Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war. – Maria Montessori, physician and educator
I am certainly not in the habit of defending Barack Obama against his detractors, but the controversy drummed up by rabid right-wing hysterics over the President’s back-to-school speech on Tuesday is quite simply bizarre and absurd. However, the manufactured uproar and outrage over the President’s socialist/fascist/communitarianist (hey, pick an ideology, any ideology!) “brainwashing” of unsuspecting and impressionable students on one of their first days of school brings up very real and very serious concerns over both the potential and realities of aggressive government indoctrination and the abuse of open access to America’s youth.
In the days leading up to Obama’s fifteen-minute long, syndicated speech, the conservative netherworld was abuzz over what sort of cultish and dangerous hypnotism our Kenyan-born Commie Muslim commander-in-chief would dish out in classrooms all over the country. The paranoia and fear promoted by political and media demagogues and repeated thoughtlessly by their audience of ventriloquist dummies created a sort of dual-McCarthyism, equal parts Joe and Charlie.
Last week, Glenn Beck warned listeners of his radio show about the dangers of Obama’s upcoming speech and “the indoctrination of your children,” saying that the Presidential address was evidence of the “get ’em while they’re young” approach of of big government’s brainwashing tactics. Meanwhile, NewsBuster’s contributing editor Mark Finkelstein repeatedly compared the address to Chinese communism, likened Obama to Mao Zedong, and even inquiring in one blog post whether “our MSM report on the interesting parallel between our president’s plan for our children and the approach of another Great Leader from the past?” Then there was Mark Steyn, a Canadian author and political commentator, who, while speaking on the Rush Limbaugh Show made extensive reference to Saddam Hussein’s cult of personality in Iraqi schools and warned against Obama’s attempt to do the same here in the United States.
On September 2nd, Michelle Malkin accused Obama’s classroom address (still six days away at that time) of serving as a government tool for recruiting “junior lobbyists” to serve as foot-soldiers for promoting his crazed liberal agenda, citing the “activist tradition of government schools” (I think they’re called public schools, actually) as evidence:
“Zealous teacher’s unions have enlisted captive schoolchildren as letter-writers in their campaigns for higher education spending. Out-of-control activists have enlisted their secondary-school charges in pro-illegal immigration protests, gay marriage ceremonies, environmental propaganda stunts, and anti-war events.”
Yeah, if only.
In a recent article, Lauri Regan of American Thinker wrote that “Obama has turned his team of brainwashers on the task of indoctrinating America’s youth…My children are off limits,” while Townhall.com‘s Meredith Jessup bemoans the loss of mandatory prayer and religion in public schooling as “big-government influence continues to be ushered in.” Jessup thusly concludes that “This massive abuse of government power – reaching into our kids’ classrooms – is unacceptable.”
A OneNewsNow column from September 4th identifies Diane Jewell, a parent in Indiana, as worrying that “her daughter is being indoctrinated into socialism” by attending public Junior High School. Jewell believes that “it is not Obama’s place to talk to children directly, without parental input” adding that she is “very concerned with the increasing involvement of federal government in education.” Obviously, Jewell now “regrets her decision to quit homeschooling and in retrospect she wishes she had stayed at home in order to continue homeschooling her daughter.”
In a September 1 post featured on her tellingly-titled “Atlas Shrugs” blog (and headlined “Obama in the Classroom: Keep Your Kids Home from School September 8”), Newsmax.com contributor Pamela Geller wrote,
The fascist in chief is taking his special brand of brainwashing to the classroom. Keep your kids home. I think this man is a threat to our basic unalienable rights. I don’t want him indoctrinating my children. Seriously.
Ask your school what their participation is in this leftist indoctrination outrage. Keep politics out of the classroom. Keep communists and their propagandists away from small children.
