Friday, February 27, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 14: Abraham

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  

When reading any text, it's important to put it into its historical, social, and cultural context.  This is true of the Qur'an.  It was written and compiled in 7th century Arabia (in the towns of Mecca and Medina) under very specific circumstances.  Muhammad, the prophet of the emerging faith, constantly struggled against powerful Meccan leaders who were polytheistic.  Muhammad's revolution was to turn a formerly polytheistic culture into a monotheistic one.  This struggle is reflected throughout the Qur'an, like the 14th surah, entitled "Abraham."

This surah gets its title from the figure of Abraham from the Old Testament, a figure whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims see as a spiritual forefather.  According to Muslim tradition, Abraham once lived near Mecca, where the Ka'aba existed.  In Abraham's day (as in the time of Muhammad), the Ka'aba was a site of polytheistic worship--the ornate black cube housed idols of several different Arabic dieties.  It was Abraham who, through divine revelation, tried to convince his family and community to shun polytheism/idolatry and embrace monotheism.  Muhammad's task was, in many ways, the same.

Like Abraham, Muhammad succeeded.  Today, the Ka'aba is the destination of millions of Muslim pilgrims every year.  It is perhaps the most powerful symbol of Muslim monotheism.

The Ka'aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The New Jim Crow: a book report

In 2008, shortly after I got my master’s degree, I took a month-long train trip around the United States, visiting many major cities I’d never been to.  What struck me most, during my travels, was how segregated by race most American cities still are.  Chicago, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and definitely Birmingham are still divided (unofficially, of course) along color lines.  What I witnessed flew in the face of all I’d learned in my long American education.  How is this possible, I thought?  Fast forward a few years, and I began to notice the increasing number stories of African American young men killed (with impunity) by police.  Living in a relatively affluent suburb of Orange County, I’d been largely shielded from the real and systemic civil rights problems faced by African Americans today, even in the age of Obama.  Fast forward a bit more, and this semester I’m using as part of my curriculum the television program The Wire, which dives deeply into the social, economic, and political problems plaguing African American housing projects in west Baltimore.  Watching the lives of these characters, one could easily get the impression that the Civil Rights Movement never happened.  

Being a generally curious person who enjoys the process of figuring out complex problems, I have started to pay more attention, at least academically, to the enduring problems of racial injustice in America.  I want to understand why segregation still exists in America.  I want to understand why so many young African American men are regularly harassed, brutalized, and incarcerated by police.  I want to understand why, in a supposedly colorblind society, African Americans still face enormous injustices.  To that end, I’ve just finished reading a book called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by scholar Michelle Alexander.  Reading this book has been a kind of “Paul on the Road to Damascus” experience for me, a process of revealing the reality, and destroying the myth that I’d been taught in school, namely that we figured out and fixed our racial problems in 1960s, during the Civil Rights movement.  We, as a nation, most certainly did not.


Alexander argues that, from its founding, American government and society has used various forms of social control to curtail the lives and aspirations of African Americans. The first form was slavery.  “Under the terms of our country’s founding document [the U.S. Constitution],” Alexander writes, “slaves were defined as three fifths of a man, not a real, whole human being.  Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy…Denying African Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the formation of the original union.”  Enslavement of African Americans was the first from of social control, with all its horror and injustice.


With the abolishment of slavery following the Civil War, there was a brief moment of hope that African Americans could improve their lives and enter “mainstream” society.  While some advances were made, particularly the 13th-15th amendments, a new system of social control emerged—Jim Crow laws.  Alexander writes, “ a Jim Crow system of segregation emerged—a system that put black people nearly back where they began, in a subordinate racial caste.”  These “Jim Crow” laws severely restricted the rights and aspirations of African Americans, who experienced legal discrimination in housing, employment, and education.  The system of segregation we see today in American cities is the legacy of Jim Crow.  My mom, who was born in the early 1950s, remembers, as a little girl, driving through the South with her family and seeing signs that said “White Only” on bathrooms, drinking fountains, and other facilities.  The Jim Crow system, which ultimately led to the Civil Rights movement, was the second major form of social control of African Americans.


