Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Thinking In Equality: On Laruelle's Democracy of Thought

Professor of film studies at Kingston University, London

Equality and inequality are fast becoming commonplace themes, given our straitened times and recent efforts to uncover not only the vast social inequities around us but also the origins of such inequality. One could wax on about the unequal distribution of monetary wealth, or even discuss the less-tangible philosophical consciousness of who has what, how much do they have, and so on. But here, I want to address the equality of thinking itself, irrespective of what, or even if, it is a thinking about x, y, or z – money, rights, or consciousness. It is the question of an equality (or democracy) in thinking, in theory, rather than any theory of a specific equality. 

One implication of François Laruelle’s notion of a ‘democracy of thought’ is that all entities are indeed equal, which is to say (in his language), that they are equally ‘One’. Laruelle describes himself as a ‘non-philosopher’ or ‘non-standard philosopher,’ and for him, to respond to this notion of being ‘equally One’ with the query ‘equally one what?’ is to miss the point of the gesture with too much philosophy. Even to respond ‘equally different’ (with Gilles Deleuze, say), or ‘equally Being’ (with Martin Heidegger), or ‘equally multiple’ (Alain Badiou) remains all too philosophical for Laruelle. Individually, they are all One – and this is firstly a performative gesture before it becomes an ontological thesis (that tells us ‘what they are’): Individuals invent equality, they do not possess it (as a philosophical property of difference, multiplicity, and so on).

In my new book, All Thoughts Are Equal, I explore the idea that film is philosophical while also introducing Laruelle’s ideas about non-philosophy. Film and philosophy both think in their own way. Conversely, however, should one say that film is philosophical because it is a type of philosophical act (linguistic therapy, say, or fundamental questioning) then one adds a third, defined element, a definition of philosophy in which film is allowed to participate. Yet even this definition can always be defined in such a way as to still make the type of therapy or questioning that philosophy alone instantiates qualitatively different and superior to the therapy or questioning of film. When saying film equals philosophy, and then how they are equal (the third element), one thereby creates a new and potentially arbitrary definition that, again, can be made to make one half of the equation the privileged, exceptional instance. Alternatively, if there were no third quality or type, then their equality is not defined but invented: in other words, it is performative (a concept I discuss in the final chapter of my book).

And yet – haven’t I earlier said that film and philosophy both think, that they are equally thoughtful? Isn’t that a third quality? Well, yes and no. The reason I say ‘no’ is because I haven’t defined what thought or thinking is. I have simply said that film and philosophy equally think, but in their own way. This is a pluralistic gesture to be sure, but, according to Laruelle at least, it is also a non-philosophical gesture, because the job of philosophy (by contrast) is to attempt to enforce one or other image alone of what counts as thought. Despite what appears to many as philosophy’s benign, abstract, and consequently (perhaps) even irrelevant status, Laruelle takes philosophy to be the supreme form of thought control, or, to be clear, a device for controlling what counts as proper or fundamental thought.

So: when saying that film is philosophical, one must not take this equation – this equality – as one conflating two defined entities. Rather, the statement ‘cinema is a philosophy’ is an invention, an exploration of how this pair can be equalized, but without defining either of the two – nor their union – at the outset. For, inversely, if everything were equally philosophy as defined as X, we still have to account for the appearance of those films or philosophies that also actually do look like a film or a philosophy, and those others that do not. For instance, it would be uncontroversial among many film-philosophers to claim that Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003) is not a good example of cinematic philosophy. Conversely, Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005) is frequently taken as a typical instance of true cinematic thinking, if only because it seems to accord with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas; both tackle the infinite moral responsibility we have toward others. The latter film appears philosophical because it seems to say something typical of the kind of thing philosophers say. But what about those films that do not appear philosophical in any pre-defined fashion, or even those moving images that are barely counted as proper films at all (YouTube videos, TV adverts, etc.)? They have a self-identity after all, even if only an apparent one (as film), and the appearance of any identity counts for something, a something that can then be used as the basis of an exceptionality (were one so inclined): this is not a film but that is; this is not philosophy but that is. Anything less, such as to say that the self-identity itself is merely an illusion, still leaves the basis for the illusion as such unexplained.

Alternatively, to say that film is philosophical in a non-philosophical manner is not another logical equation, but an invention, a hypothesis to be explored, a new comparative that must be only one among many. Saying that ‘X equals Y’ in this ‘real identification’ is also to say that ‘X could equal Z or Q or R’, and so on. Of course, this multiplication of identities could explode into triviality, but only in a theory separated from practice. In practice, that is, performatively, the identifications have each to be invented in actual spaces and times (and not in one philosophical position of everywhere and always). A film can be philosophical, in its own way. This ‘can be’ is what some might call a ‘paraconsistent’ leap in logic (see second chapter of All Thoughts Are Equal), but it can also be the benefit of our doubt, of our resistance to definition.

All thoughts can be equal, but what that equality consists in has to be invented each and every time in an ongoing process of equalizing.


John Ó Maoilearca is author of All Thoughts Are Equal: Laruelle and Nonhuman Philosophy. He is professor of film studies at Kingston University, London. He is also author of Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline and Philosophy and the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality and coeditor of Laruelle and Non-Philosophy.

