All India Bakchod: Changing India…One Gag at a Time

The  following excerpt from my travel diary describes a meeting I had with Vijay Nair, the CEO of Only Much Louder, and Rohan Joshi, one of the key performers from the comedy troupe, All India Bakchod, which occurred early in my time in Mumbai and informed my understanding of how digital media and popular culture were working together to change political discourse in the country.

We were taken to the headquarters for Only Much Louder, former industrial space which is being adopted to the needs of a creative company, while preserving at least some elements of its old atmosphere. The company’s director and founder Vijay Nair told us the story of how his company was helping to transform Indian popular culture. Nair had started out while still in high school managing some local bands – mostly rock and heavy metal. He said at that time most bands in India were doing cover versions of western rock performers, but he began identifying artists who were trying to develop and perform original material, especially in college campuses, and he sought ways to support their efforts. His promotions were very much aided by the emergence of the internet which allowed artists and fans alike to learn more about performers who might previously have been known locally but would not have been able to develop a national following. The web supported communication across scenes, and he began to provide these artists with management to help give them the business support they needed. Gradually, the company also began organizing concerts and music festivals, became a production facility to help them make music videos, and became its own record label.

He had what struck me as a very enlightened attitude towards copyright. He said that there was a long history in India of the retailers being very slow to pay the labels for the records they sold (if they paid at all) so the revenue from record sales could never constitute the primary income stream for his artists. As a consequence, they embraced the web, giving away much of the music for free and trusting their fans to help publicize and distribute it, counting on live event revenue and sponsorships, rather than retail sales, to sustain them. He said, “piracy was the best thing to happen. Our fans took over our distribution.”

Along the way, he also observed a shift from performers doing rock only in English to more artists performing in Hindi and other local languages, which also helped to differentiate alternative artists from the commercial mainstream. In 2010, they started hosting music festivals which now travel city to city, exposing audiences to new and established bands, and further building up the music scenes.

But around this same time, the company started to branch out to work with comedy and Youtube stars. He described the dramatic growth of comedy performances in India, with his stars going from small venues to large concert halls in a matter of two years time. Much of the energy here, he suggested, came through the platform which Youtube gave to these comedians. He gave me some sense of the comedy traditions of his country, which were highly localized until the rise of the web. He talked about local theaters cultivating a troupe of comic poets who would do satirical verse about contemporary developments, but who would be so grounded in local references, vernacular languages, etc., that they would be almost incomprehensible outside of their local community. There were strong traditions of comedy grounded in imitation and mimicry with a strong focus on parodying regional and caste differences. He referenced the introduction of a comedy competition, the Great India Laugh Challenge, which gave some of these local performers a chance to compete for more national visibility.

But he felt that YouTube has had an enormous transformative impact on the audience for comedy, creating a new generation of personalities who had followings across the country. Most of the audience, he said, still comes from the top ten cities in India – very urban based, not yet penetrating the small towns, but definitely having an impact on youth culture.

Comedy still is heavily gendered as a male profession, but there were some emerging female performers, and he said that Youtube was also having an impact in terms of Indian audiences accessing U.S. based female comics, such as Sara Silverman, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, etc., which is exposing people to the idea that women might have their own distinctive comic contributions to make to the culture. Much of the stand-up comedy was modeled on British and American performers, so it was done in English, though he is seeing a rise in performances in Hindi and other regional languages, following the pattern of localization he had previously observed with rock bands.

The comedians are performing at some risk, because free speech is inconsistently defined, and there can be legal consequences for jokes that ruffled the feathers of powerful people or which make fun of religious beliefs in particular. Yet, despite or perhaps because of this, comedians were playing important political roles in India, speaking about issues that are not being discussed within mainstream media, and becoming a force in shaping how young people in particular think about the political process.


Around that time, we were joined by Rohan Joshi, who is part of All India Backchod, a group which has been at the center of much of the debates around comedy in India. Parmesh had shared with me an interesting article which used their fights with censorship to illustrate the shifting limits on what comedy could or could not address in their country. And the article led me to a feature length documentary,I Am Offended, which centers around the struggles of comedians in India to deal with both formal and informal forms of censorship, an issue which has also drawn increased interest here in the United States.

AIB had done a “roast” of several Bollywood stars, one of the first public examples of this well-established genre of comedy performances in India, and the response from the public had been enormous, reaching many million viewers via YouTube, but then they got complaints from the government about some of the material included, especially some of the comments about sexuality and religion, and they were forced to take the videos down from their own Youtube channel though it continues to informally circulate through many more dispersed networks. It is hard to remove something from circulation once it has gained a life online.

The Roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh… by AlllndiaBakchod

I had been warned we would be meeting Rohan so I checked out some of their videos online yesterday morning. Many of them are in Hindi without subtitles, so I was not able to fully comprehend the comedy, but here’s a link to a video depicting what an Indian version of Mario Brothers would look like, which was visually oriented and thus largely comprehensible to me (even if some of the local references fly over my head).

Rohan noted that within India, he reached an audience much bigger than any comic reaches in America or the UK, so he asked why he would want or need to “globalize” his address: he felt his success came in articulating an Indian perspective on world events. AIB has been fearless at tackling controversial political issues. One of their first videos to really get on people’s radar, “It’s Your Fault,” dealt with rape culture in India and had women repeating some of the absurd statements made about rape by various Indian public figures (male and female).

AIB also played an important role in reshaping the debate in India around Net Neutrality, an issue which, as in the United States, got almost no media coverage. The government was very quietly calling for public comment on the issue and they were inspired by John Oliver to produce their own comedy video explaining the issue to the Indian public and encouraging them to weigh in.

And the group has continued to rally support and educate supporters at each twist and turn of this complex regulatory process. Here, for example, is a more recent video which further elaborates on the various ways that Indian telcomms had sought to misinform the public about what net neutrality meant. What a bunch of pineapples!

Rohan noted that their net neutrality  videos were produced in English, albeit in simple English that could be understood by those with limited comprehension of the language, because they wanted it to be seen across the nation. They said that they moved between English and Hindi as the dominant language for their work depending on what felt most organic to a particular project, and that it was not uncommon for Indian comics, much as in everyday life, to code switch sometimes in the same sentence. Ultimately, they were able to get 1.2 million people to send in their responses to the government in support of net neutrality and thus helping to shape the policy that emerged.

Both Vijay and Rohan described a vision where they would help to create an alternative media channel, largely crowd-funded, in order to get around commercial constraints on free speech and which would help to mobilize young people of all classes to get involved more directly in reforming the political system. Crowdfunding was a new model in India, with Kickstarter only tapping the top few percent of the population. A major obstacle was that the use of credit cards was still not widespread in the country, where cash based exchanges are the norm, but they were seeing e-commerce sites allowing more people to place faith in credit card exchanges online, which they felt would pave the way for more widespread interest in the crowdsourcing of entertainment content. For now, their content production is mostly supported by brands and by the revenues from live performances, which is why the kind of management they provide is so vital to these rising artists.

Around this time, Parmesh pushed me to share with them some of our recent work, and I talked a bit about Civic Imagination, the Harry Potter Alliance, The Nerdfighters, and the use of the superhero motif in various immigration rights struggles, all of which interested them greatly. We got into an interesting set of exchanges about what might be the Indian counterparts for these efforts, and they identified two projects in Indian politics which were using the superhero motif in particular. Rohan shared the example of a particular political figure, Arvinnd Kejriwal, who suffered from Ashma and who tended to wear rather unfashionable mufflers around his neck, which had made him an object of ridicule from the political opposition. His supporters turned this around by dubbing him “muffler man” and creating a series of videos which used superhero imagery to suggest the muffler was the source of his super powers.

Our discussion shifted more generally to the political culture of India, which they saw as characterized by a certain degree of cynicism, but within limits. They said the basic deal was that all politicians were corrupt, so the public wanted them to “eat” from the public trough but “get shit done,” and the outrage was directed at incompetence far more than corruption. They also said that political engagement was very much class-based in India but in a somewhat counter-intuitive way. The upper classes did not vote because they did not want to be associated with the corruption of the political class, where-as much of the politics was directed towards the common classes, which really cast the deciding votes in most cases. They argued that recent campaigns, though, were using social media and even transmedia tactics in ways that were reaching the attention of young people from the upper-classes and pulling them into the political process. The result was not necessarily a more progressive politics but was changing the political style, including the rise of a generation of “cool” or “hip” young political figures who were themselves using comedy or willing to engage with comedians in getting their messages out to the world. Needless to say, I found this entire discussion VERY interesting.

Through my engagement with Indian students via the LOUD tour, I came away by the end of my trip with an even stronger sense of how important AIB had become at merging the worlds of comedy and politics. Most of the audience seemed to recognize AIB and knew about their videos, and for many of them, AIB played much the same role that the Daily Show performed in U.S. undergraduate culture. AIB, like the Daily Show, consistently calls attention to the foibles of the mass media and especially of the news media, as might be suggested by this video, “The Great India Media Circus.”

The proliferation of screens in the talk television segment seems particularly target at Arnab Goswami, a conservative talk show host, more or less in the same vein, as Bill O’Reilly, but pushed to the Nth degree. Here, you can see what has become perhaps the most famous segment on Arnab’s program, where he talks through and hectors a guest who dares to challenge his presentation of the facts. Arnab’s “Never, Ever, Ever…” has become emblematic of the voice of mass media in India, and would generate easy laughs when I referenced it during my talks.

Ironically, I had a chance to have a brief conversation with Arnab, during a conference hosted by Twitter in Mumbai, and I found him to be charming, soft-spoken, and thoughtful off-camera. Remixing Arnad is a popular pass-time in India and I incorporated this example in many of my talks as I traveled across the country — a way to illustrate the collision between old and new media that is helping to shape political discourse around the world.

As we were leaving India, AIB released a new video,”Unoffended,” featuring Arnab, and speculating what would happen to mass media if the world decided to be reasonable rather than shouting at each other. This adds yet another layer to my argument about the interface between AIB/Remix Culture and Arnab/Mass Media.

Why I Went to India…

I spent five weeks in India this summer. During that time, I delivered more than 20 talks and met with some of the country’s leading thinkers about new media, culture, education, politics, and journalism. My wife, Cynthia, and I visited a range of cities in the North, South, East, and West of the country, though our core base of operation was in Mumbai/Bombay.

This was my first trip to India, though I have imagined visiting this country since I was 12 when I became utterly fascinated with the Disney animated version of The Jungle Book. How many layers deep into the colonialist imagination is that — a Disney version of a Rudyard Kipling novel — but it planted a seed for me which grew over time, leading me to explore and engage with many different aspects of Indian culture, food, cinema, music and political philosophy, over the subsequent decades, and led to me standing in front of one audience after another across the subcontinent. As I told these audiences, I no more thought of them as Mowgli than I hoped they would think of me as Rambo; our popular mythology distorts how we see each other in so many ways, but it can also open us up to new experiences and perspectives and inspire curiosity about people we might never encounter otherwise, and that’s how it was for me in India.

But what brought me to India was not The Jungle Book, or the Apu Trilogy, or the various Bollywood films I have watched through the years. I had worked closely with one great student from South Asia after another through the years — both graduate and undergraduate, both at MIT and now at USC.  Their work exposed me to so many significant developments in the country’s media landscape and I wanted to see what was happening there with my own eyes. I wanted to come to India to pay tribute to those students. And I wanted to expand the conversations within my classroom to engage with more thinkers and do-ers in this remarkable country.

