Sunday, January 29, 2017


What kind of political movement does Donald Trump represent? How did we get here? And what will be needed to defeat this divisive and anti-democratic political agenda?

There is a tendency to see Trump as a bolt out of the blue, an anomaly -- an extraordinary showman who somehow conned just enough voters to gain him the Republican nomination and then to prevail as a minority vote getter with an electoral college majority. But now that we've had a few months to reflect on the election, it seems a little more clear that Trump represents something different and even more worrisome. His presidency is more like an American version of a global phenomenon -- a populist ultra-rightist who has come to power on the strength of a political program of xenophobia, hatred of immigrants, and racism.

The extreme right has made sizable gains in Europe in the past forty years. Pippa Norris provides a summary statistic on the rise of the radical right in Western Europe:

This graph documents the substantial increase in the electoral strength of the extreme right, more than tripling as a share of the total electorate since 1980. (It is interesting to note that the share of the extreme right declined after 2000.) Populist extreme right parties have become powerful in almost every European country.

The parallels between Trump's most outlandish political messages as an unorthodox campaigner and the political ideology of the European extreme right parties are exact and uncanny. Take first his right-wing populism. Cas Mudde attempted to distill the "populist zeitgeist" of the European extreme right in a 2004 article (link), based on his long study of the extreme right parties of Europe. The match with the Trump campaign is exact. Populism is anti-elitist, and its leaders marshal resentment against "corrupt elites". Mudde writes:
I define populism as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. Populism, so defined, has two opposites: elitism and pluralism. (543)
Moreover, populism is fundamentally divisive between "us" and "them":
Opponents are not just people with different priorities and values, they are evil! Consequently, compromise is impossible, as it ‘corrupts’ the purity. (544)
The visceral antagonism whipped up against the Clintons during the Trump campaign illustrate this theme.

So who are the "people" of the populist right? They are the people of the imaginary "heartland":
The concept of the heartland helps to emphasize that the people in the populist propaganda are neither real nor all-inclusive, but are in fact a mythical and constructed sub-set of the whole population. In other words, the people of the populists are an ‘imagined community’, much like the nation of the nationalists. (546)
Further, as Mudde documents for European far-right parties, populist politicians are frequently antagonistic to the media -- with the right-wing populist view that the media serves the interests of the elites, not the heartland. This line of thought has an extensive research literature as well -- for example, Mazzoleni et al, The Media and Neo-Populism: A Contemporary Comparative Analysis. "In the populist mind, the elite are the henchmen of 'special interests'" (561) -- a line of heartland thinking that plays into dark conspiratorial theories and anti-Semitism. (Recall the closing political ad sponsored by the Trump campaign with its strong implications of anti-Semitic innuendo; link.)

Piero Ignazi offered a detailed analysis of extreme right parties based on their core ideologies in 1995 (link). He refers to the summary offered by H.G. Betz:
Betz (1993) has introduced the category of “populist extreme right” on the basis of four elements: a) radical opposition to the cultural and socio-political system, without an overt attack to the system as such; b) the refusal of individual and social equality; c) the defence of the “common man”; d) the emphasis on “common sense”; all these populist parties share racist, authoritarian, anti-women and law and order attitudes. (3) 
These are parties "which appeal to resentments, prejudices and traditional values and offer simplistic and unrealistic solutions to the socio-political problems" (4).

And, as Ignazi observes for European extreme right politicians, much of their rhetoric is directed against traditional political parties themselves (recalling Trump's own war with the GOP establishment during the campaign).
Dissatisfaction towards institutions, parties, the way in which democracy works, the traditional channels of participation and the output of the system in relation to identity and security tend inevitably to feed opposition and/or anti-system parties and, in particular, the extreme right. In fact, only ERPs indicate, while quite vaguely, a new way of channelling of the demands based on populist style. Only ERPs distrust parties as such (even if they build up strong organizations for their own) because they divide the “people” and they pervert the “general will”. Only ERPs offer the electorate a right wing radical alternative to the establishment’s political discourse. (8)
Here again it is impossible to miss the strong parallels that exist between these currents and the rhetoric of the Trump machine.

And, of course, there is racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. Thomas Greven emphasizes the central role played in right-wing populism in Europe in his Friedrich Ebert Stiftung study (link). (Here is a summary of research on the racism underlying the European right; link.) The rise of the extreme right parties in Europe has been driven by nationalism and antagonism to minority groups and immigrants; and the rhetoric of these parties has in turn increased the volume and intensity of popular racism. Racism is normalized.
Group-focused enmity is widespread in Europe. It is weakest in the Netherlands, and strongest in Poland and Hungary. With respect to anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-Muslim attitudes and racism there are only minor differences between the countries, while differences in the extent of anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia are much more marked. (Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report; link)
These themes are all too evident in the Trump political agenda, most recently with this week's stunning restrictions on Muslim visitors and refugees and the deliberate choice not to refer to Jewish victims in the annual White House statement commemorating the Holocaust (link).

