It wasn't very hard to find reasons to protest in Durham this year: From withheld wages for construction workers to union-stifling maneuvers at Duke, from data that confirmed racial bias within the police department to the blue's sometimes mortally bungled arrests, from horrid conditions in the county jail to fights for fair pay for service-industry workers, the city has served as the local showcase for the grinding gears of slow, significant, long overdue national change. Little of it has been pretty or quiet. Most of it has been necessary.
Whenever the city administration or its very active citizenry began to lean to hard to the left, though, one clarion of old Southern comfort consistently cut above the vox populi's din—that of Bob Wilson, a retired Mississippi-born journalist, Duke alumnus and cantankerous blowhard. Most every week for the past two-plus years, Wilson's blanched brand of aging conservatism received validation with several column inches in The News & Observer's Bull City outpost, The Durham News.
In a year of unapologetic trolling from the daily paper of record's editorial section (see, for instance, DrunkTown or guns on campus), Wilson was the crank lodged firmly beneath the bridge, shaking his fists at the ruckus-causing whippersnappers above and around him. He reduced, for instance, Black Lives Matter protesters to "snowflakes" and "Robespierres" and essentially told them to get over it, that life was tough for everyone. He labeled Michael Brown "a store-robbing thug transfigured into a martyr" and blamed national increases in crime on Brown's death. To Wilson, those who protested Confederate monuments were only "neo-Maoists [raging] against history," while East Durham was a pothole of "violent crime" around which the good people of Durham should swerve. He was a Jose Lopez apologist, arguing that the town's top cop had been besieged by a political ambush.
Most of all, he argued that, if African-Americans wanted to fix a few centuries of societal woes, they simply needed to stop shooting one another. "Somehow it has become acceptable for blacks to kill their own," he wrote on the second day of the year, "but a national uproar occurs when a white police officer takes down a threatening thug-in-training."
That statement, at least, marked the beginning of the end for Wilson, who announced the closing of his column in late December. In that piece, he lamented the fall of journalism and the concurrent rise of "the radical Left's obsession with reforging society, which includes suppressing speech it considers offensive." That exiting zing was an appropriate one for Wilson, who has wasted many of his column inches abjuring social changes that make him feel old and in the way. The problem with the world, Wilson implied with most everything he wrote for The Durham News, is that it stopped bending to his will long ago.
Wilson had reasonable, reasoned moments during his tenure. He could be convincing when writing about science, as in his advocacy of "natural beaches" or his appreciation of the space program. He once made an eloquent argument for upgraded buses as opposed to light rail, and his Durham development critiques were often sensible. Sometimes he offered interesting notions of the way things used to be, too, like an ornery old uncle sharing stories after a few glasses of brown liquor.
But when Wilson stumbled into race relations—which he did at a frequency so high and with a tenor so bitter you wondered if he ever discussed this stuff with his editors—he sounded whiter than the septuagenarian fleece of his alabaster beard. For Durham, in a year where the hot-button issues became actual matters of life or death, of paying the bills or going into debt, of existing in dignity or without it, Wilson served as an embarrassing reminder of systems and stereotypes we'd do better to leave behind now.
Wilson always meant well, I'm sure, like an overseer simply doing what he thought was best for his chattel, but painfully unaware that less and less of the world belongs to him or his kind.
Grayson Haver Currin is the INDY's managing+music editor.