Media

25
Jan

 

 

 

The historian has been at the forefront of telling the lost stories of U.S. radicalism—in comic book form—for nearly two decades.



The Progressive

Dec 14, 2021

In recent years, there has been a wave of politically-themed graphic novels that both help us to understand the past, as well as challenge the current status quo. Titles such as Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk, Paying the Land by Joe Sacco, and March, a three-part series on the life of the late Congressmember John Lewis, use visual storytelling to untangle complex issues in a way that’s enjoyable to read but still rigorous and hard-hitting.

While nonfiction comics and graphic memoirs are now more popular than ever, I think it’s important to take a closer look at one of the authors who spearheaded the genre and whose work continues to shape it. Paul Buhle—a historian who has published books on everything from C.L.R. James to Jewish popular culture—began writing, editing, and producing graphic novels—a list now in excess of fifteen volumes.

Two of his early comics, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History and The Beats: A Graphic History, rely on a combination of oral histories, vibrant images, and humor (both were co-written by Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame), to offer a unique and accessible lens on often misunderstood moments in U.S. radicalism. More recently, Buhle has followed this same trajectory by coming out with visual biographies of socialist stalwart Eugene V. Debs and Latin American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Paul Buhle of Madison, Wisconsin, is one of the United States’ most distinguished historians. As a chronicler of the American left, he is unparalleled. His books on the Hollywood left, Marxism, oral history, and related topics have set the standard for scholarly excellence. His magisterial Encyclopedia of the American Left, co-edited with Mari Jo Buhle and Dan Georgakas, is essential for anyone interested in the radical tradition of American radial history, culture, and politics (the third edition is due out in 2022).

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For more than sixteen years, Buhle has also written, edited, and collaborated closely with other writers and artists to create many engaging graphic nonfiction books that appeal to a wide audience of all ages. His subjects are broad and extensive, including topics and themes that fundamentally chronicle the American experience through the twentieth century and beyond. This work complements his exemplary personal activism and writing for progressive causes.

The artwork in his graphic books are examples of popular cultural visual expression about hugely important topics, especially biographical drawings of figures who have unjustly faded into historical obscurity.

My focus here is on the significance of the graphic novel genre and specifically on three of Buhle’s biographies—one on Paul Robeson, the second of Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and the last about radical attorney Leonard Weinglass. These strike me as emblematic of Buhle’s work in this exciting arena of interdisciplinary intellectual discourse.


Let’s start with Robeson. In 2020, Buhle co-edited Ballad of An American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson, superbly drawn and written by Sharon Rudahl. The volume combines engaging art with biography and radical history and did tremendous justice to Robeson’s multi-dimensional life of art and political engagement.

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It chronicled the entire trajectory of Robeson’s storied life and accomplishments, including his disgraceful blacklisting during the darkest days of McCarthyism in the early Cold War era. The book proceeded from his early struggles to his precocious academic, musical, and athletic triumphs in his youthful years.

Ballad of An American highlights how Robeson overcame the horrific racism during his time at Rutgers University, while becoming its first nationally recognized football star and All-American. It also details Robeson’s early involvement with the emerging film industry.

What truly elevated him, however, was his political awakening. He became one of the most effective and eloquent advocates for progressive political change in U.S. history during much of the twentieth century. Robeson’s advocacy encompassed the struggle against racism and for the rights of labor and for all oppressed people, both domestically and internationally.

But the blacklist destroyed his health, ruined his income, and catalyzed the historical amnesia about him and his legacy that remains to the present. Despite a Robeson revival at his centennial in 1998, he still remains “the greatest legend nobody knows,” as historian Joe Dorinson ruefully noted.

Buhle’s book combines Sharon Rudahl’s magnificent artwork and details of Robeson’s astonishing life with an afterword by himself and Lawrence Ware that provides compelling historical context.


