The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

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Can We Trust Iran?

“If the nuclear crisis is ever to get resolved, now is the time for it to get resolved.”

—Payam Mohseni, Director of Iran Project, Harvard University

With the deadline for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program drawing near, The New York Times put out a video today outlining what is at stake in the Iran negotiations.

 

What's at Stake in the Iran Negotiations

 

As the video makes clear, reaching a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is a challenge, and violence is a real possibility if the negotiations fail. Domestic politics in both the United States and Iran presents huge obstacles, as do conflicts and instability in numerous other parts of the Middle East. But the video seems to claim that the core issue facing U.S. negotiators is whether the United States can trust Iran (and vice versa—whether Iran can trust the United States).

Lesley University Professor Jo-Anne Hart, an expert in U.S. and Iranian security issues, takes issue with this claim. In this video interview with the Choices Program, she argues that international agreements are never based on trust.

 

 

So which is it? Is trust the key ingredient to international relations or is it just an easy framework to latch onto when trying to understand exceedingly complex issues? What are the implications if we understand negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program as based on legally enforceable agreements instead of just on trust?

Choices has multiple curriculum resources to help students grapple with these questions. Our free online lesson Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue pushes students to explore, debate, and evaluate multiple perspectives on U.S. policy toward Iran and its nuclear program. In addition, we have just released a new edition of our full-length curriculum unit The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy, in which students analyze the history of Iran’s nuclear program as well as other pressing issues in the region, including the significance of oil, the rise of ISIS, the U.S. relationship with Israel, and instability in Yemen.

 

Nukes Over North Carolina—Were We Lucky?

A road marker in Eureka, NC.

A road marker in Eureka, NC.

On January 24, 1961, two hydrogen bombs crashed to the ground outside Goldsboro, North Carolina. One hit a field at 700 miles per hour and shattered without detonating. The other remained intact after its parachute was snared by the branches of a tree.

The plane carrying the bombs was a U.S. B-52 bomber. After taking off from a nearby air force base, the plane malfunctioned and broke to pieces as it plummeted from the sky. One of the bombs had completed much of its arming sequence, which led to the deployment of its parachute. All of the levers of the ignition device tripped, except for a single one. In 2013, declassified government documents revealed that the single switch prevented the bomb from exploding, averting what would likely have been millions of deaths and the formation of a crater on the eastern seaboard to be swallowed up by the Atlantic.

Our friends at the Armageddon Letters produced this short video to engage viewers in the complex discussion of nuclear weapons. The video uses the almost-unbelievable Goldsboro B-52 crash as an entry point into a debate about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the Cuban missile crisis. Professor Jim Blight asks, were we lucky? Or, considering that the bomb didn’t detonate, are we sufficiently safe in a world with nuclear weapons? The video could serve as a great hook for high school classes.

The following video of Joseph Cirincione also explores the Goldsboro scare and other nuclear close-calls, including the Cuban missile crisis:Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 4.01.05 PM

Explore more from Choices on these topics:

The Cuban Missile Crisis: Considering its Place in Cold War History

The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons

Photo by Arthunter (CC BY-SA 3.0).

 

How Do We Know the Climate is Changing?

“You will never see a headline that says ‘Climate change broke out today.’”

—Andrew Revkin, New York Times reporter, 2007

Scientists around the world are confident that human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, are drastically changing the climate. They draw this conclusion from a broad collection of evidence, including that:

  • over the past decade, sea levels have risen at almost double the rate that they have over the last century.
  • records starting in 1880 (when scientists started recording global average surface temperature) have shown that the earth is warming and that most of this warming has occurred since 1970. The ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1997, with 2014 being the warmest year of all.
  • glaciers around the world are rapidly retreating and ice sheets are shrinking. Glaciers have lost a total of roughly 400 billion tons of mass each year since 1994.
  • surface ocean waters have become about 30 percent more acidic since the start of the Industrial Revolution (oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide humans emit into the atmosphere, and as a result, become more acidic).
NASA

NASA

Despite the overwhelming evidence (and the findings listed above represent only the tip of the iceberg—no pun intended), it can be hard to understand and visualize the impacts of climate change. It is easy to see and feel the weather on a given day—if it’s sunny, rainy, snowy, hot, humid, etc.—but changes in the climate involve significant shifts in temperature, rainfall, wind, and other environmental factors that occur over decades or more. We can’t say whether the climate is changing based on our own observations over the course of days, months, or even years. So while scientists can study temperature records that have been collected over decades or more, how can the broader public get a clear picture of what “climate change” actually means?

