Students’ views on Obama, Basketball, and Alexander Wolff’s book

This week in North Philly Notes,  six students from  Rebecca Alpert’s Honors Sports and Leisure in American Society class at Temple University write about meeting with The Audacity of Hoop author Alexander Wolff. 

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Marcus Forst, Physics major

President Obama has been in office for nearly half my life. Although I only see Obama as he is presented by the media, I feel that I know a little bit about the person that is Barack Obama. Basketball connects me with Barack Obama; I see him as a person instead of a figure because I identify with his interests.

The Audacity of Hoop, written by Alexander Wolff, is a window into Obama’s relationship with basketball—a close up look at the person that I had previously imagined. I had the opportunity to speak with Wolff about his experience writing the book as well as about the content itself. I asked if basketball would still have been an effective means for Obama to connect with common people—and distance himself from a purely intellectual image—had he been extremely good at basketball. My thinking was that Obama’s normalcy in basketball contributes to making him seem human and relatable. Mr. Wolff responded by saying that if Obama had been an incredible basketball player, he likely would not have been a politician. He stressed the crossroad in Obama’s life in which he decided to move away from dreams of basketball stardom and turned towards college and a future in politics, albeit while carrying with him “the love of the game.” Wolff added that Obama has used this story of a crossroads throughout his presidency in order to encourage young black males to strive for success in more traditional careers, while still bringing a love of basketball with them.

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Catherine Devlin, Biology major

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Alexander Wolff, the author of The Audacity of Hoop, before his promotional presentation about the book. He talked, of course, about the important role that basketball played throughout Obama’s campaign and presidency (the basis of his book). One of the most fascinating discussion points, for me, was his description of the campaign and the racial divide Americans experienced. The historic 2008 election of the first African American president will forever be remembered as a turning point in our history. The road to Obama’s election, though, was anything but easy.  According to Wolff, basketball was a deliberate and imperative part of the campaign that cannot be ignored. In 2008, Americans were looking for reassurances. The early questions into Obama’s citizenship, however, were not the main concern for the campaign. Surprisingly, the population of Americans who needed the most reassuring consisted largely of African Americans.

As Wolff put it, “How do you win African Americans just because you’re an African American?” We often have this intrinsic distrust of politicians that can end up either making or breaking a campaign. Images of Obama playing games of pickup basketball eventually gave the African American community the confidence to believe that Barack Obama was just a regular guy looking to make a difference. Wolff also discussed the intricate balance between portraying Obama as an “Average Joe” and avoiding playing into the stereotypes associated with being an African American male who plays basketball. The ingenious strategy was to introduce the candidate as a politician first and then slowly introduce his love of basketball in small groups of voters who had come to know him quite well. Obviously, the Obama campaign was able to find just the right middle ground.  Winning over enough Americans to be elected the leader of the nation is certainly not an easy feat. Being an African American candidate presented extra challenges for his campaign, but Barack Obama managed to make history.  The groundbreaking strategies on the road to the White House were, according to Wolff, only aided by Obama’s genuine love of America’s favorite game. It seems only fitting, then, to document as Alexander Wolff has done so beautifully, the unique and successful relationship between basketball and America’s first African American president.

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Bridgette Devlin, Biology major

Recently, I interviewed Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated writer and author of The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama. In the book, Wolff tracks basketball’s involvement throughout Barack Obama’s campaign and Presidency so far. One section, specifically, focuses on “Baracketology” – Obama’s annual NCAA March Madness bracket. So, what makes these brackets so important? Alexander Wolff thinks it’s all about Obama’s political strategy, relatability, and legacy.

The author easily listed examples of how the President’s March Madness picks can seem politically charged. Obama received criticism over his brackets’ large proportion of swing states and frivolity. Despite pushback from across many spectrums, Wolff says the yearly bracket simply conveys Obama’ sincere love of the game. Wolff described the tradition of inviting the champions to the White House to meet with the Obamas. He easily bantered with the teams. He jokes with the players and the coaches, proving that he keeps up-to-date with both the game and the latest league news. Regardless of his motivations, Obama’s NCAA bracket has provided him an opportunity to connect with the American people, showing them he is an average, relatable, and trustworthy person. Wolff notes that Obama’s connection to basketball and the tournament comes across as incredibly genuine, not as though we are being “spun” by an expert politician/manipulator. Wolff even goes so far as to speculate basketball’s influence on Obama’s Presidential legacy: “Will Obama be remembered as the President who shared his brackets with us?” Perhaps “Baracketology” will become a tradition, carried on by the next Commander-in-Chief as a way to reach the American people. The once-criticized practice has now become commonplace political strategy.

