The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Author: Danielle S. Johnstone

Pursuing Happiness: Whose American Revolution?

Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the words that established an independent United States. It is these values that many continue to point to as essential to the nature of the country—the promise of existence as human, the assurance of freedom from tyranny, the right to pursue wellness. They are supreme ideals, a foundation of justice and equality upon which to build a society. But, the idea that these rights should extend to all humans is relatively new to U.S. history—the founding fathers did not intend for the full extension of the Declaration of Independence to colonial women, native peoples, or enslaved or free people of African descent.

In fact, in July 1852, Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and orator, called attention to the fact that people of African descent continued to be denied the rights inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. By continuing slavery, the U.S. government did not merely fail to deliver the basic rights to enslaved people, it actively prevented these people from being able to obtain life, liberty, or wellness.  “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us,” said Douglass. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

[A transcription of the speech can be found here.]

Truly, independence did not belong to all people. It certainly did not belong to all people in the former colonies in 1783. The peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War and acknowledged the autonomy of the colonists also ignored land rights of native peoples (allowing them to be seen as “foreign nations” by the new U.S. government) and characterized black people as property. The new nation did not affirm the liberty of women of any race or ethnicity.

In fact, the Revolution itself, which we often view as an inevitable and logical response to the tyranny of British government, did not belong to all people in North America either. The common focus on the words of Jefferson and Paine, the idealistic commitment in action of Paul Revere and George Washington, and the engagement of crowds to fight British taxation often belies that “pursuit of happiness” in the colonies did not always take the form of allegiance to the patriots.

Some notable members of the "Sons of Liberty," a name given to some groups of colonial patriots leading the fight for independence.

Notable members of the “Sons of Liberty,” a name given to some groups of colonial patriots leading the fight for independence. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

For many white colonists, objection to taxation without representation did not necessitate a desire for independence. Many, attached to their British identity and the safety of being part of a larger British empire in the face of competition from the French for land, fought as loyalists. Even some of those who fought with the patriots in Quebec, Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord did so hoping to gain better representation in Parliament or autonomy over colonial finance rather than a complete break from Britain.

For enslaved people, forms of government or taxation were largely irrelevant. Freedom from tyranny meant freedom from the bonds of slavery. Enslaved people selected their alliances based on who they believed would deliver this liberty. Some fought for the patriots, hoping that this would earn them the loyalty of a new government if independence were to occur. Others fought for the British, expecting that their service would be exchanged for freedom by a British government whose politics seemed to be drifting towards the prospect of abolition.

For native peoples, alliance-building was also a gamble. For native nations that aligned themselves with the patriots, promises of fuller autonomy after independence were key. For those aligned with the British, there was a reliance on a stronger hand from the metropole, which had typically restricted colonists’ expansion and the movement of the frontier.

Thinking beyond the patriotic language of the Sons of Liberty, we are forced to ask many more questions about American Independence. Whose Revolution was this? What was rebellion really about? What did “liberty” mean to different people in the colonies? How do we explain those who were “patriotic” to something other than the ideals of the patriots? How does this diversity of identity, political opinion, and economic interest help us understand the United States today?

These questions have profound importance for understanding the past and the future of the United States. Acknowledging that independence in the eighteenth century was incomplete helps show the reality of the United States being a continued work in progress. Freeing the country from the illusion that the pinnacle of justice and liberty was situated hundreds of years ago empowers learners to consider what the national goal should be, which of the principles of independence and revolution still need to be attained, and what we can learn from both the successes and limitations of the past. Examining how people in the revolutionary era made choices helps learners grapple with the options they face today.

 

Keep a look out for the new Choices curriculum unit, The American Revolution: Experiences of Rebellion, coming in 2016!
The unit considers how the varied populations of seventeenth and eighteenth century North America experienced and viewed colonization and revolution, encouraging students to step into the shoes of people in 1776 to debate the future of the thirteen colonies.
Watch our home page for the release of this unit.

