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Is Dolly Parton really a ‘white saviour’?

Dolly Parton founded Imagination Library in 1995. Credit: Getty

July 1, 2024 - 10:50am

Celebrities spending their money encouraging children to read is “white saviourism” now, or so we’re told. An academic has published a dissertation criticising veteran country singer and philanthropist Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library — an international initiative that sends free, quality books to any child under 5 who requests them — for wrongthink, including depicting heterosexual parents or implying it might be good to get a job when you grow up.

Is this just another example of woke insanity? The Telegraph referred to it as “academic verbal diarrhoea”, and Buckingham University professor Alan Smithers denounced “a blatant example of the corruption of thought that schools and universities in the Western world are promoting”. But a closer look reveals a perhaps more salient dimension: self-interest.

Imagination Library was founded by Parton in 1995. Inspired by her father, who could not read or write, it initially served her home county in Tennessee. It subsequently expanded nationwide, sending its millionth free book in 2003, then spreading to Canada in 2006 and the UK in 2007. With the help of local partners, the scheme posts a free monthly book to any child under five whose parents register for it. The aim is to encourage positive parenting, strong parent-child relationships, and a love of reading.

You’d think the benefits would be obvious, especially for children whose areas are not well-served by public libraries or bookshops, and whose parents cannot afford to buy much reading material. According to the doctoral thesis written by speech and language pathologist Jennifer Stone, though, Imagination Library’s book list is potentially problematic due to the ways it contributes or refuses to contribute to “intersectional” discourse.

But perhaps it’s not surprising that Stone should write a PhD on these themes — or have a stake in tilting the conversation toward her preferred worldview. Stone is an early-years professional with substantial experience in public and NGO employment on child development. She’s clearly committed, too: in 2014 she founded Read ENC, a North Carolina children’s literacy initiative. As well as being an effective publicity tool, given the outrage it’s provoked, Stone’s thesis is implicitly a demand for a seat at the table.

Stone presented her findings to Imagination Library, which raises the question: was she, perhaps, hoping for paid employment rewriting their book list? Since completing her PhD she has also started a consulting business based on the “intersectional analysis framework” she developed during the doctorate. In other words: what’s afoot here is arguably less wanton destructiveness than an effort to shift the premises of Stone’s chosen field in a direction that suits her own professional expertise and moral disposition. It’s clear, after all, from Stone’s other professional activities (Read ENC includes Imagination Library access) that she doesn’t want the scheme to be dismantled. She just wants it to be more Jennifer Stone-flavoured.

Stone’s intervention should be understood in its economic context: one of elite overproduction, intensifying competition for NGO resources, and dwindling early-years funding. It follows the same pattern as many seemingly quixotic “woke” interventions. Such salvos usually present themselves as motivated by high-minded willingness to challenge convention in the name of integrity and inclusion; to nonbelievers, they commonly read as inexplicable, malign efforts to smash or pollute something that’s working just fine.

It’s commonly the case, though, that the most obvious implications of such an intervention are neither greater inclusion or (conversely) cultural vandalism, but the shifting of resources toward whoever is making the criticism. That is, less vandalism than pump-priming. This paper is no exception: it is, like many other supposedly “woke” interventions, less a work of criticism than a job application.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
11 days ago

Perhaps Stone should start her own charitable organization reflective of the social and political considerations dear to her instead of trying to influence, or ideally wrest control of, successful endeavours of others? Become a successful songwriter first, then turn the receipts over to fund her own non-profit. Oh, right. That is very hard and takes a lot of work.
Better to be a self-appointed ‘apparatchik’ claiming the resources of others whom you see as morally deficient.

T Bone
T Bone
11 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Leftists don’t design institutions and systems. They subvert and infiltrate institutions that function and gradually change them in their own image. Then once their conquest is complete, they blame their failures on the enduring norms and influence of old guard that they pushed out. There’s at least 175 years of evidence at this point.

Axel Benz
Axel Benz
7 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Perhaps Stone should…

She did.

…in 2014 she founded Read ENC, a North Carolina children’s literacy Initiative.

Being able to read helps…
Oh, right. That ist very hard and takes a lot of work.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
11 days ago

Dolly is a working class woman who had the audacity to become a superstar through her own extraordinary talent and hard work. Nobody has a bad word to say about her and she is renowned for her generosity.

