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20th Century America Is Never Returning



This March 15, 2018 photo shows Moundsville, W.Va., from a nearby farm. Photo: Paul Vernon/AP Photo

The 1950s nirvana of unionized manufacturing jobs is gone forever, no matter how successful the Trump agenda may be.

America’s geographic divides are becoming politically entrenched, as this election reminded us — and the economic forces driving the division aren’t going away. We’re not returning to a 1950s nirvana of unionized manufacturing jobs, no matter how successful the Trump agenda may be — and we’re not (yet) flourishing as a harmonious post-modern technological utopia.

Any hard conversation about America’s future needs to start with a shared understanding of our past and present, free of myth and easy narrative. When you’re trying to accept and understand change, the truth always helps.

Alexis Martinez, the 24-year old son of Mexican immigrants, remembers one such moment of revelation during his school years in Moundsville, the West Virginia town where he grew up and still lives. The town is named after a 2,200-year-old Grave Creek burial mound built by the Adena, a native American culture that roamed Appalachia three millennia ago.

On a school trip to the mound, “I realized how much things can change, like civilizations, or just a way of life,” Martinez told me.

I met Martinez with filmmaker David Bernabo as we chronicled Moundsville’s present and past, and contemplated its future, for a feature documentary that will be premiered Dec. 7 at The Strand, the town’s restored 98-year-old theatre.

I first visited Moundsville, on the Ohio river as it snakes from Pittsburgh toward Cincinnati, on my way back from reporting on a coal mine for the Wall Street Journal. In 2013, I’d written about the town’s ghost tourism industry and a local hotdog store with a paranormal shrine, in a Halloween story for the Journal’s front page. By the time of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, I had quit the paper, and was looking for a meaty creative project that might document, free of our poisoned politics, how America is changing, while opening up conversations about how to get to a healthier future.

I chose Moundsville because, with a population of roughly 8,000, it’s small enough to get to know intimately yet big enough to have once had real economic muscle. The area once had dozens of factories, including what was, for a time, the world’s biggest toy plant, run by Louis Marx & Co., makers of the Big Wheel tricycle and Rock’em Sock’em robots.

Next to the West Virginia industrial city of Wheeling and close to Pittsburgh, it has one foot in Midwestern industry and another in rural West Virginia. Its current problems are typical: brain drain, aging population, opioid addiction, factories that use robots instead of people, and a gas industry that employs seasonal workers.

That said, like in much of America, things still basically work. Unemployment is a manageable 5.3%. It’s just different than before, and poorer. Its new economy mirrors much of post-industrial small-town America: a coal mine, a Wal-Mart and other retailers, a hospital, gas wells, a cluster of small businesses, spooky tourism around the shuttered prison, and a new prison.

And in the middle of town stands the mound, a reminder of our world’s unyielding insistence on change.

Dave and I spent a year traveling to Moundsville, asking people about their lives and jobs, past and future, without trying to connect their answers to faraway national politicians. Like all reporters, I’d been trained to connect those dots, and it makes sense: Trump is something both the visiting reporter and the small-town denizen know about. But we wanted deeper answers. We wanted to figure out how small towns declined, what’s going on today, and what the future looks like. The factories aren’t coming back, so what are people actually doing?

We found stories that capture America in the early 21st century, and color in the monochrome narratives about the death of small-town manufacturing. It wasn’t just caused by trade deals and private equity. In some cases, like the Marx toy factory, patriarchs decided to sell instead of passing the business along to their kids. In others, consumer tastes changed. The metal stamping plant closed because people preferred plastic. Sometimes, it really was foreign competition.

The new deal demands hustle and self-reliance. One man we found, Fred Wilkerson, Sr., worked for the Fostoria glass factory for decades. He really loved making glass, from scratch in a hot furnace, and when the plant closed and he got laid off, he wanted to keep doing it. He and his son bought an industrial furnace, and now they make glass art in their barn. They sell online. Margins are thin. “It’s often seven days a week of hard work,” he says.

