Wednesday, December 28, 2011

“We wish to understand history as a whole, in order to understand ourselves.”

Late this year, U of MN Press published the first American edition of Stig Dagerman's German Autumn, essays on the tragic aftermath of war, suffering, and guilt that are as hauntingly relevant today as they were sixty-plus years ago when Dagerman was first assigned by the Swedish newspaper Expressen to report on life in Germany immediately after the fall of the Third Reich. The new edition includes a compelling new foreword by best-selling author Mark Kurlansky, an excerpt of which is published here:

In the autumn of 1946, Stig Dagerman, wunderkind of Swedish letters at the age of twenty-three, was sent to Germany by the Swedish newspaper Expressen. Dagerman was a too-bright filament that burned out quickly. He had already written two novels and been proclaimed in Sweden as the premier genius of a new generation. The year after he wrote German Autumn he would publish a collection of short stories and his first play was produced in Stockholm to dazzling success. The next year he wrote two more plays and a third novel. The next year he came out with a fourth novel and wrote a fourth play. Except for this last play, which the author himself disliked, all of these works, including German Autumn, were widely regarded as brilliant.

But then he couldn’t write anymore.

Dagerman was twenty-six and used up. He undertook projects, he kept trying, but he could not write. In 1954, age thirty-one, he gassed himself to death in his car parked in his garage. Recent research suggests he may have been suffering from clinical depression or bipolar disorder with possible manic episodes.

Dagerman’s extraordinary gift was his ability to empathize. He came from a poor rural background; his grandparents raise him because he was abandoned by his parents. A deranged man stabbed his grandfather to death, and his grandmother died soon after from the shock. When Dagerman heard of the murder he tried to write a poem about his feelings. He couldn’t do it, but he regarded that experience as his beginning as a writer. “Something was born,” he wrote. “Something that I believe was the desire to be a writer; that is to say, to be able to tell of what it is to mourn, to have been loved, to be left lonely . . . ” He said his grandmother had “the courage to show love.” Stig Dagerman had the courage to show compassion, and in Germany in 1946 that required a considerable amount of courage.


When Heinrich Heine returned from exile in France in 1843 he found Hamburg shattered from war damage and described it as “a poodle halfway shorn.” When Dagerman arrived in 1946 such flippancy would have been unimaginable because in the intervening hundred years the human capacity for destruction had greatly advanced. Dagerman described Hamburg as “a landscape of ruins drearier than the desert, wilder than a mountain-top, and as farfetched as a nightmare.” That same year Mann had warned, “It is impossible to demand of the abused nations of Europe, of the world, that they shall draw a neat dividing line between ‘Nazism’ and the German people.”

Dagerman didn’t try. He was not neutral: he had a history of active antifascism from his teenage years, when most of the world was not speaking out against the new German regime. But he did not consider passing judgment on these people part of his role. He was a young man who understood deprivation, hunger, and loss. These were human beings who had lost everything, who were living in the flooded, chilly basements of bombed-out buildings, looking for scraps of food. Journalists working in Germany found a strong vein of Nazi sentiment, and Dagerman found such people as well, but he criticized journalists for regarding “the Germans as one solid block, irradiating Nazi chill, and not as a multitude of starving and freezing individuals.” Dagerman found, in the words of Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, perpetrators, victims, and bystanders— concentration camp survivors and SS members all crawling through the same rubble, all people in deplorable conditions.

Dagerman’s compassion was no small accomplishment. On my many trips to Germany I have always sought out the victims, discovered a few perpetrators, and been deeply disturbed by the knowledge that most of the people I saw were bystanders. I felt as Mann wrote that “the lack of a sense of the evil of the obviously and unequivocally wicked will always be a crime”—an unforgiveable one. Twenty-five years after Dagerman’s German autumn I was on a transatlantic ship (they were still transportation then), and a suave, silver-haired man from Munich standing at a bar said to me that “the fire bombing of Dresden was the greatest atrocity of World War II.” I did not want to speak to this man again. He had actually lived through the Nazi years in Germany and thought the Allied bombing, horrendous as it was, was the greatest atrocity.

Twenty years later I was in Dresden, the center still in ruins, reporting on the efforts of the newly unified Germany to at last rebuild that historic baroque city. Dresdeners tried to evoke my sympathy, but they kept leading me to archives that showed the destruction and what it was like before. Before was the problem—all those photographs of plump and happy Germans cheering swastikaed mass murderers. This is not easily overlooked and I’m not sure it should be overlooked. But Dagerman understood what was at stake. He quoted Victor Gollancz, a Jewish publisher in London who had only recently made his own visit to Germany that autumn and warned that “the values of the West are in danger.” Gollancz, a far more active antifascist than Dagerman and one of the few to speak loudly of the Holocaust during the war, was so disturbed by the conditions he found in Germany that he published that year a book about it, Our Threatened Values. Like Gollancz, Dagerman believed that compassion had to be preserved, that it was vital to maintain “the capacity to react in the face of suffering whether that suffering may be deserved or undeserved.”

Had we listened, had we felt more compassion, had we felt more troubled by the human suffering that was caused by our bombs, perhaps we would have spoken out louder and not ourselves been bystanders to the bombing of Hanoi and of Baghdad. World War II had been more brutal to civilians than warfare had ever been before. In the wars since then, the percentage of civilians on the conflict’s casualty list has been steadily rising.

German Autumn is a very important book and it is crucial that an English language version is now available for Americans. We need this book. Karl Jaspers, the German psychiatrist turned philosopher, wrote, “We wish to understand history as a whole, in order to understand ourselves.”

Stig Dagerman (1923–1954) was regarded as the most talented young writer of the Swedish postwar generation. By age twenty-six he had published four novels, a collection of short stories, and four full-length plays, in addition to German Autumn.

Mark Kurlansky is a New York Times best-selling author of many books, including Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History.

"German Autumn is one of the best collections ever written about the aftermath of war. It is on par with John Reed’s classic articles from the Soviet Union as well as with Edgar Snow’s articles about the great political revolution in China. It should be compulsory reading for all young people who might consider becoming a journalist, and it is as alive as it was when first published in 1947. Read it."—Henning Mankell

"Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion."—Graham Greene

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

[Wired] The Curse of Cow Clicker: How a Cheeky Satire Became a Videogame Hit

From Wired's feature on author Ian Bogost (How to Do Things With Videogames and Alien Phenomenology):

You work for the Transportation Security Administration, manning the x-ray machine at a local airport. Your day begins easily enough, quickly scanning passengers’ luggage and bodies and waving them through. But after a few minutes, you get an alert—shirts are now contraband. OK, fine, you dutifully strip people of their T-shirts as they pass through the metal detector. Then another alert: Mobile phones are prohibited, too. Wait, now coffee isn’t allowed either, but cell phones are OK again. As you struggle to keep the new rules straight, the line of cranky passengers gets longer. Wait, snakes and turbans have just been outlawed. Oh, and shirts are allowed now, but you didn’t realize that until you’d already stripped down another passenger. That’s one strike against you. Now native headdresses are forbidden, turbans are OK, but shoes must be removed. You get confused and let a snake through—another black mark. The line of passengers begins to stretch across the room even as new regulations keep coming in faster than you can process them. Before long, you are fired—not because you’ve endangered anyone’s safety, but because you failed to cope with the illogical edicts of a capricious bureaucracy.

That pretty much sums up the experience of playing Jetset, a tongue-in-cheek but nerve-jangling iPhone game that almost makes you feel sorry for the petty tyrants behind the backscatter machine. Jetset is the brainchild of Ian Bogost, a game developer and academic. While some videogames let players vicariously experience the thrill of tossing a grenade into an enemy machine-gun nest, Bogost’s offerings—designed under the auspices of his small development company, Persuasive Games—tend to simulate grinding, unsatisfying everyday experiences. In Fatworld, players are charged with managing a diet-and-exercise regimen on a limited budget; in Bacteria Salad, they must grow and sell tomatoes and spinach as quickly as possible while containing E. coli outbreaks. (The game ends when too many people violently shit themselves.) In one of Bogost’s sentimental favorites, Disaffected!, surly Kinko’s employees struggle to fill orders for angry customers. At first, the game seems similar to classics like Tapper or Diner Dash, which transform workplace demands into a source of fun. But Disaffected! offers no such alchemy. “Conventional games are structured to ensure you can accomplish tasks and level up,” says Bogost, who has a PhD in comparative literature and is director of Georgia Tech’s graduate program in digital media. “In our game, you can’t. You can’t see it as working your way up to becoming a manager or to starting your own office-supply store. That is not what this game is about. It is about working a bad job.”

