Monday, February 16, 2015

Bodies on the Pavement: A Reflection on Malcolm X, Police Violence, and Changing One's Mind

[This is the draft text of second of the two talks about Malcolm X I am due to give this week at Lehigh. This talk is more informal and meant as a personal reflection.]

[The above image is from Ferguson, Missouri. The name of the young man on the ground is Michael Brown. There are much more shocking images of his body on that street that many of us have seen. I chose this one because it at least affords him the dignity of being covered.]

After receiving the invitation to speak at this event, I immediately picked up a book I had been meaning to read for some time, Manning Marable’s much-discussed biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. I spent the better part of two working days reading through the book in its entirety and learned many things I hadn’t previously known about Malcolm X’s life and death. One incident in particular stood out for its relevance for us today – the killing of Ronald X Stokes in April 1962 at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. Ronald Stokes was unarmed – but in fact no Nation of Islam (NOI) members carried guns in those days; that was Elijah Muhammad’s policy. Ronald X Stokes was killed in a disputed incident with the police; witnesses who saw the shooting say he had his hands up.

Other Malcolm X biographers have also written about this incident with varying degrees of detail (Peter Louis Goodman, in The Death and Life of Malcolm X also has an extensive section dealing with the killing of Stokes and what happened immediately afterwards). Interestingly, however, Malcolm X himself omitted any mention of this incident from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Spike Lee’s film, which did so much to create the iconic image of Malcolm X in the mass media in 1992, also omitted it (though there is a scene involving police brutality in the film that I think is a fictionalization). I’m guessing it’s possible that at least some folks in this room don’t know about it, and if you'll permit me I’ll take a few moments to revisit the history before meditating on what it might mean.

In April 1962, Malcolm X was still a full member of the Nation of Islam. Indeed, he was the organization’s “National Minister” – frequently described by outsiders as the “number 2 man” in the organization after Elijah Muhammad. He had personally set up the Los Angeles mosque some years earlier, and it was considered one of the NOI’s major success stories by the early 1960s. Malcolm X knew many of the mosque leaders personally, including Ronald X Stokes himself.

On April 27, 1962, there was an altercation between two police officers and a group of Nation of Islam members outside of the NOI’s Los Angeles Mosque, Mosque No. 27. What exactly happened and what triggered the altercation are a matter of dispute. The Nation of Islam’s story was that some of its members were delivering dry cleaned clothes to the mosque. The LAPD, which had been investigating the Nation following another altercation a few months earlier, claims they thought the clothes might have been stolen. Here is how Manning Marable summarizes the incident in his biography:

What happened next is a matter of dispute, yet whether the police were jumped, as they claimed, or the Muslim men were shoved and beaten without provocation, as seems likely, the commotion brought a stream of angry Muslims out of the mosque. The police threatened to respond with deadly force, but when one officer attempted to intimidate the growing crowd of bystanders, he was disarmed by the crowd. Somehow one officer’s revolver went off, shooting and wounding his partner in the elbow. Backup squad cars soon arrived ferrying more than seventy officers, and a full-scale battle ensued. Within minutes dozens of cops raided the mosque itself, randomly beating NOI members. It took fifteen minutes for the fighting to die down. In the end, seven Muslims were shot, including NOI member William X Rogers, who was shot in the back and paralyzed for life. NOI officer Ronald Stokes, a Korean War veteran, had attempted to surrender to the police by raising his hands over his head. Police responded by shooting him from the rear; a bullet pierced his heart, killing him. A coroner’s inquest determined that Stokes’ death was ‘justifiable.’ A number of Muslims were indicted. (Marable 207)

There are two notable things that we can take away from this incident. One is probably pretty glaringly obvious: more than fifty years have passed, and at least in respect to police violence it feels like nothing's changed. Not only was the police shooter in the incident not charged or disciplined, but several Muslims were indicted and then convicted of assault against the police (this is an age-old pattern that, unfortunately, still seems to be in effect).

(As a side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t stop to recognize for a moment Sureshbhai Patel, a 57 year old visitor from India who was minding his business on a sidewalk in Alabama last week until he was slammed to the ground by a police officer and left partially paralyzed by the impact. The person who called 9/11 to report his presence in the suburban neighborhood described him to police as a “skinny black guy.” That phrase is telling: it underlines, in case there was any doubt, that we, as people of color, are all in this together. The Model Minority myth periodically comes up against the realities of racism and xenophobia.)

But there are some other wrinkles here, which have to do with Malcolm X’s responses to the death of Ronald Stokes. He was, understandably, extremely angry about what had happened at Mosque No. 27. The event appeared to be the result of a sidewalk incident that was fairly trivial in nature; there’s no indication that any criminal activity on the part of the NOI triggering the event, so the evidence suggests the incident was the result of police harassment -- the raid on the mosque was by design, and intended to intimidate and disrupt the NOI's rapid growth in Los Angeles. Malcolm X also knew many of the members of the LA Mosque quite well, including Ronald X Stokes himself. And as people who have read his biography know, Malcolm X’s life had been scarred by a series of violent incidents, including the death of his own father under questionable circumstances in 1931.

I mention all this because I think t’s important to be aware of all that background before considering what Malcolm then apparently proposed to do. Even before Stokes’ funeral, Malcolm held secret meetings with Fruit of Islam members at his home mosque in New York. Manning Marable interviewed several NOI members about this incident, including Louis Farrakhan as well as Charles 37X Kenyatta and James 67X Warden (now known as Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq), and they all apparently stated that Malcolm X then solicited volunteers for an “assassination team to target LAPD officers.” The plan was, it appears, to go to LA and exact violent revenge for the attack on the mosque by killing police officers.

In the life of Malcolm X this appears to be an unusual event – I don’t know of any other incident where Malcolm X actively solicited or planned an act of violence, though he frequently used quite fiery language in his speeches and always said he believed in self-defense and in achieving justice through “an eye for an eye.” But he didn’t actually do violent things. So I was a little shocked when I read about this for the first time in the Marable (incidentally, it's not only in the Marable; other biographers have corroborate the details, again with interviews with people who were there).

Malcolm X's boss and the supreme authority within the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, nixed the action – not so much because he didn’t support it ethically, but because it would likely have damaged the NOI organization much more than it would have benefited it. Malcolm X was ordered to stand down, and he followed that order.

That's the first wrinkle. There's also a second wrinkle I would like to bring to your attention. While the NOI was very much a black nationalist organization, in the early 1960s, it was by and large an apolitical group that advocated self-segregation from white society rather than direct confrontation with American racism.

After being ordered by Elijah Muhammad to put away any thoughts of violent retribution following the death of Ronald X Stokes, Malcolm X went to Los Angeles and presided over his friend’s funeral on May 5. He then went on to stay in LA for several weeks, organizing a major civil rights rally against police brutality that involved mainstream civil rights groups as well as left wing activists – including a sizeable number of sympathetic whites. As the momentum began to build and press reports about the incident at Mosque No. 27 multiplied, Malcolm X was again shut down by Elijah Muhammad, who sent him a terse note ordering him to stand down increasingly expansive and inclusive civil rights agitations: “Stay where I put you.”

Malcolm again complied with his supreme leader’s wishes. But from this point forward, Malcolm X would be in tension with Elijah Muhammad and the rest of the NOI organization regarding the role of the nation's relationship to civil rights activism. Eventually, this tension, along with Malcolm’s disgust at Elijah Muhammad’s personal life, would lead to his split from the NOI only a little more than a year later.

So Malcolm was wrong in his first reaction to the raid on Mosque No. 27 and the death of Ronald X Stokes. But we can now see that he was right in his second reaction. The way forward for the black community would be through protest, agitation, and strategic engagement with allies, not self-segregation (which can also be seen as a form of quietism or passivity).

For me personally this is a powerful and telling incident in several ways.

Just to reiterate, the uncanny parallels between what happened to Ronald X Stokes and what happened to Michael Brown (down to the non-indictment of the police officers involved later) reminds us that the issues with the police relationship with the black community haven't really changed. Excessive and unwarranted police violence is still very much with us. The bodies of young black men are still on the pavement; we’re still watching and looking at their photographs, and frustrated that justice isn't being done.

