Q & A with Jules Boykoff Assistant Professor of Politics and Government
by Steve Dodge
Jules Boykoff, poet, mass media expert, and former pro soccer player, joined the Department of Politics and Government as an assistant professor in 2005. He earned a doctorate in political science from American University in 2004, an M.A.T. from Lewis & Clark College, with specialization in English and Spanish in 1998, and a bachelor's in political science from the University of Portland in 1993. Teaching and research interests include social movements and the suppression of dissent, mass media and U.S. foreign policy. Recent publications include Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, forthcoming in 2007 from AK press; The Suppression of Dissent: How the State and Mass Media Squelch USAmerican Social Movements, from Routledge in 2006; and Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocket Badge, a book of poetry from Edge Books, published in 2006
How did growing up in Wisconsin influence your adult interests? Did you have an academic family?
I was fortunate to have the most supportive, generous parents anyone could ever ask for. My mother was the first to go to college from the family. This after fighting courageously through polio, which left her with a limp she still has today. In fact, her doctor told her she'd never walk again, but through amazing will and faith she overcame this devastating prognosis, something I've always admired. Her parents — who were incredibly hard workers from Milwaukee — instilled in her, and also in me, a deep appreciation for a life of education and hard work. My dad, who lives in Madison, has also been super-supportive of my education in a low-key, low-pressure, always-there-for-me sort of way. My dad's side comes from New York. My grandpa Jules was a lawyer and was also Jewish. He had a hard time getting work, in part because of his religion and in part because it was the height of the Depression. He ended up abandoning legal work, instead joining with his brothers to set up a garment factory, called Boykoff, Inc., which specialized in women's clothing. My family has always a) valued education and, b) understood discrimination based on religious background and lack of education. The family always felt we had the responsibility to right some of these things if we could - my parents are big advocates for social justice. I continue to learn from them all the time.
What first piqued your interest in studying dissent, and why does it continue to interest you?
Many things triggered my interest in the topic: (1) the fact that some people think we have long traditions of tolerance and democracy in the United States and thus don't have problems with dissent being squelched; (2) dissent is a crucial cog in the machine of democracy. A democracy without dissent is not a democracy worth having; (3) an Ivy League scholar who I watched give a public lecture a few years ago when asked by a member of the audience which contemporary dissidents he admired today, couldn't name a single contemporary dissident citizen - this was shocking to me and it galvanized me to research contemporary dissidence in the U.S. and then to share that research with people who were willing to listen.
How did your interest in mass media and global warming end up connecting with Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth?"
My brother (Max) and I were in Honduras doing humanitarian work with a non-profit organization he founded called Duyure Adelante. After working in Duyure, we decided to treat ourselves to a weekend at the beach where we could decompress and reflect. One night, as we watched the sun dip below the horizon, we came up with the balance-as-bias hypothesis, and decided it would be interesting to test the hypothesis empirically. This is precisely what we did once we returned to the U.S. We first presented our results in Germany in 2002 and then, building from the feedback we received there, we vamped our work, chopped it into two separate studies, and submitted them to peer-review journals. The first one, Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press, which Al Gore used in his film and book An Inconvenient Truth, came out in Global Environmental Change in 2004 and the second one will come out this year in Geoforum.
What first got you interested in soccer and when did you realize it could carry you on to college and perhaps beyond?
When I was four years old my mom signed me up for a soccer team in a league where everyone was older - and bigger - than me, so for a long time I got knocked around quite a bit. We joke about it now that the experience toughened me up, thus preparing me for years of getting kicked in the shins, both literally and figuratively. I never had grand plans of becoming a professional athlete thumping in my skull. In fact, upon graduating from University of Portland (UP), I was working as a gardener slash handyman for the priests who lived on campus. The work - moving mulch, planting bushes, working with my hands in the dirt - was relaxing and in many ways extremely satisfying. Around that same time, I was drafted by the Portland Pride for a new professional indoor league. Between moving wheelbarrows of dirt and stones, I attended try-outs and was fortunate enough to make the team, thus launching a four-year professional career. Before that, at UP, I played for Clive Charles. He was a special man. One thing a really liked about him is he could shift from joking and fun to utterly serious. He had the ability to get us all focused, to snap into "seriosity." And, one of the crucial things that I learned from soccer was to show up every day for practice and work hard, even when I didn't feel like it. It's the same thing with teaching, doing research or writing. In a lot of ways it's physically demanding, not unlike soccer.
You've published widely in the academic realm and, most recently, a book of poetry called Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocket Badge. How does art and poetry intersect with politics and resistance?
Not enough, I would argue. Part of this is because many people believe art and politics shouldn't mix. I wholeheartedly disagree with this position. That's not to say I support didactic political art that tells people they're wrong, unintelligent or otherwise clueless. That sort of I-got-it-you-don't art gets tiring real quick. Rather, what interests me is art that illuminates the political complexities of the real world. Art that embraces politics, but in ways that reverberate outward through the viewer or reader of the work. I appreciate political artwork that demands a thoughtful, active audience and that knows such an audience is possible.
If you were stuck on a desert island and could have just one book, what would it be and why? Say you also had a CD player with a solar battery, but could pick but one music disc. What would that be?
If I were stuck on a deserted island I would rather have a person with me than a book or CD, and that person would be (wife) Kaia Sand. If that were not possible, and I were forced to select a single book, I'd pick Kaia's collection of poems, Interval - no doubt about it. It's a book of poems that keeps unfolding, even for someone like me who has read it dozens of times. In terms of music, I'd either pick a Thievery Corporation CD, Smog's "Supper," Linton Kwesi Johnson's greatest hits, an Elliott Smith CD, or the Wales-based band Parking Non-Stop's debut album.
For further rumination:
Suppression of Dissent
Global warming op-ed with Max Boykoff
Poem from Rocket Badge
Pacific University faculty page