book update

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I’ve written two books, and I suppose I’d be a damn fool not to promote them here, so:

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Perversion for Profit is based on my dissertation, and details the ways the modern Right has mobilized around a reactionary sexual politics, using pornography to help carve out its position beginning in the mid-1960s. To my mind, it’s equally about the failures of modern liberalism to provide a meaningful space for a progressive sexual politics, which helped cede phrases like “family values” to the Right and its monolithic vision. But liberalism doesn’t really sell–just ask Michael Dukakis–so “New Right” gets the subtitle’s spotlight. The book covers the Cold War, the pioneering antiporn group Citizens for Decent Literature, politicians from Nixon to Reagan to a Barack Obama cameo, the rise of “porno chic” in the early 1970s, the feminist antiporn movement, and more.

Obscenity Rules, on the other hand, uses legal obscenity doctrine, particularly the landmark 1957 Roth v. United States case, as a window into modern sexual politics. The focus is both broader and more specific than Perversion–the book charts the course of censorship and law from the colonial era, but its centerpiece is an extended analysis of the Supreme Court’s ambivalent handling of the case and the complicated questions it inspired regarding censorship, sexual expression, and the place of social mores in constitutional law. It’s not all dry doctrinal exegesis though, I swear–there’s also an extensive examination of the fascinating smut publisher Samuel Roth’s thirty-year struggle against obscenity law, in publications ranging from pirated versions of James Joyce’s Ulysses to an illustrated comic novella called Memoirs of an Hotel Man. Digging through the Roth Papers at Columbia University might be the single most exhilarating archival experience I’ve ever had–they contain everything from early-1920s handwritten notes from T.S. Eliot to an unpublished Claude McKay novel!

In any case, I don’t want to bloviate here, but just say “hey, here are some things I wrote!” I’ve linked to the publishers above, but I’d be honored if people checked them out from their local libraries. And since I sadly can’t kill capitalism with a blog, they’re on Amazon too, here and here.

Prelude to a 33 1/3 Book That Wasn’t: The Insane Clown Posse, The Great Milenko

A couple of years ago, Mary Rizzo and I, caught up in a fleeting obsessive fervor for the Insane Clown Posse, decided to pitch a book to the 33 1/3 series. It wasn’t my first try; I’d pitched Terrorizer’s foundational 1989 grindcore album World Downfall as a forgotten social history of 1980s Los Angeles in 2007, probably mostly because I was living in Miami at the time, sad, and missing L.A. That one got nowhere (deservedly, I’m pretty sure); this time we made the long shortlist (which drew a few snarky comments, including one that insisted the book better be written by actual Juggalos), before being cut (for a list that I must confess still strikes me as pretty bland).

I’m not sure whether the below intro is any good or not; glancing back over it now, parts seem kinda rote and others maybe pretty swell. To put it in context, we knocked it out over two extended happy hours, not really expecting it to get even as far as it got. Maybe we made it to academic-ey, though that seemed the direction 33 1/3 was going. Probably real Juggalos would have been pissed as hell at two posers narrating their scene–though I still think the book would have reached a new audience for the series.

In any case, I figured, what the hell, I’ve been too busy to really blog lately, so why not post this instead of letting it rot away on my hard drive? Thus, voila: the introduction and book proposal for our would-have-been volume on The Great Milenko, sent out 4/30/12, responded to with really commendable speed, and ultimately rejected quite politely and humanely by publishing director David Barker–so kudos to the 33 1/3 folks, even though it didn’t work out. Please forgive the wonky spacing–it’s pasted from a Word document, and WordPress for some reason adds spacing. Without further ado:

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The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 Introduction: What is a Juggalo?

It had been five years since the “Cop Killer” controversy, nearly fifteen since Tipper Gore first heard Prince’s female-masturbation fantasies in “Darling Nikki,” hell, forty since Elvis first swiveled those hips, and in 1997 the media needed a new source of moral outrage.

Wearing demented clown makeup, their legions of fans assuming an identity as Juggalos, the Insane Clown Posse (ICP), a cartoonish KISS-by-way-of-GWAR rap duo created by Detroit natives Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler, better known as Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, had become the folk devils du jour, with everyone from Bill O’Reilly to indignant music critics complaining about the violence and misogyny in their lyrics.

The critics were not wrong, exactly. By track three of The Great Milenko, their major-label debut and defining album, the ICP had already “fucked three fat bitches,” by their own account. Bodies fell, sometimes decapitated, sometimes blasted by gunfire, as when Violent J encountered a hostile sheriff in “Piggy Pie.” “I grabbed a shotgun/and blew his fuckin’ tongue out the back of his cranium,” our narrator proudly recounts. Later on in the album, J and Shaggy explain their wooing tactics in a dating-show skit. It differed a bit from the old dating manuals; “to get your attention in the crowded place,” Shaggy offered to his paramour, “I’d simply walk up and stick my nuts in your face.”

So why would Hollywood Records, a subsidiary of family-friendly Disney, release the album and then pull it from shelves almost immediately? Clearly, aesthetic merit was neither the goal nor the significance of The Great Milenko. Yet as a cultural document, it tapped into social strains of great magnitude, especially racial tensions and class fault lines that go overlooked if the canon of 90s music reduces to the favorites of the tastemaking classes.

Beneath the cartoonish imagery and childlike obsession with nutsacks and flatulence, the ICP used rap to express the frustrations of the dispossessed white working-class youth. With their faces painted as clowns, and their stage effects centered around shaken soda, the ICP was able to cohere a subculture that associated so completely with the group’s lyrics, mien, and ideology that they defined themselves through a new identity—Juggalo, suggestive of the mysterious magician-jester figure whose shiny metallic visage leered at the listener through its one non-bruised eye on the album’s cover art.

The Insane Clown Posse sprayed their audiences with Faygo, the cheap Detroit soda pop that made Pepsi appear a marker of class status in comparison. The Great Milenko even sounded like Faygo, sticky sweet and sugary, revved up on its clanging guitar chords that hung in the air for measures on end, fizzy keyboards that never washed across the mix but erupted out of it like unseemly belches, carbonated with huge airy drums that would have done a hair-metal ballad proud. The ICP had cranked out four albums now since their first EP in 1992 sounded as if it had been recorded in mud, and producer Mike Clark pulled out all the stops this time, polishing the sonics in a bid for the brass ring.

