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

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

Re-locating Middle East Studies Conference Roundup

Over three beautiful early-summer days here on the edge of the Arabian Gulf, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) joined with the American University in Dubai’s Middle Eastern Studies Program to host the outstanding “Re-Locating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse” conference. With eight scholarly panels, featuring over thirty papers, and keynote addresses by Joseph Massad and Gary Bunt, “Re-locating Middle East Studies” was one of the most informative meetings I’ve attended in some time. One of the reasons I found the conference so interesting is that by dabbling in Middle Eastern Studies I’m crossing disciplinary boundaries (a crossing that makes a certain amount of sense considering the field’s interdisciplinary nature, to mention nothing of the academic post I hold in in the Middle East), and I was intrigued by the different theories and methodologies that inform academic work in this area. But the real reason that I found the conference so rewarding is that I was genuinely impressed by the quality of the scholarship on display at the various panels and plenary sessions.

Two of my personal highlights were Sameera Ahmed’s “Pushing the Agenda: Cultivating Research Capacity in the Sultanate of Oman” and Luca Nevola’s “Oh SMS Enter the Phone of My Soulmate!: Love, Mobile Phones and the Codification of Intimacy in Contemporary Yemen.” Both Ahmed and Nevola are using field research to understand different cultural trends—from the traditional to the postmodern—along the southern strip of the Arabian Peninsula. Ahmed’s research, for example, draws on interviews and focus groups to construct a more robust understanding of veiling practices in Oman. She argues convincingly that attending to the opinions of Omani women toward veiling across different regions (interior vs. coastal), localities (city, village, rural), age, marital status, and educational background serves as an antidote to the often uninvited politicization of the hijab, niqab and burqa. Listening to the voices of women who choose to wear the veil helps us understand the diversity of veiling practices and allows us to begin to approach the complexity of meaning inherent in these practices. Similarly, Nevola draws on extensive field research among Yemeni youth, both male and female, to show how young lovers in Yemen are using mobile phones, and in particular sms communication systems, to engage in novel acts of poetry writing. Focusing on a set of sms love poems he gathered during his fieldwork (some of which are whimsical and inventive), Nevola considers how this mode of communication affects the language of honor and modesty, the traditional semantics of love, and the conventions of courtship and marriage in the Old City of San’a’ and the Yemeni countryside. His findings suggest that contemporary telecommunication technologies challenge well-established courtship rituals, while at the same time advancing and deepening Yemen’s rich poetic tradition.

I was also impressed by Firat Oruc’s “Hekayat Khaleejiya: Short Filmmaking in the Gulf” and Nadia Wardeh and Fadi Haddad’s “Toward the ‘Social Media Generation’: Rethinking Traditional Instructional Classroom Sources.” Oruc’s presentation focused on the vibrant contemporary filmmaking scene in the Gulf region, including the United Arab Emirates. He argues that the region’s young, experimental filmmakers are in the process of developing a language for the complex interrelations between globalization and cultural heritage, as well as the deeply felt anxieties of rapid social change, a language he calls “post-desert modernism.” He also speculates, and quite interestingly so, on the relationship between geographically small countries (Kuwait, Qatar, UAE) and the genre of short film. Wardeh and Haddad, on the other hand, draw on shifts in the contemporary media environment to argue that the humanities and social sciences have yet to seriously engage in the ongoing transition from the traditional book/news/media culture to a networked society, or the social media generation. Drawing on a range of wonderfully humorous case studies, including the amazing Abla Fahita web series, they question the possibility of accepting new media platforms as alternatives or supplements to more conventional pedagogical resources. Like those engaged in the digital humanities more broadly, Wardeh and Haddad see emerging technologies as a fundamental (and inevitable) aspect of the twenty-first century classroom, though they are theorizing ways for these technologies to enhance rather than supplant old media.

Day 3 (95)
Presenting my remarks on Middle Eastern graphic novels and web comics

I also presented some of my thoughts on contemporary Middle Eastern graphic novels and web comics on the “Re-readings/Re-takes: Narratives in Literature and Media” panel (which also featured Nevola, Wardeh, and Haddad). My paper—“Graphic Novels, Web Comics, and New Narrative Forms in the Middle East”—focused on artists Magdy El-Shafee, Amir Soltani, Khalil Bendib, and Leila Abdelrazaq, with an eye toward understanding how they have seized on the comics medium to tell the sorts of stories that are all too often marginalized by mainstream media outlets. I hoped to show that, while the Middle Eastern comics scene is still in a nascent stage, there is reason to be optimistic that the comics medium, and especially web comics, will continue to develop in evermore productive ways, thus allowing more writers and artists to seize power over their own stories and re-read contemporary Middle Eastern culture and politics for a global audience. My presentation was well attended, which is always a treat, and the audience was very helpful in asking challenging questions and suggesting further areas for exploration. I had a great time!

