Vann Newkirk: The US “Loves” Democracy – But Many Norms Are Not Legally Enshrined

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Jul 14, 2021
by Maryam Ghaddar
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Vann Newkirk: The US “Loves” Democracy – But Many Norms Are Not Legally Enshrined

American journalist reflects on how the USA's founding drives its current environment and continued racial injustice

As a teenager, Vann Newkirk moved to Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1999. That same year, Hurricane Floyd hit with a sledgehammer-like force, putting much of the East Coast state – commonly referred to as Hurricane Alley – underwater. As he got older, he began to notice a disproportionate imbalance in how many vulnerable communities and areas with more Black and Indigenous residents were more heavily affected and dealt with much longer-lasting and devastating consequences from such natural disasters. This realization prompted Newkirk's interest in environmental justice, which, to this day, has inspired much of his journalistic work.

As a senior editor at The Atlantic, Newkirk is also the host of the narrative podcast series Floodlines, which highlights 2005's Hurricane Katrina with a powerful storytelling tone and is contextualized by accurate accounts of history. Similarly, his upcoming book Children of the Flood chronicles Black America's struggle against the perils of climate change and white supremacy. Essentially, he aims to emphasize that environmental injustice and racial inequality in America are indivisible – two sides of the same coin – especially when we consider history's role in creating our current social and political order in the world.

"When you look at the way the United States was founded," he told Salzburg Global Seminar following his appearance as a guest contributor at this year's American Studies Program, "the whole idea was control over a set of resources, control over a set of climates that were amenable to growing things. The reason why it's a multiracial country in the first place is the wide-scale theft of those resources in favorable conditions from indigenous folks… With that as a foundation for our cultural, racial order in the US, you can see it's also the foundation for our current environmental paradigms in the US."

During the first of three virtual town hall meetings for this year's multi-part program, The President, The Press and The People, Newkirk led a stimulating discussion around topics of historical context with relation to media. Particularly substantial here is the definition and perception of American democracy from both a domestic and international standpoint. With such informality and lack of institutional accountability, Newkirk explained that American democracy is often more aspirational than real. 

"It's clear that a lot of the things we consider democratic norms, a lot of the things we consider institutions, are not actually legally enshrined," he said. "The US loves to talk about spreading and instilling and championing democracy abroad, but I think this last year has shown just how much of a tension that global posture is with what's happening back home."

Although there has been some progress in establishing and using historical context in the mainstream media, it is still an uphill battle. After all, sensationalism and surprise sell. Distinguishing between traditional news outlets, independent journalists, and social media is key since each media form presents its narratives differently. 

"It doesn't make sense to me to think of [the media] as a separate, walled-off part of either the economy or our intellectual ways of being... Most of the media you consume is not fact-checked; most of it is not necessarily even fact-driven. When you have that realization, it forces you to be a lot more specific in your definition." 

Through his participation in the first town hall meeting of the American Studies program had a quickfire nature, Newkirk says he connected with many participants and see a productive and collaborative future evolving. Such global connections are especially valuable when working on community and country-spanning. This is particularly true when we consider that his research and interest in the climate space cannot be addressed without thinking globally. He has already been challenged to expand his thinking.

"Seeing people who are involved in so many different sectors and areas of intellectual life, who all have tools to confront this problem, I just love being able to meet people, have these meetings of minds, and talk about different disciplines of work," he remarked. "In the climate space, every emission is a global emission. Every climate emergency is a global climate emergency… That's the kind of thing I'm trying to foster, the kind of solution-making I'm trying to bring about in my journalism, and I believe that involvement in this program can help us get there." 

Vann Newkirk was a guest contributor at the first town hall meeting of the 2021 American Studies Program, The President, The Press and The People: American History. For more info on the series visit: https://www.salzburgglobal.org/news/latest-news/article/the-president-the-press-and-the-people