (imagined in Aldean’s song stereotypically as young, urban Black men) - but instead threats from within. Those guns so often worshiped by right-wing politicians are much more likely to be used in suicides wrought by economic hardship, addiction, and family trauma - than they are to be used in self-defense. Rural America is in desperate need of funding for education, so that its teachers can be paid living wages, as well as funding for healthcare, so pregnant people living in rural America won’t have to drive more than an hour to find a labor and delivery unit in a hospital.
The other reality is that gun homicide rates are actually highest in rural communities, not large cities. Rural people are hurting, from decreased economic opportunity, to untreated PTSD from military service, to generational trauma and drug addiction. But absent the mental health interventions and social services available in urban areas, and the high prevalence of guns readily available in the home; the anger and violence spurred by songs like Aldean’s Try this in a small town, are much more likely to kill white rural residents themselves, whether by suicide, in a car accident, or from the results of addiction and gun violence - than they are to deter outsiders, clearly imagined in Aldean’s song, as Black Americans (who live in rural America, too!).
The Quote: In the video, directed by the singer’s longtime collaborator Shaun Silva, Aldean and his band perform in front of the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., as violent news footage — including scenes from what appear to be Black Lives Matter protests — is projected onto the building. After premiering Friday, the video drew immediate criticism on social media for its embrace of vigilantism and for its conspicuous use of a location known to historians as the site of a lynching of an 18-year-old Black man in 1927.
Story by Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times
I also recommend this Twitter thread from author and pastor Dante Stewart, who writes about his reaction to the song.
Speaking of the cannibalizing effect of current right-wing rhetoric, which often causes its adherents to destroy themselves, we have this story of the conviction of one of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot’s most prominent figures.
Rachel Marie Powell, 41, wore a “fur-lined jacket hoodie and distinctive pink hat” for her outing to attempt an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. She also brought a bullhorn, through which she shouted detailed instructions to rioters, many of them armed.
Powell apparently never considered that these actions were illegal - not to mention
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