The Militarization Of Citizenship
A week or so ago I was venting, in a vague way, on Facebook about one of my classes. As a former student advisor, I’m sensitive to FERPA and always avoid any information that could be linked to a particular student. But teaching can be a frustrating profession, especially when you’re doing it right—even on good days. So classroom leaders occasionally need to let off some steam. Since the status update generated 47 comments, clearly a number of friends either share my concerns or were engaged by the topics.
I’ll leave the bulk of the post for Facebook (safely restricted, ensconced in privacy controls). I will, however, offer this: as the discussion of my status update evolved, several comments addressed the topic of citizenship and democracy. A number of problematic things were offered by one particular “friend” (of a friend), but one comment in particular caught my attention:
“As for your collective love of of what you consider democracy, I can only shrug and watch it play out. I personally would consider myself more of a ‘citizen’ than a great many people (arrogant, perhaps, but I believe mandated service should be requisite along the path to obtain citizenship); I took it upon myself to make the safety and security of my fellow people my personal responsibility by placing myself in harms way, rather than pontificating about what a citizen should or shouldn’t be from the secure comfort of the ivory tower and a position of privilege as a professor.”
There are four points of concern: (1) the indifference and casualness about the love of democracy; (2) mandated service for citizenship; (3) the prioritization of placing one’s self “in harms way” as the apotheosis of citizenship; (4) the notion that the only thing professors do is “pontificate” about what citizens should or should not do, or be.
I won’t address (4) directly, letting it go to snark. And I don’t necessarily have a major problem with (2), provided there are caveats about age and ability. As for (1), well, I weep for anyone who views democracy as a spectator sport. That sentiment makes me profoundly sad. My primary concern today is (3), which actually has reverberations for (1) and (4).
My USIH colleague Ray Haberski has addressed the sanctification of service and “the troops” many, many, many times. Ray is addressing how the militarization of citizenship has evolved over the second half of the twentieth century.
But the comment from my “friend” was the most explicit, and nearest, encounter I’ve had with the deification of military service as the new ideal for democratic citizenship. If that is the epitome of citizenship, what of civil dialogue? And how will we ever solve the problem of compromise? How has compromise, to quote U2’s Bono, become a “dirty word”?*
I say this knowing that the militarization of citizenship is not a new phenomenon. Most U.S. presidents have had some kind of military experience. And exceptions, recently with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have been negatively viewed by a significant portion of the electorate. Thankfully it has not prevented them from obtaining our highest office.
Even so, the military ideal is a dangerous one. It elevates bloodshed and war to the highest circles of admiration. This must be challenged somehow, and education institutions are safe grounds for considering alternative high ideals. With that, there is nothing wrong with teaching and researching citizenship in higher education. Indeed, unless one truly feels that democracy should be relegated to the realm of casual spectator sport, all of our institutions of learning should address the nature and meaning of citizenship. Otherwise it only takes a generation, or less, to lose the institutions we value. – TL