The group needed all the studio polish it could get, because nobody would confuse Shaggy or J for skilled rappers. With flat rhymes and delivery, the ICP’s appeal was not the verbal dexterity of a young Chuck D or the fire-spitting vocal urgency of Ice Cube. “Back like a vertebrae,” J declared early on Milenko; the metaphors more or less ended there. That left puerile rhymes about bodies and hygiene; mulling over the question “What is a Juggalo,” Shaggy offered, “A fucking lunatic/Somebody with a rope tied to his dick/Then he jumps out a ten-story window/Ohhhhhhhhh.” Perhaps the hanging open vowel proved too tricky; the verse ended there.
Nevermind, it was not, nor Me Against the World; Loveless or Bee Thousand either. The ICP spoke not to the experiences of the hip, college-educated kids and critics who attended CMJ, listened through lo-fi fuzz to basement 4-trackers, and cheered on Buffalo Tom’s appearance on My So-Called Life. Instead, it hailed the kids raised in trailer parks, whose anger and frustration would make Korn and its nu-metal imitators huge—the kids who cast their first votes for Jesse Ventura as Minnesota gubernatorial candidate not because he represented a third-party challenge to the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of the fake two-party system, but because he used to wrestle for the WWF. In short, the primarily white kids who didn’t feel much benefit from the “wages of whiteness” that maintained racial hierarchies across American history. We like to think of the 1990s as a witty, urbane decade, with Jerry Seinfeld’s neurotic irony, Ross wooing Rachel, Bill Clinton parsing the meaning of sex. The ICP’s Dark Carnival was the decade’s dark underbelly.

The story of the Insane Clown Posse is the story of postindustrial whiteness at the end of the last century, a movement that lives and dies in the Midwestern towns that are coastally ignored as fly-over land, the Rust Belt corpse of what once called itself the Heartland. Other bands emerge from key music-industry cities like L.A. and NYC, or suddenly-hip ones like Seattle or Omaha; in Milenko’s liner notes, the ICP gave “props to the clown towns”: Cleveland, Flint, Toledo, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Grand Rapids, and the thriving metropolis of Grass Lake, Iowa. A sadder cartography of urban decline could hardly be charted. The rock canon historically fetishizes certain iterations of working-class white masculinity, from Elvis through Springsteen through the Drive-By Truckers. Overlooked and erased are the “bad subjects” that scholars John Hartigan and Matt Wray analyze as “white trash,” those figures who exist at most as the objects of scorn or ridicule, but mostly go unremarked upon, passed over in embarrassed silence. Dreadlocked and mealy-mouthed, the ICP embodied white trash as precisely as any given guest on the much-maligned Jerry Springer Show.

For a generation of hip, progressive, underground rockers and scenesters, this was the era of riot-grrrl, of third-wave sex-positive queer feminism. Kathleen Hanna, agent provocateur of that movement from its early zines to its defining band, Bikini Kill, reclaimed language constantly in her fiery harangues of the sexist patriarchy. Fat bitches needed empowerment and self-love, not the slimy gropes of some assholes in facepaint. In this world, the ICP was the enemy.

Fifteen years later, however, the lines would be redrawn, as a culture of voraciously commodified amnesia devoured the 1990s as nostalgia. Relocated to New York City from rainy Olympia, kitschified through her post-Bikini Kill band Le Tigre, in 2012 Kathleen Hanna helped design the set for a performance-art piece about the ICP and white masculinity staged in Greenwich Village, bastion of hipness since Norman Mailer had first fantasized about becoming a White Negro a half-century ago. Violent J and Shaggy were suddenly hip, or at least hip jokes. Jack White recorded a song with them (co-written by Mozart, why not!), and the video for the song “Miracles,” off their 2009 album Bang! Pow! Boom!, had become an internet meme, featuring, as it did, questions about basic science, including how magnets worked.

What had happened? Well, a lot, including two decades of neoliberal depoliticization of both the proletarian and educated classes. A central contention of this book is that The Great Milenko, as an album, contains both the tensions of 1997 and those of 2012. It speaks to uncertainties and anxieties about race, culture, and class; that it does so in a discernibly less articulate manner than, say, The Coup or Bruce Springsteen or even fellow white Detroit rapper Eminem, makes it no less significant as a cultural text and document. A million people bought it. When they listened, they heard no directly political messages in a conventional sense; Shaggy was no Rage Against the Machine telling them to join the Zapatistas. Yet the messages that they heard were compelling, speaking to a sense of disfranchisement, couched in caricatured tales of violence without hope and a mythology of death and despair.

From bad subjects to snicker-behind-the-back hipster icons, the ICP trace the cultural discourse about whiteness, working-class identity and postindustrial life. Not that the ICP or the Juggalo Nation gives a fuck about that. For their legions of fans, the ICP is a family, a term that must be understood within the cultural politics that spawned the group—Detroit in the 1990s, gasping for air and jobs in the wake of the giant sucking sound of factories racing out of town; the nation since Reagan, as “family values” reigned supreme, spearheading a reactionary, intolerant political agenda that attacked the ICP even as it mirrored many of their ideals. Expecting and receiving no less than complete loyalty, they asked, “How long will the Juggalos be down with me?” The appropriate answer: “Down with the clown till I’m dead in the ground.”

At its inception, the ICP feebly attempted to locate itself within gangsta rap culture, originally standing for Inner City Posse, only later arriving at Insane Clown Posse. If theirs was a failed whiteness, it was also a failed blackness, a confused hybrid of racialized tropes, which fit with Detroit’s particular location, in which working-class whites and blacks lived cheek by jowl, reacting to the same macroeconomic processes that shipped their jobs overseas. It was no utopia; race riots greeted the Great Migration that first sent black workers into the city seeking jobs and an escape from brutal Southern white supremacy during World War II; they recurred when the promises of the Great Society in the 1960s remained mere promises and the dream deferred indeed exploded. The Great Milenko rarely addresses these tensions directly, but is haunted by them throughout in songs that speak the exhausted frustrations of folk who live in the Kafkaesque web of bureaucracy, where a parking ticket takes hours out of a workday to deal with, and where the power dynamics are understood best in simple expressions of us and them: the rich and the poor. Black and white go unspoken but everpresent, if perpetually confused. Even the album’s title obliquely echoes Milliken v. Bradley, the infamous 1974 Supreme Court decision that severed the suburbs from the inner city, effectively killing the promises of Brown v. Board of Education by blocking metropolitan school desegregation forever. Milliken came from Detroit.

In fact, racial categories were more confused in the 1990s than an increasingly “color-blind” society was willing or capable of admitting. Nobel Prize-winning African American novelist Toni Morrison famously called Bill Clinton America’s “first Black president.” Yet while he knew how to pander to a Baptist church, this “New Democrat” destroyed the lives of untold single mothers, disproportionately young Black women, as he “ended welfare as we know it”—a brutal new economic regime that Republicans had long aspired to. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” Clinton’s campaign anthem insisted—but Fleetwood Mac’s heady coke dreams were rapidly giving way to Midwestern meth-teeth and inner city mass incarceration; “tomorrow” was a mandatory minimum and a job at Wal-Mart. With the party that once represented poor and working-class hopes rapidly disintegrating into GOP-lite, political apathy seemed reasonable. Hip-hop scholar Eithne Quinn notes the shift from militant, political gangsta rap of the late 1980s to passive G-funk by the mid-90s. Politics had to be articulated obliquely; the old systems and structures no longer made sense.

