e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


the future of protest

The latest issue of Utne Reader includes an interesting series of articles that offer a rhetorical analysis and critique of dominant protest techniques. Joseph Hart suggests that the contemporary anti-war movement fails to affect much change and gain wider coverage because the movement uses the same tired strategies (i.e., non-violent street protests) that have been dominant for four decades. One critic quoted in the series' centerpiece calls these techniques "political exhibitionism," referencing the fetishizing of the symbolic. The piece also charges that for many activists, this performance has become an end in and of itself. Hart argues that to get mass attention, the peace movement needs to engage the public in ways that are creative, dynamic, and interactive.

Protests, in my experience, generally have fixed and predictable scripts. The same old signs. The same leader with the bullholrn yelling "show me what democracy looks like" and the rest responding "THIS is what democracy looks like." Last winter's action in Washington looked just like last fall's action at the School of the Americas. I suspect that many activists will read the Utne series and reject the basic premises: the movement's been ineffectual, the techniques are tired, movement members see the action itself as the end, but I think that, largely, Hart is right on. The peace activists I know genuinely want to affect positive social change, but the rhetoric we employ is often closed off to re-vision.

Hart praises the Bubble Project, a kind of culture jamming involving pasting dialogue bubbles on images of persons in advertisements. The B.P. invited anyone and everyone to write a piece of dialogue next to the supermodel or the celebrity on an ad. Again, dynamic, open-ended, and interactive. A kind of web 2.0 for the real world. Interesting how this example of culture jamming differs from the more common uses, which are fixed and static and predictable, like spray-painting "war" under the word "stop" on a stopsign.

In another piece in the series, Hart makes a more familiar call for more engagement from "average Joes and Janes." Okay, heard that before. But Hart suggests that wider engagement can help disrupt the Alinsky-cum-Rage Against the Machine "have-nots take power from the haves" narrative. One of the problems with this narrative, says Hart, is that it's actually more like the *organizers* (middle-class protestors) taking power from the haves.
"But the Have-Nots? Well, at the end of the day, they're basically extras in this drama."
That's a sobering critique. I don't really buy the idea that the so-called organizers are necessarily middle class. My experience with the anti-war movement is not at all consistent with that premise. The social movement literature (that I'm working with right now on this conclusion I'm writing for the movement rhetoric book) mostly posits/assumes the existence of this monolithic lefty middle-class activist class made up of professors and public tv station managers. Again, my experience suggests that many "organizers" (to use Hart's term) are senior citizens on fixed incomes and blue-collar folks, many of whom are union members (especially here in the motor city). BUT: the critique remains valid. Activists too often write a heroic narrative that becomes the end instead of the means.



A dirty secret of mine is that I'm not a very good reviser. I plan heavily and write slowly and my strength as a writer lies in my ability to write a very good first draft. When working on an academic project, I rarely compose more than two or three sentences without re-reading what just appeared on the page. Blogging and journal writing are different stories--I'm talking here about papers and articles here. Tilly Warnock, my first teacher in grad school, distinguishes between heavy planners and heavy revisers, ekers and gushers, and I fit firmly into the former camp.

Serves me pretty well, though when I re-read Donald Murry and others who write so eloquently about "trusting the gush," I feel like I'm missing out. And when I get comments from peer reviewers and editors, I usually have to overcome an initial, overwhelming sense of jeesh what do I do now? I even get this sense when the reviewers are quite specific about what to do. I'm trying to experiment a bit to get out of my heavy planner comfort zone. I want to take some risks with heavy revision strategies. I'm always going to be a slow and methodical composer, but, aside from that, I want to get more comfortable (maybe "more willing" is a better, more accurate, way to put it) jumping on a draft and revising the heck out of it.

As I work on revisions to the conclusion I'm writing for the rhetoric of social movements collection, here's what I'm doing to break out of that comfort zone. I have multiple files started with different lines of analysis. I have suggestions right now from each of the editors and I have a .doc file for each editor's list of suggestions. I also have a separate file for some paragraphs I'm working on that respond specifically to some of the individual chapters of the collection. I've got these different files so I can work on different ideas and different strands that will eventually become part of the chapter. I'll start synthesizing in a few days, but for now I'm trying this separate strand route as a way to get myself re-writing my stuff in big, global ways. Maybe this will become a habit to get myself to be a bit more chaotic and a bit less anal.