The author conveys in his book as well as in his interviews that Obama is very much an agent of change. During his Presidency, he has created a coalition to bring a much-divided nation together, often using basketball as his starting point and common thread. The sport has even given the public a glimpse into Barack Obama’s personal life, providing the entry point into his youth, career, and marriage. Obama’s connection to basketball has become intertwined with his legacy in many senses. I would venture to say that the same is true for Alexander Wolff, whose own legacy will surely include not only basketball, but also the Age of Obama.

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Austin Zwolenik, Biology major

Wolff’s writing, filled with comparisons and analysis is somewhat atypical in informative books, as they usually only lay out facts with no real opinion written by the author. The Audacity of Hoop caters to the people that subscribe to the acronym “tl:dr,” meaning: too long; didn’t read. Wolff even addressed this type of thinking in his talk as he referenced the style in which The Audacity of Hoop was written. It is a coffee table book filled with many pictures to tag along with the writing. This writing medium is excellent for the purpose of creating a dynamic where the pictures explain what words sometimes cannot.

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Long Duc Nguyen, Management Information Systems major

I had a great chance to meet the author of The Audacity of Hoop, Alexander Wolff. The author gave us some insights on President Obama, his campaign, and how the President’s use of sports affects American society. When President Obama fills out the March Madness bracket, it shows that he is just another person with the love for sports and creates a sense of trust among the African-American community. The most interesting story that the author told us is how Barack Obama, through his qualities on the basketball court, won the heart of the demanding Michelle Robinson.

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Isabella Menzies, Early Childhood Education major

While interviewing Alexander Wolff, the author of The Audacity of Hoop, I asked what brought his attention to the fact that Barack Obama had used basketball as a campaign strategy. Wolff stated that the influence of basketball on Obama’s campaign first grabbed his attention in 2008. He noted that he had always been interested in politics and basketball, so the potential intersection of those two entities allowed him to investigate a story that brought together both of his interests. Wolff acknowledged that he initially questioned if he had just strained to make connections between basketball and Obama’s campaign. Nonetheless, evidence of the influence that the former had on the latter (and vice versa) grew, and Wolff ultimately concluded that Obama had used basketball to connect with voters. Such a conclusion enabled me to realize the intentional (rather than coincidental) nature of the relationship between politics and sports.

Knowledge Unlatched enables a further 78 books to be Open Access

This week, we highlight the Knowledge Unlatched (KU) program. Round 2 of this open access program “unlatched” three Temple University Press titles:  We Shall Not Be Moved/No Nos Moverán by David Spener,  The Muslim Question in Europe by Peter O’Brien, and The Struggling State, by Jennifer Riggan.  The KU program allows publishers to recover costs while making important current content available openly online.

These Temple University Press titles are among the 78 unlatched* books that have been made open access through the support of both individual libraries and library consortia from across the globe. This round brings the total to more than 100 titles now available as open access since 2014, when the KU Pilot Collection of 28 humanities and social science monographs from 13 publishers was unlatched by nearly 300 libraries worldwide.  Constructing Muslims in France, by Jennifer Fredette, was included in the Pilot Collection.

These 78 new books from 26 publishers (including the original 13 participants) have been successfully unlatched by libraries in 21 countries along with support from a number of library consortia, who together raised over $1 million. The books are being loaded onto the OAPEN and HathiTrust platforms, where they will be available for free as fully downloadable PDFs. The titles cover five humanities and social science subject areas (Anthropology, History, Literature, Media and Communications, and Politics): http://collections.knowledgeunlatched.org/packages/.

The second round of KU allowed libraries to choose from subject packages as well as publisher packages. It also introduced consortium participation into the program. Additional plans for KU expansion will be announced soon.

* ‘Unlatching’ is term for KU’s  collaborative and sustainable way of making content available using Creative Commons licences and fully downloadable by the end user.