In short, I came to India to learn (though, of course, being an academic, the way you finance such a trip is to agree to give a series of talks.) Off and on, across the fall, I plan to share some of the things I learned and some of the amazing people I met during my trip through India. I hope to share some excerpts from my travel journal, some of the photographs my wife took, but I also want to dig deep into the country’s contemporary popular culture (especially the culture around comics). Keep in mind that I am not an expert on Indian culture and politics. I am sure to make some mistakes here, so please be patient with me, but also, if you know more about India than I do, do not let these errors slide. I’d love to hear from you.

Parmesh and the Jenkinses

The person who made this trip possible was Parmesh Shahani. Parmesh had been a Master’s Student in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. Parmesh was one of those people who arrived on campus and already seemed to be at the center of a vast network of contacts. As a graduate student, he wrote a remarkable thesis which became a groundbreaking book — Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India. He was perfectly situated to capture a moment of change in terms of how India thought about sexual politics, and his book combined a personal memoir with ethnographic accounts of the emerging activist movement there. You can read here the interview I did with Parmesh for my blog at the time the book first appeared. (Part Two is here.)

In the years since, Parmesh has become an iconic figure in the GLBT struggle in India — an outspoken activist who has fostered change by working within some of the country’s largest companies. You can get a sense of Parmesh from this video, produced by the INK conference.

Parmesh’s talk is powerful and personal, including some discussion of his time at MIT, when he was my student, and the efforts he has made since returning to Mumbai to be an activist for gay rights within the business community. He has been responsible for getting his company, Godrej,  to embrace what remains one of the most enlightened policies for employees in the country. It’s interesting in this talk to watch the ways he is able to link gay rights back to classical traditions in India’s history, while depicting homophobia as imposed on India by the Victorians.

While he was at MIT, Parmesh had been key in developing and launching the Convergence Culture Consortium, a think tank which brought together leading scholars on media consumption, fandom, and participatory culture, in conversation with leading media companies and brands.  Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, was perhaps the most visible outgrowth of that initiative.

Parmesh now runs the India Culture Lab at Godrej, which he developed to serve a similar function in his home country. The Lab’s home page characterizes it as: “a fluid experimental space that cross-pollinates ideas and people to explore what it means to be modern and Indian. We are based in Vikhroli, Mumbai, at the Godrej headquarters. The Lab was launched in January 2011 as an attempt to create an alternative intellectual hub in Mumbai city that would serve as a catalyst for conversations about contemporary India, by brokering interactions between academia, the creative industries, the corporate world and the not-for-profit sector…We measure our success by the connections we empower and by the quality of conversations we facilitate; to us, success is a process of discovery and not some endpoint. We also see ourselves contributing to the larger design thinking process around innovation at the Godrej group. Through the Lab, we are creating a certain kind of atmosphere that encourages new ideas and opportunities. Agendas for innovation need not just be procedures and methodologies but also an underlying philosophy of creating a work environment conducive to a culture of thinking. A note on how we think of ‘culture’ at the Lab. To us, ‘culture’ is a term that extends beyond the visual, performing or fine arts, but rather addresses broader questions related to aspects of living, demographics, gender relations, urbanism, and communication technologies, to list just a few.”

I was able to attend several of the lab’s public events and came to see it as one of the most generative spaces I’ve ever encountered. The events, which are diverse in format and theme, attract a community of people — filmmakers, musicians, poets, scholars, journalists, business leaders — who return week after week to participate in conversations that push them outside of their own comfort zones and encourage them to reflect on the diversity of the culture around them. I came to know and value each member of his remarkable team, including Dianne Tauro, Ojas Kolvankar, Kevin Lobo, and Jeff Roy.

Attending Talk

One of the highlights of my visit with the Culture Lab team was an event organized by Nitika Khaitan, a Yale undergraduate intern, who spent her summer researching performance poetry in Mumbai. For this event, she  brought together a mix of poets, representing many different traditions. The following is an excerpt of my travel diary about the event:

“Part of the emphasis here is on differences in language, so we heard works read in six or seven different languages from all over the country: it was interesting to hear so many of the regional languages side by side and listen for the differences in sound and cadence. There was also an enormous range of different modes of poetic performance, from Preeti Vangani reading feminist poetry in English to a group of South Bombay hip hop artists performing in Tamil and English (South Dandies Swaraj).

By far, the most compelling performer was Sambhaji Bhagat, who is apparently a living legend: his story was translated into a movie last year, Court.

And here is a video of the actual poet performing

He is a barrel chested man with shoulder length hair and a big bushy mustache who sings his poems in a big, booming voice: we did not understand a word he said, but there’s something jaunty and subversive about the ways he presented the material. He was clearly playing with the audience, getting them singing and clapping along, as he pushes his themes deeper and deeper into an anti-government direction. Best we can tell, he sang about corruption and scandal in the current regime, as well as speaking about the struggle in Kashmir. Parmesh told me the poet has already been jailed multiple times for his critiques of the government (free speech is far from guaranteed here and the current government is particularly prone to turn its critics into political prisoners.)

All in all, the night called attention to the multi-lingual nature of Indian culture. Ask yourself, if each American state had a different local language, which languages would you learn and why. Having grown up in Georgia, would I also speak the languages of the neighboring states? Could I have gone to graduate school without learning to speak the languages of Iowa and Wisconsin? Would I have been able to move as easily between jobs at MIT and USC? Many people here speak fluently in 3-4 or more of these languages and the audience, in general, seems to understand much if not all of what is being said, leaving me feeling inadequate about living a society where most of us speak one language and not that well.”

Parmesh’s work with the Culture Lab is informed by a range of other networks in which he also participates. He’s editor-at-large of Verve, a leading fashion magazine, where he writes a monthly column. While we were on our visit, he had to go for a photo shoot because Vogue India was showcasing him as one of the coolest people in the country. He is a Yale World Fellow, A World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and a TED Fellow. In short, our Parmesh is quite a fellow! He was willing and able to tap many of these networks as he took me on what amounted to a five week guided tour of his country and its culture. My student had surely become my teacher over the time we were in India together.

I wrote in my diary on the second day: “He seems to know everyone in the city – people of all classes and backgrounds. He can call together the top educators for a meeting today but he also knows the cooks and cleaning staff at the corporate dining hall, knows the wait staff at the places where we eat, knows the proprietors of all of the shops he takes us.” and I quickly discovered that he maintains this same set of connections in every other city we visited across India.

Car Picture

The India Culture Lab hosted a large public lecture, and I will be sharing videos of that event in a few more days, but I was also there to deliver a series of “master classes” designed to help MBA students across India develop a deeper understanding of how media and cultural change is impacting the environments within which they will be working. Here’s how I described the core mission of the event in my travel diary:

“Godrej is recruiting new talent at top MBA programs across India and it has done this in an original way through its LOUD program: LOUD stands for Living Out Ur Dreams. Participants at the workshop will be sharing their dreams, personal and professional, and a certain number of applicants will be selected and funded. The recruits will then be expected to live out their dreams before starting to work for the company and to share with the world what happened. Last year, they produced an entire reality series based on the process and had rock bands perform on each campus to draw people in. This year, I am supposed to be the star attraction, telling my own story of pursuing my dreams, and also giving these students, who have had an incredibly focused education without any humanities classes, why culture should matter in the ways they do business in the future. No pressure here at all. :-)”

Teams of students were also proposing projects to improve their campus and the company would fund the best project to emerge from this nation-wide recruitment process. Each presentation, then, included an introduction by Parmesh, my master class presentation, and an inspirational and informative talk from a top executive from the company (with a shifting cast of characters in this slot across the trip).

And here’s a description I wrote shortly after the first of the events:

“It is hard to describe the tone of the event: Parmesh has a unique ability to connect with Indian audiences; his humor is bawdy, his tone is raucous, he shows no shame, and he invites the students to question what they have been taught and to actively participate in the conversation.  All of these break to some degree with the tone of most academic presentations here, and indeed, the pep rally like atmosphere he created would be odd on an American college campus also. He brought in tons of gifts – shampoos, umbrellas, books, gift bags – all branded by the company and has a range of different stunts throughout the program to give away the gifts, typically by encouraging the students to shout our questions or responses to questions. The climax comes when he takes the hat he’s been wearing through the session and offers it to the person who asks the most Hat-Ke question. Hat-Ke, apart from being a pun on hat in this context, is a word which literally means different, but in vernacular speech, means something closer to “queer.” So there’s something really amazing about seeing these straight-laced, disciplined,  Indian students fighting over who can ask the most queer question of the day, and Parmesh flirts shamelessly with the winner of the competition.  The audience laughs at every suggestive one-liner and double entendre which he throws out there, part of his ongoing project to liberate the next generation of Indians from the repressive structures of the past.

Henry's Talk

My talk seemed to be well received. I started by congratulating the audience on the discipline and hard work that they had demonstrated to get to this point in their careers and talked about how proud their parents and teachers must be of them. But then I suggested that I was going to give them advice they may never have heard from someone in a position of authority before – I wanted them to go out and play video games, read comics, watch television, and otherwise follow their passions, and then the talk describes my own journey – how things that my parents thought got in the way of my studies had paved the way for new insights – and share some advice on how to think beyond the narrow confines of a discipline. A highpoint in my leadership advice is a slide where I describe the lessons they might take from Jon Snow in Game of Thrones – this gets the best response of the whole talk. The second part lays out some key ideas about participatory culture and its impact, including examples from both American and Indian popular media. Another high point came when I referenced the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality and unpacked the history of the rainbow flag and why it was chosen as a filter on Facebook. There was such honest excitement about the decision here, such joy, and there was also great interest in knowing the history of this symbol and how it emerged from the connections between the gay community and Judy Garland/Wizard of Oz

….Afterwards, I was mobbed on stage. At one point, there were probably a hundred students, swarming around, all wanting to take a selfie with “Yoda” or “Professor Henry.”

Henry Selfies

Group Selfie

Across the five weeks, I participated in LOUD rallies at National Institute of Industrial Engineering, Mumbai; Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar;  Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow; Jain Institute of Management, Mumbai; Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune; India Institute of Management-Kozihikode, Kozihikode; Management Development Institute, Gurgaon;  Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi, and Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Delhi.

Each stop drew slightly different responses, though for the most part, the students responded with intensity — pounding tables, shouting yes to rhetorical questions, applauding wildly, and laughing at every outrageous statement. And through the LOUD competitions, we got a sense of their hopes for their campuses, for themselves, and for their country.

Sometimes, our interactions were unintentionally comic: one young man stood up to explain his dream, “I want to go to a war-torn country and shoot something.” It took Parmesh gently probing to get him to explain that he wanted to shoot a documentary, though I am not sure the young man ever really grasped why what he had said might cause confusion.

Sometimes, the encounters were poignant. A young man told me about the pressure he sometimes felt to abandon his dreams and personal passions, recounting how he had been bullied by other students about his interest in model airplanes, with people telling him he did not come to a top business school to spend time playing with toys. It is clear the enormous stress that the testing regime here places on these young people to conform to fairly narrow definitions of what knowledge matters and thus the pleasure they take in hearing someone like me talk about what they can learn by engaging more closely with popular media.