morning workout

spinning on the i-pod:
  • 'Til I Fell in Love with You, Bob Dylan (Time Out of Mind)
  • The Hokey Pokey, Yo La Tengo (Murdering the Classics)
  • Jacob's Ladder, Chumbawamba (Ready Mades and Then Some)
  • Fame Throwa, Pavement (Slanted & Enchanted)
  • I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape, the Nugrape Twins (American Primitive Vol. 2)
  • Crosseyed and Painless, Talking Heads (Sand in the Vaseline)
  • Animal, Pearl Jam (San Fransisco 10-31-00)
  • Nightrain, Guns n Roses (Appetite for Destruction)
  • Sure Shot, Beastie Boys (Ill Communication)
  • I've Got a Feelin', Big Maybelle Smith (The Complete Okeh Sessions 52-55)
  • Don't Worry Kyoko, Yo La Tengo (Murdering the Classics)
  • Lakini's Juice, Live (Secret Samadhi)
  • I Still Miss Someone, Johnny Cash (16 Biggest Hits)


attention punk rock fans

The Muldoons sound rawer than the typical, circa 2007 Detroit punk act. Composed of two guitar-wielding pre-teen boys and their drummer dad, the band yells a lot...about zombies, playing the guitar, and the imagined joys of having a driver's license. Imagine the Stooges fronted by a ten-year-old Iggy Pop.

This afternoon at 5:00, motor city time, assuming nobody gets detention today, the Muldoons will play a set at the studios of WHFR in beautiful Dearborn. Dial up the station at 89.3 if you're within a couple blocks of Evergreen and Ford Road, or go to the station's website and stream away.


why NBC, why?

My fellow pop culture junkies saw this coming, no doubt, but now it's official. NBC has canceled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, its "high profile failure." Smart, well-written, and the execs give it the ax. Studio 60 joins Freaks&Geeks and Arrested Development in the pantheon of dead-before-their-time shows. Destined for life on netflix. Why can't programs with points-of-view find wide audiences? Meanwhile, the network brings back Law&Order for its 80th season so they can, no doubt, base plotlines on Virginia Tech and the selling of Chrysler and Hillary-Barack bickering. And they're putting Deal or No Deal on a couple nights of week and developing a half dozen Heroes rip-offs. Thanks for the quality programming!

The Kalamazoo Promise

One of the remarkable and fabulous things about the Kalamazoo Promise is that nobody (including whoever funded the program) wants to TEST the students who go to college on KP moneys. KP provides four years of free college tuition to kids graduating from Kalamazoo public schools. Any student who goes to school in the district from Kindergarten through 12th grade--regardless of grades and SAT scores--gets a one-hundred percent free ride at any in-state college or university. Students who transfer to the district get less than one-hundred percent depending on what grade they're in when they move to Kalamazoo; for example, if you move to Kalamazoo in third grade you get ninety-five percent, in ninth grade you get sixty-five percent.

The money comes from private, anonymous sources who attached no strings aside from the requirement you graduate from the district. No calls for high-stakes testing. Students get the free ride regardless of grades, but they do have to maintain at least a 2.0 in college while receiving the scholarship. But no standardized test to determine the success of the program. Amen to that. The program bucks the trend for testing the hell out of students at all levels and then cutting funds based on the scores. Here in Michigan, it's the dreaded MEAP tests and the new Michigan Merit Exam, the latter being a new required test for high school students that includes a controversial Work Keys section that tests students' ability to do clerical tasks. Elsewhere, it's decisions to drop laptop programs based on their alleged failure to aid student success...as determined by some reductive standardized test or another.

Of course it goes without saying that these tests are big business. The companies who create and administer them make BIG BUCKS by virtue of the fact that the exams become required and have a captive audience. Ironically, small-government types--thinking the tests foster school accountability--often support testing even though their tax dollars pay for them and are then funneled into the pockets of the exam companies. It also goes without saying that the state uses these test scores to justify decreasing funding of programs. Not just laptop programs either.

Happily, the Kalamazoo Promise doesn't fall into this trend. Today's Free Press story on KP highlights several students from Kalamazoo who are going to college on KP's dime and suggests increased interest in college among kids in the district. Further, the article points to increased enrollment and increased home sales in the city. I wonder if other districts might pay attention to the economic things happening in the city and consider widening access to higher education as an investment. On the pessimistic tip, I also worry that politicians might use KP as another justification for private interests doing it better than the state.

Currently listening to:
The Detroit Cobras, "Tied & True" (2007)
The Nightwatchman, "One Man Revolution" (2007)


thank you

I counted some blessings yesterday on this blog and I need to express thanks for a few other things today:
  • summer break
  • Caribou Coffee
  • days when energy and motivation are my friends

Today's one of those days. Sitting at--yep, you guessed it--Caribou with that beautiful, bottomless cup of decaf, I wrote four pages of a draft of the social movements chapter. And it's only 1:00. These kinds of days feel good. Time to go grab some lunch...


liberation theology in the Times

A great piece in today's NY Times about liberation theology and Pope Benedict's visit this week to Brazil, birthplace of the movement:
Over the past 25 years, even as the Vatican moved to silence the clerical theorists of liberation theology and the church fortified its conservative hierarchy, the social and economic ills the movement highlighted have worsened. In recent years, the politics of the region have also drifted leftward, giving the movement’s demand that the church embrace “a preferential option for the poor” new impetus and credibility.
That "preferential option" forms the heart of both liberation theology as well as the heart of Catholic social teaching regarding economic issues. This latter point is often obscured by church leaders invested in Rome's continual shift to the right--a shift that has charecterized the decades since Second Vatican Council. As the article acknowledges, even as Rome was moving to the right, the "church" (which means "people") itself was moving to the left, especially in Latin America, and keeping alive a social justice tradition that's rooted in the prophets, and in the preachings of Jesus.

