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  • Pedagogical Subversion:The "Un-American" Graphics of Kevin Pyle1
  • Allan Antliff (bio)

In her study Anarchism and Education, Judith Suissa argues that anarchist learning entails a constant interplay of tensions arising from emergent desires to transform society and the challenges society poises for realizing them. This is inescapable because a critical attitude is integral to an anarchist process of learning, infusing it with creative license premised on the conviction that we need not accept things as they are, that learning is not only a space for understanding, but also enactment (Suissa 150). My purpose is to explore this dynamic in the work of graphic artist Kevin Pyle, an American-born artist with a substantive body of illustrated books and comics addressing a myriad of issues. I am interested in how Pyle undermines and subverts narratives of "Americanness" which figure in the political imaginary of the United States. More specifically, I will explore how Pyle unravels one of the most powerful ideological weapons in the political lexicon of United States nationalism—the label "un-American."

Perhaps the most appropriate way to unpack the etymology of "un-American," in keeping with Pyle's politics and his subversive agenda, is to review its historical application to anarchists. The term was liberally bandied about in the mass media after an anarchist-attributed attack on Chicago police in 1886 (the so-called "Haymarket riot"),2 but government-designated un-American status dates to the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 by an American-born anarchist of Polish descent. This inspired Congress to pass the Immigration Act (also known as the "Anarchist Exclusion Act"), which President Roosevelt signed into law on March 3, 1903. The Act decreed:

no person who disbelieves in or who is opposed to organized government, or who is a member of or affiliated with any organization entertaining and teaching such disbelief in or opposition to all organized government, or who advocates or teaches the duty, necessity, or propriety of the unlawful assaulting or killing of any officer or officers, either of specific individuals or of officers generally, of the Government of the United States or of any other organized government, because of his or their official character, or who has violated any of the provisions of this Act, shall be naturalized or be made a citizen of the United States.

(United States Fifty-Seventh) [End Page 95]

Anarchists who gained entry to the United States under false pretenses were to be deported and anyone who abetted an anarchist's attempt to enter the United States and gain residency was liable to be fined up to $5,000 or imprisoned for up to ten years, or suffer both penalties (United States Fifty-Seventh). Thereafter the pale of "un-Americanism" haunted anarchists, their publications, and their activities: politicians, the law courts, newspaper reporters and other public figures made frequent recourse to this nationalist slur.3

Despite the condemnation, anarchists continued fomenting dissent that crossed into "un-American" territory. For example, in August 1914, Emma Goldman's Mother Earth journal, which was anarchism's most widely-read English-language publication in the United States, responded to the advent of World War I with an illustration by Man Ray depicting a monstrous beast with two heads—"capitalism" and "government"—ripping "humanity" apart in its jaws (Ray). War, the journal declared, was "permanently fostered by the present social system," which could not exist without it ("International"). Capitalism was founded on exploitation and it could only be maintained through state-sanctioned violence or the threat of violence in times of peace, as well as war ("International").4 This critique was not only directed at Europe's nation-states; it was countering a conservative-orchestrated "preparedness" campaign focused on militarizing the United States so it could join the conflict (Goldman).5 In keeping with this analysis, anarchists called for social revolution, not only in Europe, but in the United States as well.6

Government response was swift and brutal. Once President Wilson declared war on Germany and its allies in April 1917, the United States Congress passed the Espionage Act, which criminalized anyone promoting insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny or avoidance of the draft (United States Sixty-Fifth). Anarchists...


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pp. 95-109
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