With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow laws began to be challenged and defeated.  It is important to note that each of these advances for African Americans was the result of great social movement and struggle.  It is undeniable that great movements forward were made as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.  The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and major legal decisions like Brown v. Board of Education began the process of dismantling the Jim Crow system in the United States.  For most Americans, the Civil Rights Movement is the final chapter in the story of injustice against African Americans.  The popular narrative is that we defeated the problem, and now we are good.  We have an African American president, after all!


Most Americans, especially people of my generation who grew up after the Civil Rights movement, are unaware of the intense political backlash to the Civil Rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, when new systems of social control for minorities were being put into place.  I first learned about this largely unknown history when I read a book called Racial Propositions, which is about California’s history of discriminatory ballot measures, many of which explicitly undid many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement.  You can read my book report on that HERE.


What happened was that, after the Civil Rights movement, former proponents of racist policies did not simply vanish, they changed their rhetoric.  Rather than calling for “segregation forever,” the new race-neutral rhetoric became “law and order.”  Even during the Civil Rights movement, “conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther Ling Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature.”  Those who were most opposed to civil rights legislation became early proponents of the new “law and order” and “tough on crime” mentality.


The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 signaled a new wave of conservative backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.  H.R. Haldeman, one of Nixon’s key advisors, recalls that Nixon himself deliberately pursued a Southern, racial strategy: “He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.  The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.’  Similarly, John Ehrlichman special counsel to the president , explained the Nixon administration’s campaign strategy of 1968 in this way: ‘We’ll go after the racists.’  In Ehrlichman’s view, ‘that subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.’”

It was Richard Nixon who began the so-called “War on Drugs,” a bold political move that gave law enforcement increased powers to arrest and incarcerate huge numbers of poor minorities.  In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan continued and expanded Nixon’s strategy of appealing to racist sentiments without being explicitly racist.  Alexander explains: “when Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at the annual Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi—the town where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964—he assured the crowd ‘I believe in state’s rights’…suggesting allegiance with those who resisted desegregation.”


A main focus of Alexander’s book is the so-called “War on Drugs.”  Like the “War on Terror,” this vague, nebulous, and unwinnable war has wrought absolute devastation upon poor, urban African American communities, incarcerating African American men by the  millions for non-violent drug offenses, despite the fact that drug use rates are virtually the same for blacks and whites.  In 1991, the Sentencing Project reported that the number of people behind bars in the United States was unprecedented in world history, and that one fourth of young African American men were now under the control of the criminal justice system.”


Enormous amounts of money and resources have been thrown at the war on drugs, because it has been politically advantageous to appear “tough on drugs” and “tough on crime.”  Between 1980 and 1984, FBI anti drug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million.  Department of Defense anti drug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991.  During that same period, DEA anti drug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million and FBI anti drug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million.


Ironically, however, the War on Drugs has not succeeded in decreasing the amount of drug use.  That was, arguably, never its real intention.  What it has succeeded in doing is giving police enormous power, resources, military equipment, and virtual immunity to violate people’s civil rights.  The War on Drugs has also been a boon to private prison contractors.  The best documentary I've seen about the failure of the War on Drugs is called The House I Live In.  It's available on Netflix.


But most of all, the War on Drugs has succeeded in incarcerating huge numbers of people of color.  And, once you have a criminal record, even a non-violent drug offense, you enter a parallel universe in which your housing, employment, and voting rights can be legally taken away, because you are now a “convict.”

Alexander gives some sobering numbers and facts: “More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the 21st century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal and where they could be denied the right to vote…Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate.  The New Jim Crow was born.”

Alexander’s book is a dense, and exhaustively argued (and annotated) tome.  Obviously, she gives lots more evidence than I have the space to do in this little book report.  Put succinctly, the main insights of the book are: The War on Drugs was never about drugs, it was about race.  The proof is in the results: It has failed to reduce drug use, but has succeeded in imprisoning huge numbers of poor, young, African American men, relagating them to a legal status that is virtually identical to Jim Crow.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 13: Thunder

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  I will also include some original Arabic text, because it is very beautiful.

The 13th surah of the Qur'an seems to have been prompted by people questioning the legitimacy of Muhammad and his message.  The people ask for a miracle to confirm what he says.  Muhammad's answer is that the real miracles are God's creation, and that true faith is shown through action, not mere belief.

