Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric, technology, and writing.
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Kentucky residents told it may take a decade to get clean, safe water

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Working class residents of the former coal mining area have had no water or only intermittent service for weeks.
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betajames
1 hour ago
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Michigan
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Email worth reading: "Unending political struggle for its own sake”

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A senior GOP House aide sent this email to me Saturday with the subject line, “Our future," which blasts the United States for shirking its global duties for political quibbles: "The largest country in the world, with global responsibilities, shutting down the government over a squabble ... 100% for short-term political gain."

The big picture: "The post-World War II world we have been living in for 7 decades was largely created — and certainly sustained and defended — by American power. ... Since 2001, we've experienced almost nothing but reverses overseas, much of it truly major and permanent. And our relative power — the power to compel and protect — is shrinking as other countries rise."


  • "And domestically, our decision-making system has become locked in a destructive, inward-turned focus. The emphasis on an unending political struggle for its own sake."
  • "Our enemies didn't do this to us. Virtually all of it is a product of our own decisions."
  • "It isn't sustainable. We're well into a period of increasing internal chaos and decline overseas. We've gotten used to it but I'll just say it for the sheer disbelief of it — the government of the United States just shut down."
  • "In your discussions with the great and the good around town, do you see any recognition of this inevitable scenario? I don't. Do you know anyone with responsibility for making decisions for the country with any concrete, realistic plan to do anything about it? I don't."
  • "They're focused on battling one another, drilling holes in the boat, as we head for the falls. A child can see it coming. Do people really believe all of this is self-sustaining, that it won't just cave in? I don't.”


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betajames
23 hours ago
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Michigan
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The fabric of Flint: Good Beans owner Ken Van Wagoner weaves coffee, community spirit

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By Jeffery L Carey Jr

Despite the travails of Flintstones, there is an underlying spirit–or as Ken Van Wagoner, owner of one of Flint’s enduring hangouts, the Good Beans Café, would describe it, “a shared feeling of tenacity” where “we’re all a fabric that is holding each other together.”

He himself is a prime example of that tenacity, launching and for 18 years so far stubbornly sustaining an important hub in the city’s historically significant but persistently challenged neighborhood, Carriage Town. He has lovingly cultivated Good Beans as a welcoming meeting place and performance venue for artists, musicians, community activists and regular residents seeking a good cup of coffee.

Van Wagoner, now 56, was woven into Flint’s community in 1962 when he and his twin sister were born at St. Joseph’s Hospital, once located on what is now the Mott Community College campus. He spent the next 18 years living in Holly with his family until his graduation from high school when he left to attend Central Michigan University.

“School of hard knocks” prepared him well

His says his experience while living in Mt. Pleasant set the groundwork for his career in the hospitality industry. During his eight years there he worked at Elias Big Boy and another restaurant called Papa Don’s.

He gained more experience in the industry after moving to Grand Rapids where he worked in a hotel and helped an acquaintance open a new business. This work eventually led him to Indianapolis, where he lived until his return to Flint in 1994.

With candor he confesses it was the “school of hard knocks” that taught him and that he had no mentor to help guide him. He said it was not the two years he spent working on a degree at CMU, a degree he musingly admits is, “still pending,” but his own drive and experiences from washing dishes to managing a restaurant and everything in between that prepared him for his own business.

The catalyst of his sister’s tragic death though proved to be a defining element in the tapestry of his life. A boating accident that took her brought him back to Flint, back to his birthplace where he could take care of his mother. It was at this point, Van Wagoner says, that he took steps towards what would become the Good Beans Café.

He took a chance on Carriage Town

While working in the Hudson’s restaurant located in Genesee Valley Mall, he says he realized his need to move beyond what he had been doing. Van Wagoner saw the potential of going into what he felt had, “a better mark up,” the business of selling coffee. He bought the building for the café, on the corner of Grand Traverse and W. First streets, in November of 1997. He wrote a 100-page business plan and presented it to more than 20 lenders.

Laughing, he recalls, “I kept all of my rejection letters.” His persistence paid off though as he did most of the work readying the café himself while renting out the “room on the side,” which ran as an antique shop for about two and a half years.

Good Beans owner and community anchor Ken Van Wagoner. The huge, ornate bar has a noble Flint pedigree, VanWagoner says: he bought it from the previous owner of the building now known as the Soggy Bottom Bar, but much evidence suggests it originated in the basement of the Capitol Theater. (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

In what Van Wagoner describes as a “soft open,” the Good Beans Café launched in 2000 despite the difficulties of its Carriage Town neighborhood, one of which was a drug house right across the street. With loyal and understanding customers he plugged away, enduring ten years of break-ins, smashed windows, and seedy characters. All of this, he said, was manageable until someone senselessly vandalized his flowers.

“They just ripped it up,” he said. “I could have understood if they had stolen them, but they just left them laying there.” The incident nearly caused him to “hang it up,” but his “customers’ persistence” allowed him to get through it.

He’s seam, he’s the patch

While the Good Beans Café boasts a delectable variety of beverages, like their classic Old Flannel, the café’s Anteroom has provided a vital space for creativity, collaboration, and the community. One could compare Flint’s fabric to a coat of many colors with Van Wagoner as part of the seam that holds everything together and who openly and generously helps patch others into it as well. This attitude is captured in his company’s mission statement: “The Good Beans Café, Constantly Supporting Culture, Community, and the Arts in Flint, MI.”

As Flint grows, Van Wagoner observes, he welcomes the competition, the expansion of the fabric, the “teeter-totter” effect as he describes it. “More businesses means more people move to Flint means more businesses,” he states as he gestures the up and down motion. “There is steam in the sails,” he says. “Hell, I hope a Starbucks opens right across the street.”

EVM staff writer Jeffery L. Carey, Jr. can be reached at jlcareyjr@hotmail.com.

