The Ostracon: Dispatches from Beyond Contemporary Art’s Center, an arts writing site by Nicole J. Caruth and Paul Schmelzer, looks at figures and ideas outside the mainstream of contemporary art—from public policy, indigenous rights, and folklore to community organizing, historic preservation, environmental science, journalism, and food justice—that may offer insight into new forms of making art that are more responsive, relevant, and connected to the way we live now as individuals and communities. Taking its name from the pottery shards used in ancient Athens when voting to ostracize community members, the site aims to celebrate, instead of push out, voices from art’s periphery.
“I’m unburying these books before I’m buried,” says Jack Zipes, a retired folklorist and German professor who, at 84, is republishing long-forgotten anti-fascist children’s books through his imprint, Little Mole & Honey Bear. Despite being 80, 100, or more years old, these stories prove timely in an age of Donald Trump, insurrection, and the Proud Boys.
“I am a gravedigger,” writes Jack Zipes in the preface to the book Yussuf the Ostrich. “I do not dig graves to bury the dead. I dig up graves to bring the dead back to life.” In the last portion of his own life, the 84-year-old folklorist and retired German professor is doing what he’s always done—studying, translating, adapting, and publishing folk tales from decades and centuries past, but with a new focus. Through Little Mole & Honey Bear, the imprint he founded in 2018, he’s unearthing anti-fascist and pacifist children’s books that have fallen out of circulation and republishing them for readers today. “I feel in my last days, in my old age, I’m doing what I can. In everything that I do, I want to resist what’s going on,” he recently told me. “I’m unburying these books before I’m buried.”
Despite their vintages, Zipes’s first releases on the new imprint couldn’t be more timely. Keedle the Great, and All You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Fascism, written by Deirdre and William Counselman in 1940 and illustrated by Fred L. Fox, tells tale of the rise—and ultimate squashing—of a little boy with dark ambitions. Simple with a touch of humor, the slim volume follows its titular character, a boy in the spitting image of Hitler who “hated laughter more than anything else in the world,” entertained himself by feeding bugs to his pet spider, and subsisted on a diet of “synthetic candy.” As an adult, he grew a familiar moustache and embraced dictatorial tendencies, even writing his own manifesto, Keedle’s Kampf. By the book’s end, he’s so ridiculed that he shrinks to the size of a mosquito, small enough to be squished in the palm of a hand. Zipes unearthed Keedle in the rare book section of the Strand Bookstore in January 2020 and immediately saw parallels today. “Keedle has reared his ugly head again,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “He is somewhat fatter and has forgotten how to do the goosestep, but he is dangerous and threatens to destroy all that is decent and humane in the world… He’s a liar who has no inkling he is a fascist fool. This all makes him pathetic in his rule, and domination will eventually die out not from our laughter, but also from our humanity.”
Yussuf is a 1943 tale written and illustrated by Emery Kelen, a Hungarian Jew who witnessed the grim realities of war first-hand when he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He was so disturbed by the experience that he pretended to be mentally ill to get out, a ploy that resulted in his transfer to a psychiatric hospital. There he began drawing fellow patients, an act which helped him process his experiences with combat. He later declared himself a “violent pacifist” and teamed up with artist Alois Derso and gained fame—not to mention the attention of Nazis and other fascists angry about the duo’s depictions of their movement—for caricatures that critiqued totalitarianism. Due to this attention, the pair fled to New York in 1938.
Set in northern Africa during World War II, Yussuf tells of a studious and speedy ostrich who helps American troops thwart the Germans. Having volunteered as a courier (“he ran so swiftly that the Nazi gunners grew dizzy trying to hit him”), Yussuf was captured and feared for his life. But a pair of dachshunds owned by a portly Nazi general devised a plan to spring him: they convinced him to spare Yussuf for a higher purpose, using his plentiful supply of feathers to keep the vain general’s footwear polished (no Nazi bootlicking here, as the story eventually shows). Assuming he was “just a silly ostrich,” incapable of understanding much, Yussuf was in the room one day as the general and his advisors discussed plans to wipe out the entire US army. Ultimately, through the help of his swastika-clad canine comrades, he stole the plans, zipped back to the Allies, and defeated Hitler’s minions. As word of Yussuf’s heroism spread, his fame did, too. But when asked by the American general what he wanted to do next, the humble ostrich said he simply wanted to go back to Abou, the little boy who raised him, but only after a visit with his mother in the desert. Beautifully illustrated, it’s an instructive tale about friendship, assumptions, and the emancipatory prospects of education (in one passage early in the book, a donkey challenges Yussuf’s attempts to read and write: “What’s the use of an education to a bird? Look at me. I have enough hay. I have enough straw. And I never went to school.”).
