e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu



Historian Tom Sugrue--who writes about social movements, civil rights, race, Detroit, and a host of other subjects--spoke at Wayne State this a.m. Here are some notes from his talk:


--Obama's white house emphasizes urban policy initiatives more than any administration since Carter's...this could have significant implications for urban centers in the "north"
--Historians often overlook civil rights struggles in the North to focus on the mythic "south," about which it's easier to craft a narrative of progress.
--North had its share of atrocities, eg crow's nests at movie theaters and "negro days" at city pools, and programs like the V.A. and various home loan programs systematically excluded African-Americans
--Public policy aided and abetted these systemic abuses through tax policy, movement of capital out of city centers, etc.
--Urban renewal programs sometimes ravagted black-owned businesses and failed to compensate them when instituting "changes" (which often focused/focus on downtowns, entertainment complexes and the like)
--In Detroit, "Black Bottom" serves as an example
--Mid-century, northern social movements resisted these problematics, often with aid of left-leaning Protestant and Jewish congregations and communities
--By mid-60s, more and more of the resistance shifted to electoral efforts (e.g., munie and state-level government)


--Two distinct strategies developed during this moment: metropolitan planning vs. community control.
--First, METROPOLITAN PLANNING: affinities with civil rights movement, but wanted to foster collaboration between cities and their regions (including suburbs). Fought to open up suburban housing markets and redistribute resources across metro areas. Objective was to disperse minorities, give them access to job markets and the whole marketplace as it shifted out of city center into wider area. This camp found the notion of "community" problematic and too boundary-oriented.
--Second, COMMUNITY CONTROL: They found "community" to be a good thing and valued the local, meaning the "city." Fought to maintain activity in city centers. Nurture and empower black communities from ground up. Rejected the MP's perceived top-down orientation and sense of compromise. looked at "micro" level communities, including poor and working-class. The vernacular presence of minorities, socio-economically disadvantaged. They worried the MP ideology would destroy black community by dispersing it. They preferred to mobilize power--not spread it around.
--These two camps were so polarized that they couldn't meet and draw on mutual strengths.
--HUD, from the start, had a regional ideology and resisted the community control paradigm which had become "orthodoxy" in the world of urban planning.
--Mainstream society distrusted the perceived "militance" of community control, but urban planning discourse community was just the opposite, rejecting compromise.
--Community control's hegemony was aided by connections to left student movements and, ironically conservative prez administrations like Nixon who had deep-seated fear of urban unrest and sought to empower city centers to keep city leaders satisfied.


--Sugrue wants current administration to synthesize the best that both camps have to offer.
--Both have vision and consciousness and the potential to affect progressive change
--Disempowered won't benefit from further bickering
--Obama's rhetoric calls for "unity" and "metropolitan" cooperation...yet he's rooted in community organizing tradition, which emphasizes community control.
--Hence Obama's in perfect place to lead such a compromise.



U2 - Get On Your Boots

Maybe this song will grow on me. So far, I'm not feeling it.


where were you when...

This could just as easily become a Facebook Note, but for some reason I feel compelled to do it here. Will the blog go away? Not yet. Maybe I need an exit strategy, a plan for the blog's final blaze of glory. Die young, leave a good-looking blog? Darby Crash had his five-year plan for The Germs. For years Michael Stipe talked about REM playing a 12/31/99 and then calling it quits (so much for that plan). Or maybe the blog keeps chugging like Mick Jagger. Who knows?

From Parts-n-Pieces comes this exercise. Describe what you were doing when...

1.) Challenger space shuttle explodes (1986): Sitting in sixth-grade science class, St. Anthony School, Youngstown, Ohio. The teachers roll a rickety tv into the big wood-paneled study hall and we watch footage.

2.) Berlin Wall falls down (1989): Tenth grade. I have no recollection except for days or weeks later reading the Time Magazine cover-story in the school library. The lyrics from the Sex Pistols' "Holiday in the Sun" are in my head.