The graphic biography Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia, by artist Nick Thorkelson and edited by Paul Buhle and Andrew Lamas, with a foreword by Angela Y. Davis, attempts to herald a Marcuse revival. Once again, Buhle has assembled a superb team of professionals to add visual and intellectual depth to this enterprise.

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The biography is a remarkable fusion of Marcuse’s life and philosophical development, set against the tumultuous historical events of early twentieth century Europe. It details his early studies with Martin Heidegger, his prominence in the iconic Frankfurt School and his crucial flight from Germany as a Jew from the growing threat of Nazi rule. Marcuse joined a large and distinguished number of intellectuals, artists, and others who fled Nazi tyranny, finding refuge in the United States and elsewhere.

Thorkelson’s drawings add enormously to the narrative. This reflects Paul Buhle’s commitment to the verbal and visual collaboration that has been the hallmark of this monumental focus of his later professional life in fostering radical graphic nonfiction.

Philosopher of Utopia addresses Marcuse’s personal struggles, his academic trajectory, especially at Brandeis University, and his growing stature as a radical political and public intellectual. Angela Davis was one of his star students at Brandeis and she came to realize, with his encouragement, that it could be possible to be an academic, a scholar, and an activist.

The book impressively summarizes Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a scathing takedown of modern capitalist society. Its main theme is submission to a sophisticated capitalist scheme that demands and almost entirely ensures that “people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” The only thing that has changed since 1964 is the growing level of capitalist manipulation and domination.

Marcuse was outspoken in supporting Black Americans, students, and other protesters, and in opposing the Vietnam War. By then, he had moved to the University of California at San Diego, a city well known for its conservatism. He attracted considerable hostile attention, including from the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, and then-governor Ronald Reagan. The book shows how he was even forced to go into hiding during those times, a victim of the reactionary responses to the Black liberation, student, and other movements sweeping the globe and to Marcuse’s unwavering support for them.

Marcuse continued to support resistance movements throughout his lifetime, including the women’s movement. He supported it as the most important radical movement of the time. He also did his best to support Angela Davis throughout her activism and unjust incarceration.

In the graphic biography’s foreword, Davis writes: “Fifty years later, as we confront the persisting globalities of slavery and colonialism, along with evolving structures of racial capitalism, Herbert Marcuse’s ideas continue to reveal important lessons. The insistence on imagining emancipatory futures, even under the most desperate circumstances, remains––Marcuse teaches us––a decisive element of both history and practice.”


Throughout much of the twentieth century and into the very early twenty-first century, radical defense attorney Leonard Weinglass also advanced the ideals of a just and humane society. Like Robeson and Marcuse, he blazed his own path for these powerful ideals. And like the others, he too remains mostly unknown in the mainstream.

Once again, Buhle collaborated with other prominent figures of the creative left, including artist/writer Seth Tobocman and lawyer/writer/activist Michael Steven Smith, to produce a powerful visually based account of a truly heroic lawyer who devoted his entire life to the defense of movement activists.

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In Len, A Lawyer in History, we learn how Weinglass, a Yale-educated attorney, turned his back on privilege and monetary comfort; instead, he defended leftist activists, often in memorable cases, against the oppressive machinery of the capitalist state judicial apparatus right up until his death in 2011.

Proceeding chronologically, the book begins from Weinglass’s childhood on to his initial legal career. After his service in the Air Force, he worked briefly at a large law firm, and later the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, and then opened a small office in a poor Black community in Newark, New Jersey––generally uncharacteristic of Ivy League legal graduates. Tobocman’s drawings effectively convey how this was the real start in his lifelong struggle for racial justice.

Soon, he began representing Newark activists challenging the corrupt administration of Mayor Addonizio. He defended rent strikers and those who had engaged in civil disobedience. The 1967 Newark “riots” fully radicalized him and he soon emerged as one of the country’s foremost activist lawyers, a position he would occupy for the remainder of his life.