“These are not outspoken, didactic, or pedagogical books,” Zipes says. “They don’t preach anything. What they do is reveal subtly what is happening in the world through metaphorical stories.”
A Storied Trajectory
Zipes was raised in a family where storytelling was king. “My father used to tell me stories about his life in Russia, growing up in Minsk and finding his way to school through the snow,” he recalls. “But, of course, my father wasn’t born in Russia and had never went to Russia. He was just a great storyteller.” Zipes was born, in fact, in New York City in 1937 and raised in Mount Vernon, a suburb just north of the Bronx and next to a town that at the time prohibited Jewish residents. There his mother read to him, regularly rotating through classics by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. It’s also where he first experienced anti-Semitism; he lost a girlfriend when he was 12 or 13, he recalls, when her Catholic family discovered he is Jewish.
He went to Dartmouth, and as “the English department was terrible,” he earned a BA in political science instead. “The college was very racist and anti-Semitic,” he recalls, but it had a few good English professors, and he took their classes, finding himself drawn to French existentialists like Camus and Sartre (whose Anti-Semite and Jew he found useful). At Columbia, he earned a Masters in English and Comparative Literature, studying critical theory and immersing himself in the greats of American literature: Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, etc. In 1961, he left for Germany to study, a year in Munich and a year in Tübingen. “Germany was a mystery to me. Still is,” he writes in the introduction of Yussuf. “When it came to understanding German history, all my friends there were silent at first. They were silent about the Nazi past because their parents and relatives were silent, just as I was silent about the anti-Semitism I experienced in America. But I no longer keep silent about it.”
After completing his PhD at Columbia, and writing a thesis (later published as a book) entitled The Great Refusal: Studies of the Romantic Hero in German and American Literature, he returned to Germany for a teaching stint at the University of Munich. During his next job, a faculty position at NYU, he became steeped in activism: at the height of the Vietnam War, he started working as an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), among other groups, which he says landed him on a blacklist. But he eventually found a teaching job—“somehow,” he says, mystified—at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. He moved from New York with a girlfriend and settled into teaching, working with area socialist groups and an advocacy organization called the Wisconsin Alliance on the side. His partner began pursuing a degree in education, and Zipes started reading her books on child development, noting that much of the pedagogy at the time was focused on obedience and control. He thought: “We’ve got to get children when they’re young, and not to politicize them, but to make them aware of what is happening in the world, who’s in charge of the world, what these struggles are all about.”
“At that time, I became interested in the impact fairy tales can have in child development,” he recalls. “It’s the major genre in children’s lives, practically in everyone’s lives; from the time we’re born until we die, we read fairytales. That’s the only genre, all over the world, which has this power.”
The form became the focus of his writing, teaching, and study. “I read the orthodox Marxist views of [Bruno] Bettelheim,” whose book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales came out in 1976, “and they infuriated me,” he says. He vowed to come up with an alternative perspective. But first he had to dig into the history of fairytales, and to do so he had to learn other languages, including Italian and French, to understand how such stories worked in other cultures. He eventually started workshopping his thinking by going into Milwaukee area schools and sharing his storytelling methodology, slowly incorporating theater into his work. His publishing efforts at the time reflected his passions: he wrote books like Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (1979) and Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (1983) and edited volumes including Political Plays for Children: The Grips Theatre of Berlin (1976) and Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England (1987).
In 1989, having left Milwaukee for a three-year term teaching in Florida, he accepted a position in the University of Minnesota’s Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch and moved to Minneapolis. His writing ratcheted up, with more than a dozen new titles written during his time at the university, plus another two dozen books that he edited. A 2004 volume, though, proved one his most impactful works: Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children captured and codified his thinking on the power of storytelling in education, sharing his decades of literary knowledge, but more importantly, years of experience running Neighborhood Bridges, a critical literacy program he cofounded to “empower students to become the storytellers of their own lives.”