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betajames
2 days ago
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Michigan
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Why Walkable Streets are More Economically Productive

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What is the value of a street where people can walk safely? Why build streets that are constructed with the needs of people in mind, not just the needs of cars?

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betajames
3 days ago
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Louis Adams: What Flint means to me

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Louis Adams, 43, worked for the last year delivering water filters and test kits to his neighbors throughout the city of Flint. This is his view of the city. 

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betajames
3 days ago
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A New Year

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This is not the first time I’ve gone quiet on this blog simply because I was busy. Fall 2017 was in many ways the busiest semester I’ve ever had at Swarthmore: I taught two courses, I chaired my department, I became the co-director of the Aydelotte Foundation, and I sold my house and moved.

But I have gone quiet for other reasons as well. I am struggling to understand what the good of writing in public is at a time when I’m prepared to encourage others to do so.

When I began blogging in a pre-WordPress era, I was already a long-time participant in online conversation, all the way back to pre-Usenet BBSs, including the pay service GEnie. So I think I held no illusions about what were already problems of long-standing in online culture: trolling, harassment, mobbing, deception, anonymity, and so on.

Nevertheless, I started a blog for two major reasons. First, to have an outlet for my own thinking, as a kind of public diary that would let me express my thinking about professional life, politics, popular culture and other issues as I saw fit, and perhaps in so doing keep myself from talking too much among friends and colleagues. I don’t think I’ve succeeded in that, because I still overwhelm conversations around me if I’m not thoughtful about restraining myself.

The second was to see if I could participate usefully in what I hoped would grow into a new and more democratic public sphere, one that escaped the exclusivity of postwar American public discussion. I think I did a good job at evolving an ethic for myself and then inhabiting it consistently. That had a cost to the quality of my prose, because being more respectful, cautious and responsible in my blogging usually meant being duller and longer in the style of my writing.

In the end, I feel as if both goals have ended up being somewhat pointless. It’s not clear to me any longer what good I can contribute as a public diarist. Much of what I think gets thought and expressed by someone else at a quicker pace, in a faster social media platform. More importantly, the value of my observations, whatever that might be, was secured through combining frankness and introspection, through raising rather than brutally disposing of open questions. This more than anything now seems quaintly out of place in social media. I feel as if it takes extreme curation to find pockets of social media commentary given over to skepticism and exploration, through collectively playful or passionate engagement with uncertainty and ambiguity.

More complicatedly, the more I am tied to my institutional histories and imagined as being a “responsible agent” within them, the harder it gets to talk frankly about what I see. It was comforting to think that almost no one read my blog and almost no one cared about it, in some sense. Now I’m only too aware that if I speak, even if I’m careful to abstract and synthesize what I’m observing, I can’t help but seem as if I am testifying about the much larger archive of real experiences and painful confidences I have been entrusted with. If I abstract too much, I find that friends and colleagues politely gaslight me: I can’t have seen what I think I’ve seen. But I can’t be more direct, and I don’t want to be. Trying to observe real stories and real problems with some degree of honesty can curdle into the settling of scores, and can tempt people–older white men especially–into a narrative of institutional life in which they are always the heroes of the story. Some stories and experiences explored honestly end up with everyone muddling through with good intent; others end up implicating everyone in certain kinds of bad faith or short-sightedness, including the people doing the exploring.

This brings me to the second goal: to be part of a new and more democratic public sphere. I have been for thirty years a person enthusiastic about the possibilities and often the realities of online culture. I am losing that enthusiasm rapidly. It’s not just that all the old problems are now vastly greater in scope and more ominous by far in the threat they can pose to participants in digital culture, but that there are new problems too. The threat to women, to people of color, to GLBQT people, is bigger by far, but even as someone who has all sorts of protections, I find myself unnerved by online discussion, by its volatility and speed, by the ways that groups settle on intense and combative interpretations and then amplify both. I remember only dimly that for a long time I saw myself as trying to create bridges in conversations to online conservatives. With a blessed few exceptions, those conversations mostly felt like agreeing to trust Lucy to hold the football steady one more time, like being the mark in a long confidence game whose goal was to move the Overton window. What did I think I was doing talking to David Horowitz, for example? Or writing critiques of ACTA reports as if anyone writing them cared remotely about evidence or accuracy? And yet I’m not feeling that much more comfortable about online conversation with people with whom I ostensibly agree or among whom I have allegedly built up long reservoirs of trust. That sense of trust and social groundedness felt very real as recently as five years ago, but now it feels as if the infrastructures of online life could pull any foundation into wreckage in an instant without any individual human beings meaning or wanting to have that happen.

I almost thought to critically engage a recent wave of online attacks on a course being taught by my colleague here at Swarthmore. I even tried one engagement with a real person on Twitter and for a brief moment, I thought at least the points I was making were being read and understood. But the iron curtain of a new kind of cultural formation snapped down hard within three tweets, and it was difficult for me to even grasp who I had been talking to: a provocateur? an eccentric? a true believer? The rest of the social media traffic about the issue was rank with the stink of bots and 8chan-style troublemaking. Even when it was real people talking, even if I might be able to have a meaningful conversation with them in person if I happened to be in their physical presence, nothing good could come of online engagement, and many bad things could instead happen.

So I need to think anew: what is this space for? What’s left to say? Public debate, per se, is dead. Being a diarist might not be, but I will need to find ways to undam the river of my own voice.

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betajames
5 days ago
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Michigan
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2 public comments
matthewjmiller
5 days ago
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Yikes. This tracks with a lot I'm hearing among thoughtful people recently.
STL, with Nebraska in my heart
cjmcnamara
5 days ago
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a bummer to read this the same day the awl announces it's done. where do weird and sometimes smart things get written on the internet anymore
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