Of course it was only a matter of time before Progressives came for her. Too much of that sort of thing and there won’t be enough jobs for them with government agencies, universities and NGOs.

Michael Daniele
Michael Daniele
11 days ago

there won’t be enough jobs for them with government agencies, universities and NGOs
That’s the goal. Not sure it can be done.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 days ago

It can’t. However, with the rise of the corporate-administrative state, we are experiencing crushing tax and regulatory pressures on SME (small/medium enterprises), as well as incessant penalizing of private assets and ownership. Like all totalitarian ideologies, this one will quash initiative, brilliance, and self-individualization. We are in the middle-stage of this transition with corporations and governments setting the cultural agenda through DEI, LGBQT, and multiculturalism – the idea being to make a global melting pot of sexless, conformist worker drones suited to corporatist needs. We already see this with the New Normal where those who conform are considered normal, and those who refuse risk being labelled non-employable extremists – a real-life LinkedIn if you will.
It will fail eventually, as do all self-serving systems built on lies and hypocrisy, but I fear things will get worse before it gets better.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
11 days ago

When AI takes their pathetic pointless jobs they will be overqualified for shelf stacking.

Bird
Bird
9 days ago

I think you have nailed it.
This is something Dolly has achieved after a complex childhood in poverty but grew into a successful career. After a lot of hard work. Mary has nailed something here also though – we admire people who have worked hard and ‘made it’ from nothing, like in this case Dolly did, we enjoy and rightly celebrate those stories. However, when we see ‘elites’ trying to trample on the grounds of such with high ‘moral’ ground and self-aggrandizement, I think we generally find this extremely distasteful. Respect is not granted on the prevision of ‘because you say so’ – one could say it smacks of self-righteousness and entitlement with a of ‘fair play’. In many ways this story demands ‘moral righteousness’ whilst in actuality coming from a low moral ground.
Unfortunately, if allowed – this new moral order can do serious damage to the social framework we all live in – as we are witnessing now.

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
11 days ago

“You’re a terrible person! Give me money…”

I’ve never understood how anyone could think that that is somehow a good way to go about asking for a job. Worst part is it seems to work in the video game/entertainment industries.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
11 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

Should the job title be: “dominatrix”?

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
11 days ago

Imagining Anita Sarkeisien or Alicia Mercante in black leather holding a whip will now haunt my nightmares for the foreseeable future. Thank you for that caustic mental image.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
11 days ago

Please, please, just make these dreadful people go away. Of course it’s self interest. I disagree that this is a job application rather than an attempt to smash something that works, however. It’s an application to be the wrecking ball.

General Store
General Store
10 days ago

The only solution is to slash funding to universities and free up start-up colleges. I say this as a Professor.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 days ago

Nailed it again MH. Most NGOs are nothing more than ideological grifts, and a good way to employ an army of foot soldiers for the culture wars. Stone will eventually end up working for the American Library Association, the defacto gatekeeper, which determines what books are available to million of kids in public and school libraries. The ALA has been fully captured by progressive ideology. She will fit in nicely there.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
11 days ago

It’s blackmail pure and simple, and it is the money-engine that drives much of the “caring” professions.

Douglas H
Douglas H
11 days ago

Follow the money, honey.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
11 days ago

Two things can be true at once, including that this critic and Dolly share the trait of being opportunists. Dolly has chosen to stay in the good graces of the cancel mob by doing all sorts of things that put her on one side of the culture wars.
The one-time Dixie Stampede at her entertainment complex dropped “Dixie” because a few people got offended. When Beyonce bastardized Ms. Parton’s signature song, Jolene, Dolly clapped like a trained seal. When Miley Cyrus attracts attention for all the wrong reasons, there’s Dolly again, the ever-supportive older sister type. That a committed prog would one day come for her is hardly surprising but it’s also something the singer invited by opting to play this obnoxious game.

John Murray
John Murray
11 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Tbf when Beyonce bastardized Jolene, there was surely a large check in it for Dolly, to say nothing of maintaining her brand recognition with a younger and different audience. Dolly is, amongst many other things, an exceptionally shrewd businesswoman.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
11 days ago

The criticism of Imagination Library is another example of that odd affliction, Progressive Tin-Ear Syndrome (PTES).
Dolly is the most beloved person in the entire US of A. And deservedly so. Imagination Library is smart and lovely and wonderfully christian in its generosity of spirit.
Ms. Stone could have picked a better target.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
11 days ago

Dolly is also an intelligent and astute woman who’ll respond to this ‘thesis’ in the appropriate way – ignoring it and just carrying on as usual.