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New media and old philosophy: What would Vilém Flusser think about e-books?

Associate professor of German studies and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut

In an essay titled “The New Imagination” (1990), Vilém Flusser emphasizes the need for a “critique of image criticism” – and he considered letters to be images as well. He writes: “The linear gesture of writing tears the pixels from the image surface, but it then threads these selected points (bits) torn from the images into lines. This threading phase of the linear gesture negates its critical intention, in that it accepts the linear structure uncritically. … If one wants a radical critique of images, one must analyze them.” Images, he insists, must be calculated and explained, not threaded into linearity. This “new imagination,” as he calls it, is an outgrowth, a result of years of writing on the technical imagination, so astutely presented in Flusser’s trilogy, published in the 1980s (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Into the Universe of Technical Images, and Does Writing Have a Future?). The shortest summary of Flusser’s evolution of media, provided at the end of this essay, reads as follows: “First, man took a step back from his life-world, to imagine it. Then, man stepped back from the imagination, to describe it. Then, man took a step back from the linear, written critique, to analyze it. And finally, owing to a new imagination, man projected synthetic images out of analysis.”

These steps overlap, of course, and we have not yet quite reached the very last one. Nonetheless, Flusser suggests a drastic move after this long history of repeatedly threading critiques: he proposes a step forward towards a critique, a step towards an imagination out of computation, not from description and experience. This imagination marks a step toward creativity, toward “true expression,” and, according to him, turns homo faber (Man the Creator) into homo ludens (Man the Player).

We all want to play – and new media often permit us to play at our own volition and by building our own critique or imagination (not that there’s a whole lot of difference for Flusser here). The future of reading and writing, for Flusser, is one that is enmeshed with the reading and writing of images, a process that can always be creative and presents always a potential challenge. His media philosophy, focused in large part on the interconnectedness of text and image, proscribes non-linearity inasmuch as computation, calculation and analysis demand creativity – they are imaginative actions, not descriptive ones; it’s simply not about collecting facts or observations or about regurgitation.

How does that translate to integrating new media platforms and gadgets such as Twitter or e-books into our lives? Flusser would have been an unlikely Tweeter; why restrict one’s input to a silly 140 characters? However, the forms of dialog Twitter facilitates would possibly have fascinated Flusser inasmuch as the networking and dialoging defies linearity. E-books, especially new versions like the Kindle Fire, might have inspired his critique of the apparatus, the program, and the images/letters presented. Do we “see through” the surface, do we understand and “play with” the underlying program, the materiality of what the “game” of e-books presents us with? Does the e-book allow us to break through the constructedness of itself, to rearrange its purported magic?

For someone who hammered away at his typewriter, an e-book might have been a marvelous machine, albeit one that Flusser likely would regard with skepticism. I recently thought about Flusser when I found myself sitting on the commuter train from Grand Central station back to Connecticut with an army of readers, heads bent over the object in their laps, simultaneously determined and aloof.

I was the only one holding a book.

Paper, yikes!

Everyone else handled an e-book or a smart phone (with apps for online books), “turning” “pages” (?) with the tip of a finger, cradling the slim plastic board in both hands as if the cherished item would otherwise slip away.

We are engaging in a new imagination, and we like to play. Whether we are willing to calculate and compute the images we see on an e-book, though, remains to be seen. So far, we are simply trying to understand and analyze the transition from linearity to circularity or networks, from the haptics of a book or image to their digital forms – forms informed by pixels and algorithms. Flusser calls our attention to these underlying levels – and challenges us to play with them.


Anke Finger is associate professor of German studies and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut. She is co-author, with Rainer Guldin and Gustavo Bernardo, of Vilém Flusser: An Introduction.

"Flusser is one of our lost gems—the other McLuhan, and dare I say the better. A global citizen writing alternately in German, Portuguese, English, or French, Flusser meditated on words and gestures, translation and doubt, cities and images. He was a master of the essay form. I believe he had the ear of both gods and men. In this important book on Flusser we are introduced for the first time in English to perhaps our greatest media philosopher."
—Alexander R. Galloway, New York University

"Flusser is one of the world’s most interesting theorists of communication and culture, yet his work is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. Anke Finger, Rainer Guldin, and Gustavo Bernardo are the most qualified scholars in the world to provide this contextualizing introduction to the complex array of his work."
—Douglas Kellner, UCLA

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December 13th: Sankta Lucia Dagan (Festival of Lights)

From Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America by Eric Dregni (Minnesota 2011), pgs. 252-53:

At 6:15 in the morning of December 13, the parking lot of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis is jammed, the castlelike structure clouded in the cars' vapors. Tickets are sold out as the dark mansion on Park Avenue fills up with Swedish Americans ready to celebrate Santa Lucia Day.

Why are Swedes celebrating a Sicilian saint and singing the Swedish translation of a Neapolitan song? One story tells of a white-robed woman wearing a crown of candles and carrying food to starving Swedes in Värmland. Another tells how sailors at sea found their way home to Sweden thanks to a vision of a beautiful woman with a halo of light, who was St. Lucy (Lucia means lux, or light, in Latin).

The fair Lucia hailed from fourth-century Syracuse and was promised to a wealthy man, whom she despised. To avoid marriage to a cruel pagan, she gave away her dowry, but her fiance denounced her as a Christian to the mayor of the town. Her eyes were plucked out, and, as the legend goes, God gave her a pair of even more beautiful eyes. The church canonized her as the patron saint of light and eyesight, and Lucia is often painted with her eyes on a platter as a sign of her martyrdom.

On December 13, the dark days are beginning in Scandinavia, so this festival of lights marks the beginning of the Christmas season and time to get baking. The eldest daughter dresses as Lucia in a white gown and a crown of four candles and brings lussekatter (Lucia saffron buns), usually in an S shape, to her sleeping parents. At the American Swedish Institute, she is followed by "star boys" in long, white cone hats and jultomten (julenisse in Norwegian), who are Christmas pixies.

"Don't forget to turn your lights on!" they tell each other as they switch on the battery-powered bulbs (rather than real candles) in the crowded wooden mansion. The lit wants of the star boys become swords, and one of them knocks out a ceiling tile. Never mind, though, because all eyes are on Lucia.

After the procession, the early morning crowd indulges in lussekatter, pepparkakor (spicy ginger snaps), and strong Swedish coffee—just in time to go back to bed.


Excerpt from Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, by Eric Dregni. Get it at 30% off in our holiday sale.

"While reading Vikings in the Attic, I solved two family mysteries and added at least ten new jokes to my act."
—Louie Anderson

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nerds and Nords: Why Styrbiorn the Strong is made for Skyrim fans.

Senior acquisitions editor at University of Minnesota Press

It’s an open secret here at the Press that I’m a pretty big gamer in my off time. A quick romp through a virtual world with an ax in one hand and a fireball spell in the other is the perfect antidote to a long work day of delving deep into manuscripts on economic geography, settler colonialism, or social movement theory.

And like a lot of gamers, I’ve been completely obsessed with Skyrim for almost a month now, spending to date seventy hours playing a character named Gwydion, a Breton with a fetching pencil-thin moustache who enjoys picking flowers as much as he loves trolling Imperial camps and fighting dragons. That I’ve spent more time with Gwydion than I have on some relationships is a testament to Bethesada, Skyrim’s creator, to craft an open world RPG with its own cosmology and coded physics, a world indifferent to the person exploring it. As Tom Bissel writes in his Grantland review of Skyrim, “Like most who play Skyrim, I’m greatly drawn to these incredible environments because the act of exploring them becomes uniquely my experience.”

Many gamers take crafting this unique experience very seriously. Weeks before Skyrim was released, I’d find myself jotting down potential character names, deciding if they’d most fit a wretched Argonian thief or a mysterious but benevolent battlemage. Gwydion, a trickster character from Welsh mythology, fits my spell-wielding, sneaky Breton perfectly.