Not to be outcrazied, American Family Association radio host and conservative activist Bryan Fischer wrote in a September 1 column that Obama’s speech “is likely to be an exercise in nation-wide indoctrination…The capacity for mischief here is enormous.” Then, echoing Geller’s sentiments that parents should opt their children out of viewing the speech, Fischer continues,
Unless we get public assurances from the White House that the president won’t address health care or global warming or the homosexual agenda (under the color of “human rights for people different than us”) this might be a great time for parents to exercise their opt-out authority and give their students a biography of George Washington to read while the President turns the minds of an entire generation to mush.
WorldNetDaily news editor Bob Unruh floated the idea that Obama’s speech to students has “been cited as raising the specter of the Civilian National Security Force, to which he’s referred several times since his election campaign began, but never fully explained” while also pointing out how creepy it is for the elected President of the United States of America to speak directly to the nation’s children about the importance of education. “Parents across the country are rebelling against plans by President Barack Obama to speak directly to their children through the classrooms of the nation’s public schools without their presence, participation and approval,” Unruh wrote, before quoting random insane rantings of conservative web-forum comments:
“He’s recruiting his civilian army. His ‘Hitler’ youth brigade,” wrote one participant in a forum at Free Republic.
“I am not going to compare President Obama to Hitler. We’ll leave that to others and you can form your own opinions about them and their analogies. … However, we can learn a lot from the spread of propaganda in Europe that led to Hitler’s power. A key ingredient in that spread of propaganda was through the youth,” wrote a blogger at the AmericanElephant.com blog, where the subject of the day was a national “Keep-Your-Child-at-Home-Day.”
“Totalitarian regimes around the world have sought to spread their propaganda and entrench their power by brainwashing the children. I guess it’s easier to indoctrinate a six-year-old instead of fighting a 26-year-old or being challenged by a 46-year-old in the voting booth,” the blogger wrote.
Brett Curtis, an engineer from Texas, told the New York Times that the idea of the speech “seemed like a direct channel from the president of the United States into the classroom, to my child,” and would therefore keep his three children home from school that day since he doesn’t “want our schools turned over to some socialist movement.” Jim Greer, the Republican Party chairman in Florida, said he “was appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology,” while Kansas City talk show host Chris Stigall, with thoughts of sugar plums and executive pedophilia floating in his head, stated that he “wouldn’t let my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I’m sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone.”
Never mind the sheer ignorance of all these people, especially the clear fact that none of them knows the definition of fascism or socialism, or could explain the difference between a democracy and a republic, for that matter. Never mind the fear-mongering and hateful resentment of a recently beaten-up political party. Never mind the fact that Obama’s speech wound up being totally innocuous, completely devoid of politics whatsoever, and called upon this nation’s students to take pride in their education, try hard, and do their best to achieve their goals. Never mind that, as Time.com‘s Michael Scherer put it, “President Obama’s speech to your kids reads like a paean to individual striving and free market capitalism, the sort of thing that Ayn Rand and Barry Goldwater might have signed onto. At root, Obama’s message is one of individual responsibility, a disquisition on the freedom of American youth to fail or succeed on their own tenacity and merits,” and was anything but “lefty, neo-socialist, communitarian brainwashing.”
Never mind that this country’s education system is already tailor-made to spread misinformation, entrench mythologies, and promote American exceptionalism to our young children. American history, as taught in schools, is generally nonsense meant to instill and preserve a sense of City-on-a-Hill nationalism, along with healthy doses of tall-tale founding myths, gung-ho militarism, and ethnic cleansing justification in the form of righteous Manifest Destiny. As James W. Loewen explains in his 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, textbooks used to teach our children “leave out anything that might reflect badly upon our national character.” More to the point, Helen Keller (y’know the deaf, mute, and blind kid who was actually a radical and progressive political thinker, one of the founders of the ACLU, and a staunch supporter of the NAACP and actual socialism) stated clearly why American history is made up of gross simplifications and hero worship: “People do not like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions…Conclusions are not always pleasant.” Anyone who has actually studied real American history knows this to be true.