And sometimes, they helped me to see things that were right under my nose the whole time. Here’s a part of my travel diary notes about our visit in Gurgaon: “There was an eye opening moment during the Campus Dream competition. The winning team basically proposed making their campus one of the first in India that was handicapped accessible. And it clicked. All trip, I had been struggling with grossly uneven surfaces, with oddly placed steps, small steps down for no good reason, massive steps up also without visible rationale, and often, both in getting from point a to point b. It is one of the many reasons why I feel constantly off-balance here, but somehow it had not sunk in that part of what we are dealing with is a world which had not passed legislation requiring public facilities to be handicapped accessible. Doh!” The issue of handicapped access resurfaced at several other campus visits, forcing all of us to recognize how urgent this struggle is in contemporary India.

In the weeks to come, I will be sharing more of my experiences in India — a mixture of travel writing and media analysis, which I hope will spark more awareness of some of the incredible work going on down there. So, buckle your seatbelts, folks.

What We Miss When We Focus on the Confederate Flag…

This past June, I began my summer travels with a homecoming tour of the American South, visiting old friends, and stopping at places across the region that had meant something special to me growing up. One of the highlights of the trip was dinner at Chef & the Farmer, the neo-Southern cuisine restaurant opened by Vivian Howard in Kinston, North Carolina. My wife Cynthia and I were joined for this amazing dinner (one of the 3 or 4 best I have ever eaten) by John Huey, the former Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc. and a fellow member of the jury for the Peabody Awards, and his wife, Kate.  

Howard’s program, A Chef’s Life, had won a Peabody Award during our first year on the jury: this program tells the story of how Howard and her husband, the artist Ben Knight, moved back to Eastern North Carolina from New York City to open a farm-to-table restaurant. A Chef’s Life situates her efforts to reinvent southern cooking in the context of the cultural life of her surrounding community, telling the stories of the farmers who grow the food she serves and the local traditions concerning how that food is prepared. Howard knows how to make traditional southern dishes taste great! Her program offers an alternative set of images and stories about the American south, focusing on its rich cultural traditions and its strong sense of community. A Chef’s Life ranks in my personal canon of contemporary works which invite us to rethink and reimagine southern identity: Russ McElwee’s Sherman’s March, Jeremy Love’s Bayou, Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher, Ava DuVerney’s Selma, Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights, Ray Mckinnon’s Rectify, and the music of T-Bone Burnett, to cite just a few favorites. 

Huey and I had grown up in Atlanta, just a few miles apart, and so we had bonded as members of the committee; we both had fallen hard for Howard and her program. I wanted to taste the food she prepared: Huey had already had a few chances and promised me that I would not be disappointed. And I was not.

It is hard for anyone raised in the South (especially someone who has found their fortunes outside the region) not to have profoundly mixed feelings about what it means to be southern.  As we had dinner together, the two couples (with visits from Howard and her staff) talked about how we struggled to separate what we love about the South from its more cringeworthy and disappointing aspects.

But when we got back to our rooms, we learned the news of the tragic shooting at the black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Huey and his wife are residents of Charleston and were driving back immediately to participate in some of the gatherings that would take place there in the aftermath. We talked briefly about how much progress that city had made — people of many races working together — to create a more diverse yet unified community. 

There are many ways America could have responded to the shootings in Charleston, including, for example, by pursuing all the more aggressively the kinds of gun reform (or mental health) policies  that might have actually prevented the shooting from taking place, using the incident to continue what I had seen as a promising national dialogue about race and racism or  to foreground the history of efforts (successful or otherwise) towards civil rights and cultural diversity within the region. And some of these other approaches were tried. But for the most part, the Charleston shootings have triggered a summer where the public conversation has been dominated by debates around the Confederate flag.

Let me begin with as direct a statement as I can make: the continued use of the Confederate battle flag on public buildings or state flags in the South is indefensible.

State governments should no longer provide cover for those for whom the flag has always been about hate and not heritage; citizens of color should no longer feel misrepresented or excluded when they look upon their state’s seat of power, and our local and state governments should be looking towards the future and not the past. So, take it down!

Obama is correct that the flag belongs in a museum.  There is no way to erase or ignore the fact that this flag’s history has been charged at every moment by the worst kinds of racist ideologies.

In 2003 (way too recently!), the Confederate war banner was removed from the Georgia flag and similar choices were made by other southern states. Today, the Confederate flag is officially part of the flag of Mississippi, but until the recent efforts, it was still displayed, for example, on state-sanctioned auto license plates. As state governments have moved away from the use of the Confederate flag for official purposes, that banner has been used almost entirely by the most extreme, most defiant segments of the white South. Today, most people choosing to use this flag, in the face of pained responses from other people, are doing so with the full knowledge of the flag’s implications. That said, the Confederate flag has always bourn a complex range of other meanings (family, region, class, masculinity, tradition, pride, resistance), which are not easy to separate out from that history and which is why removing the flag still carries an emotional charge, even for those of us who have come to deplore it as a symbol of the south’s worst impulses.

I hear my non-Southern friends on Facebook say that the Confederate flag is “simply” about racism, and what I want to suggest is that there is nothing simple about it.

You will get no defenses of the flag from me based on arguments around heritage. It is impossible to reduce a flag to a single meaning, but, in so far as it is possible, the Confederate flag now stands for racism. Period. End of story.

So I was happy when we saw a new wave of energy across the South to further limit the use of the flag in any official capacity, a struggle long over-due and well worth fighting. But as the flag goes away, we then have to work through the other things that it stands for and we have to develop a more complex account of how race operates in contemporary America.

Let’s start with a key point. Banning symbols is rarely the best way to get at the source of problems and often can be a way of masking their root causes.   Removing symbols attempts to negate their original meanings and effects (perhaps necessary to do) but does not generate new beliefs and practices. We need to find new ways to articulate southern identity that are not based in racist ideologies and that reflect  contemporary southern experience.

For much of my life, I, like many other southern white men of my generation, saw the Confederate flag as a sloppy shorthand for my southern identity. The Confederate flag waved over my childhood treehouse and was part of the state flag I learned to draw in elementary school. My grandmother filled me with stories of my Great-Great-Grandfather who fought for the Confederacy and helped to raise her. There were still aging Confederate veterans being paraded around during my early childhood.

 Whiteness has often been discussed as an ex-nominated category, an unacknowledged norm against which all other identities need to justify themselves, but it can also be experienced as a lack — an absence of a particular identity or history, a hunger for stronger ties (which is part of what people mean when they talk about the Confederate flag in terms of “heritage.”) My family’s history went far back in the South, so far that we have never traced our story to an immigration narrative: Jenkins is no doubt an Irish or Welsh name but I have no other “mother country” from which I can meaningfully claim ancestry. So, for me, being a southerner is a deep part of my identity. Just as there is much about southern history that fills me with dread, shame, and guilt, there is much — food, music, literature and language, cultural practices —  that I still value enormously.Let’s be clear that there is no one southern experience; being southern is to be part of what Benedict Anderson would call an imagined community, and the shifting boundaries of who belongs or doesn’t belong within that community are part of what is at stake in this debate. There are important regional, generational, and gender/sexuality-based differences in what it means to be a white southerner and beyond that, southern history needs to incorporate its multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic influences. 

One can express pride in being an Irish-American without that pride being read as necessarily a snub to Polish-Americans and one can assume that such pride brings with it some ambivalence: after all, most of those immigrants left their mother countries for good reasons.  Yet, Americans seem to find it easier to define their heritage through links to Europe or some other elsewhere rather than deal with regional particularities in their own backyards. We have few symbols through which to express a shared southern identity. The Confederate flag was the wrong symbol, as is now clear, but it was the one we inherited from previous generations.

Flags are imperfect vehicles for expressing cultural identity, since they can always be high-jacked by someone else in pursuit of their own identities (ultra right wing groups have used the American flag to hammer home divisive political messages, but progressives don’t relinquish the flag as a symbol of their country). Most flags have uncomfortable histories (How can anyone wave the Union Jack given the history of British racism and colonialism around the world?) For that reason, while I was deeply offended by the use of the flag as a symbol of white supremacy,  I was frustrated with the idea that something that was part of my state’s flag could be reduced to a single negative meaning, given what cultural studies teaches us about how even the most loaded cultural symbols can be appropriated, remixed, and resignified. (See, for example, this website which explores the diverse ways that southerners of multiple race have endowed the flag with meaning in the context of their everyday life choices.)

There was much I did not know (or had not bothered to find out) about the Confederate flag until recently, starting with the fact that what we are calling the Confederate flag never flew over the government of the Confederate States of America. It was explicitly a battle flag, and it was reclaimed as a symbol of the south by subsequent generations of political leaders who almost without exception deployed it for explicitly racist purposes. For example, the Confederate battle flag was added to the Georgia State Flag in 1956, just two years before I was born,  in the context of debates about the civil rights movement. It was not added to the flag simply as an acknowledgement of southern pride (the earlier flag included a variant of the official flag of the Confederacy and it was replaced by the more militant image).  It was a symbol of defiance against the federal government’s push towards desegregation.

I’m thankful this summer’s debate highlighted those facts—which I’m guessing many southerners of my generation or younger didn’t know. But I’m dismayed that this conversation has led to intense negativity about the American South in general, so my friends on Facebook would add comments about “white trash,” “crackers”, “rednecks,” “Bubba,” and “Honey Boo Boo.”  If critics use the flag debate as an excuse to mock southerners in general, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at a knee-jerk reaction by some to hold onto the stars and bars. Southerners have a right, like any other group,  to be proud of their culture and their family histories. But that pride should not be expressed at someone else’s expense.

The attack on the Confederate flag has come dangerously close to treating racism as if it were somehow the unique property of a particular region. America has a history of locating racism in the South in order to avoid addressing the racism that infects the whole nation.   Anyone who grew up in the South during my generation had to confront this legacy of racism and white supremacy. You had to decide how you were going to respond, while many  in New England or the Midwest have rarely reflected on their own  privilege or seen themselves as implicated within racism. My schoolmates each made a choice; I knew people (myself among them) who became active in the civil right’s movement  and I knew people who joined the Klan.  As long as the rest of the country has a way to deflect serious consideration of a more complex history of racism onto a set of stereotypes about “rednecks” waving Confederate flags, they will do so. 

This refocusing on the Confederate flag has come at a moment when we are, as a country, paying increased attention to, for example, racialized police violence. The #BlackLivesMatters movement has helped us to see incidents of black deaths at the hands of white cops not as isolated incidences, not as problems in local police forces, but as a more widespread issue that impacts the lives of every Black American. So, it has been significant that the incidents which have sparked media coverage have come from places like Ferguson, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles,  and Baltimore as much or more than they have come from Florida, Texas or South Carolina. Going after Confederate flags doesn’t get us very far in terms of understanding someone like Donald Trump and the many people around the country who seem to be embracing what he stands for. Racism remains a problem in every community in America and people at all levels will need to work together to bring about meaningful change.

A focus on the Confederate flag has a tendency to personalize racism, to discuss it as a moral failing of specific individuals, rather than as a systemic and structural problem. For many white people, racism does not appear to be a problem in America today because they do not see blacks being forced to ride the back of the bus and do not see people burning crosses in their neighborhoods. We have hidden the overt signs of racism (though not the everyday micro-aggressions) and we have changed many Jim Crow laws. This does not mean, however, that we are not seeing the rolling back of voter rights, for example, or that our communities do not still feel the economic and social impacts of post-war housing policies which limited who could get loans to buy into particular communities (a history capably discussed in George Lipsitz’s recent How Racism Takes Place) or that criminal justice and incarceration policies do not have implicit racial biases or… The point is that these phenomenon are built into the system in such a way that we do not need to identify explicit racist intents in order to find racialized impacts.