3.) Oklahoma City federal building bombing (1995): Junior year, University of Detroit Mercy. I walk back to dorm after American Lit. Again, the communal tv experience, this time in Reno Hall's first-floor lounge.

4.) OJ Verdict (1995): A few months later, I meet with my supervisor, the Residence Hall Director (I was an R.A. at the time), who listens to the verdict on NPR during our meeting.

5.) Princess Diana dies (1997): I'm spending the summer working two jobs: research assistant in the YSU English Department, and night-shift sauna cleaner at the Youngstown YMCA. But this weekend, I'm at Nicole's house, visiting Detroit. We watch the news on the local Fox affiliate. Clearly the news had planned to lead with a puff piece about a hometown Aretha Franklin concert. They must change plans, resulting in this awkward segueway: "The Princess may be dead, but the Queen of Soul is alive and kicking right here in the motor city." Oh, that Fox news.

6.) Columbine massacre (1999): Los Altos Village apartment complex, Tucson. Working on a seminar paper for Theresa Enos's Classical Rhetoric course, University of Arizona.

7.) JFK Jr. Plane crash (1999): Also in Tucson at the time. Rich Hansberger and I are in my old blue pick-up truck, driving to a meeting at Ed White's house south of the city. I think we're on a committee revising the PhD program's core requirements. Rich and I talk about the Dead Kennedys and how their name seems all the more counter-cultural given the iconic representations of JFK Jr. already circulating in the press.

8.) Bush/Gore crazy election (2000): Various groups of campus radicals (Students Against Sweatshops, our grad student organizing group, etc.) hold a big rally on the mall. Grandma Red comes to Tucson for Thanksgiving. Gore gets ripped off. It's all a haze.

9.) September 11, (2001): Nicole and I are still asleep (we're on Tucson time). My mom calls around 6:30 a.m. We put on the tv. Nicole goes to work at the appellate courthouse amid ramped-up security. I go teach at UA (a couple sections of English 397). We get Thai food that night and talk about worries over anti-Arab violence, reports that the local Air Force base could be the next target. This seems like it happened decades ago, or maybe two days ago.

10.) Space ship Columbia disintegrates (2003): No memories whatsoever.

11.) Hurricane Katrina hits (2005): I'm in California for Hung's bachelor party. Via phone, Hung pleads with his parents (who live on eastside of New Orleans) to go stay with relatives in Baton Rouge. They finally relent. I take the red eye to Detroit. Anna picks me up at the airport and, exhausted, I sleep on her couch as the levies break. When I wake up, The Today Show is broadcasting images of the flooding.


three cups of tea...a second cup

Funny how books find us at the right moment. I'm working on my 4Cs paper--about critical empathy and service learning--and Three Cups of Tea's themes continue to resonate. The call to listen, even when common ground is absent. Empathy involves shutting up. I think in my presentation I'm going to talk a little about Mortensen's relationship with his mentor in Pakistan, Haaj Ali, who respectfully tells him to shut his mouth and listen to the people he's serving, to shut up, to understand, to consider.

And everytime I start to lose myself in the book's idealism, I think about the irony of the text. Three Cups of Tea unapologetically turns Mortensen into an icon. He is a rugged individual, a hero, a cowboy who doesn't return phone calls or show up on time. This individualism becomes the biggest cultural difference between Mortensen and the villagers he works with in Pakistan. Mortensen looks around at the kids in the village and wants to build his schools more quickly. Hurry up. Slow down, Haaj Ali tells him, look at the mountains. They'll be here long after you and those kids. Mortensen feels dissonance with a culture that values the longview, the collective, moreso than the individual. And yet the text itself is about just that: the individual, the lone hero. That is the book's irony.