"All Thoughts Are Equal is an original act and development of non-philosophical thinking. John Ó Maoilearca gives us a virtuoso tour of Laruellian thought and offers a highly original and significant mutation of non-philosophy in his own right."
—Ian James, University of Cambridge

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Kensington Rune Stone Legend and the Catholic Church


Pope Francis has arrived in the U.S. and is soon to arrive here in Philadelphia, a city that carries the moniker the "Birthplace of America." The nation’s founding documents might have been signed here, but something that isn’t so obvious to those familiar with America’s establishment is that there is a small town in Minnesota that also carries the title. Emblazoned on the shield of a 28-foot-tall fiberglass Viking statue in the center of town is the claim "Alexandria: Birthplace of America."

The Kensington Rune Stone legend (so named for a nearby settlement at that time) is based on an inscribed stone that was unearthed from Swedish immigrant Olof Ohman's farm field in 1898. Its Runic inscription was later interpreted to tell a story of a party of Swedes and Norwegians who traveled to the area in 1362 and were killed by Native Americans. If the inscription were authentic, U.S. history books would have to be re-written, as the group's arrival predates that of Christopher Columbus. Scholars quickly concluded that the stone was the product of a hoax. Despite this, scores of Minnesotans persisted in believing it to be true. Many Scandinavian Americans took pride in the notion that their ancestors had already visited what was to become their home in Minnesota.

In 1909, Norwegian immigrant Hjalmar Holand, the most famous of the Rune Stone’s defenders, hosted a meeting at the Minnesota Historical Society, inviting several important civil and religious leaders. Foremost among the attendees was Archbishop John Ireland. In a St. Paul Dispatch article published the next day, Ireland is quoted as saying that a phrase in the Runic inscription, "AVM, save us from evil," was "characteristically Catholic." Both Holand and Ireland understood it to indicate a prayer to Ave Maria, the Blessed Mother of God.

"The Saga of the Runestone," by Sister Mary Christine.
Courtesy of the Kensington Area Heritage Society.

Why would a busy bishop take an interest in the controversial Runic artifact? Records indicate that Ireland had long endeavored to proselytize Scandinavians, describing them as "fruit ripe for Catholic picking." Most immigrants from Sweden and Norway were Lutheran or some version of Protestant. Ireland likely saw the Rune Stone as an opportunity to remind these immigrants that prior to the Reformation, Scandinavians were Catholic.

Additionally, Ireland was committed to improving the social status of Catholics, who were still somewhat at the margins of cultural and political power in the early twentieth century. Ireland frequently spoke of his admiration for the achievements of recently arrived immigrants from Sweden and Norway. By declaring the Kensington Rune Stone to be Catholic, he was able to fashion a place for his co-religionists in the founding narrative of the state. To this day, the Catholic Encyclopedia endorses the Kensington Rune Stone as the earliest record of a Catholic presence in Minnesota.

This re-imagining of early American history presents a challenge to the dominant narrative. The story of America's birth in the Midwest by Scandinavian Catholics is quite a contrast to the emphasis often placed on the importance of English Protestants on the East Coast. The Kensington Rune Stone became a touchstone for Minnesotans with varied agendas. Civic boosters use the artifact to demonstrate that a small town in Minnesota was exceptional and could rival the historic importance of big cities "out East."

The myths that the Kensington Rune Stone has inspired reveal much about the aspirations, fears, and self-understandings of Minnesotans in the twentieth century.


David M. Krueger is a scholar and teacher with a PhD in religion from Temple University and a master's degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He lives in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Growing up an army brat: The silence.

The author’s mother, wearing glasses and proper attire, at a public event.

This is the fourth part of a series by writer Catherine Madison on growing up in the army around the midcentury. Madison's father spent three years as a prisoner of war in North Korea in the 1950s.
Part One: The rules.
Part Two: The moves.
Part Three: The friends.



“Children should be seen and not heard,” my mother said sternly from one end of the dining room table while my father nodded solemn approval from the other. As the eldest of three children, I was used to these frequent admonitions and knew it was my job to set a good example. I sat up straight, shut my mouth, and made sure my lap held both my napkin and my left hand, but my brothers had a hard time keeping still. Just one foot jiggling would make my mother scowl and wag her manicured finger at the offender.

The ’50s and ’60s were an etiquette-sensitive time, when most officers’ families had a thick volume of Amy Vanderbilt or Emily Post guidelines gathering dust somewhere on a top shelf. My mother, an attractive perfectionist who dressed stylishly and preferred well-behaved children, read those books. She was a rural small-town girl thrust into military society after my father returned from captivity in the Korean War, and it was her job to be a good army wife.

In those days, and perhaps still, spouses were a career asset. Or not. My mother and her contemporaries studied their military wife handbook, which contained detailed instructions on everything from how to serve tea to where to place ashtrays, napkins, and salad forks. They wrote thank-you notes, volunteered on committees, and shushed their children. They wore hats and heels and white gloves at public functions, sat with legs crossed at the ankles, and spoke only when spoken to. I felt awful when I learned that my aunt, beloved by us for her humor and spunk, cost her military husband a promotion because she “talked too much.”

“The First Amendment gives me the right to free speech,” I tried announcing at the dinner table. I was taking civics at school, thank you very much, and I knew what I was talking about. Except that I did not. Only civilians could speak freely. My father was subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which limits free speech and conduct. He could say nothing that would undermine discipline or bring discredit upon the armed forces. He could not demonstrate for peace or criticize Congress or the President, his commander-in-chief. And because my father was our family’s commander-in-chief, we couldn’t, either.