Students in the United States are taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America and proved that the earth was round (not true); they are not taught that Columbus was a genocidal manic (true). Institutionalized racism and ethnocentrism is all but ignored in history class, Native Americans are demonized as savages (they weren’t) and colonists (who were savages) are celebrated as civilized co-existers. (The reason the Pilgrims in New England had such bountiful crops is because all the Native Americans who planted them had either died from European-borne plague or had fled in fear of plague, which John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called “miraculous.”) Students are taught that Albert Einstein failed his math class (he didn’t, and was, in fact, a mathematical prodigy by the age of 12). They learn that Isaac Newton was hit on the head by a falling apple and “discovered” gravity (not true), Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a storm and “discovered” electricity (also not true), and that George Washington chopped down his father’s prized cherry-tree and then didn’t lie about doing it. (This is a fairy tale created by a man named Mason Locke “Parson” Weems, author of the “biography” The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen, in which Weems recalled many fantastic, adulatory confabulations about a fabulously deified Washington, with particular emphasis on his overwhelming moral fortitude and infallibility. At various points in the work, Weems refers to Washington as a “hero,” a “demigod,” “the Jupiter Conservator” [or, “Jupiter, Savior of the World”] and, quite simply, the “greatest man that ever lived”.)
Perhaps it was Weems’ Washington biography that Bryan Fischer wants children to read while they’re busy skipping Obama’s speech. Additionally, what makes Fischer’s suggestion that the President’s speech would turn “the minds of an entire generation to mush” especially ironic is that the school system in this country already is doing just fine pulverizing truth and stifling critical thought without Obama’s help.
Never mind that in November 1988, President Ronald Reagan spoke directly to students on political issues via C-Span. During his address, Reagan even called taxes “such a penalty on people that there’s no incentive for them to prosper…because they have to give so much to the government.” Never mind that in 1989, President George H.W. Bush spoke to America’s youth about drugs via a live television feed. Then, in 1991, he delivered another speech on the value of education via a telecast on CNN and PBS. Media Matters for America reminds us that “while president, George H.W. Bush gave a speech to schoolchildren intended ‘to motivate America’s students to strive for excellence; to increase students’ as well as parents’ responsibility/accountability; and to promote students’ and parents’ awareness of the educational challenge we face.'” According to an article in The Washington Post from October 2, 1991, the “White House sent letters to schools across the nation to encourage teachers and principals to allow students to tune in the speech, which was also carried live by the Mutual Broadcasting and NBC Radio Network. The live television and radio coverage was arranged at the request of the Education Department.”
Never mind that, as researcher Simon Maloy points out, George W. Bush posted a “teacher’s guide” on the White House website intended to help students understand the “freedom timeline” and encouraged them to “explor[e] the biographies of the President, Mrs. Bush, Vice President, and Mrs. Cheney.”
Never mind that Obama tells our nation’s children, “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future,” while Bush promoted an agenda to make the United States, in his own words, “a more literate country and a hopefuller country,” especially by urging us, in a May 1, 2002 speech, to “take advantage of our fantastic opportunistic society.” Whereas on Tuesday Obama spoke of responsibility and accountability, encouraging our young students to stay in school and to “develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country,” Bush told a crowd in South Carolina on February 21, 2001 that if “you teach a child to read…he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.” Bush also pointed out, in early January of 2000, that “One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures” and philosophically mused that “Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?” Sure, Obama may have motivated whole classrooms full of young, inspired minds with his hopeful expectations when he concluded that “Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future,” but Bush hit the nail on the head when, in LaCrosse, Wisconsin on October 18, 2000, he dazzled his audience with this deft word-smithery: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
And yet, apparently it didn’t seem dangerous for that man to be allowed to talk to children. In school.
But hey, regardless of everything else, one thing seems clear. The right-wing commentators attacking Obama’s student address all seem to have something in common: they sure do love America’s innocent children and want to protect them, at all costs, from the malevolent machinations (whether Fascist or Communist..or both, together, no matter how mutually exclusive they may be) of a nefarious federal government brain trust. How dare the commander-in-chief and his minions seek to manipulate, indoctrinate, and take advantage of our country’s young people by luring them into blindly supporting and advancing the president’s every whim? How can decent, freedom-loving, and patriotic citizens simply stand back and do nothing about the looming specter of brainwashed hordes of American students, duped and enlisted by an administration’s imperial motivations and ideological agenda, pouring out of government schools as robotic, unthinking recruits and unwitting defenders of a terrifyingly authoritarian regime?
