November 08, 2007

When Awareness Is a Crime, and Other Lessons From Morton West

[An Update about the latest developments added at the conclusion. It may be a good sign that the school board has postponed the vote on possible expulsion for these students. They may be feeling the pressure -- so if you haven't yet, sign the petition. Let's increase the pressure still more.]

Reading several news accounts of the completely unjustified punishments that may be imposed on the high school students who protested the ongoing Iraq occupation makes it quickly apparent that this awful episode encapsulates several of the key lessons that our culture delivers to all of us every day. It is hardly coincidental that these lessons should be combined in this manner, and the lessons capture the immense damage done to justice, a genuine respect for human life, and the hope for a civilized society. The lessons do not exist independently: they all serve to reinforce each other. They are interdependent in numerous ways; together, they cause destruction in countless forms.

As we consider these lessons, I want you to keep in mind this statement from one of the students:
"All we were trying to do was promote peace and recognize that people are dying every day," said sophomore Adam Szwarek. "They said it was insubordination."
Remember the critical relevant context. The United States is well into the fifth year of an illegal and criminal occupation of Iraq. That country never threatened us, and every honest person now recognizes that our political leaders lied their way into this momentous crime. In the same way, the Democrats who now control Congress pathetically wail that they want to end the slaughter, they really, really do -- but they don't have enough votes. This too is a vicious and murderous lie. The invasion and occupation of Iraq have unleashed a genocide that has taken well over one million lives. With the usual one or two exceptions, no one in the ruling class sees this unforgivable crime as one that must be immediately stopped.

As I regularly note, the truth of what the United States has done is very rarely recognized. Our political leaders never acknowledge the full truth; some of them, like Hillary Clinton (see the conclusion of this essay), avail themselves of one of the most sickeningly inhumane "excuses" it is possible to imagine: the Iraq catastrophe is the Iraqis' fault. There is no Hell hot enough for this nauseating excuse for a human being.

In the second part of my "Final Descent" series, I wrote:
For this is where we are in the United States, nearing the end of the Year of Our Lord 2007: the truth is not merely unpleasant, an uninvited guest who makes conversation difficult and awkward. Truth is the enemy; truth is to be destroyed. To attempt to speak the truth on any subject of importance requires a deep reserve of determination, for to speak the truth requires that one first sweep away an infinite number of rationalizations, false alternatives, and numerous other failures of logic and the most rudimentary forms of thought -- as well as the endless lies. On that single occasion in a thousand or a million when a person overcomes these barriers and speaks the truth, he or she discovers an additional, terrible truth: almost no one wants to hear it. This is how we live today: lies are the staple of our diet. Without them, we would die, certainly in psychological terms.
Faced with this impenetrable wall of resistance to truths that ought to be the primary, if not the sole, topic of discussion in our national life, Adam Szwarek and the other students felt an urgent need to speak the truth that we most desperately need to hear at this terrible moment in history: "All we were trying to do was promote peace and recognize that people are dying every day..."

I submit that this is one of the noblest statements uttered in the United States in the last several years, not only because of the supreme importance of its content, but because of the particular values and the kind of soul that inform it. Szwarek's concerns are ones that should be those of every national leader of minimal decency -- but they are not. Szwarek knows "that people are dying every day" -- which is the terrifying fact that our politicians and media try to prevent from ever reaching our consciousness. Szwarek was determined to make people aware of the horrors that take place every hour of every day, in the hope that those who have the power to do so would finally stop them.

People like Szwarek are rare in any age; today, there are very few people in our national life who demonstrate this degree of commitment to peace and the sanctity of human life. Szwarek's awareness of these issues and his willingness to do something about them should be honored and celebrated. Instead, the authorities seek to punish him severely, thus perhaps destroying his educational future, and therefore his hopes for a career, and thus his life.

Here are some of the lessons from Morton West, and from our culture more generally:

1. The idea of impartial and "blind" justice is a lie.

From the Chicago Tribune:
Parents and students at Morton West High School are accusing school officials of showing favoritism in dishing out disciplinary measures after an Iraq war protest at the school last week.

About 20 parents and their children gathered outside the Berwyn school Tuesday, saying that students who play varsity athletics or have higher grade-point averages were given less stringent penalties for the demonstration last Thursday.

"The deans were going to the kids who they knew were straight-A students and trying to coax them out by saying, 'You're going to get expelled,'" sophomore Adam Szwarek said.

Students also said officials told them that if they moved the lunch-hour protest, which began in the cafeteria, to another area, they would face only Saturday detention.