So we might say that Trumpism is a familiar kind of political movement after all. It is right-wing populism, mobilizing its constituents around racism and bigotry combined with resentment of immigrants, with a pounding message of antagonism towards the institutions and personages of the status quo, including especially the media and government. The white nationalism of Steve Bannon and his intimate role within the Trump administration makes perfect sense.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Survey research on the extreme right in Europe

Earlier posts have addressed the issue of the rise of extreme-right parties and ideologies in many parts of the world, including Western Europe and the United States. A valuable multi-country research project now seeks to shed light on these phenomena based on large-scale surveys of attitudes among young people. MYPLACE (Memory, Youth, Public Legacy and Civic Engagement) is a multi-country data set in order to assess the distribution and variation of extreme right ideologies across countries and social groups (link). This research project provides substantial survey data about the civic and political attitudes of young people in numerous European countries. Here is a brief description of the research project on the MYPLACE website:
MYPLACE can provide a hugely rich and sophisticated dataset, covering young people’s attitudes and beliefs in relation, specifically, to far-right and populist ideologies, but in practice covering issues such as class, xenophobia, racism, education and trust in democratic processes and associated social and political exclusion.
MYPLACE methodology is described in these terms:

The MYPLACE project used a case study approach, using 30 carefully selected research locations (illustrated in Figure 1) which provided within country contrasts in terms of hypothesised receptivity to radical politics. MYPLACE work strands include:
  • Questionnaire survey (N = 16,935, target = 600 per location) of young people aged 16-25;
  • Follow up interviews (N = 903, target = 30 per location with a sub-sample of these young people;
  • 44 ethnographic studies of youth activism, in 6 thematic clusters;
  • Ethnographic observation at 18 sites of memory including expert interviews with staff (N = 73), focus groups with young people (N = 56) and inter-generational interviews (N = 180). (link)
Participant researchers have provided summary reports on eight topic areas: democracy, history and memory, European issues, citizenship, attitudes and trust, political activism, religion, and attitudes towards minority groups (link). These reports were released in late 2015.

A recent article in Sociological Review seeks to extend this research. Inta Mieriņa and Ilze Koroļeva's "Support for far right ideology and anti-migrant attitudes among youth in Europe: A comparative analysis" (link) makes use of the MYPLACE datasets to evaluate different theories of the factors that encourage right wing extremism among European young people. This piece provides valuable reading for anyone concerned about the rise of authoritarian and racist politics in many parts of the democratic world. Here is the abstract of the article:
The last decade has seen a notable increase in support for far right parties and an alarming rise of right-wing extremism across Europe. Drawing on a new comparative youth survey in 14 European countries, this article provides deeper insight into young people’s support for nationalist and far right ideology: negative attitudes towards minorities, xenophobia, welfare chauvinism and exclusionism in relation to migrants. We first map the support for far right ideology among youth in Europe, and then use multilevel regression analysis (16,935 individuals nested in 30 locations) to investigate which individual or contextual factors are associated with a higher propensity among young people towards getting involved in far right movements. (183)
Mieriņa and Koroļeva consider several fundamental theories of the rise of far right activism: social psychological theories of the effects of ethnic diversity on an individual's conception of his or her own identity; the effects of modernization and urbanization on political attitudes; socio-structural explanations ("level of immigration, economic conditions and level of support for the political system"; 187); and the impact of media on political attitudes.

Here is a plot of a particularly important pair of variables observed in the study, ethnic nationalism and negative attitude towards minorities:

Mieriņa and Koroļeva summarize their key findings in these terms:
Using new data collected as part of the MYPLACE youth survey, in this article we have explored young people’s support for far right ideology and analysed which factors are associated with holding far right views. We find that despite comparatively low immigration rates, young people in post-socialist locations, along with Greek locations, tend to have more negative predispositions and to be more xenophobic and exclusionist towards immigrants than young people in Western European locations. Moreover, we have demonstrated that young Europeans’ views on immigrants vary greatly even within the boundaries of one country, thus below-national level analysis should be the preferred strategy in future studies.

Our analysis shows that negative attitudes towards minorities and immigrants are often rooted in ethnic nationalism, that is, a belief that one has to be born in a country or have at least one ethnic parent for being a citizen of a country. A more over-arching civic national identity – based on respect for countries’ institutions and laws – is more likely to create an inclusive, cohesive society.

The data strongly support the instrumental model of group conflict, confirming that resource stress over money, status and, most of all, jobs is an essential source of group conflicts. Living in poverty or seeing poverty facilitates negative attitudes towards minorities and significantly increases xenophobia, welfare chauvinism and exclusionism, especially if immigration rates are high. Far right ideology is especially appealing to groups of society who experience a higher level of insecurity and perceived competition.
Or in other words, Mieriņa and Koroļeva find that there are important geographical patterns to intolerance; ethnic nationalism appears to be a cause of intolerance of minorities and immigrants; and economic stress on specific groups appears to be a cause of xenophobia and chauvinism in those groups.