Trump, Bullying, and Narcissism

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post a two part essay by Laura Martocci, author of Bullying from Psychology Today entitled, “Trump, Bullying and Narcissism.”

Has Donald Trump turned bullying into a political art from? If so, how did he do it?
Having built a successful career as a preeminent narcissist, could his recent success be an instance of two negatives equaling a positive?

In order to explore these questions, the relationship between bullying and narcissism requires a bit of explaining.  While even Trump’s supporters would have difficulty dismissing claims that he is a narcissist, or a bully, it seems that it is the combination of narcissism and bullying that has galvanized the Republican electorate, raising the question  how (and why) a society that has fostered anti-bullying campaigns over the past decade is looking to elect a bully.

Both bullies and narcissists share a strong sense of conviction.  And surely, what attracts many to Trump is his certainty.  There is no political ‘double-talk,’ no sense of waffling or political correctness, let alone apology.  He is not Christopher Lasch’s narcissist, depending on others to validate his self-esteem.  While Trump may ultimately be unable to live without an admiring audience, he does, in fact, glory in his individuality.  He has placed himself  beyond shame (in the political arena, at least) and this is precisely what makes him so dangerous.  In this, he more fits the mold of a ‘rugged individualist’ who sees the world as a wilderness to be shaped to his own design—think robber-barons like Rockefeller and Carnegie—than the stereotype of, say, reality show “mactors” whose desperate need of  the spotlight suggests  insecurities beneath the surface.

In other words, Trump’s  bullying behavior (coupled with his financial independence) allows his vainglory to be writ large, crushing those who stand in the way of refracted grandiosity.  Social aggressions can be re-cast when the narrative is one of a mythic lone rebel taking justice into his own hands, or even as David taking on Goliath (America loves an underdog success story).

This suggests that—contrary to popular belief—a very secure sense of self-worth underlies all Trump’s actions (including his candidacy). And in fact, as Twenge and Campbell argue (in The Narcissism Epidemic) the notion that narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem is a myth. On the contrary, many narcissists really do consider themselves awesome. Believing that they are wonderful, superior—the best, even—enables these individuals to dominate (aka ‘bully’) others with impunity.  An overblown sense of self is so all-pervasive as to preclude the perspectives of others—or have any concern for the harm one might be doing those who are clearly inferior.

Bullying_smFor what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way
  (Sinatra, My Way).

“My way,” for Trump involves paving an ethnocentric glory-road by fear-mongering, on the one hand, and promising a return to ‘the good ole days’ on the other. Trump’s positions, no less than his style of asserting them (which has been compared to the bigoted scare-tactics  found in Hitler’s early speeches readily play into narcissistic cultural norms that produced—and continue to tacitly support—bullying.  These include 1) an ongoing preoccupation with/valorization of  self-esteem, and 2) the belief that self-expression—often paired with ‘authenticity’—is  a fundamental entitlement.

These Self-centered values are a double-edged sword, as they give rise to  heterogeneity—a tolerance for, if not valuation of, diversity—which quietly  whittled  away any clear-cut sense of cultural identity. Global heterogeneity challenges American exceptionalism; America’s own diversity challenges white Christian male supremacy. The unique (read esteemed, privileged) position from which denizens of a narcissistic culture tacitly appropriate the world has been repeatedly called into question. Trump’s political platform amounts to a rejection of that question / an attempt to restore  a gilded (cultural) mirror, repositioning Americans (you and me) at the center

The point at which the gilding on this mirror overlays its reflective qualities is precisely  the point at which Trump’s narcissism bleeds into bullying. His perspective (on anything from Megyn to Mexicans to the military) is objectified and touted as factual,  allowing his self, and his platform, to be truly synonymous.  Trump does not  bother with other points of view—or even with “disagreeable” facts—because he sincerely believes that his candidacy (which is coeval with both personal and political assessments)  transcends all other considerations.  He denigrates and dismisses detractors no less than the Constitution itself because, as a narcissistic bully, he  is convinced  that the ends—his ends—justify the means.  (And if the ends justify the means, any niggling laws or contradictions can be blustered around, as Trump well knows: “if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”)

The mockery and abuse launched at detractors (anyone “un-American” enough to have alternate points of view) is undergirded by a sense of patriotism that meshes well with the psycho-social elements that conspired to produce the “me generation.”   As the baby-boomers became parents, their preoccupation with self-esteem was translated into child-centered parenting, which, in turn, produced a culture of entitlement.  (the  “me-me generation,” who express themselves/construct their identities on  social ME-dia platforms with their, iphones, ipods, iwatches, and imacs). Those who are invested in this  entitlementespecially the newly disenfranchised, who can no longer afford the American Dream —line up behind Trump in order to  push back against cultural de-differentiation and the de-centering of the “American way of life.”