If you grew up on tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, you probably take this pre-game process even more seriously, writing down a narrative back story for your character, deciding how they grew up and recording the formative events that shaped their present attitudes. Why are they a callous murderer? Why would they choose to side with the Stormcloak rebellion rather than the Imperial army? Do they prefer men or women? Having a detailed back story makes decision-making in the game feel more natural and more unique to the player.

As nerds seem to be particularly fascinated by Nords these days, it’s worth pointing out that the University of Minnesota Press has recently brought back into a print what I think is the ultimate sourcebook for RPGers, E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the Strong. Originally published in 1926, Eddison’s fantasy is written in the style of the Sagas of old, telling the story of the prodigal son Styrbiorn’s exile from Sweden and vengeful return. Styrbiorn’s nature as a headstrong, combative scion of the North makes him a perfect character to roleplay in Skyrim.

The book is peopled with a host of great characters who would feel right at home in Whiterun or Winterhold. Based on historical or legendary figures from Nordic history, its filled with drunken brawls, thralls, Viking armadas, and moody men brooding through long winters. Reading Styrbiorn the Strong, I can’t help but draw parallels to the frozen mountains and floe-choked seas of Skyrim. For example, Eddison’s description of the rugged coast of Sweden lingers on the “driving mist that made gray and ghostly the whole face of the country-side, blotting out the hills and woods and confounding water and sky in the same hue and tone of pale grey without colour,” a description that could also apply to the beautifully rendered squalls that come in off the Sea of Ghosts near Dawnstar, in the far north of Skyrim. One could read the violence and upheavel of Styrbiorn as a prehistory to Skyrim’s racial and political conflicts, set in the same war-torn Nordic landscape.

In fact, Styrbiorn the Strong could be considered a “sourcebook” for the genre of fantasy as we know it today. After encountering Eddison’s writings in the 1940s, J. R. R. Tolkien would write, “I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing write of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read.” C. S. Lewis admired Eddison’s ability to develop a world that was a “strange blend of renaissance luxury and northern hardness.” For anyone who takes their fantasy worlds seriously, I recommend checking out this classic from one of the original masters of fantasy.


Jason Weidemann is senior acquisitions editor at U of MN Press. He can be found tweeting at @fiveoclockbot or via e-mail at

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Paul Metsa: The long, mysterious road to Blue Guitar Highway

Singer, songwriter, and seven-time Minnesota Music Award winner

My love of books started when I was in kindergarten and would spend Saturday mornings listening to Miss Smart (a perfect name for our local librarian) read from them as we sat in a semicircle around her at the Virginia Public Library in Minnesota. I sat, cross-legged, closed my eyes, and would drift away into the worlds she’d describe, transported first-class via this diminutive lady with the gray hair in a bun and thick wire-rimmed glasses, in a voice that at times sounded not unlike the cracking of the ice that froze at midnight over a sidewalk puddle you’d step on on your way to school. Yet this preschooler gave her the benefit of the doubt, as both her sincerity and those stories would open one new world, and then another, expanding my imagination one Saturday morning at a time.

Books were one portal into my awareness, as were newspapers whose headlines and columnists I would eventually devour, but not after a year or two of just reading them for box scores and comic strips. But what really opened the floodgates, and would become the fenceless corral of the power of words and language was the AM radio. It was 1965, and Mama was in the basement mixing up the medicine. Now words starting coming at me from all sides: lyrics, books, the Bible, poetry, and magazines all crashing against each other, becoming one huge wave upon the shore. And also echoing in my young ears were the televised speeches of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., whose poetry, cadence, and power felt within my reach. And even now as I do not need to understand the language of opera to appreciate its majesty, the sound of words would sometimes become as important as their meaning. I loved it all and could feel it making sense if not always understanding it literally.

And then to start writing words of my own: class projects, letters to Grandma and Grandpa and cousins, then a poem or two, and after a few guitar lessons, a song. A real and original song. Lyrics and a chorus wed to a melody, like Tinkers to Evers to Chance. To the sky ma, to the sky and seventh grade, here I come.

Hunter Thompson entering Las Vegas as the bats were about to appear. And from there, back to King Kerouac, reading On the Road but not old enough to be on it. Cousin Kesey and crazy uncle Ginsberg and Walt Whitman the wordy birdy Johnny Appleseed. Bukowski? I think I would eventually drink with someone who looked like him. A man landed on the moon, Woodstock came and went, and I was about to turn 15 now surrounded by books and writers I adored and stayed up late with. A brave new world indeed.

Years came and went and I got more serious about writing songs, and prose and poetry too. Scads of illegible poetry written on barroom napkins, erotic letters to bygone girlfriends, midnight letters to the editor, punch lines stolen from saloon philosophers or anonymous strangers just passing by. The songs I wrote I sang, and the rest of it I’d throw in a drawer. I am a guitarist by trade, a songwriter by inspiration, working in a life of music, as music is nothing, if not the discipline of hope. The poetry and prose was a way to keep track of the other parts of my life that didn’t need a melody.

A couple of years ago I met Kevin Avery, a writer/editor/agent, after reading a piece of his on the Dylan-centric website I asked him if I could send him several pieces I had written and get an objective viewpoint on my writing. He read it and suggested I had the beginning of a great book. I sold a guitar, rolled the dice on New Years Day 2010, and hired him to help me edit and pitch the book. I signed a publishing deal with the University of Minnesota Press on October 30, 2010. That is the same university, I like to add, that refused me entrance to its music program and that I subsequently dropped out of. That my memoir is about my 35 years in the music business adds a certain sweetness to the irony and represents my karmic diploma. Funny how life works.

And now, a little over a month after its publication, I am finding myself connecting with people I haven’t seen or spoken to in years. Last week during a reading at Common Good Books in St. Paul, I ran into a woman who looked as pretty as the night I took her to the prom in 1974 and hadn’t seen much of her since. Add a bass player, a bar owner, and a bookie or two, and you start to get the picture. Like Joni Mitchell used to sing, “and go round and round and round in the circle game.”

As I was finishing the piece, the phone rang. It was the head librarian at the Virginia Public Library, the same library where Miss Smart would hold forth with her enchanting fairy tales. They would like me to appear there in 2012 to read from my book. And who says you can’t go home again?


Paul Metsa is author of Blue Guitar Highway (which you can also check out at Metsa is a legendary musician and songwriter from Minnesota. Born on the Iron Range, he has been based in Minneapolis since 1978. He has received seven Minnesota Music Awards and has played more than five thousand gigs, including forays to Iceland and Siberia. He lives in Northeast Minneapolis with his faithful dog, Blackie; a dozen or so guitars; twenty-five orange crates of LPs; hundreds of books, compact discs, magazines, and vintage postcards; and several kitchen cupboards full of old cassettes.

"Paul Metsa is a natural-born writer. He can write anything. Lyrics, letters, articles all flow out of him like an exotic, ferocious waterfall splashing down on all the senses. If he writes it, I read it."
—Nora Guthrie

"The roads Paul Metsa has traveled are so fabled you might think, opening his book, that it would be a book of footnotes—the record of a man walking in other people's footsteps. But Metsa brings every myth the roads carry down to earth, rewriting their stories in real time, returning the roads to real life, opening them up again to both past and future."
—Greil Marcus

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving odds and ends: It's all about the leftovers. Er, "make-overs."

Writer for Mpls.St. Paul Magazine and the Star Tribune and regular Kare 11 correspondent

As much as I love Thanksgiving dinner with our family’s traditions, from touch football in the park to the must-have creamed onions in my grandmother’s serving dish, the truth is, it’s the leftovers I relish. For a busy cook, there’s nothing like having ingredients that are prepped and ready to go. The only real trick is in transforming them into a completely different meal. No fun in reheating and eating the same thing again and again.

One of my family’s favorite “make-overs” is this Turkey Pot Pie with Cheddar Chive Cobbler Crust (see recipe below from The Northern Heartland Kitchen). Know that along with the vegetables called for in the recipe, the odds and ends of Thanksgiving vegetable side dishes — cut green beans, cubed squash, creamed onions – make fine additions.

If you’re up to your elbows in leftover mashed potatoes, use them instead of the cobbler crust and create a Shepherd’s Pie. Stuffing, if you have any, can be used to top this pie, too.