The surah begins, "These are the signs of the Scripture," and goes on to list beautiful examples of how God creates and sustains nature and the universe: "He has subjected the sun and the moon each to pursue its course for an appointed time; He regulates all things, and makes the revelations clear so that you may be certain of meeting your Lord."  The argument here is that true miracles and revelations are shown through nature.  The title of the surah, "Thunder," comes from a verse that continues this theme: "the thunder sounds his praises, as do the angels in awe of Him."  Miracles and signs, this surah seems to suggest, are not magic tricks performed by holy men.  Miracles and signs are all around us, all the time.

Once this deep understanding of God's revelation through nature is taken to heart, the surah explains, it will affect one's actions.  The surah says, "Only those with understanding will take it to heart; those who...do not break their pledges...who keep up the prayer; who give secretly and openly from what We have provided for them; who repel evil with good."

This surah suggests that faith derived from supernatural magic tricks is not a necessary foundation for faith.  It's just not how the world works.  Nature is miraculous enough, and true faith is about how one behaves in this wondrous world.



Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 12: Joseph

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  I will also include some original Arabic text, because it is very beautiful.

The twelfth surah of the Qur’an, entitled Joseph (Yusuf, in Arabic), is mostly a re-telling of the story of Joseph (son of Jacob) from the book of Genesis in the Bible.  It is also the plot of the modern musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  The Qur’an often re-tells stories from the Bible, seeing divine lessons in them: “There are lessons in the story of Joseph and his brothers for all who seek them” (v. 7).  The Qur’an sees great value in the stories of the Bible.  While the Qur’an’s account of this story mostly follows the Genesis account, there are some interesting differences—suggesting that the version Muhammad received from his Jewish and Christian friends in Mecca was an oral, not a written, account.  While written accounts of stories tend to remain rigid, oral accounts allow for variety and different cultural contexts.  Also, sprinkled throughout the story are “lessons” that readers/listeners are meant to get out of it.  Here’s the story of Joseph, as told by the Qur’an.

The Israelite patriarch Jacob (aka Israel, son of Isaac, son of Abraham) had twelve sons (who would form the basis of the twelve tribes of Israel).  One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, had a dream in which his eleven brothers bowed down before him.  Joseph’s brothers grew jealous and planned to get rid of him.  They threw him in a pit and sold him to a traveling caravan, which sold him to a nobleman in Egypt.  Joseph’s brothers then lied to their father Jacob, telling him that Joseph had been killed by a wolf.

In Egypt, Joseph found favor with his master (named Potiphar in the Bible) and developed the ability to interpret dreams.  Here is the first lesson of the story—that God can bring goodness out of tragedy: “God always prevails in His purpose, though most people do not realize it” (v. 21).

As Joseph grew in maturity, the wife of his master (traditionally named Zulaikha) tried to seduce him, but Joseph (being a good man and a servant of God) refused.  Here the account differs from the Bible.  In Genesis, Joseph is thrown in  prison on the false charges of the Egyptian woman.  In the Qur’an, the woman is shown to be a a liar, and Joseph is thrown in prison as a kind of protective measure against the advances of other women.  Apparently, Joseph was quite attractive.

Anyway, while in prison, Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners.  Word reaches the king that Joseph can interpret dreams, so he is brought before pharaoh to interpret his troubling dreams.  The dreams foretell of a coming famine, which Joseph is tasked with helping avert through a system of storing surplus crops.  Joseph is thus taken out of prison and promoted as a leader of Egyptian agriculture.  Here is another lesson of the story—that God ultimately rewards those who follow Him: “In this way We settled Joseph in that land to live wherever he wished: we grant Our grace to whoever we will and do not fail to reward those who do good” (v. 56).

Meanwhile, over in Canaan, Joseph’s family, feeling the effects of the famine, travel to Egypt to trade for food.  After messing with them for a while, Joseph ultimately reveals his identity to his brothers, and ends up being the salvation of his family, and the fledgling nation of Israel.

This surah ends with a word of encouragement to Muhammad and, by extension, his fledgling community of followers.  In the early years of Islam, the community of faith experienced much adversity and many trials.  In this surah, the community is encouraged to find solace and hope in the story of Joseph.  “We saved whoever we pleased,” the Qur’an states, “There is a lesson in the stories of such people for those who understand” (v. 110-111).

"Joseph Chased by Potiphar's Wife" miniature by Bezhad (1488)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Divine Invasion: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress entitled Philip K. Dick in Orange County, in which I read each of the novels that acclaimed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, and write book reports about them.  This is part of a larger project that will become an art exhibit/zine release in May 2015 at Hibbleton Gallery.