So, what happens to the focus on these structural and systemic factors when we bring back the age-old boogeyman of the redneck waving a Confederate flag? This is not to let Bubba off the hook or to deny that there are real hate groups in the south and elsewhere which need to be confronted. The Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors such groups do valuable work. That said, we could get rid of all of the Klansmen tomorrow and still have substantial issues we need to confront.

A focus on the Confederate flag brings with it a particular framing, which emphasizes the relations between blacks and whites, at the expense of adopting a more complex, layered picture of our multicultural society. It reduces the issue of racism to a binary when much of our best contemporary theory about race and racism has been emphasizing intersectionality — multiple points of contact between multiple demographic groups, not to mention the ways race intersects with class, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Ironically, it was an Indian-American woman, South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Hailey, who ended up taking the lead on getting the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina State House, a reminder that the modern south has experienced waves of immigration in recent years resulting in much more demographic diversity than most media representations acknowledge.

Even if we want to focus on race in the South, we need to do so with an awareness of the experiences of Latino, Asian-American, American Muslim, and a range of other minority groups who are struggling to survive and thrive in the region.  To return to my home state, Georgia is now the tenth largest state for Hispanics in the United States. To focus more narrowly on my home town, Atlanta long consisted overwhelmingly of blacks and non-Hispanic whites; those groups made up 92.1% of the city in 1990, but by 2010 their proportion had shrunk to 85.0%. Metropolitan Atlanta’s Hispanic population increased by 72.0% from 2000 to 2010, and in 2010 the city was 10.2% Hispanic. The Asian American population increased by 65.5%, and in 2010 Asian Americans made up 5.1% of the Metropolitan area. And depending on which estimate you use, Georgia’s  Muslim population is between 9.9-13% of the state’s total population. (So much for our Bible Belt stereotypes). None of this is to make the mistake of universalizing the meaning of #BlackLivesMatter by translating it into “all lives matter.” Black-white relations have a special status, have a painful history that needs to be confronted and acknowledged, but there is also work we need to do that factors in these other experiences of racial and cultural difference in the south and beyond.  

A debate around the Confederate flag increases our awareness of the history of racial conflict in the region — which can be a good thing. As I mentioned, it awakened me to the specific timing of the introduction of the Confederate flag to the state flag of Georgia and thus undercut any lingering rationales for its status as tradition. Yet, as we do so, we need to also pay attention to the long history of struggles to forge cross-racial alliances across the region — the ways diverse people have worked together  to re-invent their communities, to form new symbols and traditions, to frame new identities, that are more inclusive. Some key southern cities have made real progress in reforming laws and policies that bear traces of that history of racial discrimination. Yes, we’ve got a long, long way to go but we may want to look at what’s working in cities like Charleston, Atlanta, and elsewhere, as we try to figure out how we might form meaningful alliances to overcome racist beliefs and practices.

It is neither fair nor realistic to tell white southerners that they should not have some form of collective identity which reflects their history. This is why a fight over the flag becomes so divisive and defensive. We need to create positive new symbols of local pride. Otherwise, people will cling to the old ones. We need to find ways to represent the south that are more inclusive while confronting the region’s particular history of racism and segregation.  The flag must go but we should not leave a symbolic vacuum in its place or we will not like what fills that space.

And this might bring us back to Vivian Howard and A Chef’s Life, by way of illustration. We should never place all the burden on one sign or even one cultural system.   Food, which demonstrates the potential for constant variation and re-articulation, may offer us a more sophisticated language for talking about regional and cultural identities than flags. The ingredients at the core of traditional southern cooking — sweet potatoes, collard greens, okra, corn bread, iced tea, peanuts, peaches, chicken, black eyed peas, etc. — are foodstuffs that can be found in both black and white kitchens. Some were foods that were brought to America from Africa. Some were foods that hint at shared histories of poverty and struggles to survive. Some were foods prepared by black cooks working in white households, and so they hint at the ways — painful and sometimes affectionate — that white and black lives were complexly intertwined across that history.

The history of southern cooking is fraught with exploitation, appropriation, marginalization, and scarcity, it would have to acknowledge how much blood was spilt over gaining access to lunch counters. The fact that we eat many of the same foods does not mean we fix them in the same ways or eat them in the same places and there are some dishes which produce dread and disgust,  so there’s much we still have to overcome.  Paula Dean shows us that southern cooking can contain too much butter — and too much racism — to be always the best thing for our health, but all the more reason  to tinker with those classic ingredients and see if something a bit more tasty emerges.  

The great thing about food is that it comes with a “serve by” date, and after that, we throw it out and try something else. Food can represent family history (as anyone with fading hand copied recipes from earlier generations can attest) but it also points to community practices — the potluck — which imply a world where there is always room for another seat at the table. Traditional southern dishes can be mixed with new ingredients which reflect other histories and trajectories.

The Southern Foodways Alliance, for example, represents the kind of collective enterprise that will be required if we are to construct alternative markers of southern identity. Here’s part of how they describe their mission: “The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation…We tell honest and sometimes difficult stories about our region. We embrace Southern history, the realities of the Southern present, and the opportunities for Southern futures. In other words, we don’t flinch from talking about race, class, religion, gender, and all the other biggies.”

Howard’s food and her personal narrative are a powerful expression of local particularity, all the more so because it is a story of a return to the south, of what people bring back with them and what they discover “back home”, of new beginnings and creative rewordings: what emerges in her kitchen is provisional and improvisational  and this is what we need to embrace if we are to articulate forms of southern pride that do not bear residuals of the Confederate past.

And I can tell you, for all the symbolic weight I am placing on it here, Howard’s food tastes damn fine.

I am grateful to John Huey, Charlie Jenkins, Sam Ford, Amanda Ford, Tara McPherson, Liana Gamber-Thompson,  Samantha Close, Andrea Wenzel, Erna Smith, for critiques, advice, and insight during the writing of this essay. Any stupidity that remains is my responsibility.

The New Audience: Movie-Going in a Connected World

Late last spring, I participated as the opening speaker of a program hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and dealing with the future of movie-going. The program was organized by Michael Shamberg, a two-time Best Picture nominee with credits including The Big Chill, A Fish Called Wanda, Erin Brokovich, and Django Unchained. My fellow panelists included Ze Frank, the President of Buzzfeed Motion Pictures and a long-time innovator in digital media; Tayo Amos, a young filmmaker who described how digital media was creating openings for minority artists to create and share their work; and John Lassiter, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering.

As a long-time Oscar fan, it was a great honor to be speaking to this audience and I enjoyed pulling together a talk which spanned the history of motion pictures and sought to flag some key developments in contemporary Hollywood. Over the summer, the videos of this event have been released, and I wanted to share them here.

Over the next week or so, I am heading off to the East Coast: I am on leave this fall and in residence at Microsoft Research’s New England office. There will be a brief gap in the flow of blog posts, having gotten caught up on a backlog of material that built up over the summer, and then I will be back like gangbusters. So pardon our interruption.

Digging Deeper: Virtual Reality and Immersive Entertainment

Havas Media’s 18Hubs (their innovation Lab in Venice, CA) has produced an outstanding series of videos on virtual reality and immersive entertainment hosted by Jez Jowett and featuring participants from this past spring’s Transforming Hollywood conference.   Check them out below.

If you missed my post earlier in the year showcasing the videos of the actual sessions from that conference, you can find them here.

And if you want some further reflections on the topic, Fred Turner, who spoke at our conference, followed up with a recently published essay in American Prospect. And if you want more historical reflections on VR and technological change, see this Soundcloud interview with media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo, who also spoke at our Transforming Hollywood event.

Experts discussed Virtual Reality with Havas at Transforming Hollywood – Part 1 – Future or Fad from 18 Los Angeles – Havas Media Gr. on Vimeo.

Experts discussed Virtual Reality with Havas at Transforming Hollywood – Part 2 – Advertising from 18 Los Angeles – Havas Media Gr. on Vimeo.

Experts discussed Virtual Reality with Havas at Transforming Hollywood – Part 3 – Storytelling from 18 Los Angeles – Havas Media Gr. on Vimeo.

“Somewhat Diverse?”: Remarks to the Science Fiction Research Association Conference

Earlier this summer, I was presented with the Pilgrim Award for “lifetime contributions to SF/FS” by the Science Fiction Researchers Association. I learned of this honor too late to attend but I sent them the following remarks, which speak to their conference’s key themes about recovering marginal voices in science fiction and fandom. My first response was “not dead yet,” in my best Monty Python impersonation, but beyond that, I was deeply honored.  These remarks were published in the organization’s summer newsletter, but I wanted to share them here, especially since this blog and the community it attracts was specifically singled out in their presentation of the award. What follows are some of my own reflections about where we are at and where we still need to go as a field as we engage with the politics of diversity as they relate to scholarship on fandom and genre entertainment.

I was deeply honored to learn that your organization, the Science Fiction Research Association, had bestowed on me your 2014 Pioneer Award. I am so sorry that I am not able to be there to accept the award in person. I am scheduled to leave in the next few days for an extended trip to India and Indonesia. The trip has been in planning for some time, and it wasn’t possible to adjust my plans accordingly. But I hope that I may be able to attend a future conference and perhaps share some time with many of you so that I can learn more about the research you are doing. So, first, let me say thanks. But, second, let me offer a short provocation — one intended to build on the themes you have outlined for this year’s conference.

Science fiction in particular; genre fiction more generally; and fandom above all have been key influences on my thinking since childhood. They remain sources of ongoing inspiration to me, as I am sure they are for those of you attending this conference. I grew up in the segregated South. I went to segregated schools, and I attended a segregated church. Insofar as I encountered racial and cultural difference, I encountered it on Star Trek, with its multi-cultural and multi-planetary crew. I encountered it through alien life forms in the pages of science fiction novels. And I encountered it through Lt. Jeff Long, the black astronaut that Mattel controversially included in its Major Matt Mason toy line.


The narratives of that period, we might say now, were painfully flawed, unable to imagine a world not dominated by white men; unable to imagine a galaxy where being human was not the best possible thing we could be and being American was the highest form of being human. Yet, despite—or, perhaps, because of—those limits…because science fiction raised expectations it could not itself satisfy…my experiences as a science fiction fan were central to opening my eyes to the experiences of others. Star Trek’s Prime Directive was perhaps most powerful because it gave us a vocabulary to critique all of those many times when Kirk sought to disrupt or overthrow other cultures because they did not confirm to his own deeply entrenched norms and values. Talking about and critiquing the show with fellow fans sharpened my own sense of social justice and forced me to question things I was observing in the world around me.


From the start, science fiction was designed to be a provocation, an incitement for reflection and dialogue about the nature of change, whether understood in technological or cultural terms. At each step along the way, science fiction writers have encouraged readers to ask some fundamental questions about who we are and what kind of world we want to live in—questions which have inspired political movements and informed academic research across many disciplines. I have been struck recently by Michael Saler’s discussion in AS IF of early science fiction fandom as a “public sphere of the imagination,”—that is, a space where fans could speculate and ask questions just removed enough from the realm of their lived experience that participants were free to consider and debate alternatives that might be unspeakable and unthinkable under other circumstances. Science fiction narratives and art provided resources for thinking through those other possibilities, and fandom provided a social space where people from somewhat diverse backgrounds might trade insights and experiences with each other.