In a statement posted Friday on the District 201 Web site, Supt. Ben Nowakowski said that school officials told students they would be spared disciplinary action if they moved the protest but that some students locked arms and refused to move.

Later that day, school officials cited demonstrators with "gross disobedience and mob activity," non-criminal offenses but enough to be considered for suspensions and expulsion, parents and students said.

They said that some students with lower grades were given 10-day suspensions and face expulsion, while students favored by officials were given only five-day suspensions and do not face expulsion. The suspensions began the day after the protest, parents at Tuesday's rally said.


Andy Maniotis, whose daughter was given a 5-day suspension and does not face expulsion, said she was given a more lenient penalty because she is an honor student with a 4.5 GPA, but he said school officials threatened her for participating in the protest.

"They told her numerous times over the protest line that they're not going to help her get into college," Maniotis said.

His wife, Rita, thinks her daughter should have received the same disciplinary measure as other students who participated in the protest. "She should be facing expulsion too," she said. "She didn't do anything they didn't do."
The message is unequivocal: if you conform to those particular values and behaviors that adults in power favor, you will be treated much more leniently than if you do not. Certainly, good grades are a worthy goal -- but not when they are made a precondition of basic fairness. The idea of justice presupposes that identical wrongdoing merits identical punishment. This school administration has thrown that idea out.

This is a narrower instance of a more general point I made recently:
The law is not some Platonic Form plucked from the skies by the Pure in Heart. Laws are written by men, men who have particular interests, particular constituencies, particular donors, and particular friends. ... Laws are the particular means by which the state implements and executes its vast powers. When an increasingly authoritarian state passes a certain critical point in its development, the law is no longer the protector of individual rights and individual liberty. The law becomes the weapon of the state itself -- to protect, not you, but the state from threats to its own powers. We passed that critical point some decades ago. The law is the means by which the state corrals its subjects, keeps them under control, and forbids them from acting in ways that the overlords might perceive as threatening. In brief, today, in these glorious United States, the law is not your friend.
2. Adults in positions of authority constantly talk about their concern for children and their futures, just as politicians always assure us that they only act "for our own good" -- which is also what the U.S. tells the Iraqis, as it destroys their country and murders more than one million of them. All of this is also a lie.

From the Chicago Tribune story:
Pam Winstead, whose son was given a 10-day suspension and faces expulsion for participating in the war protest, said Nowakowski overreacted.

"Maybe he acted emotionally and he'd never dealt with this before," she said. "We just want him to back off. These are our kids, and he's willing to throw their future away."


Matt Heffernan, a junior who organized the protest, said the students locked arms while in the cafeteria because they feared being arrested for refusing to stand up. As they sang songs and chanted, one student threw a pencil case at them, he said.

Heffernan, who faces expulsion, said he felt misled by school officials who promised a lesser punishment.

More than two dozen students were suspended, and some of them are facing expulsion.

"We thought we were taking the deal and moved to the spot they designated for us," he said. "We knew there'd be some disciplinary actions taken upon us, but we never thought it would go to expulsion."

Heffernan said he was concerned about the impact that the disciplinary measures might have on his college applications.

"I think this will greatly threaten my chances," he said.
Try to recapture your perspective as a teenager in high school, when even the most minor slight or setback could seem to be the end of the world. These students, who were opposing a criminal, monstrous war, are now being threatened with grievous injury to their educational futures, and thus to their future lives. The administration is prepared to throw their lives away in significant part -- and all for a demonstration that was not only entirely peaceful and nonviolent, but fully justified and necessary.

3. Betraying your friends and allies to save yourself is sometimes the smartest way out of trouble. Even if it may not be "good," it is sometimes necessary.

From another account:
As national outrage mounts against the threatened expulsion of dozens of high school students in the wake of a antiwar sit-in at Morton West High School in Berwyn, Illinois, parents who have attended private meetings with their suspended students and school officials report that their students were offered reduced punishments only if they signed a confession that singled out a student as the organizer of the protest.

"How can I drop the suspension if you don't single out who was the ring leader of this
disruption," was what one school official told Joshua Rodriguez, a senior who is facing expulsion along with his brother David, a freshman.

Danny Rodriguez, the boys' father did not receive an answer when he asked if this confession could be used against his son, so he did not allow his son to sign it. David and Joshua Rodriguez have been suspended for 10 days and were served with expulsion papers.

