KAPPAN Backtalk: A Response to Christine and Laughlin

In spite of Gary Laughlin’s thoughtless repetition of the clichés and received wisdom regarding the pathology of the “inner city” family, the central point of his note is important and, I believe, correct: all human beings, and most markedly adolescents, need a nurturing environment and a place to belong in order to thrive. There’s overwhelming evidence that adolescents do much better on several important measures when they are allowed to participate in smaller, more intimate learning communities. It’s not rocket science, to use another cliché.
An important part of the evidence is simply to notice what the most privileged people in our society provide for their kids—schools with a focus and a clear mission, small classes, lots of special programs. But there’s other evidence: countless studies not only affirm the value of smaller learning communities, but show further that kids who are poor or from traditionally oppressed groups benefit most in these settings.
None of this—and let’s add here Charles Christine’s call for “relevance” in high school programs and a culture that he calls “camaraderie”—leads logically to the conclusion that we ought to support JROTC per se in urban schools. We could, as well, support breaking big schools into smaller, themed academies, or we could advocate for a generously funded program of clubs and teams in which all would participate, or we could develop an intense and engaging community apprenticeship/internship/mentoring program. Or a lot else. Why JROTC, and why only JROTC?
Mr. Laughlin finds it “reprehensible” that I would allow my “personal views to dictate what is correct”—an odd reprimand since my “personal views” are the only ones I have, just as his “personal views” are the only ones he has, and in any case having “personal views” is not the same as sitting on a stiff chair in an arid room under a single bare bulb refusing all experience, art, conversation, input, dialogue, and literature, which I don’t do, and neither does he, I hope—and then turns approvingly to a “Rand study” in support of his views. I’ve seen a lot of studies on JROTC and they have several predictable problems. Bill Bigelow from Rethinking Schools points out that JROTC is an elective in most places, and that if kids don’t attend or do poorly, they’re simply removed from the rolls. Further, comparing JROTC with the general school population is fundamentally flawed because in many places it’s promoted as an accelerated program, in others kids are hand-picked to participate, and in still others it’s the most hopeful pathway to scholarship money and a college education. So, give kids something where they have nothing, offer them some attention in big, anonymous and failing schools, and certainly they’ll do better. A more meaningful comparison would be between the attendance and grades of JROTC kids to, say, kids enrolled in AP classes. The only problem with that hypothetical study is that most of these schools don’t offer AP classes.
And so we’re left to warrant JROTC in its own right. And here I return to my original argument: militarizing the schools is bad for teachers and terrible for kids, it undermines meaningful and robust education, and it distorts our democratic values and the possibility of building a culture of democracy. According to the military the goal of JROTC is “to create favorable attitudes and impressions toward the services and towards careers in the Armed Forces.” This, then, requires that we accept and warrant the role of our military in our lives and the world. And while JROTC sells itself as a promoter of “character” and “discipline,” the means to that imagined end involve fear, intimidation, shame, and unquestioning obedience. Dr. Christine’s “camaraderie” can be a product of the basest, most vile bonding rituals, as history has taught us over and over again.
Dr. Christine’s letter is built on the idea that the US military is a beneficent force in the world—he cites the Strategic Air Command motto “Peace is our Profession” as accurate, and says, without any irony whatsoever, that, “There have always been and will always be nation states that further their interests by dominating their weaker neighbors.” From my perspective—my “personal view” based on boat-loads of evidence—that sentence perfectly describes US foreign policy from its inception until today.
The courageous journalist I.F. Stone had a simple rule-of-thumb that guided all of his efforts as a reporter, and he urged his colleagues to keep this at the center of their consciousness: Remember, he said, that all governments lie. The old Soviet Union, of course, and China, but also Algeria, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Dominica, Egypt, France, the Gambia—the entire alphabet of nations lies. And in spite of our hopes and aspirations and mystifications, the US is no exception. In fact the US—near the bottom of the alphabet—is near the top of the list of liars. Perhaps it’s US military power or economic reach, perhaps it’s the sense of self-importance and destiny, but whatever drives it, our government lies to us and to the world from morning until night.
A brief history lesson should at least allow us to proceed as skeptics:
∑ President Polk cast Mexico as the aggressor in 1846, saying it had “Shed American blood upon the American soil”—a lie—and proceeded to seize half of that nation “in self-defense”…
∑ President McKinley said in 1898 that the US had a moral obligation to “liberate” the Cubans from Spain, and later to “civilize” the Filipinos—all lies—as he conquered new territory and murdered hundred of thousands of patriots and resisters and ordinary people…
∑ President Wilson prodded the country into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy”—a lie—as he joined the frenzy to divide the earth and its resources and markets among the old and emerging imperial powers…
∑ President Truman claimed that Hiroshima was a “military target”—a lie—and that dropping nuclear bombs on Japan saved “a million American lives”—an invention of monstrous proportions…
∑ President Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin, and before him Kennedy lied about the extent of US entanglement in Viet Nam, and after each of them Nixon lied about expanding the war into neutral Cambodia…
On and on and on—Reagan lied about Grenada, Bush the First about Panama and Iraq, Clinton about the Sudan… It never ends.
We are today witnessing in public and political life a steady barrage of lying as justification for war, invasion, repression, torture, constant surveillance, and occupation. We are sold a terrifying scenario of risk, as well as a romanticized version of our beneficent mission in the world. Educators must ask ourselves if we are helping our students look critically at these and other received truths steadily raining down upon them from the powerful. Are they able to separate fact from fancy? Can they interrogate whatever nonsense is given to them? Can they identify arguments and sort through conflicting claims and various sources of information in a steady and thoughtful and engaged way? Must they obediently conform to all they’re told? Can they talk back? Can they imagine themselves acting effectively within the world?
We must, with our students, learn to ask the essential questions again and again, and then find ways to live within and beyond the answers we receive. Who are you in the world? How did you (and me) get here? What can we know? What do we have the right to imagine and expect? Where are we going? Who makes the decisions? Who’s left out? Who decides? Who benefits? Who suffers? What are the alternatives? In many ways these kinds of questions are themselves the answers.
The great American historian Howard Zinn argues that we should “Put Away The Flags”:
On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.
Is not nationalism—that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder—one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

