Robert F. Williams, Epideictic Rhetoric, and the African American Freedom Struggle

Late in the summer of 1961, an interracial group of Freedom Riders arrived in Monroe, North Carolina, a town long mired in intense racial conflict, to join civil rights icon Robert F. Williams’s campaign to integrate the town’s facilities, particularly the public swimming pool and schools; to have all signs indicating white and non-white areas removed from public view; to achieve nondiscriminatory hiring practices in local factories; and to guarantee the appointment of African American citizens to positions within the city government. As president of the Union County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Williams had generated considerable controversy two years earlier when, in a moment of frustration over a series of racially-biased court decisions, he claimed that “the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attacker on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching” (qtd. in Rucker 20).1 Although Williams tried to soften his rhetoric by explaining that he had meant only to say that the African American community must consider armed self-defense until such time as the criminal justice system guaranteed its constitutional right to equal protection under the law, the national leadership of the NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, suspended Williams from his leadership post, but they did so only after a period of high-profile debate over the organization’s position on self-defense. It was in response to his being censured that Williams began to publish The Crusader, a widely-distributed monthly newsletter that served as a platform for his ideas and helped further elevate him as a militant voice within the largely nonviolent Civil Right Movement. The Freedom Riders who descended on Monroe that summer intended to help Williams integrate the town, but they also wanted to counter his advocacy of armed self-defense by demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in a town notorious for its bigotry and racist violence.

Williams welcomed the Freedom Riders as friends and allies, and they collaboratively organized a campaign of peaceful protests against Monroe’s segregationist policies.2 However, the protests attracted large numbers of Ku Klux Klansmen and other white supremacists from throughout North Carolina and beyond, and–as Williams had predicted would happen–the peaceful demonstrations soon devolved into mob violence. It was during the ensuing melee that Bruce and Mabel Stegall, a white couple who had traveled from out-of-town to join the racist counter-demonstrations, drove their car into Williams’s segregated neighborhood, where they were surrounded by a crowd of angry citizens, armed and ready to repel anyone associated with the day’s white-supremacist violence. What happened next is both confusing and disputed, but most historians agree that Williams offered the couple safe haven within his home, but that he would not assist them in escaping his neighborhood. His position was simple: he didn’t want them to be harmed, but he insisted that since they had found their own way into trouble, it was their responsibility to find their own way out of it. When the Stegall’s were able to leave Williams’s neighborhood in peace some hours later, the Monroe police charged Williams with their kidnapping.3 Unaware of the charges but fearing that he may be lynched as the town’s leading black activist, Williams fled North Carolina to stay with friends in New York.4 He thus becoming an unwitting fugitive from justice, a federal crime that landed him with an FBI arrest warrant.5 Convinced that he would never receive a fair trial in the United States, Williams fled first to Canada, and then to Cuba, where he was granted asylum by the Castro regime. It was as a consequence of these dramatic events that The Crusader found itself with a new base of operations and a new source of moral and material support, namely Cuba’s revolutionary society. Williams continued to publish The Crusader in exile from Havana, with a distribution of 40,000 copies per month, until he finally left Cuba for Maoist China in 1965 (Tyson 290).

Robert F. Williams examining his FBI wanted poster

These events provide an important context for The Crusader‘s transnational perspective. Williams’s newsletter is remarkable not only for its unflinching advocacy of armed self-defense at a time when Gandhian nonviolence dominated the American Civil Rights Movement, but also for its insistence that the black freedom struggle within the United States was part of the revolutionary anti-imperialist movements that swept so many nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the 1950s and 60s. It is true, of course, that the American Civil Rights Movement developed a militant revolutionary wing in the late 1960s, and that this faction was very much in sympathy with the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, as well as the many anti-imperialist struggles exemplified by the colonialist/imperialist wars in Vietnam. The Black Panther Party is a case in point. But the Black Panthers did not publish the first issue of their iconic newspaper, The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, until 1967, well after Williams had begun to distribute The Crusader from exile in Cuba and China. Writing in his biography of Williams, Timothy B. Tyson argues that The Crusader “defies the conventional narrative of the black freedom movement that begins with civil rights and ends with Black Power. In fact, virtually all of the elements that we have come to associate with the Black Power movement that gained national attention after 1965–anticolonial internationalism, black pride, economic nationalism, cultural politics, and armed self-defense–resonated in these pages as early as 1959″ (196). Indeed, Williams himself recognized The Crusader‘s novelty, especially in terms of its commitment to internationalizing the American Civil Rights Movement, a point he makes clear in the foreword to his unpublished autobiography: “Through The Crusader, we became the first civil rights group to advocate a policy stressing Afro-American unity with the struggling liberation forces of Latin America, Asia and Africa. We steadfastly maintained, in the face of vigorous opposition from white liberals and the black bourgeoisie, that our struggle for black liberation in imperialist America was part and parcel of the international struggle” (qtd. in Tyson 196). And yet, despite its transnational perspective, The Crusader never abandoned its commitment to the African American freedom struggle in general, and to the plight of Monroe’s African American community in particular. Herein lies one of the newsletter’s special qualities: it was at once local and global, concerned with achieving justice in Monroe as well as with the liberation of oppressed people everywhere.

Williams forged this relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the transnational, anti-imperialist revolutions of the 1950s and 60s by articulating a set of shared values between these seemingly disparate movements. Indeed, the pages of The Crusader are replete with appeals to solidarity between the African American people and those of the revolutionary postcolonial societies. For a representative example, we may look to how Williams represents Maoist China:

The Chinese people support all peoples who struggle for justice and liberation. They whole-heartedly support Afroamericans who struggle against Jim Crow and racial oppression in the so-called free world of the racist USA. In the factories, in the store windows, on billboards, in recreation centers and conspicuous places throughout the land, huge posters proclaim the Chinese people’s support for oppressed Afroamericans. Even the small children of China express great admiration and sympathy for their oppressed black brothers of the barbaric and racist USA. They are very saddened when they hear of the terrifying plight of our people in America. (“China” 7)

The emotional appeal in this passage is obvious, but what is perhaps less obvious–and altogether more interesting–is the way in which Williams represents revolutionary China as a positive antithesis to the Jim Crow south. Whereas Williams came of age in a town that displayed “whites only” signs in its store windows and other conspicuous places, a town that exercised racist hiring practices in its factories and segregation in its recreation centers, he represents Maoist China as a society that has effectively transformed these sites of racial oppression into beacons of justice and liberation. The message is clear: the African American people have friends among the world’s struggling masses. This point is made explicit in the illustration of the “Non-Anglo-Saxon World” condemning “U.S. Racism” that Williams included on the title page of the February 1964 issue of The Crusader. The illustration depicts a diminished and isolated African American figure struggling to find his place among the giants of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Williams directly appeals to his fellow African Americans to do more to forge bonds with revolutionary China when, just after the sentences quoted above, he writes, “We are extremely fortunate to have such honest, sincere, and militant people as our allies. We must do more to create a greater bond between our peoples” (“China” 7). Williams used The Crusader to create the conditions for such a bond within the minds of his readers, and in so doing he helped transform the consciousness of a generation of activists that would come to see itself as the revolutionary vanguard of the anti-imperialist struggle within the United States.

