Smart Borders

All future postings from blogger Matthew Webster will now appear on:

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Guy Fawke’s Day

Guy Fawke’s Day comes to a close uneventfully in America’s borderland. The British have burned thousands of effigies today to commemorate a man who attempted to demolish Parliament and was hanged by King James I, also the commissioner of the most popular Biblical translation to date. Watch V for Vendetta and am filled with vim and vigor for change, but I cannot help but be skeptical at the violent means V uses to bring about drastic change with uncertain future ramifications. This is the nonviolent scholar in me.

 

As an English major, all my classmates had their area of expertise pegged out by sophomore year. This one used Marx to critique everything from fables to ballads, this one took a feminist view take on Shakespeare, another opted for the Freudian analysis of memoirs. It would have been easier for me to choose one of these; as it was, each critique could be radically different than the others and I had little basis for analysis besides my own young ramblings.

 

If I had it over again, I would opt to be a nonviolent scholar, examining the ways in which nonviolence is sissy-fied and violence, particularly redemptive violence, is still applauded in our popular culture. Despite its efficacy in the 1960s, few people truly believe nonviolence is the option of the brave realist in today’s world. Nonviolence is synonymous with passivity rather than active pacifism. True, thousands of movies would never have been made without the vigilante justice model, or the heroic knight archetype, or the crusading revolutionary role. My essays would stress, however, just how different the world might be if the Academy Award went to a film whose characters eschewed special effects and elaborate fight scenes to instead focus on the redemptive power of a means which justifies the end.

 

Nonviolence, as it were, has lost its academia. It is not taught but for a few token references to King’s “I have a dream” speech.  University professors tend to focus on fringe topics (such as lesbian haiku or neo-Gothic comedies), because it is easier to carve out a niche for themselves in the publish-or-perish competition of academia.  And yet nonviolence is the single best critic of our current culture and its self-defeating militaristic mindset. I wish I could go back and write 10-page papers detailing how nonviolence, or the lack of nonviolence, changes the outcome and plots of every story. Perhaps then, through my academia and studies, I could impart something more than just one more critical voice, a voice we all acquire at college though without the tools of creation.

 

Guy Fawke’s is a fantastic myth about a man who hoped to change his country’s religion in a violent manner. Although he is dead and and his effigy burned every single year, people keep carrying on his spirit of violent defiance and armed resistance. Though it makes for great screenplay, would it have been possible if he hadn’t planned a demolition? Nonviolent scholarship would say yes, that the means must match the ends, that it is ludicrous to hope to bring about peace through violence. If only the proletariat had read this sort of scholarship in their mandatory English classes…

Pacifism as Sissyfism

As a male teacher and a recent convert to pacifism in hopes of nonviolently protesting for real immigration reform, I have been made to feel effeminate in ways I had never dreamed before. Anyone who is familiar with either of these endeavors must surely be puzzled to see them “sissyfied” by America popular culture.

 

In these United States, men in the teaching profession are forever judged by their gender. It may be that K-12 education is the closest men can get to sexual discrimination. Despite one’s best efforts to keep the classroom door open and avoid one-on-one situations with female students, the media and the public seem to question a young man’s desire to go into high-school education. The all-too frequent and awful headlines about teachers abusing their privileges should surely be cause for careful accountability, but it should not tinge an entire professional gender.

 

On top of this, there are the “joto” and “gay” comments from male students trying to establish their own pubescent masculinity. To be sure, I need not take offense at the comment for its implications about sexual preference, but it is highly puzzling to walk around with a ring from my fiance and hear students question my sexuality. While teaching may not seem as hyper-masculine as raising fences, shrimp-boating, farming, or day-laboring, it is all perspective – few of these “men” are forced to work for respect on a daily basis, to discipline and motivate 130 individuals, to face high stakes and long days, or to deal with teenage pregnancy, chisme, pranks, drugs, and general apathy. All of these prove extremely challenging for me, and I know no one who finds them a cakewalk. On what, then, do we base our concept of masculinity and machismo?