Police violence is still destroying families and leaving lives shattered (did I mention that Ronald X Stokes, on his death, left behind a wife and a three-month old daughter?). It’s still a formidable challenge to have that violence be acknowledged, or to see any trace of accountability among law enforcement officials for incidents like the ones that led to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York or Michael Brown in Ferguson.

But it also reminds us that Malcolm X, who so powerfully and memorably gave voice to black anger and alienation, was also subject to human fallibility. In a moment of passion and anger he asked his followers to do something that was out of character, and that would have diminished his legacy. I don’t see his desire for revenge something that makes me lose respect for Malcolm X, but I do see it as a mistake. (Not his only one; we won't dwell on the others today, but they're there: the NOI's brief flirtation with the KKK in the 1950s; and there's the matter of Malcolm X's misogyny, of which we can see considerable evidence in the Autobiography...)

If we can put Malcolm X's fantasy of violent retribution aside as a minor mistake, we see in that second moment an early indication of a shift in Malcolm X's orientation to civil rights activism that quite clearly was no mistake at all. As Malcolm X became more convinced over the course of the next year or so that civil rights was a better strategy for empowering the black community than rigid separatism of the NOI, he emerged from a fairly narrow and intellectually limited religious sect towards a much more ecumenical and global perspective. He went from mocking the mainstream civil rights movement, and leaders like Dr. King, as acting like “House Negroes” and “Uncle Toms” to aligning himself with their actions and strategies in the last months of his life. Finally, he went from categorically excluding and rejecting the support of liberal whites to the black civil rights struggle to at least an ambivalent acceptance of their positive contributions. And he did all this without giving up on his core message and the beliefs that propelled him to the national stage to begin with.

When I was a young person I loved Malcolm X the angry rebel – I was under the spell of the story in the Autobiography, Spike Lee’s iconic version of him, the snippets of his voice in the songs of rap groups like Public Enemy. Now at age 40, and with many mistakes and disappointments of my own to ponder, I’m much more drawn to aspects of his life and personality that reveal complexities that I can learn from in my own teaching, scholarship (and sometimes, activism). I'm drawn to Malcolm X as a person who, gracefully and with integrity, came to realize that he had been wrong.

What's beautiful about this older more mature Malcolm X is that he found a new way to push forward in the path to justice. He changed, he learned from his mistakes, and most importantly, he refused to allow failures and setbacks to reduce the scope of his ambitions. He found a way of becoming someone new, while remaining true to himself.

Friday, February 13, 2015

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Malcolm X and the Post-Colonial World

[The following is the draft text of a talk I am due to give next week at Lehigh's conference on Malcolm X. Any feedback or criticism would be welcome.] 

Let’s start with a quote from Malcolm X, from his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech delivered in April 1964.

When we begin to get in this area, we need new friends, we need new allies. We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level -- to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights comes within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin-American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And as long as it's civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. 
But the United Nations has what's known as the charter of human rights; it has a committee that deals in human rights. You may wonder why all of the atrocities that have been committed in Africa and in Hungary and in Asia, and in Latin America are brought before the UN, and the Negro problem is never brought before the UN. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 34)

As is well known, towards the end of his life, Malcolm X’s approach to talking about racism and inequality underwent a series of changes. Some of those changes had to do with theology -- his departure from the Nation of Islam and his embrace of orthodox Sunni Islam. Others have to do with his changing attitude towards ideas about segregation, black nationalism, and the mainstream civil rights movement.

What has been less talked about is that in these last years he also radically increased his understanding of and engagement with parallel questions related to race, nationalism, and political sovereignty in the post-colonial world. In his final years, Malcolm X was in the process of transforming from a black nationalist intellectual whose ideas about resistance and liberation were firmly rooted on American soil into a more global figure with strong ideas about third world revolutions, the nature of the cold war, and the prospects for international socialism. In speeches like “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X highlights the potential importance of the United Nations and the International Declaration of Human Rights as a path of redress for African Americans on the receiving end of American racism. Malcolm X strongly suggests that the pattern of civil rights abuses and discrimination in the United States needs to be seen and judged by international bodies -- the same as human rights abuses anywhere.

In the early 1960s, the UN was one of the most important vehicles for legitimizing a large number of new nations in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean that became independent from European colonial powers in the decade between 1955 and 1965. More than thirty new nations gained independence in this period in Africa alone, and all immediately joined the UN, impacting the culture of that organization.

Importantly for our purposes today, this process of decolonization was occurring effectively simultaneously with the Civil Rights movement within the United States. Within the United States, those were the years when black Americans successfully fought for and won rights that had been denied to them. Elsewhere in the world, millions of black and brown people who had formerly been under the rule of European colonial authority fought for and won the right to self-determination. What Malcolm X came to realize through his travels in Africa and the Middle East in the last years of his life was that the civil rights struggle in the U.S. and the struggles for human rights and democracy in the third world were in effect mirror images of one another. And, as per the quote we started with above, if the attempt to achieve justice and a degree of redress for a history of violence and subjugation within the parameters of the U.S. were not likely to succeed, Malcolm X felt that the best hopes for the black community in the U.S. would be to take the demand for justice to the broader international community.

The starting point for Malcolm X’s internationalism is his strong sense that as a black American in 1964 he is not considered a true American. By denying him his dignity and equal enfranchisement under the law, the country has in effect indicated to him that he doesn’t belong. He’s been, in effect, denationalized. Here’s “The Ballot of the Bullet” again:

I'm not a politician, not even a student of politics; in fact, I'm not a student of much of anything. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a Republican, and I don't even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there'd be no problem. Those Honkies that just got off the boat, they're already Americans; Polacks are already Americans; the Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren't Americans yet.
No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver -- no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 26)

On the one hand being denationalized as a black man in America is an extremely painful experience. In that feeling of being excluded lie the roots of Malcolm’s anger – that bitterness that seems to reverberate in so many of the speeches he gave, and that terrified many white Americans and led to his being watched by numerous law enforcement agencies (the FBI, the NYPD, and the CIA while he was abroad all had files on him). If a nation refuses to recognize you on the basis of your race, an obvious solution is to use that logic to construct an alternate nationalism. For Malcolm X, that meant black nationalism as articulated by the Nation of Islam (NOI). As he describes in his Autobiography, Malcolm X came to join the NOI while in prison and stayed with the organization through 1963. But while the NOI had many empowering and beneficial effects on Malcolm X’s intellectual and ideological development, it operated as a closed community articulating a concept of black nationalism through self-segregation rather than as a frontal challenge to an unjust system. It was only when he left the NOI that Malcolm X really began to broaden his vision in the directions I have been describing here.

While Malcolm always remained focused first and foremost on the sufferings of and denial of rights to African Americans, over the course of 1964 his speeches reflected his moving away from an American-focused black nationalism in favor of a broad and inclusive human rights advocacy. Immediately after he delivered “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X embarked on a series of international travels that would intensify his convictions in the arguments he introduced in that speech. While in Saudi Arabia, participating in the Hajj, Malcolm had the famous epiphany that Islam has the potential to be a truly racially egalitarian faith – an epiphany that would cause him to rethink, in the last weeks of his life, the terms of his long-held views about the irrelevance of sympathetic whites to the black struggle.

But as importantly during that period abroad, Malcolm met with intellectuals and allies in many different national contexts, including Lebanon, Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. His experiences in Nigeria and Ghana are particularly noteworthy; here Malcolm began to seriously embrace a Pan-Africanist ideology that rhymed with that espoused by major political figures in African politics, including especially Kwame Nkrumah, with whom he met privately towards the end of his trip.