This was the sociopolitical context as J and Shaggy cultivated their fanbase. Fascinatingly, and a clue to their ability to inculcate devotion in listeners, the ICP squarely places themselves on the side of the losers, the powerless, the weak. The Dark Carnival is not only the expression of a Juggalo mythology, but the Bakhtinian inversion of the social order. The low will rule. The weak have power. The ICP acknowledges and affirms this age-old social desire. The fact that their devotees listen to their every word is the secret reason for the fear they engender. Their lyrics are no worse than their contemporaries, but the fact that they can get people to listen. That’s the issue.

Mea culpa: We are not Juggalos. We are simply interested in listening to and taking seriously the voices of this subculture and placing this phenomenon within the sociocultural ruptures and all-too-elided angers of its time and place. Unlike most authors in the 33 1/3 series, we do not claim masterpiece status for The Great Milenko. What we do claim is cultural significance, and we insist that the two claims not be conflated, as they all too often are.

That said, it must be noted that in 2011 when we saw the ICP perform at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, it rocked. Like, totally, balls to the wall. Faygo-spiked hair, nearly getting stomped on in a mosh pit, ninja-ninja-chants ringing in our ears, rocked.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Provisional Table of Contents

 

Intro: What is a Juggalo?

With their fourth album, 1997’s The Great Milenko, rap duo the Insane Clown Posse shifted into the national spotlight when it was quickly dropped by its major label due to its descriptions of violence and profanity. But for the legions of ICP fans, known as Juggalos, Milenko further crystallized the subculture, as suggested in the track, “What is a Juggalo?” “What is a juggalo?” asks the pair, and then answers, “He ain’t a bitchboy/He’ll walk through the hills/And beat down a rich boy.” Creating an identity around this music, the song defined the band’s major themes: a bitter comedic sense of social marginalization that is soothed through connection with others in the same position. Yet, such desires were married to homophobic and misogynistic lyrics that generated media outrage, which helped to obscure the larger social significance of the ICP during a time of urban disinvestment and political abandonment as the working class was largely written off by both major parties. Introducing the group and album, this opening chapter lays out the major themes of the book.

 

Ch. 1: The Cultural Politics of Postindustrial Whiteness, or How Many Times?

In “How Many Times,” the Insane Clown Posse offers a repetitive mantra that speaks the frustrations of the white working class in response to life’s small, daily indignities. From dealing with bureaucratic red tape to being panhandled, the song adopts the point of view of those who failed to share in the purported prosperity of the economic rebound of the 1990s. At the same time, omitted from a Black narrative of urban decline and cultural opposition expressed through rap and hip-hop, the white working class amassed anger over its sense of disfranchisement with little political outlet. Few places could be a better setting for this kind of cultural expression than Detroit, Michigan, its deindustrialized landscape a physical reminder of these broken social contracts. This chapter locates the ICP within the context of postindustrial Detroit, tracing the rise of the band from its inception as the Inner City Posse through early releases like Beverly Kills 50187, and on to the culminating release of The Great Milenko, its major label bid for national recognition.

 

Ch. 2: “Family” Values:

When discussing the relationship between the ICP and their fans, each party uses the same word: family. Utilizing various methods to create a Juggalo world, including albums, low-rent spectacles at their shows, comic books, a wrestling federation and the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, known as the Juggalo Woodstock, the band is clearly tapping into a deeply felt need for social connection that undergirds all subcultures. However, the use of the word family to describe this group in the midst of 1990s discourse around “family values” is telling. Positioned against both the Christian cultural conservatism of groups like Focus on the Family, which privileged one monolithic blood-and-marriage vision of “the family,” and the cynical, ironic appropriation of the nu-metal Family Values music festival tour, the ICP uses family sincerely and emotionally. This self-selected, supposedly open community offers its members connection to others, but does so through replication of the gender and sexual hierarchies of the wider society. The ICP’s admittedly problematic homophobia and misogyny have received an inordinate amount of media attention, with pundits like Bill O’Reilly railing against the group. Yet, this ignores the larger social world in which the ICP’s family rhetoric exists. On “Down With the Clown,” J and Shaggy virtually beg listeners to pledge Juggalo loyalty until they’re “dead in the ground.” Cartoonish and inane as Milenko sounded to outsiders, its verses, skits, and carnival mythology resonated deeply with its fans, who enthusiastically made the pledge. Looking beyond the knee-jerk dismissals and admittedly accurate and necessary critiques from progressive opponents and critics governed by conventional aesthetic rubrics, this chapter reconstructs the affective investments solicited by Milenko for its actual fans.

 

Ch. 3: Juggalo Nation

When we spoke with a 31-year old man with “Juggalo” tattooed on the back of his neck outside a Philadelphia Psychopathic Records show starring Twiztid, we asked what had gotten him into the ICP. “When the label tried to get rid of The Great Milenko, I had to hear it” was his response. The album crystallized the group’s self-positioning as anti-corporate rebels, who pioneered a DIY movement that looked nothing like the monopoly on “DIY” that punk claimed for itself. Yet as the Juggalo juggernaut evolved into a branded empire marketing everything from shoes to the ICP’s two feature films (one a western!), a more unexpected shift transpired: the ICP went from the most hated band in the world to being welcomed into the inner sanctums of hipsterdom. From performance art pieces about the band to the near-daily “discovery” of the ICP by another freelance journalist, the ICP’s place in the popular cultural hierarchy has seemingly been reversed. In this concluding chapter, we consider the relationship between these two trajectories which began with The Great Milenko—the national growth of the ICP’s fanbase and the cultural upcycling of its image. Questions of cultural and social capital undergird both, as the fans hold their outsider status as a badge of honor while the cognoscenti embrace white working-class culture to prove their cultural capital.

Approximate date of completion: one year from contract.

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Marketing Plan

Given the recent upsurge of interest in the Insane Clown Posse outside its fan base—from Saturday Night Live’s parody of the band’s viral video for the song “Miracles,” to a partnership with Jack White—we feel that our book would have a wide range of potential readers, including those who have heard of the band, but don’t know much about it; those who are interested in studies of whiteness, class and postindustrialism; and, we hope, fans of the band and its music, which, as we show, is a large and extremely loyal subculture.

Both authors would be willing to promote the book vigorously. Academic conferences, especially the Popular Culture Association, American Cultural Association, the Experience Music Project, and the American Studies Association would be venues to engage readers who are both scholars and educated music consumers. Strub and Rizzo have both presented extensively at such conferences and are confident that they would be able to organize panels or lectures at these national meetings. Additionally, targeting specific Midwestern regional association meetings, such as the Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference, would be a useful way to reach a base of readers who may be drawn to the geographic focus of the book, which considers working-class whiteness within the specific location of the greater Detroit area.

As this suggests, we see this book as having potential interest for college-level classes, especially those in American Studies, cultural studies, contemporary American history and sociology. For example, Rizzo, who has taught American Popular Arts and Public Life, 1940-Present several times at the University of Minnesota, as well as Gender and Popular Culture at The College of New Jersey, would use this book in these classes as a case study that shows how popular culture can be a window into contemporary issues of whiteness, class and masculinity.

