Sunday, November 13, 2016

On the Evolution of Teaching Letter From Birmingham Jail

When I first started teaching college composition 6 Autumns ago, I threw Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" onto the syllabus mainly because it was a famous essay and I was a last-minute hire still trying desperately to flesh out a course plan.  In my painful naivety, I taught "Letter" like a historical artifact, a relic from some bygone and incomprehensible era--fantastically well-written of course and well worth modeling, but fundamentally dated.  The students responded well to it so it stayed on my syllabus; nevertheless I still felt slightly guilty, that I hadn't assigned a selection that was more contemporary, more "relevant."

But then Trayvon Martin happened, and Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and the Ferguson riots and the Baltimore riots and etc and etc and etc, and it became sadly clear to me that there was nothing dated about MLK's message at all, that for all our lip-service to his memory, his fundamental message is still as urgent as ever.

Then Election 2016 happened.  Now "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" is my manifesto.

Early in this essay, he writes, "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action."  I am now entering my self-purification step, as I prepare myself for what will come next, examining my motivations, removing my fear and anger, considering what my responses should be, strengthening my commitment, contemplating how I can do the most effective good. Self-purification is no longer something that once happened, but must still happen.

Teaching this essay, I had often praised to my students how MLK, despite having every reason and justification to lash out viciously at his critics while he sat in jail on trumped-up charges, nevertheless still engaged with them respectfully, kindly, friendly, in love and charity and brotherhood, all the while still remaining uncompromising, unyielding, and outspoken in his convictions--he sincerely sought to persuade, not just shout.  I will now be meditating on how to consistently perform such a feat myself.  Following the admonition of Christ, I must always love my enemies, no matter how vociferously I disagree with them, no matter how many people they hurt, including me.

I will not condemn protests but consider their causes; forswear the path of the "white-moderate" more committed to peace than justice; become an extremist for love and not hate in the face of a resurgent White Supremacy (yes, they had always been there, I know; in a perverse sense, it's almost a relief to have them back out in the open, where we can see them). 

It used to be a sterile intellectual exercise for me to wonder whether I would have supported the Civil Rights movement had I been alive in the '50s and '60s--of course I hoped I would have been, but one can never be certain, what one would have been like, how one would have been raised.  But we no longer need to wonder now, do we; in fact, as protests and KKK parades sweep the nation, we can prove with whom we stand right now.  I will forthwith be teaching "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" accordingly.

I started teaching college composition the same year I started this silly little blog; I may take a break from writing here awhile--or, I may need to express myself here more than ever, who knows, I haven't decided yet, I've never decided yet.  But either way, whether this is a final sign-off or but a brief pause, in the words of Dr. King:

"Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

"Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Modernism and Fascism

A hundred years ago, amidst global depressions and failing democracies and rising xenophobia and racism, populaces across the Western world turned towards strong-man demagogues, to stick it to all those dithering, do-nothing congresses and parliaments and cut through all the red-tape and stand up for the working man and the church and to drive out all the immigrants and shout out grandiose promises to make their respective countries great again.  This especially occurred in Germany, Italy, and Spain.  The Anglo world was not immune either; Charles Lindbergh became an infamous Nazi booster, and many of the most respected poets of the era--including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, TS Eliot, and WB Yeats--openly sympathized with fascism as well.  This is the era I study, this is the period I am most familiar with, this is the epoch we are repeating.  A century later and we're right back where we started.  Joyce and Yeats considered history to be cyclical, not linear--they were correct.

Marx was right, history repeats itself, first time in earnest, second time as farce.  What a disgrace.

The irony is, I was actually trying to empathize with Trump supporters for a while there, see where they're coming from, understand the working class angst that fuels their unfocused rage. That has officially evaporated. If you voted for Trump, then as far as I'm concerned, you voted for the KKK, for Russian collusion, for an open admirer of Kim Jong On, Vladimir Putin, Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, for mass deportations, for rape, and against Latinos, refugees, immigrants, black people, gay people, muslims, women, all minorities. If you don't like "Political Correctness," if you prefer to "call a spade a spade," very well, let's start with you: you voted for bigotry and fascism. Guess what that makes you.

