Monday, February 8, 2010

If Bill Martin is Banned...

Last month, Bill Martin, professor of philosophy at DePaul University, and Bill Martin, Jr., author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? were recently confused by the credulous and intellectual-curiosity-averse (or curiously intellectually averse?) Texas State Board of Education. The cause for the mix up is the search engine at Border's, or more than likely, the fact that the Board's members were satisfied with the results of the list resulting from the search (see the articles at the Chronicle of Higher Ed and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram).

As a result, Bill Martin, author of Ethical Marxism (the offending title), Humanism and Its Aftermath: The Shared Fate of Deconstruction and Politics, amongst other titles (including two books on prog rock) has endured a bit of minor celebrity (note to B.M: I don't mean this as an insult), which included being rightly identified by the Board itself as the author of books containing "very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system." Which of course they'd rather ban than refute. (Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? has apparently suffered a bit of banishment.)

All of this misses the larger question, however. With Bill Martin and Bill Martin banned, we have yet to consider what the children read will read in their stead. My suggestions:

Marx for Beginners
This is Bill Martin's own suggestion. No qualms here. I read this one some time ago, back when I used to work near a corporate bookstore/personal-lunch-break-library. Lots of pictures, a bit of the essentials and a sense of humor.

Howard Zinn, A People's History of American Empire
My friend Santi has been trying to convince teachers in California's education system to teach this book, and he says two have taken him up. Let's hope they don't mess with Texas. As I wrote with Zinn's passing:
Zinn took history and stood it on its feet. Chronicles of war and great deeds become a constant series of attempts to oppress or calm the fires of social struggle, but the guiding thread is the resilience of people acting from the basic conviction that their rights and their justice won't be realized because these things have been written down on a few dusty documents. They have to be fought for. Zinn was right their in midst of it: like Vonnegut, he learned the right lessons from war's injustices, at Spellman he was radicalized by the growing civil rights struggle at the cost of his job, and then wrote on of the earliest books critical of the Vietnam War, VietNam: The Logic of Withdrawal, published in 1967; A People's History of the United States followed in 1980. He stayed involved, kept writing, kept pissing off other people in his profession and academia for a refusal to be a specialist and to keep to a small academic niche.
Bill Martin, The Radical Project: Sartrean Investigations
Damn! How did this end up back on the reading list?! Well, you can't stay under the Board's supervision for your whole life, and if Martin is going to receive a bit of attention, we should not allow this moment to go by without talking about his work. After meeting Bill at the most recent North American Sartre Society meeting in Memphis, I discovered that my own interests in Sartre bear some resemblance to subjects covered in his work. So when I found a copy of The Radical Project I picked it up for the personal library.

Many of the essays, especially the one dedicated to overcoming "Sartrophobia," show how Sartre's legacy remains important to contemporary political and philosophical problems. Martin identifies several points of reproach between the post-structuralists and Sartre to show where the latter's work is still relevant. This often rests on the ethical aspect of Sartre's work, because Martin's problem with the reception of post-structuralism in North America is that it has often been accompanied with the de-politicization of the work of the post-structuralists, which is the case, especially, he argues, with Derrida. In addition, Martin's arguments regarding the relationship between Sartre and Marxism, and what they offer to each other, are both clear and conversant in the debates between Leninism and Maoism. I've found the book to be very engaging and thought provoking. The only discouraging part of these Sartrean Investigations is that many of the problems discussed in the book (published in 2000) are still problems today.

Nevertheless, I look forward, as I develop my own work on the relationship between Maoism, Sartre and Badiou, to engaging Bill at future conferences on the merits of Ethical Marxism, Derrida and this other Sartrean legacy with which I am engaged.

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