World, War, Arts and Peace: March 20th in a Midwestern University
Wednesday, April 2 2003, 10:06 AM
Besides intellectual, political and moral reasons against George W. Bush's Wolfowitzian worldview and his family vendetta against Iraq, I have personal reasons against this war. It imperils my university's international programs, which are something I like very much in this nearly 9,000 student regional institution. Most students are from the agricultural areas (the campus was carved out forty years ago from sugar beet fields) or from this rustbelt state's industrial cities. Yet about 350 come from about two dozen nations around the world.
Our international enrollment dipped in 2002. Southeast Asian grad students have told me of their talented friends whose families now urge them to study in Europe instead of the belligerent United States. Two of my grad students from Lebanon have dropped out (the one named Jihad was in my evening class 9/11/01), and Pakistani students tell of immigration difficulties and interrogation when flying into Detroit Metro Airport. As an exchange professor in southern Japan last year, right after I got my Resident I.D. card at the prefectural capital's City Hall, I was introduced to a newspaper editor who told me how worried the Japanese people were about Bush's warlike policies and the Axis of Evil speech. The editor then chuckled "Of course, we know Bush didn't really win your 2000 election". I believe he articulated the views of the university hosting my visit.
Anti-war activism exists in this corner of middle America, from the Saginaw City Council's resolution in early March against war in Iraq to the work of ongoing peace and justice organizations. There is an active chapter of Amnesty International on campus, involved members from faculty, administration and students in both international campaigns and domestic injustices like the case of the West Memphis Three [http://wm3.org]. Peace activities here tap into the liberal current within mainstream Protestant churches, involve veterans of New Jewish Agenda, and often begin in the Jeannine Coallier Catholic Worker House in Saginaw. One professor nearing retirement lives in the inner-city Catholic Worker household and has been committed to peace activism since the Vietnam War. She is deeply respected by faculty and even adminstration Republicans for organizing weekly peace marches in the center of campus throughout the fall and winter. In October, Dow Visiting Artist filmmaker Craig Baldwin [http://www.othercinema.com] marched in one.
As Washington's juggernaut towards war in Iraq heated up in the Fall, a full-time organizer was brought to Saginaw from Detroit by the Catholic Worker house to staff the Tri-Cities Action for Peace [http://www.tcap.org]. Since his arrival, he's coordinated activities that have included the Saginaw City Council antiwar resolution, petitions to the U.N., Washington and the state capitol in Lansing, and "peace valentines" delivered to slightly embarassed Republican Congressman Dale Kildee. The organizer has also publicized the School of the Americas, plus Susan Barclay and Rachel Corrie's witness activities in Israel. A regular silent peace vigil is kept alive day and night in front of Saginaw County Court House.
Other campus antiwar activities have had mixed success. One professor put an impassioned but unsigned statement against war in Iraq into a locked bulletin board whose prominent presence implied an official departmental position. He then diluted the message on Iraq by adding photos from a Palestinian source of grisly Israeli occupation abuses there. Providing nothing to tie Iraq and Palestine, the display decontextualized a complex issue worthy of its own debate, and prompted student protests to the University President.
Two days before the bombing of Baghdad began, a group of faculty organized a day long Teach-In for Peace on Thursday, March 20th and invited colleagues to particpate. Most students, however, only learned of the day's events if their faculty announced it, as student-designed leaflet was never distributed or posted. Most of the Teach-In was held in a quiet secular chapel used for alumni weddings at the woodsy edge of campus, which most students only pass if they're running on the cross-country team. A centrally-located room on the way to the Library or Cafeteria might have drawn foot traffic from the curious and uncommitted.
The Teach-In's organizing problems mirror persistent shortcomings of the Left in America--inadvertant self-isolation, production problems, talking largely to the converted, like the students of faculty who chose to bring them or to announce the Teach-In. Too often discourse is limited to the inherently unequal (hence resented) form of lecturing to students in the classroom. I wish the Teach-In had sufficiently invited and engaged the surrounding communities, even if it meant time spent debating conservative miltary veterans and farmers, as I've seen the Catholic Worker folks so patiently do.
Enough complaining. Teach-In high points included discussion of Edward Said's work on Orientalism with a video of Said discussing specious Orientalist generalities in U.S. media during the Gulf War and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Members of the English Department presented a moving selection of war poetry since World War One. One valuable talk on the wartime promulgation of lies noted the 1991 tale of Kuwaiti babies tossed out of incubators originated with a Kuwaiti princess in the PR firm Hill and Knowlton. Iraqi's gassing of citizens in Halabja gets cited repeatedly in the American mass media as Saddam's unprovoked caprice, but was an effort to dislodge Iranian invaders there. Halabja was re-cited by my Design students that afternoon as reason "we have to get Saddam before he uses his weapons in the U.S.". When I gave them an assignment in the last half-hour to do a 5-inch square artwork reflecting the historic day, I learned several members of the class have relatives or friends in active duty. One first-year student wrote on the back of her collage of American flags and peace signs "Please bring Bobby, Casey and Tom home safely from this needless war".
There was a happy end to a sad day. March 20th had long been scheduled as the International Student Club's Intercultural Night, and drew hearty applause for its opening dedication to "families on both sides affected by the War." Bolivians in golden cowboy boots, a South African woman in miners' gumboots, and six dignified Lebanese men holding hands all stomped merrily. Still, I was most impressed when students from enemies India and Pakistan joined together in a rousing 130 beats-per-minute electronic Bhangra dance number--it's Bollywood beside the Tittabawassee River! After all performers joined onstage in the closing clap-hands singalong to John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance", I headed home satisfied. Despite the problems of teaching political conciousness, despite Bush's manipulation of heartland conservatism and grief over 9/11 into his imperial ends, worldy university youth uphold peace and their right to party.
Mike Mosher is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.