My phrase “somewhat diverse” is meant to acknowledge what I take to be a central theme of this year’s convention—the attempt to reclaim science fiction’s suppressed and marginalized histories, to come to terms with the exclusions as well as inclusions that have shaped the history of science fiction as a genre and fandom as a social/cultural phenomenon. The histories of science fiction culture, which have been handed down to us from First Fandom, have stressed the roles played by white men who belonged to certain educational and technological elites, while they also remind us of the roles ethnic minorities and especially youth who were first or second-generation immigrants—people with names like Schwartz and Asimov—played in shaping science fiction cultures. Samuel R. Delany has written about the “liberal-Jewish” traditions that shaped this early fan culture. And, yet, we also know that these were not the only people engaging with speculative fictions.


If SF fandom constituted a public sphere of the imagination, we can only assume that there were multiple counter-publics where these same ideas were being discussed by those who would not have been welcomed at the World Science Fiction Conventions of the 1950s and 1960s. Where were science fiction’s “hush harbors”? Recent work on Afro-futurism has helped us to identify resources from science fiction that have found their way into other kinds of representation and become tools for survival of the black community, but we need to know much more about what these same processes have meant for Asian-American, Latino, first nation, and American Muslim communities across the 20th century. And we need to remember that science fiction has been a global discourse, one which has repeatedly addressed the process of globalization and colonial exploitation and one which has had an active role to perform in fostering post-colonial identities.


We are starting to piece together some fragmented histories of the roles science fiction fandom has played for female fans (and the conflicts they faced as they sought entry into the once almost-exclusively male clubhouse and continued to face once they got there). For me, this history has gained new poignancy as we have watched how some corners of fandom (such as Sad Puppies or Gamergate) are continuing to react aggressively against efforts to diversify and include others whose stories and perspectives matter. When we see the intensity of some of today’s fights, we gain a new appreciation of what that first generation of feminist fans must have confronted. Fandom studies was, in many ways, born from those gender wars and, from the start, has been inspired by feminist scholarship (whether the work of cultural theorists such as Janice Radway and Angela McRobbie or the work of science fiction practitioners such as Johanna Russ). Fan fiction was understood as a form of women’s writing, and these stories were often read as counter-narratives which poached the genre conventions of science fiction or other genres to tell stories from the margins. And fandom studies was quick to embrace new insights from queer theory and to engage with what fandom’s alternative forms of production and reception meant for the LGBT community. We still have much to learn by digging deeper into early fanzines which included some of the first essays advocating gay rights in America, by seeing how fans responded to James Tiptree’s transgender identifications, by looking at how organizations such as the Gaylaxians advocated for queer characters on board the Enterprise, and by examining how slash fans were drawn by their fantasies into participation in struggles around “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality.


But the original sin of fandom studies was its silence about race. Those of us who pioneered fandom studies too often bracketed race and class in order to focus on gender, sexuality, and generation. As we sought to validate forms of cultural production and experience that were meaningful to us, we neglected the fact that our own ranks were still too narrowly constituted and that there was more we should have done to validate forms of culture that were meaningful to a more diverse population. However much we might have sometimes felt like outcasts in our own lives, we were still in a privileged position to help inform what kinds of cultural production and reception mattered in an academic context. We pioneers have much to answer for, but we cannot afford to wallow in liberal guilt.


Today, work on race and fandom takes on new urgency as we confront the grim, even deadly, political realities of our times (as represented by events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and perhaps some other city by the time you read these remarks). In the process, we have seen the power of social media to coalesce communities and spread critiques of the police and the news media’s responses to racialized violence in America. In the forthcoming book from our USC Media, Activism, & Participatory Politics project team, entitled By Any Media Necessary: The New Activism of American Youth, we talk about the civic imagination. Before we can change the world, we need to be able to imagine what alternatives might look like. We need to understand ourselves as civic and political agents. We need to be able to grasp the experiences and perspectives of people different from ourselves. And we need to be able to imagine concrete steps we could take to change the world. We are finding that American youth are rejecting traditional political rhetoric as insular and partisan and seeking inspiration from popular culture, including science fiction and fantasy texts, as they make appeals to their collective civic imagination.


We have seen genre entertainment become yet again a space where vital conversations can take place—one where we can imagine alternative futures of race in America, where we can rewrite the scripts with their embedded racial and gender hierarchies, and where we can reimagine who gets to be depicted as a hero and how they get depicted in popular narratives. We have seen signs that fandom can be as intolerant as any other sector of our society, despite a historic embrace of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” (as Star Trek fans of the 1960s might have put it). But we have also seen fandom as a place where alternative representations might emerge and where different kinds of dialogues might take place, grounded in shared passions and interests.


Just as we critique the failures of science fiction to achieve those ideals, we need to advocate for those practices that have proven productive in generating new visions for future race relations. As researchers, we need to be there as feminist fans redraw the covers of superhero comics to challenge their hypersexualized depictions of female protagonists as part of the Hawkeye Project. We need to be there as fans embrace a Pakistani-American girl as Ms. Marvel or when they debate whether they can accept a black Spider-Man or Human Torch. We need to be there as fan activists attach their civic imaginations to stories such as Harry Potter, Man of Steel, or the Hunger Games as vehicles for fighting for human rights, immigration reform, or fair wages. We need to be there when Racebending challenges a history of white-casting in the entertainment industry, as minority characters often change their colors when their narratives are brought to the screen, or when women at San Diego Comic-Con insist that Cosplay is Not Consent. And we need to be looking more closely at the ways fan fiction has experimented, sometimes in ways that are painful to observe and sometimes in ways that give us hope, with other kinds of stories we can be telling. As we observe and document these more recent developments in science fiction and genre narrative, we need to place them into a larger historical context. That will require us to go back and reclaim histories and revisit texts that were neglected by earlier generations of fans and researchers.


As science fiction fans, we know that technology will not be our savior in these struggles, that what matters are the human choices we make in response to the affordances of new media platforms. A crucial theme running through my own work has been the ways that a growing number of people around the world who are experiencing an expansion of their communicative capacities are using those platforms and tools to assert a much more active role in shaping cultural production and circulation. I used to talk about these shifts in terms of participatory culture, but it is increasingly clear that these opportunities are unevenly distributed and that many are being left behind…so it makes more sense to not only describe but to advocate a more participatory culture.


Studying fandom gives us a window into understanding how grassroots power might change the world. Science fiction fandom has a long history of networked communications, and of communities coming together and conducting long-distance exchanges around shared interests. Studying science fiction fandom has thus been an important entry point into larger conversations about how cultural agendas get shaped, how communities get formed, and how publics get mobilized in the age of Web 2.0. Much of the pressure for more diverse representations in commercial entertainment right now is being driven by fans. Fans are also driving many of the critiques of the mechanisms by which digital companies exploit the creative labor of their participants.


Critics of this work on participatory cultures and new media have sometimes dismissed us as engaging in pure speculation, describing our accounts as “mere science fiction.” However, the people in this room know fully the power that comes from tapping into both the utopian and dystopian imagination. The best science fiction dystopias often include within them representations of what forms resistance to power might take. And the best science fiction utopias often include some hint of the current realities against which they are being framed. As we think through what a more democratic and inclusive culture might look like, the theoretical turns we use need to do what science fiction has always done best. Go beyond what is known. Trace forward implications of current trends. Warn against dangers. Advocate for opportunities. And, above all, help us to think through the nature of change itself.


Some of this work is already being done, no doubt by those attending this conference—many of them graduate students and recently hired junior faculty members who are seeking to insert their voices into the scholarly conversation. Those of us who are more established need to be insuring that those emerging voices get heard. We need to be supporting their research and insuring that it gets published. And we need to be bringing these insights into our teaching and our own research.


I am encouraged to see your organization identify some of these topics as your central concern for this year’s event. I wish I were able to be there in person to more fully engage in these crucial conversations. I hope that we will hear of much more such research in the future. In short, science fiction researchers need to boldly go where no one has gone before.


Once again, thank you for this honor.

F For Fake (In the Second Order): Yanis Varoufakis, The Germans, and the Middle Finger That Wasn’t There

I have returned.

I spent the summer having some incredible experiences, and some profound conversations, across India and Indonesia. Some of you will have followed these events via my Facebook page, and I am going to be sharing some highlights and some reports on media developments there on this blog in the weeks ahead. But, for now, I am playing catch up with some developments while I have been away.

Moritz Fink, an expert on culture jamming, who has contributed to this blog in the past, shared with me this insightful post about the ways the Greek crisis has been depicted via comedy news and memes and I wanted to share this analysis here as we continue to focus on the interplay between news, politics, and participatory culture. Enjoy!


F for Fake (in the Second Order)

Yanis Varoufakis, the Germans, and the Middle Finger That Wasn’t There

by Moritz Fink

On July 5, 2015, the people of Greece were asked in a democratic referendum whether they would accept the terms imposed by the European Union to receive another tranche of desperately needed euros. The outcome was an overwhelming oxi (“no”), which, indeed, may mark a caesura in the ongoing European economic crisis. On the other hand, it seemed to be but another act (although most people considered it the very climax) in a series of political decision-making documented by the news week by week: an arrival of optimistically smiling politicians at European crisis summits and a departure of the same after long hours of discussion without any specific results. We all have seen these scenes a dozen times and followed them in an almost routine manner.

The summits have become rituals — for the protagonists, as for the journalists and commentators, as for the people at home in front of their TV sets. It’s a political daily soap opera starring, on one side, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and her Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, French President François Hollande, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Playing opposite these leaders is the Greek delegation: Prime Minister Alexis Zipras, representing the Syriza left-wing government elected earlier this year, and, until recently, his charismatic finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis — plus, oddly enough, Mr. Varoufakis’s middle finger (both symbolically as well as literally).

For the news industry, a figure such as Varoufakis is a great character. Varoufakis, a post-Marxist Professor of Economics, presented himself as an unconventional and combative politician. His narcissistic ego undoubtedly enjoyed the image amplified by the mainstream media, and thus Varoufakis became the irreverent and overconfident bad boy perfectly suited for dramatizing the business of politics as well as polarizing (that is, entertaining) the “audience.”

Although he publicly promoted the government’s oxi-stance, Varoufakis resigned as Minister of Finance after the 5th July referendum. According to his version of the events, he left office because he “was made aware of a certain preference by some Eurogroup participants, and assorted ‘partners’” that no agreement could be reached between the European creditors and the Greece government as long as he held office.[i] While the negotiations may perhaps be easier without Varoufakis, the news media already misses him, as Varoufakis readily provided the headlines journalists seek to write (in fact, the continuing media interest in Varoufakis after his resignation confirms this thesis). Varoufakis’s rhetorical style is certainly ambiguous: offering powerful vocabulary and images, he has become infamous for denying any controversial statement that had been attributed to him. Typically, Varoufakis would propose bold ideas about how to better the economic situation of Greece, but could not refrain from garnishing these proposals with intellectual hubris or even offensive remarks (of which his middle finger has become but the symbolic peak).