Silence became my best friend. I relied on it to avoid domestic turmoil. My father suffered from PTSD, and I never knew when speaking my truth, however quietly, might unleash a verbal tirade or errant fist. As a young teenager, I had been walking the dog when I was accosted in the dark basement of our apartment building by an older boy who had dated one of my friends. He slammed me into the concrete block wall, thrust his arm across my mouth so I couldn’t scream, and started to rip my shorts off. Fortunately, I maintained my grip on the leash, and the dog’s frantic jumping and snarling convinced the boy to abandon his plan.

By the time I reached our apartment four flights up, saliva had crusted on my lips and my legs were shaking. I couldn’t catch my breath, and my heart pounded as I went inside. My father was reading the Sunday paper, and my mother was frying bacon. I let the dog off the leash and strode to my room without saying a word. So many people have far worse stories; I dared not tell mine.

“To be a daughter inside the Fortress is to be a kind of hovering spook: a weightless creature without power, without presence, without context, whose color is camouflage and whose voice is unheard,” Mary Edwards Wertsch wrote in Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress. Devouring that book years ago, curled in my patio chair over a Fourth of July holiday, I began to understand how growing up an army brat had shaped my life in ways I had yet to explore. Perhaps the pervasive silence steered me toward traditional journalism, where my job was to document both sides of events, to be fair and impartial, to withhold bias, to tell everyone’s story but my own. Keeping my opinions to myself was easy; I had suppressed them for so long I hardly knew what they were.

Writing one’s own story is hard. For an army brat, it’s even harder. It means breaking the rules, fighting guilt, skulking by the family picture wall where the man in uniform gazes down. But how very important it is to penetrate that silence, to speak the truth that heals and sets us free.


Journalist Catherine Madison is author of The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir. She was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Living with the ghost of Martin Heidegger

Cornell University

I’ve been living with Martin Heidegger for a while now. Longer, I suppose, than I could accurately tell. At some point, maybe ten or so years ago, I turned to Heidegger and since then I have been unable to get away from him. And, as if to intensify that truth, I don’t think I’ve made much of an effort to get too far away from Heidegger. My attraction to Heidegger (which is always complicated by Heidegger’s past, by what he did as much as what he did not do) is easily explained: more than anyone else, Martin Heidegger makes me think. Together with Hamlet and Beyond a Boundary, Heidegger’s Was Hei§t Denken? is one of my favorite books. An odd triumvirate, I grant you. And yet not. In some way, they all make the same demand of me, persist with the same question: What kind of work does it take to be an intellectual? “Thou art a scholar, speake to it, Horatio,” Marcellus implores his fellow soldier. Horatio’s ability to speak Latin, Marcellus is convinced, will allow him to commune – communicate – the ghost of the dead king. “I was a British intellectual before I was ten,” says James. Shakespeare, C. L. R. James, and Heidegger, bound for me by their injunction to think. Nothing matters more.

That is why I’ve taught a course on Was Hei§t Denken? a couple of times. Every time I read or teach it, every time I quote from it, I learn more – more, I should say, than I could possibly have imagined. You could say, then, that I’ve lived with Was Hei§t Denken? for a good while now. And if you live with a book, if it occupies so much of your time, an intense relationship develops. Part of that relationship, part of that intensity, provokes—in me, anyway—the desire to write about that book. Problem is, I’ve never quite figured how to do it. I was, you could say, ready to write about Was Hei§t Denken? a while before I actually sat down begin Martin Heidegger Saved My Life. In so many ways, I was ready to take up the challenge of thinking that Heidegger issues in Was Hei§t Denken?

Here’s the thing of it. You don’t know you’re ready until you find yourself prepared to think in the moment – in the moment of what, for you, feels like the moment of record. That moment upon when something very important, your sense of who you are, how you are in the world (let’s just call it being/Sein, shall we?), hangs in the balance. Turns out that all it required was a white woman approaching me, a black man raised in apartheid South Africa, to ask if I wanted another job while I was raking leaves outside my home. Who’d a thunk it? (to render Heidegger in a vernacular that would have been wholly unacceptable to him).

My idiomatic indulgence notwithstanding, in the moment of record, Martin Heidegger came to me and, as I so grandly proclaim, Martin Heidegger saved my life. And Heidegger saved me because he gave me the language to write about race in such a way as I’d never written it before. Heidegger enabled me to write in this way because he has made me think about how to think. Of all the philosophers I know and the theorists I read, Heidegger stands apart because he is the only thinker I know who explicitly sets himself the task of thinking thinking. This is, above all else, what draws me to Heidegger: to ask myself, again and again, what it means to think. And thinking, in Heidegger’s rendering, is nothing other – in other words, it is everything – than asking oneself what it means to be an intellectual. It is all good and well to insist, as I have done, that the work of an intellectual is simple, straightforward: to think. It is entirely another matter to confront oneself with the question of what thinking is – this is the kind of question that can take over your life. And because it overwhelms you, it can, in the most crucial moments, also save you. Maybe it is all that can save you.