 

Not only am I a teacher, but I am also a firm believer in nonviolence. While Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi pioneered this form of militant action, it has largely been ignored and branded “weak” these past 30 years. Since when did pacifism signal “sissyfism?” Armed with nothing but beliefs and trusting only in the defense of a God-endowed conscience, nonviolent activists should be portrayed as every bit as courageous as soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of whom do no believe in the cause for which they are fighting. It should be noted that both King and Gandhi held strict requirements for their recruits, turning away more people than the military as they sought to find only those individuals with the steadfast spirit to endure anything, even death, in the pursuance of their beliefs and faith. The monks in Myanmar, although thus far ignored by much of the world’s media, are at least as courageous and militant as the man who grips his gun in battle, for they are willing to sacrifice all they have to forward a worthy cause.

 

And yet pacifism has always been construed as the way of the weak. The Mayday demonstrations of 2006, the Wakova ghost dance of the Iroquois, the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, the marches on Washington in the 60’s and today – all of these have been billed as a safe and indirect substitute for true action (read violence). Indeed, on the surface, violence appeals to our love of the immediate, but in the end its effects are always evanescent and victory is always marked by loss on both sides. Nonviolence, contrastingly, seeks to bring about reforms and peace by using peaceful, yet deliberate and effective, means. Nonviolence’s best attribute is that it aims to change the future not by employing weapons of the past but by utilizing the very ends it seeks. While those who dub it weak or retreatist fail to see its urgency and its power in the now, anyone interested in true reform both today and for years to come must practice nonviolence.

 

Japanese haiku is dominated by the simple plum tree. Its white blossoms are breathtaking, but its most salient characteristic is its flexibility. Unlike hardwood trees, the plum’s strength rests in the fact that it can bend. Traditional hardwood trees, though, meet violent force with violent opposition, often ending in their downfall. Nonviolence may never have trading cards or round-the-clock television coverage, but it is the only philosophy for conflict resolution which can eventually unite both sides of a dispute. What is sissy about survival for all?

 

Another week begins, and I will most certainly hear more passing remarks about Mr. Webster’s “non-heterosexual” enthusiasm in class. I am also sure to have to explain my stance on nonviolence to students and colleagues alike. While it can be tiring to constantly come back to the same issues, just think about all those teachable moments for them and for me.

Published in: on October 28, 2007 at 9:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Nonviolence is not just about protest

“Nonviolence is not just about protest.” As I teach my high-school freshman English students about Gandhi and MLK and Thoreau, I tried to be very careful to temper it with the other side to this philosophy. Life is more than just reactionary, oppositional forces, and so it is for nonviolence. If nonviolence is only about resistance and protest, then it will never help to create the world it envisions – it will simply stop a worse world from existing. Nonviolence, like humans, must be productive in order to be successful. I did not want to infuse them with a cynical, angry, rebellious fire without also making them passionate to change their community for the better.

This weekend, my students volunteered at the local zoo. Though few were there on time, 30 students showed up for this 3-hour volunteering session from 9-12 on a Sunday morning. I was amazed, amazed by their presence, amazed by their enthusiasm, amazed by their interest and their work ethic and their excitement for volunteering. They were cleaning filthy cages, feeding ungrateful monkeys, sweeping dusty paths, making toys only to be torn apart by hyperactive parrots, and yet they served cheerfully and joyfully because they had internalized this lesson much deeper than I had imagined. Many of them had never been in the zoo before, though they’ve lived here all their lives. Likewise, many had never volunteered before in their 14 or 15 years of existence.

Driving home at the end of the day, my students’ questions about “when we would get to do this again” still ringing in my ears, I realized this was the most important thing I have taught in my teaching career. The writing’s important, but only as it is directed towards something positive; reading’s fundamental, but service is even more rudimentary; communicating with words and letters on a page is second to communicating through service or acts of love.