In short, the public phenomenon that is “Trump” is scaffolded by cultural fears which are tethered to a narcissism writ large—a (privileged) belief in global dominance/respect that we, and our children, are entitled to.

Yet even if we can convince ourselves that this patriotism belies a cultural fact —that “we’re Number One”—we are all, nonetheless, only Trump’s Apprentices.

 

A Slumlord Bent on Displacing tenants and a DC Law that (Sort of) Stands in its Way

This week in North Philly Notes, Carolyn Gallaher, author of The Politics of Staying Put explains how the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) is operating in Washington, DC. 

Cities are fashionable again.  After decades of disinvestment, people are coming back.  Washington DC is a case in point.  Between 1950 and 2000 the city’s population shrunk by 29%; however, in the next decade it grew 10%, from 572,059 to 632,323. Although population growth slowed after 2012, the city still added another 23,000 residents in the next two years.  Most economists think the city would have grown even more if not for the rising costs associated with living in the city.

Given these trends, it’s fair to ask why big cities like Washington, DC still have slumlords.  In the era of urban decline (roughly between 1960 and 2000) slumlords typically let their properties deteriorate because they couldn’t make a return on investments in them.  Today, returns on investments in rental accommodations are very likely, if not guaranteed.  Enter the modern slumlord.  No longer an individual or a family, the modern slumlord is often a real estate investment group, and for them disinvestment is a strategy for ensuring a larger return.  Instead of repairing and refurbishing an old building and earning modest returns, you tear it down, replace it with luxury apartments, and charge rents to match.  The only things standing in your way are tenants.  So, you stop making repairs and hope they’ll move out.

The residents in Congress Heights, a complex in the Anacostia neighborhood, know all about this strategy.  They’ve lived it for several years.  Their landlord, Sanford Capital, doesn’t make repairs anymore.  The company’s tenants live with sporadic heat, faulty plumbing, a bedbug infestation, rodents, and a basement with raw sewage and standing water when it rains.  People often pack up and leave when things get this bad, but a number of the tenants in Congress Heights are holding on.  Some of the complex’s longtime residents are elderly and can’t imagine living anywhere else.  Others don’t want to leave their friends and neighbors because they all look out for one another.  And, everyone is poor and worried about finding someplace else as affordable as where they live now.  They are right to worry.  The Congress Heights neighborhood is near a metro (subway) station and is, in developer speak, “ripe for redevelopment.”  A recent study by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) also suggests there aren’t many affordable apartments left in the city.  Since 2002 the city lost nearly half of its affordable apartment units (defined in the study as units renting for $800 or less).

The District of Columbia has a law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which should have prevented things from getting so bad at Congress Heights.  The city council introduced TOPA in 1981 in response to a spate of condo conversions in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods near downtown.  The goal of the law was to help tenants stay in place when their landlords decided to sell or convert to condominium.  TOPA states that when a landlord sells a rental apartment building, tenants are allowed to refuse the sale and purchase the building instead for the same price. Tenants are also allowed to purchase their building if a landlord wants to demolish it for redevelopment.  Tenants usually work with a developer (for-profit or non-profit) to purchase their building.  They can then choose whether to convert their building to condo or co-op or keep it rental.

By law landlords are supposed to inform their tenants when they contract a sale or submit formal plans for demolition with the city.  In practice, however, landlords often subvert these guidelines, and at various points in recent history the city agency responsible for regulating the TOPA process has abetted them.

The landlord at Congress Heights, Sanford Capital, applied for and received permission to demolish the buildings in early 2015 and the tenants have still not received a formal TOPA notice.  In the meantime, the city’s Attorney General, Karl Racine, recently sued the landlords and will ask the court to put the building into temporary receivership so a different owner can make repairs.  The city is also considering forcing Sanford Capital to issue its tenants a TOPA notice. In short, the law that didn’t work to protect the people it was supposed to protect may still be their last hope for staying put.

