By Roger Barbee
On Aug. 31, the Daily carried an Associated Press story concerning Professor Steven Salaita who teaches English at Virginia Tech. The story concerned his essay on an online news website in which he "argued against blind military support."
His story began when he refused to donate 18 cents change to a "Support the Troops" jar at a convenience store, and he wrote an article that stated, among other words, "Such troop worship is trite and tiresome..."
The article in the Daily went on to discuss how "Reaction [to the article] grew from outrage on social media into calls for Salaita's firing, his deportation and death, and also into criticism of Virginia Tech." After reading this, I became curious about what Salaita had written and went online to read his essay and see for myself what could fuel such reaction.
What I found were words and thinking that concerned patriotism and American foreign policies and the responsibility that every American citizen has. In none of Salaita's words did he criticize or question the men and women in uniform, but he did question and criticize political leaders. He also challenged us all, as supporters of our democracy, to question leaders who use the phrase "it's in the best interest of America." In short, I found nothing in Salaita's essay disturbing. I did find it well written and full of thought and it made points that I will consider.
I then turned my attention to the reactions to the essay on social media, and I had to wonder if the writers who demanded Salaita's firing, or deportation, or death had even read the essay? Had the writers who criticized the university thoughtfully read the essay? Unlike my feeling of thoughtful consideration after having read the essay, I came away from these words troubled and saddened.
During the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War, a phrase became popular that was used to argue for supporting that war: "My country -- right or wrong." It was used against any citizen who demonstrated against or questioned the wisdom of America's presence in Vietnam. Those years were ones of division, anger, and dishonesty. Some misguided citizens even cursed returning soldiers, calling them "Baby killers," as if the trauma they had experienced was not enough.
A visit to The Wall or a conversation with a veteran of that conflict can still cause some of those emotions to resurface. Vietnam is a scar that many citizens carry today as we wear clothes made in Vietnam and Cambodia. And as I read Salaita's essay and the ugly reactions to it, I thought of that time long ago and how it lingers still and how this episode seems to bring us full circle.
When a reader demanded that Salaita, the son of immigrant parents from Jordon and Nicaragua, be deported, Salaita asked to where since he had been reared in Bluefield, W.Va. As to the death threats, he said that he had faith in the campus police of Virginia Tech. Larry Hicker, a spokesman for Virginia Tech, remarked that the university stands behind the right of its teachers to express their opinions, and expressed his dismay by those who questioned the patriotism of Tech, which has a strong ROTC program. Salaita and the institution that employs him reacted in a logical and mature manner. I wish the readers who made threats had done as well.
Nasty words and personal attacks only divide, as in the 1960s. Any reader is allowed to his or her opinion concerning what anyone writes. That is one of the basic tenets of a democracy, but an attack against any person for expressing beliefs serves no purpose. Even if killed, what a writer wrote would still stand. Without civil exchange of ideas and opinions we will, as William Butler Yeats the Irish poet wrote, have a situation where 'Turning and turning in the widening gyre /The falcon cannot hear the falconer; /Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
Civil discourse helps prevent such times as the one Yeats wrote about in The Second Coming.
I encourage you to read Salaita's words and find his university email and, if inclined, write him explaining what you think of the support our troops philosophy. Who knows, your words could alter his thinking. However, to threaten him and his university will only divide. And we all know what President Lincoln said about a divided house.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.