A couple more ideas:

-Create a Curry Turkey dinner by warming a simple mix of stock, coconut milk and your favorite curry seasoning in a saucepan. Add the cooked, chopped turkey and leftover vegetables. Serve this over steamed rice. If you may have fancy nuts left from the cocktail hour, chop them up and use to garnish this.

-Turn the a side dish of wild rice into an entrée — Wild Rice, Turkey, Apple and Pecan Salad — by tossing into it freshly chopped apples, cubed turkey, and toasted pecans and little sweet-rough dressing (like a Honey Mustard Vinaigrette) or your favorite oil and vinegar mix.

-Soups are a main-stay after the holidays. For an Asian Turkey Noodle Soup, cook Asian noodles (soba or rice) in stock, add freshly grated ginger, a chopped chile, and soy to taste. Stir in the chopped, cooked turkey and leftover vegetables and garnish with cilantro.

-If you're long on roasted squash, create a Ginger Squash and Apple Soup by stewing together several peeled chopped apples and freshly grated ginger in stock to generously cover. Mash and stir in the leftover squash. Sweeten with a splash of cider if you wish.

-I’m a big fan of cranberry jelly. Use it in this simple, but wonderful Cranberry Mustard Glaze to brush on roast chicken, game, and pork. Simply melt cranberry jelly in a saucepan with a tablespoon of Dijon mustard to taste. Store this in a jar in the refrigerator. I’ve also used freshly cooked cranberry relish to stir into mayonnaise for turkey salad and to spread on sandwiches.

-No doubt, you may have leftover muffins, Parker House rolls or bread to deal with. Toss them into an old fashioned Bread Pudding. Use about 2 cups milk, 4 eggs and ¼ cup sugar spiked with vanilla for a 4 cup mixture of different breads. This is great for a lazy breakfast the Sunday following Turkey Day.

Much as I’d love the chance to “make over” desserts, leftovers have never provided the opportunity, though that would be a good problem to have.

Perhaps I’ll triple the pies this year.



Filling ingredients:
-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
-1 small onion, chopped
-2 cups sliced mushrooms
-Salt and freshly ground pepper
-1 1/2 cups chicken stock
-1 tablespoon fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
-2 carrots, sliced
-1 large potato, peeled and cut into chunks
-1 celery rib, sliced
-2 boneless chicken thighs or equivalent sized leftover cooked turkey or ham

Cobbler crust ingredients:
-2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
-2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
-3/4 teaspoon baking soda
-1 teaspoon sugar
-1 teaspoon salt
-6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
-1 cup buttermilk
-1 1/2 cups grated Cheddar cheese
-1/4 cup chopped chives

To make the Cheddar chive dough: Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt in a medium-size bowl. Blend in the butter with your fingertips or a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles small peas. Add Cheddar cheese and chopped chives, then gently stir in the buttermilk until the ingredients are just combined.

To make the filling: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a Dutch oven or a flame-proof casserole set over medium-high heat, melt the butter and sauté the onion and mushrooms until they release their juices and are soft, about 8 to 10 minutes, then season them with salt and pepper to taste. Add the stock and thyme, and boil until the liquid is reduced by about a third. Add the carrots, potato, celery, and turkey, and reduce to a simmer. Cook until the vegetables are tender and the chicken is cooked through. If you are using leftover cooked chicken, turkey, or ham, add it after the vegetables are cooked.

Drop the dough by spoonfuls on top of the vegetables and chicken in the Dutch oven or casserole, covering most of the surface area as you would a cobbler. Bake for about 35 to 45 minutes or until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbly.


Beth Dooley has covered the local food scene in the Northern Heartland for 25 years. She is the restaurant critic for Mpls.St. Paul Magazine, writes for the Taste section of the Star Tribune, and appears regularly on Kare 11 (NBC) television in the Twin Cities area. She is coauthor with Lucia Watson of Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland (Minnesota 2004) and most recently, author of The Northern Heartland Kitchen (Minnesota 2011), which offers more than 200 recipes to satisfy seasonal appetites. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three sons.

Visit her blog at

Friday, November 18, 2011

*They* Are … Penn State: "Qui tacet consentire videtur" ("Silence gives consent")

Fans cheer during the Penn State-Nebraska game in State College, Pa. This Nov. 12th, 2011, game was Penn State's first time playing in decades without former head coach Joe Paterno, who was fired in the wake of a child sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. AP photo.

Professor of history at The College of New Rochelle

A moment of silence was the last thing they should've done. Well, actually, perhaps taking the field at all was the last thing, but bowing heads in prayer before the Penn State-Nebraska game on a lovely November day had to be a close second for the some 107,903 people gathered in Beaver Stadium.

Silence had already done so much damage.

To be clear, silence should not be to blame: the men responsible, and their institution, cannot be let off so easily. But silence was their tool – their weapon against the outside. And for Jerry Sandusky, silence was the key to his retirement package.

A little over two years ago, I used this space and the above title to express my disbelief and disappointment in the emergent Tea Party’s barely coded racist reactions to the Obama administration, particularly the “accusations” of socialism, Marxism, and – hideously – Nazism that were expressed via depictions of Obama in whiteface or dressed as a witchdoctor, or questions regarding his very ability to claim citizenship in the United States. The point was for someone – something – to emerge in response as loudly as the Tea Party had launched its attacks. And with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, I felt, finally, there was something loud – what Matt Taibbi described in Rolling Stone as “a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society.” With its decentralized leadership, its organic strategies, its all-encompassing message of protest, the silence, I hoped, was gone.

If the situation at Penn State is any example, the power and legacy of silence remains.

The horror of what has been alleged against Sandusky is beyond comprehension, and needs no rehashing except to ensure that we do not forget what is at the center of all this: forty counts of abuse against eight boys, beginning in 1994, and the use (perhaps even the creation) of a so-called charity, The Second Mile, to aid and abet. Be clear: what has been described is not a sex scandal. Tiger Woods was a sex scandal and the only people he hurt, as I have written elsewhere, were his wife and children. No, what went down in that place of higher learning was rape. Child rape. Pedophilia. Enough said.

And yet something else has pushed aside the alleged victims of Sandusky. As the university community began to bear the impact of the Grand Jury testimony, and people began to fall, and reactions began to emerge, it was apparent that a skewed, yet familiar, set of priorities was at work here. The headlines following the first announcements from Penn State’s Board of Trustees declared things in the “proper” Nittany Lions’ order: beloved, legendary, winningiest coach Joe Paterno was fired. Oh, and the president of the university. Oh, and some other really important people that don’t have statues paying tribute to them on campus.

The reaction to the Trustees’ statement reiterated the university’s hierarchy: student rage over - wait for it - the firing of Paterno. More than 4,000 students doing what students at Penn State have been known to do, but not in regard to what was quickly unfolding as an enormous cover-up of felony crimes. “We think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” one student told the television cameras in the midst of the chaos, “that he got fired over this sort of situation.”

There are many levels upon which to ponder and process this horror: to read the Grand Jury testimony and hear about what the victims endured; to think about the involvement of a youth charity in child rape; to witness the powers-that-be of a university act as if their space exists above the law, able to deal with felony crimes – perhaps particularly and most traditionally rape – within its own structures. And these details will take a long time to unpack, if ever, if one considers just how long it has allegedly been going on, and just who knew what, and when. Think about the timeline: By the spring of 1998, a year before “heir apparent” Sandusky surprisingly retired, the following knew about allegations against him: PSU Police, the State College Police Department, district attorney Ray Gricar, the Second Mile attorney, and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. In the next few years, that list would grow even longer to include the janitorial staff of the Lasch Building, assistant coach Mike McQueary (and his father), senior university administrators, and, of course, Joe Paterno. Oh, and then Gricar, who had decided not to prosecute Sandusky in 1998, went missing, his car abandoned, his laptop found in a river. The last searches on his home computer included “how to wreck a hard drive” and “water damage to a notebook computer.”

David Brooks thinks we are all wrong to be asking “How could they have let this happen?” But I am not asking that – it is the wrong question because the state of Pennsylvania and the United States of America have channels within which this can and should be sorted out, and history has demonstrated time again exactly how these things happen. What I am asking: in the wake of finding out, how could you all have reacted this way?