Embodying Stories, Embracing Empathy
Based on his theater work in Milwaukee, Zipes co-founded Neighborhood Bridges in 1997 with Peter Brosius, artistic director at the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis. “Meeting Jack and being introduced to his pedagogy was completely mind-blowing,” says Maria Asp, an artist involved with Bridges since its inception and most recently its program director. Through learning Zipes’s critical literacy framework and concepts from the Italian writer Gianni Rodari’s 1977 book The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories, “I realized that theater, storytelling, and creative writing aren’t the end product,” she says. “They’re the tools for exploring meaning-making.”
At its peak, the program brought teaching artists into more than 20 Twin Cities schools for weekly two-hour sessions all year long. But this is no traditional theater program, where adherence to a play’s text is paramount. With the diversity of student backgrounds, experiences, and even English-language proficiency in mind, the artists would customize the structure, using Zipes’s pedagogy, to help kids reinterpret existing texts or invent their own storylines to produce as plays on the Children’s Theater stage. “Instead of saying, ‘OK, this is the next scene, here’s what it’s about,’ we would ask them, ‘What do you think it’s about? What should the next line be?,” says Kiyoko Motoyama Sims, the program’s longtime community engagement director. “We want kids to be able to shape their own narrative.”
Using game-like exercises, including Rodari’s notion of the “fantastic binomial,” kids would use improvisational storytelling as a tool to explore themes and, eventually, write and produce a play. “Embodying the story,” literally taking in the experiences and vantage point of yourself or others, is key, Sims adds. “Once you go inside, I think you will learn the skill to have empathy, to want to understand experiences you haven’t had before.”
“The focus was on the children and enabling them to be able to speak, act, draw, sing, and so on,” says Zipes, who served as the project’s director until 2008. We didn’t go in and do a type of storytelling that would be just to entertain. Art was going to be provocative and mind-opening, for everyone—for the school teacher, the teaching artists, students, for everyone.” While Zipes has moved on from Bridges, so have Asp and Sims; both were furloughed in the early months of COVID-19, which left them to focus on the Speaking Out Collective, a group of actors, educators, and directors “who believe that story is a vehicle for self-expression, questioning, and creating new narratives together.” Zipes credits the collective for “keeping the tradition of [Bridges] going.”
“My philosophy,” he adds, “has always been that I teach to find people who are going to replace me, and that was certainly the case with Bridges.”
What Do We Mean by Fascism?
“Feelings propel fascism more than thought does,” writes social scientist Robert O. Paxton in “The Five Stages of Fascism,1Robert O. Paxton, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 1 (March 1998), 6.“a 1998 essay with strong resonance in the era of Donald Trump, insurrection, and the Proud Boys. In it he outlined the “mobilizing passions” that can be present in fascisms:
• The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual.
• The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action against the group’s enemies, internal as well as external.
• Dread of the group’s decadence under the corrosive effect of individualistic or cosmopolitan liberalism.
• Closer integration of the community within a brotherhood (fascio) whose unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence, if necessary.
• An enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces individual self-esteem.
• Authority of natural leaders (always male) throughout society, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny.
• The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success in a Darwinian struggle.
Despite the ways Trumpism echoes these distinctions—from a charismatic leader who said “I alone can fix this” to a group of his supporters united by a shared sense of persecution—Paxton has long hesitated to apply the F-word to Trump. But the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol changed his thinking. “His open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line. The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.”
Zipes has been far less hesitant to apply the term to Trump. “There’s always been an extreme right-wing liberalist, if not highly racist, stream in American culture,” he told me last July, referencing the near-annihilation of Native Americans as depicted in the tale of Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. “So none of this surprises me. What does surprise me is that we literally have a fascist as a President.”
Speaking again just days after the January 6 insurrection, I asked his response, especially to the man who wore a “Camp Auschwitz Staff” sweatshirt while storming the Capitol. “It wasn’t surprising to me that that would happen because anti-Semitism has been replaced by racism, but anti-Semitism has really never died down because the Jews have always been associated with minority groups and looked down upon,” Zipes says. “So when somebody walks around with a T-shirt that says ‘Auschwitz’ on it, it doesn’t really frighten me. It doesn’t worry me because I’ve lived with it my entire life.”