Malcolm X once said he preferred dealing with blood-thirsty wolves to smooth-talking foxes, because you always know where you stand with the wolf. There are no more foxes, are there. Just wolves. It's perversely clarifying.  You know, I had actually been actively resisting radicalizing myself.   That may no longer be possible. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Last Time the Cubs Won the World Series...

I of course can only put it in temporal terms that would most resonate with me personally:

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, TS Eliot was still at Harvard, Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock not even a twinkle in his eye--and it would be far longer before the Cubs would again dare disturb the Universe.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Ernest Hemingway was 9--the Sun would not Also Rise over the Cubs for another century.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Ezra Pound still hadn't arrived in London, let alone turn to fascism (a word that didn't exist yet)--there were still no apparitions of these faces in a crowd, Petals on a wet, black bough.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Gertrude Stein had yet to self-publish Three Lives--A Rose was not yet a Rose was not yet a Rose was not yet a (Pete) Rose.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Virginia Woolf hadn't even started work on her first novel yet--for that matter, she still couldn't vote or legally inherit property, rights she would obtain before the Cubs saw another pennant. 

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was still alive and writing new Sherlock Holmes stories--he would solve more mysteries in the 20th century than the Cubs would win series.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Marcel Proust had not started In Search of Lost Time--For a long time he still went to bed early, as did the Cubs' repeated playoff's hopes.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Picasso was only barely past his Blue period--though the Cubs, unbeknownst to them, had only begun theirs.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Bloomsday was just another forgotten Thursday--History was not yet a nightmare from which the Cubs were trying to awake.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Ireland was still entirely part of the UK, William Butler Yeats had no notion of one day memorializing the Easter Rising, James Joyce had only just barely ditched work on Stephen Hero for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and George Bernard Shaw had yet to write Pygmalion, the precursor to My Fair Lady--Ireland made more progress in 107 years than did the Cubs.

That is, the last time the Cubs won the World Series, the term "Modernist" did not yet exist, nor did any of the texts it would eventually get applied to.

In short, the last time the Cubs won the World Series, my entire dissertation topic didn't even exist yet!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On "Checking In" at Standing Rock

So early yesterday morning, I opened up Facebook to see that one of my friends had checked in at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota!  Not only one, but several!  In fact, the list kept on growing!  At first it appeared that a bunch of my old classmates at University of Iowa had taken a road trip together, but then I saw folks checking in from Chicago, Seattle, and even L.A.!  Overwhelmed, I considered how the most I had done so far is donate a few bucks to their legal defense fund, while these courageous souls had actually put their own physical bodies in harm's way

Except no, none of them were physically at Standing Rock at all, they had only "checked in".  Some sort of social media awareness campaign/solidarity strategy against the local Sheriff's office (though why the Sheriff would need to comb through FB check-ins to find all the protestors they had just arrested—or why protestors risking their lives would check into FB in the first place—I confess is beyond me).  And who knows, maybe it actually worked, or was at least useful in raising awareness and putting pressure upon the powerful or what have you.

But you'll understand if I still felt a little deflated. Facebook activism is to real activism what Facebook life is to real life.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Part IV of The Epic and Audacious Adventures of the NAUTILUS! and Her Gallant Crew in the 19th Century: A Tragicomedy on Reverse Neo-Colonialism of Celestial Proportions

"Mars attacks! King Arthur duels Cyborg-Napoleon! World War breaks out! And the gallant crew of the Nautilus must commandeer the Confederate Moon Cannon and venture forth into the realm of Diana Herself! All this and more in Part IV of NAUTILUS!, fan-fiction for history!"  Yes, that's right, David W. Harris and I have released The Epic and Audacious Adventures of the NAUTILUS! and Her Gallant Crew in the 19th Century Part IV: A Tragicomedy on Reverse Neo-Colonialism of Celestial Proportions just in time for Halloween (and Election Day, whichever you find spookier)! 