In speeches and public statements made after the trip, Malcolm increasingly referred to events transpiring in Africa – he expressed outrage over the 1961 killing of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, and made frequent reference to revolutionary uprisings in places like Algeria and Cuba. Here is a key moment from one such speech, given at a Militant Labor Forum event in May 1964, shortly after Malcolm’s return from his first trip abroad that year and prior to his second:

They [Algerian freedom fighters] lived in a police state; Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state; and this is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state; the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army.  (Malcolm X Speaks p. 66; also see Marable 335-336)

And then a bit later:

‘The people of China grew tired of their oppressors and… rose up. They didn’t rise up nonviolently. When Castro was up in the mountains in Cuba, they told him the odds were against him. Today he’s sitting in Havana and all the power this country has can’t remove him.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 68; Marable 336)

In June 1964, Malcolm met with Japanese writers visiting Harlem who were survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II (Hibakusha). In his remarks at that meeting he said:

‘You have been scarred by the atom bomb…. We have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.’ Several Japanese journalists also attended the event, giving Malcolm a platform. He praised the leadership of Mao Zedong and the government of the People’s Republic of China, noting that Mao had been correct to pursue policies favoring the peasantry over the working class, because the peasants were responsible for feeding the whole country. He also expressed his opposition to the growing U.S. military engagement in Asia, saying, ‘The struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World – the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.” (cited in Marable 340. Marable’s source is Yuri Kochiyama’s 2004 memoir, Passing it On)

Also in June 1964, Malcolm created a new, secular organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which dedicated itself ‘to unifying the Americans of African descent in their fight for Human Rights and Dignity’. The OAAU’s “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives,” which Malcolm presented at an event at the Audobon Ballroom on June 28, 1964, puts forth an agenda that seems closely aligned with the human rights emphasis Malcolm first articulated in “The Ballot or the Bullet”:

The Organization of Afro-American Unity will develop in the Afro-American people a keen awareness of our relationship with the world at large and clarify our roles, rights, and responsibilities as human beings. We can accomplish this goal by becoming well-informed concerning world affairs and understanding that our struggle is part of a larger world struggle of oppressed peoples against all forms of oppression.  (OAAU, “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives.” Online at:

Malcolm’s second trip to the Middle East and Africa in 1964 would last five months. On that trip he would first attend the meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the new political structure created by African nations and the antecedent for the African Union. He then spent several weeks in Egypt, working with Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University.

Malcolm also spent time in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, Guinea, and Ethiopia on this trip, and met with many African leaders and writers, including several heads of state: Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, and Sekou Toure. After he addressed the Kenyan Parliament, it passed a “resolution of support for our human rights struggle.” Nearly everywhere he went, Malcolm X was received as a heroic and admired figure – he had no trouble arranging meetings with heads of state such as President Sekou Toure of Guinea, who spoke to him approvingly about his work.

After returning to the U.S., Malcolm elaborated on his newfound Pan-Africanist and Third Worldist consciousness. In an event again at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on December 13, 1964, he made comments along these lines:

The purpose of our meeting tonight … was to show the relationship between the struggle that is going on on the African continent and the struggle that’s going on among the Afro-Americans here in this country. […] As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get the Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 90; see Marable 395)

What is the real import of the distinction Malcolm X draws between “civil rights” and “human rights”? I can think of two answers, one that might be more pragmatic and one more philosophical. As a black man who felt himself to be denationalized, Malcolm didn’t believe that a struggle focused entirely on civil rights could ever achieve its ends. He didn’t trust that the American system could ever reform itself from within, that it could ever truly deliver justice for its African American population. So a turn to international bodies, to third wordlist ideology, and to Pan-Africanism provided a practical recourse.  

But I tend to think that it’s not just a pragmatic or political strategy that led Malcolm X to turn to human rights. As he increasingly became aware of what was happening in places like the Congo in the early 1960s, and as he came to understand the significance of the Cuban revolution and the misguided nature of the American military involvement in Vietnam, I believe that Malcolm X truly felt that the richest and most effective ethical framework he could adopt was one that would point outwards, beyond American borders. From the speeches he gave in 1964, it’s clear that as Malcolm X visited countries like Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria, he recognized that the lives of African people were as much deserving of recognition and dignity as much as were those of black Americans – that he saw (to return to a phrase I used earlier) these parallel struggles as mirror images of one another. If he had lived longer, and been able to visit other parts of the world, the tenor of his ideological evolution in late 1964 leads me to think that Malcolm X would have soon come to expand beyond the pan-Africanism he espoused in the last year of his life towards a kind of global human rights advocacy.

For me this part of Malcolm X’s legacy has particular relevancy and urgency today, as we think about the issues of our day. We see the continued failures of our own government to observe basic human rights protections; under the Bush administration we allowed torture of an unknown number of individuals – which was deemed legal as long as the individuals were not U.S. citizens and the actions were performed off of U.S. soil – in Guantanamo Bay and in various CIA black sites around the world. And while those practices have ended, no one responsible for those policies has been called to justice. Under Obama we’ve had a policy of extrajudicial execution using drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The best course of redress for these wrongs isn’t civil rights – the framework of rights within a single national context under a legal framework designed to apply mainly to citizens. With the U.S. military engaged in an effectively globalized field of operations, we need a strong global framework for protecting the rights and protections of individuals across national borders and irrespective of citizenship status. 

In the U.S. fifty years later we still have reasons to doubt that the civil rights of African American citizens are protected under law. The deaths of numerous unarmed black men at the hands of police last year, followed by non-indictment of police officers responsible for those deaths, makes that only too clear. But the strong sense of international solidarity with protestors on the streets of places like Ferguson and New York City that followed those events was echoed and embraced by activists in other parts of the world. In Malcolm X’s day, the challenge was to present the grievances of American blacks to the world stage. Often through Twitter (i.e., #blacklivesmatter), images of those grievances can now be seen and known by people elsewhere. We see them; they see us. This is a fulfillment -- though a very partial and limited one -- of an idea of the hope for justice and international solidarity that Malcolm X articulated in the last year of his life. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Notes on my MLA 2015

I had a briefer MLA this year – really limited to just attending panels on Saturday, with my Sunday morning oriented towards a business meeting (the executive committee for the Nonfiction Prose division). I have had a tradition of posting notes from MLA over the past couple of years to this blog (see last year’s notes here, and 2013 here), and I’ll continue that tradition. As has been my policy when blogging about people’s research, I try and err on the side of protecting the authors’ arguments and unpublished research in progress. I'm not including my own panel in these notes, though I did post the text of my talk yesterday here

I'll dwell more on the career-oriented panel than on the others since that is a problem the entire humanities academic community is currently dealing with, and it's something my own department has been thinking about. 

1. Careers for Humanists: What Can Graduate Programs Do? #s515

I went to a panel on a topic similar to this last year and found it profitable. David Laurence, the panel organizer, has been one of the main forces behind the recent data-drivenn MLA studies looking at hiring rates and the kinds of work Ph.Ds. in literature have been getting over the past 10 years.

In his opening comments for this panel, Laurence mentioned that there’s a new study coming out that will look at the employment in 2013-14 of 2214 Modern Language PhDs who received degrees between 1996 and 2011. MLA talked to 2500 people for this study, and it looks like it will be something we will be talking about later this year. The results of that study will be published later this coming spring.

I was interested in the presentation on this panel by Ellen Mackay of Indiana University (where she is the Director of Graduate Studies in the English department). Indiana has reduced the average time to degree with a stricter timetable for exams and dissertation proposals. They have also reorganized the graduate curriculum around “skill rather than subject” and introduced a number of practicum courses to help students develop “skills and practices necessary for professional success.” They have a c course called “How to Write for a Scholarly Journal,” which has been very effective in helping graduate students publish their work. They also have a practicum on “Multilingual Composition.”

I was very interested in the presentation by Brian Reed, from the University of Washington (where he has been the DGS and is now the chair of the English department). Prof. Reed has clearly been quite determined to restructure the University of Washington’s Ph.D. program to respond to the hiring issues.

Reed mentioned that one response for graduate programs is to potentially coast and do nothing despite currently dire circumstances. “Programs turn away hundreds of qualified applicants every year; our universities ‘need’ graduate student labor; a certain number of students necessary to sustain a seminar-based graduate program.”

