Curiouser and Curiouser (this is the next go around to the immediately prior post)

September 7, 2006


Another go-round. The thinking gets twistier.
My son reminded me that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founder of the
ACLU, was expelled from that organization because of her membership in
the CP. Others have sent me wonderful (and quite radical) statements
from John Dewey himself. A favorite anecdote: When Maxim Gorky was
in New York in 1905, he was refused lodging at several hotels because
he was traveling with a woman not his wife. The Deweys “invited the
couple to their home,” and hosted a reception for students “in honor
of the non-Mrs. Gorky.”

Dear Bill,

I take full responsibility for being the one who cannot invite you,
but you mistake me if you infer therefore that I think of education
ever as an apolitical endeavor. The politics of what we are doing
here is keenly felt. I embrace having our efforts identified with
radicalism, but I am opposed to the claim that violence should be part
of the solution. Civil disobedience means challenging and even
provoking authority, but it is conscientiously non violent. I am
sorry to be drawn into what seems like a very prissy judgment about
you and your past. It’s not about whether you have paid your debt to
society. My primary concern is that your celebrated recent book and
“I regret none of it stance” not become the banner for our School of
I’m sorry if our letter was either hurtful or annoying, since as you
say we had no need to inform you of our non-invitation. Perhaps it
will seem less self-important or weasely if you imagine [your friends]
holding my feet to the fire, making us explain our decision, and
certainly not taking the easier, silent course of action.


Dear Lauren,

I admire your opposition “to the claim that violence should be part of
the solution”. I make no such claim myself, and believe, in fact, that
non-violent resistance is preferable whenever possible. Of course your
opposition puts you into direct conflict with your own government, the
greatest purveyor of violence on earth, as Martin Luther King, Jr.
noted more than once. We live in fact in a sewer of violence, often
exported, always rationalized and hidden through mystification and the
frenzied use of bread-and-circuses. If endorsing your opposition is
the oath that must be spoken in order to attend your conference or to
come to your School of Education—and I don’t think it should be—
consider the exclusions: both of your US Senators, the president and
his cabinet, the liberal head of the New School and the reactionary
front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination (both of whom
committed war crimes that they’ve refused to account for), military
recruiters, of course, and anyone not a pacifist, and, oh, don’t
forget Nelson Mandela— he wasn’t in prison all those years only for
civil disobedience.

I’ve never claimed that my actions were superior to yours, for
example— actually, I’m not sure what specifically you participated
in then or now, but I know folks who built counter-institutions,
organized in factories, emigrated to Africa or Europe to get away from
the madness for awhile, built communes and collectives, fought for a
peace-and-justice platform inside the Democratic Party, and a lot
else. I don’t think all of it was brilliant or perfect, of course, but
nor was it entirely stupid. I’ve said repeatedly that no one with eyes
even slightly open can reach the age of sixty and not have countless
regrets, and I have my share, but I can’t think of a single action I
took against the government and its murderous assault in Southeast
Asia that I regret. Perhaps you can point to something in particular
that you think I should regret, and then apologize for. I’d consider
it. But I certainly don’t denigrate non-violent resistance—I’ve
admired and participated in direct action for forty years, most
recently last week.

I’ve taught at UIC for twenty years, and I don’t think anyone here
considers either my presence or any of my writings emblematic. I’ve
given several commencement addresses— one at a school just down the
road from you— and countless lectures— two at your university—
and again, I doubt that anyone thought that I’d left a banner—
perhaps not even an impression. I can’t imagine what forces would have
to come together to make Fugitive Days “the banner” for your School of
Education. Is anyone proposing such a thing? It seems utterly
preposterous, but it raises a question: are all scholars and educators
who might attend your gathering being scrutinized by the same standard
to determine whether their writings might inadvertently become your

If I’m as radioactive as you seem to think— so contaminating that
simply being around me is a threat to the good people— maybe you
should spread the alarm to my dean, my university, my publishers, the
organizers of the dozens of events I’ve been asked to address in the
next several months. You won’t be the first, of course— you’ll be
joining a campaign already underway, fueled by David Horowitz, Sol
Stern, Chester Finn, and more.

Your choice to exclude me is neither here nor there, and I don’t take
it personally. Please don’t take my response personally either—I
really have no idea about your politics or your commitments or your
activities or your projects, and I’m willing to assume for now that in
your work and in your life you stand steadfastly for humanism,
progressivism, peace and justice.