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
11 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

As we should, I guess, but boy, people like Jennifer Stone make me so angry!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
11 days ago

Is Jennifer Stone a compassionate narcissist? Struggling to find how to describe someone like her.

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
11 days ago

Compassionate narcissist I would say is close to the truth, though I’m still going with ‘total b***h’.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
11 days ago

I rather liked the term ‘toxic empathy’ from another thread on here.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
11 days ago

Stone is a ‘speech and language pathologist’. If there no end to the size or quantity of stones that these people can hide under.

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
11 days ago

A ‘speech and language pathologist ‘ ? How imaginative. If the world you live in isn’t what you’d like it to be, make up new definitions for everything and declare
that nasty old reality stuff dead. This is identity entitlement beyond the dreams of arrogance. Dolly Parton’s aspirations are much more preferable.

james elliott
james elliott
11 days ago

“Celebrities spending their money encouraging children to read is “white saviourism” now, or so we’re told”

Naturally.

The Far Left is terrified of people reading books – and of the truths they might discover within.

Steven Targett
Steven Targett
11 days ago

If it’s a job application hope she doesn’t get the job. Silly woman.

jane baker
jane baker
11 days ago

So,if Dolly is guilty.of White Saviour syndrome and the books she distributes are not relevant does this mean that this Jennifer Stone is black and she wants black kids to get free books that are not Victorian classics but contemporary books that reflect the dysfunctional and crime worn lifestyles those project kids will be familiar with. I think THAT is a VERY prejudiced and limiting idea.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
11 days ago
Reply to  jane baker

If the photo of Dr Stone on College Fix is anything to go by, she is white. (Fans of Bill Maher will not be surprised to note how often it is the white progressives who are the most outraged.)

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
11 days ago

They should’ve published The Telegraph article with a trigger warning for portraying a luxury belief. 😉

Taking a guess here, but I bet that Stone doesn’t come from a social class that would see the need to make use of Dolly’s initiative, so she feels free to poo poo it into oblivion.

Arthur King
Arthur King
11 days ago

They just hate people of European background.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
10 days ago

Harrington could have ended this story at the second graph. (“Is this just another example of woke insanity?” Yes.) But I appreciated the insight into Ms. Stone’s possible personal motivation as “an effort to shift the premises of [her] chosen field in a direction that suits her own professional expertise and moral disposition.”
I can’t wait for Stone’s reading list: Winnie the Nonbinary Pooh. Peter Pansexual. Little Transwomen. On the Banks of Plum Progressive Creek, featuring Ma and Ma or Pa and Pa. (I’m gay, and somehow survived Ma and Pa.)
Bless Dolly Parton for her common sense and generous heart. May she remain blissfully ignorant of critiques such as Stone’s and continue her good work.

General Store
General Store
10 days ago

Any academic censoring Dolly Parton should be subject to summary execution

John Riordan
John Riordan
10 days ago

I’ve seen this insight several times in the past, that the increasing volume of irrationalism in public policy is simply the modern manner in which a certain class of people compete for access to the various channels of state-provided largesse.

I wish it was more widely appreciated though. It would kill wokery stone-dead, once the majority of us understood that not only do we have to listen to the nonsense in question and adjust our expectations of reality accordingly, it’s the basis of an application to put up our taxes and provide a job to the idiot who’s wasting our time with said nonsense.

It would also emphasise how badly the state is broken. The state increasingly cannot provide any of the basics that we think our taxes are getting spent upon, but can instead find the money to provide pensioned and secure sinecures for otherwise unemployable intellectual sub-mediocrities.

Will this ever become a broad electoral issue? Or, like the Covid not-really-an-inquiry and climate change politics that are always right irrespective of the weather, will it be forever successfully concealed behind a uniparty consensus?

Andrew H
Andrew H
9 days ago

Dolly has to be criticised by the wokeists because she’s white. And, as our postmodernist betters have preached to us, everything that white people have ever done is a very bad thing indeed and must be opposed.