Staying Put_061615.jpgIn my new book The Politics of Staying Put: Condo Conversion and Tenant Right-to-Buy in Washington DC, I assess TOPA’s success at helping tenants stay put.  As the Congress Heights case suggest, the law is imperfect.  Legislators need to specify fuzzy language, close some obvious loopholes, and demand city regulators actually provide oversight of the process.  But, I also found that many tenants have made TOPA work for them.  Most importantly, successful tenants associations have used TOPA to stay put—no mean feat in a fast gentrifying city.  Successful tenants associations have also participated in the benefits of reinvestment, whether as new owners building equity or as renters who can demand building wide improvements and continued low rents from their development partners.

The bigger battle, though, isn’t fixing TOPA. The law was never designed to be a stand-alone solution.  TOPA cannot, for example, ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing, police slumlords, or reign in the city’s pay-to-play approach with developers.  In fact, the city’s Zoning Commission approved Sanford’s plans for redeveloping the land where the Congress Heights apartment complex sits even after the city’s Department of Human Services and its Department of Housing and Community Development received hundreds of complaints about significant code violations in Sanford owned properties.  In these neoliberal times, cities don’t want to assume responsibilities for their low income residents (or increasingly, their middle income ones), but they will have to if they want to ensure their cities don’t become exclusive enclaves for the wealthy.  Otherwise, cities risk becoming a version of the 1980s era suburbs they long bemoaned.

 

A Q&A with Peter O’Brien about The Muslim Question in Europe

This week, we repost an interview with Peter O’Brien, author of The Muslim Question in Europethat appeared on the website, ISLAMiCommentary

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 8, 2016: 

Are Muslims embraced as part of the mosaic of Europe?  Or, are they considered and treated as outsiders, foreigners, and invaders?  Political Scientist Peter O’Brien deconstructs this issue in his new book, The Muslim Question in Europe: Political Controversies and Public Philosophies (Temple University Press, 2016).

“There exists,” he writes, “no great, let alone unbridgeable, gulf in outlook or lifestyle forever separating ‘Islamic’ from ‘Western’ civilization.”  He argues that there is not a “clash of civilizations,” but “clashes within Western civilization.”

O’Brien dissects the hotly-debated and contentious topics of headscarves, terrorism, and secularism (mosque-state relations) within the broad historical and political contexts of “intra-European tensions.” He argues that European Muslims should not be viewed “as a distinct group of political actors.” Rather, he states that European Muslims and non-Muslims both inhabit “a normative landscape in Europe dominated by the vying public philosophies of liberalism, nationalism, and postmodernism.”

O’Brien is Professor of Political Science at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  He was educated at Kalamazoo College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He has served as a Social Science Research Council Fellow at the Free University in Berlin and as a Fulbright Professor at Bogazici University in Istanbul and the Humboldt University in Berlin.  O’Brien is the author of Beyond the Swastika (Routledge, 1996) andEuropean Perceptions of Islam and America from Saladin to George W. Bush (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

The Muslim Question_sm.jpgPeter O’Brien discusses his new book in this interview.

The Pew Research Center projects that Muslims will make up 8% of Europe’s population by 2030. How are Muslims changing the social and political fabric of Europe, especially considering the declining birthrate in Europe, which is much lower than other regions throughout the world?

Many reliable studies have found that Europeans of Muslim heritage think and live very much like their non-Muslim counterparts. However, a conspicuous minority of Islamist Europeans do resist and challenge in word and deed so-called “common” European norms and values. A minority (Islamists) of a small minority (Muslims) in terms of the entire population of Europe should not be able to affect much change in the social and political fabric of Europe. However, a growing number of Islamophobic politicians, parties and movements that exaggerate the influence of Islamists could, if empowered by voters, transform Europe into a considerably less welcoming place for Muslims than it has been thus far in the postwar era.

What are the major political controversies surrounding European Muslims?

My book devotes a chapter to each of the major controversies: the requirements for citizenship (or long-term residency); the headscarf debate; mosque-state relations (the level of state subsidies and support for Islam/Muslims); and countering the alleged threat of Islamist terrorism.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the wearing of the headscarf is akin to proselytization, if I’m not mistaken. And France seems to have the toughest restrictions on the hijab. Do you see French laws and interpretation of laïcité — seemingly at odds with freedom of religious expression —  changing at all?