That tradition--especially the part about a "preferential option" for the poor--is hard on many, many levels. It's a tradition that's not in keeping with the ideologies of unchecked, unregulated capitalism. By extension, it's not in keeping with U.S.American ideology. It's hard to butt up against the logic (or "ideologic," to borrow Sharon Crowley's term from Toward a Civil Discourse) of work harder and achieve something for yourself! The diocese where I grew up (historically, a "labor democrat" stronghold that itself has moved SWIFTLY to the right in recent years) recently appointed a Jesuit bishop. Although I don't know much about that particular individual (not all Jesuits are the same, of course) I'm curious to see how that arrangement will play out.

I'm so thankful to be at a church where liberation theology's spirit informs the mission and the rituals (especially having grown up in a church invested in a reactionary, post-Vatican II conservative restoration). I'm thankful that when I was 19, I took my first class with Fr. Art McGovern, one of the greatest teachers I've ever had, a Jesuit whose courses in ethics and social justice all engaged with "the local" and taught concepts like the preferential option. I'm thankful that I discovered his book Marxism: An American Christian Perspective, sadly out of print. I'm thankful the Times is covering the Pope's visit to Latin America in ways that are contextual. But I'm sad that the hierarchy doesn't always make room for this tradition and put its resources behind the social movements advancing that long tradition.

worth a look

Few memories are as stark and as real as a father abandoning his family. But Michael Smolij turns that memory into a surreal moment. Michael is the narrator of Dean Bakopoulos's haunting novel Please Don't Come Back from the Moon, a story of Detroit, a story of men and boys. Or maybe men who become boys and boys who become men.

Michael's father leaves town for the moon. So do the other men in the blue-collar Detroit neighborhood that the Smolij family calls home. Reaganomics has rocked the neighborhood, full of Ukranian-Americans who work(ed) in auto factories and decide to take a fanciful trip...to the moon, never to be heard from again. Bakopolous sticks to this surreal motiff throughout the novel, as Michael and his teenaged pals assume their dads' stools at the local tavern and try to come of age during the 90s.

This "they've gone to the moon" motiff gives the novel a hint of magical realism, which in turn mixes with proletariat realism and gives the story resonance. It's as fanciful as it is gritty and class-conscious.

Michael takes classes at a local community college and eventually UM-Dearborn (alright UMD!), crashes college parties out in Ann Arbor, and tries to navigate his 20s without succumbing to depression and his own dark desire to go to the moon.

At times the novel feels cold. This is one of the things I loved about it. Depression is cold. Bakopoulos allows Michael to be a guy who can't warm up for long. That is his magical, real, and surreal reality. Rarely does he get all that emotional, though he feels resentment and ennui constantly. The novel's title nicely sums up Michael's attitude, and nicely encapsulates the novel's insights about depression. Bring it on, Michael seems to be saying. Bring the pain. He says this because he's defiant and tough. But he also says it because that's how depression sustains itself.

What a powerful and gorgeous piece of work this is. A survivor's story without sentiment. A powerful declaration that ends with a question mark. A story of Detroit.


Studio 60 Parody

NBC is going to burn off the last six episodes of Studio 60 this summer. I really enjoyed this show for its representation of the writing process and, yes, for its portrayal of lefties trying to change the world.

But this parody is spot on. The show can be pretty pompous and self-congratulatory. Watch this video if only for Liev Shreiber's pompadour and the bit about the network's willingness to approve Celine Dion jokes ("we're at war...Americans don't want to see their celebrities mocked right now...that bitch is Canadian").

taking my time

Okay, sometimes I'm a bit slow. Today I hung up my diploma and two Diego Rivera prints in my office. Only took two years to get around to it. I guess this means I plan to stick around at UMD for a little while. I brought the diploma to campus at the end of last school year so I guess it's somehow appropriate that I hung the thing at the end of this school year.

I also called in a request to have the fluorescent light bulbs above my desks changed. I must confess: the things needed changing for several months. Ah, the joys of the end of the term. Catching up on things I've neglected for way too long. In particular, cleaning up the office, a task that was just way, way, way overdue.

Yesterday I spent about four hours at Border's sipping coffee and working on my social movements chapter. Must do that each day if I'm to make that deadline. Items perpetually on my to-do list: become more organized and get things done sooner.