e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


what have I been reading?

Join the Club, by NYTimes' Tina Rosenberg, which I'm reading with my first-year comp students. Rosenberg posits the "social cure" as an effective strategy for social change, telling loads of stories of successful organizing where the success stemmed directly from the social capital gained by a sense of community. Rosenberg argues that peer pressure represents positive potential. Pretty good stuff.

Also reading various texts about Shi'a in Lebanon and Hezbollah specifically. The best has been Max Weiss' In the Shadow of Sectarianism, though I also made my way through Zahera Harb's Channels of Resistance in Lebanon and Eitan Azani's Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God, the latter providing really useful context but succumbing to significant bias in its discussion of the contemporary situation in "the south." Been doing some extra reading to add to what I'm learning in the Lebanese history class I've been auditing and, ultimately, trying to contextualize my understanding of Mleeta (the "Hezbollah museum"), which I've been trying to write about (may turn into an article).

Doc on Afghanistan

This film screened on campus yesterday. "Where Soldiers Come From" follows the lives of several young men from the U.P. who join the National Guard, deploy to Afghanistan, and then return to their civilian lives changed. Might be the best documentary I've ever seen. All I can say is please, please, please watch it. PBS is streaming the movie for free. Follow the link.



Tonight is "Working-Class Rhetoric" night in my MALS (master's in liberal studies) seminar and we're reading luminaries like Eugene Debs, John Steinbeck, and Jane Addams. Here's a nice taste of Steinbeck, from his essay "Starvation Under the Orange Trees"
If you buy a farm horse and only feed him when you work him, the horse will die. No one complains of the necessity of feeding the horse when he is not working. But we complain about feeding the men and women who work our lands. Is it possible that this state is so stupid, so vicious and so greedy that it cannot feed and clothe the men and women who help to make it the richest area in the world? Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done?


In addition to spending a few days in beautiful Youngstown, OH., I had the pleasure of visiting Pittsburgh's "strip district" for the first time this past weekend. The district houses Pittsburgh's version of Little Italy, a non-residential area packed with Italian delis, bakeries, and import stores. Among other things, Nicole, my parents, and I got some most excellent prosciutto and bread. I always forget that Pittsburgh's less than ninety minutes away from Youngstown. Must make the strip district a regular destination, next time with a side trip to the Andy Warhol gallery.


What's Wrong with All-American Muslim?

TLC's new reality tv show revolves around a group of Muslims who live in Dearborn, Michigan, where I happen to teach. Aside from making money without having to pay writers and actors, TLC seems to want to offer honest, interesting portrayals of Muslims to counter the predictable, ugly stereotypes the media often reproduces. The producers managed to find representatives of the community who practice the religion differently, but have so far missed lots of opportunities.

Let's start with "the community." The group the show seeks to represent is somewhat ambiguous. American Muslims in general? Not exactly, because the show is in many way *about* Dearborn and its unique dynamics. And the show seems to focus, implicitly at least, on Arab Muslims in order to engage with the cultural-religious-ethnic enclave here. That's fine; certainly the program has no obligations to represent the totality of American Islam. Indeed, looking at the intersections of religion, culture, and ethnicity could be really interesting. So, then, why do the show's personalities all seem so homogenous? Most of the stars are Shi'a from South Lebanon, which in some ways makes sense because that particular group is so prevalent, visible, and active in Dearborn. Seems like a missed opportunity, though, given the Yemeni, Palestinian, and Iraqi Muslims who live here too. All the characters seem very upwardly mobile, too. If you want to engage with religious, cultural, and ethnic intersections, broaden the scope.

The program also doesn't provide much context. Maybe this will happen in later episodes. So far, the show hasn't told us anything about Dearborn's history. No mention of the city's history of racism and segregation ("Keep Dearborn Clean"), for instance. Maybe the reality tv genre simply can't make room for this kind of context, but why not show the city's evolution from segregated white community to ethnic enclave? Likewise, aside from high school football players mentioning briefly the racist taunts of opposing teams, there was no mention of post-9/11 Islamaphobia. The show doesn't have to "go negative" per se, but barely mentioning this seems to me like missing context. Perhaps the show wants to tread lightly in order to connect to as wide an audience as possible, but, sheesh, if the show is about honest representations, than tell the truth.

Somewhat related to the context or lack thereof, how come there was no mention whatsoever of the old country? I don't think I heard the words "immigrant," "Lebanon," or certainly "South Lebanon" during the whole episode, aside from one woman saying that her husband "comes from the same village." If the show is exploring cultural identity and how religion and ethnicity intersect, than surely this will eventually come up. Given South Lebanon's especially contentious relationship with Israel, will mentioning context more explicitly be acceptable? Will anyone say something like, "My family comes from Bint Jbeil"? And is that desirable? I'm speaking as an outsider--neither Arab nor Muslim--so my perspective is necessarily limited.

Also, speaking of shout-outs, how about a mention of U of M Dearborn?



CSA: The Confederate States of America is not as shocking a film as it thinks it is. CSA imagines how the contemporary world might look if the South had won the American Civil War. Interesting premise, though the premise doesn't really go anywhere.