The long-dreaded invasion of the Martian Tripods arrives at last, as the Nautilus must scramble faster than ever to locate the Lost Continent of Atlantis!  It crescendos the pulpalicious saga of Part III, Part II, and of course Part I, the latter still free on Smashwords! You're welcome, America.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Edinburgh, Scotland

I was about to insist that it should really be spelt "Edinborough" if they're going pronounce it that way--but then I remembered that "-ough" has 3 different renderings based on if it's prefixed by a t-, thr-, or b-, so I let it alone and reminded myself that English is basically 2 steps from Chinese anyways.

My wife worked a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland this weekend, and despite having to be re-routed through a number of totally different airports, I was able to join her and sight-see for a day.

The Scottish secession vote was just 2 scant years ago (and on a side-note, I'm genuinely curious as to how big the Venn Diagram overlap is between those who opposed Scottish independence and those who voted for the Brexit--and vice-versa), and given the specific economic grievances the Scottish National Party held against merry ol' England, I guess I had kinda assumed that Scotland must really suck or something.  And perhaps outside the capitol, things are more sketch.

Nevertheless, I was still so unprepared for just how lovely Edinburgh is!  The pristine, clean streets, the dazzling diversity of architecture from Medieval to Modernist, the bag-pipers busking on the streets, the Halloween decor simultaneously exported to and imported from the United States (now there's the paradox of post-colonialism in a nutshell!), the lush green trees tinged with autumn leaves--it was rejuvenating, is what it was.

Edingburgh Castle was of course the highlight, and everything else was a cherry on top--but there were still lots of cherries.  I was especially enamored with the Sir Walter Scott Memorial; I've seen a number of dead-author's placards by now, but there are Kings and U.S. Presidents with less elaborate monuments than Scott's.
My middle-name is derived from the clan MacLeland, my Dad's Mother's line.  As in Denmark, I was again left wondering: does the weather here feel homey cause it reminds me of Washington, or is it the other way around?
[View from Edinburgh Castle]

Thursday, October 13, 2016

On Bob Dylan and John Ashbery


So one of the predominant responses I'm noticing to Bob Dylan's Nobel for Lit. is (generally unfavorable) comparisons to John Ashbery, of all people, e.g. "Look, Dylan's fine, but he's no Ashbery" or "So when does Ashbery win a Grammy?" and etc. Implicit in these responses is the argument that Dylan, as a song-writer, is not a poet, that he writes in a completely different genre.

However, though I'm sympathetic, this argument is complicated by the fact that Ashbery himself blurs the lines between genres; for example, his 1972 work "Three Poems" is a collection of extended, book-length prose meditations--"prose-poems" we now call 'em, but usually folks just call them essays. In fact, I'm willing to bet a number of critics would still dispute whether they should be called "Poems," so much do they resemble straight-prose. 

 But that's exactly the nomenclature that Ashbery is questioning with the title "Three Poems": can any text be read as a poem as long we label it as such? How does genre influence our engagement with a text? Why *can't* song-lyrics be read as poetry? Was not ancient epic poetry sung? Was not Beowulf? How do we even define "poetry"? We are a long, long way out from meters and rhyme-schemes.

Don't get me wrong, I still think Bob Dylan's Nobel is kinda silly: the man certainly doesn't lack for recognition, and I generally prefer the Nobel goes to folks who do (e.g. as happened with Samuel Beckett and William Faulkner). Nevertheless, Ashbery deeply complicates these questions, not clarifies them.

Also, this comes only 8 years after the Nobel Lit. committee announced that there were no plans to award an American in the near future, considering out literature to be too "provincial". The pull of Boomer nostalgia crosses national partisanship, I suppose.