Many artists have started to play an important role in helping to increase public awareness and understanding of climate change’s impacts. Some have turned to film—like Greenpeace’s Postcards from Climate Change, Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, and Ben Kalina’s Shored Up. Others, like David Arnold at Double Exposure, have used photography to show climate change’s dramatic but often unseen effects. Arnold returns to the sites of historic photographs of coral reefs and glaciers, some from as early as the 1930s, and replicates the original photos. Double Exposure then pairs the new and old photos together so viewers can see how each environment has changed over time.

Coral Reefs

Corals and the huge diversity of organisms they support are important in the fishing and tourism industries, and coral reefs also provide natural barriers that protect coastal communities from storms and floods. Yet, climate change poses a significant threat to corals—both through coral bleaching (a serious coral disease caused by increasing ocean temperatures) and ocean acidification, which reduces coral’s ability to grow and recover from damage and disease.

South Carysfort Reef, Florida Keys

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South Carysfort, Florida Keys—Before

South Carysfort, Florida Keys—After

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Before photo: Bill Harrigan, 1980. Used with permission. After photo: David Arnold, 2011. Used with permission.

Discovery Bay, Jamaica

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Discovery Bay, Jamaica—Before

Discovery Bay, Jamaica—After

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Before photo: Jim Porter, 1970. Used with permission. After photo: David Arnold, 2011. Used with permission.

Glaciers

Glaciers are a major provider of freshwater, both for drinking and for electricity generation, and also play a role in global climate regulation. But increases in temperature associated with climate change are causing them to melt rapidly. This raises ocean levels, threatening coastal communities around the world.

Valdez, Alaska

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Valdez, Alaska—Before

Valdez, Alaska—After

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Before photo: © Bradford Washburn, 1938 Courtesy of Archives, University of Alaska. Used with permission. After photo: © David Arnold, 2007. Used with permission.

Heney, Alaska

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Heney, Alaska—Before

Heney, Alaska—After

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Before photo: © Bradford Washburn, 1937. Taken on June 18, 1932 at noon. Used with permission. After photo: © David Arnold, 2007. Taken on September 13, 2006 at noon. Used with permission.

There are many barriers to responding to climate change. It can be expensive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially since fossil fuels are currently the cheapest form of energy to produce and use. Historical tensions and vast inequality in power, wealth, and greenhouse gas emissions between countries of the global North and the global South complicate international climate change negotiations. Local political disputes, including the denial of broadly accepted climate change science along partisan lines in the U.S. Congress, make reaching significant mitigation and adaptation agreements challenging. But despite these barriers, artistic efforts like Arnold’s can help to inspire individuals to take action in their own lives, facilitate a more widespread understanding of the importance of climate change, and build enough political will for governments to take strong action to curb the effects of climate change.

 

Climate Change and Questions of JusticeFor more on the causes and effects of climate change, as well as how to respond, check out our new full-length unit Climate Change and Questions of Justice. Lessons include opportunities for students to analyze countries’ greenhouse gas emissions data, the ways climate change impacts individual species, and how climate change policies are depicted in the media.

A lesson from the unit was also featured in the Jan/Feb issue of Social Education.

 

More photographs, as well as an extensive collection of additional resources on climate change’s effects on glaciers and coral reefs, can be found at Double Exposure’s website.

Why Does Climate Change Matter?

