Yellow ribbons pasted on cars is the least of the support given to the military by Americans. In a blog, Laurence Vance reports on third-graders singing “Thank You Soldiers.” Stephan Kinsella reports an airplane flight attendant thanking members of the military on board “for their service.”
These reports encourage me to report on an incident about which I had previously decided to keep quiet, for there may be a nationwide trend going on here that should be brought out into the open. Of even greater importance is a serious intellectual issue. Is support of the military a political action or is it a neutral action? Can one separate support for the military personnel from what the military does, or from its obedience to military actions that one finds objectionable?
This story and the debate on these questions will be told without my editorializing. Instead I will display the contents of e-mails. They contain the debate. They contain my side of it, and they contain that of my opponents.
The story began on February 7 at 9:25 a.m. when I got an e-mail from a committee of the School of Management (SOM) at University at Buffalo. This is where I used to work. The committee is called Strengthen Our Sense of Community Committee. It informed me
“The UB School of Management SSCC (Strengthen Our Sense Of Community Committee) is working with AMillionThanks.org to send thank-you notes to members of our military (active, reserve and veterans). During the week of February 7 to 11, there will be a table set up in the Alfiero Center Atrium. Please stop down and write a brief note of appreciation and gratitude to send to our men and women serving our country. We have over 200 note cards to fill out, please spread the word!”
Six members of the committee signed this appeal.
At 10:11 a.m., I sent a bluntly worded e-mail to the Dean of the SOM:
“The SSCC sent me this strange request. I don’t know whose idea this was, but it’s a bad idea. The UB School of Management should not be involved in politics! This kind of thing supports the military, but such support is a political thing. A huge number of people object to using the military in such ventures as Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as many, many other places in the world. Therefore, such support coming from UB definitely takes a political position that is not neutral. The School has no business taking such a stance. I won’t wash the School’s dirty linen in public, but if this idea is not dropped, I surely will inform the Provost and the President of the University.”
The Dean replied to me that night at 11:44 p.m., writing
“Thank you for your e-mail. I appreciate the concern you have expressed. I wish to assure you that the School of Management should absolutely stay out of politics, to me this is axiomatic in the academic community. However, I do not agree that the SSCC request indicates a political position. This is a volunteer activity that supports a segment of our society that serves the nation. I venture to think that veterans can be worthy of gratitude for their service without regard to their particular assignments, just as I do not consider the Vietnam memorial as a glorification of that war. It is entirely possible that others may disagree with this view, in which case they would opt not to respond to [SSCC’s] call. To my mind, suppressing an activity like this goes against the spirit of free exchange of ideas that the academy should preserve. It would also put the dean in the unwelcome position of favoring one cause over another, which I would be loathe to do. I will try to be vigilant that future volunteer efforts of this kind maked [sic] the non-political nature of the effort more explicit.”
At 5:30 a.m. the next morning, having read the Dean’s reply, I responded at some length as follows:
“I wish I could agree with you 100%, but I cannot, for I find contradictions in your thinking about this.
“1. You say ‘…absolutely stay out of politics…’ That is my position too, and I agree it’s ‘axiomatic’.
“2. Does the SSCC activity breach this axiom? Yes, indeed. How else are we to understand what I was told? It says ‘The UB School of Management SSCC (Strengthen OurSense Of Community Committee) is working with AmillionThanks.org to send thank-you notes to members of our military(active, reserve and veterans). During the week of February 7 to 11, there will be a table set up in the Alfiero Center Atrium. Please stop down and write a brief note of appreciation and gratitude to send to our men and women serving our country. We have over 200 note cards to fill out, please spread the word!’
“The SSCC decided this was a worthwhile activity. It decided to partner with a supportive group. It designated a time and place, within the SOM, as a locus for the activity. It asked people and encouraged them to participate. It took the political position that these men and women are serving the country, when that is the very thing that is non-neutral, for many believe they are not serving the country but other interests and the State. They encouraged spreading the word.
“They advertised the organization AMillionThanks. Its activity is thoroughly political. I quote [from their website]: ‘A Million Thanks is a year-round campaign to show our appreciation for our U.S. Military Men and Women, past and present, for their sacrifices, dedication, and service to our country through our letters, emails, cards, and prayers.’ Who do you think commands them? The executive-in-chief. To do what? Aren’t wars political? Who pays for these wars? How? Through taxes. Aren’t those politically determined?