Finally, Joseph Massad’s and Gary Bunt’s keynote addresses were the perfect capstones to the conference’s many fascinating papers. Joseph Massad’s remarks, “How Not to Study Women and Gender in the Muslim World,” was by turns controversial and intellectually stimulating. He was at his best when discussing how the logic of developmentalism tends to overwhelm academic, media, and NGO representations of the Middle East in general, and of Muslim women in particular. When it comes to cultural autonomy, the forces of neoliberal developmentalism are indeed insidious (something I have begun pursuing as a part of my research agenda), and Massad has a clear-eyed view of how these forces work to destroy sites of cultural difference that threaten Western capitalist hegemony. Where he gets controversial is in suggesting that the way to properly study and discuss gender-specific practices in the Muslim world is to exoticize gender-specific practices in the West. For example, Massad seizes on female circumcision as an example of a practice that Western organizations, including the United Nations, commit considerable resources—both intellectual and material—to combating, while simultaneously ignoring similar practices (e.g., male circumcision, cosmetic surgery, tattooing, etc.) that are pervasive in the West. Although he was careful to note that he objects to reducing western culture to these practices, the gist of his argument did just that, and in the process he drew a series of false equivalences (between male and female circumcision, for example) to which a number of the conference participants objected.

Joseph Massad delivering his keynote address on the opening night of the Re-locating Middle East Studies conference
Joseph Massad delivering his keynote address on the opening night of the Re-locating Middle East Studies conference

Unlike Massad’s more politically charged keynote, Gary Bunt’s presentation, “Interpreting Cyber Islamic Environments,” provided a comprehensive overview of online Islamic resources and communities, from the early days of listserves and chatrooms to today’s most advanced digital frameworks. Bunt has been tracking these developments since the invention of cyber environments as such, and his findings suggest that cyberspace is impacting on notions of Islamic religious authority by allowing alternative hierarchies to challenge and usurp traditional centers of power by virtue of their digital proficiency and online networks. These alternative hierarchies range from cyber mosques, complete with archived sermons and live counseling services, to jihadist networks that have mastered the use of social media for recruitment and propaganda purposes. What is most striking about these cyber Islamic environments is how widespread and comprehensive they are. Put simply: The internet has proven to be incredibly fertile ground for Islam. Indeed, as Bunt made clear in response to a question regarding cyber Christian environments, Muslims have far outpaced Christians and other religious groups in their use of the internet as a site of religious exploration and proselytization. I’m humbled by Bunt’s mastery of this material; when it comes to Islam and Muslims in cyberspace, his research bona fides are second to none. For more on this and related matters, check out his website: Virtually Islamic.

And of course, as with any good conference, “Re-locating Middle East Studies” was more than just panel presentations and keynote addresses. I also enjoyed mingling with interesting scholars from around the world, including North America, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, and I learned a good deal about Middle Eastern Studies by chatting with various conference participants over coffee or while enjoying the various meals we shared over the weekend. This was a truly international event, and thus enriching beyond the purview of the scholarship itself, no matter how outstanding. I look forward to future collaborations between BRISMES and AUD, and I hope to see another such conference here in Dubai in the not-too-distant future.

To learn more about “Re-locating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse,” visit the conference website.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins

Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture Conference Program

The Hellenic Association for the Study of English’s “Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language & Culture” conference is just two weeks off, and the full program is now available at the conference website, as are abstracts and related events. With panels ranging from “Language and Democratic Community Building” to “Democratic Utopias/Dystopias” to “Human Rights in Literature and Culture” (and much, much more), the program is flush with scholars working on issues related to democratic theory and praxis.

I will present my paper, “Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy,” alongside Anastasia Stefanidou and David Roessel on the “Seeking a Place to Belong: Immigration and Displacement” panel. As always, I’m eager to test my ideas before an interested audience, but I’m also excited to hear their papers, “Elia Kazan: Redemption and Belonging in America” and “I, Too, Am America: Using the Correspondence of Langston Hughes to Examine Race and Democracy in the United States.” Both papers are sure to generate a stimulating dialogue on issues of contested identity and territory within modern democracies.