“You a Majority Charlie?” The Crusader, vol. 5, no. 2, 1964, p. 1.

The way in which Williams presented revolutionary anti-imperialism as the positive antithesis to the Jim Crow South is an example of how epideictic rhetoric, or the rhetoric of praise and blame, contributed to the development of a transnational consciousness within the American Civil Rights Movement. By engaging in a sustained and vituperative condemnation of American racism, and by unapologetically praising those aspects of the revolutionary societies in Cuba and China that he knew many African American people supported (e.g., social equality, economic justice, anti-racism, etc.), Williams articulated a clearly-defined value system that could serve as a point of solidarity between the African American community and the postcolonial communist states. In his recent overview of the pedagogical uses of praise and blame, Peter Wayne Moe situates the epideictic in relation to the shared values that animate a strong sense of community. For example, he defines the epideictic as “the rhetoric of showing forth, or display, of demonstration, of making known, of shining. And what the epideictic shows forth is the shared values of a community. These are the values the epideictic upholds, the foundation from which the rhetor can praise and blame” (426). In other words, one can only praise and blame effectively if those within the rhetorical situation share the values that render one thing praiseworthy and another worthy of condemnation. It is in the act of organizing these shared values–in articulating them into focus–that the epideictic has the potential to shape the contours of a particular community. Summarizing the work of Michael Carter, Moe states that “the epideictic can generate particular knowledge within a community, create a sense of that community, define that community, and establish a ‘paradigm’ for being within that community” (437). It seems to me that this is precisely what Williams accomplished in the pages of The Crusader. He drew on the shared values of an oppressed community within the United States and placed them alongside the values of a transnational liberation struggle, thus redefining that community in terms that were altogether more radical than anything offered by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), or the NAACP.

Williams’s use of epideictic rhetoric is evident from The Crusader‘s inaugural issue, but the epideictic becomes more effective as Williams develops a first-hand knowledge Cuban and Chinese communism, in part because they offered Williams something praiseworthy with which to throw America’s failures into high relief. Consider, for example, how he contrasts race relations in the United States and Cuba:

The U.S. is angry because of the example that Cuba is setting for all Latin America. She is also angry at the example in race relations that Cuba is setting just 90 miles from the racist USA. There are no racial barriers in Cuba. The U.S. says that oppressed colored people must be patient and wait generations for the attitude of bigots to change. Cuba has proven this to be a lie. Cuba has changed the attitude of racists almost overnight. Those who can’t take the change go to Miami to join the other racist scum of the USA. (“Cuba” 4; my emphasis)

Here, as in so many of his editorials, Williams condemns the United States as a center of deception and hatred in the world, while he praises Cuba for having effectively purged racism from its shores. The image on the cover of the April 1962 issue of the newsletter illustrates the point. Titled “Cuba: Territorio Libre de América,” the drawing depicts the Williams family being protected from American bigotry by armed Cuban revolutionaries. In the foregrounds stands Fidel Castro, one hand signaling that the racists should come no further, while the other cradles a dove of peace. Williams is clearly presenting Cuba as a land of peace and freedom, but also as a society that will defend the lives of its black citizens and allies. Indeed, in the editorial that accompanies this image, Williams writes, “A few years ago no black man could have dared expect a nation in this hemisphere to extend a friendly and protective hand to him after he had aroused the brutal caveman instincts of white racists determined to make a vicious example of an Afro-American fighter for human rights” (“Truth Crushed to Earth” 2). Cuba thus shines forth in the pages of The Crusader as an examplar of truth and justice, and Williams uses this shining to impress upon his readers that solidarity between the African American people and anti-imperialist societies such as Cuba “is where the heart of our victory lies” (“Truth Crushed to Earth” 2). This shift in perspective away from a regional movement for civil rights and toward a transnational revolution in social relations is made possible by the epideictic positioning of the revolutionary communist societies over and against the United States.

“Stop! No Racists Allowed Here!” The Crusader, vol. 3, no. 8, 1962, p. 1.

The way that Williams uses the epideictic to lambaste the United States while upholding Cuba and China as models to which the African American community should aspire needs to be placed within a Cold War context. It’s important to remember that Cold War America depended upon the idea that the United States represented a safe-haven from tyranny, and that the promise of America was irreducibly attached to the ideal of freedom and justice for all. When the horrifying realities of racism in places like Monroe found their way into the international press, the United States found itself in an embarrassing situation that compromised the moral authority it attempted to wield against the world’s communist nations.6 But The Crusader can’t properly be thought of as an international publication. Throughout its history, it was aimed squarely at an African American readership, and the praise and blame it showed forth was not intended to embarrass the United States in the eyes of the world, but rather to reorient the perspectives of its readers. By using epideictic rhetoric to expose the hypocrisy of a nation that announced itself as the lone defender of freedom in the world while subjecting its minority populations to systematic racism and violent bigotry, Williams invited his audience to reconsider the accomplishments of the communist world–especially in terms of racial equality–and to re-imagine themselves in light of that particular knowledge. That he was doing this before anything like a Black Power movement had taken shape in organizations such as the Black Panthers or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is a testament to Williams’s influence within the American movement for racial justice, but it is also a testament to the power of the epideictic to articulate and give shape to new forms of solidarity and community.

I presented a version of this paper at the Conference on College Composition and Communication annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri on 16 March 2018. Many thanks to those in attendance who asked questions and offered insights and/or suggestions.

Notes:

1. Two cases in particular motivated Williams’s controversial remarks. One involved a white man who physically assaulted an African American housekeeper who disturbed his sleep when she knocked on his hotel-room door. The other involved a white man who raped his African American neighbor. In both cases, all-white juries acquitted the men on all charges.

2. Williams agreed to participate in the demonstrations, but he refused to sign the Freedom Riders’ pledge of non-violence. His position remained consistent throughout his life: if attacked, he would fight back.

3. Monroe’s pro-segregationist police became aware of the Stegall’s presence in the Williams home when Williams allowed Bruce Stegall to speak with the town’s police chief A. A. Mauney during negotiations over the release of a group of injured protestors who were being held without access to medical treatment. Mauney claimed that Williams proposed a prisoner-swap–the Stegalls in exchange for the injured protesters–which is how he justified the kidnapping charges.

4. Williams was concerned about the large Klan presence in Monroe, but he also feared police chief Mauney, who had claimed earlier that day that he would see Williams “hanging in the Court House Square” by nightfall (Tyson 280).

5. The FBI had had Williams under surveillance since his teenage years, and their interest in his activities became all the more intense when he began to visit Cuba with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the late 1950s. The trumped-up kidnapping charges were no doubt a convenient excuse to apprehend someone they considered to be a dangerous political dissident.