The article reports some very important empirical findings on the subject of the prevalence and variation of support for far-right ideologies across Western Europe. But equally interesting are the efforts the authors make to clarify the central terms involved, including especially the idea of a "far right ideology." They refer to work by Cas Mudde on this topic:
Cas Mudde's research suggests that radical right ideology typically rests on nationalism, xenophobia, welfare chauvinism, and law and order.... The ideological core of the new 'populist radical right' ideology ... is a combination of nativism, authoritarianism and populism, of which nativism is considered as the key feature. It holds that 'states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group ('the nation') and that non-native elements (persons and ideas) are fundamentally threatening to the homogeneous nation-state. (185)
This is an astute, clear, and focused analysis of the heart of far-right ideologies in many countries. And people who have lived through the Trump presidential campaign and the extreme rhetoric the candidate used consistently throughout the preceding year will recognize the point-for-point correspondence that exists between Trumpism and this definition of radical right nativist ideology.

*     *     *

Here are a few useful references from Mieriņa and Koroļeva's bibliography:

H.-G. Betz and S. Immerfall (eds), The New Politics of the Right: Neo-Populist Parties and Movements in Established Democracies, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Carter, E., (2005), The Extreme Right in Western Europe: Success or failure? Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Mudde, C., (2000), The ideology of the extreme right, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Mudde, C., (2007), Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Signals intelligence and the management of military competition

In the past few years many observers have been alarmed by the high-tech realities of cyber-security, cyber-spying, and cyber-warfare. The current interest is on the apparent impunity with which government-sponsored intruders have managed to penetrate and exploit the computer systems of government and corporate organizations -- often extracting vast quantities of sensitive or classified information over extended periods of time. The Sony intrusion and the Office of Personnel Management intrusion represent clear examples of each (link, link). Gildart Jackson's Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage provides a very interesting description of the contemporary realities of cyber-spying by governments and private intruders.

It is very interesting to realize that the cat-and-mouse game of using cryptography, electronic signals collection, and intelligence analysis to read an adversary's intentions and communications has a long history, and resulted in problems strikingly similar to those we currently face. A very good recent book that conveys a detailed narrative of the development of signals intelligence and cryptography since World War II is Stephen Budiansky's Code Warriors: NSA's Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union. The book offers a surprisingly detailed account of the formation and management of the National Security Agency during the Truman presidency and the sophisticated efforts expended toward penetrating military and diplomatic codes since the Enigma successes of Bletchley Park.

There are several particularly interesting lessons to be learned from Code Warriors. One is a recognition of the remarkable resourcefulness and technical sophistication that was incorporated into the signals intelligence establishment in the 1940s and 1950s. Many of us think primarily of the achievements of Bletchley Park and the breaking of code systems like Enigma during World War II. But signals intelligence went far beyond cryptography. For example, a great deal of valuable intelligence resulted from "traffic analysis" -- specific information about time and location of various encrypted messages. Even without being able to read the messages themselves it was possible for analysts to draw inferences about military activity. This is an early version of meta-data analysis of email and phone calls.

Another surprise was the ability of intelligence establishment communications experts in the 1950s to use "side-channel" attacks to gain access to adversaries' communications channels (multi-channel radio teletype machines, for example). By recording the electromagnetic emissions, power fluctuations, and acoustic patterns of code machines, typewriters, and teletype machines it was possible to reconstruct the plain text that was passing through these devices.

Most interesting for readers of Understanding Society, however, are the large number of problems of organization, management, and leadership that effective intelligence service required. Several problems were particularly intractable. Inter-service rivalries were an enormous obstacle to effective collection, analysis, and use of signals intelligence. Motivating and retaining civilian experts as workers within a large research organization in the military was a second. And the problem of defending against misappropriation of documents and secrets by trusted insiders was another.

The problem of inter-agency rivalries and competition was debilitating and intractable. Army and Navy intelligence bureaus were enormously reluctant to subordinate their efforts to a single prioritized central agency. And this failure to cooperate and share information and processes led to substantial intelligence shortfalls.
The 1946 agreement between the Army and Navy to “coordinate” their separate signals intelligence operations had merely sidestepped glaring deficiencies in the entire arrangement, which was quickly proving itself unequal to the new technical and intelligence challenges they faced in attacking the Russian problem. (lc 1933)
But AFSA’s seventy-six-hundred-person staff and $35 million budget remained a small share of the total enterprise, and both the Army and Air Force cryptologic agencies continued to grab important projects for themselves. ASAPAC and USAFSS both duplicated AFSA’s work on Soviet and Chinese codes throughout the Korean War, and simply ignored attempts by AFSA to take charge of field processing within the theater. The Air Force had meanwhile established its headquarters of USAFSS at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, a not too subtle attempt to escape from the Washington orbit altogether. (lc 2933)