Yes. The central thesis of my book is that because there exists no firm ethical consensus on such matters as the headscarf controversy, ultimately political contestation (in the courts, parliaments, streets) will decide the matter. Contestation means that current decisions will be challenged and likely (someday) altered. Keep in mind that before the ban was legislated in 2004, the Conseil d’Etat regularly nullified individual school bans on grounds that they constituted an infringement of religious freedom. Or consider Germany. In 2003 the Constitutional Court allowed a ban for teachers in public schools but reversed its decision in 2015. It would not surprise me if the hijab were highly in vogue in Europe among Muslim and non-Muslim women by 2025. I mean that somewhat facetiously, but the situation is that fluid.

How did your life and work in Germany and Turkey shape the perspective of your research?

Living in Turkey for the academic year 1995-1996 helped me to reject the neo-Orientalist stereotypes with which I was educated. Repeatedly residing in Germany for long durations over the last 35 years has prompted greater appreciation for the complexity of immigration as well as increased skepticism toward and even irritation with simplistic explanations and interpretations (some of which were my own).

Have you been to Germany and Turkey since the Syrian refugee crisis?  What have you observed?

I resided in Germany for five months in 2015. I witnessed much admirable generosity and goodwill on the part of Germans and non-Germans toward arriving refugees. Unfortunately, many politicians have been more interested in fomenting anger and resentment toward the newcomers.

German PM Angela Merkel is under increasing political pressure at home – especially since the attacks in Cologne – to revisit the country’s “open door” policy toward refugees. To many German citizens the danger to their society is very real. Do they have reason to be worried or are their fears overblown? Is it possible to put the “crisis” in perspective based on what you know of history and of Germany?

Based on separate figures compiled by Peter Katzenstein and Doug Saunders, I write in my book that a resident of Europe is 33 times likelier to die from meningitis, 822 times likelier to be murdered for nonpolitical reasons, and 1,833 times likelier to perish in a car accident than to fall victim to terrorist attacks, of which only one percent are committed by persons invoking Islam.

An estimated 13 percent of women in Germany experience physical assault at some time in their life. The problem of violence against women neither originated on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne nor is perpetrated by (Muslim) refugees only. Needless to say, this sobering fact in no way minimizes or justifies the crimes against women committed in Cologne on that occasion.

Germany took in as many as 14 million refugees after WWII under conditions far less favorable than today. In 1990 the Federal Republic of Germany annexed a country of 16 million East Germans that had been extensively ruined by two generations of communist rule. With regard to the current wave of refugees, the Chancellor couldn’t be more correct when she insists “We can do this” (Wir schaffen das).

It seems that the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis originated by Samuel Huntington (1996) is back in vogue?  Should we be wary of this?

Yes. Because it is reductionist it is highly misleading. It fosters the erroneous and politically dangerous view that all Muslims think and act alike and, moreover, in ways that “clash” with the purportedly central values of Western societies, such as rationality, civil liberty, democracy and the rule of law.

How can an understanding of the political philosophies of liberalism, nationalism, and postmodernism help us to look at the Muslim question and immigration in Europe?

My book shows that the most politically consequential ideological clashes in Europe are those between the public philosophies of liberalism (all should enjoy equal rights and freedoms), nationalism (the rights and needs of natives should have priority over non-natives) and postmodernism (what passes for right and wrong is always the result of political contestation). Two advantages stem from applying this conceptual lens. First, we can understand how these vying public philosophies contribute to highly contradictory, even self-defeating policies regarding immigration across Europe. Second, we see that the three ideologies divide Muslim as much as non-Muslim Europeans. The two groups do not represent differing monolithic blocs locked in a clash with one another.

British journalist Mehdi Hasan has written that “in some respects, Muslims are the new Jews of Europe.” (Huffington Post UK, May 29, 2014).  Are there strong historical parallels between what European Jews experienced in the 20th century to current conditions for European Muslims?

