War Over Words
Bush's rhetoric in the 'war on terror' is being deconstructed in the classrooms and lecture halls of America.
As the US president George W Bush is gearing up for an attack on Iraq, he is having to fight the scepticism of fellow UN security council members Russia and France. To the rest of the world, this appears as a hawkish and geared-up America facing down a doubtful Eurasia.
But Bush faces another battle within his own borders. For over a year, arguments have been festering on American campuses and in schools about the appropriate response to 11 September. The debates within these educational institutions – run by the country’s intellectual elite, and responsible for inculcating a new generation with its values – are signs that Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ stands on very shaky ground.
While Bush shouts to the world about America’s war against ‘evil’, his statements are being deconstructed in classrooms and lecture halls. Since 11 September, America’s own intellectual elite has been working at demobilising any incipient war fever that looked as if it might emerge.
Educators have tried to prevent children from channelling anger against the perpetrators of 9/11. There has been an attempt to defuse aggressive emotions and any desire for revenge. Professor Stephen Brock, who helped to write a curriculum on teaching 11 September put out by the National Association of School Psychologists, said that: ‘It has to do with helping kids cope with and deal with a horrific event in a way that’s healthy…. I don’t think it would be productive to get kids riled up and hateful.’ (1)
One 9/11 lesson plan for 9- to 12-year-olds for the teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA) includes in its objectives: to ‘identify a range of personal feelings’, and ‘demonstrate healthy ways to redirect uncomfortable thoughts’. The purpose of the lesson is to get students to ‘understand their personal feelings following a tragic event’ and to ‘direct their feelings in a non-stereotypical way’ (2).
Anger against the enemy, a desire for revenge, a pride in being American – these things would have been considered completely normal, and indeed admirable, in the past. As America approached World War II, the NEA produced a book calling the Axis powers ‘ruthless men of force who care nothing for civil liberties and who mock all appeals to humanity’ (3). Today, anger and aggression are seen as almost pathological – as dangerous, dominating drives that it is teachers’ mission to divert.
Megan Boler, professor in the ‘social foundations of education’ at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, quotes a student criticising peaceniks who ‘hate America so much’ and saying that ‘America has done more than any other nation in the twentieth century to ensure the spread of freedom and democracy around the world’. This student was described as exhibiting ‘defensive anger’, which ‘should be interpreted not so much as a righteous objection to one’s honour, but more as a defense of one’s investments in the values of the dominant culture’ (4).
In a joint article with another educator, Boler elaborated. She said that the student in question had constructed a ‘patriotic self’, which was key to his own identity and his relationship with others. They recommended that the student be invited to ‘engage in a collective self-reflection and analysis of his emotions’, a process they termed the ‘pedagogy of discomfort’:
‘Once engaged in the discomfort of inhabiting ambiguous identities that seek to interrupt his “patriotic self”, it is possible to explore the emotional dimensions and investments of his patriotism – defensive anger and fear, the histories in which these are rooted, and the genealogies of the constitution of his “patriotic self”.’ (5).
One of the enduring symbols of pride and unity after 11 September was that of the New York City fire-fighters, many of whom died trying to rescue people from the World Trade Centre. They have been iconised in billboards and adverts across America – as symbols of strength, courage and self-sacrifice. In the Teachers College Record, a publication which terms itself ‘the voice of scholarship in education’, Marcus Weaver-Hightower from the department of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says that he finds these images and representations problematic.
He describes seeing a billboard picture of a fireman with dust covering ‘his stoic, long-jawed face, bushy moustache, and hair’. The billboard bore the words: ‘When others ran out, he rushed in.’ Weaver-Hightower worries about the impact this image might have on passers by: ‘I am scared that the small word “he”, in its specific reference to males and its troubling individuality, will leave in the minds of its viewers a message about men and masculinity that may be harmful. Must a man act alone? Must he endanger himself to prove his courage?’ (6).
Weaver-Hightower sees the war on terror and shows of patriotism after 9/11 as attempts to rearticulate a wounded American masculinity. Moreover, he sees these images as providing an opportunity to teach students about the construction of masculinity: ‘From the exclusive portrayal of men as heroes to the use of masculine posturing from politicians…the possibilities of examining the masculine “centre” and its relation to the feminine and non-white “margins” are many.’ Educators, he says, have a ‘responsibility’ to teach their students to ‘read’ the images of the war on terror, and to destabilise any emerging constructions. ‘Each new image and story on television and in newspapers provides an opportunity to trouble the center and to “bring in” the margins.’ (7)
In the same journal, Kerry Burch from the College of Education at the Northern Illinois University, argues that the discussion of the ‘American Taliban’ John Walker is ‘an extraordinary pedagogical event and opportunity’ to ‘illuminate and intensify the contradictions nested within the American negotiation of identity’ (8). She quotes students saying that Walker is a traitor and should be given the death penalty. These sentiments, she says, are a sign of the American nation attempting to ‘“perform itself” once again, to wrestle symbolically with a figure who profoundly disturbs the inscriptions of identity…that are conventionally written on the American body politic’.