And this is what Heidegger gave me, gives me: the injunction to think gave me the capacity to imagine an entirely new way to write race, to critique racism. I could write it as my attempt to think thinking. Heidegger, if I might be so bold as to proclaim, freed me from any strictures. He released me, not fully, but enough, from my experience as a disenfranchised South African; he liberated me from my antipathy to racism in America; and he allowed me to write in such that a way that could, I hope, register my utter dislike for the screed as well my discomfort with identity politics. Heidegger liberated me to write race as the act of thinking. Thinking as a singular philosophical and political demand. Thinking, again, now leavened, modulated and, yes, inspired by the experience of having to write thinking. On my own terms, in my own language, closely observed by the ghost that is Martin Heidegger. “I wish to speake to you, Martin, as a scholar.” Or, “Because of you, Martin, I strive to be a scholar.” Or, “I wish to think as a scholar should, Martin.” I try to think with you, because of you.

Because of Martin Heidegger, I understand what I tried to undertake in Martin Heidegger Saved My Life.

I tried to think what it means to write race, I struggled to think my way to my own writing of racism. At once strange and salient that it is, Martin Heidegger, whose politics I abhor, who has taught me what it means to think, who demands that I never stop trying to think thinking. If James, anti-colonial critic par excellence, was a British intellectual before adolescence, does that mean that I have been making myself a Heideggerian intellectual, with all its possibilities and discomfitures, in my middle years?


Grant Farred teaches at Cornell University. He is the author of several books, including the Forerunners series title Martin Heidegger Saved My Life (2015), In Motion, At Rest: The Event of the Athletic Body (2014), and What's My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals (2003).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Growing up an army brat: The friends.

The 1963 cheerleading squad of Broome Junior High in Rockville, Maryland.
The author is in the back row, second from left.

This is the third installment in a series on growing up in the army by writer Catherine Madison, whose father spent three years as a prisoner of war in North Korea in the 1950s.
Part One: The rules.
Part Two: The moves.



The bus stopped up the street from our duplex on Fort McPherson on the first day of school in 1965 in Atlanta, Georgia. I ran half a block, climbed on, and took the first empty seat, next to a girl with a brunette pageboy who looked about my age.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Cathy.”

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Cindy.”

By the time we arrived at Therrell High School about 20 minutes later, we had made plans to sit together at lunch and help each other navigate the hallways of a building we were seeing for the first time. I had just moved to town from Texas; she had just moved from a different state. As army brats who were now juniors, we knew the drill. We knew how not to sit quietly next to strangers, glancing everywhere but at them, pretending to be deep in thought. We knew how to invite a conversation without forcing it, and how to ask pertinent questions, neither nosy nor inane. Within ten minutes we had identified novels we both loved, the chemistry class we would share, past posts we liked better than this one, and the most annoying traits of our siblings. We became friends. Fast.

Both of us were shy, studious types, introverts even, who knew how to stay out of trouble and turn in homework on time. But shy doesn’t cut it in the military. If you wanted friends and acceptance, you had to boldly go where you had never gone before. Over and over again. And because you might move again next year, you had to be quick.

My father had spent five years in surgical training in San Antonio, so our family got to live off post until I finished the fourth grade. I grew up with neighborhood friends who never moved. I started fifth grade with them—then in November had to say goodbye in tears, my heart wrenched with the conviction that they were gone from my live forever.

We moved temporarily to my mother’s hometown in Maryland, where she enrolled me in school for three weeks. That first day, I stood, petrified, beside the principal as she knocked on a classroom door, then opened it and nudged me inside. The teacher stopped mid-sentence. All the kids turned around to look.

“We have a new student today,” the principal said. My face got hot and my feet heavy as I took the long walk to an empty desk in the front row. The silent stares hurt. I never wanted to be the new student again. Sympathetic, the teacher assigned me to a special project for my brief tenure, one that forced interaction. The same thing happened months later in Germany, when I was again the awkward new student in my third fifth grade class.

By high school, I knew to volunteer for any opening. Need cheerleaders? I couldn’t do flips but tried out anyway. Drill team? Why not. Yearbook? Sure. Difficult though it was for someone who’d rather read alone at home, I could not rely on past associations for company. If I wanted a friend, I had to make one. Whenever I met someone new, I heard myself mimicking them in conversation: their accent, their cadence, their poor grammar. In retrospect, I realize that it was an unconscious, organic way of creating common ground before I’d had time to discover it. I wonder now if they thought I was mocking them, when all I wanted was connection.

Cindy became one of my best friends, one of many I treasure. They show up on new posts and in odd places. Years later in the Honolulu airport, I ran into another military friend as he was bidding his girlfriend farewell; coincidentally, she was my seatmate on the last leg of my trans-Pacific flight. Neither of us was surprised, of course. We were army brats, and we had long ago learned that friends come and go, not through will or effort, but through mysterious quirks of the universe. We knew to simply say hello again, and never to say goodbye.

Part Four: The silence.

Journalist Catherine Madison is author of The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir. She was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Growing up an army brat: The moves.

Part of Catherine Madison's childhood doll collection, unpacked after 40 years,
which managed to survive so many moves.

This is the second installment in a series by Catherine Madison, whose father spent three hellish years as a POW in Korea.
Part One: The rules.



“Where are you from?”

It’s such an innocent, ageless question, one of the first things a new acquaintance asks. By the time I left for college in 1967, I had grown accustomed to watching the inquirer’s expression morph from polite interest to perplexity while I considered my answers.