But there are many reasons not to do nothing, starting with the following study, which was released last year. My own department at Lehigh looked closely at the report and it's factored into our discussions about how we might reform our own program in the future:

2014 Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in MLL

Reed also mentioned this:

MLA Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit

Reed suggested that departments might want to drop the word “dissertation” altogether – instead move towards the term “capstone project.” There are many ways of demonstrating mastery of knowledge, including digital projects, public outreach project that might not be best manifested as a book-length projects, and ethnographic study of pedagogical methods.

Many faculty resist any suggested changes. When you have discussions about these topics among English department faculty, the first response of many faculty is to double down: make the program more rigorous, more milestones, more assessment, more professionalization! (Anecdotally: yep.)

Since faculty are least threatened by the model of “and this, too” (i.e., add to what we have, but don’t take away what we’ve already been doing), that can be a good way to institute changes. But endlessly adding to requirements and workloads without taking anything away can be a burden for graduate students – to bring in all of the new professionalization tasks we are encouraging without taking anything out can overburden our students.

He also mentioned a one-week seminar he had attended at the University of Victoria, the DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute). For Reed DH has been a big part of the shift in focus in how he envisions the training of future graduate students; it seems like he's made it a point to increase his own DH knowledge and expertise along those lines. (This is something I've thought of for myself but not in the past had the time and energy to do. Maybe I'll consider attending DHSI myself this coming summer...)

Reed also mentioned various ways he has tried to adapt his assignments in graduate courses he teaches to skill acquisition. He mentioned one particular graduate student who had done a project in Modernism: Little Review Reviews. He also mentioned his student Rachel Arteaga, who was on the equivalent to this panel at last year's MLA (see my notes from MLA 2014)

Two final points from Brian Reed’s presentation:

First, if you are going to encourage a full spectrum of employment options for humanities Ph.Ds you need to tell them from the beginning.

Second, listen to your students. They have read the reports and have their own reasons for entering and persisting in graduate programs.

In the Q&A, there were several people who are involved with departments that are restructuring their Ph.D. programs. Katherine Temple from Georgetown was there, and asked a question (Georgetown’s English department made waves last year when it introduced a new Ph.D. program – heavily oriented to Alt-Ac employment). George Justice, Dean of Humanities from ASU, also asked a question (Dean Justice had been the moderator of an MLA Commons forum called "The Future of the Humanities Ph.D.: here).

2. The Global Novel. #s421
I recently read Sarah Brouillette’s excellent book, Literature and the Creative Economy (full disclosure: I've reviewed it for a journal), and was curious to see her talk about ideas related to that work; the talk did not disappoint. Brouillette mentioned texts that are by now pretty common reference points in conversations about the global novel – Emily Apter’s Against World Literature, and the N+1 article “World Lite” (which I responded to here).

Bruce Robbins is for me an MLA staple – always interesting to hear. His focus in this talk was on the novelistic representation of atrocities, and his main example was a relatively unknown Tolstoy novel called Hadji Murad, which was published posthumously in 1912. The subject of this novel is the Russian conquest of Chechnya, and Tolstoy himself was a soldier who had apparently been involved with this military action. Robbins seemed to be suggesting that the representation of atrocity in much 19th century fiction was surprisingly light – the Indian Mutiny didn’t get talked about in major British fiction in the 19th century, nor did the Irish famine. Somehow the idea of extreme violence wasn’t compatible with 19th century realism? 20th century writers, especially those from the global south, have explored atrocity in a number of narratives, including lesser known works like Ishikawa Tatsuzo’s Ikite ro Heitei (1945), as well better known books like 100 Years of Solitude, Midnight’s Children, and Snow.

In her talk Aarthi Vadde mentioned some other touchstones in the debate about global novels, including Tim Parks (was she referring to "The Dull New Global Novel," in NYRB?), Jhumpa Lahiri’s comments at a recent Jaipur Literature festival (where she apparently dismissed the idea of the global novel as a marketing category), and Jim English’s “Economy of Prestige.” Vadde wanted to encourage scholars to get around the top-down economics of global literature circulation by including fan fiction – an instance of “read-write culture” (Lawrence Lessig’s phrase). Vadde’s main example was a novel by South African Sci Fi novelist Lauren Beukes called Zoo City. After an earlier novel, Beukes’ publisher had solicited fans to contribute material to the fictional world Beukes had created, and some of that material was included into the new novel.

Vadde also mentioned the Italian writing collective called the Wu Ming Foundation.

Mukama Wa Ngugi was the final speaker on this panel. (He is Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s son!) He teaches creative writing as well as literature at Cornell, and was speaking partly as a creative writer (he is the author of novels called Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi that I’m curious to check out). Ngugi mentioned Mariano Siskind’s essay The Globalization of the novel, the Novelization of the global, and much of his paper was oriented to challenging the “English metaphysical empire” – the dominance of the English language in African literature.

3. Other than Modernism. #s489

Eric Hayot’s talk was another stab at the ongoing “what is the new modernism?” conversation that one often sees occurring at the Modernist Studies Association conferences. Hayot’s comments were wide-ranging, and one of his premises is that modernism has been a dominant literary mode in literary studies since the 1930s.

He gave as an example of the New Modernist studies scholarship Peter Nichols’ Modernisms, a book that talks about Latin American Modernismo and other formations. Hayot is very interested in the way we pluralize categories to both include marginal formations and exclude them at the same time. (If they were fully assimilated to the main concept under consideration, we would just say “Modernism” not “Modernisms.”)

Hayot mentioned two familiar touchstones in the debate over modernism, Fredric Jameson’s A Singular Modernity and Susan Stanford Friedman’s much discussed “Planetarity” essay. He seemed to be suggesting that while he doesn’t favor Susan Friedman’s approach, he sees her method and Jameson’s as ultimately leading to the same place.

Hayot also mentioned the Warwick Research Collective, which has a book on Combined and Uneven Development that speaks to some of these concerns (see the list of publications on the Warwick Research Collective web page here; some very interesting titles). He also mentioned an essay by David James and Urmila Seshagiri called "Metamodernism" published in PMLA last year that dealt with these issues.

Madhumita Lahiri has an article called “An Idiom for India” in a recent issue of Interventions that seems quite interesting (she's posted it on This talk is part of Lahiri’s new work that will be comparing South Asian and Chinese modernisms. I won’t say too much about the main arguments in Lahiri’s new work, since this appears to be work in progress, but only say that here she was comparing Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Coolie with Lao She’s Rickshaw Boy.

Joseph Slaughter’s paper was a frontal challenge to the New Modernist studies from the point of view of Postcolonial Studies. Slaughter feels that the New Modernist Studies has had a somewhat expansionist – perhaps even colonialist? – orientation to global / postcolonial texts and authors. He pointed to a pattern of “recovery” (Susan Friedman’s phrase, from “Planetarity” again) of third world modernist texts that were already well-known – specifically within postcolonial studies. He mentioned Susan Friedman’s essay on Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North and Jennifer Wenzel’s phrase “Petro-Magic Realism,” which was appropriated by another author in the recent Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms in a questionable way.

For Slaughter, the global turn in New Modernist studies is really an enterprise occurring within the North American academy, and it’s a kind of turf-expansion that isn’t really conceptually coherent.

I was especially intrigued when Slaughter put up an MLA job at from 1998 on a slide. The job (at U-Penn) was advertising for a specialist in British modernism who also had expertise in postcolonialism. (Interestingly, these were the exact specifications for the job I myself applied for in 2001 at Lehigh.) There's a certain incoherence in coupling British modernism together with postcolonialism -- they're very different fields. (Anecdotally again: yep.) For the most part, the folks that were hired for positions that looked like in that in the late 1990s and early 2000s ended up succeeding – if they were primarily modernists. Postcolonialists of this generation have struggled. (This hit home to me. With a bang.)

4. Genealogies of the Digital Humanities #s604

I only attended part of this panel, and only saw Mattie Burkert’s and Jessie Stommel’s papers. Mattie Burkert is a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin. She is doing a digital project on The London Stage: 1660-1800. She talked about how a scholar named Ben Ross Schneider had attempted to digitize this archive and construct a database based on this material all the way back in the 1970s. That work has been lost – but we have access to the digitized version of the text through Hathi Trust and and Google Books, and Burkert is now working on her own database project based on these materials.