That the climate is changing, and that human activity is playing a substantial role in accelerating that change, is not a new discovery. About one hundred years ago, a Swedish chemist first calculated how human emissions of greenhouse gases might influence global average temperatures. At the Earth Summit in 1992—the largest gathering of international leaders in history—government officials from around the world agreed that climate change was a shared and dangerous problem. Why, then, has it taken so long for widespread public concern about this important issue to grow?

Historically, climate change has often been framed as an environmental issue—an issue that would drastically affect the lives of polar bears, migration routes of birds, habitat ranges of trees, melting of ice caps, and more. But why all of these changes matter to people hasn’t always been emphasized. In reality, humans rely on a multitude of services that plants, animals, and nature provide for our homes, health, and livelihoods. In the following video, Brown Professor Dov Sax discusses some of the reasons why climate change matters to people.

In addition, many of the countries that are historically most responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change are least vulnerable to its effects. Poorer countries, which generally have less capacity to take action and respond, are experiencing the effects of climate change first and worst. These dynamics make it harder to motivate wealthier countries to take significant action on climate change. The following cartograms (maps distorted to reflect a dataset) and captions from carbonmap.org help illustrate this gap between responsibility for and vulnerability to climate change.

Countries by Land Area

Countries by Land Area

Country sizes in this map show actual land area. Most world maps don’t show this accurately as it isn’t possible to represent the globe as a flat map without compromising on either shape or area.

Countries by Wealth

Countries by Wealth

Country sizes in this map show total GDP (2013), the sum of all the economic activity in each nation. The map is dominated by North America and Western Europe, which account for more than half the world’s GDP, despite being home to less than a fifth of the global population.

Countries by Historical Emissions

Countries by Historical Emissions

Country sizes in this map show CO₂ emissions from energy use 1850-2011. These historical (or “cumulative”) emissions remain relevant because CO₂ can remain in the air for centuries. Europe and the US dominate, having released around half the CO₂ ever emitted.

Countries by the Number of People at Risk

Countries by the Number of People at Risk

Country sizes show the number of people injured, left homeless, displaced or requiring emergency assistance due to floods, droughts or extreme temperatures in a typical year. Climate change is expected to exacerbate many of these threats.

These maps show that broadly, the countries that have contributed least to the problem of climate change are home to the most people at risk and have the least financial capacity to respond. As a result of these global disparities in responsibility and vulnerability, some environmental activists are now approaching climate change as an issue of justice. In this video, Brown Professor J. Timmons Roberts explains what this idea of “climate justice” means.

This new approach to how we think about climate change may help increase the urgency with which we view this issue. Indeed, attention to climate change has surged in recent years. This past September, the People’s Climate March drew over 400,000 people into the streets of New York City for the largest climate march in history. Over 2,600 additional events in 162 countries took place on the same day, all intended to send a message to international leaders that they must take significant action to slow and reduce the effects of climate change.

Since then, the United States and China announced a joint emissions reduction agreement—China’s first ever commitment to cap its carbon dioxide emissions. At the December Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Lima, Peru, governments from all countries—rich and poor alike—agreed for the first time to voluntarily create plans to reduce their domestic greenhouse gas emissions. In U.S. President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, climate change got quite a bit of air time. Obama appears committed to making action on climate change a key part of his presidential legacy.

All of this attention is leading up to the Paris, France COP in December 2015—the deadline for international leaders to settle a new, binding international agreement on emissions reductions to prevent the most dangerous effects of climate change.

How should the international community respond to climate change in a way that is both fair and effective? What roles can local governments, organizations, and individuals play in responding to this global problem? Should responses focus on preventing future greenhouse gas emissions or on adapting to the effects climate change is already having? What is the relationship between economic development and combating climate change?

 

Climate Change and Questions of JusticeChallenge students to grapple with these questions with our new full-length unit Climate Change and Questions of Justice. Students will explore the causes and effects of global warming and delve into questions of who is most responsible for and vulnerable to the changing climate.

Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris

FreeSpeech

On January 7, 2015, two gunmen attacked the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people. The attacks are presumed to be in response to several controversial cartoons that the magazine published depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The events have ignited a global debate on the topic of freedom of speech, explored in Choices’ free online lesson, The Struggle to Define Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris.