To be fair, students held a candlelight vigil for the victims of child abuse on the Penn State campus, albeit a full two days after the riots over Paterno’s firing took place, and a day before they again assembled to watch a football game. For those who do not reside in Happy Valley, this seems, at best, odd, but to understand how that game could take place, how fans could attend, and how anyone could have the (lack of) sense and sensibility to yell “We ARE…Penn State” in the midst of a moment of silence for the victims is to take a look at the bigger picture: the culture of football in America writ large, and the culture of patriarchy that pervades it. Regardless of which details remain blurry, this we know: the action at every level, until the Board of Trustees announced the firings, were designed to protect the Nittany Lions, a team that brings some $50 million to the school each year, to the point where an eye-witnessed rape of a boy on campus was allegedly reported to a coach instead of the police.


The need of Penn State to return to business as usual, to support – indeed, riot – on behalf of a man who turned his back on information that could have stopped the further abuse of children, is part of why Penn State’s following is so loyal in the first place, and why Paterno’s hold is so great. The same traditions that turned a football coach into a demagogue allowed the rape of children, in plain sight, to take place for over a decade. So in the aftermath of the appalling breaking news, Penn State, by and large, wasn’t wrestling with the consequences of a criminal case, it was wrestling with how it felt about itself, its fallen king, and its lost identity. And its gut reaction was to defend the institution, the coach, and the team in spite of…child rape. The contrast between a riot, a candlelight vigil, and a football game vividly demonstrate, according to alum Mike Missanelli of the Philadelphia Inquirer, that for too long, too many had been “drinking the Penn State Kool-Aid.”

Respected sports journalist Michael Weinreb has arguably come closest to providing reasonable insight as to how in the face of such overwhelming and ghastly detail, so many could still be making excuses for the institution, broadly, and Paterno, specifically. Weinreb knows well what it is like to be part of the alcohol-infused sense of community that often accompanies big time college sports. Weinreb, as someone who went to Penn State having grown up in Beaver Canyon, a faculty son, and a believer in Paterno’s “Grand Experiment” (which successfully ensured an emphasis on the student in student-athlete), understands what it means to love an institution “so unbelievably big that it can easily swallow your identity.” But still, for him the side of right was easy to come to: “there are things about Penn State that need to change, and the only way to do this is by starting over.” Upon reading the sorrow of one student, who said (again, in reaction to the dismissal of the coach) “Being accepted to Penn State felt like a family, and Joe Paterno was the father,” Weinreb admonished: “We’re on our own now….It’s time to grow up.”

The comparisons between sport and religion are many, and not just when a sex abuse scandal takes place at a university or within a church. Both are faith-based occupations, and we have known for a long time, via Buzz Bissinger, what football can do to a place. So what lies ahead for the Penn State faithful is to determine how to reconcile the Kool-Aid with reality. For an institution to be so self-aware that it chants “we are” as a rallying cry perhaps makes the path all the harder, because now what lies ahead is creating an understanding that what was believed in so deeply – so deeply it likely allowed all of this to transpire in the first place – does not matter in the wake of, quite simply, the worst thing ever to have happened. Penn State can’t buy its way out of this, like the Catholic Church largely has, because it doesn’t have the money. So what is left to do?

Reflect. Reflect on how, as Weinreb urges, to start over. Because regardless of all the good – the diplomas, the championships, the spirit – the Grand Experiment produced, it failed. And we are….horrified. And we are…begging you to give your institutional mourning a rest and fill that moment of silence with something that heals someone other than yourselves.


Amy Bass is professor of history at The College of New Rochelle. She is author of Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois and Not the Triumph But the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: A reminder of how radical spatial politics have changed.

The Occupy San Francisco movement in full swing. Jessica Ellen Sewell recalls how just a century ago, women were using spaces elsewhere in the city to campaign for women's suffrage.

Member of the School of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey

As I was leading a walking tour of downtown San Francisco that highlighted women suffragists’ use of public space, my group encountered the activists of Occupy San Francisco marching down Market Street. 100 years earlier, Market Street had been central for suffragists giving speeches, selling suffrage goods, parading in the Labor Day parade, and speaking to voters in person and through ads in nickelodeons, streetcars, ferries, and on the street. Here we saw this same deeply symbolic space in the center of the city being activated once again by a growing political movement.

There is, however, a very important distinction between the public spaces suffragists used when they won the vote in California in 1911 and the public spaces used by the Occupy Wall Street movement, a distinction that speaks both to the radical critique at the center of the Occupy movement and to their violent treatment at the hands of police forces throughout the United States and beyond. As I detail in my book Women and the Everyday City, women suffragists in San Francisco made use of spaces that they had already made their own through everyday use. As shoppers, for example, they were already present in large numbers on the streets where they gave speeches and sold suffrage postcards. They did not, for the most part, use the parts of the downtown that were specifically part of the financial district, but instead stuck to space that they shared with men who worked in offices, such as Market Street, streetcars, and ferries. I believe that they chose this strategy to legitimate their political speech (by marking it as middle class and polite) in a context in which female political speech was in itself radical.

By contrast, the Occupy movement begins from the idea of occupation, which implies taking over a space that is conventionally seen as belonging to someone else. Rather than speaking only in the more traditional spaces of political speech, such as the Washington Mall and the plazas and parks in front of state capitols and city halls, the Occupy movement has focused on occupying the spaces of finance, in financial districts where street protests have historically been rare. Rather than inserting themselves into a space where political speech has been conventionally accepted, as San Francisco suffragists did when they spoke at the corner of Grant and Market, Occupy Wall Street has insisted on speaking politically in a space where public political debate has been absent, not only on the streets of the financial district, but also in the language of financial abstraction, which tends to focus on the state of the market and the necessity for profit, without allowing consideration of social and ethical consequences.

From left to right, Lillian Harris Coffin, Mrs. Theodore Pinther Jr. and Mrs. Theodore Pinther Sr. lead a march of 300 women of the California Equal Suffrage Association on August 27th, 1908, in Oakland, CA.
It is this insistence on politicizing a space that has been assumed to be apolitical, and this refusal to remain contained in the conventional spaces of political action, that makes the Occupy movement’s tactics so radical. This radical refusal to remain within free speech zones has contributed to the willingness of politicians to often violently disrupt the protests, as they understand that by challenging the nature of political action, both spatially and through leaderless consensus decision making, this movement suggests a profound challenge to business as usual. In both their insistence on interrupting what they argue are unjust practices, as well as their refusal to remain contained in the spaces of conventional political speech, they echo the sit-ins and other protests of the civil rights movement, which was also often violently put down.

In many cities, including San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago, protestors have focused on parks in the immediate vicinity of branches of the Federal Reserve Bank, engaging spatially with the connections between the banking system and government policies. Similarly, in marches protesters have linked centers of financial power and centers of political power, as in the Occupy San Francisco march, which led from the Occupy site at the foot of Market Street, at Justin Herman Plaza (opposite the Federal Reserve Bank), up Market Street to City Hall Plaza. Marches have also occupied streets such as Broadway in New York, as well as Market Street in San Francisco, that have a long history as spaces for parades, public celebrations, and public protest. In their occupation of the spaces of finance, the activists of the Occupy movement challenge the norms of the political use of space, but in their marches, and in the Occupy encampments near city halls in smaller cities, they also engage with a larger spatial history of political protest. In marching past my tour on Market Street, Occupy San Francisco showed the continuing importance of the symbolic center of the public downtown, even as the encampment from which they began questions the efficacy of keeping politics in political space.


Jessica Ellen Sewell is Member of the School of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. She is author of Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What Participatory Democracy Looks Like: Occupy Wall Street and the Myth of Leadership

Occupy Nashville protesters at the state capitol. While media pundits look for a single "heroic" leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement, others point to a reclamation of participatory democracy and an emerging model of distributed leadership. Image from AP.

Professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University

Since just about the second week of Occupy Wall Street, mainstream pundits have been arguing that the Occupation needs, basically, to grow up and get a clear message. Occupiers need to agree on some goals, and most importantly get some leaders, who could then participate in the rough and tumble of Washington politics, documenting the seriousness of the protest/movement. Direly, pundits have warned that an inability to do so will cause the movement to “fizzle.”

