Sunday, January 08, 2006

Stetson Kennedy - I'm STILL writing his name in

My profile notes one of my favorite books as Freakonomics, a partnership of NYT writer, Stephen Dubner, and U of Chicago economics Nobelist-to-be, Steven Levitt. A great book that chronicles Dr. Levitt's unique way of using economics theory and actual data to ask and answer difficult societal questions.

One of their chapters compares the KKK to real estate agents, the connection being that information asymmetry provides one side with an economic or philosophical advantage. Just as real estate agents create 'competition' when you are trying to buy or sell a house, the KKK created a more hostile racist environment by making it appear there were more racists than in actuality (although one racist is one too many in my book).

The beauty of this chapter of Freakonomics is the retelling of the story of Stetson Kennedy, a folklorist and civil rights activist who among other things documented his infiltration of the KKK in his 1954 book, The Klan Unmasked. I've not yet met Mr. Kennedy but knew of him during my pharmacology graduate training at a certain Southern university. I won't do adequate justice to him here. Check instead his website and a recent NPR radio interview.

Stetson Kennedy is the stuff of legends: turned down for WWII due to a back injury, he chose to fight fascism at home by signing up for the KKK and reporting their codes and activities to radio shows and ultimately, in a book. Still around at age 89, he continues to stand as one who has dedicated his life, at great risk of personal injury, to letting us each live without fear of persecution. Kennedy was also a good friend and frequent host to Woody Guthrie and immortalized by Billy Bragg and Wilco in their adaptation of Guthrie's lyrics in the song, "Stetson Kennedy."

In 1940s North Florida and Georgia, it would take great courage to pretend to be a Klansman and then reveal their innermost workings to the press. No blogs, no Internet in these days, folks.
Messers. Dubner and Levitt got great mileage, in part, out of Mr. Kennedy's story: a national bestseller for most of this year.

But today, Mr. Dubner has backpedalled saying that some of Kennedy's Klan infiltration was done by a 'John Brown" who was enlisted by Kennedy. The Freakonomics website details a number of documents where Kennedy himself notes that another individual may have provided some of the information that he claimed to have obtained personally.

I don't get it. Why does an accomplished NYT writer feel so motivated to discredit an 89-year-old civil rights leader who had more balls than he could ever hope to have? Wasn't 'John Brown' just a pseudonym for Mr. Kennedy for the official record in case the Klan was ever to discover his identity. After all, the bottom line is the same: the actions of Stetson Kennedy embarrassed the Klan and high-ranking Southern politicians who were linked to the Klan. The Klan's momentum was clearly stunted following Kennedy's revelations.

Freakonomics has done quite well, but Dubner now promises to include the allegedly updated Klan story in a new edition. Dubner has first ridden the coattails of a genius economist (Dr. Levitt) together with a remarkable civil rights advocate (Kennedy). Is there no more original material for Mr. Dubner to generate without making a story out of questioning the reputation of an old man?

I look forward to the response from Kennedy and his associates since he has more than once been challenged by writers lesser than Dubner. I just don't get it. Is it the aftermath of the Jayson Blair thing? Is Dubner starved for new material?

In the meantime, and in the words of Mr. Guthrie, Stetson Kennedy is the man for me.


At Sun Jan 15, 10:33:00 AM EST, Blogger Abbey said...

Saw you comment over at New Kid. So does this make me the first commenter?

In any case, I've thought the same thing about media in general and it's general desire to bring down anyone who decides to become truly active in our society. I understand some of it but other times...for instance, I've never really understood why Clinton's indescretions ever became as big of a story as they did. I understand he lied about under oath, but should he ever have been asked to swear about it in the first place?

I find it interesting we are willing to consider impeaching a president over sex but it's never come up as a possibility for a President that lies about invading our privacy for the 'good of the country.'

At Mon Jan 16, 02:15:00 PM EST, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

abbey, many thanks for coming by - especially being Floridian since Stetson is a true Florida treasure.

I guess that part of the problem is that it's become way too easy to be a critic rather than to come up with original material.

I concur with your assessments of the current and past administrations - my recently-departed 96-year-old grandmother even couldn't understand the big deal about Clinton's philandering. "Everyone's been doing it since Warren Harding."

Where Clinton went wrong was to lie under oath - he should've fessed up then. What a waste of time, energy, and money to impeach him. He is one of the greatest and most thoughtful intellectuals on either side of the aisle and I hope that his legacy will be protected as much as the right protected that of Reagan.

C'mon back now, y'hear?

At Thu Feb 09, 02:56:00 PM EST, Anonymous jre said...

Like you, I enjoyed reading Freakonomics. Also like you, I found (and still find) Stetson Kennedy's example to be remarkable and admirable.
However, a word of caution regarding the book may be in order. Daniel Davies, who really does understand economics, has given it a close read and found less there than meets the eye.
I still think Levitt is a clever guy with some interesting ideas, but we would do well to examine those ideas carefully before giving them the stamp of approval -- and that goes extra for Dubner's revisionism.

At Sun Feb 26, 05:42:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

C'mon; you criticize journalists for digging up facts about a hero of yours? You would rather live in a fantasy world than know the truth?

Why would you carry on so much about how journalists are lazy and don't do a good job, when such a report is done - and you criticize those who do what you think is good journalism.

The truth should come out, even about our heros.

At Sun Feb 26, 11:09:00 PM EST, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

Well, I certainly intend to apply the same standards to all topics but I certainly didn't mean to imply that all journalists are lazy - just that many who write on medical topics rely too heavily on press releases.

I agree that the truth should be known, even about our heroes, but even an objective reevaluation of the Dubner claims have been effectively refuted beyond what Kennedy has already admitted (as taking some account of others and making them first-person, in the 1940s and 1950s while in exile in France due to a bounty on his head by the KKK).

The information asymmetry argument in Freakonomics still holds, as does my claim that medical journalists too often rely on journal press releases instead of the primary literature.


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