Other parents report the same scenario in their suspension appeals meeting with school authorities.
The powerful will always seek to turn dissenters and those who oppose their power against each other. Snitching is thus turned into a virtue. Surely I do not need to remind readers of the horrifying uses of this tactic throughout our own history, to say nothing of its uses in history more generally. In other circumstances, betrayals of this kind get people killed. Apparently, the school administration thinks it valuable to impart this lesson early.

I find it perfectly believable that a "school official" would have used the phrase "ring leader." In this manner, students trying to "promote peace" and stop a genocidal war are turned into gang members. So still another lesson is being provided: dissenters are not only punished and set against each other -- they also must be demonized. This, too, is a longstanding American tradition, one that gets a great deal of play in the completely phony "War on Terror," and not just with regard to enemies abroad (real or imagined). Everyone who opposes our government's foreign policy is all too familiar with the charges of "hating America" and all the other accusations of near-treason, or even treason itself.

4. In their efforts to coerce your conformity to acceptable modes of behavior and to shut you up, authorities will lie to you about anything and everything.

From the story referenced above:
[A]ll Morton West households received a letter from school principal, John Lucas. The letter states that "On Thursday there was a minor protest at Morton West that involved about thirty-five (35) students. This disturbance was non-violent and was a protest against the War in Iraq."

The letter goes on to thank teachers, staff and administrators "for maintaining order" and thanks "the majority of students for not joining in the school disruption and for realizing that their education is more important than disrupting school."

The letter still maintains that there are only 25 students were the core of the demonstrators and states, that these students refused to leave the cafeteria when told and "as a result of this gross disobedience and disruption of the school day, many of these students have been suspended for a number of school days and many of these have been referred for disciplinary action that will include expulsion from school."

Parents of the demonstrators are wondering why, if it was just a minor protest and that "Throughout the day classes were held, lunches were served, and order was maintained," why are the students being expelled?
Also remember the accounts above -- and how the students thought they had a "deal" which included much lesser punishments. They took the deal, and then the administration indicated they might still receive the most severe punishment of all, expulsion.

A story in the New York Times provides further details:
[S]everal students said the protesters, whose numbers had dwindled to about 25, obeyed the administration’s request to move from a high-traffic area in the cafeteria to a less-crowded hall near the principal’s office. There, they intertwined arms, sang along to an acoustic guitar and talked about how the war was affecting the world, said Matt Heffernan, a junior who took part.

"We agreed to move to another side of the building," Matt said. "We also made a deal that if we moved there, there would be no disciplinary action taken upon us."

Matt said the group had been told that the most severe punishment would be a Saturday detention for cutting class that day.

Police officers were on the scene, and Berwyn’s police chief, William Kushner, said no arrests were made. "It was all very peaceful and orderly," he said.

But at the end of the school day, Matt said, Dr. Nowakowski gave the remaining protesters disciplinary notices stating that they had engaged in mob action, that they were suspended for 10 days and that they faced expulsion.

"I was shocked," said Matt, 16. "We had the sit-in. So I had mixed feelings of confidence — of a job well done — and fright, because my whole educational future is at risk."

School officials also sent a letter to the parents of all the school’s students calling the protest "gross disobedience" and reminding parents that any disruption to the educational process could lead to expulsion.

On Tuesday, a group of parents went to the school to demand that their children be allowed return to classes. At most, the parents said, the protesters’ behavior amounted to loitering, which should be punishable by detention or a meeting with a guidance counselor.

The parents have also asked that the district provide the students with some way to express themselves about issues like the war.

"Who’s the next group to go off to war?" said Adam Szwarek, whose 16-year-old son, Adam, faces expulsion. "These kids. The kids do a peaceful sit-in and they’re threatened with expulsion, yet the military’s running around the school trying to recruit."
That last detail further confirms one of my arguments above: the school is more than willing to encourage our culture's values, through the presence of military recruiters, for example. The school thus provides still more lives and bodies to be ground up and destroyed in this and future wars of aggression. The same school will not tolerate a peaceful demonstration opposed to those same policies.

I assume I do not need to comment on the terrible irony that these students -- who have demonstrated a deep and thoughtful concern for peace and the value of human life -- are forced to beg to be let into school, at a time when numerous public voices decry the "dumbing down" of our youth and their notable lack of enthusiasm for and interest in education and learning.

All of this brings us to the most general and the most deeply damaging lesson from Morton West. This lesson is one that almost all of us are taught in varying degrees from our very earliest years:

5. The extent of your awareness of the world around you, and the extent of your sensitivity to and concern for the sanctity of human life, will be the extent to which you are punished.