Occupiers resolutely preface all media statements with the assertion that “I am only speaking for myself”–even as television reporters have introduced them as “a driving force” or “leader” of the protests. The good news is that OWS’s and other local Occupations’ resolute refusal to succumb—in media, and on the ground in local occupations—to the call of mainstream politics and media for representatives and leaders has provoked at least some thoughtful debate about direct democracy and leaderless movements. An October 11th piece in the Christian Science Monitor by Daniel B. Wood and Gloria Goodale quotes Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson musing on the capacity for direct democratic processes to “more truly represent the will of the people”—that is, if they first don’t “turn into a mob.” Other experts in their article, like Nina Eliasoph, contend that the problem is not leaderless so much as their lack of “spokespersons” (a puzzling assertion since so many Occupiers have been interviewed). And others insist the Occupation is being covertly led—by the Democrats—an assertion that’s hard to take seriously.

In an October 18th CBS article, Deborah Ancona insightfully observes that media’s “view of leadership is stuck in the old model of the single heroic leader in command and control mode. What we are witnessing is a different leadership model—distributed leadership. Here multiple leaders take on various leadership activities in an attempt to move toward the collective good.” Her piece calls attention to how OWS’s “leaders” envision their roles as facilitators and catalysts, drawing others into the co-creation of the movement. Still, she ends warning against a “fizzle” (such a weirdly evocative—and increasingly hackneyed—metaphor).

Commentators frustrated with the heterogeneity of Occupiers and their allegiances keep insisting this movement won’t congeal. Even when commentators can catch a glimpse of the political possibilities proffered by OWS practice, they return to an analysis which links judgment on OWS to the perceived “failure” of leaderless movements historically in the arena of traditional party politics. What they are missing is what’s actually happening among occupiers at the ground level.

When people express their incredulity about the rag-tag assortment of voices out of the Occupations, I always ask them, Have you gone down? Have you attended a General Assembly?

Anonymous protester at Occupy Nashville. Image by Chris M. Scruggs.
Our Occupation in Nashville has just finished its first month: it began on October 8th. Almost 50 Occupiers were arrested a little more than a week ago, over two nights. The arrests resulted when the state tried to enforce a last-minute rewriting of its policies about public assembly in Legislative Plaza, Nashville’s traditional political public forum, which commands views of the state’s Court, Legislature and Capitol. Happily, Nashville’s night magistrate, Tom Nelson, refused on both nights to jail the Occupiers, telling troopers, "I have reviewed the regulations of the state of Tennessee, and I can find no authority anywhere for anyone to authorize a curfew anywhere on Legislative Plaza." I’ve been going down a few times a week since its early, exhilarating days—when the police were still being friendly—through the roller-coaster week of policy changes, threats, and then legal triumph, and now again as the Occupation settles in and begins envisioning its long-term stay and long-term goals.

Occupy Nashville is as heterogeneous as any in the nation—from homeless folk to people newly homeless (having lost their places to foreclosure) to school teachers, accountants, lawyers and nurses. There are security teams, logistical teams, sanitation teams, legal teams, medical teams, educational outreach teams, and teach-in teams. There are trainers for nonviolent protest, for de-escalation, for mindfulness. There’s the group facilitation team—the folks with experience facilitating General Assemblies who are eager to train all comers. As one recently summarized: “you give up your right to speak at the meeting, but you get all the satisfaction of making sure the meeting is productive and goes well!”

Like many others, I go not just because I’m curious to know what’s going on and because I’m proud of our Occupation, but because I really love participating in it. As I’ve tried to explain to friends, it’s an all-too-rare chance to really participate in a democratic deliberation. There’s something weird about the human microphone, for sure, but the weirdness evaporates quickly and 20 minutes into a meeting, you realize it makes you LISTEN to a speaker in a way we seldom do in politics today. I’ve encountered my own difficulty “miking” opinions I don’t really like. But whether I repeat the speaker or not, I sure do hear them. And think about what they say.

And more interestingly, I get to be a part of a consensus process. Decisions don’t move forward unless a majority of our Occupation agrees. If someone “blocks” a decision (signaling her moral or ethical disagreement with it by crossing her arms on her chest), she has an opportunity to speak and sway the crowd, which votes again after deliberating the block, at which point the resolution can only move forward if 90% concur. I’ve watched this deliberative process completely reverse a crowd—for instance, over the question of whether to apply for a permit to protest the first night Governor Haslam threatened the crowd with arrest. The Occupation spent at least 40 minutes deliberating—first deciding to “play nice” and apply and then deciding almost unanimously not to apply after one Occupier spoke eloquently about his moral opposition to “apply” for a right guaranteed both in the Federal and Tennessee State Constitutions. This was unfolding calmly, deliberately, while we were waiting for the troopers to move in.

This kind of process is, honestly, addictive. The reason Occupiers are so adamant that they speak only for themselves is because they have experienced the energy of what they are co-creating: a peer-based movement that creates power precisely through its rejection of the myth of leadership. Those who participate in the General Assemblies may look silly to onlookers, what with those wiggling happy fingers, and index-finger-and-thumb triangles banging against foreheads signaling a point of process. But participants can tangibly feel the difference between their co-production of their own Occupation, and the rank-based thinking that informs economic and political life. In the rank-based world—the one Occupiers challenge—leaders are seduced into an over-confidence about their own abilities (with disastrous results) and followers are led into an equally false lack of confidence about their own inability. Rank-based politics robs qualified people of an opportunity to contribute to the larger good. What Occupiers get—every night—is that when everyone contributes to decision making, when all the objections are seriously entertained, the decisions are both better and more satisfying. It’s this sense of democratic co-ownership in local Occupations that is growing the movement: a sensation of democratic power among citizens that has been strangely lacking in the world’s so-called “most powerful democracy.”

While Occupation detractors insist that this is a fringe left movement, it’s clear that the participatory ground rules make room for a full spectrum of political opinion. Well—it’s only clear if people go to General Assemblies. So here’s the kind of thing you can see if you do. Last Wednesday—just two days after an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of Occupy Nashville sent Republican Governor Haslam back to the drawing boards—Vanderbilt Republicans announced they would go to Legislative Plaza Thursday night to stage a counter-protest. They spent Wednesday and Thursday filling local media with soundbites. Occupy Nashville is silly and childish: if they were serious about political change, they’d be at the White House, not jousting at Wall Street, not camping in Nashville. Then they took their signs and chants downtown on Thursday night, just in time for the General Assembly. Welcomed with cookies and chants of “we love you” from the Occupiers, the Republicans tried staging their own “counter” chants—only to have the Occupiers join in.

Occupiers welcomed them to the Occupation, explaining that they embraced their use of the People’s Plaza for non-violent protest. They invited the Republicans to use the human microphone, and listened respectfully to the group’s head, Stephen Sio, explain that their demands were “unrealistic.” Occupiers proposed breaking into discussion groups in order to find common ground—which they shortly did. Vanderbilt students who only a day earlier had nothing but contempt for Occupy Nashville ended the evening celebrating their ability to peacefully express differing views and to find points of agreement with perceived opponents, and chanting with Occupiers about what they had produced together over the course of the evening.

Richard Fausset of the LA Times called it a “love fest.” But their chant says it better: “This is what democracy looks like!”


Dana Nelson is professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University and author of Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People.

"Dana Nelson argues provocatively—and persuasively—that the mythological status accorded the presidency is drowning our democracy. The remedy will not come from Washington. It starts with people rediscovering—then reclaiming—their birthright as active citizens, restoring meaning to the sacred idea of self-government."
—William Greider of The Nation magazine, author of The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Libya's declared adherence to Sharia law: What does it mean?

This map displays those countries that use Sharia law and to what extent. Here, author Zakia Salime looks at the different interpretations of Sharia law. Image from Creative Commons.

Assistant professor of sociology and women's and gender studies at Rutgers University

Should the West worry about Mustapha Abdul-Jalil’s declaration that Libya shall embrace Sharia law?

As a feminist scholar who has also written on feminist debates about women’s rights in the Islamic Sharia, I am feeling very disturbed by both his statement and the alarming messages that follow in Western media.