It would come as no surprise that the very same people lambasting Obama for attempting to infiltrate America’s school system in an effort to indoctrinate the malleable minds of our youth are staunch advocates of the United States’ military might, planetary hegemony, who put “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers on their American-made, gas-guzzling clunkers. The irony here is that the people who are apparently trying to “protect” our children from the grasp of “big government” have no problem with federally-mandated programs that, not only allow, but guarantee US military recruiters access to school kids. It seems that while they fear the multicultural commander-in-chief’s motives for telling students to study hard, they are just fine with the military’s invasion of those same students’ privacy in an effort to condition them to kill indigenous people in foreign countries at the behest of that same commander-in-chief.
A recent piece by journalist David Goodman reveals:
“In the past few years, the military has mounted a virtual invasion into the lives of young Americans. Using data mining, stealth websites, career tests, and sophisticated marketing software, the Pentagon is harvesting and analyzing information on everything from high school students’ GPAs and SAT scores to which video games they play. Before an Army recruiter even picks up the phone to call a prospect…the soldier may know more about the kid’s habits than do his own parents.”
Goodman, in his Mother Jones article, explains that a provision slipped into the No Child Left Behind Act by Louisiana Republican then-Representative (now Senator) David Vitter and signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002, was a boon to military recruiters. The provision “requires high schools to give recruiters the names and contact details of all juniors and seniors. Schools that fail to comply risk losing their NCLB funding.” As a result, Goodman continues, “this little-known regulation effectively transformed President George W. Bush’s signature education bill into the most aggressive military recruitment tool since the draft. Students may sign an opt-out form — but not all school districts let them know about it.”
But that’s not all.
Goodman reports that, in 2005, it was discovered that the Pentagon had spent the past two years amassing records from Selective Service, state DMVs, and data brokers to create a database of tens of millions of young adults and teens, some as young as 15, Goodman reports. The result of this massive data-mining project, overseen by the Joint Advertising Market Research & Studies program, is a recruiting database holding over 34 million names. The JAMRS database, run by credit report heavyweight Equifax, is described by its own website as “arguably the largest repository of 16-25-year-old youth data in the country.”
Ari Rosmarin, Senior Advocacy Coordinator at the New York Civil Liberties Union and currently working on the NYCLU’s “Project on Military Recruitment and Students’ Rights,” explains how difficult, if not impossible, it is for students to opt-out of the JAMRS database. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Rosmarin said, “According to the Pentagon, the only way to what they call opt-out of the database is for your parent — a student cannot do this his or herself — a parent needs to send a letter to the Pentagon, asking the Pentagon to take their student out of the list. And even then, you’re not removed from the list; you’re put into what’s called a suppression file, which is a separate list within the JAMRS system and database system that keeps you away out of that list, but you’re never really removed from the list.”
Even though the NYCLU filed and ultimately settled a lawsuit against the Pentagon in 2005, charging them with violating the Privacy Act and the Defense Act, which prohibits keeping information on students as young as fifteen, maintaining the information for over three years, the collection of Social Security numbers, and clarifying opt-out information, the military refused to cease the collection of racial and ethnic data.
This data is vital because the recruiters prey on poor and minority students. As a result, black and latino kids wind up in the military in disproportionate numbers to all other demographics. Eric Ruder reports, “In 1995, Tom Wilson, then a high-level official in charge of the Army’s personnel department, let the truth slip out in an interview. He explained how the military targeted students “particularly in inner cities…I hesitate to use the term at-risk kids, but kids who would otherwise be called at-risk.” Perhaps the war-crazy right-wing in this country was worried that if minority students are inspired by an African-American president’s motivation to become writers, inventors, doctors, lawyers, or architects, there might not be enough soldiers left to invade and occupy more foreign countries.