I will be discussing this issue in much more detail in upcoming essays. Please view this as a brief introduction to a very complex subject, although you will find many more details in my essays based on the work of Alice Miller.

Consider the opening of the final installment of my series, "On Torture." (All of the entries in that series are described here.) That entry began:
Children who become too aware of things are punished for it and internalize the coercion to such an extent that as adults they give up the search for awareness. But because some people cannot renounce this search in spite of coercion, there is justifiable hope that regardless of the ever-increasing application of technology to the field of psychological knowledge, Kafka's vision of the penal colony with its efficient scientifically-minded persecutors and their passive victims is valid only for certain areas of our life and perhaps not forever. For the human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath. -- Alice Miller, at the conclusion of the "Afterword" to For Your Own Good
I have read extensively in my life, and Alice Miller is the most profoundly courageous writer in the world today to my knowledge. She writes unflinchingly and with a gaze that never turns away from what it perceives, no matter how horrifying it may be. Miller describes the untold cruelties that are inflicted on the most innocent and defenseless of victims -- infants and very young children. Almost all of us accept these cruelties to one degree or another. I am not speaking only of the obvious cruelties, of corporal punishment and similar barbarities -- although we should never forget that the great majority of parents believe that spanking is sometimes necessary. I will begin to trace the connections here at the outset: just as Charles Krauthammer maintains that we are "morally compelled" to utilize torture in rare circumstances in the name of our own survival, so most parents believe that physical violence is sometimes morally "required" if their children are to be taught to be "civilized."

Let us try to be as brave as Alice Miller: what we mean by "civilized" when we speak in this way, is that children must be taught to obey. If the principle of obedience is instilled in children from earliest infancy, and if parents further teach their children that physical violence is the means of commanding obedience, why do we wonder that some adults will torture those who have been rendered helpless and delivered into their control? They are merely reenacting what their parents taught them.

But we refuse to see this. We will not acknowledge what has been done to us. Miller continues in her work, because she understands better than anyone that these issues must be understood if the horrors are to be stopped. But she has met with fierce resistance every step of the way. In a similar way, although on an immensely more modest scale, I have found that many readers who agree with me on many issues -- and many readers who may have followed this series so far, nodding their heads in confirmation at every point in my argument -- will stop here. They will not acknowledge these particular truths, because they are too threatening.

This is because there is a necessary corollary to the obedience we are taught: the idealization of the authority figures in our lives. As children, we dare not question what our parents do: we depend on them for life itself. To comprehend fully what is being done to us would be unbearable, and it might literally kill us. So we must believe that, whatever our parents do, they do it "for our own good." To believe otherwise is the forbidden thought. So we must deny our own pain when we are young; such denial is necessary if we are to survive at that stage in our lives.

But if we maintain the denial when we become adults, it spreads throughout our lives. When such modes of thought are established in our psychologies, they cannot be isolated or contained. We deny our own pain -- so we must deny the pain of others. If we acknowledge their pain fully and allow ourselves to realize what it means, it will necessarily call up our own wounds. But this remains intolerable and forbidden. In extreme cases, we must dehumanize other human beings: they become "the other," the less-than-human. By using such devices, we make inflicting untold agonies on another person possible: if they are not even human, it doesn't matter if we torture them. This is always how we create hell on earth.

I said I was not referring only to the obvious cruelties inflicted on children by physical violence. Just as important, and often of much greater significance, are the psychological agonies to which parents subject their children. How often do we hear parents say to a child who will not follow an order: "Why are you making me so unhappy? You don't want to make your mother unhappy and sad, do you, darling? Now just do what I say." We should recognize this for what it is: emotional blackmail. The unstated threat -- but the threat that is deeply felt by the child, even if he is not able to understand it -- is that the parent's love will be withdrawn unless the child obeys. Since the child knows that his life depends on that love, the threat is a terrifying one. Such blows are delivered countless times every day, by millions of parents around the world.

This knowledge is inaccessible to the majority of adults. We are taught to obey, and we learn to idealize our parents. We tell ourselves they did the best they could, or they couldn't help it. In one sense, that is true: they raise their children as they were raised. They learned obedience very well, and they do to their own children what was done to them. But most of us cannot leave this truth at this point: to maintain the veneration of our parents, we must insist that they in fact were right -- that they did it "for our own good." That is where the great danger lies.