6. Williams was instrumental in bringing one such embarrassing injustice to international attention. In 1958, two African American children–9-year old James Hanover Thompson and 7-year old David Simpson–were arrested after one of their white female neighbors told her mother that she had kissed Simpson on the cheek while playing a game earlier in the day. The girl’s parents went to the police with the story, and Thompson and Simpson were accused of attempted rape and sentenced to reform school until they reached the age of 21. As president of the Monroe NAACP, Williams helped rally international attention to Thompson and Simpson’s plight, and international newspapers were soon carrying front-page coverage of what came to be known as “The Kissing Case.” President Eisenhower consequently pressured North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges to pardon the boys.

Sources:

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 3, 2018, pp. 433-457.

Rucker, Walter. “Crusader In Exile: Robert F. Williams and the International Struggle for Black Freedom in America.” The Black Scholar, vol. 36, no. 2-3, 2006, pp. 19-34.

Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Williams, Robert F. “Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again.” The Crusader, vol. 3, no. 8, 1962, pp. 1-3.

—. “Cuba No Fallara.” The Crusader, vol. 4, no. 1, 1962, pp. 3-5.

—. “China: A New Hope of Oppressed Humanity.” The Crusader, vol. 5, no. 2, 1964, pp. 6-7.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2018 Micah Robbins

 

Hidden Passages, Human Flows

On Tuesday, 12 December 2017, I will discuss contemporary Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel Exit West as part of the American University in Dubai’s Arts & Sciences Lecture Series. Hamid’s novel focuses on a young couple from an unnamed South Asian (or perhaps Middle Eastern) city that is overrun by a fundamentalist insurgency. They escape from the city through one of a series of mysterious black doors that begin to appear throughout the world, a passage that thrusts them into a global stream of refugees fleeing violence and poverty for a better life in the West. They are transported from their home city to Greece, and then to England and the United States. Along the way they are confronted by the hardships of displacement, the ugliness of the emerging nativist backlash in Europe and the United States, and the subtle yet enduring changes they undergo as they come into contact with unfamiliar cultures and values.

Exit West is a remarkable example of transnational literature, which is writing that adopts a self-consciously global, rather than local or national, perspective. It explores time-space compression (the black doors), the construction of multicultural identities, global role reversals (the nativists become “the natives”), and the global refugee crisis. My lecture will bring these strains together in order to demonstrate how literature is able to represent one of our great humanitarian challenges, and how accelerated globalization, and especially the global flow of people, is reshaping contemporary literature away from national literary traditions and toward a transnational literary consciousness.

The Arts & Sciences Lecture Series promotes interaction between AUD’s faculty, students, and staff. Hosted twice during regular semesters, these evenings provide opportunities for faculty to share their research with the university community, thus encouraging engagement with challenging concepts and critical thinking beyond the classroom.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

Your Subjects May Be More Adaptable Than You Realize

I’ve always thought William S. Burroughs’s novels would make brilliant illustrated texts, but illustrators have largely overlooked his work. The one notable exception is Malcolm McNeill, a British artist who collaborated with Burroughs in the early 1970s on a project called The Unspeakable Mr. Hart. They published excerpts of their collaboration in the first four issues of the underground comix periodical Cyclops. They also planned a book-length graphic narrative tentatively titled Ah Pook Is Here, though they never completed the project, or at least not in the form initially intended. Burroughs published the stand-alone text with Viking in 1979, and it wasn’t until Fantagraphics Books published Observed While Falling and  The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here, both in 2012, that the illustrations were made available to readers.

Yet scattered gems remain throughout the archive. For example, I recently came across this image by artist Paul Mavrides, co-creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. It accompanies an excerpt of Burroughs’s unpublished novella The Revised Boyscout Manual in the 1982 issue of RE/Search, which was dedicated to the work of Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and the punk band Throbbing Gristle. Burroughs originally conceived of The Revised Boyscout Manual as a part of his novel The Wild Boys, but he eventually decided to revise it into a stand-alone narrative. It’s not as aggressively bizarre as many of his other fictions, but it’s still an interesting, highly political work that provides an important context for his other fictions of the period.

Paul Mavrides, Untitled Illustration

I like Mavrides’s illustration. The appalling hybrid human/insect face framed by anemone-like tentacles captures something of Burroughs’s interest in the human as biological organism, an animal species prone to viruses and caught in the flux of evolution. It is appropriately uncanny and leaves me wishing Mavrides had illustrated more of Burroughs’s work. Unfortunately, this is the only example I’m aware of, though I’m hopeful there are similar works I haven’t yet discovered.

If you know of any other illustrations of Burroughs’s writing, whether by Mavrides or anyone else, please share in the comments thread. Potential leads will be much appreciated.

Note:

The title of the post is taken from William S. Burroughs, “From The Revised Boyscout Manual,” RE/Search, vol. 4/5, 1982, p. 8.

Image:

Mavrides, Paul. Untitled Illustration. RE/Search, vol. 4/5,  1982, p. 7.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

The Survivors Will Envy the Dead

The escalating nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea have me thinking of the 1965 film The War Game, a mock-documentary that dramatizes a thermonuclear attack on a small British city. The film, directed by Peter Watkins, won an Academy Award for best documentary, and this despite the fact that it is a work of fiction and was ultimately denied airtime by the BBC because of its graphically violent content. The experience of watching the film is disturbing, not only because it recalls how deeply the threat of nuclear war had penetrated global consciousness during the Cold War, but also because it draws attention to how disconnected the cultural sphere has become regarding the species-level threat of nuclear war. The War Game not only illustrates the danger of nuclear proliferation, but it also serves as a reminder that the international community has failed to address the danger of existing nuclear arms.

There are many aspects of The War Game that remain relevant to our contemporary moment. For example, the nuclear strike depicted in the film is provoked by a conflict between the United States and China over the United States’ military involvement in South Vietnam. The United States threatens to strike the Chinese military with tactical nuclear missiles, which in turn provokes the Soviet Union to assist the East Germans in unifying Berlin under the Communist regime. In an effort to defend Berlin from Communist aggression, the United States and Britain strike Soviet forces with a nuclear missile, thus initiating a full-scale thermonuclear conflict. This was a likely enough scenario when the film was released, and it should give us pause regarding how easily the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea can explode into a larger conflict between any number of nuclear powers.

The War Game is also concerned with the potential of a nuclear war to undo the democratic institutions that protect individual rights and civil liberties. As the threat of nuclear warfare becomes increasingly immanent early in the film, the British government suspends its democratic system and institutes an authoritarian government headed by a special council of fifteen officials. These bureaucrats proceed to force evacuations and civilian billeting, institute food rationing, and establish explicit classes of people who will receive wildly divergent qualities of treatment in case of a nuclear attack. Those of the lowest class will receive no treatment at all, but will be “put out of their misery” by the police. Unsurprisingly, these mandates give way to social discord. The suspension of democratic law leads to military officers shooting enlisted men for refusing orders, and domestic police summarily execute citizens for civic unrest. The War Game is being lucid here. It is not naïve to think that the world’s democracies will suspend their constitutions under the pressures of nuclear war.