What does this person really want to know, I would ask myself. Where I was born? That would be Tacoma, Washington, which didn’t count because I hadn’t visited since I was nine months old and wasn’t absolutely sure I could find it on a map. Where I lived the longest? That would be San Antonio, where I lived three times, but three such disparate times that I hardly knew I was in the same city, so maybe that didn’t count either. What place I liked the best? A stumper, that. Germany was the most unusual, but Washington, DC, had its fascinations. Where did I feel most at home? Here, now, as long as the last move was at least a year ago. It takes that long to settle in.

Wait. Maybe this person just wants to know where I came from the last time we moved. Nah, probably not.

“My dad was in the army. We moved a lot,” I would answer. By this time, through hesitation and diversion, I had already set myself apart from this new person, when all I wanted to do was connect. The patient and persistent ones asked a follow-up question: “So where did you go to high school?”

Ack. Three high schools, in Maryland, Texas, and Georgia. I spent my junior and senior years in Atlanta, where boys were not allowed to ask me out because we hadn’t known each other since kindergarten. I was an itinerant, suspect for my lack of roots. But my new friend probably didn’t want to know that, either.

Only on military posts did no one ask, because moving was routine. One day a stack of orders would show up on the dining room table, and soon came the command to “pare down,” rummage through drawers and closets to extract non-essentials and dump them in a large wastebasket that had mysteriously appeared. Moving cost money, and boxes were limited. Once my mother decided I had accumulated too many trophies. She drove me to the Goodwill bin and watched as I removed the brass plates as keepsakes and tossed the rest.

When the packing boxes arrived, I learned what fit where, like pieces of a 3D puzzle. Precious objects such as the miniature Bavarian clock my seventh-grade boyfriend had given me went on top, tucked into socks and underwear so it wouldn’t get jostled. I learned to think ahead about how the move could take weeks, and how sometimes, while unpacking later, I would realize that my affection for an object had waned. Somehow it had lost its spirit during the interim, faded and grown shoddy. Discarding it in its new home made me sad.

We saved boxes for next time. Eventually their corners got crushed and different-colored tags speckled their sides. Each move had its victims. A salt shaker made it, as did its salt (wrapped neatly in an entire sheet of wrapping paper), but the silver top went missing. Glass vases shattered. A new television disappeared after a sudden storm sent movers rushing furniture into the van, and I failed to note its tag on the inventory list. Sometimes boxes were moved only to be stored in closets or basements until it was time to move again.

I didn’t love moving, but I didn’t hate it, either. Each time got easier. On move-in day, my father insisted that curtains and pictures be hung and the stereo hooked up before we went to bed. Music, art, and privacy made a home, not the stuff that filled it. We assembled one room at a time, kitchen first, and pushed remaining boxes into ever-smaller areas. In two or three days we were done, launched into a new life in a new city filled with new opportunities I grew to cherish.

I still pack with precision and can travel for weeks with what fits in a carry-on bag. I still save boxes, and I still have the Bavarian clock. I finally unpacked my childhood doll collection after moving it from place to place for 40 years, but I’m still flummoxed when Facebook prompts me to add my hometown. I don’t have one. We moved a lot.

Part Three: The friends.

Journalist Catherine Madison is author of The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir. She was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago TribuneStar Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

"A mesmerizing page-turner." —Hugh Delehanty, coauthor of Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success

"I loved this book, not only for the knowledge gained concerning a war I knew so little about, but for Catherine Madison's skill in relating both sides of this complex and difficult story." —Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People

"A heartfelt account of a family fractured by war and its awful aftereffects." —Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Growing up an army brat: The rules.

Our extended family in front of our quarters in Landstuhl, Germany, 1960.
My father is wearing his hat. I'm on the left, dressed up in saddle shoes.


By the time I was in the fourth grade, in 1959, I understood that my father was not like the rest of us. Of course he went off to work long days like most fathers, while we kids went to school and my mom took care of the house, but he was different in other ways. We wore clothes washed in a washer and hung on the clothesline to steam in the Texas heat, but he wore uniforms starched stiff and brought home in plastic bags. Every morning, he donned a fresh shirt never touched by my mother’s iron. He wore shoes spit-shined into black luster daily, while we wore dirty Keds until our baby toes fell out the holes on the sides. He wore a hat. We never did.

My father was in the army. The rest of us were, I thought then, civilians. We lived in a one-story house on a quiet San Antonio street with no sidewalks. We played games in the driveway and kickball on the lawn, where stiff spears of hardy grass sliced our feet if we went without shoes. We walked several blocks to the elementary school with friends whose fathers were not military.

Halfway through the fifth grade, everything changed. My father got orders to move to Germany, and apparently they were our orders, too. One page from a large stack of identical papers had to be handed to nearly everyone we encountered, from hotel desk clerks and ship stewards to cab drivers and military police.

“Don’t walk on the grass!” my father barked on our first day on the army post at Landstuhl. “Don’t walk on the grass!” I shouted to my brothers, then ages 5 and 3, often in the next weeks. This was a place of rules as circumscribed as the rows of apartment buildings we lived in, identical except for color, furnished with government-issue standards. Our families shared washing machines lining the basement and columns of clotheslines fronting the playground. We followed the rules posted in the stairwells. We were all in the army now.