Capitalism, we learned in Moundsville, has many forms of creative destruction. We found a company that makes kitchen cabinets for customers all over Appalachia. Because it uses German robotic technology, it employs only a dozen people.

And more than anger, we found sadness. “I really think ‘we the people’ did this to ourselves, because we wanted everything cheaper,” said one old man, speaking of the decimation of Main Street businesses by big box stores. Of his neighbors who voted for Trump, Martinez says, “they’re grieving what they’ve lost, and I don’t hate them for it.”

Martinez was born in Lexington, Kentucky, to immigrants from Tamaulipas, Mexico. His family moved to Moundsville when he was seven to open the restaurant where he works. His mom was deported in 2006. He and his dad are staying in Moundsville, and he dreams of going to medical school. “If you put on paper the concerns of a white guy with different politics, and my concerns, we’d have a lot of common ground,” he says.

In almost every conversation, the mound came up. At a time of hard change, it uniquely marks America’s deep, deep past, and the fragility of empires, economies and cultures.

When thousands of prehistoric mounds were discovered by 19th century explorers between Mississippi and the East Coast, Americans invented myths to preserve their narrative of an unspoiled Eden. Lost tribes of Israel, people from the lost world of Atlantis, or, maybe, aliens built these mounds, they said.

Recent scholarship has established that the Adena, hunter-gatherers and occasional gardeners, built the mounds to bury tribal leaders. Inside the Grave Creek mound, erected by hand with three million baskets of earth, are two burial vaults and artifacts from as far away as Lake Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico, evidence of ancient continental commerce.

The mound site, which includes an excellent museum with a trove of prehistoric artifacts, is a reminder that in America, the 20th century is not the only lost world that will never return.

“I don’t really know what the future holds for a place like Moundsville,” said Eugene Saunders, a retired coal miner and the town’s only ever African-American mayor. He grew up in the racist 1950s, when some of his neighbors in a segregated neighborhood in Moundsville were Cherokees born in the 19th century. “Maybe it’s gas, maybe it’s something else.”

Town fathers are excited about a “cracker plant” — a factory that turns natural gas into the raw material used to make plastic — that a Thai firm has discussed building across the river. That would mean thousands of new jobs, says deputy mayor Phil Remke. “I’m trying to get a second and third hotel built,” says Remke. Plans for the cracker plant have not yet been finalized. There are no other big investments in the works.

Saunders, the former mayor, says he’s optimistic for the future of his town, but concedes, “it’s possible that one day, the only thing remaining will be the mound.”

John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based writer and former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent. Miller’s documentary Moundsville: An American Story, produced in collaboration with David Berrnabo, premieres Dec. 7, 2018, at 7 p.m. at The Strand Theater in Moundsville, West Virginia.  

This story was originally published by Buzzfeed News.


New York Times’ Rural Economics Analysis Omits a Wealth of Options



Telecommunications wires stretch along a rural road. Photo: Technology & Information Policy Institute, University of Texas, CC BY-ND

New York Times writer Eduardo Porter says it’s time to face “hard truths” about the rural economy – it may not be fixable. Roberto Gallardo, who has worked in rural communities on digital development and inclusion, says Porter’s cold-hearted analysis leaves out lots of different approaches.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This weekend the New York Times published an op/ed by Eduardo Porter titled “The Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy.”  

Porter, an economics writer for the Times, says (among other things) that it might be better to stop fighting rural poverty with programs in those distressed communities. Instead, public policy could encourage people who live in distressed areas to move to places (primarily large cities) where there is more economic opportunity.  

Instead of so-called place-based policies to revitalize small towns,” Porter writes, “why not help their residents take advantage of opportunities where the opportunities are?  

Roberto Gallardo at Purdue University responded to Porter’s argument through a series of tweets. This article is adapted from those tweets. 

Eduardo Porter makes an interesting analysis in the New York Times. Yes, socioeconomic indicators do not favor rural or small city areas. And, yes, Enrico Moretti and economists are finding that digital jobs are concentrating at even higher rates than industrial jobs. Another New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, has made similar arguments, saying that rural “revival seems very unlikely.”  