The Divine Invasion, the middle novel in Philip K. Dick’s VALIS trilogy, is set in the future, maybe a century or so after the events of VALIS.  The novel beings on a distant planet, a human colony in the CY30-CY30B star system.  Herb Asher, a main character, lives and works alone in a dome on this mostly inhospitable planet.  He is like a cell phone tower operator, transmitting information across the galaxy.  It is suggested that the reason he is living in this outpost is because there was a war on Earth and he chose this exile over being drafted.


Herb’s exile is made bearable by the fact that he gets to transmit and listen to non-stop music, especially his favorite pop superstar, Linda Fox (aka The Fox).  The action of the novel begins when Herb starts getting disruptions in his transmissions, and learns that another being is living in exile on the mountain where his dome rests…Yahweh (aka God).

When the Roman empire defeated the last of the Jewish rebels in the Siege of Masada in 74 C.E., Yahweh was driven from his mountain home in Israel to this distant planet in the CY30-CY30B star system, Fomalhaut (aka Alebemuth).  Ever since 74 C.E., God has not ruled the Earth.  Instead, the ancient Adversary, Belial (aka Satan) has ruled.  The inhabitants of Earth are mostly unaware of this.  In Herb’s day, the most powerful entities on Earth are the Christian-Islamic Church and the Scientific Legate (both corrupt institutions).  Most humans believe they are followers of God, but in fact they are living under the domain of Belial.  This situation, that the earth is under the dominion of an invisible “evil empire” (which may in fact be a hologram) is a main theme in the VALIS trilogy.

The Fortress of Masada in Israel.

Meanwhile, back on his distant alien planet, Yahweh is hatching a plan to re-take the earth and free it from its oppression.  Like the biblical story of the Exodus, Yahweh appears to his servant Herb in the form of a fire and a voice.  Instead of a burning bush, Herb’s electronic instruments burst into flame, and God tells Herb that he will be an instrument of liberation.  Herb is told to visit the nearby dome of a dying woman named Rhybys, who (it turns out) is miraculously pregnant (though she is a virgin).  The plan is for Herb, Ryhbys, and their friend Elias (aka the prophet Elijah) to smuggle this special child to Earth.  The child’s name is Emmanuel.


Thus, the action of the novel begins, a cosmic struggle for the salvation of the Earth and (as it turns out) the entire universe.  The novel blends science, religion, philosophy, and mythology to create a story that is both ancient and futuristic, cosmic and personal.  Who will win the epic battle?  Will Emmanuel succeed in saving the world from the clutches of Belial and his evil empire?  You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Stay tuned for my report on the final novel in the VALIS trilogy (and PKD’s final novel ever), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Postindustrial America: The Rise and Fall of Bethlehem Steel

"Help my union? For 25 years we've been dyin' slow down there. Dry dock's rustin', piers standin' empty. My friends and their kids like we got the cancer. No life-line got thrown all that time, nothin' from nobody, and now you wanna help us? Help me?" 
--Frank Sobotka, The Wire (Season 2)

For my English 101 classes at Cal State Fullerton, I have created a curriculum centered around the television program The Wire called “The Wire and the American City.”  Each season of the show focuses on a different problem facing the modern American city.  The show’s setting of Baltimore is a microcosm of larger social, political, and economic problems facing 21st century America.  The first season explores the failed “War on Drugs.”  The second season, which we are currently watching and discussing, focuses on the decline of the “blue collar” union workforce.  


The season centers around a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores, the guys who load and unload cargo at the port of Baltimore.  Due to globalization, political corruption, and the decline of American manufacturing, this union is losing its power, and it’s pretty clear that the younger generation will have to find different jobs.

To put the drama of this local situation into a larger national context, we watched a PBS film about the rise and fall of one of the largest manufacturers in American history—Bethlehem Steel.  The decline of this company is often cited as a classic case of the decline of American manufacturing in general.  It’s a sad, but instructive story.


Bethlehem Steel was created by Charles Schwab in 1901, when he took over an iron company that had existed since the 1860s.  Schwab’s main innovation was the “wide flange beam,” which was used to build skyscrapers and bridges across America, like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Rockefeller Center, and the U.S. Supreme Court building.  About 80 percent of New York’s skyline was made with Bethlehem Steel.