What seemed strange at first quickly became routine: the MP saluting us through the gate, the segregation of officer and enlisted families, the expectations of cleanliness and order, the curfews. No one questioned these restrictions and rituals, at this or other posts where we later lived. Before the movie began at the theater, we stood with our hands over our hearts to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Of course we all knew the words, and even the tone-deaf sang. At 5 p.m. everywhere on the post, traffic came to a halt. Everyone shut off their engines, got out of their cars, and saluted or covered their hearts while taps played. As the last bugle note drifted away, we climbed back in and went on.

Although I never heard it discussed, I suspect most of us, no matter what age, saw this regimentation as a good thing, a balm to counter the chaos that surrounded us. We lived in Germany during the days of the Cold War, when families more careful than ours made practice runs to the west coast of France to map an escape route if war broke out. We wore our dog tags, just in case. We lacked many things that Americans back in the States took for granted: real pasteurized milk in cartons, two-stick Popsicles, Levis available in all sizes, TV choices in English beyond “Bonanza” on Sunday evenings. Most of us didn’t have TVs at all, but we were army brats. We had transistor radios, scooters, each other, and the comfort of rules.

For my 50th birthday, my mate and I visited what is now Joint Base Lewis McChord in Tacoma, Washington, where I was born. I had not been there since I was nine months old. After checking credentials, the MP saluted us through the gate. Just beyond, we spotted several men in uniform, on their knees, using screwdrivers to clear the cracks in the sidewalk. The sidewalks were clean, and no one was walking on the grass. I was home.

This is the first post in a weekly series by Catherine Madison that will run throughout September on the University of Minnesota Press blog.
Part Two: The moves.
Part Three: The friends.
Part Four: The silence.

Journalist Catherine Madison is author of The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir. She was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

"A mesmerizing page-turner." —Hugh Delehanty, coauthor of Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success

"I loved this book, not only for the knowledge gained concerning a war I knew so little about, but for Catherine Madison's skill in relating both sides of this complex and difficult story." —Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People

"A heartfelt account of a family fractured by war and its awful aftereffects." —Kirkus Reviews

Friday, August 28, 2015

Hurricane Katrina, ten years later: When the investor class goes marching in

A view of flooded New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, September 2005.
It's been ten years since, and yet it left lessons that remain to be learned.

Associate professor of African American studies and political sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago

It has been ten years since New Orleans was devastated by the catastrophic breakdown of its levee system, and the failure of government at all levels to protect the citizenry. Over the past decade, locals began calling the disaster the “federal flood,” drawing a clear distinction between Hurricane Katrina and the engineering and emergency planning failures responsible for the mass death and displacement of its citizens. Even that moniker, however, is limited as an explanation because it fails to name the various local and state actors who contributed to the specific causes and scale of the disaster. After all, mayor C. Ray Nagin waited until the eleventh hour to declare a mandatory evacuation—and only after he held court with the city’s hoteliers, who feared lost profits. Ten years later, New Orleans is indeed a new city. Ninety percent of its pre-Katrina population has returned. The city is whiter and wealthier. There are 97,000 fewer African Americans —a small city unto itself vanished—and yet New Orleans is majority black again.

The official discourse of remembering the disaster and marking the road to recovery has come to resemble the repertoire of the city’s iconic jazz funerals. There is the slow, solemn dirge that guides the procession to the gravesite, and then the decisive moment when joyous horn blasts and an up tempo drumbeat celebrate the internment of the departed, carne vale in the truest sense of farewell to the flesh, the spirit cut free from worldly travails. The reconstruction of New Orleans has featured the liberation of capital from market regulation, labor rights, and safety standards; the privatization of formerly public sector services like housing and education; and public incentivization of homeowner rebuilding, tourism infrastructure, film and television production, entrepreneurship, and private real estate development. City boosters, public officials, wealthy developers, private contractors, multinational hotel chains, anti-poverty researchers, entertainment conglomerates, charter school advocates, star architects, foundations, celebrity philanthropists, financiers, and grassroots activists have all trumpeted the resurrection of the city, its neoliberal experimentation in neighborhood revitalization, housing, and schooling, and expanding tourism-entertainment complex, the combination of the city’s long standing tourist economy, sports franchises and emergent film industry.

'Written in the key of resiliency'

Though written in different idioms and with unique concerns in mind, the swelling chorus of press statements, op-eds, and reports touting the recovery cohere ideologically. Like the contrapuntal sounds of a sousaphone’s bass line, and cascading horn improvisations that add depth and verve to the same melody, a steady parade of mainstream commentators have helped to secure the neoliberal recovery project’s hegemony. Their anthems are mostly written in the key of resiliency. Kristen McQueary’s tone-deaf Chicago Tribune piece, “In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina,” where she mused that a comparable crisis might create the opportunity for pro-market reforms, was rightfully denounced from New Orleans to Chicago and beyond. Many others who are better informed and more tactful than McQueary have seized upon the story of the city’s recovery to advance the same ideological project, with greater effect.

