Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Petition for Tolerance on Route 51

The petition to promote tolerance on Route 51 is now online.

If you care about issues of prejudice and acceptance, please sign it -- even if you are outside the Central Illinois area. Showing opposition to prejudice is important, wherever you live -- and I would appreciate your support.

A note on inspiration: This photo of Eva Kor and me was taken on April 7th, during a visit Mrs. Kor made to Pana High School to talk about her experience of the Holocaust. Mrs. Kor was a young girl when she and her family were taken by train to Auschwitz; she and her twin sister were separated from the rest of the family, and the two girls were allowed to live -- as human test subjects for the sadistic Dr. Mengele.

Mrs. Kor and her sister ultimately survived the Holocaust -- and over time, Mrs. Kor began to tell their story publicly. She also formed an organization to connect surviving "Mengele twins" to each other; that group became the CANDLES Museum and Education Center (Children of Auschwitz Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors). She remains a strong advocate for human rights and -- perhaps surprisingly -- an advocate for forgiveness.

Mrs. Kor suggested that concerned citizens in our town should create a petition to show that the prejudice on Route 51 does not represent our community's values. This petition is -- in many ways -- in honour of her bravery and her decades of human rights activism. And she was kind enough to be its first signatory.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Antisemitic Propaganda on Route 51

I first saw this propaganda on Easter Sunday, while driving home from a family gathering. I returned to the site -- the edge of a field along Route 51 in Central Illinois -- on March 29th, bringing a camera for documentation.

The words on the signs are written in chalk, so the message changes occasionally, though there is often an antisemitic agenda. On March 29th, the series of ten signs displayed this message:


~ * ~

Despite this area's complicated history, I believe these hateful words do not reflect the opinions of most community members.

As awareness of the signs has grown, acts of resistance have occurred. An area minister sent a letter condemning the signs and calling for tolerance; other (anonymous) people have engaged in acts of civil disobedience, erasing and dismantling the signs.

~ * ~

As for me: I prefer organized (and legal) opposition.

I am mobilizing local residents who want to denounce this bigotry -- and raise awareness of the need for tolerance.

If you would like to be kept informed about this process -- or if you can help in any way -- please comment on this post.

Or, if you're more comfortable contacting me privately, please e-mail me:

Saturday, March 29, 2008

4,000 Dead American Soldiers -- and Michael Massing's Question: "Who Fights and Why?"

Last week, the death toll for American soldiers serving in Iraq reached 4,000. While this milestone is hardly surprising – it became clear in recent months that the prospect of 4,000 American deaths was not an “if,” but rather a “when” – the news disturbed me. I found myself thinking about the men and women who have died in combat, asking myself: Who were these people? And what compelled them to enlist?

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing proposes some answers. His article (entitled “The Volunteer Army: Who Fights and Why?”) largely dispels the cliché of patriotic Americans enlisting for altruistic purposes. In place of this platitude, Massing reveals a more complex (and often disturbing) view of the men and women who fight our wars.

~ * ~

Massing’s article begins with brief summaries of books written by US soldiers and published within the past three years. The memoirs are Colby Buzzell’s My War: Killing Time in Iraq, Kayla Williams’ Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army, and Joshua Key’s The Deserter's Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq. While the soldiers’ reasons for enlisting varied, Massing’s summary offered disquieting perspective:

“In these books, the idea of joining the military to defend America or uphold its values is largely absent. Rather, these soldiers signed up to escape dead-end jobs, failed relationships, broken families, bills, toothaches, and boredom. The armed forces offered a haven from the struggles and strains of life in modern-day America, a place to gain security and skills, discipline and self-esteem.”

Reluctant to ascribe the motivations of these three to the other soldiers currently serving, Massing traveled to Watertown, a town of 27,000 in upstate New York, to interview Army soldiers stationed at Fort Drum.

~ * ~

Watertown resembles many small American towns; once relatively prosperous, its economy tanked with the decline of the industrial sector. Now chain retail stores (Home Depot, Best Buy, Target) join ubiquitous food establishments (TGI Friday’s, Denny’s, and Starbucks) in employing low-wage workers. Fort Drum has become a crucial part of the town’s economy; it provides jobs for many local residents, and the soldiers stationed at the base patronize the town’s businesses.

It was in these businesses – the “bars, restaurants, and one of the area’s three Wal-Marts” – that Massing conducted interviews with enlisted personnel. (He also interviewed soldiers he found in a church and in a military-supply store.) Massing claims to have interviewed “about thirty soldiers,” and he refers to twelve in his article. Of these, five are identified by name; seven are cited obliquely: “the forty-year-old black woman from rural Georgia,” “the twenty-six-year-old college graduate from Maine,” “a soft-spoken thirty-four-year-old second lieutenant,” etc. Surprisingly, whether soldiers chose to be identified by name appears to have made little difference as to how critical (or positive) they were about their Army experiences.

Overall, the perspective of many soldiers interviewed by Massing are strikingly similar to the viewpoints of the three authors cited earlier in this article. Many enlisted because they were unable to find well-paid jobs in the private sector, or because they believed the military’s GI Bill was their best option for financing college educations. Others appeared to more equally weigh altruism and self-interest. After quoting a soldier who cited the September 11th attacks as his motive for enlisting, Massing elaborates on his impression of that young man and compares him to other soldiers he met:

“Of all the soldiers I met in Watertown, no other spoke with more conviction. Yet as we talked, he acknowledged that there was another reason for his decision: he hoped to make a career in law enforcement, and joining the Army would, he felt, help. So, even in this case, where patriotic concerns loomed large, considerations of self-improvement played a part as well. Among most of the other soldiers I spoke with, such considerations overwhelmed everything else. Over and over, I heard soldiers talk about being hard-pressed to pay the rent, of having a child and being without health care, of yearning to escape a depressing town or oppressive family, of wanting to get out and see the world.”

Military recruiters are attuned to these circumstances; as they struggle to meet their recruitment goals, they offer increasingly-compelling incentives.

~ * ~

Financial rewards for new soldiers are standard in military recruitment, but the value of these bonuses has increased sharply in the past year:

“Last July, after a two-month slump in recruiting, the Army introduced a $20,000 ‘quick-ship’ bonus for enlistees willing to report to training camp within thirty days. In just three weeks, more than 3,800 recruits—92 percent of the total—accepted it. With the addition of other enticements based on job skills and education, new enlistees can earn up to $40,000 in signing bonuses.”

Reenlistment bonuses for officers are also rising:

“Fed up with the constant disruptions to their private lives, these battle-experienced junior officers have been leaving in record numbers, and the Pentagon, desperate to stop them, has begun offering $35,000 reenlistment bonuses. So far, it hasn't helped.”

Despite high financial incentives, the quality of applicants is declining:

“In 2007, 11 percent of all new recruits received ‘moral waivers’ for being in trouble with the law—double the proportion in 2003. Over that same period, the proportion of enlistees who had finished high school fell from 90 to 71 percent—the lowest level in twenty-five years.”

~ * ~

All of this paints a disturbing image of the average American soldier – and the reasons why they fight. In some economically-depressed regions, a $40,000 enlistment bonus is equivalent to more than two years’ wages; with such high stakes, it is not surprising that some Americans find the money irresistible. But the question I find myself asking – one Massing did not explicitly ask – is this: If soldiers are bribed to enlist, can we still claim a “volunteer” force?

We do not have a legislated draft as we did during Vietnam (so paid military service can still be termed “voluntary”), but I believe we now exploit an economic one. This economic draft exploits the youth of disadvantaged families, offering a quick fix for pecuniary hardships many struggle to escape.

The result? We continue to fill our “volunteer” force with young people who have few other options for success. Through bribes and exploitation, we turn disadvantaged youth into mercenaries who are willing to fight a war the rich will not.

~ * ~

Last summer, on a train from Chicago, I met a young man who (unknowingly) illustrated much of what I think is wrong with our military. We had been sitting near each other for a while before I glanced up from the novel I had been reading and saw him, dressed in Army fatigues, looking at me. We smiled, introduced ourselves, and were soon talking about the obvious – though awkward – topic: the war and its impact on his life.

He told me he had recently completed his basic training; he had been sent home to visit family before his scheduled deployment to Iraq. When I asked him why he’d joined the military, he initially mumbled something about September 11th; a few minutes later, he added that he really needed a good job… and he thought that, with the Army’s help, he might even attend college someday. When I asked how he felt about being deployed to a war zone, he described war as his “duty” – only admitting much later that he was terrified. He felt afraid of dying – and even more afraid of being sent home an amputee. He even conceded that he thought America’s intervention in Iraq was “wrong” – but insisted he would go to Iraq anyway. He would fight – because by enlisting, he had promised he would.

At one point, he noticed his bootlace had come untied; as he tugged the ends to tighten them, the lace broke in half. He became quite agitated, and I didn’t understand why. As he fumbled with the lace, he explained: As part of his uniform, he was required to carry spare laces, but he had none with him that day. If his broken lace were seen by a military officer, he could be reprimanded…

I suggested some options. (He could knot the broken ends together near one of the eyelets… or use each piece to lace through half the eyelets, tying two bows.) But he didn’t understand; he just stared at the boot and its broken lace, cursing.

Some minutes later, he had retied his boot and we continued talking, disagreeing often (though respectfully). Again and again, I saw the absent-minded touch of his fingers on the awkward bootlace knot… and then the anxious grimace on his face. As the train reached my destination, we did not exchange contact information. We just said goodbye.

I have since forgotten his name, but I vividly remember his panic over the broken bootlace and his inability to find a quick solution. And while I cannot prove he is an “average” soldier, I think young men like him – well-intentioned but ineffective – are increasingly prevalent in our overextended military.

To its enlisted soldiers, the military inculcates obedience – blind submission to the authority of commanding officers. It rarely instills the confidence or skills that would embolden low-ranking GIs to think for themselves. It’s a classic strategy – and has typically worked in past wars – but I believe that as the context of war has shifted, this method of dogmatic compliance has yielded counter-productive results.

How can we expect to win a war which – because of the guerilla tactics used by insurgents – requires soldiers who must quickly react to changing conditions on Baghdad’s streets? With a military increasingly comprised of high school dropouts and common delinquents, can we possibly succeed?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

Driving in the country this afternoon, I saw a chicken – yes, an actual live chicken – pecking the grass at the end of a farmhouse lane.

To the best of my knowledge, the chicken never tried to cross the road... reducing the risk of existential questions.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

On My Knees: a "public divorce ceremony" by Cathy Gordon

A quick heads-up for anyone in Toronto: Cathy Gordon, a close friend and colleague, will be crawling across the city -- on her hands and knees -- on Monday, August 13th.

Cathy is a very gifted artist, and this should be a particularly interesting project. All I'll say for now is that I'll be there -- and I encourage anyone reading this in Toronto to see it.

For more information, please visit her website -- -- and check out the article in today's Toronto Star newspaper: An Extremely Public Divorce.


(Photo is from Cathy's website.)