Firstly, it is important to note that modern debates about the Islamic Sharia carry a colonial legacy and create a dualism between existing legal systems that were not necessarily codified into laws, were in some cases unfriendly to women while granting them other types of protections and rights; and the positive law introduced by colonial rule. The latter is what regulates the capitalist organization of life in the post-colonial state.

For instance, it was the post-colonial state in North Africa that codified women’s rights (or rather, obligations) in the family, based on the highly patriarchal patriarchal interpretations of Quranic texts, grounded in the Maleki Fikh (one of the four schools of interpretation of the Islamic sources). This means that in these countries the Sharia as a legal code shrunk to the domain of family law. Hence, questions relating to marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance rights are all regulated by the Sharia, while other domain of economic and political activity broadly defined are regulated through positive law and followed international norms and regulations.

Secondly, since Sharia is a matter of interpretation (Sharia is not compiled in a single book; we have four main schools of interpretation), the codification of women’s rights also incorporated some of the restrictions put on women’s property ownership, travel, or work that originated not in the Islamic Sharia but rather in the Napolean Code and British Common law. This explains how issues of permissions get incorporated to various codifications of family law in the region. To the exception of independent Tunisia in which the codification of women’s rights followed a principle of gender equality through the abolition of polygamy, repudiation, and through granting custody and alimony rights, most codification of family law in North Africa and the Middle East has included many restrictions and inequalities that have been addressed, with more or less success, by women’s movements in the region. Despite the fact that property and inheritance rights are granted through Quranic scriptures, the various codifications of family laws found ways to restrict women’s access to these rights and prevent discussions about how they could be reformed, knowing that the Sharia is also historically contingent.

As my book Between Feminism and Islam shows, two decades of debates among feminists and Islamists have enabled the women’s movements in North Africa and the Middle East to identify these various influences in ways that are empowering and adequate to their own needs.

Back to Mustapha Abdul-Jalil’s declaration. I find it disturbing because of its timing. I believe that decisions about the legal system Libya should embrace should be made by a democratically elected constituency and not by self-appointed individuals, regardless of the important role they have played in managing the transition. To the average Muslim, the Sharia means a personal path, a set of moral guidelines for everyday behavior. It is based on the principles of justice, equality, fairness, integrity, and preservation of life, among others. When the Sharia is hijacked by persons or governments to justify their hold on power (as in the cases of Nigeria and the Sudan) and when the Sharia is used as a means to justify men’s control over women’s bodies, behavior, and movement (as in the case of Saudi Arabia or Iran) then we have good reasons to worry about the Libyan case. However, I am not sure Mustapha Abdul-Jalil can set the clocks back. The Maghreb has had three decades of feminist activism to reform the various codifications of family law, with the leading case of Tunisia and, since 2004, Morocco. As part of the Maghreb, Lybia can not stand outside of these dynamics.

In the West, the Sharia has been confused with customary or newly invented practices such as those labeled "honor killing" or the horrifying cases of stoning. These practices are becoming the lens through which liberal and right-wing media alike understand the impact of the Sharia on women.

While in no case should one dismiss the impact of these practices on the women subjected to them, we need to understand them in their particular context of post-colonial struggles that have impacted certain societies as well as the neo-colonial struggles over self-determination that are inscribed in gender norms. One can think about the cases of Pakistan, Palestine, or Iraq. To fully understand these practices we need to bring together, history, politics, economic struggles, and entrenched patriarchy.


Zakia Salime is assistant professor of sociology and women's and gender studies at Rutgers University. She is author of Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco.

"Between Feminism and Islam challenges the common assumption in the media and the academy that Islamism and feminism are quintessentially opposed ideologies. Through a careful sociological and ethnographic account of Moroccan feminist and Islamist women’s organizations, Zakia Salime shows how the two have transformed each other through decades of activism, debate, and engagement. This is an indispensable book for sociologists of gender, religion, politics, feminism, the Middle East, and Islam."
—Saba Mahmood, author of
Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

Friday, October 28, 2011

Alondra Nelson: Health care and the 99 percent

The Black Panther Party's 40th reunion in 2006 in Oakland, California. October 2011 marks the 45th anniversary of The Black Panther Party's founding. From the beginning of today's Occupy Wall Street movement, Alondra Nelson argues, activists have raised the issue of health-care reform with underappreciated deliberation in a manner that also suggests the influence of prior African-American activism. Image from Creative Commons, copyright MDCV@ 10/15/2006.

Associate professor of sociology at Columbia University

The Occupy movement has been a mostly peaceful campaign. At the same time, it has not been without drama, ranging from the protesters’ riotous parade of signage to raucous street theater.

Prior to the violent turn of recent days, when members of the Oakland police department shot tear gas and rubber bullets at the city’s occupiers, one of the Occupation’s most climactic moments involved civil rights paragon Reverend Jesse Jackson. On the evening of October 17, Jackson joined arms with the Zuccotti Park protesters to block the NYPD’s efforts to dismantle the OWS medical tent as the world watched via Twitter and Ustream. When this tense standoff was over, an interracial, inter-generational phalanx of activists had successfully bent the course of a determined thin blue line.

This moment literally and metaphorically linked civil rights activism to the contentious politics of today’s Occupy movement. Playing out over the fate of the protesters’ medical tent, the episode also shined a light on one of the lesser-noted dimensions of both the Occupy movement—its health politics—and how the civil rights movement offered a template for it.

From the beginning, activists raised the issue of healthcare reform with underappreciated deliberation. Healthcare issues were foundational to the OWS protests and those that soon followed across the globe. As Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein observed, close to half of the 500-plus posts published on We Are the 99 Percent between August and early September mentioned “health concerns,” from “the cost of medication to forgoing treatment to treatment denials,” as their chief complaint. Although some have criticized the Occupy movement for lacking a focused message, these activists have a clear understanding of the many facets of health inequality.

Moreover, the centrality of concerns about health and medicine in the Occupy movement are apparent in the very topography of the activists’ ad-hoc communities. Medical tents like the red-cross emblazoned one that served as the backdrop for the OWS confrontation are cornerstones of Occupy encampments. These makeshift medical clinics comprise part of the social infrastructure that has sustained the OWS these many weeks, alongside multi-platform communication networks, People’s libraries, and community kitchens. The tents also suggest the influence of prior African-American activism: Zuccotti Park has been renamed Liberty Park, just as the Black Panther Party renamed Oakland’s Defremery Park after Bobby Hutton—one of the first members of the Party. Here and in their clinics, the black radicals dispensed healthcare services and health outreach and education.

The Occupy medical tents are stocked with donated supplies and “a broad array of remedies.” And they operate through volunteer efforts, including those of health professionals who count themselves among the ranks of the Occupy movement. At OWS, a rotation of about two dozen medical volunteers including doctors, nurses, lifeguards, and EMTs provides round-the-clock care. Patricia Hughes, a home care nurse, served as Occupy Denver’s primary medic before she and others were ousted from their medical tent in that city’s Lincoln Park after just two weeks. In some instances the Occupy medics also fill “healthcare gaps” among the protesters themselves. Maria Fehlig, a nurse who traveled from Las Vegas to New York to work on the OWS effort, said that they treat protesters “who otherwise have not sought out healthcare in five, six years because they have no insurance.”

Hughes and other volunteers served as the principle source of medical services for their fellow activists. Like the black and white health activists who participated in 1964’s Freedom Summer, Occupy health volunteers observed and quickly responded to the unmet healthcare needs of the local community. During the civil rights movement, H. Jack Geiger, Alvin Poussaint, and others established free clinics in poor southern neighborhoods; Occupy Denver dispensed basic healthcare to the city’s homeless population.

The Occupy healthcare corps includes a group of street medics that trace their efforts to the civil rights movement and claim affiliation with the decentralized hacker group Anonymous. AnonMedics is working with the Occupy efforts in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, and in the “Deep South.” Although Occupy Atlanta did not allow civil rights pioneer Representative John Lewis to speak at its general assembly, the AnonMedics explicitly declare that they were inspired by the antiwar and anti-racist activism of the 1960s and 1970s: “Street medics are not a new concept. Originally seen during the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, street medics are volunteer activists who attend political actions equipped with the knowledge and inventory necessary to give medical aid to protesters and civilians in need.”