More on Frederick Douglass’s speech.
More on black loyalists.

South Africa: News Engagement Series #1

October 6 is National News Engagement Day, a day when “everyone is encouraged to read, watch, like, tweet, post, text, email, listen to, or comment on news.”

News and the media is a vital part of social studies education today, which is why The Choices Program does our best to get current affairs content available for teachers to use in their classrooms. Our Current Issues Series deals with some of the most important challenges facing the world today, encouraging students to consider the decisions made by policy makers and citizens in facing a changing future. We also produce Teaching With The News lessons to address situations as we see them come into the focus of the media.

For the week of National News Engagement Day, some of the Choices staff will be sharing the news-related resources they use to inform and inspire their work.

Danielle Johnstone, Program Associate, Writing Team

My recommendation for a news-related resource:
The Mail & Guardian Online


What it is:
The Mail & Guardian is a South African newspaper. The website reports on National (South African), African and World news. M&G also runs various blogs and a center for investigative journalism.


Why I like it and think you might find it interesting:

  1. M&G should definitely be bookmarked if you are teaching about South Africa. The journalists reporting on national issues often make strong historical connections, particularly to the apartheid era and the challenges it has caused for contemporary South Africa.
  2. I like to visit the M&G world news section to be aware of how news outlets outside of the United States are covering U.S. and international issues. Often M&G will be covering issues or situations that have been ignored by the U.S. media. Sometimes they cover issues that have dominated U.S. and European news with a different (perhaps more nuanced) perspective. M&G’s coverage of African issues, in particular, tends to be remarkably different to what you will see on the BBC or New York Times.
  3. The M&G Thought Leader blog by Mandela-Rhodes scholars is a gem. The contributing writers are young South Africans who are/were recipients of the Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship, and they express their opinions about things happening in South Africa and beyond. Not only are the posts engaging and well-written, they also show how young people in South Africa are grappling with many of the same issues facing their counterparts in the U.S. and beyond—race, violence, injustice, an intimidating economy. Reading the blog is an excellent way to challenge stereotypes; it encourages readers to recognize that young people in the developing world are not just victims but are also educated, thoughtful, and facing complex questions about their world and their futures.

Bonus:
For a sample of M&G’s arts and culture reporting, check out this article on musician and composer  “Mac” McKenzie and his innovative impact on South African music.


Choices Program resource:
Freedom in Our Lifetime: South Africa’s Struggle

Money in Politics

“Elections should be determined by who has the best ideas, not who can hustle the most money from the rich and powerful.” There are the words of Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democrat nomination for the 2016 presidential election, famous for being a self-described democratic socialist and the longest serving independent in Congress. While Sanders is known for pushing political boundaries, his views on money in politics are not exactly radical. A recent CBS-New York Times poll has shown that a whopping 84 percent of people (90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans) think that money has too much influence on political campaigns today. 46 percent of respondents believed that the system for funding political campaigns is so flawed it must be completely rebuilt.

Although campaign financing did not rank high on the list of most important problems facing the United States (the economy and jobs, predictably, dominated the poll), campaign funding is becoming an important talking point in the long run up to next year’s election. For example, Hillary Clinton, the predicted front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has made campaign financing a key element of her campaign. “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all—even if it takes a constitutional amendment,” Clinton said at an event in April 2015.

The controversy around money in politics revolves largely around recent developments in laws about campaign funding. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that there cannot be limits on third-party spending on political campaigns. This ruling was based on the First Amendment. But why is third-party political spending important? What is the public’s concern?

The New York Times released the following video, explaining “the murky process of campaign contributions and the impact of anonymous donations on the political system.”

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In many ways, the question of campaign finance is similar to many other questions we ask about the government, the United States, and the world we live in. Decisions about issues like how money in politics should (or should not) be regulated revolve around values. Values play a key role when defining the broad parameters of public policy. What do we believe about ourselves? What matters most to us? When strongly held values come into conflict, which are most important? Equality or free speech? The democracy of changing a system that most people believe to be in need of an overhaul, or the stability of maintaining a system that is not ideal but works? Some values fit together well. Others are in conflict. Governments and their citizens are constantly being forced to choose among competing values in their ongoing debates about public policy.

