'joy is a fine initial act of insurrection'
Fewer bummers this week, I promise
I’m sick in bed with a gnarly sinus infection that won’t go away (I’m treating it, Mom, don’t worry), but I feel compelled to send out something because it’s Wednesday and, after 3-and-a-half years, writing this newsletter every week still brings me joy.
I still marvel that so many of y’all signed up to hear from me, and even more that 200+ people have now signed up as paid subscribers. I don’t say it enough: Thank you. It really means the world to me. Writing means nothing without readers, and somehow, without trying too hard to market myself, I’ve found a generous and receptive audience.
I was scratching my head earlier this year trying to figure out where the surge in interest in this grim little newsletter came from when I discovered that, at least for a little while, Brutal South was the top-rated newsletter in the “Education” category on Substack, the blogging platform I use.
When I made the discovery, I remarked to my wife that I hoped people weren’t disappointed after they signed up for an “education” newsletter and instead got, say, an essay about Mountain Goats tapes or a review of evangelical sermons on the end of Roe v. Wade.
Pardon me if this issue is disjointed, but with my last few buzzing brain cells I want to share some pieces of news, writing, and art that brought me joy this week.
THE UNION OF SOUTHERN SERVICE WORKERS, a new union of retail, food service, and care workers, launched in Columbia, S.C., earlier this month. This comes after years of organizing via Raise Up, the Southern counterpart of the national Fight for $15, and it has the backing of the massive and mighty Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
My friend the labor historian Kerry Taylor wrote a bit about the opening rally in Facing South this week. I loved this part:
Raise Up veterans like Gas and Smalls, and the Durham, North Carolina-based Ieisha Franceis and Jamila Allen, will be critical to the USSW's success. Beginning in September 2020 and continuing over the next year, Franceis and Allen led three walkouts that forced their employer, Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, to agree to their demands for raises, paid leave for employees in quarantine, and new sanitation procedures. Franceis was initially hesitant about striking, but she trusted the much younger and more soft-spoken Allen, who had been meeting with Raise Up organizers for a year and gently prodding her coworkers to take collective action.
"That first strike did something to me," said Franceis, recalling with pride the walkout that left customers unattended and burgers burning on the grill as panicked managers pleaded with them to return. "I felt empowerment, and I'll go to my grave with that sense and pass it to my children and grandchildren."
The past few years have seen a slow turnaround in the long decline of labor organization in this country, and I celebrate anyone bold enough to take up the fight here in South Carolina, the most anti-union state in the U.S. You’ve probably heard about the graduate workers’ strike in California and the looming railroad workers’ strike across the country, but look for more action on the fast-food and service-worker front in the coming years. Their struggle is all of ours.
THIS ESSAY FROM 4 YEARS AGO in Popula, “The Movie Assassin” by Sarah Miller, had me feeling wistful for the golden age of alternative weekly newspapers, which I missed by at least a decade.
I read it at 3 a.m. when a coughing spell wouldn’t let me go back to sleep, and in that haze I found myself crying a few times. I cried because I missed my punk-rock days at my own city’s alt-weekly and knew I could never go back, not for the pay they offer and not with kids to take care of. I cried for the fate of Philadelphia’s two alt-weeklies, fallen to the same fate as most of their kind. I cried with recognition at the young Miller’s too-cool-by-half posturing, and at the tragicomedy of looking back from middle age and realizing you’ll never be that cool or assertive or misguided or full of shit or full of life again.
I read it like a piece of wisdom literature and bookmarked it to read again in better health.
THIS NEW ALBUM BY CHRISTINE FELLOWS, “Stuff We All Get,” released last week on Bandcamp or wherever you get your music.
I heard about Fellows’ music via her husband John K. Samson, a fellow Winnipeg resident and genius songwriter. He has one small backup vocal part on her song “The Rain.”
This is comfort music, all finger-plucked guitars and pianos and strings and steel guitar. She has a storyteller voice and a poet’s eye for detail, rich with sensory input from the natural world. These are the lyrics to “The Rain,” which were too good to excerpt:
The sun allows you one apology. The moon forgives you endlessly, but never lets you forget. The rain knows you by name. The sky will never ask you why the earth endures your worst, but never lets you go. The rain will come again, sing you every colour, sweet and plain. What it brings you when it sings to you. What it brings you. When the rain gives way to snow, when the barren branches start to show, you’ll see the clouds beyond their reach. The trees are waving to you. Come and see.
She also makes stop-motion music videos out of collage materials. Here’s my favorite, for the song “Ghost Particle”:
Doesn’t it just knock you out?
THIS PASSAGE ON THE TEMPTATION OF EASY DESPAIR from Rebecca Solnit’s 2016 edition of Hope in the Dark, which I’ve been reading like a devotional in the mornings. It’s from the fourth chapter:
Sometimes these bad-news bringers seem in love with defeat, because if they’re constantly prophesying doom, actual doom is, as we say in California, pretty validating. They come to own the bad and even take pride in it: the monsters and atrocities prove their point, and the point is very dear to them …
Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited. The great human rights activist and Irish nationalist Roger Casement investigated horrific torture and genocide in South America’s Putamayo rainforest a century ago and campaigned to end it. While on this somber task, his journal reveals, he found time to admire handsome local men and to chase brilliantly colored local butterflies. Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.
Joy as an act of resistance, joy as an act of insurrection: I’m ready for it.
Hey speaking of books did you know I released a holiday book buying guide last week? It’s weirdly specific:
OK that’s all for today I’m going back to sleep.
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Get well. Brutal South helps sustain me.
Even sick, you give us good food for thought. Now, get some rest and drink plenty of fluids.