Tobocman continues on to illustrate many of Weinglass’s most celebrated cases. He came to additional visibility when he defended the people charged after the Chicago police riot, following the massive police brutality unleashed by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

Len, A Lawyer in History further chronicles his drive to use his superb legal talents on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. Among his clients were Native American prisoners, student protestors against the Central Intelligence Agency, and other reactionary targets and policies of the U.S. government, as well as the Cuban Five, men who were unjustly imprisoned in the United States and labeled terrorists after resisting continued attacks on the socialist government of Cuba.


The three graphic nonfiction works detailed in this article join Paul Buhle’s larger body of work in this genre to add a powerful dimension to our understanding and appreciation of history. He has brought his remarkable scholarly background and skills to this enterprise. All of these volumes make a huge contribution to the contemporary historical canon.

Buhle’s works have also shaken up the long hidebound field of art history, for the good. That discipline has been slow to change, but maverick art historians combined with the massive upheavals of sixties and subsequent protests and the creation of ethnic and gender studies programs have permanently altered the discipline.

In 2022, Buhle and artist Anne Timmons will release ¡Brigadistas!, a graphic history of the Spanish Civil War. This work will further ensure that his distinguished legacy continues.

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Paul Von Blum is senior lecturer in African American Studies and Communication at UCLA. He is a longtime civil rights and political activist and the author of many books and articles on political art, expressive culture, education, and law.

 



 

Category : Culture | Education | Media | US History | Blog
17
May

Stuart Hall ‘taught me how Britain was founded on race and class – and how the media were central to those structures’.

By Arun Kundnani

al-Jazeera 

March 2, 2017 – I first started reading Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist, in the early 1990s as an undergraduate student in Britain. The heyday of overt tabloid racism was over by then, but new styles of racist reporting were emerging.

On the one hand, cultural identity was an increasing focus, with much of the media echoing the idea that the presence of blacks and Asians undermined a cohesive sense of Britishness. On the other hand, the small number of refugees arriving in Britain were vilified as scroungers and cheats.

When a few hundred gypsies settled in Dover on England’s south coast, fleeing neo-Nazi gangs in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Rupert Murdoch’s best-selling Sun newspaper called them "Slovak Spongers" and "Giro Czechs" (a pun on a common term for welfare payments) and suggested "teaching the gypsies two words, the second one being off".

This kind of media coverage, of course, continues to this day. It is easy to denounce, but harder to cogently analyse it. Hall’s work helped me to get beyond simplistic explanations that put the blame on an inherent English racism or mechanical pursuit of profit.

Hall’s starting point was Marxism. But he followed another African-Caribbean scholar, Frantz Fanon, in his recommendation that Marxist analysis be "slightly stretched" in dealing with questions of race and colonialism. To understand the Jamaican society in which he had grown up, Hall combined the Marxist categories of class and capitalism with insights into the role of culture in colonialism. When Hall settled in England in 1951, he used the same approach to understand how racism functioned there.

To the columnists who supposed that Asian and black immigration to Britain was an alien cultural disruption that undermined a previously stable society, Hall’s response was that Britain had not become multicultural because of postcolonial migration.

Multiculturalism had been there much longer as an integral part of Britain’s imperial project. "It is in the sugar you stir; it is in the sinews of the famous British ‘sweet tooth’; it is in the tea-leaves at the bottom of the ‘British’ cuppa," noted Hall. There was no British identity that did not include the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the tea plantations of Asia, the slave and the coolie.

Hall’s 1978 book Policing the Crisis, co-authored with his colleagues at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, had the biggest impact on me. It presented a picture of Britain in the 1970s as caught in a crisis of authority. The state, forced to intervene more aggressively to hold together a fracturing society, became more naked in its coercion. And a media-constructed image of black crime became a signifier of this deeper crisis. The component parts of Thatcherism were being laid out.

