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Militarism Abroad and Domestic: Challenging American Values

In these times, main stream media and news reports are not enough to guide thought or action in our society, particularly in matters of justice, war, and peace. Specifically, the massacre at Orlando nightclub, Muhammad Ali’s death and reflections on his life, Obama’s foreign policy, and this year’s election cycle require us to challenge both structural and direct violence at its roots.

To begin, President Obama’s made a historic visit to Hiroshima, one of two cities where the only atomic bombs were used against a civilian population. His critics were afraid he might apologize. True to the president’s pragmatic form, he did not. What he did instead was remind Japan of its wartime atrocities. He did so this without a word of American inspired and supported dictatorships, or structurally violent trade policies that have led to the war on drugs at home and abroad. While not completely this administration’s fault, there is little willingness to acknowledge and learn from this country’s past mistakes and change course. The importance of discussing this visit to Japan has historic and current implications.

The NYTimes described Obama’s Hiroshima speech as a call to a ‘moral revolution’. This headline should be questioned when American policy abroad orients our government to practices that are all but moral. Before Japan, Obama visited Vietnam, where he lifted a weapons sales embargo, which undermines the goodwill behind his speech advocating reduction in nuclear arsenals. Is the opening of markets, as being pushed on Cuba and the TPP trade agreement, more important than authentic development relationships with those in the international community? Many studies point out that by focusing on trade policies that create preferable conditions for the free market and not human development, conditions of inequality are exacerbated.

The words ‘moral revolution’ in the title of the NYTimes article should jog our collective memory. MLK’s 1967 speech against the war in Vietnam called for a shift in values away from the triple evils of militarism, materialism and racism. Obama, while praising the life and anti-war stance and activism of Mohammed Ali, does not get close – in rhetoric or action. The essence and action of American policy goes in the opposite direction, toward what some might argue is an approach rooted in the triple evils.

After World War II, the U.S. in its post war drafting-oversight of Japan’s constitution, required provisions changing its warrior culture, to those that instituted education for human dignity and peace to build more just and peaceful societies.

Would such a provision in the American constitution reduce the amount of violence (both physical and structural) we presently experience in our society? Germany has fewer cases of mass shootings and Japan has very little gun violence. Both societies have more effective health care systems, costing Japanese less, while NPR reports, German citizens are happier with their healthcare infrastructure.  Might these examples be connected education infused with values focused on rights dignity and peace? A UNICEF report suggest that education for values focused on rights, dignity and peace is necessary for a decent quality of life.

While Germany and Japan are insular and smaller societies, they have provisions in their laws that focus on education for human dignity and peace. To some extent, this provides a mandate to deal with racism, sexism and violence for their citizens at early ages. By comparison, in the U.S., relatively little money is spent on education and health care, whereas vast amounts are continuously spent on military and policing.

Obama in his Hiroshima speech said:

“For this, too, is what makes our species unique. We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.”

But words are not enough; education on such matters is necessary for citizens to grapple with weighty issues. Instead, many in our society turn to violent ideologies that suggests gun violence among individuals and threats of war with increased military expenditures is an appropriate response answer to our national concerns.”

We are at a unique time in history, where movements for justice have reinvigorated conversations exposing racism, racist police killings and their connections between militarism abroad and at home and the politics of separation. Yet the value of education as a way to rebuild our society is stuck in neoliberal institutions and projects that incarcerate black and brown minds and bodies or prepare the elite and those who fare well on culturally biased tests and schools that propel our youth to work, not think. Education is not a business; the same logic of operation should not be applied. Learning about our social problems and possibilities can help us create a democracy with institutions and infrastructures that can put America to work.

When considering how we might improve American infrastructure providing long-term employment, as opposed to directing money in the military industry, conflict studies scholars describe the focus on military spending as one of the factors in escalating violent aggression.

While mainstream media tells us that this election cycle only give us choices of the lesser of two evils, we have to consider candidates who have real critiques and plans to end war, disrupt violence, and build learning systems and green infrastructures to remove us from these cycles of injustice. While Bernie seems poised to support Hillary against Trump, we can’t give into candidates who focus on war and divisiveness.

But we are not without hope. Candidates like Dr. Jill Stein, Cori Bush, Bruce Franks, and Maria Chappelle-Nadal present a set of principled politics that challenge the status quo.  Bush, Franks and Chappelle-Nadal were part of the Ferguson movement for Black lives that challenged police violence and the structurally violent system that allows racist policies to exist. These candidates show us the importance of merging social movements with the political system to challenge  for instance an American economic system largely based on profits from human misery of prisons, gentrification, weapon’s manufacturing, and overproduction of military grade equipment that increases the spiral and likelihood of war.

When I spoke to Missouri candidate for US senate Cori Bush, she offered the following: “We could be spending money used on tanks, and fighter jets to build public education, a green infrastructure, a healthcare system for the people that includes a focus on mental health. Instead our system rewards insurance and drug companies.  We need development that doesn’t involve weapons. This is an issue of morality and people. We can all profit together if we develop our society through public education for all – that focuses on learning the truth about our society so we can improve it.”

While voting is just one, but important approach, Ali taught us to challenge our society dependence on violence, Orlando should show us how those with the most vulnerable identities (gay people of color) are targeted.  We have to consider how education can teach us to move beyond status quo toward thoughtful ways to deal with our concerns and respect our human dignity.

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Dr. David Ragland is from North St. Louis, MO and is a Visiting Professor of Education at Bucknell University. 

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