Days after the attack, millions of people marched in rallies across France. Many carried posters and banners inscribed with the phrase “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”) to show solidarity with the magazine. Sales of Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance have skyrocketed in recent weeks in France, and much of the nation’s population has rallied around his, and their own, staunch belief in freedom of thought and condemnation of censorship.flag copy

Yet the magazine has also drawn criticism from individuals and leaders around the world who contend that the cartoons went too far. Critics point to the magazine’s long history of publishing content that, in their opinion, stokes Islamophobia and racism. They question why cartoonists have used their pens to further fracture a country and world already fraught with tension and intolerance.

Turkey, Morocco, and other countries have banned the distribution of Charlie Hebdo. Violent demonstrations have broken out in several places, including Pakistan, where parliament has even passed resolutions condemning the publication, stating that, “This is an attempt to divide peoples and civilisations. There is a need to promote harmony among people and communities instead of reinforcing stereotypes and making people alienated in their own countries.” Pope Francis has chimed in, declaring that insults against the faith of others are beyond the limits of acceptable free speech.

Still others, including many who disapprove of the content of the cartoons, caution against government interference in the free flow of ideas. They stand by the belief that the irreverence of cartoonists, journalists, and artists is a transformative and essential force in a healthy society. Teju Cole writes, “[I]t is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.”

“But drawing the line between speech that is disgusting and speech that is dangerous is inherently difficult and risky,” states a recent New York Times editorial. France has been quick to arrest and prosecute those who have uttered words of support for the attacks, even when defendants have not threatened violence. Some have criticized French authorities for having a double standard when it comes to expression.

Despite many important distinctions, much of the current discourse on France echoes a debate that shook the United States almost forty years ago—In 1977, a Neo-Nazi group proposed marching through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a small city that was home to many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. The ACLU defended the Nazi’s right to march, the Anti-Defamation League sued in an attempt to prevent it, and people throughout the United States wrestled with the question of how to interpret the First Amendment.

Are there limits to freedom of expression? What should they be? And what can we gather from the cases of Skokie and Paris to help us decide? Challenge your students to explore these questions with the Teaching with the News lesson, The Struggle to Define Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris.

Photos by photograpix (CC BY 2.0) and Tim (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Why is Nigeria important?

Street in Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria (Zouzou Wizman CCby2.0)

Street in Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria (Zouzou Wizman CCby2.0)

Choices recently released a Teaching with the News lesson on Nigeria and Boko Haram. In fact, Nigeria has been a country of interest in the Choices writers’ room this year—from this free lesson on the largest security threat faced by the country to inclusion as one of the key case studies in our soon-to-be-released full-length curriculum unit on climate change. So why is Nigeria a place worth studying?

 

1. It has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Nigeria is one of only two African countries in the list of 3G (or Global Growth Generators) countries. These countries have been identified as attractive places for investment because of the incredible growth potential they have. In fact, Citigroup predicts that Nigeria will have the highest average growth in GDP in the world between 2010 and 2050. Not only does this anticipated growth imply that Nigeria may be a model for economic development for other countries in the developing world, it also means that Nigeria is bound to have more bargaining power in the international system and increasingly important relations with countries like the United States. Despite these prospects, however, there is vast economic inequality (particularly between the poor north and relatively more affluent south) and corruption is rife.

 

2. It has great cultural richness and diversity.

Nigeria’s cultural richness is evident in the arts. Nigerian music is enjoyed throughout the continent, with legends like Fela Kuti forming a cornerstone of African music. Nigerian cinema is also important. “Nollywood” is the second largest film industry in the world, ahead of the United States and behind India. Finally, Nigeria has been a hub for literary ingenuity—boasting Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, celebrated author Chinua Achebe, and popular writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nnedi Okorafor.