Yet, it wasn’t merely his role as controversial politician that made Varoufakis the media’s “darling” — as the crazy-but-smart, good-looking rock ’n’ roll politician. Of course, Varoufakis himself fueled this image by exuding a glamorous high-society aura as intellectual star and man of the world, jet-setting between his professional life as bestseller-author and professor of economics, and his political life as Greek parliamentarian.

Indeed, Varoufakis’s eccentric style and celebrity status made him not only a catchy figure for “serious” journalists (featured in such illustrious formats as the French lifestyle magazine Paris Match), but also a great vehicle and poster boy for political satire.

Varoufakis 1

Fig. 1. Fan-created image in the form of a movie poster which satirically depicts the dispute between Germany (represented by Angela Merkel) and Greece (represented by Yanis Varoufakis), posted on

As the popularity of TV shows like The Daily Show or Colbert Report indicates, satire today plays an important role in how citizens perceive and evaluate the political establishment.[ii] And not only on TV: the meme culture of Internet has become a major tool for its users to articulate their own voices, which often blend politics with pop culture in satirical forms of media productions.[iii] In fact, what has become subsumed under the hashtag #varoufake demonstrates the vitality of satire in the age of media convergence. The hashtag refers to a satirical stunt that unfolded through various media channels, a stunt that somehow wasn’t planned and nevertheless appeared to be a grandiose satirical scheme.

All of this started with a parodic music video clip titled V for Varoufakis produced by Jan Böhmermann, host of the German comedy late night show Neo Magazin Royale, and his team in late February 2015. The clip featured Böhmermann as a parody rock star à la Jack Black. Standing in front of a microphone in Freddy Mercury‑esque fashion, complete with mustache and melodramatic pose, Böhmermann sings about the “German angst” during the times of the European crisis. The video is interspersed with representations of “Germans,” portrayed in folkloristic dirndl-look and military uniforms reminiscent of the Second World War (in part, a self-ironic turn on populist anti-German sentiments that have emerged in Greece, which articulated itself, for instance, through placards depicting Angela Merkel as Adolf Hitler).

Much of the comedy of V for Varoufakis derives from its ironic portrayal of German stereotypes which are put in relation to the current economic crisis in Europe, in particular in relation to Europe’s problem child, Greece. Germans are assiduous and fearless, the narrative of the video says, but become anxious about Greece’s unruly behavior personified by Yanis Varoufakis, the “Minister of Awesome.” Varoufakis has indeed worked hard to cultivate his image of being a renegade politician unintimidated by Germany as Europe’s hegemon. The Minister suggested that he would be an unconventional and tough “cool” guy who arrives at official meetings with “jacket collar raised” and “on a black motorbike,” as Böhmermann puts it in the song before entering the chorus with the bridge line, “He puts the ‘hell’ in Hellenic and wants to take our pride.”

Aside from what are apparently re-enactments in which Varoufakis is mimicked by an anonymous double, the video contains original footage showing the Greek Finance Minister with jacket collar raised and on a motorbike. The whole clip reflects a style of “radical scavenging,” as Christof Decker calls practices of alternative documentary filmmaking where the “re-editing and assemblage of television (and film) outtakes [is] used for the construction of alternative histories.”[iv]

Böhmermann’s parodic take on Varoufakis has indeed conjured up such an alternative history, yet probably in a different way than he and his team had intended. An outstanding detail of V for Varoufakis is footage where we see Varoufakis at a public performance mentioning the words “stick the finger to Germany”; at this, we see him giving the middle finger to the camera. “Hilarious!” Böhmermann might have thought. The scene perfectly captures the humor of the whole clip. “How dare he?” many television viewers were wondering two weeks later, however, as the aforementioned scene was blended in on Günther Jauch, for several years the most popular political talk show in Germany. (Günther Jauch airs Sunday nights, right after the primetime crime series Tatort, a program slot that guarantees high ratings.)[v]

The topic on Jauch that evening was Greece and the economic crisis in Europe. Even Varoufakis joined the discussion live from Athens throughout the whole show. After the prescribed diplomatic welcoming talk, the host of the show, Günther Jauch, let the cat out of the bag: The middle finger scene was blended in, and Jauch confronted Varoufakis with the gesture. He wanted to know how “the Germans” could trust someone giving them the finger; it won’t be an option for Greece, said Jauch, to give Germany the middle finger anyhow.

Then something strange happened. Rather than explaining himself, Varoufakis insisted that the scene with the finger was “doctored” — in other words, manipulated. “I can assure you,” Varoufakis said, “I can prove this beyond reasonable doubt, and I wish that you could simply take it away. It never happened.” Everyone in the studio (including Jauch) looked bewildered. “When I’m in this show,” one of Jauch’s guests said, “I assume that every visual material and data is correct.” “We’ll verify your standpoint,” Jauch replied to Varoufakis.

Jauch Varoufakis

Fig. 2. Still from Günther Jauch where the host confronts Varoufakis with the infamous gesture, looking aghast at Varoufakis’s explanation: “The finger was doctored!” (Well, was it?)

They didn’t need to. Just two days later, Böhmermann and Neo Magazin Royale launched a new clip on YouTube in which Böhmermann apologized to Jauch and his editorial team, acknowledging that the footage incorporated into V for Varoufakis was actually faked.

In what appears to be a making-of documentary, Böhmerman traces the origins of the middle finger in V for Varoufakis. Thus his team took the scene from an appearance of Varoufakis at the so-called Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia, in 2013. “There is this scene where he [Varoufakis] says the words ‘stick the finger to Germany,’ Böhmermann explains. “It’s a totally harmless context — indirect speech — so, [Varoufakis] isn’t really saying that he wants to give the finger to the Germans. But we [Böhmermann and his team] thought it would be a good idea if the words ‘stick the finger to Germany’ were followed by Varoufakis actually giving the finger.”

Böhmermann reflects on how the middle-finger scene has taken on a life of his own after it had been shown on Günther Jauch. Bild-Zeitung, the most blatant organ of the German yellow press, wrote “Lügner” (“Liar”) in bold letters next to an image of Varoufakis framed by the silhouette of a middle finger gesture. Böhmermann presents headlines of the tabloid press that boldly ask, “Is the middle-finger video real or fake?” Then we see footage from Bild-online where “experts” were consulted about the possibility that Neo Magazine Royale had faked the scene. “I would assume it . . . would be impossible if the whole take wasn’t done in a studio,” the expert concludes.

From his confession clip you can tell that Böhmermann enjoys the fuss he has generated. In fact, the middle finger provided him with the maximum of media attention possible. If Böhmermann was designated to follow in the footsteps of veterans of German TV comedy such as Harald Schmitt or Stefan Raab, the middle finger made him Germany’s Jester No.1 overnight. Reveling in his triumph and schadenfreude, Böhmermann rhetorically asks, “Who would fake such a scene? The only thing I can imagine is that this was some small public-broadcasting loser show.” And “who could have thought that anyone from Subversive Festival would have participated in such a subversive move?” he added with a tongue-in-cheek smile.

Then Böhmermann directly addressed Jauch, wondering how he and his editorial team could use the scene totally out of context and without verifying its authenticity. And yet, Böhmermann joked, “Varoufakis wasn’t right. You [referring to Jauch and his team] didn’t fake the video. You just used it out of its original context, took the middle finger and pulled a Greek politician through your studio so that mom and dad can get their weekly kick of getting annoyed. . . . That’s what you did, the rest was our effort.”

In the following hours, user comments on the Internet skyrocketed. Even Yanis Varoufakis himself came into the picture, congratulating Jahn Böhmermann for his coup on Twitter.

Varoufakis 2

Fig. 3. Varoufakis commenting on Böhmermann’s coup on Twitter.

For Jauch and his team, all of this was of course extremely embarrassing. And so Varoufakis and Böhmermann appeared to be partners in crime when, a few days later, NEO Magazine Rolyale announced that it had actually been the confession video that was made up — faked. The finger, indeed, had been there. But so what?

What’s much more important is that Böhmermann successfully unmasked the bigotry inherent to the debate over the finger as such. According to Böhmermann, the reason that the finger had generated so much fuss has to do with German narcissism. “We’re going nuts when someone is giving us the finger,” Böhmermann says with a big grain of satiric salt. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he later stated that the whole stunt was meant to serve a demonstrative purpose: While everybody was talking about Varoufakis’s middle finger after the scene was shown on Jauch, it should be apparent that the gesture itself was actually the thing least important about the complicated relationship between the governments of Europe/Germany and Greece.[vi]

If this is so, it is safe to assume that journalists like those of Bild and the team of Günther Jauch were fully aware of the effect Varoufakis’s finger would have, namely to fuel the climate of haughtiness towards the Greek people which currently dominates German discourses about Greece. As a motif, the finger fits well in the picture relayed by some populist media representatives. The “Greek tragedy,” as commentators across the news sarcastically keep calling the crisis in Greece and Europe, isn’t coming to an end. According to this reading, the Greeks not only can’t solve their problems; they don’t appreciate the generosity of their fellow Europeans, reacting in the deprecating way of giving them the finger instead. But wasn’t this much more an incident of the Germans giving the finger to Greece?

Hence the message of Böhmermann is that we all (including the media itself) should always view media content in a (self-)critical light. Through his fake-fake — or fake in the second order — Böhmermann succeeded in executing a lesson in media criticism; he warned us “to be a little more careful of what we read or watch.”[vii] In this sense, Varoufakis makes an important point as he reflects in retrospect on his own image in the media during his time as Minister of Finance. Since he took office, says Varoufakis, the media had made him appear as a madman who wants to rip off the Germans.[viii]

This corresponds to Marco Deseriis’s account of fakes as an interventionist approach that makes use of the mechanisms of the media in order to “challenge the media’s ability to discriminate between reality and fiction.”[ix] In fact, Böhmermann’s stunt follows this logic in that it entails a fundamental critique of the softening of journalistic standards. “In the age of the seemingly unstoppable rise of infotainment, soft news, and celebrity culture,” Deseriis argues, “facts are routinely sacrificed to narrative.”

Indeed, the Internet has provided us with a wealth of oral and visual material; it has never been as easy to repurpose media content to fit a certain narrative as in the digital age. Böhmermann’s fake-fake seems to indicate that we have to be aware of that and consider every spectacular story that we hear or see under that premise.

Interestingly, the fakes Deseriis describes all come from outside of and position themselves vis-à-vis the commercial media. They share a bottom-up, countercultural impetus; their producers are people like Alan Abel and Joey Skaggs or teams such as ®TMark (ARTMark) and The Yes Men — folks who consider themselves conceptual artists or culture jammers.

However, as the case of Böhmermann and #varoufake has shown, in the age of media convergence the borders between pranksters and the media industry are blurry. Böhmermann’s original accomplishment was to develop a fake as cultural critique out of the “official” sphere of the commercial media itself. This incident demonstrates that satire can actually affect the political debate and leave the public with a degree of confusion and critical insight at the same time.[x]

Speaking of confusion, according to the contemporary Greek satirists Nikos Zachariadis, Varoufakis didn’t actually resign. A pseudo-newscast launched by Zachariadis reported that the announcement of Varoufakis’s resignation was due to a misinterpretation by the media. “Never mentioned the word ‘resignation’!” reads a faux tweet ascribed to Yanis Varoufakis.[xi] Well, who knows? As we have seen, with Varoufakis any course of events might be possible.