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay “Starting Over” echoes the poverty dispersal strategy pushed by liberal social scientists and New Urbanists in the wake of Katrina, who saw the forced mass exodus as an opportunity to test the hypothesis that breaking up zones of poverty might create greater mobility for the poor through access to middle class networks, resources and tutelage. “If a group of poor Americans are stuck in a bad place,” Gladwell asserts, “then either the place they are stuck in needs to be improved or they need to move to a better place.” The first option, social democracy, is off the table for Gladwell because “the things that enable the poor to enter the middle class are not primarily national considerations—like minimum wage laws or college-loan programs or economic growth rates—but factors that arise from the nature of your immediate environment.” In one sentence, he banishes redistributive policy from consideration and presents commodification of housing and education as the only alternative. It is not higher wage floors, equitable education, public works or assistance that might lift the poor into a better station, but relocation to the right neighborhood, one that resembles suburban splendor, that matters most for Gladwell and his ilk. The concluding portion of his essay praises the charterization of the city’s school system, albeit with some disclaimers (e.g., “test scores have not risen anywhere near as much as had been hoped . . .”) and more measured celebration than McQueary. “The schools of New Orleans,” he concludes, “made a necessary and painful sacrifice: they extended the pain of Katrina in order to build a better future for the city’s children.”

I disagree with most of what Gladwell and McQueary have to say. They endorse the same tabula rasa rhetoric and scorched earth policy touted by elites during the weeks when New Orleans was still filled with brackish water, and the dead were still being identified. James Reiss, chairman of the Regional Transit Authority, expressed the emerging elite consensus when he said, “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way, demographically, geographically, and politically.” Others, like restaurateur Finis Shellnut, Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker, and deposed city councilman Oliver Thomas, made even more strident demands to rid the city of the poor, the unemployed, and public housing tenants—“the soap opera watchers,” in Thomas’s words. Gladwell’s account of privatization’s virtues lifts those ideas out of this political context, and their connection to actual, class interests operating on the ground disappears.

Gladwell, McQueary, and other champions of the market-driven recovery paper over its violence, and neglect the interests of those who bear the heaviest burden of the “necessary and painful sacrifice” of neoliberal rollback. Gladwell never mentions the current affordable housing crisis in New Orleans, where many spend 41 percent of their monthly wages on rent. Hiding behind clever storytelling and cherry-picked social science findings, Gladwell’s words justify a ruling class project that has produced mass layoffs of public employees; mass firings of middle class, unionized teachers (many of whom were African American women); the eviction and resegregation of public housing residents; the hyperexploitation of undocumented, mostly Latino and male construction laborers; and the reconstitution of a low-wage servant class of formal and informal workers who produce the phantasm of New Orleans for millions of visitors every year.

Social justice and inequality in New Orleans and beyond

In his now classic work on gentrification, the late geographer Neil Smith used the term “revanchist city”—derived from the French word for "revenge"—to describe the broader process and political impetus of neoliberal urbanization. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, Reagan Republicans and New Democrats organized in succession to dismantle the New Deal social compact and restore capital’s power over living labor, with the urban built environment, infrastructure, and governing institutions reorganized to better facilitate consumption, profit-making and capital flows. The renewal of this revanchist project in New Orleans over the past decade is distinguished only by its rapidity and perhaps by the dearth of opposition.

Some see anti-racist organizing as a way of opposing the neoliberal recovery-growth regime in New Orleans, but this approach is inadequate as social analysis and as politics. Rapper Kanye West may have offered the most memorable statement of this sensibility when he went off-script during a live telethon for Katrina survivors. “America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible,” West said, before punctuating his impromptu speech with the charge that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” His conviction, that racism was the primary motive for the death and misery in New Orleans, has been rearticulated and expanded in a small library of books and essays over the past decade. The Nation columnist Mychal Denzel Smith even claims that for his cohort of black millennials, West’s words were “our first relatable expression of black rage on a national stage” that has since inspired resurgent waves of black political activity from the election of Barack Obama to the anti-police brutality protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Given the media optics of the Katrina crisis, where thousands of black residents crowded the Superdome in search of relief, it is not surprising that so many concluded the disaster was caused by institutional racism and systematic discrimination in education, housing, and jobs.

The racial justice frame, however, does not discern class contradictions within the black population, and the variegated experiences of recovery. This framing fails to capture how the contra-flow evacuation process worked effectively for middle-class blacks with access to cars, as it had for whites of similar means. The property owner-centered reconstruction programs supported by city, state, and federal governments also helped middle class homeowners, black and white, to restore their homes and lives, while the same governing coalition pushed a wave of evictions and public housing demolitions that created hardship for black working class residents, and made it more difficult for them to return.

Anti-racist politics is a weak counter to the official line of pro-market recovery. At best, liberal anti-racists constitute a second line, that group of revelers who trail the brass band. In a street parade, the second line may be formal or spontaneous, but their role is always auxiliary, their shouts and energy supporting and enhancing the power of the first line. The right of return emerged as a popular slogan and demand against the designs of city elites who wanted to “right size” New Orleans by banning reconstruction in the city’s lower lying, and in most cases, black neighborhoods. Some argued that New Orleans’ cultural distinctiveness would be lost if blacks were not allowed to rebuild those neighborhoods where the sounds of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, the Meters, Irma Thomas, Rebirth Brass Band, Katey Red, and so many others were born. Anchoring the right of return demand in relative cultural contributions rather than the right to housing, however, helped to shift public debate to familiar themes of racial diversity and recognition. Such concerns were vital to the revival of the city’s tourism industry, where place branding and authenticity form crucial linchpins uniting big real estate developers and Mardi Gras Indians alike.