One potential argument against The War Game is that the film is overly speculative, and that an actual nuclear crisis will not necessarily end world war and the undoing of western democracy. Watkins answers such objections by contextualizing the film’s nuclear crisis in relation to actual historical events. For example, The War Game makes regular and convincing comparisons between the atrocity suffered by the fictitious British city and the actual atrocities that occurred at Dresden and Hiroshima & Nagasaki. The comparisons are convincing because the filmmakers place the British citizens in situations modeled on actual reactions to these WWII-era bombings. So when the film’s British police collect, loot, and burn the bodies of thousands of dead citizens in the streets, they mimic the actions of German police in the wake of the Dresden bombings. Similarly, when the film’s British survivors seem to regress into a state of apathy, filth, and disease, they repeat patterns observed among the Japanese survivors of America’s atom bombs. These examples suggest that the suffering of the past may very well slip into the future so long as nuclear stockpiles remain intact.

It is important to recognize that the human condition would never be the same after a nuclear war. The human psyche would suffer such a horrendous blow that many would no doubt envy the dead. Just imagine the consequences of an entire nation suffering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The future would be grim indeed. But perhaps we’ve already been acclimating ourselves to precisely such a future. It does seem that many people have already accepted the threat of nuclear war as an unlikely but ultimately justifiable reaction to hostile nations. I’m profoundly uncomfortable with this blasé attitude toward such a future. A nuclear strike by any nation under any circumstance would be an outright assault on the most basic elements of human dignity. We’re fortunate to have organizations like the Ploughshares Fund that have remained diligent in resisting the irrationality of nuclear weapons. We need them to remind us of the very real dangers these weapons pose to the human species. But we also need old films like The War Game to remind us of how close we’ve actually come to destroying ourselves, for that is exactly what we threaten to do every time a nation produces and/or enhances a nuclear weapon, and every time a national leader threatens a member of the international community with annihilation.

I encourage you to watch The War Game, which I’ve embedded below.

Source:

The War Game, directed by Peter Watkins, performances by Michael Aspel, Peter Graham, and Kathy Staff, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1965.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

The Monster in the Park

I spent the morning reading Luke Morgan’s The Monster in the Garden: The Grotesque and the Gigantic in Renaissance Landscape Design, which is a fascinating book. I’m particularly interested in what he has to say about Italian garden statuary, a topic that is much more exciting than it sounds. This is especially true when he focuses on the weird hybrid creatures and colossal monsters that populate Renaissance gardens, fountains, and grottos. Good stuff!

At any rate, because I’m unfamiliar with virtually all of the examples Morgan cites in his book, I spent some time searching the web for photos of the various artifacts he discusses. One of the images I found is this shot of Antonio Novelli’s colossal Polyphemus, which stood in the Orti Oricellari, a sixteenth-century Florentine garden that is now largely lost. Today the site of this once ornate garden is occupied by a modern urban park, which includes the cheap basketball court you see pictured in the foreground.

Antonio Novelli’s colossal Polyphemus

There is something eerie about this image. The clash of historical times, the discrepancy of scale. It reminds me a bit of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which is to say that it makes me anxious about the future. It makes me think that, though we believe we are grand, we are actually shrinking.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

Accused = Guilty; Or, How to Write about Terrorism in a Country with a 99% Conviction Rate

A few weeks ago, the website Literary Hub published a brief overview of Chinese crime writing* under the title “Shanghai Noir: How to Write Crime Fiction in a City with a 100% Conviction Rate.” Written by British journalist and true crime author Paul French, the survey touches on how difficult it can be to write about crime in a society that denies crime’s existence, or otherwise cultivates the myth of a flawless judicial system. French notes that in nations such as China, where the conviction rate for murder stands at 99.9%, and where maintaining such a rate is crucial to the state’s political project, one’s ability to write about crime critically and honestly is fundamentally compromised. He writes: “The truth is crime in China is a problematic genre — it all too often raises tricky political issues, when it appears the censors [sic.] axe falls swiftly; local politicians are powerful and prickly. Crime shows on TV are no better — showing valiant and incorruptible policemen and women in a cardboard cut-out way that would have been laughed at in America in the 1950s!”

I haven’t been able to shake this statistic — a 99.9% conviction rate. It seems to me to cut two ways. First, it contributes to the appearance of social harmony underwritten by a diligent and expert police state. The appearance of peace and security is key here, for it offers the peace-of-mind that things are exactly as they should be. Everything is under control. This is one reason why authoritarian regimes suppress crime statistics while so radically inflating conviction rates. But this peace-of-mind is only available to those who are unlikely to be accused. This leads us to the second way in which the statistic cuts: For those who belong to one of the groups that find themselves subject to routine scapegoating — one group French mentions that falls within this category is Shanghai’s “population of migrant workers” — a 99.9% conviction rate no doubt compounds a difficult and pervasive sense of insecurity. When no statistical difference exists between being accused and convicted, the only statistic that matters is the rate of accusation.

Authoritarian societies are not the only places where crime statistics are skewed by outside social and political forces. One need look no further than America’s failed “War on Drugs,” which has led to wildly disproportionate numbers of African American citizens being convicted of drug-related charges, even as drug use among white citizens continues unabated. But perhaps the most striking example of politically skewed crime statistics in a major democracy can be found in the United States’ near-perfect conviction rate of those who stand accused of terrorism-related offenses. According to a very informative database published earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice has charged 802 people with terrorism-related offenses since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Of the 802 people charged, only two have been acquitted, with three having had their charges dropped. In other words, when it comes to terrorism prosecutions, the United States convicts 99.4% of defendants — just shy of China’s clearly skewed (and terrifying) conviction rate for murder.

It seems to me that much of what French says about crime in China can be applied to terrorism in the United States. As with crime in China, terrorism in America is politically sensitive, and there are powerful interests invested in shaping — often through overt scapegoating — how Americans view both terrorism and terrorists. Unfortunately, those interests have been largely successful. Perhaps 1950s America would have laughed at contemporary Chinese television depictions of “valiant and incorruptible policemen and women,” as French claims, but 21st century America isn’t laughing at the absurdity of valiant and incorruptible federal prosecutors who always get their man.

A 99.4% terrorism conviction rate lays bare the political dimension of American counter-terrorism efforts, and the message is clear: The counter-terrorism police state exists to protect you. It is doing its job. You have nothing to fear.

Tweeted on June 4, 2017, shortly after a terrorist attack in London that left seven dead and dozens wounded.

How can American writers write critically, or even interestingly, about terrorism under such conditions? The closest anyone has come, to my knowledge at least, is Ben Fountain’s outstanding novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which presents a scathing portrayal of America’s post-9/11 mentality. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also quite good,** and Kent Johnson’s Doggerel for the Masses comes to mind, but I can’t think of many other literary or pop-cultural examples that succeed in cutting through the absurdity of America’s response to 9/11.*** (If there are examples I’m missing, let me know; I want to read them.) This is a failure not only of imagination, but also of social and political courage to grapple with the complexities of current affairs. We need writers, filmmakers, artists, and critics to do this work, and we need them to do it sooner rather than later. Their success may very well prove crucial to the success of a larger project for an honest reckoning with the contemporary world.

