Maybe you're heard this joke before. A man is talking with another man, discussing the war. One of them says that he's a pacifist, so the other man pushes him into the street. When the "pacifist" (the joke teller uses hand-gestured quotation marks at this point) tries to push back, the man say, "Oh I thought you were a pacifist." And on and on.
Here's the surprising part: A teacher told this joke to my class after I'd mentioned I was a pacifist.
Adults tend to think that the political arena is a grown-ups' playground; I'm not so sure. Since September 11, I've observed my fellow teenagers actively participating in political discussions. What I have not seen, however, is much dissent. No voiced opposition to our new war on terrorism. No disapproval of the president's foreign policy. Granted, my sophomore class consists of only about 25 kids. But the lack of debate is reminiscent of a McCarthy-era high school (an era that we once studied in this very same school). Some of my classmates wrap themselves in the beloved red, white and blue. A small minority just want to kill some Arabs. A few honestly don't care about the goings-on of the world, and still others refrain from speaking up because they don't believe their words make a difference. And then there's me.
I am 15 years old. I have lived in conservative, wealthy Irvine, California, for as long as I can remember. My parents and I are really the only liberals I know of around here. In 1996, I was the only fourth-grader (or student, for that matter) to vote for Ralph Nader in my elementary school's mock election. I have been asked repeatedly about the meaning of my "Stop the Drug War" key chain. I have been called a "Taliban lover" by a classmate, and a communist by a family member. As a character in the movie That Thing You Do remarks, "I guess I'm alone in my principles."
My principles: I believe that our new war is not justified, because retaliation is never a suitable response to a national crisis. As Gandhi once said, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." I believe peace can be achieved by any means. As John Lennon once professed, "Give peace a chance." I am a political progressive, and I believe in equality for all beings in this world. As the Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And finally, in concordance with Mark Twain, "The citizen who sees his society's democratic clothes being worn out and does not cry it out is not a patriot, but a traitor."
I see our democratic clothes being worn out every day in the classroom. An assignment in October required my classmates and me to each bring in a picture of a hero and a picture of a monster. As an example of a monster, I brought in the infamous photograph of General Loan Ngoc Nguyen, the South Vietnamese officer who was caught on camera in the middle of his public, spontaneous execution of an alleged Viet Cong prisoner.
In response, a few days later, my teacher brought in an article from the Los Angeles Times' Opinion section written by James Zumwalt, a retired Marine colonel, who glorified General Nguyen for ridding the world of such a dangerous terrorist. Zumwalt also likened the man Nguyen executed to Osama bin Laden himself. After the teacher read the article to the class, one of the kids stated matter-of-factly, "So the general guy is really the hero, then." I had expected to explain my views about the photo to the rest of the class, but the class's response to my teacher's persuasive article, as well as my soft-spoken nature, prevented any rebuttal on my part. Discussion ensued, and before I knew it, the bell was ringing and class was over. I was horrified. I left with the feeling that I looked a complete idiot in front of my fellow students. I was convinced they walked away thinking that I was in league with al Qaeda.
My grades have not been affected; I have not been sent home from school. Instead, I experience the more subtle ways dissent gets shut down in the classroom, by humiliation and name calling. What's worse, however, is the fact that I, a progressive-minded teenager, am not heard as an equal. Whatever I have to say conservative adults regard as garbage, too ridiculous to be taken seriously; they tell me it is un-American. Sometimes I feel like I am screaming down a long corridor filled with people, and my voice is echoing off the wall, my words resonating over and over. And no one hears me. They're ignoring me.
I've been told numerous times by my grandpa that a 15-year-old cannot possibly know more than an old man who has lived through every war from World War II to the Gulf War. But I'm old enough to know that freedom of speech is essential to democracy, and it's been branded into my skull through years of history classes that we do live in a democracy. I exercise my right as an American and as a citizen to express these views, and no one -- no student, no teacher, no adult -- can dissuade me. The world's a mess, and according to Mark Twain, if we don't say something about it, then we are indeed traitors to mankind.
*First published in the LA Weekly, 2002.