The Options Roles Play in Choices curriculum units not only invites students to identify and express the key values present in different policy perspectives or options, it also creates a framework where students can identify and prioritize their own values.  As the United States enters this long campaign period, recognizing values and how they relate to policy will be a vital part of being an engaged citizen and choosing a government that will help create the kind of future you want to see.

 

Related resources from the Choices Program:

Considering the Role of Values in Public Policy is an activity that uses “value cards” to analyze how political values play a part in civic life.

U.S.RoleStudentThe U.S. Role in a Changing World is a full-length curriculum unit where students reflect on global changes, assess national priorities, and decide for themselves the role the United States should play in the world today. It places U.S. policy in global perspective, inviting students to decide how the United States should frame its future.

Mexico: Searching for a Safe Future

Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

 

In September 2014, in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, first-year students from the teacher training college of Ayotzinapa came into conflict with the police, who fired on their bus. During the confrontation, forty-three of these students disappeared. The remains of only one of the students have been found.

Guerrero is known as one of the poorest and most violent states in Mexico. Its inhabitants live under the constant pressure of poverty and fear. The following video by The New Yorker shows that the abduction of the students of the Ayotzinapa Normal School is part of a long-ignored history of insecurity and pain in Guerrero.


Note: this video contains some disturbing content and images.Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 10.51.20 AM

 

The abduction has shaken the world. Not only has it shown the violence against young innocents (in stark contrast to the common narrative of Mexico’s violence being enacted between drug cartels and national security forces only), it has also shown the striking complicity of the central government in brutality against ordinary citizens. The Mexican government’s claims that the students were murdered by drug-traffickers after being kidnapped by police, and their promises that municipal government officials will be tried have been greeted with scorn. Witness testimony suggests that, in addition to local police forces, military personnel from a nearby base were also present at the confrontation. But the government refuses to investigate the military. Many people in Mexico feel that this symbolizes the failure of the government to ensure the safety of its citizens and to take responsibility for the violence. For some, this seems to be proof that the federal government is deeply implicated in the violence.

 

Protests in November 2014 in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The sign reads, “Not only 43. We are more than 120 million Mexicans calling for justice.” Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

Protests in November 2014 in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The sign reads, “Not only 43. We are more than 120 million Mexicans calling for justice.” Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

 

Unsurprisingly, protests have broken out across Mexico. The cries of the protesters reflect various types of pain, anger at multiple injustices. There have been links made to the government’s violent suppression of student demonstrations in 1968, known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. Proponents of greater autonomy for Mexico’s indigenous populations, such as the famous EZLN or Zapatista Army who led armed rebellions against the central government in the 1990s, have added cries for economic equality, land reform, and more local power. These people have joined together in common frustration at a government that has earned their deep mistrust. For most, the abductions signify yet another instance of state-sponsored violence, widespread impunity, and the failure of the government to perform the most basic terms of the social contract—to protect its people. In light of this, many have begun to question the legitimacy of the national government, and there have been calls for revolution.

 

A march in solidarity with Ayotzinapa. The EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) fights for greater rights for indigenous communities and increased economic equality across Mexico. They have established thirty-two autonomous communities in Chiapas, where there have been documented improvements to gender equality and public health. Somos El Medio (CC BY 2.0)

 

Ultimately, the Ayotzinapa kidnapping has brought a history of tensions to a head. The Mexican people are asking what the future of their country can be. How can they secure their families and themselves from vast, unpunished violence? How will crime, corruption, and poverty be addressed? Can the central government, a body whose public support and citizen trust is corroding, play a part in creating this future? While international bodies like the UN have condemned how the Mexican government has handled the case, the U.S. government has been largely silent. Human rights organizations were outraged when U.S. President Obama did not mention the case during a meeting with Mexican President Peña Nieto in January 2015. This begs even more questions—what should Mexico’s relationship with the United States look like as the country moves forward? Can the U.S. government be trusted to partner in protecting the lives and interests of the Mexican people? What effects might this have on trade, foreign investment, and the lives of Mexican immigrants living across the U.S.-Mexico border?