He refers to the “soft fascism” of America, a society in which, under a democratic pretense, the populace agrees to abide by rules that are ultimately autocratic. As an example of how this tendency is expressed in children’s stories, he points to the piece he republished recently by Hermynia Zur Mühlen. “The Glasses,” written in 1923, tells of a wealthy land in which the rich exploited the poor but the poor never rose up, thanks to glasses crafted by a magician and issued at birth. “The lenses were cut in such a way that the poor people who wore them saw their brothers and sisters as small, helpless, inferior creatures” and the rich they saw “magnified as powerful, clearly godlike creatures who deserved all the best things in the world.” The king’s glasses were ordinary, but dipped “once in the blood of the cruelest person who had ever lived and twice in the blood of the stupidest person who ever lived. When the king wore the glasses, he saw whatever kings are accustomed to seeing, and he saw it in the way that suited the kings.”
As you might expect, one day a baby was born, little Fritz, who couldn’t tolerate the glasses and ripped them off. His parents tried various ways to keep the spectacles on, fearing reprisal from the king, including tying them on his head. As a young man, he smashed the glasses once and for all and started a clandestine resistance group, the “enemies of the glasses,” who drove such fear into the king that he “ran until he came to a country where the people still wore glasses and where law and order prevailed.”
Zur Mühlen was born into an upper-class family in Vienna, and Zipes notes, “if you’re born into aristocracy, especially as a woman at the end of the 19th century, you’re going to have to obey every single rule of behavior that is imposed on you.” She married an Estonian count, which helped her realize, as Zipes puts it, “how horrible all the aristocracies in Europe were.” She left the count and moved to Switzerland where she met Stefan Klein, a Hungarian writer and communist, whom she married. “All her stories were explorations in developing critical thinking,” he says. “In ‘The Glasses,’ she tells a story about people who are blinded by outside forces so that they cannot recognize how they are being manipulated and deprived of the fruit that they actually produce for the rest of society.” He finds the tale, like all of his recent work, appropriate for these times, echoing the title of the series he edited and translated the story for, Princeton’s “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales.”
That title struck me as curious: if Zipes loves “oddly modern” fairy tales, why not use his golden years to write and publish new books for children that convey the values he holds dear? He’s not sure they’d ever get published.
“Although there are some very good writers and artists who are trying to deal with these problems for young people, I find a lot of them are not very honest and truthful. And these books that were written in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s are much more candid, much more honest. They raise issues without fear of what corporate publishing houses might think.”
“The type of censorship that exists among publishers of children’s books today, where everything has to be charming and have a happy ending, I don’t think that’s being responsible to children,” he adds. “In order to be responsible to children, I don’t think we need to horrify them, but we have to be truer than true.”
Just days from the most consequential presidential election in modern times, the brokenness of the political system of the United States could scarcely be more evident. But how to mend the fractures in our body politic? In a bit of poetic irony, perhaps the solution can be found through more brokenness—in particular, the shards of pottery from which this site takes its name.
With a monumentally important presidential election upon us, the brokenness of the political system of the United States could scarcely be more evident. On one hand we have a president, accused of coddling white supremacists and influence-peddling from the Oval Office, who has consistently defied historicalprecedent, thelaw, scientificconsensus, and commondecency (not to mention the will of voters). On the other, the opposition party has seemed ill-equipped or structurally unable to serve as a substantial counterweight. Further, it could be American democracy itself that is breaking apart: Donald Trump has said he may not abide by the results of the 2020 election, and his surrogates, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), appear to be unconvinced of the value of non-autocratic rule: “We’re not a democracy. Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are,” he opined in a pair of tweets on October 8, 2020.
How to approach such brokenness? In a bit of poetic irony, perhaps the solution can be found through more brokenness—in particular, remnants of the work of artisans, the shards of pottery this website takes its name from.