This commonly drawn parallel is more misleading than illuminating. Nowhere in Europe are virtually all Muslims —asylum-seekers, resident aliens and citizens — being disenfranchised, dispossessed and sequestered the way Jews were in Nazi Germany. More importantly, the systematic extermination of the European Muslim community is not taking place. Although there are some credible parallels between the everyday discrimination in many walks of life against Jews before the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and against European Muslims today, the latter have far superior recourse to national and international courts to challenge violations of human rights.

Joseph Richard Preville is Assistant Professor of English at Alfaisal University/Prince Sultan College for Business in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Tikkun, The Jerusalem Post, Muscat Daily, Saudi Gazette, and World Religion News.  He is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.

Julie Poucher Harbin is Editor of ISLAMiCommentary.

Understanding the Struggles of Citizens and State in Eritrea

In this blog entry, Jennifer Riggan, author of The Struggling State,  sheds light on life in Eritrea, a highly militarized, authoritarian country where educational institutions were directly implicated in the making of soldiers.

Europe’s “migrant crisis”—the historically unprecedented flight of refugees—has recently taken center stage. Those from Eritrea, a country of six million people, comprise 8 percent of all migrants entering Europe and represent Europe’s third largest immigrant group. The large number of Eritrean refugees is stunning considering that, unlike Syria and Afghanistan, Eritrea is currently not at war. Also striking is the fact that Eritrean refugees are disproportionately young men and increasingly unaccompanied children. Why are these particular populations of refugees fleeing?

Struggling State_smMy new book,  The Struggling State, sheds light on life inside Eritrea, a country governed by what is often regarded as one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Conditions in Eritrea are more complex than we might expect. Human rights violations and a lack of civil liberties in Eritrea explain why so many leave, but this peculiar pattern of refugee flight is also caused by the evolution of state-society relations in the country.

Eritrea is a highly militarized authoritarian dictatorship. The government shut down independent media in 2001. Independent civil society organizations are not allowed. Any attempt to protest has been brutally cracked down on. Detentions without cause are common. All but four religions are banned. Most controversial is Eritrea’s national service program. National/ military service by law consists of 6 months of military training and 12 months of unpaid service, most often in the military. However, very few people have been released from military service since a border war with Ethiopia broke out in 1998. Many have been serving for close to two decades even though there has been no fighting since 2000. “Service,” which has been equated with forced labor and slavery, has become endless. Eritreans are not allowed to leave the country legally while in national/ military service.

Eritrea is known for its thirty-year-long, tenacious, military “struggle” which resulted in independence from Ethiopia, effectively in 1991 and officially in 1993. The Struggle, however, was not just a military one, but a revolutionary process to build a nation based on principles of ethnic, gender and class equality and unity among Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups and two major religions. In fall 2003, when embarked on a two-year period of ethnographic fieldwork, I initially planned to study teachers’ reactions to and interpretations of Eritrea’s nation-building project. However, new educational policies were introduced which radically changed not only the education system, but the relationship between citizens and the state and, ultimately, my research project. The 2003 policies merged national/military service with secondary education by mandating that all students, male and female, complete their final year of high school at a boarding facility located in the nation’s main military training center, Sawa.

Teachers and students were disillusioned by this repurposing of education—schooling no longer embodied their hopes and dreams, but became a conduit to the military. My research focuses on how teachers, as state employees, responded to these changes, placing teacher and student reactions against the backdrop of broader experiences living under an increasingly coercive government. Secondary school students, previously disciplined and diligent, began cutting class and misbehaving in unprecedented numbers. Teachers responded, paradoxically, by joining students in their indiscipline but also cracking down on students with increased coercion, and, at times, violence.  Today, many young people flee the country before they enter into the educational-military conduit. Many teachers have fled as well.

Eritreans’ encounter with the state is characterized by experiences of coercion, being punished and feeling imprisoned. There is no reliably applied rule of law, meaning that Eritreans are not only susceptible to coercive and punishing policies set in place by the country’s leaders, but are also susceptible to the will and whims of an array of state employees—supervisors, military commanders, police and even teachers. However, these state employees are also susceptible to the will and whims of more powerful state actors. One of my central arguments is that this “punishing state” is the result of a vicious cycle in which state employees are themselves “punished” and they, in turn, punish others and/or evade being punished, often by fleeing the country.