These are the questions we ask students to grapple with in the latest edition of Between Two Worlds: Mexico at the Crossroads. Students learn about Mexican history from the Olmecs through Spanish colonization and the fight for independence, investigate the economic and political changes the country encountered after independence, and consider some of the challenges Mexico faces today. Students then examine three options for Mexico’s future in a role play. They use their knowledge of Mexico’s history and current challenges to present arguments about who is responsible for Mexico’s problems; how crime, violence, corruption, and inequality should be addressed; how the United States should be perceived; and what the role of the central government should be in building Mexico’s future. Finally, students design their own options for Mexico’s future, sharing their opinions on what Mexico’s policies and priorities should be. Learn more about the unit here.

Black History Month Series #2: Women in the Civil Rights Movement

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“You had these women who were just amazingly strong… that didn’t mean there wasn’t sexism,” recalled Judy Richardson in an interview with the Choices Program about her experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. Richardson was explaining the involvement of women in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), one of the most important Civil Rights organizations in the 1960s. SNCC’s most valuable work was in grassroots, community-led initiatives like voter registration drives, where the members and activists worked directly with the most downtrodden of disenfranchised people of color. Richardson, in remembering the work, makes reference to how important this hands-on interaction was and how it was often forgotten by larger Civil Rights organizations that took a more elite, patriarchal approach to racial justice.

The Civil Rights era is one of the most important moments in African-American history and in women’s history. It is a moment when African-American women played a vital part in defining U.S. history. Women of color were instrumental in leading the Movement, in engaging in powerful acts of protest, and in dynamically shaping action against discrimination. Judy Richardson remembers one of these women, her mentor and leader, Ella Baker, in the following video.

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The powerful leadership and bravery Richardson celebrates in remembering Baker’s contribution can be attributed to many women of color who played defining roles in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, for example, became a role model for courage and commitment in the face of racial injustice when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. Women like this are a vital part of the memory of the Civil Rights Movement.

But so many women of color have been excluded from how this history is often told. While other women had already been arrested for refusing to give up their bus seats, they did not gain the fame that Parks achieved. Many scholars suggest that this was because Parks fit a very specific model of how black women should act and appear. Women of color who did not project this precise image of quiet respectability were not held up as heroes. In fact, the very issues that Judy Richardson recalls seeing in 1960s American society and that she remembers as limiting certain parts of the Civil Rights Movement have also limited our own perceptions of the history. Women of color have far too often been forgotten as unimportant and insignificant, and many have been ignored because of their class, sexuality, or gender-expression as well as their race. Some of the incredible acts of heroism by LGBT women of color have been written about, but they are not part of the broader, more widely known history of the Movement, which prefers traditional, male figures for its heroes. These women are the tragically excluded heroes of the American past.

 

For more on forgotten figures in black history and “politics of respectability” see this HuffPostLive discussion.

For more on women civil rights activists, see this collection of biographies.

 

Interviews with Judy Richardson are an accompaniment to the full-length Choices unit,

Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi

View more video interviews on Civil Rights and other topics at our Scholars Online page.

 

Black History Month Series #1: Celebrating the Strength of an Oppressed People

February is Black History Month, carefully scheduled to coincide with the anniversaries of the births of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). In fact, the legacies of these two people show us that Black History Month is not only a time to celebrate African American culture and success, but also to recall a history of oppression and violence.

Lincoln’s role as the president that led the country through the Civil War, preserving the Union and abolishing slavery, is well preserved in the annals of American heroic history. Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement. The celebration of these men is a celebration of the first break from systemic violence wrought on black bodies and is therefore steeped in a remembrance of this violence.