Varoufakis 3

Fig. 4. Fake tweet ascribed to Varoufakis, saying that he has never resigned but is still minister.

[i] Yanis Varoufakis, “Minister No More!” July 6, 2015, Yanis Varoufakis: Thoughts for the Post-2008 World,

[ii] Jeffrey P. Jones, Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement, 2nd ed., Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010

[iii] Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[iv] Christof Decker, “Radical Scavenging Revisited: Emile de Antonio and the Culture Jamming of Compilation Film,” in Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, eds., Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention, New York: NYU Press, forthcoming.

[v] On June 5, 2015, Günther Jauch announced the end of his talk show,,

[vi] “Wie Schach ohne Würfel” (“Like chess without dice”), interview with Jahn Böhmermann in Süddeutsche Zeitung, May 15, 2015, p. 11.

[vii] Thomas Seymat, “#varoufake: When Satire Acts as Media Watchdog,” March 19, 2015, Euronews,

[viii] “Wie ist das, wenn man ganz Europa gegen sich aufgebracht hat? Ein Gespräch mit dem ehemaligen griechischen Finanzminister Yanis Varoufakis” (“What is it like to antagonize all of Europe? An interview with the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis”), Zeit Magazin, July 30, 2015, pp. 14–23.

[ix] Marco Deseriis, “The Faker as Producer: The Politics of Fabrication and the Three Orders of the Fake,” in Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, eds., Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention, New York: NYU Press, forthcoming.

[x] In a subsequent step, Böhmermann again engaged with the political debate in Germany about Greece and the euro crisis in collaboration with fellow comedian Klaas Heufer-Umlauf in mid-July. In the YouTube clip titled Unsere schönen Deutschen Euros (“Our beautiful German euros”), we see Böhmermann and Heufer-Umlauf wearing white pajamas in a fancy hotel speaking to each other on the phone. The telephone conversation turns out to be an ironic rant against Greece in which the two recite various headlines from the German mainstream media that reflect anti-Greek sentiments noticeable in Germany these days.

[xi] Nikos Zachariadis, “Διαψεύδει την παραίτησή του ο Γιάνης Βαρουφάκης!” (“Yanis Varoufakis denies his resignation”), July 6, 2015,,


Moritz Fink is a media scholar and author. He holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Munich. His areas of interest include film and media studies, cultural studies, disability studies, visual culture, political humor and satire. He is co-editor of the collection Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention (forthcoming from NYU Press).

Design Principles for Participatory Politics

The following design principles were developed for the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network by a committee consisting of Danielle Allen, Lissa Soep, and Jennifer Earl. We share them here as an extension of my interview with Allen.

Design Principles for Participatory Politics 
Are you a digital change-maker? Do you want to be? Do you want to help someone else get there?

Sixties activists insisted, the personal is political. Change-makers in the digital age get that idea, and one-up it with another rallying cry: the political is social and cultural.

Your platforms and digital strategies need to make this principle count, so that you, your peers, and your audiences engage each other, and the allies you all want, in high-quality, equitable, and effective participation in digital-age civics, activism, and politics. What’s more, you need digital environments that actively support the secure development of your identities as participants in public spheres, so your civic and political engagement today doesn’t harm or haunt you later.

Thinking that through comes first.

Top Ten Questions for Change-Makers Using Digital Platforms to Promote Participatory Politics

Whether you’re creating your first Facebook page to support a cause you care about, or seeking to engage your friends, associates, and even strangers in a new platform aimed to achieve civic ends, these ten questions will help frame your decisions. Use them to shape your strategy and to check whether you’re doing everything in your power to achieve maximum impact. These principles have been developed on the basis of national research (by the MacArthur Foundation research network on youth and participatory politics) on experiences and structures that support young people’s agency with respect to matters of public concern.

Why does it matter to me? Start with the experiences and interests you and your friends already can’t get enough of, and connect that engagement to civic and political themes. Popular culture fandom, for example, is a great source to harness. Overall, you and your peers know a lot about a lot, and you’ve got all sorts of authentic ways to bring your friends on board. Use that expertise to build traction for your cause by finding unexpected alignments. And take the time to figure out why your passion matters to you.
What it can look like: IMAGINE BETTER PROJECT

A project of the Harry Potter Alliance that taps enthusiasm for popular culture and applies fandom energy toward social change. By appropriating storylines, characters, and iconography from popular narratives, fans “turn the fictions they love into the world they imagine.”

How much should I share? Take heed: real names can help foster better dialogues, but they can also put people at risk and discourage taking positions or acting on controversial issues. Consider how much you should share. Which part of your persona do you want to see live online? Can you keep your offline and online selves separate? If so, how? Or do you have to expect them to merge? Which features of your offline responsibilities and roles should limit what you do online? Help your community consider how different audiences may react to their posts and how a post might impact them years down the road. Give them choices about how much to disclose, and make it possible for them to change their minds.
What it can look like: Global Voices

Global Voices is a community of writers and analysts from around the world who contribute, largely on a volunteer basis, to a news site that publishes under-reported stories on topics ranging from digital rights and activism to religion, labor, and LGBTQ rights. There is an option for authors to contribute anonymously if their safety is at stake, and the site provides specific guidelines for how to maintain anonymity when publishing online.

How do I make it about more than myself? How can you and your community take it from “I” to “we”? Help your users think of themselves as part of something bigger. Can you expand the network of engagement for yourself and your users by actively rewarding authenticity, accuracy, truth-telling, and bridge-building across social divides?

Marshall Ganz’s organizing theory invites people into a movement as individuals, where they are asked to share their stories and connection to the cause. Then, the strategy helps them see their shared collective interests with others in the movement before introducing them to the fierce urgency of acting now. This principle is the bedrock of numerous campaigns since Obama for America popularized the model in the 2008 presidential election. Participants are asked to become part of something major and give more of themselves as a result.

Where do we start? Go where your peers go. Can you make use of spaces where you and your friends and associates already gather to connect and pursue shared interests? (Hint: for right now at least, text and mobile are key). Perhaps you’re interested in building a stand-alone platform? Think twice before you do. A custom platform is easier for opponents to hack and probably harder for your friends to use, than a common mainstream, commercial platform. But remember that existing platforms have their own cultures, which you’ll need to consider and fit into.
What it can look like: #CANCELCOLBERT

Hashtag activist Suey Park used Twitter to create the #cancelcolbert hashtag in the wake of an ill-considered tweet from the Colbert show. As the hashtag trended it generated widespread conversations about race and racism in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, “Colbert’s offending tweet was later deleted,” and “Colbert deleted the Comedy Central-run account on his show,” directing “people to follow his personal account.”

How can we make it easy and engaging? Remember that some engagement is better than none, and think early and often about your target audience. How can you engineer an array of entry-points and pathways to participation for your community? Where are the opportunities for light-touch engagement that is potentially powerful in itself and also a possible gateway into deeper involvement? Make acting easy, so your users can co-produce your civic and political engagement.
What it can look like: DO SOMETHING

DoSomething’s creative campaigns invite teens to take part in a variety of ways, and almost all of the campaigns revolve around a teen’s group of friends. For example, The ‘Fed Up’ campaign invites teens to upload photos of their cafeteria’s school lunch program to begin an investigation about the food it contains. Students can rate photos ‘eat it’ or ‘toss it’, and are simultaneously provided with better-lunch advocacy materials.

How do we get wisdom from crowds? Invite investigation and critique. Create openings for your friends, associates, and even strangers to dig into, verify, challenge, and contribute to the knowledge-base you provide, and stay open to evolving purposes. Don’t act like you know the whole story. Because you don’t. There is wisdom in crowds.
What it can look like: REDDIT

We aren’t as deferential to political elites and institutions as earlier generations used to be, and that can be a good thing. Campaigns have responded to this shift by seeking engagement in new ways. Reddit, an evolution on the venerable web discussion board, has emerged as a space where citizens can jointly examine and expose issues of public concern, in some cases powering investigations that rise to national and international prominence. Not without controversy or risk (as evident when Reddit ID’ed the wrong suspects in the Boston marathon bombing), the platform nevertheless is an important model for how to spark and sustain collective inquiry through a digital platform.

How do we handle the downside of crowds? Be prepared for people to say and do things you don’t like in your shared space. Do you know how you would respond? Is your platform or digital strategy being overtaken by a sub-group of users? How can you keep the nastiness out of crowds? Do you need moderators? Algorithms? Special functions? The goal is to keep your community open and democratic, and that also means protecting it from those who misuse that freedom and opportunity.
What it can look like: #IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN

This campaign fostered a powerful critique of media bias in the coverage of young black people who are shot and killed by police. Black Twitter users began posting two side-by-side photos of themselves, asking the question, which would the media publish “if they gunned me down?” It didn’t take long for the meme to morph, as other Twitter users appropriated the hashtag to post trivializing images (e.g., of their pets), or photo pairings that mocked the campaign’s intent. Still, those detractors were largely drowned out, and months later, the media bias critique is the lasting legacy of this campaign.

Does raising our voices count as civic and political action? Raising awareness is key. Changing what people care about already makes a difference, and just getting your views into the public conversation is meaningful. Making the invisible visible is already an important civic and political action and a form of activism. Are you also trying to drive change beyond visibility? You’ll need that raised awareness to elevate civic and political engagement over time.

The Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project organizes the LGBTQ undocumented community along with allies through advocacy campaigns, leadership development, and toolkits and resources. The No More Closets campaign calls upon “undocuqueers” to come out through videos in order to raise visibility about and fight for the dignity and empowerment of both communities.

How do we get from voice to change? Is your goal is to convert voice to influence over policies, institutions, or concrete practices? If so, you’ll need to move beyond raising awareness to mobilize specific actions on the basis of the attention you manage to get. How can you get traction—real change in concrete practices, institutions, and policies? The research shows that this often comes from a mix of digital and face-to-face organizing. But it’s also possible to achieve influence with online-only tactics. Make sure you know what your targets are, and what changes you want to see. Then you can figure out whether building numbers online and taking aim at your target’s reputation, or criss-crossing the line into hybrid online-offline efforts makes more sense.
What it can look like: NO MORE STEUBENVILLES

After high school football players sexually assaulted a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, two young people–one an athlete, the other an activist–launched a petition that was signed by almost 68,000 individuals. The goal: to get the National Federation of High School Associations to offer sexual violence prevention training to the almost 100,000 high school coaches that organization works with. In 2013, the association agreed to partner with seven sexual violence organizations to develop and implement those trainings.

How can we find allies? It makes sense to call on institutional power holders like established organizations or influential individuals who can support your interests. Gaining influence requires building alliances with people who control decisions over policies and institutions. But it can be hard to reach people in power. What’s more, how can you engage with power players in a way that benefits your cause and also empowers you? The answer often involves connecting with allies who can provide mentorship and broker on your behalf, being creative in your methods, and seeking elites in a variety of places–sometimes beyond the usual suspects.
What it can look like: STUDENTS FOR LIBERTY (SFL)

Founded and led by students, SFL is a network of pro-liberty organizations and individuals from diverse locations and backgrounds. It is not a top down, chapter based, or membership organization. However, SFL works with some of the most influential think tanks and policy-makers in D.C., offering young libertarians a range of opportunities to meet with political movers and shakers at both campus events and national conferences. Sometimes making it to events is hard, though, so SFL affiliates of all ages often rely on their own social networks like Twitter to gain face time with like-minded individuals and political elites alike. Regardless of whether it’s online or in person, when young people build allies and tap into the political establishment through their involvement with SFL, it often means working with groups and individuals on both sides of the aisle.