Nigeria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. Ethnicities in Nigeria include Yoruba (21% of the population), Hausa (21%), and Igbo (18%) as well as many smaller ethnic groups, and Christianity, Islam, and traditional African religions are practiced widely. This diversity is one of Nigeria’s great strengths, but has also been a source of conflict. In 1967, after a coup by soldiers from the north, a region that tends to be majority Hausa and Muslim, the Igbo-dominated southeast tried to secede from Nigeria and become the Republic of Biafra. As a result, the country was torn by civil war (known as the Biafran War) until the Biafrans were defeated in 1970. More recently, economic inequality between the north and south of Nigeria has created new religious and ethnic tensions, which have perpetuated the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist insurgency, Boko Haram.

 

3. It holds important natural resources.

Nigeria is the twelfth largest petroleum producer and has the tenth largest proven oil reserves. In 1971, it became a member of OPEC, an organization of oil-exporting nations that is famous for the price-inflating 1973 embargo in response to U.S. support of Israel. Nigeria’s oil reserves have certainly been a source of many of its successes (especially its growing influence) but have also led to many of the nation’s problems. Economic inequality, ethnic tension and mistrust, and the creation of a political culture of corruption can all be linked to the country’s oil wealth and the complications with governing it—making Nigeria a potential example of the “resource curse” discussed by political scientists and economists.

Oil production has also wreaked havoc on the local environment. Poor safety procedures by companies like Shell have gone largely unpunished and have damaged water supplies and polluted the air in the Niger River Delta. Gas flaring (burning the natural gas that is a byproduct of drilling) has received particular criticism and led to the rise of local community action against oil companies. Nigerian women’s groups in particular have been important in fighting against these practices, which not only degrade the immediate environment but also result in massive greenhouse gas emissions that damage the global atmosphere.

 

“Social conditions in Nigeria bring to light how women are especially vulnerable to climate change and that they play an important role in resisting environmental degradation.”

~ Climate Change and Questions of Justice (coming soon)

 

4. It is one of the historic centers of African Unity.

In 1960, Nigeria gained independence from Britain, and in 1963, after parts of British Cameroon decided to unite with Nigeria rather than with French Cameroon, it became a Federal Republic with Nnamdi Azikiwe as its first president.

Nnamdi Azikiwe and Princess Alexandra of Kent at Nigeria's Independence ceremony (Care2 CCbySA2.0)

Nnamdi Azikiwe and Princess Alexandra of Kent at Nigeria’s Independence ceremony (Care2 CCbySA2.0)

Azikiwe was a leader in the Pan-African Movement. Pan-Africanism was an ideology shared by important African and African American figures like Kwame Nkrumah and W.E.B. Du Bois, and it focused on a shared identity among those of African descent. This took particular importance during the decades of decolonization on the continent, where leaders of liberation movements and newly independent countries drew on the ideals of “collective self-reliance” to develop a united front against colonial forces. Azikiwe was one of the founders of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union, or AU), a body that was instrumental in providing continent-wide support for liberation movements in countries that were late to achieve independence or majority rule (such as Zimbabwe and South Africa). This organization later came to be seen by many as a “dictators’ club,” where undemocratic and violent rule by many post-independence governments was ignored in favor of solidarity and a continued effort to limit the involvement of the United States and Europe in African affairs.

 

See the free Teaching with the News lesson, Nigeria and Boko Haram: Inequality, Injustice, Insurgency.

For more on liberation movements in Africa see our full-length unit, Colonization and Independence in Africa.

For more on economic growth, trade, and power see our full length unit, International Trade: Competition and Cooperation in a Globalized World.

Breaking the Mold On Cuba

 

cubapolicy6.5This classic cartoon on U.S.-Cuba relations from 2004 pretty neatly illustrates 50 years of a relationship frozen in place. That’s done. A chapter from the Cold War has come to a close, but what comes next? There are many questions that are getting attention in the news right now. These questions also offer opportunities for high school classrooms to explore and follow in the coming months as history unfolds.  Will the embargo continue? How will this affect the 2016 presidential race in the United States? Will there be an economic transition in Cuba? Will it be more like the ones in the Soviet bloc or more like China? What will Cuba’s political future be?