Jessie Stommel’s presentation was based around a timeline of DH he has been working, which can be viewed here. One of the highlights for me was his mini-rant against He has talked about his problems with Turnitin in one of his essays at Chroniclevitae: "Who Controls Your Dissertation?" I had been interacting a bit with Stommel via social media over this past year, and it was interesting to see him speak in person.

Monday, January 12, 2015

MLA Talk 2015: "My Life, Not in 'Middlemarch': Anti-Academic Literary Critical Memoirs"

I presented a somewhat shorter version of the following talk on a panel that I also organized, called "Academic Prose and Its Discontents" at the 2015 MLA convention. The idea here -- apropos of this particular panel -- was to experiment with a somewhat looser prose style than I might usually deploy in an MLA talk. 

* * *

The idea behind this panel was to respond to the ongoing public conversation about academic writing. While writing style has been a longstanding sore spot for academics, two of the most outspoken critics this past year were journalists – people like Nicholas Kristof, who published a piece called “Professors, We Need You!” in the New York Times last February; one also thinks of Joshua Rothman’s piece in the New Yorker along similar lines (“Why Must Academic Writing be so Academic?”). Those columns inspired comments from my co-panelist Emily Lordi that were widely shared on social media to the effect that black feminist criticism actually has had a tradition of accessibly written criticism. Professor Lordi’s comments reminded me of my own encounter in graduate school with Barbara Christian’s essay “The Race for Theory,” an essay that resists Theory with a capital “T” while nevertheless embracing a pragmatic black feminist form of “theorizing.” While many black feminist critics have modeled a kind of academic criticism that has been effective for communicating their ideas, it seems safe to say that the tradition Lordi is referring to – a tradition that Christian is a part of as well -- has become an influential form of academic writing that has nevertheless resisted academicism.

What do I mean by academicism? At a general level, academicism might describe any overly strict adherence to rules and conventions. Three forms of academicism stand out and will likely be immediately recognized – perhaps across disciplinary borders. One is of course the use of academic jargon, a topic that has been discussed quite a bit; we won’t address it today, other than to say that as the influence of French theory has become a little less pronounced in Anglo-American literary criticism in recent years, jargon is no longer really the crux of the problem.

A more important issue is the at times overwhelming citation imperative. When I talk to students about the need to research the previous history of conversation on a particular topic, I tell them that we do this because we want to be in conversation with others who have addressed that topic. But often bibliography – especially in dissertation chapters -- then turns into an end in itself: a rabbit hole from which the student’s argument never emerges.

Third, academicism suggests a strong emphasis on depersonalization and objectivity. We’re told not to put ourselves too much into the academic writing we’re producing. It’s distracting, it reflects insufficient rigor, it’s soft and weak and squiggly. To be fair, this accusation is sometimes true; personal anecdotes can reflect a kind of laziness. Some students have to be coached out of this habit. But the real value of the personal voice is a sense of what the stakes are for a particular critic. Why do we pick the topics we work on? If we don’t know what our ethical investment is in our research, why are we doing it? For every student who would be better off using fewer personal anecdotes there’s another student whose work would benefit from a thoughtful revisiting of their motivations for writing.

So: jargon, the citation imperative, and depersonalization. These three forms of academicism are pretty universal across the academic disciplines (in fact, if you remember the Kristof Op-Ed in the Times last March, his focus was more on disciplines like Political Science and Economics). There are other elements of academicism which might be more specific to literary studies. One of them might be the other kind of depersonalization – the depersonalization of the text itself, interpreted as if the author who created it didn’t exist.

And just this past week, Jeffrey J. Williams published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism.” Among other things, Williams’ essay (which draws heavily from Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best’s 2009 essay, on “Surface Reading”) suggests a move away from a high theory register towards a more grounded and empirical kind of literary critical production. The shift he charts is not anti-academicism per se – Marcus and Best are more focused on deemphasizing what they call a paranoid style of criticism in favor a “surface” reading that limits ideological claims we might make about literary texts to the evidence on the surface. Marcus and Best are specifically singling out Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious as a target of critique, but as a postcolonialist I couldn’t help but think of Edward Said’s famous reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Instantiating a method that many other postcolonial readings of 18th and 19th century have emulated, Said argues that even the absence of conversation about the slave trade in Austen's novel may be seen as significant. By contrast, the newer advocates of “Surface Reading” might suggest we look at the ample evidence of conversations about slavery and the slave trade that were present in writings by contemporaries of Austen’s, albeit outside of works in the established canon. We don’t have to read for absence when slavery was arguably all too present in at least some writing from the early 19th century.

Today I want to talk about two books that resist academicism while aiming to make fairly substantial arguments about literary texts, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. Both authors have a very strong, at times over the top, emphasis on tying the experience of reading their respective favorite authors to their own life experiences – and their titles indicate this quite directly. Both books also tend to minimize jargon and aim for a non-specialized readership; they also deal with the citation imperative by eschewing footnotes and instead providing author’s notes at the end that acknowledge the sources they consulted in the process of writing. Finally, both books are quite deeply engaged with the lives of the authors who created the texts under consideration. Mead is particularly attuned to how particular life experiences shaped George Eliot’s point of view and informed the ethical orientation as well as many of the particular characters she created in Middlemarch.

My Life in Middlemarch is written by a journalist who has a fair amount to say about how her own life can be cross-referenced against the characters in George Eliot’s novel, including Casaubon. Mead describes her experience reading Middlemarch as a high-school age student, though she resists the tendency to let the academic context dominate: it’s important in her narrative that she first picked up the novel on her own initiative, not because it was assigned. We can see Mead move to distance her current writing from academicism when she recounts her experiences in a literature seminar led by a well-known Marxist scholar in the 1980s.

Monkish-looking young men with close-shaven heads wearing black turtlenecks huddled with their notebooks around the master, while others lounged on the rug at his feet. It felt very exclusive--and, with its clotted jargon, willfully difficult. Under such influences I wrote, for part of my finals, an extended feminist critique of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which appropriately enough, clogged a friend’s printer, like a lump of undigested food. (145)
Clotted jargon, clogging the printer, willfully difficult, undigested. It’s abundantly clear that Mead now sees that kind of writing as of little value. On the same page, Mead singles out the prose of J. Hillis Miller as exemplifying the academicist style (the sentence she quotes is this one: “This incoherent, heterogeneous, ‘unreadable,’ or nonsynthesizable quality of the text of Middlemarch jeopardizes the narrator’s effort of totalization”).

Passages like these are in the minority; in fact for much of My Life in Middlemarch Mead proceeds as if the sizeable academic cottage industry of George Eliot scholarship didn’t exist. There’s a passage early in Mead’s book that eloquently summarizes her method. It’s a kind of thesis statement for the book as a whole, and to do justice to My Life in Middlemarch it should be acknowledged:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.
In effect what Meads is describing might be seen as a particularly intense kind of reader-response criticism – where the lives of readers and the texts they read are intimately intertwined. It’s not just that a book like Middlemarch offers us life wisdom; rather, Mead is suggesting, it’s in the pages of George Eliot’s novel that she’s developed the tools by which to narrate and contextualize her own life. The title is quite carefully chosen; it’s not Middlemarch and Me, it’s My Life IN Middlemarch.