Strub, a former music critic for Popmatters, would utilize his connections to this site to have the book reviewed. Strub is also an active participant in online music message boards, another means through which to bring the book to the attention of an ideal audience: individuals who are already interested in music writing.

Rizzo, with her expertise in nonprofit event organizing, would use her national connections, gained through her current work in the public humanities and public history, to promote events at cultural centers, universities, bookstores, record shops, libraries and elsewhere, where both authors would discuss the book. We feel that such events, spread throughout the northeast where the authors currently live, and the Midwest, where both authors have lived previously, would be an ideal method of connecting the book to academics who would be encouraged to utilize it in their classes and with general readers interested in music.

The authors are also interested in promoting this book through Juggalo websites and events. Having begun the process of interviewing fans of the band, we expect that we would be able to connect with the expansive infrastructure that Juggalos have created. From Juggalobook, which is a Facebook for ICP fans, to several band fan pages on Facebook, the opportunities to interact with the band’s most ardent listeners are extensive.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Relevant Competing Books

With titles like ICP: Behind the Paint and Insane Clown Posse and Their Dark Carnival, the few books that would directly compete with ours can be summarized as biographies geared for fans. Their focus is the personal stories of Violent J, who wrote Behind the Paint, and Shaggy 2 Dope, as well as the band’s rise from Detroit to national fame. While such books get rave reviews from Juggalos on Amazon, they are not likely to be read by a broader audience, or, certainly, to be assigned in college classes (indeed, Behind the Paint is nearly 600 pages long and mainly available through Hatchet Gear, the Insane Clown Posse’s online store).

 

The Great Milenko, however, brings a critical cultural and historical perspective to the diverse sources we use to tell our story, including media coverage, historical artifacts and interviews with fans and, we hope, members of the Insane Clown Posse. In this regard, our work is more likely to be seen as a complement to other cultural studies music analysis. Wayne State University Press’ MC5 Sonically Speaking: A Tale of Rock ‘n Roll (2010) and The Stooges Head On: A Journey Through the Michigan Underground (2011) both examine influential Michigan rock bands and their relationships with the tumultuous political and social milieus of the 1960s and 1970s. Our book would proceed similarly, centering the Insane Clown Posse and The Great Milenko within their geography and historical context, while also carefully attending to the album itself, from lyrics to sonic texture.

More broadly speaking, we see this book situated within the field of whiteness studies, which, as a growing body of literature, attends to the historical construction of white identity. Matt Wray’s Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006), for instance, shows the mutual constitution of racial and class identity, and informs our analysis. Particularly useful is the work of John Hartigan who, as an anthropologist, has productively studied the lived experience of poor whites in Detroit in books including Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (1999) and Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (2005). With this specific geographic context, Hartigan’s work undergirds our understanding of the meaning given to the Insane Clown Posse in the city of its birth, and with its legions of fans.

As a rap group, the Insane Clown Posse has to also be understood within the history of hip hop culture, in many ways the defining soundtrack of America since the 1990s. Excellent academic works such as Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap (2004) by Eithne Quinn, inform our method. Quinn’s book is a multifaceted exploration of the politics and economics of gangsta rap through the figures of several of its most famous musicians. Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (2005), is a more popularly written work, but with its extraordinary breadth, traces the development of hip hop out of the Bronx in the 1970s into its ascendance as mass popular culture. Yet even in this definitive history, the Insane Clown Posse is not mentioned (though, it should be noted, a number of rappers have performed at the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, including Ice Cube, Method Man & Redman, and Busta Rhymes, suggesting the group’s desired connections with the culture). As white rappers, however, with a primarily white audience, the ICP hasn’t received attention from scholars of hip hop, a gap that our book seeks to fill.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Comparable Books In The 33 1/3 Series

Having read about a dozen books in the series between the two of us, we think the closest model for what we hope to accomplish in The Great Milenko is Nicholas Rombes’ Ramones volume. While we love the narrative-memoir aspects of the Let It Be volume, the musicological detail of the Murmur one, and the fan-reminiscence/oral-history qualities of Bee Thousand, Rombes’ effort to situate the album in the cultural landscape and social politics of the mid-70s most closely approximates the approach we plan to take. We particularly appreciate the way he weaves together his analysis of the album with this contextualization, such as the discussion of punk’s convoluted politics and the complex, troubling use of Nazi imagery—this is exactly the sort of cultural/textual ambivalence we seek to mine in looking at the Insane Clown Posse’s simultaneously reactionary and oppositional stance.

As academics who also blog, write music criticism, and participate extensively outside (and also within) the Ivory Tower, we’re excited about the new, more explicitly scholarly direction of the series, and feel very well-positioned to write at that register while still including the fans and popular readership. With that in mind, another good precedent is Franklin Bruno’s Armed Forces volume. While we don’t aspire to Bruno’s brilliantly idiosyncratic organizational structure for the book, his situating of Costello’s music and ill-chosen personal behavior against the backdrop of both British and American racial tensions is one of the strongest contributions of the entire series, we think, and another model of sharp, incisive analysis integrated seamlessly into consistently engaging music writing, such that it appeals to both scholarly and general audiences.

In short, the previous 33 1/3 moments we most seek to emulate are the ones where cultural criticism is delivered rigorously enough to satisfy the criteria of scholarly inquiry, yet deftly enough to remain accessible and engaging to readers with other interests and backgrounds.

 

tallying notches

I have been a failed blogger of late, letting this thing linger unattended for far longer than I’d have liked; this semester has kinda swallowed me whole. But just to keep track of some things I’ve done elsewhere, a quick rundown:

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The brand-new collection Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, edited by Leila Rupp and Susan Freeman and published by the University of Wisconsin Press, has a great set of essays by a bunch of historians whose work I admire immensely, so it’s a thrill to have a piece of my own, “The New Right’s Antigay Backlash,” included. The title of my essay, however, pales in comparison to several of the others–with the indisputable highlight, IMHO, being Ian Lekus’s “Queers of Hope, Gays of Rage: Reexamining the Sixties in the Classroom.” Seriously, I wish I had come up with that.

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Then there’s this mysterious LP, which led Mary Rizzo and I to write a two-part investigation of Moms Mabley, historical memory, scholarly wish-fulfillment, and internet knowledge-production at the Public History Commons–“Moms at the Myth,” part one here, part two here. This one was a lot of fun to write.

Marc Stein is one of my favorite historians, so seeing him give a talk in Philly last month was a real treat. Wrote about it here, in an essay called “Queer Sex in the Archives,” at the hip new history of sexuality blog Notches–and Marc’s latest article, related to his talk, just appeared in Radical History Review, scrutinizing the continued absence of the Philly-based 1960s periodical Drum from homophile historiography. Highly recommended!