The book is problematic in other ways too. Three Cups of Tea makes quick mention of a trend that develops at Mortensen's schools--boys who quickly leave their villages after reaching a particular level of learning. So then are the schools actually serving to de-stabilize these villages? Mortensen and his board decide to focus on levels below a fifth-grade level and also on girls, who are less likely to get an education and flee. Interesting, but here again, the text glosses and obscures the context. I picture Mortensen--the Westerner--pulling strings, carefully controlling how much education is enough and how much is too much. Such is the limit of the genre. Mortensen's story is ultimately a memoir, a limited and limiting narrative, one that leaves questions.

three cups of tea

I just finished Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin, a book I thought I would hate. Mortensen, a former mountainer, gets lost after a failed attempt to climb K2, happens upon a village in remote Pakistan, and ends up devoting himself to building schools throughout Central Asia. Three Cups of Tea tell his story. My suspicion on the book had less to do with the fact that the book is popular and more to do with the book's marketing. Mortensen, a real-life Indiana Jones. Mortensen, the heroic Christian from the West. Mortensen's schools, in the shadow of the Taliban. I feared Mortensen was an x-games-loving character from a Mountain Dew commercial. I unfairly associated the book with another popular non-fiction text about East-West collisions, Reading Lolita in Tehran, whose hero narrative and canonization of Western culture (Iran needs more Norton anthologies!) troubled me.

Three Cups of Tea shows more self-awareness and goes a long way toward problematizing its own narrative. In fact, the ethics of intervention serve as one of the text's central themes. Mortensen knows his intentions are good but he also knows that good intentions aren't enough. Ethically and pragmatically, he must avoid imposing Western ideology. To do so would result in peril for himself and anyone he associates with in the villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed the book's middle act contains several conflicts between Mortsensen and various extremists in the region who are critical of his outsider status and the fact that his schools educate girls.

That tension over Mortensen's outsider status provides the book with its title. Anxious over the slow progress of his work, a tribal elder tells him: "Sit down. And shut your mouth...You're making everyone crazy." The elder goes on to explain that to "thrive...you must respect our ways" by sharing three cups of tea, one as strangers, one as friends, and one as family (150). In other words, identification through listening and connecting, not coming in and imposing. "Shut your mouth," the elder says. Listen.

This text speaks to so many teaching scenarios. The teacher as a Western hero, a missionary, an Indiana Jones, having adventures among those not yet washed in all the West (or "the academy") has to offer. "Shut your mouth" and listen. Mortensen goes to these villages with money, with privelege, with resources, with material goods. Still he must listen. What do I know about my students' interests, inclinations, intentions, and values? The text also speaks to the campus-community, service learning relationship. Shut up and listen. I know how to improve practices at your agency. I know what you should do. Shut up and listen. Three Cups of Tea ultimately represents and advocates a critical empathy, a hard-earned identification among West and East, among teachers and learners. I thought I'd hate it. I don't.

Mortensen, Greg, and David Oliver Relin. _Three Cups of Tea_. New York: Penguin, 2006.


random notes

I heard this on the radio the morning before yesterday. Members of Cheap Trick, The Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, and Hanson have formed a band. Of course they have. I guess the New Pornographers are no longer the coolest supergroup currently rockin' and rhymin' with Dokken.

Speaking of rockin', the Hamtramck Blowout, an annual fiesta of Detroit music, has announced its lineup. Seems the Dirtbombs and Detroit Cobras will entertain on consecutive nights at the K of C hall. That's two count 'em two bands that deserve to be on your Facebook '25 Albums' list, not to mention just about any self-respecting list of best live acts around.

Finally, a busy couple of weeks on campus and a spaghetti dinner have prevented me from much netflixing. However, I saw Girls Rock, a documentary about a "school or rock" camp for girls. Had high hopes for the piece but didn't think the doc really let viewers come to know the girls the camera follows. Interviews quickly gloss Big Issues (body image et al) without much depth. Another documentary disappoints. Ah well.