Notes:

*Many of the examples aren’t Chinese, though they are set in China.

**I should mention that Hamid is not American, though he does write in English and is widely read in the United States.

***As I write this, I’m reminded of Gavin Hood’s 2007 film Rendition, which I seem to recall presenting a more complex story than the typical good guys vs. bad guys scenario that dominates popular terrorism narratives, but I can’t remember the film well enough to comment on it here.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

Locusts and Wild Honey

When I think of the word “ecology,” images of rainforests leap immediately to mind. The dense canopy, the intense diversity of flora and fauna, the screeching monkeys and brilliantly colored birds. If I dwell on the word a bit longer, my imagination expands to include rivers, mountains, deserts, coral reefs, and even the frozen expanses of the arctic. These are the sorts of settings that make nature documentaries such as BBC One’s Planet Earth so compelling to watch. But world ecology encompasses so much more, including human beings (people are notably absent from Planet Earth). In his essay “The Three Ecologies,” Félix Guattari identifies three “ecological registers”: “the environment, social relations and human subjectivity,” all of which are intimately interconnected and mutually contingent (18). Where there are rainforests, rivers, mountains, and deserts, there are also social relations and the complexities of human subjectivity. To suggest that humanity and nature exist in separate spheres is to engage in a fallacy, just as it’s naive to neglect the extent to which natural ecology penetrates the human species.

Food is one of the most important means by which natural ecology enters human experience. We eat, and in so doing we incorporate nature into our bodies. It enriches our bodies as it passes through them. As philosopher and literary critic Timothy Morton argues, “All life-forms, along with the environments they compose and inhabit, defy boundaries between inside and outside at every level” (274). The most obvious way this is true is that we consume aspects of the biological world when we eat, and in turn we produce organic matter (including our own bodies) that feeds back into the biosphere. But eating is also a key aspect of human sociability. What occurs at mealtime is responsible, in significant and far-reaching ways, for human culture, and even for civilization itself. The fact that natural ecology is reflected in every plate of food puts nature at the center of culture. And this, it seems to me, opens up possibilities for shared recognition between distant and sometimes unfamiliar cultures, as well as opportunities to exchange knowledge and experiences that may prove crucial to our survival in this age of ecological crisis.

I began thinking about this after reading Karen L. Kilcup’s recent article on the popular nineteenth-century children’s periodical Juvenile Miscellany. In that article, Kilcup touches on how famed abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Lydia Maria Child, who served as the Miscellany’s editor from 1826 to 1834, used natural history to connect her New England readership with the diversity of cultures around the world. One of the ways Child accomplished this was by drawing her readers’ attention to the relative continuity of human attitudes towards, and interactions with, natural ecology, even when specific cultural practices diverge. For example, in her article surveying the various ways people use insects, Child refuses to “ignore traditional practices, even if they make readers uncomfortable, including descriptions of how various cultures consume insects as food — a practice that, she underscores, the Bible references” (Kilcup 268). By drawing a parallel between modern entomophagy (i.e., the practice of eating insects) and the biblical tradition, Child suggests a point of commonality between her predominantly Christian audience and the many people around the world who eat insects.

There are indeed biblical examples of people practicing entomophagy, the most famous of which is John the Baptist surviving on “locusts and wild honey” as he wandered the desert (Matthew 3:4). Somewhat less famous is the dietary code outlined in the Torah, which condones eating “the locust after its kind, the destroying locust after its kind, the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind” (Leviticus 11:22). By emphasizing biblical entomophagy’s precedent, Child was clearly attempting to cultivate within her predominantly Christian audience some measure of tolerance for insects as a viable food source, while at the same time advocating sympathy for those cultures that practice dietary customs unfamiliar to the West. If locusts fed the prophets, why should modern Christians be so repulsed by those who eat insects today? Perhaps locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers should be a part of every omnivore’s diet.

Child was working against the grain of deep-seated cultural assumptions. As important as a nutritious diet may be, the fact remains that people make food choices based on a spectrum of concerns, many of which have little to do with sustenance. Prominent cultural anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Mary Douglas have long understood that food has symbolic value. What we eat, and the manner in which we eat it, helps shape our social and individual identities. Lévi-Strauss went so far as to contend that careful attention to eating habits can yield “a significant knowledge of the unconscious attitudes of the society or societies under consideration” (qtd. in Caplan 1–2). Such cultural attitudes, including those expressed in the Western taboo against entomophagy, can be difficult to shake, which is why Child’s biblical appeal did little to persuade her young readers and their parents to incorporate insects into the American diet.

It’s been nearly 200 years since Child made her point regarding entomophagy, and people in the United States — and the West more generally — still object to insects as a viable food source. The degree to which American’s are repulsed by the practice of eating insects is reflected in how entomophagy is represented in pop culture. Consider, for example, American television programs such as Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, Survivor, Man vs. Wild, and Bizarre Foods, all of which feature Americans (or a Briton, in the case of Man vs. Wild) struggling to eat foods that are commonly consumed by people around the world. The insect-eating segments of these programs participate in the pervasive sadomasochism that characterizes reality television; viewers enjoy watching people choke down bugs precisely because entomophagy is considered to be outrageous and vile, if not downright degrading. This is true of even the most sympathetic of these programs. For example, when Andrew Zimmern, celebrity chef and host of Bizarre Foods, consumes insect-based dishes, he often seems to enjoy what he’s eating, and yet the appeal of his show is undoubtedly the abnormal spectacle of someone eating food that Americans find disgusting.

But why is eating an insect any more disgusting than, say, eating a pig — an animal that is reviled by many cultures, including the culture that produced the Bible? The answer to this question leads away from food and toward Western notions of ethnocultural supremacy. In its 2013 report Edible Insects, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) repeatedly notes that people in most Western countries view the eating of insects with disgust, and that this feeling of disgust “forms the basis of moral judgement” (Van Huis et al. 35). Related to this is the report’s conclusion that people in the West “perceive the practice [of eating insects] to be associated with primitive behavior” (Van Huis et al. 35). Joseph Bequaert makes a similar case in his 1921 article “Insects as Food,” arguing that it “can be attributed only to prejudice, that civilized man of today shows such a decided aversion to including any six-legged creature in his diet.”* In other words, one of the unconscious attitudes reflected in the taboo against entomophagy is the belief that Western culture has advanced beyond the so-called “primitive” stage of human development, relegating to a distant — and shameful — past such backwards practices as eating insects.

