Teaching Against Imperialism
Illustrator: Ewan White
There is an old Popeye cartoon that exemplifies much of what is wrong about what young people learn in school, and don’t learn, about U.S. imperialism — and especially about the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Popeye the sailor, as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, battles his nemesis Bluto — who appears in this episode as “Abu Hassan.” Abu Hassan is a marauder in a nameless Middle Eastern country. He rides his horse, singing “Now make no error, I’m called the terror of every village and town — Abu Hassan!” Popeye discovers his hideout along with the riches Abu Hassan has plundered. Popeye announces: “I have to give all these jewels back to the people” — and, with a soundtrack of martial music, he proceeds to single-handedly thrash Abu Hassan and his band of dark-skinned, turban-wearing, gibberish-speaking look-alikes. Afterward, Popeye returns the stolen loot to the crowd of faceless, cheering townspeople. The end. Thank heavens for Popeye — and the U.S. military.
At the end of August, the last U.S. planes left Afghanistan, concluding the latest chapter of our “forever war” in that country. Twenty years of occupation. According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, the U.S. government’s post-9/11 “war on terror,” launched in October 2001 with the bombing of Afghanistan, has led to a staggering death toll of more than 900,000 at a financial cost of $8 trillion. (Barely a month after the U.S. withdrawal, House Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly — by an almost three to one vote — still supported the biggest military budget in history: $768 billion.)
Popeye cartoons may no longer be daily fare for today’s students, but young people have never known a time when we were not at war in Afghanistan. As this episode of U.S. militarism ends, educators need to ask ourselves how well we equipped students to make sense of these “wars on terror” or even alert them to their existence. And how might our curriculum unintentionally lay the foundation for young people embracing or ignoring future U.S. military intervention throughout the world?
Too many young people have absorbed a cartoon-like image of the United States as the entitled good guy, roaming the world to fight “terrorism” and to bring “order” to miscellaneous others — people in supposed need of decency, democracy, and nation building. These are almost always people of color: squabbling, violent, childlike, greedy — fill in the blank. Mexicans. Vietnamese. Congolese. Chileans. Afghans. Iraqis. Somalis. Nicaraguans. Haitians. Cubans. Libyans. The architects of U.S. foreign policy have found — or invented — countless Blutos in need of civilizing interventions.
In Rethinking Columbus, we documented how the Columbus-discovers-America myth may be children’s first curricular celebration of imperialism, when the white European Christian arrives in a land of darker-skinned people who U.S. children will be taught to call Indians, plants the flag of Spain, names the territory San Salvador, and claims it on behalf of a distant empire. It is a powerful metaphor that legitimates colonialism and racism wherever it plays out. And too few children’s books, textbooks, and lessons ask the fundamental question: What right did he have to do that?
So what are the contours of an anti-imperialist curriculum? How can we inoculate young people against supporting — or looking away from — endless war and occupation? Here are some principles to guide a curriculum of global solidarity:
• Look deeply at the root causes and history of U.S. intervention in what became the United States and around the world. The clichés that U.S. leaders trot out to justify our wars sound nauseatingly familiar — and ring hollow — the more accurately we understand our history. The U.S. war against Mexico from 1846 to 1848 was not to resist Mexican aggression in Texas, but to expand slavery and seize huge swaths of valuable land, like California. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said that “For the last decade we have been helping the South Vietnamese to maintain their independence.” If one knew the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam — including support for French colonialism following World War II, subverting free elections after the 1954 Geneva Accords, and subsequent support for Vietnamese tyrants — one would know that Kennedy was lying. And on and on. Unless we equip students with a critical history of U.S. military intervention around the world, governmental lying can sound authoritative and reasonable. We need to plant seeds of skepticism as soon as U.S. expansion enters the curriculum. And because the theft of land, labor, and resources is so consistently a motive of colonial aggression, students need to learn to think systemically about the nature of capitalism. A key question is always: “Who benefits?”
• Nurture curiosity about “other people’s” lives. One of the “scourges of nationalism,” in Howard Zinn’s words, is that we fail to recognize others’ full humanity. Our teaching needs to begin, from the earliest grades forward, with the premise that the lives of people around the world are as significant as people’s lives here. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a Pakistani student, Nabil Ahmed, offered this eloquent testimony to the Christian Science Monitor: “There is only one way for America to be a friend of Islam. And that is if they consider our lives to be as precious as their own.”
And with this recognition of our common humanity should come deep humility. We should seek to spark in students an interest in how people around the world organize their lives. As we argue in our book Rethinking Globalization, seeing countries like those in North America and Europe as “developed” instantly puts the rest of the world in a deficit status. “We” become the pinnacle of human achievement and others are merely climbing the ladder: “developing.” And yet, to highlight just one example from Emilienne Ireland and Phil Tajitsu Nash, a typical elder of the Wauja people in the Amazon:
has memorized hundreds of sacred songs and stories; plays several musical instruments; and knows the habits and habitats of hundreds of forest animals, birds, and insects, as well as the medicinal uses of local plants. He can guide his sons in building a two-story-tall house using only axes, machetes, and materials from the forest. He is an expert agronomist. He speaks several languages fluently; knows precisely how he is related to several hundred of his closest kin; and has acquired sufficient wisdom to share his home peacefully with in-laws, cousins, children, and grandchildren.