[spoiler alert...] What does the film imagine as the consequences of a Confederate victory? Slavery is legalized throughout the land. Abe Lincoln dons blackface, is taken into hiding by Harriet Tubman, and eventually is captured and exiled to Canada. The Confederate States colonize much of Latin America. South Africa becomes their chief ally. The late nineteenth century? Pretty much manifest destiny on steroids.

Clever and intriguing but once you know the premise, you pretty much have experienced the film. I will say that the narrative structure is smart and effective. CSA takes the form of a British documentary airing on a Confederate tv station for the first time, complete with commercial breaks. The commercials are brilliant.



The great historian Howard Zinn writes about his recollections of dropping napalm on a German-occupied French village at the end of WWII. He says the allies were essentially waiting for Germany to surrender at that point and that dropping the napalm was fundamentally unnecessary. He recalls getting the orders from commanding officers and then, along with his fellow pilots, carrying out the orders.

After his honorable discharge, his GI Bill-funded education, and the beginning of his distinguished career as a teacher and activist, Zinn concluded that war was unjust and looked back with honesty at his involvement in that injustice. He says when he thinks of getting those orders, he can understand why many fail to act when challenged or faced with an opportunity to take a stand. It's hard, for one thing. It causes us pain, discomfort, and loss.

I think of this as I read accounts of the molestation and rape scandal at Penn State. A coach who runs an outreach program for at-risk children commits rape. He's a powerful and influential man. Janitors and graduate assistants catch him in the act, hem and haw, and eventually tell others at the University. Nobody calls the police. The abuse continues. The inaction of the growing network of individuals who knew but did nothing is stunning. Taking that stand might have been hard, might have hurt one's career, might have resulted in losing a friend or losing one's standing.

But it would have been the right thing to do.



In the process of getting the partnership between the writing programs at UMD (where I teach) and AUB (where I worked while on a Fulbright in the Middle East last year) solidified. We are linking eight classes next semester. Students in these classes will partner with students abroad and interview one another and get acquainted via various online media (Skype, Facebook, etc) and ultimately write "literacy profiles" of one another. It's great fun and a chance for the teachers and students alike to meet up and learn some things about reading and writing in different social, cultural, and national contexts. Currently writing several grants to get the partnership some needed funding. Also working on IRB approval, an online space where all the student writing will be housed, and a million other things connected to making the project meaningful and maybe sustainable and scalable. Meantime, Margaret, my UMD colleague, and I are writing up a report of the pilot version of this partnership we tried out while I was at AUB. We've given several presentations about what we did (linking our two classes in Fall 2010) and we're working on an article version. I've not collaborated much in the past and, while working with others is in some ways slower and involves much more communication, this is a social way to operate.



Taqwacore = Islamic punk rock

But here's the interesting part. The genre didn't really exist until Michael Muhammad Knight wrote a novel called The Taqwacores, which one scholar calls "The Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims." Nearly ten years old, that novel inspired the birth of a small but meaningful youth movement, primarily in North America, of Muslim teenagers interested in adopting the rebellious pose of punk rock while maintaining staunchly Islamic identities. The word "taqwa" means something like piety or faith. Taqwacore bands popped up, writing and performing songs about Islam and using a hardcore punk musical aesthetic.

On Thursday night, UM-Dearborn screened the film version of The Taqwacores, directed by Eyad Zahra, who graciously answered questions after the screening. I encouraged my students to attend and about six or seven of them did. The film follows young Yousef, a Pakistani-American college student who moves into a house inhabited by devotees of taqwacore. Yousef is pious and conservative whereas his new housemates engage in all manner of "haram" (immoral) behavior and challenge Yousef's assumptions about what a good Muslim is. His new mates represent a range of Islamic ideologies. One woman, for instance, wears a full burka covered with punk rock patches and espouses a sexually liberated version of feminism. One is an openly gay man. One loves punk music but believes in a very traditional version of Islam, with men and women socializing separately.

Zahra shot the film with hand-held cameras in a rickety looking house in Cleveland. The movie's as lively and chaotic as the music at its center. At times, the story tries too hard to shock the audience (several scenes are sexually explicit, for instance) but overall it's a challenging and nuanced story that definitely got my students talking. We chatted in the hallway afterward and one student told me our conversation was better than the movie (which he found offensive--but, again, it inspired him to think and talk). I appreciated the range of characters in the film. And in a way, The Taqwacores reminded me of Kevin Smith's Dogma, which is deeply irreverent but takes Catholicism seriously and rolls up its sleeves and engages with church teaching. The Taqwacores did that for Islam, showing, for example, how this group of young people question their beliefs while maintaining their faiths, identities, and even traditions (turning Friday prayer, for instance, into a rotating sharing session in which each member of the community talks about what Islam means to them). They pray, although the call to prayer is played on an electric guitar, sounding a bit like Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the National Anthem. And the film has a sense of humor too. Band names include Hezbollah and the opening credits roll as a song called "Sharia Law in the U.S.A." (can you guess which Sex Pistols song this tune references?) plays on the soundtrack.

I'm awaiting response papers from my students who chose to attend (it was optional) but I'm curious to see how they connect the film to the short story collection we read, Halal Pork by Cihaan Kaan, which also uses an avant garde aesthetic to try to capture the complexities of young, American muslims in the post-9/11 decade.