What the Principles Get You

Based on the research of the Youth and Participatory Politics research network, when you use these ten principles to frame your decisions and shape your strategies, you are well positioned to achieve four important outcomes: Engagement, Quality and Equity, Effectiveness, and Security.

Engagement in participatory politics = you and your friends are drawn in and pursue more opportunities to exercise your agency in civic spheres, using your platform to do so.

People are “engaged” when they lose track of the time they spend participating in an activity; when they describe the activity as important to them; when they are driven to share what they’re up to; and when they invite others to participate in the activity as well.

High quality and equitable participatory politics = you and your friends do authentic, accurate, connected civic work with your platform, no matter who you are; you also look out for chances to spread participatory opportunities to those for whom they are hard to come by.

High-quality platforms are broadly accessible and foster norms of accuracy, authenticity, equity, and openness to social diversity. You can’t have quality without equity.

Effective participatory politics = your platform’s activities make the difference your community seeks.

Participation is efficacious when participants can point to something that has changed on account of their efforts—for instance, someone’s opinion or attitude; a decision-maker’s choice; a law or policy; the attentiveness of the media to an issue.

Secure identity management in participatory politics = your users—to the extent possible—determine the boundaries and public visibility of their participation in your platform, and they plan for the digital afterlife of their choices.

Contrary to the usual understanding, secure identity management is not only about managing pseudonyms, aliases, and privacy and security settings but also about preserving psychological integrity in the face of the challenges presented by digitally-enabled participation: the collision of our separate social networks (for instance, a gay teen who participates in gay rights initiatives online but hides that activity in the face-to-face rural setting in which she lives); the unpredictable repercussions of speech and action in digital environment; the dangers that come with public exposure.

This is my final post for the 2014-2015 academic year. I am going to take time off over the summer and get things going again sometime in late August or early September.

From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Three)

In your introduction, you signaled the ways that a tension between advocacy and deliberation shadowed the development of this book. Can you explain how this tension surfaced within the disciplinary partnerships you describe and in what ways you or others involved in the book resolved this friction?

The disagreement between those who thought that advocacy should be at the core of civic agency and those who thought that deliberation should have that role ran all the way through our several years of working on this project. I don’t think the initial views on this subject were disciplinary so much as connected to whether each scholar’s body of work was more oriented toward study of those in the mainstream or to study of those on the margins.

Over the course of the project, both views came to shift. Most impoartantly, I think, we came to see that the ethical framework that governs civic agency and life in the public sphere is not singular but plural. There is not one, unitary regulative ideal that can help us know how to participate politically; there are several and they are relevant to different situational contexts.

Consequently, our conversation led us, I think, to a place where the successful exercise of civic agency must be understood as also being closely connected to a capacity for judgment about when disinterested deliberation, interested advocacy, or passionate prophesy is the right tool to deploy in the pursuit of a just democracy.

Another disagreement you flag amongst the contributors to this book hinges on the potentials and limits of commercially owned platforms for civic purposes. I know you have been digging deeply into the design of platforms for civic speech. What new insights have you gained through that project?

Working with colleagues, I set off to try to develop design principles for those who wish to build platforms to support civic agency. As we worked, we became convinced by arguments, like Ethan Zuckerman’s in this book, that a lot of good civic and political engagement can and should occur through already existing, often commercial platforms. These are harder for governments to shut down without cost.

So we modified our approach to develop guidelines that might cross contexts and be applicable regardless of whether someone is building a stand-alone platform or trying to use a battery of existing tools, whether those are commercially supplied or the creation of groups like MIT’s Civic Media Lab.

We focus a lot on trying to unify three kinds of thinking: first, about securing one’s identity offline and online (and we mean this in the broadly psychological sense, not in the sense of password security); second, about understanding how to pull the different kinds of levers that are available; and third, about understanding how to develop and deploy ethical orientations that are compatible with the pursuit of healthy egalitarian participatory democracies.

We managed to boil down our core ideas on these three subjects to ten basic principles for civic agency in the digital media landscape. We will be running the guidelines as a post following the completion of this interview.

This book is very much focused on what is changing in the media and political landscape, yet I know you are someone who often goes back to classical texts to understand some of the core principles of democracy. What do you see as the persistent value of such documents, whether the writings of ancient Athens or the Declaration of Independence, for informing how we respond to the challenges of the current moment?

The ancients feel a million miles away from us. For many I think the Declaration of Independence from our own political tradition also feels a million miles away. And yet there are resources in both.

The ancient Athenians were among the first to become self-conscious about the concept of a public sphere. For them, the public sphere was just their city or, in Greek, their polis, and we of course get the word “politics” from this. Although they cared a lot about their formal public spaces–the assembly, the courtroom, the public markets, they did trace the channels of discourse in all their diversity and studied rhetoric intensely.

That study drew out the value of rational dispassionate deiberation but paid as much attention to what I have been calling adversarial and prophetic rhetoric. The ancients had a far more capacious sense of the range of legitimate and necessary political discourse than most of us have today. I think we can learn a lot from that.

As to the Declaration of Independence, I think its most important contribution is its celebration of civic agency, which it both exhibits and provides a profound defense of. Civic agents are as likely to make mistakes as not; the civic action exemplified by the Declaration includes its share of mistakes, most notably in relation to women, slaves, and native Americans. But the Declaration also expresses its own fallibility.

The end of its most important sentence, the second sentence, expresses a theory of revolution and enjoins civic agents, who judge their governments wanting, to try again. They write: “Whenever a government becomes destructive of these ends [of securing our rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to etablish new government, laying its foundation on such principle and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem *most likely* to effect their safety and happiness.”

From generation to generation, we the people have the job of evaluating our government and, where necessary, altering it in the directions that seem *most likely* to us to effect collective well-being. In other words, the best we can do is to make probablistic judgments about what will be best for all of us. We will fail, and those who come after us will have to try again.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.


From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Two)

A key debate in this book centers around the relative values of what Howard Gardner described as “disinterestedness” and what you discuss in terms of “rooted cosmopolitanism.” Both seem to be shifts away from the positionally we have come to associated with identity politics. Yet, arguing on behalf of our own communities has gained new urgency in the wake of Ferguson. So, how might we reconcile that urgent need to protect our own interests with the other kinds of civic virtues that you and your contributors discuss?

Disinterestedness, rooted cosmopolitanism, identity politics, and the urgent need to argue on behalf of our own communities in the wake of Ferguson. How do these things relate to each other? This question leads perfectly into the terrain of the sorts of ethical framworks that need to be developed once one recognizes that not only deliberative but also adversarial and prophetic forms of speech are legitimate in the public sphere and beyond that, not only legitimate but necessary.

What you see in the book in the chapters on disinterestedness by Howard Gardner and on rooted cosmopolitanism by Agnel Parham ad myself is an effort to start the work of figuring out ethical frameworks for “egalitarian participatory democracy.” While most of the contributors to the volume start from a recognition of the improtance of arguing on behalf of one’s own community (because no one else is going to do it!), Howard wanted to push back on us, to make the case that there is something worthwhile and that should be preserved in the disinterested stance, even as we go forward with political paradigms that embrace identity based advocacy (whether adversarial or prophetic).

This was a hard conversation for all of us, as these two postions were both passionately held, and perhaps also disinterestedly, although of course it’s harder to tell on the latter point. I came to agree with Howard but also to think that the important point about disinterestedness is that it is the right regulative ideal for certain roles and for certain times and places.

The ethical questions for me are both how to know what those times and places are and how to know what the ethical parameters are for the legitimate deployment of a disinterested stance. Let me sketch those briefly, and some of the parameters for adversarial and prophetic modes of engagement. This may help you have more of a sense of how the ethics of egalitarian participatory democracy in fact require a pluralistic sense of the array of regulative ideals that should guide the just deployment of civic agency.

Those who adopt a disinterested role in the appropriate contexts also need practices of testing and counteracting self-interest; they need practices for testing claims of universality made about chosen outcomes or direction; and they need to routinely consume high-quality information on wide array of issues, not only those in regard to which they have a direct interest.

For those who will adopt a prophetic or advocacy stance, and seek to achieve equitable forms of efficacy, the developmental burdens of civic agency involve a need to develop clarity about interests and goals, understanding of the “levers of change” in any given society; skill at “frame-shifting,” or changing the terms of the discourse and agenda; and ethical parameters for means/ends reasoning.

For those who dwell primarily in the adversarial domain, the skills of the two other domains are both relevant, and in addition, there is a need to understand the parameters of “fair fighting,” an ethical topic that the literature of sports has probably done the most to develop.

The focus of this book is on the political lives of youth. I know this was a bit of a shift in your own thinking, since your previous work was not especially youth-focused. What did you learn by adopting this frame? What do you think gets missed if we distinguish between youth and other kinds of political agents?

From the point of view of political theory, the focus on youth was incredibly salutary, and not one we come to so easily on our own in my home discipline. The first great benefit of a youth-focus is that it forces once to confront the nature of political experience for those who are not fully enfranchised. Youth can’t yet vote or they can’t yet run for office and so on. And yet many youth are impressively, political, even if they wouldn’t use that word for themselves.

As with Dreamers and transnational activists, youth political experience is hard to see within the framework of traditional public sphere theory. Once one can see youth political agency and engagement, that is, their civic agency, one comes to realize that they are filling an incredibly important discovery function for the polity as a whole. Youth are often pointing to the importance of issues–like incarceration, food politics, sexual assault, and fluid sexualities–that haven’t made it on to the radar for older people and yet are also defining our socio-political landscape.

So the group of authors in my volume mostly turned to the study of youth in a pretty instrumental way, recognizing that the opportunities and challenges presented by digital and social media had made greater inroads into youth culture than for older cohorts. Yet we realized that our substantive gains were substantial and went far beyond an opportunity to refine our understanding of the impact of technology.

Youth just are part of the story of the political life of any given nation, and of the globe. Understanding their civic agency should take place alongside studies of the civic agency of older adults. And the payoff will be a richer understanding of the big socio-poitical problems confronting all of us.

A key concept running through the book is civic agency, which at some places you link to the notion of citizenship. Yet, your book also accounts civic agency on the parts of those who have been denied some or all of the rights associated with citizenship, whether the DREAMers who are fighting to be accepted as citizens or black youth who have often been victims of voter suppression efforts. So, what can we say about the ways civic agency can be exercised by those who lack the full rights of citizenship?

One of the important things that has emerged with the development of new technolgoies and social media is that it is now easier to pull important levers outside of political institutions: through the targeting of decision-makers in civil society and the corporate world; through social movements that can put pressure on political leaders; and though efforts to change culture and social norms.

While political institutions and the legislative agenda are still fundamentally important, the balance of power has shifted some between the political realm and other realms. Big changes can be developed through civil society.

These tools are available to those without formal membership status in a given polity. Those without the status of citizens have a range of vulnerabilities and exposures that others don’t have and they have to make hard choices about how to negotiate them. But their indivdiual vulnerabiltiy can be counterbalanced by impressive forms of collective and social power. Again, Cristina Beltran’s chapter provides a remarkable exploration of that vulnerability as well as of the forms of empowerment used to counterbalance it.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.