A dimension worth considering is what kind of future the people of Cuba want for themselves. Change is coming, but Cubans have very different opinions about their country and its history—this affects how they think about the future. A curriculum unit from Choices, Contesting Cuba’s Past and Future, helps students step into the shoes of ordinary Cubans and consider what comes next.

This curriculum helps students gain a broader understanding of the country that has often occupied the attention of the world since 1959. Besides offering an overview of Cuban history, the unit focuses on the legacies of Cuba’s relationships with Spain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Although most recognize Cuba’s role in the Cold War, recent research suggests that Cuba often marched to its own drum, and not that of the Soviet Union. The readings trace Cuba’s history from the country’s precolonial past to its  recent economic, social, and political changes. A central activity helps students recreate the discussions Cubans on the island are having about their future.

Contesting Cuba’s Past and Future contains lessons (listed below) and Scholars Online Videos that complement the readings and lessons. The curriculum is also available as an IBook for the  Ipad.
Lessons

José Martí and His Legacy
Using a variety of primary sources as well as a timeline and map, students assess the contested legacy of José Martí among Cubans.

The Dance of the Millions
Students analyze economic data from Cuba’s “dance of the millions” in 1920 and compare Cuban sugar to commodities in Germany that same year.

Operation Carlota
Using a variety of Cuban, U.S., Russian, South African, Angolan, and European sources, students assess competing perspectives of Cuba’s foreign policy in Angola.

The Special Period
Using numerous sources from the 1990s, including literature, hip-hop lyrics, jokes, and art, students explore the relationship between politics and popular culture.

Role-Playing the Three Options
Working collaboratively to present different options to a group of fictional Cuban citizens, students clarify and evaluate various political and economic options.

Cuban Government
Students create their own working definitions of “democracy” and explore a variety of media sources to assess claims that Cuba is a democracy.

Cuban American Experiences
Using excerpts of Cuban American memoirs, students create characters representing a wide array of Cuban American experiences and points of view.

 

One of the interesting things about the protests of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York is how they are understood and interpreted.  TV news or the headlines tend to focus and report on them as responses to the grand jury decisions themselves, which they certainly are. But a long history is also at play here that can get missed or overlooked. Reading the signs or listening to protesters, one can hear calls for the end to systemic injustice and impunity—impunity that has affected African American victims of white violence for centuries. Underlying the protests is the belief that the justice system has never worked the same way for all of us.

December 3, 2014.
Photo by Charlie Magovern/Neon Tommy
(CC BY-SA 2.0).

This short clip of Dave Dennis giving the eulogy at the funeral of the murdered civil rights worker James Chaney in the summer of 1964 is a painfully apt illustration of this doubt about the justice system.

The clip omits his conclusion to “You see, I know what is going to happen. I feel it deep in my heart – when they find the people who killed those guys in Neshoba County….” What didn’t make into the clip was what Dave Dennis said next… “they [will] come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury of all their cousins and aunts and uncles. And I know what they are going to say: Not guilty.”

As protests continue, there is an opportunity to add historical perspective to the debates that are playing out around all of us.  Race and the history of relations between white and black people in the United States remains a charged and challenging topic. Tackling this challenge can bring the reward of new understanding of the past as well the present for students. The Choices Program has curriculum resources that engage students with this historical context and provide a foundation to consider what’s happening right now.

Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi can be used as a springboard for explorations of current race relations in the United States. It gives students a good understanding of the historical underpinnings of racial inequality, drawing clear connections between inequalities of the past and inequalities that exist today.

There are free videos of scholars answering fundamental questions about this history as well as free activities and resources.

 A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England seeks to inform students of the economic and social impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North. Historians comment that New England has “forgotten” its slave-owning past, and that such a narrative—one that remembers abolition but not enslavement—has had far-reaching consequences for black-white relations and the nature of race in the United States.

There are free videos of scholars answering questions as well as activities and resources.

The United States, Iran, and Flipping the Coin on Nuclear Non-Proliferation

For many this November, anticipating the outcomes of soon-concluding nuclear negotiations with Iran seems impossible. The idea that we could only predict the resolution (or lack thereof) with a “coin toss” is complicated by this video by Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares fund.