Unfortunately, this disparaging attitude toward entomophagy negatively influences the eating habits of people who have maintained the tradition of consuming insects, arachnids, mealworms, and other creatures that disgust the Western palate. For example, the FAO makes the case that people in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have reduced their consumption of insects in an effort to emulate Western standards and norms (Van Huis et al. 39; Halloran and Vantomme). This is especially true of converts to Christianity. Indeed, there is evidence of Christian missionaries explicitly discouraging people from eating insects on the basis that doing so is “a heathen custom.” One Malawi convert is on record as saying that “he would never taste such things [i.e., winged termites], valuing them as highly non-Christian” (Carl-Axel Silow qtd. in Van Huis et al. 39). This is an old story, and it fits within a larger history of Western ethnocentrism:

In 25–50 percent of Native American tribes, … there existed a long history of insect eating; yet because Western cultures lacked strong cultural experience with the practice and considered it primitive, they discouraged and suppressed it among Native American tribes when these two cultural groups began to interact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Western cultures inflicted similar damage on other indigenous groups, including many in sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of modernizing or westernizing them. This cultural suppression was still prevalant [sic.] at the end of the twentieth century. As a result, entomophagy has almost disappeared from Canada and the United States and is showing signs of abating in West Africa. (Van Huis et al. 39)

The abhorrence of insects as a food source should be challenged, and not just for the sake of more balanced cultural relations between the West and those societies that practice entomophagy. At a time when human population growth poses a serious threat to global ecology, people everywhere need to rethink how their diets affect the environment. In his National Geographic article “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World,” Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, makes the case that dietary changes are imperative if we intend to feed the Earth’s growing human population without doing irreparable damage to the planet. He argues that “finding more efficient ways to grow meat and shifting to less meat-intensive diets — even just switching from grain-fed beef to meats like chicken, pork, or pasture-raised beef — could free up substantial amounts of food across the world.” It would also do a great deal to mitigate animal agriculture’s devastating environmental impacts.**

I would push Foley’s point much further, urging the widespread adoption of plant-based diets, and especially veganism. But in the context of omnivorous food culture, the West has much to learn from those societies that practice entomophagy. Not only are insects a protein-rich food suitable for human consumption, but they can also be used for animal feed, and they are significantly less land and water intensive than traditional livestock. The environmental, health, and social benefits are many. Here are just a few:

Environmental Benefits

  • Insects have a high feed conversion efficiency because they are cold-blooded. Feed-to-meat conversion rates (how much feed is needed to produce a 1 kg increase in weight) vary widely depending on the class of the animal and the production practices used, but nonetheless insects are extremely efficient. On average, insects can convert 2 kg of feed into 1 kg of insect mass, whereas cattle require 8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of body weight gain.
  • The production of greenhouse gases by most insects is likely to be lower than that of conventional livestock. For example, pigs produce 10–100 times more greenhouse gases per kg of weight than mealworms.
  • Insects can feed on bio-waste, such as food and human waste, compost and animal slurry, and can transform this into high-quality protein that can be used for animal feed.
  • Insects use significantly less water than conventional livestock. Mealworms, for example, are more drought-resistant than cattle.
  • Insect farming is less land-dependent than conventional livestock farming.

Health Benefits

  • Insects provide high-quality protein and nutrients comparable with meat and fish. Insects are particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children because most insect species are high in fatty acids (comparable with fish). They are also rich in fibre and micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
  • Insects pose a low risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) such as like H1N1 (bird flu) and BSE (mad cow disease).

Livelihood and Social Benefits

  • Insect gathering and rearing can offer important livelihood diversification strategies. Insects can be directly and easily collected in the wild. Minimal technical or capital expenditure is required for basic harvesting and rearing equipment.
  • Insects can be gathered in the wild, cultivated, processed and sold by the poorest members of society, such as women and landless people in urban and rural areas. These activities can directly improve diets and provide cash income through the selling of excess production as street food.
  • Insect harvesting and farming can provide entrepreneurship opportunities in developed, transitional and developing economies.
  • Insects can be processed for food and feed relatively easily. Some species can be consumed whole. Insects can also be processed into pastes or ground into meal, and their proteins can be extracted. (Halloran and Vantomme)

There has been some modest movement toward entomophagy in the United States. For example, there is a growing demand for cricket flour, which is used in everything from cookies to protein bars, and educator-friendly information about the dietary benefits of insects is readily available. Just type “entomophagy infographic” into Google, and you will find dozens of examples. Two of my favorites can be found here and here. There are also organizations that advocate for insects as a sustainable food source. Little Herds is a good example. And yet a typical American market is unlikely to stock a single item that makes use of grasshoppers, crickets, termites, or other insects that the FOA recommends as nutritious and sustainable food sources. The disgust toward entomophagy — and the unconscious attitudes it reflects — effectively deprives a sizable portion of the world’s population from a perfectly sensible source of nutrition.

The commitment to “progress” and “modernity” has led us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. Large-scale industrialization, a voracious fossil fuel industry, a blind faith in free markets, and rampant consumerism are a few of the forces that have contributed to the problem. But there are deeper forces at work as well. One such force is the idea that the West — its culture, its religion, its politics, its technology — represents “progress,” and that those cultures that embrace different values and customs are backwards, primitive, and morally deficient. This ethnocentrism has deep roots and manifests itself in many ways, and it has proven remarkably adept at expanding its sphere of influence. Indeed, one of recent history’s great tragedies is how so many of the world’s cultures have accepted this ethnocentric narrative. The widespread enthusiasm for Western food norms— including the disgust toward entomophagy — is but one example.

There are those who believe technological innovation will save us from the worst of our accelerating environmental degredation, allowing us to progress out of the crisis into which “progress” has delivered us. But perhaps the most progressive thing we can do is to listen to those whose customs are the objects of western disgust. There are communities of people in the world who hold a wealth of traditional knowledge, yet the practices derived from that knowledge are too often dismissed as “primitive,” or as belonging to “a heathen custom.” Western ethnocentrism is, in this regards, maladaptive. We need to learn from each other. The future of our species may depend on it. But to do so we must first become aware of how our unconscious attitudes make us averse to cultural practices that can benefit us and our shared environment. Entomophagy is one such practice that the West would be wise to reconsider.

Notes:

*In his work on entomophagy, Joseph Bequaert, like Lydia Maria Child, draws attention to the fact that the Bible permits the eating of insects.

**Kip Andersen and Keegan Khun make this point in convincing fashion in their 2014 documentary film Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.

Sources:

Bequaert, Joseph Charles. “Insects as Food: How They Have Augmented the Food Supply of Mankind in Early and Recent Years.” Natural History Journal 21 (1921): 191–200. Web. 10 Jan. 2017. http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1921_03-04_pick.html

Caplan, Pat. “Approaches to the Study of Food, Health and Identity.” Food, Health and Identity. Edited by Pat Caplan. Routledge, 1997. 1–31. Google Books. Web. 8 Jan. 2017. https://books.google.ae/books?hl=en&lr=&id=p0bN3umtp9sC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=food+and+identity&ots=lE9bPNjUXp&sig=9Sd_OIiunQiyxlRw9jQlJzePnN4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=food%20and%20identity&f=false

Foley, Jonathan. “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World.” National Geographic, May 2014, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/.

Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. 1989. Translated by Ian Pinder and Paul Sutton. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Halloran, Afton, and Paul Vantomme. “The Contribution of Insects to Food Security, Livelihoods and the Environment.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web. 7 Jan. 2017. http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3264e/i3264e00.pdf

Kilcup, Karen L. “False Stories Corrected: Reinventing Natural History in the Juvenile Miscellany.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 23.2 (2016): 259–292. Print.