AFSA was powerless to prevent even the most obvious duplication of effort: for over a year the Army and the Air Force both insisted on intercepting Russian and Chinese air communications, and it was not until March 1952, after months of negotiations, that ASA finally agreed to leave the job to the Air Force. The Navy meanwhile flatly refused to put its worldwide network of direction-finding stations—which provided the single most important source of information on the location and movement of Soviet surface ships and submarines—under central control. (lc 2949)
Also challenging was the problem of incorporating smart, innovative civilian experts into what had become rigid, hierarchical military organizations. Keeping these civilians -- often PhDs in mathematics -- motivated and productive within the strictures of a post-war military bureaucracy was exceptionally difficult. During WWII the atmosphere was conducive to innovative work:
At GC&CS and Arlington Hall in particular, formal lines of authority had never counted for much during the war; getting the job done was what mattered, and in large part because no one planned to make a career of the work, no one was very career-minded about office politics or promotion or pay or protecting their bureaucratic turf. Cecil Phillips remembered wartime Arlington Hall as a true “meritocracy” where a sergeant, who in a considerable number of cases might have a degree from MIT or Harvard or some other top school, and a lieutenant might work side by side as equals on the same problem and no one thought much about it. (lc 1417)
But after the war the bureaucratic military routines became a crushing burden:
At ASA, peace brought a flood of pettifogging orders, policy directives, and procedural instructions, accompanied by a succession of martinet junior officers who rotated in and out and often knew nothing about cryptanalysis but were sticklers for organization, military protocol, and the chain of command. Lengthy interoffice memoranda circulated dissecting the merits of developing a personnel handbook, or analyzing whether a proposed change in policy that would allow civilian employees of Arlington Hall to be admitted to the post movie theater was consistent with Paragraph 10, AR 210-389 of the Army Regulations. “Low pay and too many military bosses” would be a recurring complaint from ASA’s civilian workforce over the next few years, along with a sense that no matter how much experience they had or how qualified they were, the top positions in each division would always go to a less qualified Army officer. (lc 1430)
The problem of coordinating, directing, and managing these high-talent scientists proved to be an ever-challenging task for NSA as well:
Among the administrative nightmares of the explosively growing, disjointed, and highly technical top-secret organization that Canine inherited was a notable lack of skilled managers. That was a failing common to creative and technical enterprises, which always tended to attract people more at home dealing with abstract ideas than with their fellow human beings, but it was especially acute in the very abstract world of cryptanalysis. “I had a terrible time finding people that could manage,” Canine related. “We were long on technical brains at NSA and we were very short on management brains.” 50 The splintering of the work into hundreds of separate problems, each isolated technically and for security reasons from one another, exacerbated the difficulties of trying to assert managerial control on an organization made up of thousands of individualistic thinkers who marched to no identifiable drum known to management science. (lc 3582)
And of course the problem of insider spying turned out to be essentially insurmountable, from the defection of NSA employees William Martin and Bernon Mitchell in 1960 to the spy rings of John Walker from the 1960s to 1985 to the secret document collection and publication by Edward Snowden in 2013. Kim Philby comes into the story, having managed to position himself in Washington in a job that allowed him to collect and pass on the intelligence community's most intimate secrets (including the current status of its ability to decrypt Soviet codes and the progress being made at identifying Soviet agents within the US).

The agency's commitment to the polygraph as a way of evaluating employees' loyalty is, according to Budiansky, another source of organizational failure; the polygraph had no scientific validity, and the confidence it offered permitted the agency's security infrastructure to forego other more reliable ways of combatting insider spying.
As subsequent events would make all too clear, the touching faith that a piece of Edwardian pseudoscientific electrical gadgetry could safeguard the nation’s most important secrets would prove farcically mistaken, for almost every one of the real spies to betray NSA in the ensuing years passed a polygraph interview with flying colors, while obvious signs that in retrospect should have set off alarm bells about their behavior were blithely ignored, largely due to such misplaced confidence in hocus-pocus. (kl 3355)
Budiansky makes it clear that the extreme secrecy embedded within NSA was one of the organizational and political weaknesses of the entity. Its activities were kept secret from the political authorities of the country, and the agency was sometimes used to conceal intelligence considered to be harmful to those authorities. The case of the misuse of intelligence during the Tonkin Gulf crisis is a particularly clear example, where intelligence data were misused to support the administration's need to find an incident that could serve as a cause for war.
A classified, searingly honest accounting by NSA historian Robert J. Hanyok in 2001 found that in bolstering the administration’s version of events, NSA summary reports made use of only 15 of the relevant intercepts in its files, suppressing 122 others that all flatly contradicted the now “official” version of the August 4 events. Translations were altered; in one case two unrelated messages were combined to make them appear to have been from the same message; one of the NSA summary reports that did include a mention of signals relating to a North Vietnamese salvage operation obfuscated the timing to hide the fact that one of the recovered boats was being taken under tow at the very instant it was supposedly attacking the Maddox and Turner Joy . The original Vietnamese-language version of the August 4 attack message that had triggered the Critic alert meanwhile mysteriously vanished from NSA’s files. (kl 5096)
Budiansky is forthright in identifying the weaknesses and excesses of NSA and the intelligence services. But he also makes it clear how essential these capabilities are, from allowing the US to assess Soviet intentions during the Cuban Missile crisis to directing aircraft to hostile fighters on the basis of penetration of the air-to-air radio network in Korea and Vietnam. So the hard question for Budiansky, and for us as citizens, is how to structure and constrain the collection of intelligence so that it serves the goal of defending the country against attack without deviating into administrative chaos and politicized misdirection. There are many other expert organizations that have very similar dysfunctions, from advanced civilian scientific laboratories to modern corporate IT organizations. (Here is a discussion of Paul Rabinow's ethnography of the Cetus Corporation, the biotech research firm that invented PCR; link.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Path dependency in formation of academic disciplines

The topic of the historicity of academic disciplines has come up numerous times in this forum. It is a conviction of mine that disciplines demonstrate a great deal of path dependency over time in their evolution. We can think of a discipline as being constituted at a time by some or all of these elements:
  • a definition of important questions for research
  • a definition of appropriate methods of research and analysis
  • a model of explanation in the field
  • some key examples of what theories and hypotheses ought to look like
  • institutions for supporting, organizing, and directing research efforts
  • institutions for validating and disseminating research findings
  • institutions for training young researchers in the key elements of the discipline
This sounds a lot like Kuhn's idea of a paradigm, Lakatos's idea of a research community, or the definitions of scientific enterprise offered by historians and sociologists of science and researchers in the tradition of STS studies (link). An academic discipline is an assemblage of ideas, networks of individuals, institutions, and locations (libraries, laboratories, research institutes).