Those who care about social justice need to strike up a new band, one that places the interests of the Crescent City’s dispossessed and laboring classes in the main line, and call a new tune, one that lays bare the fundamental political-economic forces producing inequality in New Orleans and other cities across the country. Otherwise, we will be left with the same ensemble of powerful investor class interests, their think tanks, foundations and second liners.

 And we know they are marching down a dead-end street.


Cedric Johnson is editor of the essay collection The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans and author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. He is associate professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whose History Will Be Commemorated? New Orleans, Katrina, and the Continuing Struggle for A People’s Reconstruction

The streets of New Orleans are pictured Aug. 30, 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina and the city's levee failures. Ten years later, much commentary has surfaced,
but what of it has effectively addressed the event's social injustices?


Assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island

As we are upon the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina a new flood, this time of commentary, is inundating our airwaves and internet. Most of it is shallow, celebratory reflections that regurgitate the “silver lining” framing of Katrina that David Brooks and other elite opinion makers began to construct in the days and weeks after the levees broke (two recent examples are by Malcolm Gladwell and Walter Isaacson). The only difference is that now, a decade later, they are declaring, rather than predicting, victory.

The “horrible opportunity” that Katrina provided to carry out things “that were unthinkable in the past”—as former New Orleans city planning director and current Columbia University professor Kristina Ford phrased it—have been achieved from the perspective of pundits in the corporate press. The public sector—schools, housing, hospitals, and to a lesser degree, transportation—that served the city’s low-wage working class, and the collective bargaining agreements that provided some labor protections and rights, have been swept away. In its place a new wave of professionals, investors, and “entrepreneurial spirt” has arrived and taken root, making “New Orleans as the Model for the 21st century,” as the Rockefeller Foundation and Tulane University titled a 2010 conference they jointly sponsored. Some, like Chicago Tribune editorial member Kristen McQueary, even pray for a disaster that will allow the same model to be implanted in their cities—or at least more than it already has.

This version of history, what we might term a “Ruling Class History of Hurricane Katrina,” is being presented and celebrated in a whole host of corporate-sponsored events as part of the 10th anniversary commemoration. These range from Mayor Landrieu’s city-wide day of service, co-sponsored with Wal-Mart, which celebrates the wonders of good deeds rather than state resources and power to rebuild neighborhoods; to former mayor and now National Urban League CEO Marc Morial’s "Katrina at 10" gathering sponsored by JP Morgan Chase, a bank that was involved in stripping billions worth of household wealth from black homeowners; to the Atlantic magazine's organized gathering that includes a slew of characters who played chief roles in implementing the touted “New Orleans model.”

In contrast to this celebratory hoopla, there will be another gathering that will commemorate Katrina from a decidedly different perspective. Rather than from a perch atop the class hierarchy, from the vantage point of the proverbial 1%, “A People’s History of Katrina Conference” will view Katrina from the perspective of its working class (especially African American) survivors. This gathering will commemorate Katrina from the perspective of those upon whom the ruling elite implanted their celebrated “New Orleans Model.”

We will hear from family members of those murdered by the New Orleans police and other “security forces” in the days after Katrina. We will remember Katrina from the perspective of the thousands of public school teachers summarily fired by the stroke of Democratic governor Kathleen Blanco’s pen as they were dealing with multiple personal crises in the aftermath of the deluge. We will also view Katrina from the perspective of public housing residents locked out of their apartments not from flood damage, but from the criminal decisions of the Republican Bush administration and its Democratic Party collaborators in New Orleans.

Of course, people did not sit idly by in the face of these attacks. Therefore, another component of the people’s history conference will be to document the struggles that were mounted. Among the most prominent given attention will be the public housing insurgency, including the heroic work of former public housing resident Kawana Jasper, who was railroaded to prison because of her activism but who has recently been freed. In addition, the efforts to challenge the inequities of the privatized “Road Home” program designed, ostensibly, to assist homeowners to rebuild; the struggle to bring cops that murdered Katrina survivors to justice; and the battle to reopen Charity Hospital and to save homes in the Mid-City neighborhood from demolition will all be interrogated.

The final segment of the conference will, in the tradition of Mother Jones, plot how we will not just mourn, but “fight like hell” for a new New Orleans and world. The centerpiece of this people’s reconstruction plan—one that can become a model for not only New Orleans, but the entire U.S. and beyond—is the fight for "Jobs for All, Free Public Services For All" through a mass, democratically controlled, direct-government employment public works program. Panelists will be discussing and debating how this demand can get on the political agenda.


Those who plan to be in New Orleans and want to hear an alternative to the official neoliberal dogma on Katrina are encouraged to attend “A People's History of Hurricane Katrina Conference,” which will be held from 3-8 PM at the Unitarian Church at 5212 South Claiborne Ave in New Orleans. For those that will not be in town, the conference will be videotaped and posted online. For more information, contact the author at


John (Jay) Arena is author of Driven from New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization. He is assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island, lived and worked in New Orleans for more than twenty years, and was involved in various community and labor organizing initiatives in the city.

"Driven from New Orleans is a devastatingly powerful critique of non-profits and their endorsement of neo-liberalism." Journal of Labor & Society

"This is a book that those familiar with New Orleans should read and then argue about. It is perfect for college courses where students can debate the larger themes Arena brings to the New Orleans tragedy. And while many will disagree with some of Arena’s arguments, one finishes the book even angrier that the mass demolition of low-income housing in New Orleans was allowed to occur." —Beyond Chron