I also look forward to the event’s three plenary sessions, which include Athena Athanasiou’s “Whither the Demos of Democracy? The Political Performativity of the People”; John McLeod’s “Illegitimate Democracy: Some Lessons from Transcultural Adoption”; and Peter Buse’s “Clowning and Power: Lacan, Nietzsche, Foucault.” Together with the papers being offered at the regular sessions, these plenary remarks promise to contribute to a fascinating weekend of scholarship and debate in Thessaloniki.

For a full look at the conference program, click here.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins

Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent Since 1865

During the penultimate year of my graduate studies, I had the good fortune to join a group of outstanding scholars for a three-day conference at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, where I presented my thoughts on satirical representations of Richard Nixon in the 1960s-era underground press. The paper was well-received, and editors James L. Baughman, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and James P. Danky later selected a revised and expanded version of my remarks for inclusion in this newly released collection of essays, Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent since 1865 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015). The book takes up a variety of dissident discourses—from early twentieth-century vegetarianism and anarchism, to mid-century evangelicalism and comic book fandom, to anti-war GIs activism and radical feminism in the 1970s and ’80s—to expand and revise our understanding of the modern American press.

A review of the book’s Table of Contents gives a sense of the variety and depth of its scholarship. The essays include:

  • James P. Danky: “Protest and Print Culture in America”
  • James L. Baughman: “Protest and American Print Culture”
  • Adam Thomas: “Writing Redemption: Racially Ambiguous Carpetbaggers and the Southern Print Culture Campaign against Reconstruction”
  • Andrew D. Hoyt: “The Inky Protest of an Anarchist Printmaker: Carlo Abate’s Newspaper Illustrations and the Artist’s Hand in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
  • Nicolás Kanellos: “Spanish-Language Anarchist Periodicals in Early Twentieth-Century United States”
  • Trevor Joy Sangrey: “Pamphlets of Self-Determination: Dissident Literature, Productive Fiction”
  • Laura J. Miller and  Emilie  Hardman: “By the Pinch and the Pound: Less and More Protest in American Vegetarian Cookbooks from the Nineteenth Century to the Present”
  • Daniel Vaca: “Meeting the Modernistic Tide: The Book as Evangelical Battleground in the 1940s”
  • Carol L. Tilley: “Children and the Comics: Young Readers Take on the Critics”
  • Derek Seidman: “Paper Soldiers: The Ally and the GI Underground Press during the Vietnam War”
  • Micah Robbins: “The Clowning of Richard Nixon in the Underground Press”
  • Joyce M. Latham: “Off / On Our Backs: The Feminist Press in the ‘Sex Wars’ of the 1980s”

I’m honored to have my work presented in such good company, and I congratulate the editors for assembling such a rich collection of essays on the historical relationship between print culture and the culture of dissent in the United States.

Here are the opening paragraphs of my essay, “The Clowning of Richard Nixon in the Underground Press”:

Richard Milhous Nixon’s abuse of power cast a dark shadow over his short-lived second term, and by April 1974, his brazen obstruction of justice mobilized thousands of outraged citizens to march on Washington for the first mass protest since his second inauguration. The New York Times reported that 6,500 “spirited but good natured” protesters converged on the nation’s capital, “accompanied by rock music, streakers and the fragrance of marijuana,” to demand the “speedy impeachment” of a president who had long been the target of popular dissent. Nixon had spent his second term staunchly resisting the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation into the Watergate crimes. In a last ditch effort to suppress the sordid details captured on subpoenaed White House audio tapes, Nixon finally released redacted transcripts of his conversations just three days after the April protest—more than twelve hundred pages that presented the American public with a verbal record of a foul-mouthed national leader with a set of personal and political scores to settle. This paranoid, vindictive Nixon was in crucial ways at odds with the various personae he attempted to construct over the course of his long political career, thus confirming what many Americans suspected all along: Richard Nixon was no stable entity. The 6,500 people who gathered in Washington to demand his impeachment understood this, and—in an act of real political clarity—five protesters demonstrated the urgency of exposing Nixon’s crimes by shedding their clothes, donning cheap Nixon masks, and streaking through Washington’s crowded streets.