If this is a reasonable approximation to the social reality of an academic discipline, what does it suggest about contingency and path-dependency in the development of the discipline? For one thing, it suggests multiple sources of contingency both internal to the intellectual enterprise and external to it. Internally, a discipline like philosophy or a sub-discipline like the philosophy of mind is driven in part by a somewhat logical process of attack on existing problems -- what Kuhn referred to as "normal science", and partly by large, compelling breakthroughs by individuals or small groups (for example, the Vienna Circle). Externally, it is straightforward to identify political and institutional influences that shape the research agenda at various times in various disciplines -- the preference for positivism in sociology that was advanced by considerations of the Cold War, for example. And within the institutional setting of the disciplines there are contingencies as well -- for example, a strong editor of a leading journal or research laboratory can set the agenda for theory and methodology in a discipline for a generation. (Andrew Abbott describes this kind of influence in Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred.)

Almost every element in this list is itself visibly dependent on historical circumstances in multiple ways. Take the issue of defining the important questions for research. There are political and governmental influences on the definition of research problems -- witness the influence of the Cold War on the development of the social sciences, the role that is played by governmental funding agencies like the NSF or NIH, and the occasional intrusion of political pressure into scientific fields like environmental science and sociology.

Within the community of individuals currently pursuing the discipline or proto-discipline there is a range of levels of talent and innovation, on the one hand, and prestige and influence, on the other. (The two categories don't necessarily correlate perfectly.) One charismatic individual or local group (Wittgenstein, say) may exert influence over the direction of a sub-field through charisma and the power of his or her ideas. Another may exert influence over the strategic placement he or she occupies in the institutions of influence -- major graduate schools or prominent journals, for example. And in each case, the discipline moves to a new phase with new questions and ideas.

Bourdieu's theoretical construct of the field (link) is very relevant to these forms of influence on the development of a given academic discipline. By locating various individuals within the network of institutions, scholars, and funding sources it is possible to attempt to piece together the ways in which their own research agendas unfolded (responding to incentives created by their field) and the influence they exerted on other scholars. Neil Gross's sociological biography of Richard Rorty illustrates this kind of analysis (link), as does much of George Steinmetz's research on the development of sociology as a discipline in France, Germany, and the US.

What all of this seems to support is the idea that the academic disciplines are in fact highly contingent in their development, and that there is no reason to expect convergence around a single "best" version of the discipline. The history of disciplines should better be understood in analogy to the brachiation and differentiation associated with the evolution of species and sub-species over time -- lots of contingency, with a consequent specialization of the intermediate results to the demands of a particular point in time. This implies that a discipline like sociology or political science could have developed very differently, with substantially different ideas about research questions and methods. And this seems to be true for similar reasons in the humanities as well as the natural sciences and mathematics. Finally, this suggests that there is no end-point -- no "universal sociology," no "final philosophy," no "complete mathematics." Instead, every discipline in its search for knowledge and new ideas is charting new intellectual space.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Making of a Black Panther

images: Rahman as keynote speaker at "Black Men in Unions" Institute, UM-Dearborn, 2012; 
Rahman with Huey Newton at Detroit Metro Airport, 1970

In an earlier post I discussed the path through which an African-American intellectual, Phil Richards, came to have the intellectual profile he has today. Here I will reflect upon the development of another African-American man, born in the same year, who also journeyed from the inner city to a career as an academic, but through a very different route. Ahmad Rahman traveled through life from childhood in Chicago in the 1950s to becoming a Black Panther in Detroit in his teens to becoming a professor of history in adulthood. Rahman presents an interesting contrast with Richards. Ahmad Rahman too was a powerful personality and an intelligent man whose life itinerary and character were shaped by the experience of race and racism in urban America. Ahmad too became a member of the Black intelligentsia. But his itinerary was dramatically different, and his identity as a militant activist was primary.

Rahman grew up in Chicago in the 1950s, but also spent time with his extended family in rural Mississippi throughout his early years. He had ample opportunity to experience the realities of racism and white supremacy throughout his youth. He graduated from high school in Chicago and became involved in the rising mood of Black Power in the southside neighborhoods of the city. He moved to Detroit while still a teen-ager to become an early member of the Black Panther organization there. He spent twenty-one years in prison as part of a life sentence he received after being found guilty of events that occurred during a Black Panther raid on a supposed drug house in Detroit. (He eventually learned that this incident had been engineered by the FBI as part of the COINTELPRO program.) Rahman converted to Islam while in prison as part of a spiritual evolution he describes in an interview in Transformations, mentioned below.