An anti-imperialist approach to teaching needs to critique and shed all the ways our curriculum dismisses or regards as “primitive” Indigenous cultures and cultures in the Global South. It’s worth asking ourselves what, during the past 20 years, our students learned about the people of the country — Afghanistan — we had invaded.
• Introduce students to anti-colonial movements — at home and abroad. Our teaching should alert students to listen for dissident voices. No U.S. wars have gone unopposed, but too often, the curriculum is silent when it comes to anti-colonial/anti-war movements. In February of 2003, anti-war activists organized massive demonstrations against the pending U.S. invasion of Iraq in at least 600 cities around the world; in Rome alone, an estimated 3 million people protested. And yet the official curriculum silenced these anti-imperial critics. In its section on the Iraq war, the widely used Holt-McDougal textbook Modern World History includes not one word about popular protest, but offers this absurd and paternalistic summary of the war’s result: “With the help of U.S. officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation.”
Too often, we think of wars as occurring “over there,” but colonial wars and resistance also continue within the borders of the United States. In late fall, hundreds of Indigenous activists committed civil disobedience to protest the fossil fuel invasion of their lands and waters. As Siqiñiq Maupin, the executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, in Fairbanks, Alaska, told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, “We have been fighting against the genocide of our people, colonization, since contact. And we are not going away. . . . Indigenous people have always been the caretakers of this land, and we will continue to be the caretakers.” All curriculum trains students whose voices to listen for and whose to ignore. An anti-imperialist curriculum needs to be filled with dissent from here and around the world. And students need to be encouraged to search out dissident perspectives.
• Teach the truth about what war means. In the film Hearts and Minds about the U.S. war against Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, former commander of U.S. forces there, says, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” He spoke out loud one of the war’s racist premises about whose lives matter and whose don’t. The filmmakers contrast this quote with images of Vietnamese reacting to the deaths of their loved ones. It is a wrenching moment that underscores the racism and ignorance of those who prosecuted the U.S. war in Vietnam, as well as the humanity of the “enemy” and the immense sorrow of war. Obviously, how a teacher introduces the deadly reality of war will vary by grade level and discipline, but all teachers should endeavor to build a curriculum in which students recognize how war horribly mangles lives, that it is not a video game, that it demands alternatives.
• Recognize how colonialism and imperialism disrupts people’s lives and leads to mass migration. As Juan González observes in the beginning of the film Harvest of Empire: “They never teach us in school that the huge Latino presence here is a direct result of our own government’s actions in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America over many decades — actions that forced millions from that region to leave their homeland and journey north.” In just one example of this, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) may have been a boon to the rich in both Mexico and the United States, but it led to a tsunami of cheap U.S. food exports to Mexico that destroyed the livelihood of millions of farmers and sent them on a trek of survival north. And rich countries’ massive carbon emissions since the industrial era began constitute an “atmospheric colonialism” that results in myriad ecological calamities — desertification, more severe storms, droughts, species extinction, rising sea levels, toxic air from wildfires, and more — all of which create climate refugees. Imperialism never stays “over there.” (The U.S. military alone is responsible for more carbon emissions than 140 countries combined.) We need to equip students to see how an imperial fossil fuel-based global economy connects to everything — from Guatemalan families being separated at the border to warfare between farmers and nomadic cattle herders in Nigeria.
• Help students come to see themselves as activists. One cannot be merely a contemplative anti-imperialist or an anti-imperialist “at heart.” Exact numbers may be in flux, but one estimate is that the United States maintains almost 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories throughout the world. These are not resorts. In September 2021, a Hellfire missile launched from a drone controlled by operators at a U.S. base in Qatar killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children. Jon Mitchell, an investigative reporter for the Okinawa Times, described how the U.S. military has long used Pacific islands as testing sites and dumping grounds for weapons: “Wherever the United States military goes, it contaminates and damages the environment and human health.” U.S. imperial domination is being enacted daily and it can be opposed only with activism. This does not mean recruiting our students to join our favorite peace and justice organization, but it does mean alerting students to varieties of activism and giving them opportunities to oppose injustice. Of course, this will look differently depending on grade level, but the principle is that we should nurture students’ activist sensibilities. Students need to recognize that their actions make a difference.
In his book Discourse on Colonialism, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire wrote that “no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization — and therefore force — is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased . . .” Teaching against imperialism means teaching against the disease of racism and economic exploitation; it means teaching for equality, teaching for social health, teaching for humanity. As educators, that is the side we want to be on.
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