Mead begins her book by describing her repeated experiences with Eliot’s novel, starting with her first reading of the novel as a teenager, and then continuing forward through her twenties, thirties and forties. As she works through different elements of the plot of Middlemarch, she periodically recounts how the lives and experiences of the characters in Eliot’s novel resonate with her own experiences. The failed marriages in Eliot’s novel at one point lead Mead to describe her own failed romance with a man earlier in her life. The representation of childhood and children in the novel are described in connection with Mead’s own experience, first as a stepmother to three boys and then as a biological mother. Mead visits many of the places in England where Eliot wrote and lived. Eliot’s idea of the relationship between the older scholar Casaubon and the young, passionate, and na├»ve Dorothea Brooke is likely derived from a couple Eliot had befriended while visiting Oxford; this gives Mead an opportunity to write a little about her own experiences studying at Oxford in the 1980s.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to this mode of reading. Indeed, I have felt something similar occurring as I’ve gone back to books as a mature adult that I first encountered as a young person. One of those is Middlemarch (which I first read in an undergraduate seminar at Cornell taught by Satya Mohanty; I only revisited the novel when I taught it myself last year); another, even more personal to me, might be The Satanic Verses. The problem perhaps comes in when the circumstances of the lives of the characters in these “novels of our lives” don’t intersect well with our own, or when the life of the author looks nothing like our own life. In Mead’s case, it’s hard to escape the fact that she, like George Eliot, was an ambitious and bookish young woman growing up in England (Eliot grew up in the Midlands; Mead grew up in a shore town near Dover). Mead, like Eliot, had experiences of both Oxford and literary life in London (Mead would later move to New York), and both went on to pursue careers as professional writers. In response to Dorothea's famous question near the beginning of Middlemarch (“What could she do, what ought she to do?”), the answer would then seem to be : "leave home, go to the metropolitan center, and become a writer."

To be fair, Mead is also self-conscious about the method of her book, and aware of its limitations:
Such an approach to fiction—where do I see myself in here?—is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism. It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were a mirror of oneself. One of the useful functions of literary criticism and scholarship is to suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read (172)
And yet, isn’t this solipsistic reading process exactly how Mead frames her project in My Life in Middlemarch? Well, yes – but to her credit, and really against the grain of the title and presentation of the book, Mead is extremely careful to avoid the kind of solipsism she is alluding to her. Rather than dwelling on the correlations between her own life and the lives of Edward Casaubon, Dorothea Brooke, Lydgate and Ladislaw, or on how Mead’s personal life and experience might echo Eliot’s life behind the text, much of My Life in Middlemarch actually consists of close readings of the novel itself tied to historical background and biographical reference to the author.

And yet the question arises. Can we imagine the same book written by someone who might look and sound very different – someone not British, not white… perhaps not female? Someone who has not in the end had a life organized around books, ideas, and writing, but around something entirely different? A Midwestern American housewife, say? A reader in Nigeria or India? The real test of the viability of the self-reflecting reading practice that Mead at once disavows and symptomatically performs might be when the reader’s connection to the text in fact doesn’t appear at all obvious. What might happen to My Life in Middlemarch allowed versions of the narrative along the lines I’ve indicated? Would anyone want to publish that?

A different slate of issues arises in looking at William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education. While the stamp of Mead’s personal life is relatively light in My Life in Middlemarch -- it’s much more a book about Middlemarch than it is about Mead -- Deresiewicz’s personality and personal life are all over A Jane Austen Education. Here we hear a lot more about the author’s dating history, his social circle, his family drama (struggles with an overbearing Jewish father feature prominently), and so on.
For Deresiewicz, the critique of academia is front and center. In the opening chapter he introduces himself to us as a pretentious young Columbia graduate student, interested mainly in hard-nosed modernism; he came upon Austen under the influence of a particularly powerful and charismatic professor at Columbia (whom he does not name). We also know, though it’s not mentioned in the book itself, that its author gave up his tenured position at Yale to write books like this one and the more recent polemic -- Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite (a fascinating book that I think we ought to be talking about, albeit in another setting), and that he therefore has an evident axe to grind. But surprisingly, none of the sense of alienation that would later lead Deresiewicz to leave academia is described here; rather, in the middle of the book he lavishes praise on the Socratic teaching style and intellectual generosity of the same professor who introduced him to Austen in the first place. Against a bad academicism (which Deresiewicz often locates in his own, younger persona), Deresiewicz opens the possibility of a good academic experience: a classic liberal arts journey of self-discovery through books. In this particular instance, it’s Austen who becomes the central educative figure in the book: the person who taught Deresiewicz the lessons he needed to learn to grow up and make good life choices. As with Mead’s book, Deresiewicz really does his homework, and at his best he brings in quite a bit of biocritical material in the service of closely reading Austen’s novels.

What might these two books, both authored by people who position themselves outside academia, have to say to us here in this MLA panel? When they work, they model a kind of literary criticism that eschews academicism and communicates with a broad audience. They might inspire some of us to do our own versions (perhaps no commercial publisher would ever want my version of “My Life in Middlemarch,” but I could always post it on my blog…). It is possible to resist academicism without giving up entirely on academia. Whether or not any of us end up emulating the precise methodology of these books, they do remind us that we can matter -- as readers, as human beings with life stories of our own. Rather than always defer our agency as critics -- to the citation imperative, to depersonalization -- these books give us a way to claim it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Serial" as an Asian-American Story

I had been hearing a lot about Serial for weeks this fall, though I didn't actually start listening to the podcasts until I heard family members discussing it at Thanksgiving. And then I pretty much devoured it, listening to episodes 1-10 in a single week on my way to and from Lehigh. It was addictive in the best way; for that week at least, my long commute pretty much flew by.

For weeks, various Asian American writers have been criticizing aspects of the podcast. It's not surprising, given that this is a story where the three principal players are people of color (Adnan Syed, Hae Min Lee, and Jay _____ ). Meanwhile the entire reporting and production team behind Serial are white.

It's a thankless task to say that a given cultural artifact isn't racist or exploitative -- you get much more traction on social media if you're angry than if you are pleased with something -- but I'm going to do it anyways. I'm here to say that I think Sarah Koenig and company do a pretty responsible job dealing with issues related to the respective cultural backgrounds of the three main characters in the story. I think of Serial as in effect a new part of the canon of Asian American literature.

I've come across a couple of different examples of writers criticizing Serial along race/ethnicity representation lines,  but both seem like flawed critiques. Jay Caspian Kang's essay in The Awl raises a number of issues early in the series, mainly focusing on the first few episodes. To my eye it seems like he's nitpicking more than making substantial criticisms:

Jay Caspian Kang, Serial and White Reporter Privilege

Conor Friedersdorf has a pretty solid response to Kang here:

Conor Friedersdorf, The Backlash Against Serial -- and Why It's Wrong

And more recently, there's an essay by Aditya Desai at The Aerogram that I have been discussing with friends on Facebook today:

Does Serial Fail South Asian Americans?

I find the main point of Desai's essay harder to suss out than Kang's. Indeed, the author himself doesn't appear to have a clear answer to the question about Serial he raises in the title to his piece. At various points he seems to be accusing Koenig and her team of sensationalizing the murder to create a True Crime potboiler -- and there are certainly elements of the podcast that work that way (though the issue has nothing to do with the race/ethnicity question). At other times he suggests that Koenig is out of her depth dealing with the multiethnic cultural stew of Woodlawn and the Baltimore suburbs, but he doesn't point to any concrete aspects of that cultural space that Koenig gets wrong.

I myself wasn't thrilled about the "Rumors" episode (Serial episode 11) initially, but then I read Rabia Chaudry's funny and quite insightful long blog post about the episode here. Rabia actually liked the episode despite its triviality (can anyone really care that Adnan once pocketed a few dollars from the mosque collection fund?), because it showed us something true about the local Pakistani community:

I come now to what I think was the heart of this episode, which is community. What it means to be a community, and what it means to rely on a community.
Sarah pulled back the curtain ever so slightly on the inner-workings of what most insular religious communities are like. People deeply connected to each other, but not always liking each other, spreading rumors quietly, doing things secretively, coming together in times of crisis, but not always being in solidarity. There should be no surprise when things like this happen in any group of people, on some level all communities operate like the Jersey Shore. Its just a bit of a shame when it’s religious community.
And it was not just a shame but deeply painful for Adnan when, after he was convicted, the community interest and support waned. I’ve gone on the record a few times and called the community out (it’s easier for me to do because I wasn’t raised in that community and my ties aren’t so deep) for abandoning Adnan. I’ve gotten some pushback and my mom has told me people in the community don’t like my stance on it. (Rabia Chaudry)
So while people who might be looking for ammunition to critique Serial for the way its handled Adnan's ethnic background might find it in "Rumors," one of Adnan's closest friends and strongest advocates actually seemed to see the value in airing some of that community dirty laundry.