When the idealization of the authority figure spreads once we become adults, it can encompass additional authority figures. There are two primary such figures: God -- who may have been there from the beginning, if the child is raised in a very religious household where God is the ultimate authority, and the parents only speak on His behalf; and country. When one's nation becomes such an authority figure, there are subsidiary ones as well: the nation's leaders, and the nation's military.
I have traced the various ways in which these dynamics express themselves in many essays: see, for example, "The Voice of the Thug, and the Harbinger of Horrors Still To Come," about the elections in Spain several years ago; "When the Demons Come," about common cruelties and how they lead to atrocities, in Vietnam in the past and in Iraq today; and in a number of others.

In still another essay, I summarized the elements of this pattern as follows:
There are several interlocking parts of the mechanisms that Miller describes that must be kept in mind -- and these parts help to explain what is missing from our political debates. The first part is obedience to the demands of the parent and/or other authority figure -- the second part is denial of the pain experienced by the child himself, when he is made to "conform" to arbitrary edicts and to suppress his own spontaneous, genuine emotions -- the third part is idealization of the parent and/or additional authority figure, since the child depends on the parent for life itself and dares not challenge the parent or the parent's "good intentions" -- and the final, inevitable part is the denial of the pain experienced by others. If we fully acknowledge the injuries sustained by others and the pain they experience, it will call up our own injuries. Because this would call into question our most fundamental sense of ourselves, this cannot be permitted. In this manner, the deadening of the soul -- which began with our own souls -- must expand to deaden us to the full reality of the selves of others.
The most fundamental lesson taught by the Morton West episode is the necessity of obedience -- obedience to whatever those in authority demand, even if it is criminal war, or torture, or murder, or numerous other forms of cruelty. The necessarily related lesson is denial -- first denial of our own truth, including our own emotional truth and our own pain, and then the denial of the truth of others, including their pain. As I often note, this is the mechanism that inevitably leads to Hell on earth, in its countless forms.

These students have been taught that they must always obey, that the authorities will lie to them to obtain their compliance, and that they must learn to deny and repress what they know to be true. If they do not, their lives will be destroyed, in whole or in part. The price of "success" is the destruction of their own souls, which is the necessary prelude to the destruction of others. As we know from the state of our culture, and from the horrors we inflict on Iraq and the further horrors we may be about to inflict on still more of the world, far, far too many people are more than willing to pay that price.

I have tried to explain, too briefly and I fear in a manner that is not nearly sufficient, why these students should be honored and celebrated. Instead, in our country today, they are being punished, and some of them may be destroyed completely. These students embody awareness, compassion, and a dedication that is unknown to the great majority of adults. As most people become adults, they learn to compromise, to go along to get along, and to "settle." They learn to work "within the system," even when the system is irreversibly corrupt, inherently destructive, and endlessly murderous.

These students are hope. They are the future, if we are still fortunate enough to deserve one. These students have earned their right to a peaceful, joyous future. Most adults can no longer say the same.

Honor them. It's the very least we can do.

UPDATE: In an act of profound courage worthy of, well, the current Democratic Congress, the school board has decided to postpone its vote on the students' possible expulsion. The news story contains these additional details of interest:
Many complained that tension over the Iraq war has increased at the school because military recruiters are targeting their children in the hallways and cafeteria at lunchtime. Some people said: "Expel the recruiters and not the students." Many in the audience said that the recruiters target schools that have a large population of Latino and minority students.

A disabled Gulf War veteran, Cesar Ruvalcaba, who was in uniform, told board members that recruiters lie to students.

"Shame on the administrators who think receiving military money from recruiters is more important than the education of their students," Ruvalcaba said. "I am 100-percent disabled and I learned the hard way that education, not carrying a machine gun, is the key to success. These kids should receive extra credit for speaking up, not expulsion."


Jonathon Acevedo, a student who faces expulsion, said officials are targeting him and other students for no reason. "We weren't violent in anyway," Acevedo said. We were holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" and "Give Peace a Chance."

Acevedo's aunt, Gladys Hansen-Guerra, said her nephew is being singled out because he's an average student and a Latino. "The administration is giving harder punishments to students who won't tell them who organized the protest," said Hansen-Guerra. "It was a group effort. They are trying to offer leniency to those who point out the organizers. This isn't a fascist state. They [school officials] aren't the CIA. These are 16-year old kids."
I omitted some further lessons: racism and classism. My apologies. And the United States may not yet be a full-fledged "fascist state," but, my, we are making good progress.

No further comment. For the moment.