Rahman's life changed dramatically when his life sentence was commuted by Michigan governor John Engler. This took place because of the long-term advocacy of a group of committed liberation activists whose support for Rahman never wavered. Rahman completed an undergraduate degree at Wayne State University while in prison and completed a PhD in history at the University of Michigan in 2002 after his release from prison in 1992. He spent the rest of his life as a professor of history at the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan, where he had a strong influence on a generation of students. His teaching and course content always embodied the critical edge of his lifetime commitment to black progress, but his radicalism perhaps was transformed into something more patient and persistent. Like Phil Richards, Ahmad too was a friend of mine for a long time. Ahmad died prematurely in 2015 at the age of 63. (Here is a brief bio of Rahman from the Detroit Free Press; link.)

Rahman never published a full memoir, but there are several short sources where he tells some of his story. One is "A Detroit Black Panther's Soldiering Journey with Malcolm X," his account of his time as a Black Power activist in Chicago, a soldier of Malcolm X, and a Black Panther in Detroit in his contribution to Edozie and Stokes, Malcolm X's Michigan Worldview: An Exemplar for Contemporary Black Studies (link). The second is an extensive interview he provided to Hajj Mustafa Ali in Transformations on his journey to Islam while in prison in Michigan (link). And a third source is his essay "Marching Blind: The Rise and Fall of the Black Panther Party in Detroit" in Yohuru Williams and Jama Lazarow's Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party.

On reading these brief recollections and recalling many snippets of conversation over the years, it might almost be said that Ahmad was a Black Panther before the term even existed -- as a child, as a teen-ager, as a high school student who reacted viscerally and certainly to the Birmingham bombing, and to the visible bonds of white supremacy and police brutality in Chicago and Mississippi in the early 1960s. Ahmad was of a generation of young men who did not easily accept MLK's advocacy of Gandhian non-violence and who felt that forceful self-defense was entirely legitimate. I don't think this was an unusual point of view among young black men of the generation who came of age in the 1960s, and it seems clear that Ahmad's older brothers had much the same feelings.

Like Richards, Rahman too eventually became an intellectual, a historian who wrote extensively on African and African-American history. His book The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah: Epic Heroism in Africa and the Diaspora provides a careful political biography of Nkrumah in the context of pan-African liberation movements. The book used previously unreported government documents to shed new light on the actions of the United States in Africa in the 1960s, including particularly the assassination of Nkrumah. (Some of Rahman's research skills later in life were honed during prison through his efforts to use FOIA documents from the FBI to piece together how the Black Panthers had been undone in Detroit with such efficiency.) But Rahman's pathway to a life as a creator of new knowledge led through activism and profound engagement rather than through a primary interest in knowledge and discovery for its own sake. His scholarship was diligent and rigorous, but it was not disinterested. He almost always had a point to make about racism, power, and inequality, and his academic writing had this character as well. Most fundamentally, he wanted to expose the hidden lineaments of power and white supremacy in order to assist in the struggle for liberation and equality.

Rahman's entire life was oriented by his activism in defense of black equality, security, and dignity. Here are a few episodes from childhood and adolescence that bear this out:
My path to prison began with Malcolm X and what I had heard he had said black people should do after the Ku Klux Klan bomb murdered the four little girls in the 16th Street baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963. (Soldiering Journey, 169) 
Ahmad was then twelve years old, and this violence against black children had a powerful impact on him.
When the Jet magazine my mother bought detailed their slaughter, I searched for strong statements from black leaders that offered something more forceful than prayer to prevent more Sunday morning bombings. As usual, Dr. King had called for us to remain nonviolent and not lose faith in the white man.... This was the first time I had ever disagreed with Dr. King. He was a living saint to everybody I knew. I remember saying that I thought that only monsters could blow up those girls and monsters deserved a stake in their hearts. My playmates, all Baptists like the four murdered girls, nodded in agreement. (170)
It was Malcolm X's response and call to action that caught the young Rahman's admiration.
Now I knew a leader who did not believe it either. I swore that day that whenever Malcolm X formed his army, I would march in their ranks. (171)
Later in the piece Rahman describes an episode during his regular visits to relatives in rural Mississippi in which he makes preparations to use the family's shotgun to protect the house against the Klan. He doesn't specify the year, but June 1964 witnessed the Klan murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi, which is consistent with Ahmad's description of the climate of KKK violence during his visit. If so, Ahmad was thirteen years old. (His great-grandmother was a step ahead of him, having found the shotgun shells and removed them from his sock drawer.)

Here is how Rahman describes the appeal of the Black Panther movement to him in the Transformations interview:
The Black Panther party was then arising as a strong influence among young people in Chicago. I was impressed by their stalwart stance for black community control of the educational, economic, and criminal justice institutions, which affected our lives. During the latter 1960's, statistics revealed that the mainly white Chicago Police Department killed more citizens per capita than did any police department in the United States. Most of the dead were black. The Black Panther Party alone stood up and publicly stated that black people had a right to armed self-defense from racist attack. (Transformations interview)
As a teenager in Chicago Ahmad learned of Fred Hampton's efforts to form a Black Panther branch in Chicago, and he engaged himself with the party. Soon after he went to Detroit to help in the establishment of a Detroit branch as well, and by 1970 he was fully involved in the Detroit Black Panther party. Several episodes of defiance and resistance described in the "Soldiering Journey" piece give a good sense of Rahman's state of mind during this period.