The Struggling State raises a number of questions about the nature of the state, particularly authoritarian states such as Eritrea. The book complicates our understanding of Eritrea, neither depicting it as benevolent but misunderstood, as the ruling party’s nationalist narratives would have us do, nor maligning it, as international media and human rights narratives tend to. Instead I show how the experience of government coercion leads Eritreans to think of their state as punishing. Eritreans imagining the state, not as promising, but as punishing, has unraveled the ruling party’s national project, separating the nation from the state. Strong feelings of nationalism are intact among Eritreans, but are no longer affixed solely to the ruling part and its revolutionary struggle. Teachers have been central to this process. Schooling, in general, and teachers in particular, are often thought to reproduce state power.  In contrast, The Struggling State shows that teachers play a much more ambivalent role as they struggle to instill in students a sense of national belonging and hope for the future of the nation even when they themselves have so little hope given the strictures of life under the current regime.

The importance of telling local history

This week in North Philly Notes, we premiere a new video promting Lucy Maddox’s The Parker Sistersand Maddox explains what prompted her to research this local border kidnapping, and why this remarkable story resonates still today. 

 

Shortly after the publication of Annette Gordon-Reed’s important book on Thomas Jefferson and his slave family, The Hemingses of Monticello, I heard Gordon-Reed give a talk about her book.

After the talk, I asked her where she thought the study of slavery ought to go next. What needed to be done? Where should historians be focusing their attention? She gave the question some thought before saying, firmly, “Local history.” It was exactly the answer I had been hoping for, and all the reinforcement I needed to set me off on the research that led eventually to The Parker Sisters.

I had spent my career teaching and writing about literature, and increasingly I found that I was most interested in the historical contexts for the literature. I wanted to shift my focus and write about history; I especially wanted to find the people and stories that had been buried and were in danger of being lost. That is, I wanted to write local history.

The place where I now live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland has a long and complex history, much of it unexplored—especially the history of African Americans in the area. It was inviting, and I plunged in, beginning by ransacking the library at the local historical society. There is a lot in the history that many people wouldn’t mind forgetting; Maryland had been, after all, a slave state, with all the shameful and painful history that implies.

The_Parker_Sisters_emboss_smThere had also been a large population of free blacks living in the area, about whom there was very little in the way of written records. I wanted to know what life was like for both slaves and free blacks, what became of them, how they negotiated life in a state that had been decidedly pro-slavery. In the course of reading newspapers from the period, I came across a few tantalizing details about a man from the Eastern Shore who had kidnapped two free black sisters in Pennsylvania and sold them to a slave dealer in Baltimore.

As I found more details, I became more intrigued by this story and more aware of how this single episode reached out to and illuminated the larger history of mid-nineteenth-century America, a country being ripped apart by the vicious politics of slavery. The man who kidnapped the Parker sisters had kidnapped others before. Living close to the border between a slave state and a free state, he could cross that border easily, capture someone he had identified as a good candidate, and hustle his victim back across the border and down to Baltimore, which had become a major slave-exporting center. He was known as a kidnapper. He had a reputation. Free blacks who lived anywhere near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border were frightened of him and of others who were also attracted to the profits of kidnapping.

Many black people in the border area simply disappeared, some of them forever, taking their stories with them. However, because the story of the Parker sisters involved the unsolved murder of a white man, their case had been followed by newspapers in Maryland and Pennsylvania and beyond, so theirs was a story that could be retrieved, preserved, and even put back into the larger narrative of racial politics in the United States. The real draw of the Parkers’ story for me was that it grounded history in a specific time and place; it provided names and even a few faces to flesh out the generalizations and statistics that were readily available. I knew about the kidnappings of free black people—but, as it turned out, I didn’t know very much.

The more I learned about the appalling treatment of the Parker sisters and other kidnap victims, the more I focused on specific details and particular people, no matter how seemingly insignificant, the better I understood the history that produced both the Parkers and their kidnapper.

The recent accounts of the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officials resonate with the Parkers’ story in ways that might make us wonder how we could have been so deaf for so long. We knew about the kidnappings in the nineteenth century, just as we knew about the disproportionate number of black people who have been incarcerated or who have died in altercations with the police or in police custody. We had heard the statistics, both kinds, many times. But I don’t think we really knew what the numbers meant until we learned the names of people who died, saw their faces, listened to their families talk about them, and began to hear something of their stories. It’s important that their stories, like the Parkers’, don’t get lost.

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