This concept of the interdependence of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament brings new questions about the role of nuclear countries in ensuring that Iran does not gain nuclear weapons. The questions we have been asking so far of the U.S. government and other countries at the table have been about how to deal with the talks themselves (how to create a mutually beneficial and binding agreement, how to ensure that Iran keeps its commitments as a signatory of the NPT, what to insist upon or where to compromise). What has perhaps been lacking from the conversation are questions about how the United States and other countries with nuclear weapons can create a global atmosphere where nuclear non-proliferation makes nuke-less countries feel more (rather than less) safe. According to Cirincione’s portrayal of nuclear politics, this safety comes from the other side of the coin—disarmament.

Despite President Obama’s rhetorical commitment to nuclear reduction (his Nobel Prize award was marked for his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”), the White House has not effectively signaled to the rest of the world that the United States is taking any serious steps towards reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. In fact, the Pentagon recently announced it intentions of vast increases in nuclear spending. Most of this spending will be on improving the safety of nuclear equipment and training the security forces in charge of them, but the failure to attach reductions in nuclear arms to the expensive nuclear development plan means the measures signal something very different to the rest of the world.

In an article in People’s Daily (the official daily newspaper of the Chinese government), Wen Xian Wang Hongjie calls the program a “new policy on revitalizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent” and implies that it is linked to disappointments in the outcomes of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article ends cynically– “It is ironic that on the one hand the American government is taking vigorous action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, while on the other hand it is preparing for a complete overhaul of its own nuclear arsenal.”

The implications of these type of viewpoints are considerable. If the United States is not showing adequate commitments to nuclear reductions but is rather (in the eyes of many other countries) increasing its own nuclear armament, the prospects for wider disarmament and non-proliferation may be severely reduced. Regardless of the true intentions of the nuclear re-vamp, the fact that it was not linked to reductions in nuclear arsenals has led to many parts of the world perceiving the actions as projected increases in U.S. nuclear power. Cirincione’s coin flip, from non-proliferation to disarmament to non-proliferation and so on, can work in reverse. As nuclear powers like the United States are seen to be increasing their arsenals, their nuclear neighbors may do the same to maintain the balance of power, and non-nuclear countries in an increasingly nuclear world may face greater security pressure to develop nuclear weaponry.

As well as asking how the United States and other nuclear countries are using negotiations to keep Iran committed to non-proliferation, should we be asking what they have done outside of the negotiation room to make an agreement possible? Is it time to flip the coin?

 

Bring some of these questions into your classroom with Choices’ FREE Teaching with the News lesson, Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue . The lesson features videos from outstanding scholars, Jo-Ann Hart, Trita Parsi, and Joe Cirincione and includes one of Choices’ hallmark Options Role Plays. View this and other Teaching with the News lesson plans here.

 

The TWTN lesson is a great supplement to these full-length units:

The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons

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Iran Through the Looking Glass: History, Reform, and Revolution

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The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy  (new edition coming soon!)

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The Umbrella Movement and Trends of Modern Protest

Over the past five years, we have seen a surge of public uprisings around the world. From Tunis, Cairo, and Madrid to Istanbul, Kiev, and Caracas, people have turned to public protest and civil disobedience to express frustration with their countries’ distinct social, economic, and political states.

The Choices Program has just published a new Teaching with the News lesson on the recent prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong. The protests have emerged in response to the Chinese government’s announcement that although it will allow universal suffrage in the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, voters will only be able to choose among two or three candidates selected by a nominating committee. Protesters fear that the Chinese government will use this nominating committee to ensure that only pro-Beijing candidates enter the election process.

Protesters gathered in downtown Hong Kong earlier this month. (Pasu Au Yeung, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

In what ways is Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Movement” similar to and different from other civil disobedience demonstrations that have emerged in recent years? In a video interview for our Scholars Online collection, Brown Professor Melani Cammett discusses some of the broad issues that contributed to the wave of popular uprisings in the Arab world in 2010-2011.