But Porter’s response is understandable only from a purely urban and economic perspective. Are we not capable of looking at this issue from a different perspective? 

Let me give an alternative explanation and vision from a more human, community economic development perspective.  

Some pundits thought the digital age would bring the “death of distance,” reducing the impact that location has on economic activity. But that hasn’t occurred as predicted. The results, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims, are superstar employees, firms, and cities geographically concentrated. The internet, which was supposed to erase this distance “can’t yet replace high-quality face-to-face communication required for rapid-fire innovation.” 

How is it that the decentralized network effect, that so many companies are capitalizing on now, has still not translated to overall economic performance?    

A simple but critical reality is overlooked by these pundits: lack of digital parity between urban and rural areas. As I have argued before, the playing field is not even. Rural America is at a disadvantage when it comes to connectivity and digital skills. 

Of course, urban areas, dovetailing from their industrial density advantage, have capitalized on this. But what if digital parity was a reality? What if, as tech continues to evolve, holograms and mixed-reality make physical face-to-face communication less critical? 

What happens when customizable manufacturing and 3-D printers, rather than mass producing, become ubiquitous? Or when drones/driverless cars move things more efficiently? Or when artificial intelligence is responsible for more innovations and knowledge generation?  

Ask yourselves: will physical proximity still give an edge to economic performance? And will the American workers now consigned to large cities make different decisions about where to live based on quality of life if they had the choice?  

Humans are creative by nature. In my daily work with rural and small-town communities, it is obvious that we are equally or even more creative than our urban counterparts. We have had to be this way since the founding of the country. But we are in a highly unequal digital ecosystem.  

Ideas abound on how rural can experience a revival. First, as Mark Muro at Brookings concluded, invest in broadband connectivity and digital skills. Inadequate and expensive service is what most rural areas deal with.   

Next comes a change in mindset, which is the most complicated step. Help rural communities divest their 50-year-old industrial community-economic-development model and focus more and more on economic gardening and place-making.  

Recreate urban digital ecosystems with program’s like the Center on Rural Innovation’s initiative. Replicate Utah’s extension service Remote Work Revolution or Connected Nation’s digital works programs. Use the Intelligent Community Forum concept as a roadmap. 

Incentivize cooperative extension, nonprofits, churches, and libraries to improve digital skills. Renovate downtown buildings (plenty available!) to house makerspaces and co-working areas. Repurpose workforce development mechanisms to focus on life-long or constant learning. 

With global warming and ever more traffic and air-quality issues, rural has a tremendous advantage. As information-technology applications become more sophisticated, something urban pundits overlook, and a real digital parity exists, the death of distance will materialize. 

Is rural America worth a try? Heck yeah! Rural residents can rebound. Help and empower rural residents to look inward and invest in their very creative residents and businesses. Do so within a human-centric and digital-parity setting. Only then, will a revival take place.  

Roberto Gallardo is assistant director of the Purdue University Center for Regional Development and a Purdue extension community and regional economics specialist. @robertoge  He has written extensively on rural development and digital inclusion. He is a senior fellow of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder. 

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White Nationalist Groups Are Really Street Gangs and Law Enforcement Needs to Treat Them that Way



In this April 27, 2017 file photo, Gavin McInnes, center, founder of the far-right group Proud Boys, is surrounded by supporters after speaking at a rally in Berkeley, Calif. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo, File

Law enforcement has a classification problem, and it’s making America more dangerous.

For the last two decades, local police and the FBI have categorized the criminal activities of white power groups as isolated incidents or hate-related.

We believe that’s wrong and leads to a lack of understanding of the power of these groups and the direction they are taking. It also leads to the under-policing of these groups.

As criminologists, our research is based on the rationale that “alt-right” groups are no different from conventional street gangs.

A uniform definition for a “gang” does not exist among scholars or law enforcement. However, criminal codes usually define a street gang as an ongoing group, club or association composed of five or more individuals that participate in either a felony, simple assault or destruction of property.

