My assignment - the end of Garrison Keillor's overlong tenure on Prairie Home Companion - coupled with recent police shootings of unarmed black men, had me riffing on whiteness.
Garrison Keillor, pictured just prior to being unmasked and having his plot foiled by a bunch of meddling kids.
After 42 years, Garrison Keillor is finally retiring as the host of NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. That’s four decades of delivering home-spun bullshit for 53-year-old white people as they ease their Saab into a spot at the farmer’s market – white people fond of chuckling at feebleminded word play, and old-timey songs sung in an atonal dry-throated murmur, and meandering radio plays that as free of dramatic conflict as they are peppered with agonizing dad jokes.
For over 40 years, each weekend, America has tuned in to form a drowsy paste of warm milk and crushed Saltines, and then spackling their ears with it.
Never mind that even after Garrison goddamn Keillor is leaving, they will CONTINUE to produce this fucking show. Never mind that this Lutheran death march of mandolin-puke will shortly be a HALF A FUCKING CENTURY OLD. And never mind that to lower your brain into this warm bath of nostalgia porn effectively announces to the world that you’re content to garnish your fucking applesauce with a ground-up Tylenol PM and nap till you’re dead.
At first glance, there would seem to be no connection between Prairie Home Companion and the nationwide frenzy of police shooting unarmed black men, but for your edification, I will now attempt to make just such a connection.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like the guts of a biscuit, is by no means a CULPRIT in the over-long list of slain African Americans, obviously, but I would submit to you that it is a data point in the vast spreadsheet of whiteness that creates and maintains precisely the systems of oppression that make such institutional murder possible, it is a tentacle on the nation-sized beast of collusion and calamity.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a Whole Foods in Utah, does not pull the trigger, obviously, but NPR is for sure on the presets of enough Volvo and Acura and Audi car radios as to be a contextual contributor to the kind of complacency that must be present in the beneficiaries of systematized privilege for such systems to persist.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a glass of Pinot on the deck of a boat, does not perpetrate the inequities of media coverage that normalize and minimize such brutality, but provides an ongoing propaganda campaign about the supposed virtues of whiteness, and therefore adds to a climate where whiteness continues to dominate.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a pair of Crocs at a Klan rally, does not administer the system of justice that permits white cops to kill with impunity, but is at least a brick in the high, wide wall of a white sense of entitlement that permits such a system to run roughshod over any sense of fairness or balance or even hope.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a Montana soccer game, does not in any direct sense, obviously, follow this appalling violence with the apology and dissembling and misdirection that too many white people, with their internalized sense of superiority, offer in response, but it is at least a plume in the fanned peacock tail of unearned white pride that causes too goddamn many of us to circle the fucking wagons when anybody calls us on our shit.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like Cool Whip on a yeti’s dick, obviously did not engage in a decades-long campaign of militarizing our police. But it has always advanced the certainty that the apparatus of the state, and more broadly all forms of a authority, should be obeyed – that uniforms and crosswalks and school bells are all signifiers that our duty is to comply, and that failure to do so makes us aberrant and unwholesome.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a golf cart full of cottage cheese, has not insisted – not overtly – that we swaddle ourselves in the flag and remain resolutely uncritical of our nation’s policies or our own complicity in them. But radio, like all dying media, can do nothing but hearken backward, and as it pines for a time that never was, it provides a kind of ambient noise of patriotism – chiding civics lessons and rose-colored revisionism can only happen against a backdrop of implied national greatness. And patriotism, as any limbless veteran can tell you, has a whiff of the graveyard about it.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a line of cocaine on a low-flow toilet, did not introduce the profit motive into our nation’s prisons, obviously, thereby incentivizing whole towns and regions to incarcerate black and brown men at rates that are the envy of despots all over the world, but in this fictional town in Minnesota, where are the black people? I’ll tell you were they are. They’re all crammed like animals in the supermax prison just outside of St. Cloud.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a handgun with a peanut allergy, obviously did not conspire for generations to deprive young black men of economic opportunity, but Lake Wobegone, populated as it is by thrifty merchants and wise, avuncular tradesmen, does perpetuate that tired bootstrapping bullshit that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will prosper. Such a cheery narrative about your prospects, though, is only possible if you live in a town without food deserts and where you can get through high school without getting shot, and where jobs await you after graduation.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a meth lab on a Jet Ski, does not, obviously, destroy and dismantle the educational infrastructure that would once have permitted black men to claw their way out of their generations-long cycle of deprivation and hopelessness, but it does portray schools without lockdown drills and where all the students have had breakfast and regular medical care; where there are fewer than 40 kids to a classroom, and where there are no behavioral issues or trauma; where their teachers are not ground down and burnt out, where their parents are not jailed and addicted, and where the streets on the way to school are not paved with the bones their fallen classmates.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a yoga mat in a vat of Greek yogurt, obviously does not in itself constitute any of the depravities of privilege and discrimination, of bloody capitalism and bloody hatred – to suggest as much would be an irresponsible overreach. And I am nothing if not measured and responsible.
But dopey radio shows, and chatty podcasts, and laugh track sitcoms, and race-baiting newscasts can all serve to render us all a little whiter. And history, coupled with recent events, must cause us to conclude that whiteness, as we have been practicing it, is broken. And it is long past time – centuries past time – that we abandon the present model of whiteness in favor of something less oblivious and harmful, less volatile and aggrieved, less joyless and mean, less greedy and grasping. Because to fail in this is watch the world burn.