Sunday, August 31, 2008

Patriotism or Pablum?

Got this in my e-mail inbox yesterday:

In September of 2005, a social studies schoolteacher from Arkansas did something not to be forgotten. On the first day of school, with permission of the school superintendent, the principal, and the building supervisor, she took all of the desks out of the classroom. The kids came into first period, they walked in; there were no desks. They obviously looked around and said, "Where's our desks?"

The teacher said, "You can't have a desk until you tell me how you earn them."

They thought, "Well, maybe it's our grades."

"No," she said.

"Maybe it's our behavior."

And she told them, "No, it's not even your behavior."

And so they came and went in the first period, still no desks in the classroom. Second period, same thing. Third period. By early afternoon television news crews had gathered in the class to find out about this crazy teacher who had taken all the desks out of the classroom. The last period of the day, the instructor gathered her class.

They were at this time sitting on the floor around the sides of the room. She said, "Throughout the day no one has really understood how you earn the desks that sit in this classroom ordinarily. Now I'm going to tell you."

She went over to the door of her classroom and opened it, and as she did 27 U.S. veterans, wearing their uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. And they placed those school desks in rows, and then they stood along the wall. By the time they had finished placing the desks, those kids for the first time I think perhaps in their lives understood how they earned those desks.

Their teacher said, "You don't have to earn those desks. These guys did it for you. They put them out there for you, but it's up to you to sit here responsibly, to learn, to be good students and good citizens, because they paid a price for you to have that desk, and don't ever forget it."

Snopes even says it's a true story. It's almost worse that the event actually happened. That means it's not just some constructed e-mail intended to influence people. Someone actually took the time to try and inculcate kids with an inaccurate worldview. If a teacher of my child tried to pull that kind of crap, I'd pull him out in a New York minute. You can teach and you can honor without scaring kids with tricks like this that don't even make any sense. By this teacher's logic, you could reason that anything we do on a daily basis is only "because they paid a price for you to have that ____". In what way is a soldier fighting in Iraq making it easier for my child to learn here? I'd suggest that it is exactly the opposite. With the amount of money spent on an unjustified and unneeded war, less kids are able to get the best education they could. There have been no wars in my lifetime that helped preserve any rights we hold here.

I understand the sacrifice that our men in uniform have made and do make. But do incessant, trite anecdotes like these honor them in any way? I think it trivializes them. It makes service into a Hallmark greeting or a punchline. Real soldiers wouldn't seek or value this kind of recognition.

When I get an e-mail that begins, "You have to read this", or "Please forward this to everyone you know", or that says that someone is trying to take away the flag, Christmas, guns, etc. [fill in the Right Wing topic of the day] -- I can't delete that e-mail fast enough. Sometimes I wonder what type of people are influenced by this type of manipulation. But it's obvious what type of people are influenced by this. There are 60 million of them. They all voted for Bush. Hopefully in the last 8 years, enough of them have grown a brain and won't make the same mistake. I just quoted this last week, but it deserves repeating: "The wise understand by themselves; fools follow the reports of others".

So, who was this easily-duped reader who sent me this e-mail? Who was this person, despite having known me for a long time, that actually thought that this was something that I'd find poignant or inspiring? I'll tell you. It was a veteran of the first Gulf War. A veteran, to this day, still suffering from PTSD. A person in the middle of an ugly divorce, unable to see his daughters, out of work, and relying on the largess of strangers. Someone who has found it hard to cope in the non-military world, yet harbors no ill will towards those who would put him in harm's way for no reason. Quite the contrary, he finds meaning and comfort in the banal. Who is he? My one and only sibling, my brother. I didn't have the heart to shatter his illusions.


wunelle said...

I'm always amazed at how the right wants us to cower for our inalienable rights. These are, after all, no more than our constitution says any person has the right to expect. No one has to earn their right for an education: It's inalienable, and absolutely in society's best interest. At worst, we must defend that right, but the enemies of our education are home-grown--conservative pollution and ignorance about science and other evidence-based thinking. (Liberals educate; conservatives indoctrinate.)

Like you, I have great respect for military service, and for the sacrifices made for our country. But we have an all-volunteer Army--there's no coercion involved; people have signed themselves up for the duties. While the soldier does not get to choose the nature of their service, I think there's a huge gulf between the political missions of WW2 and Iraq. It doesn't change the honor of service, but neither does that honor validate the mission. They are two different things.

Reading Thomas Frank's book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, I begin to see that little on the Republican side of the aisle is what it seems.

I hope your brother can find his way out from his trauma. So many lives wasted in this Republican power-grab.

CyberKitten said...

Sounds like something out of Starship Troopers....

Laura said...

That's pretty creepy. I mean, on the one hand, it's important to teach kids to respect and honor the sacrifices others have made so they have what they have. But... not all those sacrifices (in fact, a small percentage really) are military in nature. With the exception of the Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII - no war the US has been involved in has been about protecting freedom and democracy. Gulf war I was about protecting our oil interests and corrupt, oppressive monarchies in the middle east.

It's tough when it's family, & I'm sorry your brother has such a tough time. It could be that because of the personal turmoil his service has caused, he has to believe in it more strongly to feel like it wasn't all for nothing.

dbackdad said...

Wunelle - Very good point about inalienable rights.

CK - You pegged it. Nothing like some good, old-fashioned fascism.

Laura said, "... it's important to teach kids to respect and honor the sacrifices others have made so they have what they have" - Very much so. It's just that in our country during the last 10 years or so, it seems like we take every last opportunity to make sure that veterans are honored over everybody else. Every holiday, even though they have nothing directly to do with the military, is "honor our veterans" day. Every ballgame I go to, they sing "God Bless America" (which I have a problem with on a couple of levels). If we need to honor someone all the time, how about important activists (suffrage, worker's rights, civil rights), environmentalists, volunteers, etc.

Thanks to all for the kind words for my brother. We never really talk about the military between us. My dad, who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War, and him will talk. But it's a "club" that I don't understand. Which is bullshit, of course. Nobody agonized more than I did worrying about my brother when he was overseas. I was in college and would watch CNN about 20 hours a day, panicking every time I'd hear of a barracks near where he was being blown up. I truly believe you can support the warrior without supporting the war. I'm just not sure my brother understands that ... and that's why I don't try to broach the subject.

4:17 PM

Jewish Atheist said...

Wouldn't it be more appropriate (i.e. true) to have brought in loggers, carpenters, engineers, miners, truckers, etc.?

dbackdad said...

JA - Too true.