What We Do Is Secret struck me, meanwhile, as one of the better rock and roll biopics. Shane West stars as Darby Crash, the self-destructive Germs leader. Great performance. And the film handles Crash's nihilism/media savvy with such adeptness, embodying without glorifying his infamous five-year plan (which starts with forming a band and ends with the proverbial blaze of glory...learning how to play instruments happens somewhere in between). Crash's plan fails for one reason and one reason only (clue: it's got something to do with John Lennon). The great irony is that his death isn't what makes his story a tragedy. Very good film.


housewares that time forgot, part 1

When we lived in Southwest Ohio, Nicole and I frequented auctions, estate sales, and flea markets. Sometimes we hung out, people-watched, and "made a Saturday of it" without making any purchases. Sometimes we bought old things. Nicole got into 50s linens and fast-food character glasses. I acquired large numbers of records (rule #14 of every southwest Ohio flea market stocking old records: you MUST have at least two copies of Genesis' "Abacab"). We stocked our kitchen with Pyrex and other baby-boom products. Old stuff was cheap in Butler County. In Michigan, people use words like "vintage" and "antique" and prices skyrocket. Been to the Royal Oak Flea Market? Fun to browse, but the prices seem crazy to me.

Which brings me to my blog's new series: Housewares That Time Forgot. Let's return for just a moment to an era before paper towells and hand sanitizer existed and before salmonella and nut allergy entered the national discourse. I picture the kitchens both my grandmothers kept. Coffee percolates on a burner. On a counter sits a cookbook from a church or maybe the Eastern Stars (we'll have a separate entry on the wonders of d-i-y 1950s cookbooks) full of recipes advocating weird uses for mayonaise and jell-o and ground chuck.

My maternal grandma is preparing a roast. In the next room, a stack of Ellery Queen magazines sits on a coffee table. Across town, my paternal grandma slices an eggplant. In the next room, a stack of every issue of Look or Life that featured JFK on the cover.

What item from this world interests me today? The "luncheon set." Once upon a time, the luncheon set was a go-to present for wedding showers. Nicole and I call these sets "party plates" because usually they came in boxes with images of card parties on them. Each box contained perhaps four or six sets of oval or rectangular glass plates and small glass cups, suitable for coffee or punch. Luncheon plates had dividers to keep your macaroni salad from mingling with your green bean casserole. Functional, attractive, perfect for buffets or for standing and walking around whilst eating. Again, "party" plates.

Nicole and I have acquired several dozen sets and often use them when we have a crowd over to the house. I have come to hate paper plates: flimsy, bad for the environment, not at all festive. Luncheon sets are more than a fad of the past. The continue to be as utilitarian as they are aesthetically pleasing. Paper plates say: "I'm so glad you're coming over that I stopped at 7-11 last night." Luncheon sets say: "Let's break bread and then play 500. And by bread, I mean mini-marshmallow salad."

We got some of our sets at estate sales and the like--for a song--but some came from family. My mom's side of the family had a huge crate of party plates that they collectively owned. First cousins would pass the sets to whichever family member needed them. You could bet that whoever hosted the last graduation party or baby shower currently had the sets sitting in her basement or garage. How cool is that? Community property. That practice went out of vogue at some point, so now Nicole and I have the sets. We gladly lend them out.

One more odd thing about "party plates." Some sets have one divided section reserved for...wait for it...an ashtray. That's right. On our hand-me-down sets, for instance, one of the reservoirs includes that little indentation where you can secure a lit cigarette. Back in the day, my Grandpa D. could have kept his non-filtered Chesterfield blazing mere inches from his scoop of calico beans and his black, salted (!) coffee. As health hazards go, living among smoke from Youngstown's steel mills had nothing on ingesting stuff at a family party.



Our Peace and Justice group became a sponsor of the Iraqi Student Project this past year and we're working at the local level to support a young man studying engineering in the hopes of returning to Iraq to work on reconstruction. ISP brings Iraqi students to the U.S. to study subjects like architecture and civil engineering so they can become leaders in creating a more sustainable society in their homeland.

Unsure of who might show up and how much cash we might raise, we put on a spaghetti dinner to generate funds and raise awareness locally about ISP's mission. Friday night's event was a big success thanks to the hard work of many. We made over $2,000. Equally important, the chance to come together and have fun while paradoxically engaging some hard realities. Iraq is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and even in Metro Detroit--an area teeming with both immigrants and refugees from Iraq--we often ignore or forget. After years of both a brutal dictatorship and devastating sanctions and bombings, the ongoing war has further crippled infrastructure there.