In July 1852, Douglass delivered what many consider to be the greatest anti-slavery oration in history— “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?

 

Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

 

The speech not only demanded an acknowledgement that Independence in itself was an incomplete moment of liberty while slaves remained shackled, but also highlighted how the country had been built on a foundation of slavery. From references to Washington’s slaves to the economic dominance of the triangular trade, Douglass made clear a truth that remains—American history is, in many ways, a black history. Or, perhaps more accurately, American history is a history of violence against black people.

Of course, colonization itself is by its very nature racist. The settling of North America and its subsequent growth in prosperity relied on slavery. First Native Americans were captured and then Africans were imported to increase the labor supply. The extraction of vast resources from the colonies was enacted through the hands of slaves and enabled more trade as rum was exchanged for bodies across the Atlantic. This video by James Campbell shows how the mechanisms of international trade were based in the commodification of African bodies.

 

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Abolition was an historic moment when the explicit conception of black bodies being commodities was dissolved. But even after abolition, black people felt far from free. They continued to suffer violence and social injustice on an astounding scale. Joanne Pope Melish argues, in the following video, that racism was often even embedded in white Americans’ promotion of abolition. She points out that “whites imagined that the abolition of slavery was going to, in some magic way, mean the abolition of black people.”

 

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Slavery was the first part of a long history of oppression and injustice for people of color. Black History Month recalls the pain of this past, as well as its heroes. It challenges nations like the United States to rethink their pasts, and their presents.

 

For more on slavery in the Americas, look at our full length units:

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A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England

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Brazil: From Colony to Democracy

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.

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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Nobel Peace Prize Goes to Education and Children’s Rights Activists

On Friday, October 10, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi were jointly awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for “their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

Satyarthi is the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (English: Save Childhood Movement), an India-based movement that campaigns for the end of human trafficking and the protection of children’s rights. Satyarthi has made the protection of children and the pursuit of their safety and education his life mission, fighting against child labor and campaigning for access to education.

Yousafzai came to global recognition as an activist for women’s access to education. She has worked to spread awareness of the plight of girls in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, her home, where the Taliban had at times banned girls from attending schools. Yousafzai has shown incredible courage in sharing about her life under Taliban occupation and promoting children’s and women’s rights, even after being shot in 2012. 17-year-old Yousfzai is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The 2011 prize was awarded to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni politician Tawakkul Karman for their work on women's rights, Photo: Harry Wad

The 2011 prize was awarded to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni politician Tawakkul Karman for their work on women’s rights, Photo: Harry Wad

We at Choices share the goals of these activists—to foster education, awareness, empowerment, and empathy amongst a new generation. If you are as inspired as we are by the two incredible Nobel laureates, check out our unit on the history of their homelands, Pakistan and India, in Indian Independence and the Question of Partition, or teach your class about the central pillar of their work with Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Policy. For more on the empowerment of youth to change the world, we have a free lesson on Students in the Civil Rights Movement.

Scotland votes on independence

On Thursday, the population of Scotland will be voting in a referendum to decide on whether the nation will secede from the United Kingdom. “Should Scotland be an independent country?” says the ballot paper, and until recently it has seemed that the answer would be an inevitable “no”. However, the pro-independence “Yes” campaign has led an impressive grassroots effort to incite the optimism of the Scottish people, leading to a recent poll placing them ahead of the “No” or “Better Together” campaign.

Campaign posters battle for space in Scotland. Image by The Justified Sinner (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via flickr

Campaign posters battle for space in Scotland. Image by The Justified Sinner (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via flickr

Indeed Scotland’s is a unique independence movement, relying not on traditional nationalist ideology or the heroism of overcoming an oppressor, but rather claiming that an independent Scottish government can do more for it’s people than the elected Scottish representatives in a British government. The “Yes” campaign is about not having to share oil revenue from the North Sea with the rest of Britain, being able to define policy without the involvement of those south of the Scottish border, and not having to put up with a government that is seen as not representing the interests of the Scottish people (Scotland tends to disproportionately vote for the Labour party, while the more populous England tends to vote in preference of the Conservative government in place in Westminster now).