This history demonstrates a number of personal characteristics -- discipline, courage, and an unusual ability to succeed academically in spite of enormous obstacles. Rahman's life in prison reflected the same propensity for activism and resistance to injustice, and he was deeply involved in prisoners' rights organizations inside prison. These qualities certainly affected his development as a historian. The inner peace he learned to cultivate in prison remained with him, and he transformed his urgent desire for progress into a long and sustained commitment to tangible forms of life improvement for young people in Detroit. (I once asked Ahmad what he thought of The Wire. He replied that he had seen too much violence in his life, and he didn't like watching it on television.)

This development seems to make several things clear. First, the boy and adolescent Ahmad had a personality that was strongly keyed to responding forcefully to perceived injustice. And these traits are equally evident in his memories of incidents of coercion against him in Detroit. These same dispositions seemed to be part of his older brother Eddie's character as well. Second, the environments in which he lived -- Chicago and Mississippi -- gave very specific and deep instruction to the young man about the nature of racial injustice and white supremacy surrounding him. Third, Rahman's exposure to ideas mattered a great deal in his development -- to the ideas of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, to the Black Power messages of the early founders of the Black Panther movement, and to the primary texts of resistance and revolution to which he was exposed -- Franz Fanon, Marx, Lenin, Che, Mao. (He once said to me that a smuggled copy of Mao's Little Red Book got him through the ordeal of the first few years in prison.) Finally, none of these influences would have brought about the particular chemistry of the activist-historian-scholar that Ahmad became, without the presence of a powerful intellect, a desire to make sense of the social world that surrounded him, and an active skepticism about status-quo explanations of things. Putting these points together, Rahman's development seems more predictable and logical than Richards'. In spite of the dramatic contingencies that arose in his life history, there seems to be a fairly direct line of development from the twelve-year-old in Chicago trying to make sense of the Birmingham bombings to the activist-scholar of the current decade.

Here is a video interview I did with Ahmad in 2008; link. Readers may also be interested in Lance Hill's historical study of the Deacons for Defense, a predecessor to the Black Panthers in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. Here is an earlier post on this group (link).

Monday, January 2, 2017

Making of a black intellectual

Becoming an intellectual in any society is a chancy thing, and this is especially true for young people coming from backgrounds of disadvantage and discrimination. What were the influences that gave the child and young adult the curiosity and other intellectual qualities that led him or her to seek out new knowledge and new questions throughout high school and college? What factors helped to produce some of the specific qualities of mind that became the particular inquiring intellect of the adult? How did Orwell become Orwell, or W.E.B. DuBois become DuBois?

Several recent autobiographies are worth reading for anyone interested in knowing more about what it's like to develop as a black man in America into a serious intellectual in adulthood. One is by Phillip Richards, an emeritus professor of English at Colgate University. His autobiography An Integrated Boyhood: Coming of Age in White Cleveland is a powerful account of one man's journey from inner city Cleveland to Yale University. And it sheds a great deal of light on the very specific chemistry of personality, stimulation, social contacts, family, and schooling that led Richards to becoming a smart, original, and rigorous intellectual.

Richards grew up in Cleveland in the 1950s, attended Yale university as an undergraduate, and received his PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago. He became a professor of English at a top-rank liberal arts university, and An Integrated Boyhood is an eloquent and honest description of his journey. He became a profoundly insightful and original thinker about very traditional topics in western culture and English and American literature. And he has challenged many of the assumptions that have become dogma within the field of African-American studies. I have had many long conversations with Phil over the past twenty-five years, and have never failed to be impressed at his insights into literature, culture, and the intricacies of today's politics. His recent book Black Heart: The Moral Life of Recent African American Letters gives a good impression of the breath and depth of his thought.

Richards' autobiography is personal, honest, and insightful. He writes in detail about the working class home and family in which he grew up -- a mother who sought to create a cultured environment for the family, a father who worked hard and reflected carefully about the racialized society around them in Cleveland, and other relatives who presented a different side of black life. The picture that emerges is quite different from many stereotypes of life in African-American working class families in the 1950s that are often presented to us, both positive and negative. Here is an evocative passage where he describes the values system of his parents as they made their lives in Cleveland:

Before I ever heard the word, I knew that my parents were integrationists. They were what Malcolm X would later derisively call "integration-mad Negroes." Struck by the recent triumphs of Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche, and Brown v. Board of Education, they imagined the imminent appearance of a cultivated, racially integrated middle-class life in Cleveland. These utopian hopes could not have been more mistaken. The possibility of a racially integrated existence had disappeared long ago with the cultivated, mulatto, elite culture that had existed during the first half of the nineteenth century. These black middle-class tradesmen, artisans, funeral directors, barbers, and entrepreneurs had lived relatively harmoniously with Cleveland whites before the turn of the century.... (6)

But by the 1950s, Richards writes, those options had all but disappeared. 