KAPPAN Backtalk: A Response to Christine and Laughlin

July 22, 2006

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.

To Etta

June 6, 2006

In some ways life underground was simply life—I worked, I hung out with friends, I read the newspaper and went to the movies, I cooked breakfast and dinner. In other ways it was extraordinary because we felt that our lives had a serious purpose that we were conscious of and earnest about every day: to end a war and overthrow a system—imperialism—that made war after war inevitable, and to upend centuries of racial oppression and white supremacy creating a society based on equality, justice, and love. We had high ideals, utopian dreams, and a deep, deep commitment to live it out, to create a life that didn’t make a mockery of our values.
“Enjoy” doesn’t quite capture the feeling of the experience. I’m predisposed to enjoy life—I sometimes joke that it’s a genetic flaw inherited from my mother—and I found joy and pleasure and happiness in every little detail—a walk through the city, watching a sunset, a meal with friends. And, of course, falling in love, having adventures, raising our children. But there’s something equally important, and that is the satisfaction that comes from making a decision to participate as fully as you can in building a better community, fighting against unnecessary suffering and pain, and struggling toward a fairer and more humane social order. There’s some deep satisfaction and enjoyment in trying to participate in history, and make the future.
The experience changed my life forever—made me see the world differently. All the privileges that come from being American, white, and on and on blind you to the fullness of life—the pain and the love, the joy and sorrow. Of course people are blind to their blindspots, anesthetized by comfort, and being underground I became an exile, an uncomfortable person, in my own land. The good thing is that that condition allowed me a kind of double vision, to see the world as an American and to see America as an outsider. There’s real advantages to that because if you become too comfortable, too at home, you will only ever know the walls of your own cave, and even if it has lots of glitter and color, it’s still just a cave. Freedom always lies beyond. And freedom requires us to overcome fear, to learn to act with courage, and then to doubt, and then to act again.
There’s always more. Read Fugitive Days.

Dear Andy,

June 5, 2006

June 5, 2006

I was first arrested opposing the American war against Viet Nam in October 1965. Thirty-nine of us were arrested disrupting a draft board by blocking the entrances and throwing files around. The war was illegal and unjust, and while I didn’t know much, I could see this plainly.
The Weather group was a faction of Students for a Democratic Society. I’d been a national officer—Education Secretary—of SDS and a founder of Weather when I was twenty-three-years-old. We went underground after an explosion killed my girl-friend and two other close friends, and we decided to stay free rather get entangled in the criminal justice nightmare. We wanted to survive what we saw as an impending American fascism in order to fight the empire. We wanted to organize the armed struggle.
We were (and are) radicals, which means we wanted fundamental, not superficial change. Radical means going to the root, connecting issues, analyzing deep causes of war, racism, exploitation and oppression.
We were never “terrorists,” never attacking people to frighten or coerce them. The US forces in Viet Nam were terrorists. I’m not a tactician, however, and I think tactics always have to flow from the conditions you find, and the goals you have. When we destroyed property, symbolic targets of war and racism, an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed the war as thousands of Vietnamese were being slaughtered every week in our name. We were the anti-terrorists.
I don’t know what we accomplished, but I’m sure we didn’t do enough. My biggest regret: my dogmatic, inflexible thinking, my intolerance of and impatience with potential allies. I don’t regret hurling myself against the war-mongers.

A Letter to a Young Comrade in Latin America

April 20, 2006

Here is a response to a friend and her collective who saw the Green/Siegel film, The Weather Underground, and wrote with some questions….