Finally, I was honored to have Perversion for Profit favorably reviewed by the great Rebecca Davis in the Journal of Women’s History, alongside other important new books by Carolyn Bronstein, Elizabeth Fraterrigo, and Carrie PItzulo, and apparently I made my national television debut on an updated version of the History Channel’s History of Sex, which exists somewhere out there in the digital wasteland but I can’t quite bring myself to look (pretty sure I’m better on a keyboard than in front of a camera, in every way). But most important, we at the OMGcatrevolution tumblr only just learned that we’d been cited in the Sydney Morning Herald many months ago–now that‘s the kind of thing that I can revel in!

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On a much sadder note, however, my friend and colleague Clement Price, whose image graces the very post below this one, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly earlier this month. It’s a colossal loss, to Newark and everyone whose life he touched–a group which, judging by the wake and funeral held the other week, was nearly immeasurable. This blog would probably not exist without Clem’s influence; it was he who got me started watching Newark films, loaned me rare works like the Sightseeing in Newark VHS that opened my eyes to the city’s rich cinematic history, and regularly provided pointers and insights when I had questions. It’s a minor example of Clem’s impact, but a perfect example of his generosity and warmth. There’s an extensive list of articles, obituaries, and tributes to him here that show just how far these qualities reached. He will be dearly missed.

Notes on the cinematic career of Rutgers University, Newark

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These images come from The Once and Future Newark, a short 2006 documentary produced at Rutgers University, Newark, and featuring Dr. Clement Price leading an historical tour of the city. I can’t even feign critical distance here, so I won’t try; in addition to being the official city historian of Newark, Clem is a friend and valued colleague (a telling story: when I arrived at Penn Station for my on-campus interview, he picked me up in his car, bought me coffee, and burned me a DVD of a local documentary! This was a guy who was appointed by President Obama repeatedly to serve on important historical committees, going out of his way for someone he might never even see again! Seriously, an inspiration). He’s been in Newark since 1968, and knows more about its history than anyone alive.

“I can’t think of a better place for a city,” Professor Price declares, and damned if he doesn’t make a convincing argument over the course of 26 really enjoyable and informative minutes. Obviously, The Once and Future Newark is by design a booster video, yet Price gently applies a necessary critical lens to the story; “race matters in America, and race matters in Newark,” he explains. Thus we hear about the segregated history of baseball in Newark, but also celebrate the Newark Eagles, 1940s Negro League Champions. We get histories of Penn Station, the Newark Museum, the Ironbound, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), and more. I even learned something about my own university: our Paul Robeson Center was the first academic building named after the great dissident performer! Take that, other Robeson buildings (j/k, any building named after Paul Robeson is awesome. Ours is just more awesome).

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So, if I sound like a booster myself here, that’s partly because I’m incredibly fortunate to be at a university whose mission I genuinely support (upward mobility is mostly fiction in American history, but as a university committed to first-generation college students, RU-N does act as a conduit rather than a factory for the replication of already-existing social privilege; this is not, of course, to suggest that it is wholly immune from the tragic neoliberal gutting of the public university that has led—with some undeniable faculty complicity, by the way—to such travesties as the overreliance on adjunct labor, but rather to say that within the current realpolitik of the public university, RU-N is, IMHO, very impressive. I’m not neutral here, of course). But it’s also because Clement Price is such a charming and informative narrator and host. Look, the film was nominated for an Emmy and won some other awards, and you can watch the whole thing on YouTube. It’s got great images of past and then-present Newark, and I highly recommend it.

The Once and Future Newark raised the question: what about other films shot on campus in Newark? Well, here’s one obscurity, found on burned DVD in the Rutgers Library: Rutgers From the Inside, an utterly turgid 1966 short 16mm documentary. If the bleeding-red images look bad, well, we must simply deal with it, because this is the only copy I know of and I don’t think Criterion is likely to restore it soon.

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In this “view of the contemporary state university,” we mostly get white people in New Brunswick, doing old-school things like lecturing, using chalkboards, and dressing in suits and ties as undergrads. I like to imagine this is how my students see me…

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…though more likely it’s

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Rutgers From the Inside finally ventures to Newark for a brief segment, mostly to follow a white sociologist into “the ghetto.” It’s a bit cringe-inducing to witness the deeply problematic anthropological approach of the university to the “others” of the city—poor black people in public housing. I am reminded of something my colleague Steve Diner (former chancellor at RU-Newark) wrote about the history of urban universities—by the 1970s many had created “urban observatories,” a well-intended but unfortunate astronomical trope that emphasized the huge gap between campus and city. That said, visually there is a stark autumnal beauty to this scene even despite the horrid visual quality:

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I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond that framework, and indeed, in the new strategic plan that our new chancellor, Nancy Cantor, unveiled this week, civic engagement is highlighted as a central mission of the university. Now, civic engagement itself has a complicated genealogy, as Mary Rizzo recently suggested in a great essay that links it to the fallout of the culture wars, yet the projects underway now are striving to be substantively community-driven. The Queer Newark Oral History Project (with which I am involved) is collaborating on a bang-up series of on- and off-campus events throughout the month of October, and the incredible Newest Americans project looks slated to produce some exciting film work, among other media.

But the cinematic career of Rutgers University, Newark doesn’t quite end there. Hollywood has also come calling, at least once. Movies shot on college campuses are almost always bad, and frankly annoying to experience; as a grad student at UCLA, it seemed like a regular occurrence to encounter Vince Vaughn jaunting around campus on a golf cart and impeding your walk to class in the name of some irksome frat-bro comedy. But hey, considering how unbearably awful Ed Norton’s campus comedy Leaves of Grass is, at least the scenes in his Matt Damon gambling buddy movie Rounders (shot at the former Rutgers Law School building in 1998) rank relatively high in his campus filmography. The Newark footage is brief, but kinda neat, I guess:

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Okay, so they scrubbed it to become the generic City Law University, and diegetically, I think it’s set in New York (I even listened to the commentary track, but alas, the only insight it offered was that Ed Norton can be kind of a sexist prick), but hey, movies lie. It’s what they do. Also the Malkovich scenes have nothing to do with Newark, but just seeing him ham it up as a Russian gambler makes me laugh, so why not throw it in?

So, I think that might be it for the cinematic career of Rutgers-Newark, though I’d remiss if I failed to mention this recent music video by spirited undergrads, which I defy you to watch without smiling.

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dance routine outside the building where my office is!

FUN FACTS THAT I FORGOT TO MENTION AND AM TOO LAZY TO INTEGRATE IN:

  1. the original site of Dana Library was the Ballantine beer brewery—from which Harold Wechsler drew the title of his scholarly history of the university, “Brewing Bachelors” (seriously, props for that).
  1. when Frank Kingdon was heading the University of Newark (before its merger with Rutgers) in the 1930s, he supported Norman Thomas as Socialist Party candidate for president! That is somewhat unthinkable today. (also from Wechsler).
  1. If you can’t spot the sucker at the first half hour at the table, you are the sucker (words of wisdom from Matt Damon in Rounders).