Particularly important in Richards' childhood environment was the opposition established between the values and aspirations of his immediate family and the values and lifestyles of black Cleveland more broadly. Classical music rather than hip hop, saving rather than conspicuous consumption, and temperance rather than a free-and-easy relationship to alcohol and drugs -- these were important markers in Richards' family life. And his mother's fortuitous circumstance of having found work as a pre-school teacher in the Park Synagogue in Cleveland gave the young Richards access to a cosmopolitan experience of Cleveland's social world -- anti-war activists, leftists, and white liberal supporters of the Civil Rights movement and their children.

The family's involvement in the black church was a formative influence for Richards -- but once again, in ways that defy stereotypes. Their involvement in Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland embodied many of the cultural and social tensions that their existence in various neighborhoods of Cleveland presented. Here is a particularly penetrating observation by Richards the adult about his experience of the church as a child. He is commenting on the practice of the church that the congregation would hum spontaneously during the communion service. The minister objected to this practice, but it continued.

My parents disapproved of this humming also, and neither ever joined in it. At the dinner table, they could be very adamant about this; they had come to the North, they said, to find nothing but the moaning of black people. From where I sat, however, self-pitying moans were a more than appropriate response to the experience of black people in Cleveland. On the No. 48 bus going to French class in the summer, I had on Fridays seen the black maids coming home from their weekly stints with their white employers on Van Aken, on South Park, and from points east. On those days, they carried large brown shopping bags from the suburban supermarket, Heinens, filled with leftover food and their employers' cast-off dresses and skirts. No matter who these black women had been in the South, they were now servants in Cleveland. It occurred to me then that the post-Communion music expressed wordlessly everything they could never say to their employers in the mansions of Shaker Heights. The deepest truth about Cleveland that I was learning from my family was that Cleveland's racial truths could never be openly discussed, at least not in public by people like me. If being black, however, meant that one carried a wordless secret truth, then I would willingly be black. Why, I wondered a little angrily, did my parents not hum? (57)

The young man's experience of Yale was no less ambiguous in the clash it represented between existing privileged elites, rising white suburban families, and newly present families of color from the various urban areas of the Northeast. 

My parents, who were still shaken by the riots in Cleveland that summer, were anxious about coming to the Yale campus, and my father had wondered whether he should put on a sport coat. He was surprised to see large crowds of casual, mild-mannered parents, many in T-shirts, carrying their children's clothes in cardboard grocery store boxes to the dormitories. Surrounded by large old buildings, the Old Campus was what I imagined the Cleveland Heights High parking lot might look on a fall Saturday afternoon during a football game.... My classmates came to Yale rather like a group of local champions arriving at an all-state swimming meet. Yet the world that greeted them was not the world of merit but the world of privileged entitlement. (103)

And it occurred to me for the first time that for all the social baggage of my lower-middle-class background, I was free of the particular status-related anxieties borne by the truly middle- and upper-middle-class blacks educated in largely black environments. It was an oft-repeated joke in my household that, compared to our relations who were doctors, lawyers, and college administrators, we had no status. (107)

The search for a black identity was, it seemed to me, a distinctly middle-class search for those who must have the autonomy required for survival in a competitive liberal social order that devalued attachments of kinship, social status, religious affiliation, and (ironically) ethnicity. (113)

Richards's book is interesting at many levels. Richards has an exceptional voice in his ability to put the reader into the life and mind of the smart, awkward, sometimes angry adolescent of the fifteen-year-old boy he was. He is a deeply reflective thinker on the nuances of the many strands of black culture and intellectual life that were in play in America in the 1950s and 1960s. And he seems to have real insight into the lives and experiences of the adults around him -- what they cared about, why they behaved as they did. His account of the complicated persons who were his parents is particularly astute. 

The book also does a remarkable job of explicating some of the ways that Richards' most controversial ideas may have evolved from his own experience -- his mistrust of the political left, his doubts about the validity of many of the dogmas of ethnic studies, and his affirmation of the value of intellectual engagement with the broad horizons of Western and non-Western culture. When we speak of a need for more diversity within universities, this is one of the dimensions often overlooked: the need for welcoming diverse viewpoints on the significance of race, gender, and class in ways that perhaps offend the prevailing liberal orthodoxies.

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A useful collection on the social environment of black intellectuals in the social sciences is Jonathan Holloway and Keppel's Black Scholars on the Line: Race, Social Science, and American Thought in the Twentieth Century. The introduction to the volume can be found here. Here is a brief description of their central perspective in the volume:

Brown was but one chapter in a larger historical narrative that must be better understood. Between the generation after slavery and the generation after the Second World War, black scholars played important roles in the founding, elaboration, and refinement of American social science. The groundbreaking work that black attorneys and social scientists—many of whom were trained and worked at historically black colleges and universities—pursued in Brownwas but one part of this larger development. We honor the scholarship that was related to Brown by reprinting social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s most ambitious discussions of their research on racial attitudes. However, as our first obligation in this project is to place this well-known intellectual priority within a larger context, we showcase other black scholars’ work on different topics: migration and its effects, the structure of the black family, the disparate impact of race on economic opportunity, the relationship of cultural production and projection to debates over cultural assimilation, and so forth. (2)

It is evident that there is still much to be learned about the intellectual history of black America.