The assertion of these kinds of views by American educators presents problems for the hawks of the White House. Throughout their articles, many educators place words like ‘American’, ‘patriotism’, ‘fundamentalism’, ‘evil’, ‘terrorism’ in inverted commas, to indicate that these are problematic and contested terms, and that teachers have a duty to work at deconstructing them.
But the relationship between the deconstructionists and Bush’s hawks goes back further than this. In the first instance, the absolutist vocabulary of the war on terror represented, in part at least, an attempt to overcome the relativism that pervades large parts of the American intellectual establishment.
In Defending Civilisation, a report first published on 11 November 2001, the right-leaning educational organisation the American Council of Trustees and Alumni said that 11 September had ‘underscored a deep divide between mainstream public reaction and that of our intellectual elites’ (9). While 92 percent of the American public said that America should take military action even if casualties occur, only 28 percent of Harvard students agreed.
The report said that this highlighted the ‘moral relativism’ that has ‘become a staple of academic life in this country’ – and the fact that ‘it has become commonplace to suggest that Western civilisation is the primary source of the world’s ills’. Those who support military action, said the report, face a ‘climate of intimidation’ in their colleges – and are as a result reluctant to ‘question publicly the dominant campus ideology’ (10). The report called for the reinstatement of courses in Western civilisation and American history that would give students a pride in ‘our legacy of democracy and freedom’.
The American right saw 9/11 as an opportunity to restate ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – to unite the country around a common purpose in the fight against terrorism. Defending Civilisation quotes then New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani saying: ‘We’re right and they’re wrong. It’s as simple as that…. The era of moral relativism between those who practice or condone terrorism, and those nations who stand up against it, must end. Moral relativism does not have a place in this discussion and debate.’ (11)
Many on the American right hoped that anti-terrorism might provide the American elite with a cohering ideology similar to anti-communism, that had held the country together and given it backbone for the half century of the Cold War.
But the more Hawks the attempt to assert moral absolutes of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, of stark choices and divides (‘you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists’) – the more material they provide for educators to deconstruct. As two educators put it in the Teachers College Record: ‘As educators, we cannot accept the premature closure of one of the most “teachable moments” to occur in our lifetimes.’ Bush’s assertion of absolutes only confirms the need to work on building the sphere of education as ‘a place where ambiguity and complexity are still possible.’
Far from being put on the defensive, the war on terror is giving America’s relativists a field day.
spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) ‘Lesson plans for Sept 11 offer a study in discord’, New York Times, 31 August 2002
(2) Remember 11 September, High School Lesson Plans
(3) ‘Lesson plans for Sept 11 offer a study in discord’, New York Times, 31 August 2002
(4) On the Spirit of Patriotism: Challenges of a ‘Pedagogy of Discomfort’, Michalinos Zembylas and Megan Boler, Teachers College Record, 12 August 2002, p13
(5) On the Spirit of Patriotism: Challenges of a ‘Pedagogy of Discomfort’, Michalinos Zembylas and Megan Boler, Teachers College Record, 12 August 2002, p13
(6) The Gender of Terror and Heroes? What Educators Might Teach About Men and Masculinity After September 11, 2001, Marcus Weaver-Hightower, Teachers College Record, 2002, p2
(7) The Gender of Terror and Heroes? What Educators Might Teach About Men and Masculinity After September 11, 2001, Marcus Weaver-Hightower, Teachers College Record, 2002, p12
(8) Mapping the Nation: John Walker as Pedagogical Text, p1/2
(9) Defending Civilisation: How Our Universities are Failing America and What Can be Done About It (.pdf), Jerry L Martin and Anne D Neal, published 11 November 2001 and revised and expanded February 2002, p4
(10) Defending Civilisation: How Our Universities are Failing America and What Can be Done About It (.pdf), Jerry L Martin and Anne D Neal, published 11 November 2001 and revised and expanded February 2002, p5
(11) Defending Civilisation: How Our Universities are Failing America and What Can be Done About It (.pdf), Jerry L Martin and Anne D Neal, published 11 November 2001 and revised and expanded February 2002, p12
(12) Education and September 11: An Introduction, Nadine Dolby Nicholas C. Burbules, Teachers College Record, 28 July 2002
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