McCall, Alexander. “Startups Pitch Cricket Flour As the Best Protein You Could Eat.” The Salt. NPR. 15 Aug. 2014. Web. 7 Jan. 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/08/15/340653853/startups-pitch-cricket-flour-as-the-best-protein-you-could-eat

Morton, Timothy. “Guest Column: Queer Ecology.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 2, 2010, pp. 273–282. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25704424.

Van Huis, et. al. Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2013. Web. 7 Jan. 2017. http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e.pdf

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

The Last Chapter of Genesis

Christian theology is at odds with itself when it comes to the natural world. On the one hand, Christianity promotes a deep-seated aversion to nature, which is said to be corrupted by sin. Joseph Campbell touches on this aversion in The Power of Myth, his famed series of interviews with Bill Moyers, noting that “it’s in the biblical tradition, all the way, in Christianity and Islam as well. This business of not being with nature, and we speak with a sort of derogation of the ‘nature religions.’ You see, with that fall in the garden, nature was regarded as corrupt. There’s a myth for you that corrupts the whole world for us. And every spontaneous act is sinful, because nature is corrupt and has to be corrected, must not be yielded to.” This contempt for nature, and in particular for the natural functions of the human body, permeates the cannon of Judeo-Christian myth and has done much to degrade western attitudes toward the environment.

On the other hand, Christianity teaches that human beings have a responsibility to care for the earth. The bounty of nature is imagined as a trust, with humanity acting as both trustee and beneficiary. The theology of environmental stewardship has received renewed attention following Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato si, a document that urges environmental protection as a Christian duty. Francis summarized the Christian position viz. environmental stewardship in his 2014 address to the European Parliament: “Each of us has a personal responsibility to care for creation, this precious gift which God has entrusted to us. This means, on the one hand, that nature is at our disposal, to enjoy and use properly. Yet it also means that we are not its masters. Stewards, but not masters. We need to love and respect nature, but instead we are often guided by the pride of dominating, possessing, manipulating, exploiting.”

The contradictions between these two positions seem intractable. How are we meant to reconcile the idea of nature as a gift with the belief that nature is “fallen” and corrupt? It’s worth remembering that the myth of the fall imagines Eden as containing within itself the source of sin (and thus also our own deaths), just as it shames the natural condition of the human body. Much loathing of ourselves and our environment grows from this root. And yet there is indeed a Christian imperative to care for what the Pope’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, called “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs” (qtd. in Francis, Laudato si).

I was reminded of this imperative by two short articles I recently came across in The Spectator, an underground newspaper published by students at Indiana University from 1966–1970. Both articles draw on biblical language to make the point that we have abdicated our responsibilities toward the environment. The lead article uses familiar phrases from Genesis to argue that both environmental degradation and human want are the consequences of our irresponsibility and ignorance: “We are fruitful and multiply so that overpopulation and starvation are commonplace, subdue our planet by destroying it, exercise dominion with poison and killing” (Williamson). By echoing language taken directly from the first book of Genesis (see 1:28*), this sentence makes the point that modern humanity’s mistreatment of the earth stands in opposition to the doctrine of environmental stewardship.

More striking still is the second article, which recasts the seven days of creation as a perverse undoing of ecological balance and planetary health. Ironically titled “Last Chapter of Genesis,” the article reads:

In the end, there was earth, and it was with form and beauty; and man dwelt upon the lands of the earth, and meadows, and trees — and said, “Let us build our dwellings in this place of beauty.” And he built cities and covered the earth with concrete and steel. And the meadows were gone, and man said, “It is good.”

On the 2nd day, man looked upon the waters of the earth. And man said, “Let us put our wastes in the waters that the dirt will be washed away.” And man did and the waters became polluted and foul in their smell. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 3rd day, man looked upon the forests of the earth and saw they were beautiful. And man said, “Let us cut the timber and grind the wood for our use.” And man did and the lands became barren and the trees were gone. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 4th day, man saw that animals were in abundance and ran in the fields and played in the sun. And man said, “Let us cage these animals for our amusement and kill them for our sport.” And man did. And there were no more animals on the face of the earth. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 5th day, man breathed the air of the earth. And man said, “Let us dispose of our wastes in the air for the winds shall blow them away.” And man did. And the air became heavy with dust and choked and burned. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 6th day, man saw himself and, seeing the many languages and tongues, he feared and hated. And man said, “Let us build great machines and destroy, lest others destroy us.” And man built great machines and the earth was fired with rage. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 7th day, man rested from his labors and the earth was still, for man no longer dwelt upon the earth. And it was good…

It’s difficult to read “Last Chapter of Genesis” without sharing in its misanthropic attitude, especially when the current ecological crisis is considered alongside the myth of Eden. Not that its misanthropy is out of step with mainstream environmental consciousness. Even Laudato si is misanthropic, especially in its salutation, which bemoans the fact that the earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” Francis leaves little doubt that the responsibility for environmental degradation rests squarely with humanity.

Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut (one of America’s great misanthropes) was correct when he suggested that the only hope for a peaceful, verdant future is the possibility that human beings may still evolve out of our highly-destructive hyper intelligence. In his view, this means regressing (or is it progressing?) into a species of comparatively unintelligent seal-like creatures.** But even this participates in the Christian aversion to nature that Campbell identifies, for Vonnegut’s story exploits an antagonism between humanity and nature that can only be resolved when one or the other is purged from existence. Rather than deepening this antagonism, we need to develop a synthesis between culture and nature. It will only be when we move beyond the sort of dualistic thinking that Zen philosopher Daisetz Suzuki characterized as “God against man, man against God, man against nature, nature against man, nature against God, God against nature” (qtd. in Campbell) that we will begin to come to terms with how thoroughly we are invested in the natural world.

It’s unfortunate that western thinking continues to be shaped so powerfully by Judeo-Christian myth, especially when it comes to our attitude toward nature. So long as people think of nature as a “gift” from God that is now “at our disposal” (and here Francis seems to fall into the ideological trap of “ownership” that he criticizes in so many of his writings), we are unlikely to experience the behavioral revolution that our ecological crisis demands. In the meantime, we should seize ground wherever we can. If Christian thinking insists upon dominion over nature, let’s commit to a wise and noble dominion. We can then hope that the sort of responsible stewardship urged by The Spectator so many decades ago will serve as a catalyst toward the deeper work that remains to be done.

Notes:

*Genesis 1:28 —Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

**See Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galapagos.

Sources:

Campbell, Joseph, and Bill Moyers. “The Message of Myth.” The Power of Myth. Moyers & Co. 22 June 1988. 31 Dec. 2016. Web. http://billmoyers.com/content/ep-2-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-the-message-of-the-myth/

Francis. Address to the European Parliament. 25 Nov. 2014. 31 Dec. 2016. Web. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/november/documents/papa-francesco_20141125_strasburgo-parlamento-europeo.html

— . Encyclical Letter. Laudato si. 24 May 2015. 31 Dec. 2016. Web. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

“Last Chapter of Genesis.” The Spectator. 10 Sept. 1969.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Galapagos. Dial, 2009.