“What do you think all of that activity is, if not political activity?
“I have strongly to disagree with you.
“To make my point, what if the SSCC had done the opposite? What if it partnered with a peace group and encouraged a campaign to ask Congress to stop funding these wars? What if it organized a campaign of writing letters to soldiers asking them to STAND DOWN and not obey immoral orders in immoral wars that kill civilians? What if it organized protests against some egregious activities of soldiers in these wars?
“Would you tell me that this is not political?
“I shouldn’t have to spell this out for you. You are an intelligent man. I think you have not thought through this clearly enough, and so I have to make you understand that your position is superficial and wrong in being inconsistent with the axiom that you propose and that is correct.
“There are those who are grateful to the military, but there are those who are not. That is true. That implies that the SOM should not take a position one way or another by the activities involved in providing a locus and focus for one side and encouraging the expression of one side.
“You express a very naive attitude toward this, which is that support of troops in this way doesn’t support the activities that these troops engage in, but it does. It is merely one step removed, because these troops join and are paid to do these tasks. The money is exacted by the government. The troops willingly become part of a political process that has a military manifestation.
“I request that you stop this activity as quickly as possible and certainly do nothing like it in the future. If that prohibition needs to be made explicit in the code of the SOM, that should be done.”
At 8:46 a.m., the Dean replied:
“It is clear that we disagree. I have nothing further to contribute as I do not find it appropriate for a dean to engage in a discussion of political leanings or preferences.”
I then informed the Provost, as I said I would. I left the President out of it since he has resigned. I sent the Provost all the e-mails and added these comments:
“It seems to me that the SOM is engaging in political activity when it should not. The Dean and I disagree on this.
“A committee in the SOM is acting as a locus and focus to encourage a letter-writing campaign to U.S. military personnel.
“My ideas on this and the Dean’s ideas are contained in the attached exchange of e-mails.
“I’d like to see the SOM cease this activity and return to a true state of neutrality, which means saying and doing nothing one way or another with respect to military personnel. Disengagement seems to me to be neutral.
“Dean Assad seems to think that using SOM facilities, committees, and batch e-mails to promote letters to the military is neutral. I do not. That takes a stance in favor of the military who have joined the armed forces willingly and who willingly become instruments of the political policies of U.S. administrations. Since these by nature are political and meet with disagreement in the nation, I do not see how the Dean’s position can be maintained. I think he is wrong and that the activity is wrong. I want to see it stopped.”
On Wednesday, I had a few further thoughts and passed them on to the Provost:
“Dear Dr. Tripathi,
“As you deliberate, consider another thing. In re-reading what Arjang said in his reply, I realize that he has made an argument that supports my contention. He wrote
“‘This is a volunteer activity that supports a segment of our society that serves the nation. I venture to think that veterans can be worthy of gratitude for their service without regard to their particular assignments, just as I do not consider the Vietnam memorial as a glorification of that war. It is entirely possible that others may disagree with this view, in which case they would opt not to respond to [SSCC’s] call.’
“He asserted his opinion that the activity supports ‘our society’ that ‘serves the nation’. But he admits that ‘others may disagree with this view.’ Yes, they may. That indicates that the activity is not neutral.
“In his view, what makes it neutral is that it is a ‘volunteer’ activity and that those who disagree with it can ‘opt out’. But is that true? I think not. The fact that one is not required to participate (participation is voluntary) doesn’t make it neutral politically. Imagine that this committee or some other one now comes along and looks for letters to Congress that protest against the use of the military in Iraq, or against some other current issue like national health insurance, and suppose these letters are voluntary. Does that make the activity neutral? It means that the SOM has become a forum for political matters, that e-mails are being sent in batches to everyone promoting positions, and that space is being used, and time of employees being used for political positioning. This, I say, is not neutral to politics.