Scenes from a screening in Newark

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Friday was the debut screening of the Newark Movie Mixtape, and it was a real delight: perfect setting, in the lovely Riverfront Park (where Planning Director Damon Rich and Riverfront Coordinator Chris Caceres are doing some really innovative programming, from yoga to Zumba to house-music dance parties to boat tours), a great engaged crowd who seemed to dig the clips (our one cheat, a Whitney Houston music video not shot in Newark but inescapably connoting it, drew some serious applause), and the visual resonance of Newark scenes on a big screen with the actual city skyline in the background.

A decent portion of the crowd stayed the whole, somewhat long duration, too–2 hours, 8 minutes in the final cut! I’d love to tweak and revise this slightly and screen it again sometime, though it might be hard to make cuts; the only real dud, to my mind, was a long and reeeeaaaaaalllllly dull melodramatic romance scene set in Port Newark in Matt Cimber’s 1968 kitchen-sink drama Single Room Furnished. I also got a few fantastic suggestions from people in attendance, including an episode of Sesame Street (!) I hadn’t known about. I’ll have to think it through; in the meantime, some cool (IMHO) shots from the screening:

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poorly lit action shot of my rambling introductory comments!

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father of our mayor!

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and finally, a few shots by Damon Rich–I especially love the cinematic bridge reaching for the real one!

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I’m very grateful to everyone who collaborated and supported this, and also to everyone who took a chance and showed up to watch it. Here’s to future screenings!

Newark Plays Itself: The Newark Movie Mixtape (2014), THIS FRIDAY IN NEWARK!

Here is something very exciting: a project in which I was involved (as co-curator, with Damon Rich, Planning Director and Chief Urban Designer for the City of Newark), screening this Friday (Sept. 12) at Riverfront Park in Newark, at sunset:

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It’s a series of clips, highlighting and celebrating Newark’s robust, surprising cinematic history. There are a variety of angles from which one might approach this: the simple pleasure of seeing Newark represented while sitting in a park in Newark; as a really neat visual essay on the evolution of the city over the course of a century (clips range from the 1890s—Thomas Edison pioneered the cinema right next door in West Orange, and filmed in Newark—through the 21st century, with the most recent coming from 2014); as a local version of Thom Andersen’s masterpiece of the essay-film form Los Angeles Plays Itself, minus snarky Didion-baiting narration; or just as an excuse to come check out the ongoing Newark Riverfront Revival.

I don’t think the expectation is that audiences will sit in rapt, quiet attentiveness as per normative bourgeois narrative filmgoing (at least, before texting destroyed it), but rather hang out, picnic, stroll around, comment, enjoy themselves. I don’t really know what to expect, but I’m excited about this, and hope people show up to check it out. There are at least a few clips I’m pretty sure you’d be hard-pressed to see anywhere else.

There’s a blog post with a “track listing” of sorts here (and also directions to the easily-accessible Riverfront Park), though I’d personally prefer to go in cold myself—there is, hopefully, a rhythm and logic to the ordering, but it’s definitely not temporally linear, so it swerves from the 1890s to the 1990s to the 1970s, which should be enjoyably unpredictable. It’s all done in a DIY spirit of just getting people together to have a good time and revel in cinematic spectacles of Newark, so as long as that happens, I’ll consider it a success.

Big shout-outs to Damon Rich for being the driving force here, Chris Caceres at the Riverfront Revival, my awesome Chancellor at Rutgers University, Newark, Nancy Cantor, for supporting ambitious if experimental forms of civic engagement, the History Department at RU-N for support, and Samantha Boardman for going way above the call of duty as editor. Hope to see people at the screening.

 

Rightwing Riot Theory, from Newark to Ferguson: The Riot Makers (1971)

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Q: What caused the urban unrest in Newark, 1967?

If your answer involves the systematic economic, educational, and political disfranchisement of black Newarkers, persistent housing discrimination, and constant, unrelenting police violence against people of color, well, that would put you in the company of such flaming revolutionaries as the New Jersey Governor’s Commission on Civil Disorder, the presidentially-appointed Kerner Commission, and that subset of the broader public possessed of some modicum of knowledge and/or empathy.

If, on the other hand, you attribute urban rioting to criminal thuggishness, the greedy desire to loot stores for luxury goods, unmotivated anti-white racial animus, or Communist conspiracies, there’s a good chance that—like the white folks in St. Louis currently brushing aside the unrest in Ferguson as “bullshit”—you’re a genuinely awful person, but I do have a film recommendation for you.

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Here is a short 16mm film made for law enforcers in 1971, to illustrate, as the National Criminal Justice Reference Service somehow puts it without affixing an asterisk to note that this is literally insane:

“how such riot makers as Vladimir Lenin, who stated that mass movements must be artificially created, influenced agitators during the 1960’s. It terms modern day activists ‘leninoids’ or graduates in social demolition and argues that Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, H. Rap Brown, and other agitators have been studying the tactics of Lenin and Hitler. The tactics of these 1960’s agitators included targeting specific groups for recruitment in urban areas (the poor) and on college campuses, where their aim was to monopolize student expression, create a climate of hostility, and incite crowds to riot. The film depicts the manipulation of urban discontent in Newark, N.J., and other civil disturbances of the 1960’s by using actual footage made by the news media and other sources. The film is designed to aid law enforcement personnel who are largely unfamiliar with the phenomena of violent social unrest.”

 

Setting aside the question of where one might find law enforcement personnel in 1971 who were unfamiliar with social unrest, violent or otherwise, this is actually a largely accurate summary of the film. It begins with a world-historical survey: Marc Antony overthrows Caesar with riots; 1789, Robespierre, and that damn Terror; LENIN! “the evil genius” who pioneered “exploiting every trace of discontent” as method; Hitler, then Rennie Davis and Students for a Democratic Society.

Wait, what? But here you have it, in irrefutable montage form:

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To be sure, not ALL riot-makers are communists–“some are compulsive revolutionists … others are modern-day nihilists.” Ah, so it’s a diverse crowd of criminal rabble-rousers!

Newark serves as a case study for the film. As our narrator explains, white college radicals like Tom Hayden showed up, carrying visions of violent Maoist uprisings. “To set the stage, minor disagreements were escalated out of all proportion.” “Routine arrests” were exploited to generate dissent; “inflammatory leaflets” were posted around the city.

Here is the film’s vision of an inflammatory leaflet:

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As crude rightwing propaganda, The Riot Makers hits all the required notes, fashioning a feverish, paranoid theory of history in which Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, Tom Hayden, and H. Rap Brown all blend together into a unified mass of Evildoers bent on . . . well, doing something bad, that much is certain. As is to be expected, the film includes virtually no testimony from the black majority of Newark, and contorts itself into M.C. Escher lines of logic to avoid acknowledging the persistent, absolutely undeniable pattern of police brutality toward black Newarkers that made it seem so plausible arrested (and badly beaten) cab driver John Smith had been killed by Newark police that night in July 1967 that sparked the uprising. The Newark police had done a pretty good job of creating that “climate of hostility” before Hayden and the white radicals ever arrived in town, but this history is wholly absent from The Riot Makers.