Patriotism is perhaps the single concept in greatest need of being subjected to intense scrutiny and questioning in our country today. We live, after all, in a time of empire resurrected and unapologetic, of war without borders and seemingly without end, of greed enthroned and of a rapidly widening gulf between rich and poor, of the elusive and seemingly intractable barriers to racial justice, and of patriotism rehearsed and paraded in every corner, and yet the basic questions of who we are and where we are eludes us. When National Geographic recently surveyed US young adults, huge percentages couldn’t find Iraq, Israel-Palastine, or even Great Britain on a world map. An astonishing 10% couldn’t find the US. I blame the schools, the media, the misinformation culture. Perhaps we really don’t know where we are in the world, and perhaps we harbor a deep sense that it doesn’t matter much. We’re here, after all, and we matter most; everyone else must pay attention to us because we count, but our attention to them—those masses of others who don’t after all, count as much—is pointless.
This enforced ignorance is part of the logic of patriotism, which is of a piece with the logic of nationalism: anyone who by chance was thrust onto this small specific patch of earth is to consider himself or herself superior to all those unfortunates who were thrust onto some other patch. This beatified place is imagined to be qualitatively unparalleled, so different from all other places that it’s as if a high wall shuts it off from the rest of the world. And walls as metaphors are reinforced with barbed wire erected in East Germany, Israel, and now the US on its southern border. Here, within the wall, a chosen people, so to speak, live blessed lives that are nobler, greater, deeper and wiser and more beneficent than the lives led by any other human beings anywhere else.
This is the constant conceit of patriotism, the narcissistic and arrogant stance. The result is that we are willing to fight, kill, and die—or as is almost always the case, to at least send the children of the laboring classes as proxies to do the killing and dying—in a patriotic fever for real estate before reason.
Samuel Johnson called patriotism “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” and Bertrand Russell, “the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons”—patriotism is justification for murder. And the great Malcolm X advised that no one become “so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality…Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” Howard Zinn describes the typically disingenuous justification for war:
As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: “The American solider is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”
We see in Iraq that our soldiers are not different. They have, perhaps against their better nature, killed thousands of Iraq civilians. And some soldiers have shown themselves capable of brutality, of torture.
Yet they are victims, too, of our government’s lies.