“Arjang goes on to say ‘To my mind, suppressing an activity like this goes against the spirit of free exchange of ideas that the academy should preserve. It would also put the dean in the unwelcome position of favoring one cause over another, which I would be loathe to do.’ But since when is it the mission of the SOM to air political conflicts and to promote support for one side or another? And, more fundamentally, is letter-writing an aspect of any ‘free exchange of ideas’? Does Arjang propose to use the SOM facilities to have a debate on the role of the U.S. military? That would be more in line with an academic mission. It might not be the SOM’s bailiwick, but it would be consistent with a university. But taking one side of such a debate is not.
“Is the Dean favoring one cause over another by promoting this activity? I say he is. He says that if he disallowed this campaign, he’d be suppressing the free exchange of ideas. I think that is nonsense. There’s no exchange going on in this. It’s strictly one-sided. There is no SOM committee or statement that I know of that has opened up the SOM for political debates and begun to promote the school as a locus for airing particular political postures. If there were and if this activity were done properly in such a context, it might lend it the credibility that Arjang seeks. Even then, would this be a credible avenue for such activity? It doesn’t look that way. It would need a neutral committee to promote debates and exchanges. This committee has not been formed in that way or with that purpose by the appearance of its communications or by what it has chosen to do.”
This missive resulted in silence. Days passed. On February 18, I sent an e-mail to Provost Tripathi:
“Dear Dr. Tripathi,
“It’s now 9-10 days since I communicated to you, in detail, my concerns about political activity within the SOM.
“What have you decided on this matter?
“Michael Rozeff (Professor Emeritus)”
Dr. Tripathi answered the next day:
“Dear Professor Rozeff,
“I apologize for my belated response. I have given this matter thought. Indeed, we are mindful that some may view the efforts of the Strengthen our Sense of Community Committee as having a political message. From my vantage point, I believe that this particular activity is, on balance, probably more aptly deemed a community service activity. This is a completely voluntary effort and faculty and staff can chose [sic] to participate or chose [sic] not to participate. I know that my perspective on this does not conform with your perspective, but as academics I think we are use [sic] to people approaching issues from different frames of reference. As I write, I know that this is not the response you were seeking, but I do hope that at least we can respect our differences of opinion at least on this matter.
The entire interchange ended with my final e-mail sent to Dr. Tripathi an hour later:
“Dear Dr. Tripathi,
“You know, if you had been willing to give just a little, we could find a solution. If you had simply said that in the future you’d instruct the committee to be more mindful of the kind of concerns expressed by me and to make a concerted effort to avoid any hint of political involvement, that would have sufficed.
“You didn’t do that. Instead you told me what your belief is about this particular activity. That means you were 100% nonresponsive to me and my concerns. You gave them no weight. Only your judgment mattered.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I find that an unacceptable response on your part.
“Therefore, I ask you to reconsider along the lines I’ve just mentioned. Does it not seem reasonable that the committee be made to know from you that it needs to be more mindful of crossing boundaries that should not be crossed? Doesn’t it need to know that cystic fibrosis is not the same as supporting war? Doesn’t it need to know that ‘community’ is not a catchall phrase that justifies support of everything involving any community in America? After all, there are good and bad communities.
I never got an answer.
An interesting thing happened on March 17. Tripathi was chosen to be UB’s next President.
I really did not expect to change much immediately. At most I expected to plant seeds of doubt, so that the next time something like this arises, people will think twice about what they are doing. Raising doubts is a step in awakening consciousness.
It is dismaying that people who possess ordinary intelligence do not see that support of the military is a political position, and that turning a blind eye to such support in a business school is biased in favor of a political position, which in this case is pro-militarism.
I was taken aback by this military support coming to roost in a business school. This committee has all sorts of community efforts that it can support and has supported, such as its effort on cystic fibrosis. The fact that it chose to support the military could be, in my opinion, a sign of people refusing to face unpleasant facts about what the American military has been and is doing overseas. Hearing criticism, many people whose being is associated with the nation-state respond by asserting the value of the military and expressing support of it. A person indoctrinated into a supine patriotism of flag-waving and blind support of the state and its wars will naturally rally to its defense against criticism, because their person has been lost or diminished as a result of the indoctrination. They have submerged themselves into the state. Freeing them from these beliefs requires patience and continual exposure to ideas of freedom, peace, and government to which they are unaccustomed. Plant seeds and wait for their fruition. Don’t expect instant conversions. It takes time to shed old beliefs and take on new ones.