So, this is Big Lie tactics at their most obvious, hardly exceptional given the four centuries of genocide-masking American triumphalism that continues to undergird our national narratives, aside perhaps from its oafishness. The Riot Makers does, however, contain some vivid footage of barely-post-riot Newark.

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I’m not sure exactly where this footage comes from—local television, presumably, though all we get from the credits is an acknowledgment to reporter Harry Stathos for “local assistance.” For that matter, it’s also a little unclear where The Riot Makers itself comes from. It was “Produced for Spectrum of Washington by Norman Bishop,” but unless my Google skills are failing me, there’s not much info out there about this organization. Narrator Fergus Currie is presumably not the composer born in 1961, so you’ve got me there, too.

So while the details of the film’s production remain murky to me, its intellectual (well…) genesis is more transparent. Based on a 1970 book of the same name by Eugene Methvin, The Riot Makers fits squarely into a somewhat under-recognized genealogy of victim-blaming that runs from the early civil rights movement (or even earlier, the labor movement) through Watts and Newark, and all the way to Ferguson in 2014.

Methvin worked his way up from rural Georgia to the Reader’s Digest, according to his Wikipedia bio (the best source out there, though I’ll bet this oral history taken in 2011 and held at the University of Georgia—which also apparently holds his personal papers, probably worth digging in—is pretty fascinating; edited to add: hot damn, it’s on YouTube!). In 1965 his article “How the Reds Make a Riot” won awards, and clearly Methvin saw how his bread was buttered.

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The Riot Makers expands the logic of that article title into bloated book-length form. Weighing in at 500+ pages, it begins with a long chapter on Newark. From the very opening paragraph, Methvin works hard to blame black Newarkers for their situation; his opening image is of two Newark police officers “haul[ing] a cursing, struggling Negro from their cruiser.” Because Hayden and his fellow provocateurs from SDS and the Newark Community Union Project created a “Reservoir of Hate,” as one section is called, local “resentment tended to focus on that handy lightning rod, the policeman.” The notion that this anger might be legitimate isn’t even conceivable to Methvin; though Ron Porambo later detailed the long history of police violence in Newark, to Methvin it is simply axiomatic that police are always right, and black anger is always unfounded.

Such claims echoed those of the John Birch Society, whose founder Robert Welch had published an essay (helpfully preserved by the King Center) in 1967, “To the Negroes of America,” imploring African Americans not to riot by telling them how good they had it (amazingly, its urge to “wake up, my misguided friends,” from the “shameless liars like M.L. King, foreign trouble-makers like Stokely Carmichael, perverted characters like Bayard Rustin” failed to resonate!). Indeed, the 1965 Bircher agitprop “documentary” Anarchy U.S.A. effectively anticipated Methvin in its communist-dupe outside-agitator analysis of the civil rights movement (the same line future Christian Right leaders like the Rev. Jerry Falwell were also parroting at the time).

Anarchy U.S.A. found a receptive audience among white Newarkers, as seen in this flyer:

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I doubt they had vegan food at Thomm’s. from the New Jersey State Archives, courtesy Mark Krasovic

Mark Krasovic also notes in his fantastic dissertation “The Struggle for Newark: Plotting Urban Crisis in the Great Society” that the New Jersey State Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association set up its own Committee of Riot Study and Investigation, specifically to exonerate the police from their violent show of force in Newark, which left approximately two dozen dead. To no one’s surprise, the 1968 report, The Road to Anarchy, blamed everything from (unproven, likely imaginary) black snipers to “inflammatory literature purportedly printed in China.”

Clearly there was a massive white audience for theories that would displace the anger and frustration of Black America, and substitute excuses for structural inequality that mostly relied on simply denying its existence, or engaging race through barely-coded dog whistles. This story has been thoroughly covered by historians, and just as thoroughly disregarded by most white Americans; it runs from “forced busing” to “welfare queens” to Ronald Reagan commencing his successful presidential campaign talking about states rights at the Neshoba County Fair, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered while engaged in civil rights activism in 1964. It’s a history as plain as day to anyone willing to see it—but most (again, white) Americans still are not.

The relative subtlety (and I do mean relative, obviously) of this white conservatism that has structured both the modern GOP and the sad “centrism” that dominates modern Democratic politics eventually drove off the John Birch/George Wallace/etc frothing-at-the-mouth crowd, holding it to the margins of modern conservatism. But not before Methvin wrote one more epic, The Rise of Radicalism: The Social Psychology of Messianic Extremism, in 1973. It was more of the same, with chapters like “Plato: The First Totalitarian?” Methvin scored a positive review from a fellow high-strung anticommunist in the American Bar Association’s journal, but was brushed aside by Kirkus Reviews. Naturally, there was only one place for a crazy rightwinger to go: President Reagan appointed him to his President’s Commission on Organized Crime in 1983. Of course.

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the works of Eugene Methvin: bigger than a cat, and dumber too

The direct afterlife of The Riot Makers has been modest, at best. The film is extremely rare, held in only a few libraries and largely forgotten, as far as I can tell.

Methvin’s book, however, left a small but sustained trail, according to the highly imperfect but nonetheless useful Google Scholar. Looking at its few scholarly citations, one learns, for instance, that The Riot Makers was one of William Luther Pierce’s favorite books as he wrote his landmark racist hate novel The Turner Diaries (as revealed in a very interesting article by Rob McAlear).

But the true shock of following The Riot Makers’s trail is seeing it cited uncritically, as a reputable source, in peer-reviewed scholarship. Abraham H. Miller seems to have built a successful scholarly career upon attempting to refute the widespread social-science consensus on the origins of urban unrest. In articles published in Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (2001) and Terrorism and Political Violence (2002), Miller uses Methvin to support his arguments—in the latter article, apparently advocacy of even greater police countermeasures (i.e., violence), though he and co-athor Emily Schaen seem hesitant to say it quite so openly. As Miller rather huffily explained in recently bemoaning the existence of Black Studies, “Traditional scholarship is an exhausting and demanding business.” Yeah, apparently so. Sometimes you just need a shortcut, like citing a delusional paranoid journalist to make your, uh, scholarly point. Naturally, Miller, like Methvin, was rewarded for his work with a counterterrorism consulting gig at the National Institute for Justice.

And, to pull this back to Ferguson, where as in Newark nearly a half-century ago, a whole lotta white conservatives seem eager to talk about anything other than cops killing unarmed people of color or the sources of black anger, Miller currently contributes—seriously, for shame—to Breitbart. Though he hasn’t (yet—we can only hope) weighed in on the killing of Michael Brown, the Bircher/Methvin framework of blithely dismissing police violence persists—indeed, Breitbart’s typically terrible coverage invokes outside-agitator tropes, blaming “’outsiders’ from the city of St. Louis for causing the looting and rioting mayhem.” On another conservative site to which Miller contributes, we are reminded, as we always are, that “We know very little about what happened in Ferguson, so we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions about any individual, or group, or the nation’s psyche.”