I can't say how gratifying it was to see members of our church connect with ISP as well as various dinner guests and attendees. A genuine coming-together. Cooking for hundreds of people offers quite a rush. I loved it, and of course couldn't have managed without my family and the labor, moral support, and supplies they offered. I learned a bit about technique (electric roasters are beautiful for making and maintaining the warmth of sauce), amounts (a ten-pound big of ziti yields three aluminum trays of pasta), and timing (when we start serving tray number three, the next batch of pasta better be in the water). I'm ready to start planning for next time.


enough for all her hungry brood

Nearly (gasp!) two decades ago, my oldest nephews liked a book about baby farm animals. Each time I hear a story about the woman with fourteen kids, a disembodied line from that book flashes through my mind: "enough for all her hungry brood." I can't listen to bad morning radio shows whilst showering and commuting without hearing opinions about this woman's use of in-vitro fertilization to help her have fourteen kids, her reliance on public assistance, her singleness, her history of mental illness, her obsession with motherhood.

The story challenges our collective affinity for simplistic readings of current events. We want issues to fall into black-or-white, partisan categories. The environmentalist suggests that having fourteen kids drains resources (the disposable diapers alone...). The anti-welfare crusader sees this mom as a mythic archetype, the welfare queen. The moralist questions her lack of a husband and her use of fertility technologies. The medial ethicist critiques the fertility clinics who helped her reproduce. The pop culture junkie watches with bemusement as she gets her own series. The feminist questions the assumptions of all the aforementioned critics.

Does a poor, single woman have a fundamental right to as many kids as she wants? Do private companies have the right to provide her with technology to help her make that happen? Does a public spectacle--orchestrated in part by a team of publicists who represent the woman--help (via revenue) or hurt (via embarrassment) the family?

As lines from children's books flash through my mind, so do the faces of the thousands of unwanted kids in southeastern Michigan. My students and I have worked with foster care agencies in Detroit, for instance, who search desperately for good placements for babies, kids, and teens. Stories of violent foster families and unplaced kids sleeping in Department of Human Service building bathrooms fade as quickly as the stories of the octuplet mom inevitably will.

I would never advocate for repressive laws that strip the rights of adults to reproduce at will. I've read (and even taught) too many dystopic novels: Margaret Atwood, et al. But I do wonder how many parents-to-be--whether single or married, rich or poor, virile or sitting in a fertility clinic--even take a moment to think about the unwanted.

We live in a culture where asking an adult (especially if married and "financially secure") who has no kids "Why don't you have kids?" is socially acceptable. But asking a parent or parent-to-be "Why ARE you having kids?" is awkward at best and probably offensive. Personally, the "why don't you have kids?" question doesn't bother me at all. That's not my point. I'm just saying that the normative impulse leans toward reproduction and overlaps with other normative impulses: marry, be straight, have kids.

And then, out of nowhere, a story like the octuplet mom challenges those impulses. "Yes," the collective culture says to her, "we're glad you have kids and are heterosexual, but pay for the kids yourself. Oh yeah, and get married."


non issues

Andrew Card, could you be less relevant?

Career politician Card, who held numerous white house jobs with the last three Republicans to grace the West Wing, criticizes Barack Obama for allegedly relaxing the White House's dress code. How relaxed is Obama's West Wing? Probably not enough to justify Card's quips about his turning the place into a locker room.

The right can't find anything worse to level at Obama than a critique of his decision to take off his jacket? Remember during the campaign when *speaking well* and *getting into a prestigious law school* topped Obama's list of faults?

In many ways the far right's over-reliance on ineffectual, non sequitur critiques makes me happy. After all, this emphasis on non-issues hasn't distracted most Americans. On the other hand, we all suffer when the public discourse is so vacuous. Come on, let's have serious conversations about the stimulus package.