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Saturday, December 08, 2007  

Drinking the John Lennon Kool-Aid ... It's Easy If You Try

"You may say that I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one" - John Lennon (Imagine)

There is no doubt that America is a country completely out of balance. It's been tottering and tipping, first like a toddler and then like a drunk, but now it's ready to fall over and we can't be sure we'll be able to get it upright again.

I too mourned the death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, but his murder, ironically a very American act, is more an icon than a deed. Today we should weep less for the deed and more for the icon which is shown again and again throughout the US. This is not about guns, about war, about hatred, about "This-ism, that-ism"—it's about knowing real alternatives to resolving conflict. Such is the basis of international diplomacy; it's what takes place in labor-strike negotiations; it happens between married couples and between friends; sometimes it works well, sometimes not. What's most surprising is that it takes place at all, especially in an environment where it is not taught, where one has to learn it almost by accident.

The military way is the standard, not because it is the only thing that succeeds, but because we haven't learned the alternatives. In Chicago today, ten percent of all public high school students are wearing a military uniform to school, and this number "is expected to rise as junior military reserve programs expand across the country now that a congressional cap of 3,500 units has been lifted from the nearly century-old scheme."1 This phenomenon, thought to be a "militarization" of American education, is really part and parcel of a cultural expression of a country that has not been able to nurture the nonviolent substitutes.2 Not simply was America born of war, but as a nation it has found within itself no other identity: it doesn't know any other way. The "militarization" of our high schools really begins with the common rivalry among the schools themselves, in the "militarization" of the sports programs. It is not competition—it is war, fighting, with winners, losers, anger and revenge. Last September, the University of Hawaii Warriors were penalized for performing an intimidating pregame Maori war dance called haka while the other football team, Louisiana Tech's Bulldogs, was still on the field.3 The unrepentant Hawaii coach, June Jones, said his team would continue performing the "haka," although during the summer the team had altered the pregame chant from the New Zealand haka to something closer to a Hawaiian war chant.4

Any attempt to create a "peace" alternative within the public school system also faces resistance, although it seems that the complaint against the peace alternative is not against peace, but against the appearance of peace. Last year, in Maryland, a 17-year-old student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High began a protest campaign against a Peace Studies course at the high school.5 While the course is offered at seven other area high schools, this protest focused on the instructor's ideological slant: "The challenge by two students comes as universities and even some high schools across the country are under close scrutiny by a growing number of critics who believe that the U.S. education system is being hijacked by liberal activists." Last month, in Florida, Cocoa Beach Jr/Sr High students who wore "peace shirts" were taunted and threatened:

Recently, sophomore Skylar Stains decided to hold Peace Shirt Thursdays at the school. Skylar and her friend, Lauren Lorraine, started wearing peace shirts and soon recruited more friends to wear them. Now, the "Peace Shirt Coalition" as they call themselves, has close to 30 students from all grades.

"We've worn handmade peace shirts every Thursday since the first week of school, without fail," Skylar said.

But what started out as a light-hearted gesture soon started to be taken out of context.

Students started approaching the group members, yelling obscene things at them, said Lauren.

"People just turned on us like that," she said. "At least 10 boys stood up and yelled things at me at once, and we couldn't even walk through the halls without a harsh comment being made."

The heckling began early in the school year, according to group members. They said they were putting small posters promoting peace on friends' lockers with their permission.

They thought it was OK, because the cheerleaders and football players had signs on theirs. Eventually, though, group members said they were told by the school's administration they could no longer hang up the posters.

"People tore them down and drew swastikas and 'white power' stuff on them," Lauren said.

Skylar had similar things written on her posters.

"Someone taped an 'I Love Bush' sign over my 'Wage Peace' sign," she said. "So I tore it down, threw it away, and the whole commons starting booing. I walk by later and find that someone has completely tore my sign down and placed an 'I Love America, Because America Loves War' sign up."

The issue isn't that "peace" is unpopular at these high schools: there is no substance to what is being presented here as "peace." It's mere image—wage-peace signs, headbands, handmade peace shirts, perhaps those ubiquitous fingers in a V-sign. And the opposite is the hand-painted Swastika, White-Power graffiti, voiced obscenities, Confederate shirts, and perhaps the single-finger insult. It's likely that these students can't give an account of what their respective "signs" actually signify for them. Two sophomores said that the Confederate shirts they wore in opposition to the peace students merely "express support for the troops in Iraq."