In the 5th Century BC, the Greek city-state of Athens brought the world its first democracy. Deriving from the Greek terms for people (dêmos) and power (krátos), it was a system of direct representation in which male citizens over the age of 20—women, foreigners, and slaves were prohibited from participating—would gather regularly at the Agora, on a hillside near the Acropolis, to tend to community concerns and vote on issues of the day. Once a year this convening, the ekklesia (Anglicized to ecclesia) would hold a special vote meant to hold rulers and other citizens accountable for their actions. This practice of removing real or perceived wrongdoers from political life for a time, which gives us our modern-day term “ostracism,” seems to have been created around 507 BC, according to references in Aristotle’s The Constitution of the Athenians, following the city-state’s rule by tyrants—a series of autocratic rulers who assumed power unconstitutionally—from around 560 to 510 BC.
Here’s how it worked: If a quorum of 6,000 was reached, a fraction of the total population of between 30,000 and 60,000 at the time, and a simple majority voted in favor, a second vote would take place two months later. But paper ballots weren’t used. The closest thing, papyrus, had to be imported from Egypt, so a more common material was recycled: bits of broken pottery called ostraka (often spelled ostraca or, in its singular form, ostracon). In this second vote—again, after a quorum had been reached—voters would scratch the name of a citizen onto a potsherd, someone they believed showed anti-democratic leanings or had otherwise earned public contempt. After all the shards were gathered, votes would be tallied and the individual whose name appeared most often would be required to leave Athens for 10 years (or face execution). Upon their return—presumably having had time to think about what they’d done—all would be forgiven: they could return to the community, seek public office (if so desired), and resume ownership of property or possessions (welcome back to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump!).
“One important feature of ostracism was that it did not require a formal charge,” James Sickinger, an ostraka expert and Classics professor at Florida State University, told me. “It was an extralegal or extrajudicial procedure. There was no indictment, and as far as we know there was no formal debate when it was time for a vote. There was not even a formal list of candidates or potential victims. Athenian citizens presumably discussed among themselves whom they wanted to send into exile in the days and weeks before the final vote.”
Those who were ostracized, or sent into exile by ostracism, weren’t always government officials, Sickinger adds, although they often were. “What does seem to be the case is that most individuals who were ostracized were deemed to be ‘too big for their britches’ (my phrase) and to display anti-democratic (or aristocratic) traits, [but] some ostraka actually refer to the sexual practices of their candidates. Others accuse candidates of crimes (like bribery) and possibly treason. There was no precise definition of what made someone susceptible to ostracism, so it really boiled down to strong public sentiment against an individual.”
So, in today’s climate, Trump could be removed from office at the will of the people for any grievance, from showing disregard for the constitution to sexual assault, defaming soldiers and veterans to not paying his fair share in taxes to, simply, telling a heap of lies. Without any formalized system like ostracism in place, the closest thing we have today might be social media–driven “cancel culture,” which, like ostracism seeks to shun public figures as a way of seeking accountability, but unlike Athenian ostracism of yore, seems to leave little room, at times, for redemption for the accused.
In a 2003 op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, the director of Agora Excavations at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, called for a modern-day reconsideration of this ancient democratic practice, noting that “those in office might not like it, but a return to ostracism would certainly return power to the people and ensure that their voices were heard and heeded.” But in his piece John McKesson Camp also noted several other accountability measures baked into Athenian democracy that merit a second look today: dokimasia, “an examination to check the qualifications of an individual before entering office,” and euthynai, “a formal rendering of accounts at the end of a term of office.”
Reached at his home in Virginia, Camp highlighted two elements of democracy from ancient Greece, “accountability and term limits, both of which are essentially ignored today.” (One new development on the accountability front: last week House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) introduced a bill that would create a commission that would rule on the physical or psychological fitness of future presidents should their removal from office under the 25th Amendment be warranted.)
“The dokimasia presumably checked beforehand that you were an individual in theory capable of holding office: you were not the village idiot, you had not murdered your parents or fondled the wrong young man, etc.,” Camp tells me. “And the euthynai were a built-in part of the deal, a given that those leaving office presumably underwent automatically, so it did not fall to anyone to have to file charges.”
But in trying to fix what’s broken, Camp says, it’s ostracism that “the ultimate in accountability.” Were it part of modern American democracy, it’d be “a huge opportunity to ensure that the do-nothing Congress did something. If each knew they were a good candidate for removal next month that might help focus them on the task (any task) at hand.”