This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft

September 15, 2015

This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft.

The Republican candidates have been telling us who they want to keep out, and whom they don’t like or wouldn’t lift a finger for – Mexicans, Iran, Muslims, the poor, women, peaceniks. And they make it pretty obvious whom they do like – whites, “real men,” cops, soldiers, guns, the U.S., especially the U.S. before any of us were born, and Christians. It’s all stereotypes, of course. No group of people is all good or all bad – not even conservatives, a big stretch for me. There are always gradations – people need to be judged on their behavior. But that’s too much work. Simplification is so much easier.

Let’s talk about something else they don’t like – democracy. All their blather about the free market and government is little more than an attack on democracy. In fact polls reveal that, on average, conservatives are typically less supportive of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights – except the freedom to carry guns so that, if what they define as the need arrives, you can blow whomever away. Heaven forbid we should have to live together. I glory in walking out of Penn Station in New York – it seems like the whole world is right there and managing to get along; how wonderful in this increasingly contentious world.

Oh on the subject of New York City, that’s a stereotype right there – for much of America New York City is Sodom and Gomorrah. Never mind that the City is actually composed of Americans from all over the country – their own relatives, friends and classmates – as well as a major first stop for immigrants, the same immigrant streams that composed the rest of the country. No, New York is heathen. I remember stopping downstairs for a haircut in a building where I had a temporary apartment in Ohio. The barber was a woman and as we chatted she told me that she was surprised that New Yorkers actually tried to help each other in the days after 9/11. Really – did she think we were coyotes?

It makes me nostalgic too – for the draft! There was actually a time when Americans from all over had to meet, interact, make friends, and did. They introduced each other to their eventual brides, formed business partnerships, learned to appreciate the best in each other’s backgrounds. The draft was truly the incubus of democracy. Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[i] Got that right.

Actually the military has been working on that problem since the country was formed. Contrary to what many people think, Americans at the founding spoke many languages and have continued to speak many languages. The military struggled with whipping those disparate forces into a unified fighting team. They tried separate local units and units recruited by leaders like Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” but they tossed all that aside and put people into those military tents without regard to their origins.

The racial divide forced the military to think again about the problem. It turned out that mixed race units in World War II came back positive about the possibilities of integration. But Vietnam was hard, a stalemate in the swamps in the middle of turmoil back home. But the military responded by making it a part of every officer’s responsibility not only to achieve racial peace and cooperation, but to make sure that soldiers of all races developed appropriately, got training and took on responsibilities leading to promotions.

As a youth I feared the draft; I knew my own physical weaknesses. For me the Peace Corps was a good choice, one that helped me develop as a human being. And there were problems with the way the draft was handled. But I miss it nonetheless. Truly national service is a very good idea for a democratic country.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 15, 2015.

[i] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America From the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).

Radicalization of Jihadi John

March 17, 2015

Identification of Jihadi John as a British citizen and college graduate has given rise to discussion about what radicalizes young people. There is no single answer but one aspect is to provide alternatives to the choice between deep frustration and dangerous radicalization.

Dreams of self-determination in much of the world have been shattered by dictators, corporate plunder and corruption of kleptocrats, too often with American backing. Dreams were shattered by the failure of pan-Arab and pan-African unity. Religious dreams were shattered by decades of repression of religious parties in the Middle East, jailing opposition leaders and attacking people over their faiths, and repeatedly denying them the fruits of victory at the polls. From the frustration of each failure came worse solutions. Our support and entanglement with repressive regimes have been a problem for us as well. And the damage is hard to undo – change creates instability and therefor danger.

The Humanitarian Law Project wanted to teach a Kurdish group how to bring their grievances to international bodies legally. Our government objected the group was on a terrorist list and teaching it peaceful ways to complain would only help it. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and the lawyers backed off.[1]

We also have problems with radicalization. Some years ago, my research assistant and I discovered that high school history texts provided no models of citizen protest appropriate to a democracy. They systematically excluded dissent and disagreement in the name of patriotism. One of the books even pictured the Abolitionists before the Civil War as a lunatic fringe.

When people have no legitimate outlet, all hell can break out.

This country was extraordinarily lucky that the Civil Rights Movement had the leadership of wise and thoughtful people like Dr. Martin Luther King who took the path of nonviolence. They provided a path of peaceful protest, albeit protests that put the violence of the racist opposition on every TV set in the country. That reaction showed that everyone had been damaged by the repression of African-Americans, and that repression threatens democracy both because of what it does to the victors and to the losers. It showed that violence boomerangs in a democracy but does a great deal of harm – many paid with their lives for civil rights.

Many of us would just like other Americans to celebrate the virtues of America as it is. But chief among those virtues is the ability to go public with injustices and try to get them changed. That ability is also a powerful defense against home-grown violent movements. Unfortunately, it has been a well-kept secret in many schools. All too often, as in Ferguson, Missouri, we watch political leadership and police treating popular demonstrations as if they have no place in democracy, as if people are just supposed to keep their reactions to themselves.

The great Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, in 1927, that the Founders of our country

“knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; … that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”[2]

When people can’t or don’t understand how to get into that discussion, or are convinced they are powerless to participate, they are left with the hate that “menaces stable government.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 17, 2015.

[1] Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder, 561 U.S. 1 (2010).

[2] Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring).

The White House Butler

September 3, 2013

My wife and I went to see The Butler Saturday evening. There were important differences between the lives of the actual Butler, Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, and Cecil Gaines, the butler in the film. But those differences actually got to larger truths it is worth thinking about.

In the film Cecil learns from the rape of his mother and the murder of his father what he has to do to survive in the white world. He creates a safe place for his family and is distraught when his son puts body and soul at risk in the Civil Rights Movement. That didn’t happen to Eugene Allen but it did happen to hordes of African-Americans in the South and many elsewhere. The demonstrators, trained to be peaceful and nonviolent, to take it without giving it back, were met with bombings, beatings, murders and jail. And their families were in anguish. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s up with gun rights

May 14, 2013

What’s the NRA’s big attachment to assault weapons? Why do we have to suffer the weapons of mass murder?

One NRA member from Texas told an NPR reporter, “As far as I’m concerned, if you can afford to buy a tank, you should be able to buy a tank.” He explained: “the Second Amendment was put in not to hunt, not to go plink at cans, not to shoot at targets. If and when tyranny tries to take over our country, we can fight it.” NRA President Porter, too, wants people to be “ready to fight tyranny.” Porter, told an audience last June, when he was NRA vice-president, that “We got the pads put on, we got our helmets strapped on, we’re cinched up, we’re ready to fight, we’re out there fighting every day.” Read the rest of this entry »


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