Well, some of us know pretty well what happened: an unarmed black man was shot six times by a police officer. As Mia McKenzie reminds in a brilliant essay,

“This country has spent the last several centuries systematically killing Black people. Black death is built into the system. Black death, alongside Native American genocide, built the system. Yet, whenever yet another unarmed Black person is killed by police, it’s somehow our fault? We must’ve been threatening/drunk/holding a BB gun/maybe possibly shoplifted some candy? Because after 400 years of never needing a reason, they suddenly need a reason? No. No. They have never needed a reason.”

 

Look, The Riot Makers isn’t single-handedly responsible for the fact that 406 people on the New York Times could recommend this heartless comment, which perfectly reflects the utter lack of empathy for people of color that defines virtually the entirety of U.S. history:

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But it’s not irrelevant to that sad story, either. The overwhelming preponderance of violence in the Newark riots/rebellion, of course, was inflicted by state agents against black bodies. Whatever property has been damaged in Ferguson, it is again black bodies with bullets in them. It’s infuriating that media narratives devalue black life, engage in apologetics for violence against people of color (stolen cigars! scary hoodies! clearly they bear some blame for being shot and killed!), and efface the decades of mass incarceration and militarized policing that do vastly more harm than good, distributed, of course, along the lines of race and class that correspond perfectly to political power and the lack thereof in America.

The Riot Makers is part of this genealogy of fraudulent knowledge-production (or rather, deliberate ignorance and erasure), and perhaps the Methvin à Miller line is less important than, say, that from another Birch Society affiliate, W. Cleon Skousen, to Glenn Beck, but it’s all part of the same nexus. It gives us angry black rioters, led into a frenzy by malicious white radical agitators, without any recognition of the very real grievances carried by black Newarkers or people in Ferguson. It’s the perfect book and film for a country where George Zimmerman is now some kind of decontextualized celebrity, and the next unarmed black person shot by a cop will once again have his or her life scrutinized in a desperate effort to divert attention and blame.

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further reading for the truly masochistic

Kick Fast, Kick Newark: Moving Target (1999)

Last year, I was impressed by the unexpected historical resonance of Bobby Guions’ 2005 low-budget action-thriller Dinner with an Assassin, with its great opening scene on the roof of the Divine Hotel Riviera. So I thought I’d check out his 1999 debut, Moving Target.

Alas, a seller on Amazon to whom all b-movies titled Moving Target must seem the same sent me this:

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let’s just not talk about Billy Dee Williams being in this, it’ll make us all feel sad

Much love to Michael Dudikoff—as a kid, I loved American Ninja 1, 2, and 4 (the Dudikoffless 3 being redeemed only by the presence of the great Steve James), and I’ll still rep for Albert Pyun’s postapocalyptic Radioactive Dreams, but there’s no denying, by the 90s, Dudikoff was the poor(er) man’s Michael Biehn, cranking out dreary, formulaic dreck, and this Canadian gangster jam appears no exception (I got to keep it, with a refund, but not sure I’ll ever watch it, unless someone lobbies hard on its behalf). Also, this was the wrong movie.

Point being, it took me a while to get my hands on this:

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But wow, talk about being worth the wait: white VHS! I didn’t even know this was a thing (based on a quick google search, I’m not alone—600 people have watched this mystified dude ponder the immortal question “My Destroy All Monsters Tape is white. WHAT THE FUCK”). Is this the video-nerd equivalent of colored vinyl?

In any case, the film itself gets off to a slow start. Unlike Dinner with an Assassin’s location shooting, Moving Target opens with some extended indoor non-mortal combat.

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This turns out to be the Black Eagle Society, composed of the greatest taekwondo, kung fu, kickboxing, and other martial arts fighters in the world—all conveniently located in New Jersey! The choreography is so-so, but Guions cuts nicely around the un-landed blows.

Finally, the group leader explains to his gang, “there’s one thing we’ve never done: to kill a man with our bare hands!” They all agree, but of course it’s not really worth it to just throttle some wimp, the goal is “fighting a real champion to the death.” Just to sweeten the pot, our fearless leader offers a million bucks to whichever fighter delivers the death blow.

I, uh, think this plot may have been used before, in the approximately ten thousand film versions of The Most Dangerous Game that extend from proper adaptations to the lackluster sexploitation flick The Suckers to what I assume was Guions’ immediate inspiration, the recent (and pretty solid IMHO) Surviving the Game. But hey, at least this plot device finally takes us to Newark:

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The downtown beefcake shots are of affable actor Greg Maye, playing karate fighter Mark Kobain. He’s wooed into the Black Eagle Society, where, the leader explains, “we get together once a month, talk martial arts world, stock options,” stuff like that. Who wouldn’t want to join?

Alas, with that we’re back out of Newark, into the Jersey woods, where the hunt goes down, with little surprise as to how it ends. Guions grafts a strikingly tangential love story into the mix, primarily to include a tame sex scene and secure the otherwise all-male film’s heterosexuality, I suppose.

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Moving Target lacks the loopy charm of Guions’ next film, though I’m always susceptible to sheer let’s-make-a-movie moxie. There’s a really tacky scene where one of the fighters is called away from dinner for a phone call to be told he’s HIV-positive, apparently just to set up a risible one-liner in his later fight scene where he growls, “watch out, you don’t wanna catch AIDS now.” Ugh.

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On the other hand, Mark Kobain shows some feminist proclivities, explaining that “no means no” to a Mike Tyson-like member of the Black Eagle Society who boasts about his sexual aggression toward a woman who came to his room once. Plus, there are occasional shots of empty sets, another touch I always love:

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There’s not enough engagement with Newark to situate Moving Target in urban cultural history, though I imagine the backstory would be interesting—Guions thanks the Newark YMCA and even the Newark Police in the end credits. So, as a debut, it’s . . . a debut. the final fight scene does return us to a downtown Newark rooftop–something of a Guions personal flourish, since it’s the same way Dinner ends. Some decent skyline footage:

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Moving Target seems to have fallen mostly off the face of the earth—never released on DVD, and held only at two libraries (in Georgia and Los Angeles) according to the venerable WorldCat, with just a few IMDB reviews to mark its existence. Guions isn’t the most prolific filmmaker—he’s got just one more movie, the obscure 2010 thriller Blood and Love—but I’m gonna guess these DIY productions take some serious effort.

Also, pretty solid soundtrack by Newark’s own Rick Da Bro. I confess a lack of familiarity with his work, but he delivers classic mid-90s Wu Tang-style dirty beats, and likes to post food pics on his Instagram. I can dig that—though not Geno’s Steaks in South Philly, man, that’s the worst!

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collector-scum bonus pic