I would also recommend Rabia Chaudry's commentary on episode 10 of Serial, which is the episode where Sarah Koenig deals at length with the questions of racial bias in the prosecution's case against Adnan Syed. That bias was definitely there -- and it was definitely troubling -- and it's possible that had Adnan been of a different ethnic or religious background it might have been easier for the jury to see him as innocent. It's also likely that a better defense attorney might have handled Syed's ethnic background more intelligently. But Adnan's religion and ethnicity by themselves weren't the core of the case; that core was in Jay's testimony and the cell phone records.

According to Rabia's account, Sarah Koenig did seem initially clueless when faced with that weird document that a consultant had drawn up for the prosecution ("An Overview of Pakistani Muslim Thought and Culture"), which talks about Pakistani blasphemy laws, punishment for fornication, the debasement of women, etc. Rabia says that when Sarah first showed her that document, she was livid at the misrepresentations in the document, but that Sarah seemed not to know what to think ("So this isn't true...?) Ouch. However, by the time this document is discussed in the podcast, Koenig seems to be pretty clear -- perhaps Rabia helped her see it more clearly -- that this is a nutty piece of anti-Islamic propaganda that has nothing at all to do with the mindset of a teenager like Adnan Syed. There is a real and lingering worry that anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistani bias was a factor in Adnan's conviction, but I don't think Rabia Chaudry is critical of Koenig for how this topic was handled on the podcast itself. And the possibility that anti-Islamic bias was a factor in Adnan's conviction lines up with the overall attitude of the show (as encapsulated in the final episode today) -- that we may not ever know for sure either way whether Adnan did it, but that there's certainly enough reasonable doubt now that he should not have been convicted in the first place.

* * *

Above I said that I consider "Serial" to be a new addition to the canon of Asian-American storytelling. Let me unpack that a little. We've had a number of great works dealing with generational gaps and questions about assimilation (my parents don't understand me... but am I Asian enough?). We've had stories dealing with interracial and intercultural relationships and families (I really want to marry my non-Asian girlfriend, but my family wouldn't understand...). From Gene Yang's graphic novel American Born Chinese to Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, we've seen the struggles of middle class Asian Americans to sort out their identity and find a place for themselves in the middle of American life. On screen, we have the eminently likeable and untroubling figures of people like John Cho and Kal Penn to make us laugh (mostly; I guess #Selfie was kind of a dud after all).

What we've had less of is the idea of Asian Americans in a complex multicultural setting, where people of several different ethnic groups are all close friends and dating across racial and ethnic lines: whites, blacks, East Asians and South Asians. We've not seen so much the kinds of things that can happen when Korean girls -- with parents who speak little English -- date Pakistani boys who lead prayers at the local mosque. And we've definitely not seen writers like Lahiri deal with what happens to immigrant communities when one of their members gets accused of murdering an ex-girlfriend. So the world and the experiences depicted in "Serial" are new -- and valuable -- additions to the kinds of stories we have seen Asian American writers producing. It so happens that in this instance our guide into that world of Asian American voices happens to be a white woman named Sarah Koenig. For me at least, that isn't a problem. 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

In Defense of Steven Salaita

My initial reaction upon hearing about Steven Salaita’s “unhiring” at the University of Illinois this week was shock.

One reason for that is that I can see myself in his shoes. I have been involved in sometimes vehement arguments online for more than a decade. In some rare instances (mostly in the first months I was online), I let my emotions get the better of me. Arguing with people with radically different political views, I at times said things that were snarky, rude, and dismissive. Some of these intemperate comments are buried deep inside long comments threads on blog posts, and probably pretty hard to find; I doubt anyone cares today. And the vast majority of my writing online has not been like that. But I can definitely understand how a person engaged in online arguments could find themselves carried away by passion and a feeling of anger towards one's rhetorical opponents. I have been there.

With the Steven Salaita situation, there are two dimensions that I think need to be talked about. One is the nature of Professor Salaita’s Tweets. Are they largely defensible, if at times over-the-top? Or do they reveal the true colors of a person who might not be a desirable presence on a college campus? The second question is whether UIUC’s decision to unhire Salaita after he had already been sent a contract for a tenured position is a violation of academic freedom. Everyone agrees that academic freedom should protect unpopular views (here: deep dislike of the state of Israel and Zionist ideology), but does it also protect a rude or intemperate mode of public expression? Is Salaita being unhired because of what he thinks, or because of how he said it? 

Let’s start by considering briefly what Stephen Salaita actually posted on Twitter for a minute. I think this is important to do – it’s one thing to defend freedom of speech and/or academic freedom in the abstract, but as people like Stanley Fish have pointed out over the years, “freedom of speech” is by no means an absolute concept. People who express really extreme views may have the “freedom” to say them, but other actors can choose not to help defend that right. If Salaita's statements are really "loathsome," as Cary Nelson has suggested, I personally wouldn't be quite as concerned about his being fired without due process from a position he had been offered. I wouldn't be writing this blog post.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Priorities of the New BJP Government

This weekend brought us a troika of stories indicating the drift of the new BJP government in India.

One is an interview with the new director of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, in Outlook Magazine. Another was a story in the Washington Post about the funding for the proposed statue of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, which if and when it is completed will be the tallest statue in the world. And a third was a surprising and thought-provoking story about the causes of malnutrition in India in the New York Times.

 1. In Praise of Eurocentrism (sort of)

Here are some choice quotes from the with the new director of the ICHR, and my brief responses:

"We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths." (link)
Yes we can, and there's no embarrassment in doing so. All great religions are founded on myths. The word "mythology" doesn't suggest truth or falsehood, it suggests a narrative framework. The Hindu right's obsession with the word "myth" has always puzzled me.
There is a certain view that the Mahabharata or the Ramayana are myths. I don’t see them as myths because they were written at a certain point of time in history. They are important sources of information in the way we write history. What we write today may become an important source of information for the fut­ure in the future. When analysed, of course, they could be declared to be true or false. History is not static. It belongs to the people, it’s made by the people. Similarly, the Ram­ayana is true for’s in the collective memory of generations of Indians. We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths. Myths are from a western perspective.

What does that mean?
For us, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are true accounts of the periods in which they were written.(link)

This is one of the strangest ideas to have emerged from the Hindu right's approach to ancient India. Instead of studying the culture from which these stories emerged (which some scholars have done and are doing), and instead of dwelling on the valuable moral insights contained in these texts (i.e., the concept of Dharma; the question of the meaning and significance of taking action...), the approach is to end all intelligent conversation by suggesting that they are somehow literally true.

In the past, when I debated Hindu nationalists on Sepia Mutiny and elsewhere, the response to this would inevitably be: "but many Christians in the west believe in the literal truth of the Bible!" My response is simple: they shouldn't.
"Western schools of thought look at material evidence of history. We can’t produce material evidence for everything." (link)
This is also nonsense. There is plenty of material evidence available related to ancient Indian civilization. We should use what we have. There are also admittedly gaps in what we have, and many questions that historians cannot comprehensively answer. But we shouldn't just make stuff up, as Yellapragada Sudershan Rao suggests we do.
"For the last 60 years, our writing and understanding of history has been influenced by the West. Indian research has been far too dependent on the West to write its own history." (link)

If the alternative to Eurocentrism is this guy, I would rather throw out "postcolonialism" entirely and declare myself a proud Eurocentric.

2. The Tallest Statue in the World.

Narendra Modi is planning to build the world's tallest statue. Dubbed the "Statue of Unity," the figure to be represented is not Mahatma Gandhi. It isn't Nehru. Or Ambedkar. It isn't a figure from Hindu Mythology. It's Sardar Vallabhai Patel.

A 600 foot statue, at a total likely cost of $400 million. As of now, only $34 million have actually been budgeted to build it. How much does India spend on, say, the education of young girls? It turns out, about half as much:
As the Associated Press notes, the budget allocated more money for the statue than for women’s safety programs (1.5 billion rupees/$25 million) or the education of young girls (1 billion rupees/$16.5 million).

Those numbers say a lot about where Modi's priorities are.

All I can say is this: The taller the statue, the bigger the noise when it's knocked over.