Hey Elizabeth—

I’m weak at e-mail and would love to come down for a conversation sometime—so much better. Also do you have Fugitive Days? It’s a deeper account than the film. But I’ll give a try at some response to your questions:
1) We started off as anti-war and civil rights activists in the early and middle 1960s’. We were created by those struggles, shaped by a belief that you learn to act by acting, that you must grow and learn from practice rather than any received ideas, and that the optimal place to be—from which to learn the most—is to ally with the most oppressed, Blacks in the South, for example, the victims of America’s wars, and to cast your fate with them. The wisdom on the ground, we thought, will change you. And it did—those early years were when we saw for the fist time the connections between racism at home, war abroad, chauvanism, sexism, environmental degradation, apathy and cynicism, and on and on. Once things were connected, we saw a system at work, we were radicalized, we named that system—imperialism—and forged an idea of how to overthrow it. We were influenced by Marx, but we were formed more closely and precisely by Che, Ho, Malcolm X, Amlilcar Cabral, Mandela—the Third World revolutionaries—and we called ourselves small “c” communists to indicate our rejection of what had become of Marx in the Soviet Block and the other doctrinaire, authoritarian state socialisms. We were anti-authoritarian, anti-orthodoxy, communist street fighters.
3) What we need to do—all of us—is to recognize our huge responsibility to act on what the known demands—to become subjects of history—but also to acknowledge that in a vast and expanding universe, each of us is a finite and flawed being. This should not paralyze us. We must act; we must doubt. In other words, we act in order to teach, and also in order to learn. A firm and unshakable structure of ideas is not a learning agenda, it’s a prison. So the problem—complex, full of anguish—is to open your eyes to the suffering world, to act knowing that you, too, and your group, has blind spots. We act to change things, but also to change ourselves, to grow, to develop, to become more effective, to get beyond some of our blind spots and to encounter others. Those not busy being born are busy dying. And there simply is no recipe or script to follow toward heaven. If there were, we’d already be there. So: act, question, learn, act again.
4) In a world so profoundly out of balance there’s so much to do—I think having a single standard of action is a mistake. Everyone who opposed the war against Viet Nam was on the right side. I want to embrace Diana, yes, but also draft resisters, deserters, tax avoiders, demonstrators, letter writers. Let’s help them all make the necessary links. The more you know, the more you see, the more is demanded of you.
6) The details and dimensions have to be worked out by millions over the life of the struggle. But we have to make a stab at articulating the alternative if only to provide some guidance and standards for our actions in the present. If we know we hope to achieve a democratic and socialist world, a culture of life and love, our strategy and tactics are informed by filling that vision out on the ground, in the real conditions we find. In South Africa, the ANC opposed the hideous practice of “necklacing”, for example, and the NLF in Viet Nam condemned the random killing of civilians as terror worthy of the US.
7) Yes, we built organizational links—Bernardine was the Interorganizational (International) Secretary of SDS. The World Social Forum, Seattle and Genoa, the international movements for human rights, environmental sanity, justice for women, against racism, and more—this is the most hopeful time there ever was for a progressive globalism to oppose neo-liberalism and empire, the globalism of reaction and death and greed.
8) It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard… To me the key is just like any important relationship—partners, parents and kids, teachers and students, whatever: be committed to the relationship and to the deep humanity of each person; figure out through practice when to push and when to support; be patient; be generous; aim high; hold on. Forgive each other and still invite the best in each other. Appear before each other as the best you can be. Avoid self-righteousness. Ask the most of yourself… Clearly it’s not a formula, but a practice.
10) It’s so much worse now… It’s breath-taking. And we need to live against those things and embody an alternative.
12) I won’t make any lofty claims for myself, but I’ve been being told to grow up from the time I was ten until this morning. Bullshit. Anyone who salutes your “youthful idealism” is a patronizing reactionary. Resist! Don’t grow up! I went to Camp Casey in August precisely because I’m an agnostic about how and where the rebellion will break out, but I know I want to be there and I know it will break out—we are not living at the end of history, this is not a point of arrival, and another world is possible. But nothing will follow what we already know, so be alive, awake, ready… use your art, your brain, your body to try to resist the dehumanizing in society now, and to live an alternative.
14) Opposing aggressive war is always urgent, but for revolutionaries we need to both be fully activated in the opposition, fully supportive of mass democratic formations, and at the same time trying to make connections and deepen our and others’ analysis: Iraq, Guantanamo, Kyoto, New Orleans, Chavez, SUV’s, the death penalty… It’s part of one thing.
15) Yes, but it’s big. Look to the Interventionist movement in art, Chiapas, the new documentary films and radio, commix, and anything else bubbling from below.
16) People who think they’re “fighting from the inside” are often deluding themselves. Of course, we do live inside the empire, inside a city, inside certain institutions. But the indispensable element is always an independent movement pushing from below, from the margins, from outside. What ended the war? The Movement—we created the peace wing of the democratic party, but not by joining it. What created civil rights law? The Movement, not LBJ. What made the New Deal reforms possible? The Labor Movement, not FDR. Organize.