The Pentagon spends roughly $600,000 every year collecting information from commercial data brokers such as the Student Marketing Group and the American Student List, which keep records on millions of high school students. The government also secretly gathers information from unsuspecting internet users, vocational test-takers, and even videogame enthusiasts. Goodman reports,
This year, the Army spent $1.2 million on the website March2Success.com, which provides free standardized test-taking tips devised by prep firms such as Peterson’s, Kaplan, and Princeton Review. The only indications that the Army runs the site, which registers an average of 17,000 new users each month, are a tiny tagline and a small logo that links to the main recruitment website, GoArmy.com. Yet visitors’ contact information can be sent to recruiters unless they opt out, and students also have the option of having a recruiter monitor their practice test scores. Terry Backstrom, who runs March2Success.com for the US Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, insists that it is about “good will,” not recruiting. “We are providing a great service to schools that normally would cost them.”
Recruiters are also data mining the classroom. More than 12,000 high schools administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a three-hour multiple-choice test originally created in 1968 to match conscripts with military assignments. Rebranded in the mid-1990s as the “ASVAB Career Exploration Program,” the test has a cheerful home page that makes no reference to its military applications, instead declaring that it “is designed to help students learn more about themselves and the world of work.” A student who takes the test is asked to divulge his or her Social Security number, GPA, ethnicity, and career interests—all of which is then logged into the JAMRS database. In 2008, more than 641,000 high school students took the ASVAB; 90 percent had their scores sent to recruiters. Tony Castillo of the Army’s Houston Recruiting Battalion says that ASVAB is “much more than a test to join the military. It is really a gift to public education.”
To put all its data to use, the military has enlisted the help of Nielsen Claritas, a research and marketing firm whose clients include BMW, AOL, and Starbucks. Last year, it rolled out a “custom segmentation” program that allows a recruiter armed with the address, age, race, and gender of a potential “lead” to call up a wealth of information about young people in the immediate area, including recreation and consumption patterns. The program even suggests pitches that might work while cold-calling teenagers. “It’s just a foot in the door for a recruiter to start a relevant conversation with a young person,” says Donna Dorminey of the US Army Center for Accessions Research.
The efforts of aggressive military recruiters are also aided by a number of popular videogames. One of them, “American’s Army,” was created by the Pentagon itself and is available to play free online. According to Goodman, “one in four males between the age of thirteen and twenty-four have played this game” and the users who play it are, according to the Army, “29% more likely to be interested in serving in the military.” The other is the insanely popular Xbox game “Halo 3,” which has sold more copies than the entire Harry Potter series. The Army spent over a million dollars to sponsor the game and, in turn, players can link automatically from the game to the GoArmy.com recruiting website.
There have been endless stories about recruiting misconduct and lies military recruiters tell our nation’s vulnerable youth, once the recruiting process begins in earnest. Recruiters lie about non-binding contracts, “no combat” clauses in contracts, and threaten young recruits who change their minds about joining the military after signing up for the Delayed Enlistment Program.
But it seems that this stuff doesn’t bother conservative commentators or lawmakers, few of whom have actually served in the military themselves. The inconsistency of right-wing attacks never ceases to boggle the mind. They fear big government infiltration of public schools and yet support the most appalling example of big government: endless war and aggressive imperialism. In order to stay at war and maintain the Empire, the United States needs soldiers, by any means necessary. It doesn’t seem to matter that while some schools don’t have adequate or appropriate learning materials or resources for their students and faculties and that vital programs like “music” are being cut from budgets due to lack of funding, the US government, under President Barack Obama, has a yearly defense budget of over $700 billion (which doesn’t include the $100 billion per year that Iraq and Afghanistan cost). In fact, as Goodman tells us, “for every new GI it signed up last year, the Army spent $24,500 on recruitment. (In contrast, four-year colleges spend an average of $2,000 per incoming student.)”
On second thought, maybe Obama just wants our nation’s children to stay in school so that military recruiters know right where to find them. Hey, Fischer, what’s that cherry-tree story again?
This article also appeared on Wide Asleep in America on September 10, 2009.