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).

The American Melting Pot

February 17, 2015

I’d like to share with you some thoughts that came out of a short piece I was asked to write about the Roberts Court. I’d like to dedicate this commentary to Yusor Abu-Salha, who spoke on NPR’s Story Corps about how wonderful the U.S. is, where people of all backgrounds share one culture, shortly before she, her husband and sister-in-law were killed in Chapel Hill because they were Muslims, and to all the others, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and all who have been murdered or tortured because they had what bigots defined as the wrong parents or beliefs.

You might think that the melting pot is the result of a lot of individual private decisions. But you’d be mostly wrong. Actually the melting pot is the result of a series of very public decisions. We made the decision, centuries ago, to provide a public education to everyone. That put us in the forefront of the world as an educated, progressive, productive and egalitarian society. We made the decision almost two centuries ago to provide public coeducational schooling. That put us in the forefront of the world in creating decent and progressive gender relations. We made the decision long ago to provide an education to immigrant children alongside the children who had been born here. That made us one people, regardless of where we came from. And all the private decisions in the great American melting pot took place in a world defined by our public schools.

Finally in the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that we would treat race the same way that we had treated gender, language, religion and ethnic differences – that is, we would bring everybody into the same public schools. That opened the melting pot to still more of us so that our racial divisions are less sharp than they were a century ago – nowhere close to erased, but less sharp.

Chief Justice Roberts famously wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”[1] But he wrote that in connection with a decision to prevent a pair of school districts from bringing people together across racial lines. No melting goes on with Roberts at the stove.

When decisions are made that advantage the majority, Justice Scalia makes it plain he thinks that’s just normal; he sees no need to ask whether anyone was discriminating or intending to treat minorities differently.[2] But there’s no vice versa for Scalia – any decision favoring racial minorities is automatically suspect for him. Indeed, he and Thomas have described “legal protection from the injuries caused by discrimination” as “special protection” and “favored status.”[3]

In 1782, French immigrant Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, famously wrote that immigrants “melted” easily into Americans, and freed themselves from the slavery of the Old World.[4] The same year, the Founders of our country adopted our motto, e pluribus unum, Latin for out of many one. Our Founders did all they could to welcome immigrants, making e pluribus unum a reality for us. That has been our country’s glory. That welcome has peopled our continental expanse, brought to our country the most talented and driven from all parts of the world, and allowed us all to share in the benefits of each other’s talents and accomplishments. That welcome has allowed us to build a country without the hostilities that have torn and still so blatantly tear other countries apart. There is nothing more truly American than e pluribus unum. And nothing more central to the development of our great country than the melting pot, even if some of those who now lead our highest institutions can no longer see it or enjoy its savory aroma. It was left for the British writer Israel Zangwill in 1909 to put the immigrants into “the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!” adding, “Into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”[5]

The Founders worked specifically to welcome Muslim immigrants to America. They would have been proud of the Abu-Salhas and ashamed of Craig Hicks, and would join us in cherishing the diversity of people who share decent lives in America and praying for that mutual respect everywhere.

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

[1] Parents Involved v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 748 (2007)

[2] League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 515-18 (2006) (Scalia, J., dissenting in part).

[3] Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 645, 652-53 (1996) (Scalia, J., dissenting).

[4] Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782).

[5] Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot: Drama in Four Acts (1909).

Intransigence – the Auto-immune Disease of Democracy

July 9, 2013

Obviously I’ve been following the news from Egypt like everyone else. You don’t need commentators to tell you that ousting a democratically elected government is undemocratic and unacceptable. But I want to talk about Morsi’s mistakes because they illustrate a major misunderstanding of democracy.  Read the rest of this entry »


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