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