Williamson, Bruce. “On Population.” The Spectator. 10 Sept. 1969.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

The Year of Ecological Thinking

The first time I entered a desert was fourteen years ago, in the winter of 2002. I drove west from New Jersey to Indiana, and then southwest to Gallup, New Mexico, where I rested for the first time since leaving home. From Gallup I continued west into the Painted and Sonoran Deserts, before cutting back through the Chihuahuan Desert on my way east through Texas to Alabama, and then northeast to New Jersey.

Looking back on that journey, I’m certain I entered the desert without realizing I had arrived. My concept of the desert at that time owed too much to illustrated stories of Moses wandering through the Sinai, or The Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote in a cloud of dust. These were barren landscapes full of danger and desolation, the palettes bleak, and death abounding. But what I found in the American Southwest was vibrant and full of life.

America’s deserts are rugged, but they also capture color. The reds and browns of the soil. The blues and purples of the distant mountains. The sky often rich with clouds, fast moving and prone to sudden showers you can see as swathes of gray against the horizon. But most surprising, for me at least, are the varied greens and yellows: A landscape alive with flora fed by those intermittent rains.

The same can be said for deserts around the world. They too are alive. Earlier this year I drove through a portion of the Arabian Desert on my way from Dubai, where I live, to Muscat, the capital city of Oman. The landscape between these cities is marked by shifting dunes and dark-rocked mountains that cut through the sand, yet even here the earth shows signs of life. My two young sons, looking in confusion from the backseat, didn’t believe me when I told them we were in the desert. They couldn’t see it any better than I could when I first encountered it back in 2002.

This condition of not being able to recognize the desert for what it is is a symptom of ecological know-nothingness — excusable in a child, yes, but hardly so in an adult. I have lived my life content in ecological ignorance, and while I’ve learned to see the desert through the flora, I can’t name a single one of those plants, let alone explain their relationship to each other and the land from which they grow. They are a blur, an impression.

We are approaching the end of a year that has seen record high temperatures around the world. The earth’s biodiversity is in collapse. The United States has elected a man to high office who believes climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the only nation that pollutes more than his own. And I can’t identify the tree outside my window.

An acquaintance of mine suggested that rather than make a New Year’s resolution, we would be better served by committing to a “theme” for the year, the idea being that a theme offers a more nuanced, expansive way to affect change than a resolution. A theme. Something around which to organize our thoughts and actions. I like this idea, so I choose for myself the theme of “ecology.”

I want to think of ecology broadly, as encompassing what Félix Guattari calls the “three ecologies”: natural ecology, social ecology, and mental ecology. He shows how these ecological registers come to bear on each other; when one of them falls out of balance, the others follow. In other words, the three ecologies are integral parts of a larger ecosystem, which speaks to my earlier point about ecological know-nothingness. Being blind to the desert is to be blind to much more, including ourselves.

Throughout his ecological writing, Gary Snyder stresses the importance of developing an intimacy with our surroundings, including learning the names of the plants that grow around us. This means looking closely and accounting for what’s there, noting the details and the subtle variations that occur over space and time. This means staying put and watching where we step.

Knowing our neighbors’ names may be the beginning of basic civility, but it’s also — at a deeper level — the beginning of responsible coexistence, which is necessarily bound up in some degree of self-knowledge. To watch where we step is to look at our own feet. I am writing this from my balcony in Dubai, approximately one kilometer from the Persian Gulf. It is December 27, 2016. The weather is mild. I am looking at a tree. It’s a mature date palm, its fronds erect and in excellent health.

There is too much at stake at this critical juncture to continue in ecological ignorance. This is true for the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the rivers, the oceans. But it’s also true for human sociability, for the stability of our communities, for our bodies and our minds. If there is any hope of avoiding the worst of our accelerating ecological crisis, it very well may depend upon our learning to see clearly what surrounds us every day.

Sources:

Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. Translated by Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Living Planet Report 2016: Risk and Resilience in a New Era. World Wildlife Fund, 2016. http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2016

Lynch, Patrick. “2016 Climate Trends Continue to Break Records.” NASA. 19 July 2016. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/climate-trends-continue-to-break-records

Snyder, Gary. The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations, 1952–1998. Counterpoint, 1999.

Wong, Edward. “Trump Has Called Climate Change a Chinese Hoax. Beijing Says It Is Anything But.” The New York Times. 18 Nov. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/19/world/asia/china-trump-climate-change.html?_r=0

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2016 Micah Robbins

Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel

The b2 Review, which is part of boundary2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture’s online publication, is featuring my review of Robert T. Tally Jr.’s book Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography (2011) as part of its “Literature & Politics” section. Henry Veggian, who edits that section of the website, solicited the review a long time ago, and he was remarkably patient with me as I settled into a new job abroad and repeatedly delayed my submission. I learned a lot about what makes a good editor from working with him.

I also learned a lot from studying Tally’s book. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel is a good example of a scholarly work that manages to take on a major author’s complete oeuvre. Tally offers substantial commentary on all of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels, all while remaining swift and brief and consistently engaging. I hope that he earns a wide readership and that his study helps encourage further interest in Vonnegut’s fiction, especially within the academy.

Below is an excerpt from my concluding remarks (read the full review here):

Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel does much to reposition Vonnegut as a major American writer. By approaching Vonnegut’s oeuvre as an integrated postmodern iconography, a strategic project bridging the gap between modernism and postmodernism, Tally reveals Vonnegut to be a serious, deeply imaginative writer whose fictions intervene in major intellectual debates—political and theoretical—that continue to impact contemporary social developments. Tally thus begins to correct the general paucity of scholarship on Vonnegut’s work, and he does so with a critical agility that not only allows him to touch on all of Vonnegut’s major fictions, but also to situate those fictions in relation to American literary history, continental philosophy, modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, and progressive politics. But what stands out most remarkably in this study is Tally’s theory of Vonnegut as misanthropic humanist. In bringing together these two seemingly oppositional terms, Tally lays bare the raison d’être of Vonnegut’s black humor, which is to find a way to embrace a self-degrading humanity that—through inevitable historical forces and biological determinism—cannot do otherwise but construct the mechanisms of its own destruction. Vonnegut’s black humor thus reveals the contours of what I now think of as a politics of comic futility. It’s important to note, however, that despite the fatalism that underwrites Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism, his novels do struggle against seemingly insurmountable forms of violence and injustice, and they do so while maintaining a cheerful spirit that encourages political engagement even as they dismiss political activism as a quixotic pursuit of the impossible. As Tally notes at the conclusion of his illuminating study, Vonnegut “recognizes the demeanor and comportment best suited for engaging in a project such as he faces, and we face at the end of the American Century, and moving into another, as yet unknown, era. As Nietzsche put it, ‘Maintaining cheerfulness in the midst of a gloomy affair, fraught with immeasurable responsibility, is no small feat; and yet what is needed more than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds without high spirits having a part in it.’”

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2016 Micah Robbins