In Hall’s account, racism was not just a matter of individual attitudes and biases. Race was a key constituent of the social and economic structure, a "principal modality" by which class society was experienced and made sense of. Race, he said, was not a marginal concern but right at the centre of British life. At the same time, its significance was never self-contained or transparent; it was a screen on to which deep anxieties were projected and worked through.

One way this happened was through the news media. The conventional approach to analysing the news is to ask whether journalists select and frame events objectively or with bias. Hall’s argument focused instead on how news can have meaning to us only if it aligns with our unconscious "cultural maps" of the social world.

The main ideological function of the news, he argued, is not its alleged liberal or conservative bias but its fidelity to the deeper consensus within which party politics takes place. This happens because the news sources its meanings from the social and political institutions that underpin that consensus, such as the police, the courts, the university, and so on.

No wonder, then, that racism was found in the news as much as on the streets – in both cases, it derived from the same deeper structure that Policing the Crisis had identified. Applied to the 1990s, this method of analysis could explain why refugees, for example, were being treated as such a threat: they too were a screen on to which anxieties deriving from the crisis of Thatcherite Britain were being projected.

It was never Hall’s style to provide final answers. In the 1980s and 1990s, his analysis shifted as he began to view the social world as pure flux: representations floated free of any referent; politics was reduced to the construction of identities.

Ironically, his writing in these later decades, which were more politically stable than the 1970s, pictured society as having no solid foundations. For me, reading Policing the Crisis out of its time in the 1990s taught me how contemporary Britain was solidly founded on race and class – and how the media were central to reproducing those structures.

Arun Kundnani is scholar-in-residence at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. He is the author of The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror and The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st-Century Britain. He writes for The Guardian, Nation, Intercept and The Washington Post, among other publications.

This article forms part of an online project by Al Jazeera English’s media analysis show The Listening Post. Follow #MediaTheorised

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.

Category : Culture | Media | Racism | Blog
22
Feb

 

 

By Robert Zaretsky

THE STONE / NYT Op-Ed

Nearly 50 years ago, Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” reached bookshelves in France. It was a thin book in a plain white cover, with an obscure publisher and an author who shunned interviews, but its impact was immediate and far-reaching, delivering a social critique that helped shape France’s student protests and disruptions of 1968.

“The Society of the Spectacle” is still relevant today. With its descriptions of human social life subsumed by technology and images, it is often cited as a prophecy of the dangers of the internet age now upon us. And perhaps more than any other 20th-century philosophical work, it captures the profoundly odd moment we are now living through, under the presidential reign of Donald Trump.

As with the first lines from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”) and Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), Debord, an intellectual descendant of both of these thinkers, opens with political praxis couched in high drama: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”

In the 220 theses that follow, Debord, a founding member of the avant-garde Situationist group, develops his indictment of “spectacular society.” With this phrase, Debord did not simply mean to damn the mass media. The spectacle was much more than what occupied the screen. Instead, Debord argued, everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.

The “image,” for Debord, carried the same economic and existential weight as the notion of “commodity” did for Marx. Like body snatchers, commodities and images have hijacked what we once naïvely called reality. The authentic nature of the products we make with our hands and the relationships we make with our words have been removed, replaced by their simulacra. Images have become so ubiquitous, Debord warned, that we no longer remember what it is we have lost. As one of his biographers, Andy Merrifield, elaborated, “Spectacular images make us want to forget — indeed, insist we should forget.”

For Marx, alienation from labor was a defining trait of modernity. We are no longer, he announced, what we make. But even as we were alienated from our working lives, Marx assumed that we could still be ourselves outside of work. For Debord, though, the relentless pounding of images had pulverized even that haven. The consequences are both disastrous and innocuous. “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them,” Debord concluded, “because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse.” Public spaces, like the agora of Ancient Greece, no longer exist. But having grown as accustomed to the crushing presence of images as we have to the presence of earth’s gravity, we live our lives as if nothing has changed.

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Category : Marxism | Media | Trump | Blog