Categorizing alt-right groups as gangs would increase the attention they get from law enforcement and likely stem their violence. When police use traditional crowd control techniques to corral alt-right gangs at public demonstrations, it only reduces the chances of violence and does not address the root cause of white supremacy.

Unless law enforcement changes their approach accordingly, these groups will likely continue to grow and contribute to increases in extremist violence, particularly anti-Semitic attacks.

From tweets to the streets

In spite of public perception, scholars point out that the alt-right is not composed of “lone wolves” or a bunch of “Internet trolls.”

Nor is it a monolith with a unified ideology.

Instead, the alt-right is composed of a variety of factions that oppose multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness, globalism, establishment politics and immigration, and support President Donald Trump. The group’s core, however, is a racist movement revolving around beliefs of white nationalism including anti-Semitism and fear of “white racial genocide.”

Over the last two decades, the white power movement has adapted to thrive with the growth of the internet and social media. Digital communication platforms such as message boards, blogs and social media have provided an cheap way to promote white supremacy ideology, recruit members and maintain social ties between members.

Richard Spencer, a leader in the ‘alt-right’ that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism. Photo:David J. Phillip/ AP Photo

Even though the alt-right evolved in the digital world, it has manifested in the real world. Alt-right gangs are regularly seen demonstrating and rallying in public, as in Charlottesville, Berkeley and Portland, Oregon. All of those events ended in violence. Recently, in New York alt-right gangs have abandoned the pretense of peaceful gatherings and are now openly participating in street brawls.

Since 2017, the nonprofit Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League, has documented 54 far-right extremist protests and demonstrations, particularly in more progressive urban centers across the United States.

In the past year, the ADL has also documented more than 900 incidents of white power propaganda on or near college campuses.

Over the last two years, alt-right groups have also engaged in murder, stockpiled firearms and explosives, and plotted terrorist attacks.

The alt-right’s other activities include assault and harassment and hate-related crimes.

Proud Boys: An alt-right gang

Proud Boys is a self-described “Western chauvinist” men’s club that was founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes. Like conventional street gangs, many of the characteristics used by scholars and law enforcement to identify a member of Proud Boys are used to identify members of a street gang.

Members are initiated with violent rituals. They routinely gather to socialize in spaces guarded from outsiders. Members are encouraged to engage in criminal acts of violence. Finally, McInnes has publicly called the group a gang – a documented predictor of gang membership.

McInnes claims that Proud Boys have chapters sprouting up all over the globe. There are, however, only about 30 chapters documented in the United States. A half dozen exist in Canada. Even fewer exist across Europe, and McInnes has promised that chapters are “coming soon” to the rest of the globe.

Proud Boys are just one example of three known right-wing groups that are emerging as alt-right gangs.

Rise Above Movement and Atomwaffen Division are two other groups whose members, like Proud Boys, celebrates anti-Semitic violence, stockpiles weapons and regularly participates in violence against counterprotesters.


Policymakers, law enforcement and analysts have the opportunity to change course and start addressing the lapse in policing of these domestic far-right extremists.

Education and exposure are effective remedies at limiting the racist message of the alt-right. But law enforcement could be more proactive.

A good starting point would be to begin systematically monitoring members of alt-right gangs, particularly individuals that are regularly engaging in street violence. The consistent and responsible collection of information for a gang database can be a tool to effectively target violent crime while also protecting individual civil liberties.

It is equally important for police agencies to be able to easily share such intelligence amongst themselves. This would greatly help police agencies identify those alt-right gang members that are participating in street violence across various jurisdictions.

Next, police agencies could utilize a “focused deterrence” approach that targets problematic groups engaging in violence. Such a strategy concentrates on chronic offenders and sends the message that violence will be met swiftly with enhanced sanctions. It also involves offering opportunities and resources to these individuals, such as vocational training, housing and substance abuse treatment to help end their criminal behavior.

The Conversation

Such approaches have consistently produced significant reductions in gang violence and can be part of the process to limit street violence of alt-right gangs.

Matthew Valasik is an assistant professor at Louisiana State University and Shannon Reid is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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