These five naked “Tricky Dicks” participated in an aggressive, often obscene, mode of satire that circulated widely among the countercultural New Left, most notably in the pages of the underground press. The long sixties—a period marked by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education on one end, and the 1975 fall of Saigon on the other—witnessed the resurgence of a vibrant, politically engaged journalism that challenged mainstream views of American hegemony. Publications like the Los Angeles Free Press, the East Village Other, and the Fifth Estate, to name just a few of the hundreds of underground newspapers that circulated throughout the period, established an alternative media that presented readers with starkly contrarian editorial views, thus returning to the unconstrained, activist tactics of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century press. Disposing of the so-called objectivity that lent the nation’s mainstream media its aura of authoritative truth-value, the underground press opted instead for a heady mix of fiery polemics, muckraking investigative reports, participant accounts of various protests movements, and edgy underground comix. While these newspapers were often overtly militant, they also leveled biting satirical attacks on mainstream social mores and public figures alike. Radical press-workers deployed defamatory satire in an attempt to counteract the public-relations techniques national leaders used to manipulate their public images and, by extension, public opinion. They did so most memorably in their relentless assault on Richard Nixon. Drawing on a range of irreverent tactics, alternative journalists and cartoonists advanced a sustained satirical attack on Nixon’s disingenuous, manipulative public personae. By targeting a US president with open defamation, these satirists engaged in direct political resistance to the mass-media spectacle that allows power to diffuse itself through the public-relations apparatus, and they did so by seizing on the power of print to mock, deride, and indeed libel Nixon in an effort to further galvanize a radical movement for social change.

Here is what editor James P. Danky has to say about my essay in his preface, “Protest and Print Culture in America”:

As Vicotor Navasky suggested, satire is a powerful weapon for protest. Laughing at someone in high places is likely to promote a powerful reaction. Of all US presidents, none has attracted the attention of satirists more than Richard Nixon. Micah Robbins shows us the way Nixon’s public persona was made into that of a demonic clown by the countercultural press. In their use of print to protest Nixon, his policies, and his cronies, these editors and publishers used wildly obscene, libelous representations of the president to subvert the carefully managed public personae that helped him maintain a decades-long political career. Whether through representations in novels by authors like Robert Coover and Philip Roth or in the pages of underground newspapers and magazines such as the Realist and the Berkeley Barb, dissident satirists launched an aggressive, symbolically violent series of insults against Nixon’s reputation that proved to be an important part of the forces that brought him down.

And here are the opinions of various experts in the fields of Communication & Journalism, Politics, Popular Culture, and American Studies on the collection as a whole:

“These are fresh, fascinating inquiries into the unknown byways of American journalistic history. Protest on the Page amounts to an alternative history of the press, far different from the familiar triumphant and establishment-celebrating narrative.” —Nicholas Lemann, Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism, Columbia University

“How great it is to have a book about the history of the press that’s not about the New York Times or Washington Post, and not about the glories of a free press in a democracy. The journalism of visionary movements—anarchism, feminism, dissent in the military—is part of our heritage too, and it’s great to see it get some of the attention it deserves.” —Adam Hochschild, cofounder of Mother Jones magazine and the author of To End All Wars

“Historians of social change have always drawn upon ephemeral publications from the fringes of politics and culture. But the essays in this splendid collection show that the printed word has actually been a central player in the politics of social movements, from anarchism to vegetarianism. This sharp focus on media provides valuable new insight into how movement politics has worked in American History.” —David Paul Nord, author of Faith in Reading

“A substantial contribution to the histories of print culture, media, journalism, and non-mainstream movements, groups, and ideas.” —John Nerone, author of Violence Against the Press

If you’re interested in the history of the American alternative press, First Amendment speech freedoms, or movement politics in the Twentieth Century, be sure to take a look at Protest on the Page, which is available directly from the University of Wisconsin Press.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins

Relocating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse

Since arriving in Dubai, I’ve taken a fairly aggressive approach to reading non-Western literature, particularly contemporary Middle Eastern and South Asian fiction and long-form journalism. I’ve also been looking at Middle Eastern graphic novels in preparation for the Graphic Novel seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, and I continue to discover many wonderful graphic narratives being produced throughout the Middle East and North Africa. All of this has been exciting, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to share my thoughts on these texts in a formal setting.

That will change when the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) comes to the American University in Dubai (AUD) for a conference on evolving political, economic, and cultural dynamics in the Middle East. AUD’s School of Arts & Sciences has a very active Middle Eastern Studies program, and its faculty has worked hard to bring BRISMES—one of the leading Middle Eastern Studies organizations—to AUD for what promises to be an intellectually-engaging three days of scholarly discussion and debate.

I will be joining the “Re-readings/Re-takes: Narratives in Literature and Media” panel, where I will present some of my research on what’s going on throughout the region viz. graphic novels (see abstract below). I can’t wait to meet with visiting scholars who will converge on AUD from around the world next month.