During the first World War, Bethlehem Steel acquired large military contracts, making ship, airplane, and weapons parts.  This allowed the company to expand greatly, and build more mills.  The promise of jobs in Bethlehem Steel brought immigrants to this country, who set down roots and formed the foundation of a blue collar working class.

Prior to the 1940s, conditions in the mills were dangerous, and workers had few rights, protections, or benefits.  In 1941, the workers went on strike, demanding a union to secure their rights and better working conditions. The United Steelworkers of America was formed, and workers enjoyed such benefits as a ten-minute lunch break and employee showers.

Then the U.S. entered the second World War, and again the company secured lucrative military contracts which again allowed it to expand.  War was good for business.  Also, at this time, women entered the Bethlehem workforce, as many men were drafted to fight overseas.


After the war, the future seemed bright for Bethlehem Steel and its unionized workforce.  But this dream was not to last.  In 1959, there was a nationwide steelworkers strike that lasted 117 days, and was ultimately settled by then vice president Richard Nixon.  The new contract gave employees further benefits and pensions.  These benefits, however, prompted Bethlehem Steel to raise its prices, which led to increasing competition from foreign steel manufacturers.

Throughout the 1960s, the price of American steel continued to rise, and foreign steel was simply cheaper.   Also, there was a huge gap between management and the workforce.  Executives arrogantly believed that their company would last forever, and refused to invest in long-term changes or innovation, preferring short-term profits for their shareholders.  Eventually, due to numerous factors including union benefits, short-sighted management, a globalized economy, and foreign competition, Bethlehem Steel found itself near bankruptcy by the 1970s.  The company began to lay off workers, and never really recovered.  The 1970s signaled the decline of this once great and powerful business.  The company died a slow death.  By the 2001, Bethlehem steel was no more.


Now factories lie vacant, and many workers are denied the pension benefits they were promised.  the unionized blue collar working class is shrinking as America faces an increasingly globalized economy, as factories and jobs are outsourced.  After all, it’s cheaper to have a factory in Indonesia or Mexico than it is to have one in the United States, with all those expensive labor laws, and employee benefits.

Season 2 of The Wire depicts this steady decline in American manufacturing, blue collar workers, and unions.  What will the future hold for the International Brotherhood of Stevedores?  It doesn’t look too promising.  One need only look at the dilapidated factories of Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, or any number of American cities to see that we are now living in a postindustrial America.  The economic consequences of this are being felt by many American families today.

You can watch the PBS documentary "Bethlehem Steel: the People Who Built America" here:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 11: Hud

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  I will also include some original Arabic text, because it is very beautiful.

The eleventh surah of the Qur’an is named after Hud, a prophet who lived in pre-Islamic Arabia.  Like the seventh surah (The Heights), this one tells stories of a series of prophets who came before Muhammad, some biblical, some Arabic: Noah, Hud, Salih, Abraham, and Shu’ayb.

Each of these prophet stories follows a similar pattern.  God speaks to the prophet, commanding him to tell his people to change their ways (mostly to put away idolatry and worship God).  These prophetic messages are met with various responses of belief and unbelief.  Ultimately, in the case of each prophet, God judges/punishes those who refuse to believe/change their ways, thus vindicating the prophet and his message.

This surah begins and ends with words of encouragement to Muhammad, to hold fast to his prophetic messages.  Even though some people don’t believe the prophet (calling him a “sorcerer” or a “liar”), Muhammad is told that he is part of a long series of prophets of God, all of whom experienced some rejection.

It seems that rejection is part of what it means to be a prophet.  This theme is also presented in the biblical books of prophecy.  Guys like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and others delivered dire messages.  Some people believed, some didn’t, but ultimately the prophets (and God) were vindicated.

Reading this surah raised many questions in my mind:  Who are the prophets of today?  What does it mean to be a prophet in an age of reason and science?  Did prophecy end with Muhammad, or have there been other prophets?  What is the source of prophecy?  The idealist would say God, or at least divine inspiration.  The cynic would say mental illness, hallucination, or a desire for power/control.  The very idea of a prophet seems an ancient and out-dated one—part of a pre-scientific worldview.  And yet, billions of people (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) still believe in the words of ancient prophets.  Why?

An exquisite Qur'an once owned by Sultan Abdal Hamid II