3. The ongoing Sanitation crisis. 

It's long been a puzzle as to why India, far from the poorest country in the world, has far more malnourished children than the poorest countries (Democratic Republic of Congo, Somali, and Zimbabwe). The answer is outdoor defecation:
Two years ago, Unicef, the World Health Organization and the World Bank released a major report on child malnutrition that focused entirely on a lack of food. Sanitation was not mentioned. Now, Unicef officials and those from other major charitable organizations said in interviews that they believe that poor sanitation may cause more than half of the world’s stunting problem.

“Our realization about the connection between stunting and sanitation is just emerging,” said Sue Coates, chief of water, sanitation and hygiene at Unicef India. “At this point, it is still just an hypothesis, but it is an incredibly exciting and important one because of its potential impact.”

This research has quietly swept through many of the world’s nutrition and donor organizations in part because it resolves a great mystery: Why are Indian children so much more malnourished than their poorer counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa?

A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from theDemocratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the planet’s poorest countries. Stunting afflicts 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families. (link)
On the one hand, this story might be seen as depressing given the overwhelming numbers and the fact that we are still talking about it (Mohandas Gandhi was talking about toilets back in 1925). That said, if there were people running India who actually had their priorities straight, this could be a fixable problem. My guess is that you could make a significant dent in the sanitation crisis for less than the cost of that completely superfluous and obscenely unnecessary statue of the president of the Indian National Congress in 1934.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Twitter Series: Direct Quotes from Narendra Modi

I'm trying something a little different today -- a series of direct quotes from Narendra Modi, likely India's next Prime Minister. If anyone reading this has suggestions for short quotes I might want to add to this list, please leave a comment or email me.

Update: Earlier, I had posted a widely cited quote from Modi along the lines of "Every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction." Someone sent me the entire quote in Hindi, which actually seems to mitigate the ominous implications of that statement somewhat:

"Kriya pratikriya ke chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahte hai ke na kriya ho, aur na pratikriya (A chain of action and reaction is going on. We neither want action nor reaction). (link)
The quote of just the one sentence seems unduly biased against Modi, so I'm removing the Tweet from this series.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Is it Time to Update the File on Narendra Modi?

So it appears that Narendra Modi is on the cusp of becoming India's next Prime Minister. We'll begin to get a real picture of the actual election results in about a week, with the actual outcomes to be announced beginning on May 16. Is it time for us to update the file and reassess the record of Mr. Modi, especially now that the bulk of the voting in various Indian states has already taken place?

I have been quiet thus far on the India elections, but I have been following pretty closely. And my general views are probably not a big surprise to anyone. Not long ago, Modi booked to speak at the University of Pennsylvania, was denied a US visa. At the time  I wrote a satirical short essay that tried to make a couple of serious points about Modi's involvement in the violence in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. (It feels like that happened eons ago -- though in fact it was just March 2013!)

However, the 2002 factor does not appear to have made a very big difference in how Modi has been perceived in the current general election. He has not been charged with a crime (a Supreme Court investigative team concluded that no charges were warranted in 2010), and even for Indians who have some suspicions about his role in that violence, there is a widespread sense that all that is now far enough in the past that we should be moving on. I'm not sure I can agree, but a sense of indifference to past violence appears to be the political reality in India for now.

In any case, the ruling Congress party is so thoroughly discredited and rudderless that it's hard to mount any kind of vigorous critique from the center-left point of view. Secular intellectuals may not like Modi, but the traditional embrace of a conventional "Congress isn't perfect, but it's better than what you have to offer" line has been falling flat.

Like many other Indian election-watchers, I have been interested and hopeful about the emergence of the Aam Aadi Party (see this New York Times article from last November introducing the party). Admittedly, I'm not sure that the leader of the AAP party, Arvind Kejriwal, is quite ready for prime time based on the debacle of his brief Chief Ministership in Delhi a few months ago (see this critique: "How the Aam Aadmi Party Lost Its Way"). But the AAP party is now much bigger than just Arvind Kejriwal; it has gone national quite quickly, and developed quite a broad base of support and a diverse set of quite vocal supporters, some of them from disillusioned Congress voters, some from further left on the political spectrum (Medha Patkar, for instance). Despite contesting the election on a minuscule budget, there are some hints that the AAP may have a surprisingly strong showing in some unexpected places. The under-representation of voices from vast rural areas of many Indian states means that political polls and journalist reports are only sketchy predictors of actual election results. Is it possible that the AAP party will win enough seats to lead a coalition government? There are also regional political figures like Mayawati to consider; a strong performance from her in certain districts of UP could make her a king-maker type figure (see this analysis from

That said, for now I am presuming that even with some room for surprises, the BJP will perform as experts are predicting and Modi will be the next Prime Minister. But how long will he last? If the way Modi has run his campaign is any kind of indication of what kind of leader he will be, it may not be very long at all. Here I take the lead from Shivam Vij's recent editorial column in

For one thing, he seems to have pretty clearly violated Indian election law just a few days ago:
Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was booked by the Ahmedabad police on the orders of the Election Commission on Wednesday for making a “political speech” and taking a selfie of his inked finger holding the party’s election symbol, both after voting.
(Indian election law forbids political candidates from making speeches on the day of voting.)

And even as he's flouting laws, he's accused the Election Commission of rigging votes in certain states:
In an election speech in Asansol in West Bengal on Sunday, Narendra Modi said that the EC was not acting impartially against violence and rigging in the polls in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal on April 30. That was a very serious accusation, but it came without specifics about constituencies and polling booth numbers. (link)
And his response to a recent massacre of 32 Muslims in Assam by Bodo militants is cheap and ill-informed:
As if that wasn't enough, Modi displayed another sign of imprudence by blaming the victims of violence for their own predicament. When 32 Muslims were shot dead in Assam's Bodo areas last week, the prime ministerial candidate decided to raise the bogey of "illegal Bangladeshi migrants". It was unclear why he thought anyone – citizen or migrant, legal or illegal – deserved to be shot dead by militants. (link)
(Incidentally, see this helpful analysis of the background of the situation in Assam. The Muslims in the region are by no means all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as he seems to be suggesting...)

Modi is indeed a charismatic figure running more on a pro-business platform that India's large corporations find enthralling after a decade of a center-left government (and especially after the major slowdown in the Indian economy in the past year or two). If and when the results indicate a BJP led government next week, the stock market will explode with enthusiasm (for a couple of days, anyway).

But the man we know is not going to suddenly change and become something different than he has always been. Modi has not learned is how to speak respectfully or carefully about sensitive issues. He has not learned to talk to his political opponents or to treat them with respect.

It's hard to imagine how a person like this could hold onto a Prime Ministerial seat for very long in a country as complex and divided as India. Modi may have become quite deft at ignoring the left's demands that he account for Gujarat-2002, but in India there are actually a hundred different political conflicts underway at any given time in various corners of the country -- a thousand different political landmines for a blundering politician step on. Modi clearly isn't prepared to speak about what's happening in Assam; is he ready to speak responsibly with regards to the ongoing conflicts in other parts of India as well? Kashmir? Telengana? I don't think so.

So here might be a somewhat reassuring scenario for my friends and colleagues disheartened by the likely Modi victory: imagine him coming into power with a wave of support from the urban, English-language media. He's on the cover of many international magazines. The U.S. rescinds its travel ban (this is pretty much inevitable). The lotus appears triumphant!

But after a few months an incident occurs somewhere in India and Modi says something nasty and unsupportable about one or the other of these conflicts (along the lines of what he said last week about Bodoland: "those who come here for vote-bank politics and take away the jobs of our youth will have to go back" [link]). Mass protests on the streets ensue; an essential regional political party pulls out of the coalition government; and suddenly, there is pressure on him to step down. Depending on how bad things get, we might then see one of Modi's lieutenants take over the reins at the Center. Or the coalition falls apart entirely and some other coalition emerges (perhaps led by the AAP...).

So yes, I am disheartened about the apparently imminent BJP government. But we should trust our instincts and judgment of character, and feel somewhat hopeful that the checks and balances that are built into Indian democracy will do their work.