The “No” campaign, on the other hand, hails pragmatic caution. It points to the problems with currency (while an independent Scotland may keep using the British pound, it seems that they would not have a seat at the table that decides on monetary policy and determines the value of the currency). Furthermore, should Scotland gain independence it would have to re-apply for its membership in the European Union—a membership that is very important for trade and economic development. It is not clear whether Scotland would regain this membership easily, or what agreements it would have to make to achieve this. Even the North Sea oil (what will be the pivot of an independent Scottish economy) has turned out to be less appealing, with technical experts pointing out that reserves are quickly diminishing and that the oil cannot be relied upon to prop up an entire country. With this economic insecurity, banks and businesses have threatened to move south should the referendum end in a “Yes.”

English, Scottish and Irish flags combine to form the Union Jack. Image by guilherme Paula (public domain) via wikimedia

English, Scottish and Irish flags combine to form the Union Jack. Image by Guilherme Paula (public domain) via wikimedia

One of the reasons that the “Yes” campaign and the Scottish National Party (SNP) are such a unique independence movement is because Scotland is not a colony. The Scottish people are not oppressed or overpowered by an imperialist power. They have a democratic stake in the British government, and they are treated as equal citizens. We can contrast this with the colonies in Africa, who were not fighting only for independence and the right to govern themselves but also for the overthrowing of a racialized system that established Africans as lesser beings. In the Choices unit Colonization and Independence in Africa, case studies on colonies and how they gained independence highlight this racism. In one of the primary sources used in the unit, a Ghanaian journalist points out that an aim of British colonial policy was “to suppress the educated African who is too articulate to be convenient to British repression.”

Even the independence movement in the United States, which did not have the same racial elements, compares unsatisfactorily to the Scottish issue. A More Perfect Union: American Independence and the Constitution considers how the American revolution grew out of discontent over the influence of the British Parliament in the colonies. As they became increasingly frustrated by the distance between them and Parliament, “colonists began to ask if they were obligated to obey laws passed without their consent.” When the Britain tightened its control over expansion in the colonies, imposed taxes, and enforced a staunch anti-smuggling regime, this anger turned into vast resistance of British controls. It is a fun oversimplification to say that the American Revolution was caused by taxes, but it is more realistic to argue that these taxes represented an oppressive British regime that was in no way accountable to the colonists and was out of touch with the situation in the colonies. This was the source of rebellion.

Realizing the differences between the Scottish “Yes” campaign and other independence movements makes the question of Scottish secession from the Union all the more complicated. It brings up new questions about how we define a country, how we consider the rights to self-determination, how we think about the problems of proportional or representative democracy. Should we keep drawing new borders until people feel appropriately represented by their governments? Where do we stop if we start doing this? How do we understand the roles of international organizations who seem to be a form of global government, if we believe that political decisions can only be made by a tightly localized government? Is there a case for other independence movements that have (like Scotland’s) up until now been dismissed as impractical or unlikely, such as in Texas or Quebec? Do the concerns raised by the Scottish independence movement help us to understand some U.S. modes of governance, such as state government and how the union works?

Rally for Scottish Independence. Image by Martainn MacDhomhnaill (CC BY-NC 2.0) via flickr

Rally for Scottish Independence. Image by Martainn MacDhomhnaill (CC BY-NC 2.0) via flickr

For up-to-date happenings surrounding the Scottish independence referendum as well as in-depth analysis, visit the BBC’s Scotland Decides page or Al Jazeera’s Scotland page.

Other interesting articles include Something extraordinary is happening in Scotland (from the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog) and Fate of United Kingdom hangs in balance after new Scotland polls (from South African paper, The Mail & Guardian).

 

More Choices units that deal with the theme of self-determination:

 

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