How many of us know how to respond nonviolently (but not cowardly) to a bully? How many of us know how to teach others how to respond nonviolently (but not cowardly) to a bully? Peace is not a sign, not a slogan, not a playlist of songs. You can enjoy Lennon's "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance" all you want: you won't get any closer to it. Peace is an activity, and we don't know how to do it. Peace is a skill, and we aren't very good at it. Even our activist leaders don't know how to do it. In his current article on How the Peace Movement Can Win in 08, veteran activist Tom Hayden recommends just more of the same old, same old:

The peace movement can succeed only by applying people pressure against the pillars of the war policy—public opinion, military recruitment and an ample war budget—through marching, confronting military recruiters and civil disobedience. The pillars have been eroding since 2004. The tactics that are most likely to accelerate the process are greater efforts at persuading the ambivalent voters.7

What we need is not more parading, more wage-peace posters, more V-signs, more flowers. Imagine there's no heaven if you want to. What we need is a movement to provide real instruction in peaceful alternatives to conflict. A world that knows only war, shock-and-awe responses to aggression, belligerent forms of the haka, torture as a normal form of persuasion, and commercial trading of military armaments is a world thoroughly ill-equipped to walk its citizens down any other path. This is why Stanley Hauerwas could say, "I'm a pacifist because I'm a violent son of a bitch." Because Hauerwas understood the easy response of violence in himself, and therefore in others, he could appreciate the several alternatives to violence.8 But these alternatives are not captured well (as if they ever were) in the image of hippie fashions.9 In fact, the image is a stumbling block to the real task of the pacifist's ambition: to behave in such a way as to find and be a substitute for violence. Surely this means teaching others how diplomacy and nonviolent conflict abatement can be effective alternatives to all forms of war. As Christians, we can learn at least this much from our Lord.

1.  "Military training program for teens expands in US,"AFP/, November 25, 2007.
2. Still I don't mean to diminish the value of the American Friends Service Committee's National Youth and Militarism Program.
3. "Hawaii must not perform 'haka' with other team on field," AP/, September 10, 2007. The UH Warriors are scheduled to fight the University of Georgia Bulldogs in the 2008 Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year?s Day in New Orleans, Louisiana.
4. "Warriors work on 'war chant' to replace haka," Honolulu Advertiser, August 18, 2007 .
5. "Students Call for Banning of Peace Studies Class," Washington Post, February 26, 2006.
6. "Students Wear Confederate Flag Shirts to Oppose Peace-Shirt Group," Local 6 News, November 20, 2007.
7. Compare Hayden's fairly worthless recommendations with the clear-headed strategies proposed by Scott Ritter in "A Call to Service," Truth.dig, July 31, 2007. Ritter, a US marine and chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, writes more extensively about peace strategy in his new audio book, Waging Peace (Nation Books).
8. "'I'm a pacifist because I'm a violent son of a bitch.' A profile of Stanley Hauerwas." From The Progressive, April 1, 2003.
9. We would do well to heed the advice of network executive Jack Donaghy on NBC's 30 Rock, who said: "Never go with a hippie to a second location."

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 11:55 PM |

Wednesday, December 05, 2007  

Annals of Stupid Liars

I think we were all surprised that the US President would actually utter this in his Press Conference on Monday:

Q Mr President, thank you. I'd like to follow on that. When you talked about Iraq, you and others in the administration talked about a mushroom cloud; then there were no WMD in Iraq. When it came to Iran, you said in October, on October 17th, you warned about the prospect of World War III, when months before you made that statement, this intelligence about them suspending their weapons program back in '03 had already come to light to this administration. So can't you be accused of hyping this threat? And don't you worry that that undermines U.S. credibility?

THE PRESIDENT: David, I don't want to contradict an august reporter such as yourself, but I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was Mike McConnell came in and said, we have some new information. He didn't tell me what the information was; he did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze. Why would you take time to analyze new information? One, you want to make sure it's not disinformation. You want to make sure the piece of intelligence you have is real. And secondly, they want to make sure they understand the intelligence they gathered: If they think it's real, then what does it mean? And it wasn't until last week that I was briefed on the NIE that is now public.

Wait a minute—he learned about the contents of the NIE last week? Where has he been? If he'd been paying attention to rumors on the Internets, or tried looking for information on the Google, he wouldn't seem so clueless.

Why, just last month it was reported that Cheney's office has been sitting on the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran in order to bring it closer in line with the vice president's aggressive military policy. Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi suggested as much earlier this year and Seymour (Sy) Hersh made that charge last year.

My friends over at Crooks and Liars have the recent video of the CNN interchange between Wolf Blitzer and Sy Hersh on the release this week of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. On the president's claim that he was just informed of the NIE's contents a week ago, Hersh says:

Hersh: Look, it's a lose-lose for them. Either he did know what was going on at the highest levels—the fight I'm talking about began last year. I was writing about something in November and also you mentioned earlier. They were aware of a big dispute inside the community that is between the White House and the community about this. Now, maybe he didn't know what was going on at the Vice Presidential level about something that serious. If so, I mean, we pay him to know these things and not to make statements based on information that turns out not to be accurate, or else he is misrepresenting what he knows. I don't think there is any question this is going to pose a serious credibility problem. I assume people are going to be asking more and more questions about what did he know, when....

I think this may be a case of making the informal fallacy called false disjunction. In this case, it shouldn't be "either the president is incompetent or he is lying," because then we don't get to appreciate the truth.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 1:50 PM |
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