Graphic Novels, Web Comics, and New Narrative Forms in the Middle East

In his introduction to graphic novelist Joe Sacco’s comic-book series Palestine (1993-1995), Edward Said recalls how “liberated and subversive” he felt upon first encountering the comics medium, with its extravagant illustrations and fantastic, unconstrained narratives of conflict and adventure. He attributes his initial enthusiasm to adolescence, but he also admits how, after reading Sacco’s graphic narrative, he was “plunged directly back into the world of the first great intifada and, with even greater effect, back into the animated, enlivening world of the comics I had read so long ago.” The graphic novel’s subversive, liberating potential to tell the sorts of stories that are largely ignored by the popular media and literary fiction alike has not been lost on a new generation of storytellers working within the comics medium to re-read the contemporary sociopolitical realities of life in the Middle East. Indeed, the past decade has seen a remarkable proliferation of graphic narratives produced and distributed throughout the MENA region. This paper will examine how writer-illustrators such as Magdy El-Shafee (Metro: A Story of Cairo),  Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib (Zahra’s Paradise), and Leila Abdelazaq (Baddawi) have seized on the comic form’s radical heteroglossia to interrogate topics ranging from religion to politics to sexuality in increasingly novel and challenging ways. By manipulating spatio-temporal dynamics to present multiple, simultaneous contexts within a single narrative, these graphic storytellers practice a sophisticated narratological approach to what has always been a popular medium, thus transforming a traditionally juvenile and ephemeral mode of pop-art into mature texts that capture aspects of life too often relegated to the margins of representation. Working from within their own independent publishing collectives and often adapting their work for online platforms, these young artists are producing an emerging body of literature that is re-shaping how contemporary readers perceive the challenges and triumphs of 21st century life in the Middle East.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins

 

Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture

Good news came yesterday in the form of an acceptance letter to the Hellenic Association for the Study of English‘s conference, “Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture.” The event is hosted by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s School of English Language and Literature and will take place from May 15-17, 2015. You can learn more by visiting the conference website. I’m eager to see the other panelists’ abstracts, which should be posted soon, but in the meantime I’ll settle for posting mine below:

Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy

India’s 2014 general elections reshaped the political status quo in the world’s largest democracy. Led by Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seized an outright majority in the nation’s lower house of parliament, thus securing Modi’s position as India’s 15th Prime Minister. Modi’s campaign slogan—Unity. Action. Progress.—echoes the mix of Hindutva and neoliberal ideologies that have distinguished the state of Gujarat, where he served as Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014, as a site of both human rights abuses and economic privatization. Indeed, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, during which rioting Hindu nationalists murdered nearly 2,000 of their Muslim neighbors and displaced more than 150,000 others, did little to discourage multinational corporations from responding to Modi’s privatization policies with an influx of investment dollars. That such human rights abuses occur so comfortably alongside neoliberal economic developments in one of the world’s leading democracies raises troubling questions about democracy’s role in facilitating some of globalization’s most egregious abuses.

My paper addresses this problem as explored by two contemporary Indo-Anglian writers—Arundhati Roy and Neel Mukherjee. These writers critique the way Indian democracy privileges its neoliberal economic agenda over and against the basic human rights of its many impoverished ethnic/religious minorities and internally displaced denizens. Mukherjee’s 2014 novel, The Lives of Others, traces the development of India’s Naxalite insurgency from its early days of targeted attacks on local landlords in the 1960s to the present day guerrilla war it’s waging against the State’s ongoing attempt to forcibly relocate India’s Adivasi population from their native forests, thus clearing the way for multinational infrastructure projects and natural resource extraction. Mukherjee’s fictional narrative is bolstered by fellow novelist Arundhati Roy’s incisive piece of long-form journalism, Walking with the Comrades (2011), which not only provides a rare opportunity to listen to the Adivasi militants in their own words, but also establishes direct and compelling connections between the Naxalite insurgency and the human rights abuses that accompany India’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies in the wake of the Cold War. While Mukherjee and Roy are quick to acknowledge the Naxalite’s violent methods, they contextualize the insurgency in relation to the systematic human rights abuses that underwrite concepts like unity, action, and progress, all of which are promoted as fundamental to what the popular media often (and wrongly) calls the “deepening democracy in India.” If anything, Mukherjee and Roy expose a deepening crisis in democracy, a crisis that pits multinational business interests, backed by ultra-nationalist ethnic/religious majorities, against the basic democratic rights of those at the bottom of a rapidly-widening economic divide.

I’ve been thinking through the complexity of democracy for a few years now, so I’m pleased to have the opportunity to gather with a group of scholars committed to interrogating and/or theorizing democracy and its cultural representations. That I get to do so in the birthplace of ancient democracy makes the opportunity doubly exciting!

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins