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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, America's Wars, A Generational Struggle (in the Classroom)

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

It's been a long time since I stood in a classroom and taught anyone anything, but each June for years I've appeared before classes of college seniors to give a graduation address ushering them into our grim world. True, those speeches didn't take place before flesh-and-blood audiences but on what I've come to call "the campus of my mind" (and were then posted at TomDispatch). Still, I faithfully tried to usher class after class of graduates into an ever more godforsaken American world. The other day, however, I realized just how deeply the age of Trump had gotten to me. In 2017, I seem not to have had the urge to give such a speech and so graduated no one into anything.

That led me back to my last attempt to do so: June 5, 2016, a moment when Donald Trump already had every media eye in America glued to his orange comb-over, his incipient "authoritarianism" had become an issue, and I was imagining the possibility that he might indeed be elected president. With that in mind, I gave an address to that year's graduates, which I titled "Donald Trump Is the Mosquito, Not the Zika Virus." In it, I said: "Few bother to consider the ways in which the foundations of authoritarianism have already been laid in this society -- and not by disaffected working class white men either. Few bother to consider what it means to have a national security state and a massive military machine deeply embedded in our ruling city and our American world... or what it means for that state within a state, that shadow government, to become ever more powerful and autonomous in the name of American 'safety,' especially from 'terrorism' (though terrorism represents the most microscopic of dangers for most Americans)...

"It's clear enough... that our American system is morphing in ways for which we have no names, no adequate descriptive vocabulary. Perhaps it's not just that we have no clear bead on what's going on, but that we prefer not to know." And I then implored the Class of 2016 to step into that world and "tell us who we are and where we are."

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So, more than a year and a half later, who are we? Where are we? Barely a week after the latest mass slaughter by a disturbed teenager carrying an AR-15 assault rifle into a Florida school, I'm not sure I even want to know. Fun fact: you need to be 21 in Florida to legally purchase alcohol, but only 18 to get that combat rifle. Fun fact: in February 2017, by rescinding an Obama-era regulation, President Trump made it easier for people with mental problems to buy guns. Fun fact: Thanks to the killing of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Florida, Columbine is no longer the worst high school mass killing in our history. Fun fact: In the United States, there is now, on average, a "mass shooting" (four or more people shot) nine out of every 10 days of the year. Talk about terror! Talk about terrorism! And so it goes in the age of The Donald.

It's hardly surprising, then, that my urge to graduate anyone into such a world hit rock bottom last year, which is why I find something heartwarming about today's piece by TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon -- about, that is, anyone willing at this moment to face the daunting task of helping the young learn how to navigate an American world that seems more unnerving and unbalanced by the day. So here's a small bow to Gordon and the students who take the journey with her onto what is increasingly an alien planet damaged in ways that should deeply disturb us all. Tom

The 9/11 Hijackers Were Iraqis, Right?
Teaching in a Time of Wars
By Rebecca Gordon

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I was teaching the day the airplanes hit the World Trade Center. It was the second meeting of "The Communist Manifesto for Seminarians," a course for my fellow graduate students. By the time I got to class, both towers had collapsed. A few hours later, Building 7 came down as well. We dispensed with a planned discussion about what Marxists mean by "idealism" and "materialism" and talked instead about the meaning of this particular example of the "propaganda of the deed."

We already sensed that, with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the White House, the attacks would mean war. But like the rest of the world, we didn't yet have the faintest idea how long that war would last. And 16 years on, we still don't know.

A few years later, I found myself in front of 40 undergraduates on the first day of the first ethics course I would ever teach. You know how sometimes you have no idea what you're going to say until the words are out of your mouth? That day, I opened my mouth and this came out: "I was so excited about this class that I couldn't sleep last night." Eighty horrified eyes stared back at me. "I guess it wasn't like that for you," I added, and felt the blush creep up my face. Most of them had the grace to laugh.

Thirteen years later, I still have trouble sleeping the night before a new semester begins. It's not exactly stage fright, but knowing that I'll only have a few chances to convince a new crop of students that they really do want to examine their deepest values -- the things they care most about -- and even talk about them in front of their peers.

In fact, most of them do care deeply and about important things, too, like how they should treat their friends, their parents, and their sexual and/or romantic partners. They care about their friends who drink and drug too much and appreciate the friends who get them home safe when they do the same. They care about economic inequality, especially when they're trying to find a place they can afford to rent in this city of soaring prices, San Francisco, or when contemplating the massive debt most of them will be carrying for years, if not a lifetime, after they graduate.

Some of them regularly turn out to be Milton Friedman-style economic libertarians. Almost invariably, more are reflexively anti-capitalist. More than half of them are young people of color. They and the majority of their white peers care deeply about racism. They don't think the police should shoot unarmed black men and they tend to believe that people of color face institutional barriers that white people never even see. Slavery, they know, was a terrible idea, but many of them are fuzzy about when it started in this country and how it ended.

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Quite a few of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Some are undocumented or DACA recipients, so not surprisingly they care about immigration laws and policies. Their fellow students would never turn them in to the authorities. They may not know exactly why, but they have the feeling it would be unethical.

Some of them are in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC. Some are veterans. U.S. military adventures affect them directly. While the rest of the students do care about war and peace, most of their lives are touched more lightly by America's wars than were those of their peers a decade ago.

They care about so much, but there's a lot they just don't know.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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