As has been the case with the revolutions in the Arab world, protesters in Hong Kong are demanding more democratic freedoms from their government—specifically, in this case, the right to democratically nominate and elect their government leader. Economic inequality within Hong Kongese society and frustrations among highly educated young people about challenges finding work and housing are also contributing to public discontent. In addition, like in the Arab revolutions, the Hong Kong protests are comprised of large numbers of young people—many of whom are still too young to vote.

But despite these similarities, there are stark differences between the protest movements. Many of the Arab countries that experienced mass revolutions beginning in 2010 and 2011 suffer from widespread poverty and government corruption. In contrast, Hong Kong is China’s economic hub and has become known for its “clean and corruption-free” government. Furthermore, many of the Arab revolutions demanded and ultimately resulted in the overthrow of authoritarian leaders from countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The Hong Kong protests, on the other hand, are centered primarily around one aspect of election policy in Hong Kong. While protesters have expressed a desire for Hong Kong’s chief executive, CY Leung, to step down, they are not attempting any sort of revolution to change the government structure of China as a whole. In fact, the Hong Kongese prodemocracy group Occupy Central has been vocal about its desire to be called a “movement” as opposed to a “revolution.” They are decidedly nonviolent and the scope of their demands is limited.

Moreover, many of the initially peaceful protests in the Arab world have resulted in tragically violent conflicts and harsh government repression—most strikingly in the case of Syria and its descent into a brutal civil war. While the Chinese government has not expressed any willingness to meet protesters’ demands for open public nomination of Hong Kong’s chief executive, a peaceful dialogue has already begun between government officials and student protest leaders.

Comparing the current protests in Hong Kong with one specific protest movement, like the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey, can also help to illuminate common tools and tactics of modern protests. In another Scholars Online video interview, Barbara Petzen, an education consultant specializing in how to teach about the Middle East, discusses creative ways Turkish protesters responded to media censorship during the Gezi Park protests.

While what triggered the Gezi Park protests and Hong Kong’s protests are different, there are similarities in how the government responded to each as well as in the strategies protesters used to get their messages across. Like in the case of Turkey, the Chinese government has censored many news and media outlets in response to the recent protests. In China, the press has depicted Hong Kong protesters as extremists who threaten the unity of China, and the government has shut down social media sites like Instagram. This government censorship has impacted how mainland Chinese view the protests in Hong Kong. In addition, censoring posts on Weibo (a site similar to Twitter) has affected the ability of protesters to communicate with each other. This has prompted creative solutions—for instance, many protesters in Hong Kong have been using alternative social media apps, like FireChat, that do not rely on the internet.

In addition, both the Gezi Park protesters and Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protesters have used strong symbolism in getting their messages across. Whether a spray-painted penguin with a gas mask in the case of Gezi Park or a trash collection bin emblazoned with the number 689 (the number of votes current Hong Kong chief executive received from China’s electoral committee) in Hong Kong, protesters have demonstrated ingenuity and creativity.

KeithPictures (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Hong Kong protesters have received international attention for regularly cleaning protest sites and setting up recycling centers. Many trash bags and cans have signs attached with messages such as “Throw out your 689 here” and “689! General waste.” (KeithPictures, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

Learning about the Hong Kong democracy protests can help students think about the role of mass public action in politics and grapple with the question of how protests in varied places and times can be both similar and different. How and why do public protests arise? What tactics do protesters use? Are there clear leaders of civil disobedience movements? What relationship do protesters have with government officials and police? What role do technology and social media play—both for the protesters and for the governments they are demonstrating against? What does it mean for a protest to be “successful”?

 

Check out Choices’ new free lesson on the Hong Kong protests, and for more on the history of China’s political development, see the unit China on the World Stage: Weighing the U.S. Response.

 

Some Choices units that deal with the theme of public protest and enfranchisement:

More FREE Teaching with the News lessons on uprisings:

And look out for our new unit on experiencing and responding to climate change, coming soon!

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