Nonviolence is so much more than protest. It took my students to teach me that. Who you are, ultimately, is not what you stood against but to what you contributed.

Published in: on September 25, 2007 at 1:53 am  Leave a Comment  

A demonstration

This past weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in a demonstration against the border wall here in Brownsville, TX. We stood on the international bridge, straddling the rio and the imaginary border between these two nations, protesting a law which would build a wall of division right here.

Admittedly, it was exhilarating to stand out in the sun in an effort to bring light to the countless tangible dilemmas with such a wall and the few intangible, unrealistic benefits which are touted by this effort. It is always envigorating to gather together; the Bible was right in saying that, “wherever two or more are gathered together in my name, there I will be.” There is an electric energy, and it was certainly felt this Saturday as held hands and signs of “No Border Wall; No al Muro.”

I was even moved enough to speak at the aftermath rally at UTB. While my comments were brief, rambling, and unprepared, my soul was pricked for the issue of citizenship. Yet I was troubled by the disorganized nature of the rally, the gungho support of everything and yet nothing well. This protest, like so many others, had its hangers-on, those outliers who are out for a revolution for revolutions’ sake, the individuals that would stir no one if they were imprisoned, however unjustly they cried it to be. King and Gandhi would have looked askance at the divided nature of the group, the multitudonous cacophony of words and concerns which distracted from the main issue at hand. The gathering eventually fizzled out, having said some important things which were lost amidst so many off-track hoorahing. One cannot be civilly disobedient in everything, or else no one knows where the protest lies…

Still, as the third week of school begins with my ESL students, the idea of citizenship looms ever more on my imagination as the way in which the United States can alleviate much of the touted problems with illegal immigrants in this country. It is infinitely hard for me to look at juniors and seniors who have labored four or five years to get a decent education, who have never revisited family or friends in Mexico for fear of being unable to reenter the country, who have dreams of college and yet cannot secure citizenship because it is based not on merit but on a blind lottery, not on earned rights but on birthright.

It is lunacy that ours, a country built on the work of hard-working immigrants from a host of other nations should base its constitution of a legal, voting citizen on the birthright of that individual. In essence, this was what Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about when he preached equality for all, regardless of the race, gender, or culture to which they were born. Let us now add to that nationality. It is just as bigoted and backwards to base citizenship on a person’s birthplace as it is to base it on their birth-race. The plethora of hard-working, diversifying foreign-born sons and daughters “illegally” living here or struggling to gain citizenship here deserve these inalienable rights as much, if not more, than the man or woman born here consuming yet not contributing to the brotherhood of this land.

We must redefine the very idea of a citizen, for it is not patriots or predecessors who create true citizens, but a genuine willingness to contribute to this community, an eagerness for education…. No one in this country should study here for 5 years and be denied a college education because they do not bear the trite title of American citizen. What hypocrites we are, to turn away an educated voter from becoming a legal citizen! Our country cannot continue to be great if it, in and of itself, does not greet globalization with the arms it must. There must be means provided for illegal immigrants within our coutnry to work towards citizenship and there must be more precise qualifications for incoming immigrants. This would not decrease the number of new citizens in this country, but it would greatly bolster the number of new citizens actively pursuing education, meaningful work, and a voting democratic community.

The best way to defeat your enemy is to make him your friend – that is the message of love, the heart of the Gospel, the lifeblood of nonviolence. Granting citizenship to residents willing to work towards it will truly strengthen our country, dispel any supposed security risk, and make it that much easier to pinpoint those few residents living in the United States who do not actually wish to become citizens.

As I return to school tomorrow, I will again teach my students irregardless of their citizenship status, irregardless of their birthplace, without thought of the language or religion or culture spoken at home. I wish there was some way to invite the American government into my class, into every class in a border town, to see the almost effortless ways their immigration worries have already been solved.