Like the Medical Committee for Human Rights that was the “medical arm of the civil rights movement,” AnonMedics’ mission is to provide care for injured protesters. The group’s primer includes instructions on how to treat exposure to tear gas and pepper spray. They were on the scene in Oakland on Tuesday night when dozens, including Iraq War veteran Scott Thomas Olsen, were injured in confrontations with police.

Other health workers involved in the Occupy movement have taken to the streets, rather than working in the medical tents. In New York City, physicians from Montefiore Hospital, including a group that calls itself Doctors for the 99 Percent, marched with signs that read “Health not Wealth.” One of the doctors was Arash Nafisi, an internist at Montefiore. Nafasi explained to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that healthcare matters were “one part of the struggle, one part of the fight. We believe in healthcare for all just like people here believe in housing for all and all sorts of other rights.” Magni Hansel, a primary care specialist at Montefiore, told Goodman that there was a connection between income inequality, health inequality, and medical ineffectiveness: “people are unable to afford their medicines . . . people are unable to deal with their health issues because they’re dealing with housing; they’re dealing with jobs.” Doctors and nurses marched on Wall Street again last weekend.

The issue of health writ large lies at the center of the Occupy movement. Rich in its own health politics, the civil rights movement is one tributary of influence for this recent wave of protest. The activists seek accessible medical services and affordable health insurance. They have asserted the value of life over profit and a right to healthcare. To say that the Occupy activists have no message is to ignore the panoply of efforts in play to supply healthcare to the 99 percent, now and into the future.

This post also appears in Dissent Magazine.


Alondra Nelson is associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, where she also holds an appointment in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She is author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination.

"In Body and Soul, Alondra Nelson combines careful research, deep political insight, and passionate commitment to tell the little-known story of the Black Panther Party's health activism in the late 1960s. In doing so, and in showing how the problems of poverty, discrimination, and access to medical care remain hauntingly similar more than forty years later, Nelson reminds us that the struggle continues, particularly for African Americans, and that social policies have profound moral implications."
—Rebecca Skloot, author of
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

"This book is a revelation. Alondra Nelson uncovers two remarkable histories in Body and Soul. First, she provides the deep context for our current conversation about the health disparities that plague the African-American community and that are, as she puts it, ‘quite literally sickening.’ Second, she adds immeasurably to our knowledge of the Black Panther Party, complicating its commonplace designation as a radical, militant organization to unearth its dedication and hard work in advocating for and providing equal and quality health care for even the most underserved African Americans. Nelson is the first scholar I know of to bring these two histories into dialogue with each other, and she does so with spectacular results. This is a tremendously important book."
—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Richard Lindberg: My Swedish Family, My American Life

A young Richard Lindberg poses with his father, Oscar, and Oscar's 1959 Lincoln. Richard's new memoir, Whiskey Breakfast, is a tale of his own experiences in often turbulent times.

"The longest journey of any person is the journey inward."
—Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961)


Twenty-two years ago I had an idea for a book about my enigmatic father, the radical socialist Oscar Lindberg. It would be a book that blends memoir with a history of Swedish immigration to Chicago framed through the lens of two disparate families, those of my mother and my father. I had invented a title for this book back in 1989 – Whiskey Breakfast – then fretted that some other author would take it. Thankfully, that did not happen.

I am a Chicago writer, and the author of 15 earlier books dealing with politics, history, sports, true crime and ethnicity, all revolving around the city I have lived in all my life; a city I have come to cherish and revile, a city of great contradiction, but what a wonderful setting in which to write!

I have been writing since the age of eleven, when I began the lifelong practice of keeping a diary—a habit inspired by reading The Diary of Anne Frank in the sixth grade at Onahan School on Chicago’s far Northwest side. Those were troubling and sad years for me. I am the product of a broken home. My father, Oscar, was a Swedish socialist born in 1897. He was 56 when I first saw the light of day in 1953. He had emigrated here in 1924, ostensibly as a personal revolt against the Swedish military draft. In truth, he fled Mother Sweden for altogether different reasons, which remained hidden from my view until after his death in 1986. He had sired two children and abandoned them in Sweden. The impoverished mother of the boy Osborn (born just a few days after Oscar sailed for America in November 1924) had no money to care for the sickly child, who died in an orphanage before his first birthday. The other half-brother, I discovered between two journeys to Sweden, died before his fifth birthday, killed on a construction site. Did my father suffer any pains of conscience for turning his back in so cavalier a manner? Throughout his life, he gave no indication of any lingering regret.

The nuptials of Richard's parents, Oscar Lindberg and Helen Marie
Stone (middle), 1958.
My father was married four times. He was once a widower and twice divorced before settling in with his fourth and final wife in 1967. I was his second U.S.-born son, and my mother, Helen Marie Stone, was his third wife. She grew up on Clark Street – Chicago’s last Swedetown. Inside Simon’s Tavern on Clark Street, a relic of the Depression Era that still serves the neighborhood people, my mother’s father, Richard Stone, brokered the marriage of Helen to my father—a marriage she never really wanted.

Duty and obligation beckoned. Her family was poor, but my father was older and gave the appearance of being quite wealthy. He built fashionable homes up and down Chicago’s North Shore as he buried his family secrets and presented a veneer of probity, respectability, and good business sense. Privately, his radical Swedish socialism belied his lifestyle of conspicuous consumption in Skokie, Illinois, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. My mother suffered an unhappy seven-year marriage that ended disastrously.

This is the backdrop of Whiskey Breakfast, a painful and haunting echo of the past; divorce, alcoholism, lives torn asunder, and my own experiences in turbulent times. Oh yes, Onahan School.

Wither Onahan.

I was a student there from 1958-1967. And in so many ways the pain and the hurt of being the school pariah, bullied, hectored and terrorized for eight full years shaped much of my outlook on life to the point where I never wanted to have children of my own. Nowadays we hear a lot about “cyber bullying.” Educators are much more on guard today and are better prepared to deal with this once-neglected form of child abuse – peer abuse. It wasn’t so back then and my childhood was destroyed by cruel, thoughtless and heartless children who revealed the ugly prejudices of the adult world in shocking ways. I will never forget that my champion, a Jewish girl named Marcy, was ridiculed and shunned by the more popular girls in our class for being the only Jewish girl in the school. For Marcy and me, the bullies penned their customized “slam books” – listing the 50 reasons why they hated us, and then circulated them around the class for everyone to sign. What kind of irrational hatred inspires such rabid behavior in young children? Where do they learn it from?

I have often wished that I could sit down one-on-one, as adults, with the worst of my youthful tormenters just to ask them, “Why?” What would they say to me today? How often I wonder.

Whiskey Breakfast discusses bullying within the context of growing up. Perhaps, hopefully, it may offer some fresh new insights for parents today who struggle to build up shattered self-esteem in children who suffer these same tortures. Whiskey Breakfast is also a trilogy; it is Oscar’s story, Richard Stone’s story and finally, the account of my life bearing witness to the family travail. It is my most important work, the centerpiece of my career.

I have re-written the manuscript at least four times over the 22 years. It had gone through a round of rejections in New York (beautifully written, they said, but “way too regional”); a harrowing and truly bizarre event in which I was promised publication by a large commercial publishing house by a longtime con in 2001; my having developed prostate cancer (which is, thankfully, in remission) in 2008; and nearly seven years of having been under contract and seeing the manuscript through edits and re-edits. Finally, after almost two decades since I first put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, if you will), it was and is finally, officially, in motion.

The odyssey to publication was long. I do not really know what future direction my book writing career will take me in, but perhaps when all is said and done, maybe this deserves a sequel.


Richard Lindberg is a the author of fifteen books, including Whiskey Breakfast: My Swedish Family, My American Life. He continues to reside in Chicago.

"Richard Lindberg does not spare himself or his ancestors in this poignant and powerful memoir of his family’s entry to the United States. I was reminded of the great cycle of emigrant novels by Vilhelm Moberg, the noted Swedish novelist I first read and so admired in my youth, who wrote vividly and sometimes brutally of the downtrodden classes of his forebears. Lindberg evokes the same haunted landscape of poverty and superstition from which his ancestors fled to America . . . only to suffer different demons in that new land. In the end his story is a redemptive one of endurance and survival."
—Harry Mark Petrakis