Could patriotism possibly be a universal value? Is it specific? Should all people in the world at all times be patriotic? How about if some specific country or government is a disaster? Should Germans have been patriotic during the Third Reich? Rwandans during the genocide? Israelis or Americans today? Is America always a force for good?
There is in fact—my “personal view”—no fit between patriotism and humanism. The nation-state has been at bottom always an engine for war and repression. Sometimes—as in our own country—a wobbly and outdated concept of a single national identity lords it over the true variety and diversity and pluralism of human life. We need to notice that a single inflamed identity is always a deprivation, and we need to teach into this contradiction. How is it that the broad human beings in Sarajevo of 1992 were transformed into the ruthless Serbs and fierce Croatians of 1993? Violence, of course, creates identity just as identity creates violence. This is the violence of identity, of nationalism, and of patriotism. The “camaraderie” of murder.
Inflamed identities are morally backward, dangerous and destructive, as well as descriptively wrong. As Anartya Sen writes in Identity and Violence, while “a Hutu laborer from Kigali may be pressured to see himself only as a Hutu and incited to kill Tutsis…he is not only a Hutu, but also a Kigalian, a Rwandan, an African, a laborer and a human being.”
Walt Whitman—his crazy exuberance, his limitless faith in possibility, his joy and love and ecstasy spilling out of him in all directions and only occasionally under control, his generous embrace—instructs us in “Song of Myself,” to see ourselves whole and to reject any one-sided, pumped-up, or flushed identity:
I celebrate, and sing myself…
I am an acme of things accomplished,
I am an encloser of things to be…
Do I contradict myself? Very well then
I contradict myself.
(I am large. I contain multitudes.)

Each of us contains multitudes and so we can choose to emphasize identities we share with others. Circumstances will necessarily constrain our choices, but we must note that identity is not destiny. Still we can choose, and still we must.
While we hear people say all the time, “My country right or wrong,” it’s weird to say, “My sister, drunk or sober.” If my sister is wrong, I have an obligation to criticize her, to correct her. If she persists and does great harm, I’m obliged to stop her. No less my country.
It seems plausible, in fact rather simple, to love your family, your neighbors and friends, the land itself, and to simultaneously oppose the state, the government, the military—it’s essential here and now to draw a bright distinction between the American people and the US state. After all there’s no such thing as a single, unified thing, no one narrative, called America. America as a spiritual concept floating above state power or government apparatus or law or military might is simply a myth. It’s this disembodied spirit we’re instructed to love, and yet the state rambles on, leaving wreckage in its wake.
All cultures and societies, of course, teach about themselves, and all cultures tend to assert their supremacy over others. Societies often construct their identities against some imagined other: the Greeks had their barbarians, the American settlers had the Indians. We study our traditions, our own great works, the language, and it moves us toward reverence. And, as Zinn points out, national spirit might be temporarily benign in a soccer match, say, or in a country “lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion.” But no culture or society exists in isolation, and our nation is so huge and so militarized so that “what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.”
Since the study of one’s own tradition is taken-for-granted, we must—as teachers and students—look outside ourselves at others in search of our fuller humanity. We must teach toward becoming citizens of the world, to stretch and to struggle, to reach toward a fuller humanity. A militarized classroom, a military culture stands as an obstacle. That’s why we should kick the military out of our schools.

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