The long, flouncy curls from Judy Davis’s cheerleader days are gone. Her straight blonde hair is now cut short. Large blue eyes stand out in a face pale without makeup. Her soft Southern drawl has an undertone of determination. “It’s taken me awhile, but now I’m glad to be considered an “unsuitable influence”. That was how the school board justified my firing. That and “deviating from the curriculum. It’s like they were implying I was a deviant. And according to their norms, I am.”
The twenty-nine-year-old was fired for teaching her high school students how US foreign policy has provoked terrorism. This struggle with her school board turned her from a Republican into a revolutionary for peace.
I taught my tenth grade American history class about what the USA has done for decades in the countries in which we now have terrorism. We work with the local oligarchs there to keep the country under control for our economic advantage. We support dictators and also the kind of managed democracy we have in the USA, where the only political parties that have a chance are those aligned with business and the private ownership of resources. People in those countries are tired of being kept at the bottom. They’re tired of CIA coups and assassinations of progressive leaders. So now they’re defending themselves the only way they can. And they’re getting pretty good at it.
This was a lesson for my class in history but also in cause and effect, as I explained what has provoked so many people to such anger at the USA. But the effect on me was that I got fired and now apparently blacklisted.
One of the students had an uncle stationed in Iraq, and she reacted as if I had insulted him. She took it as an attack on her family.
I reminded her that I wasn’t criticizing our soldiers but the government’s reasons for sending them there. I wanted very much for her uncle to return safely home. But she insisted I had no business saying any of that.
That led to a mini-lesson on freedom of speech in which the whole class took part. It was one of the liveliest but also most emotionally charged discussions we’d had. Several students were convinced what I had said were lies, and freedom of speech doesn’t include the right to lie. They denied the USA had harmed these countries. They insisted the terrorists are maniacs who hate us for our freedom, hate us because we’re Christian. We have to stop them before they kill us.
While we were talking, I looked in the corner at the American flag with its red for the blood of our brave soldiers. Every morning the students put their hands over their hearts and pledge allegiance to that flag in a ritual designed to evoke tender feelings of identification with our country. I saw the portraits of the Founding Fathers on the walls, all looking so wise and kind, just the father every child would like to have. I thought about all the patriotic civics classes that teach us how great America is but leave out much of our history, particularly foreign policy.
I realized these kids — all of us — are being indoctrinated, not just by the schools but also by the press and entertainment. Rather than thinking critically, we’re encouraged to react emotionally. One of the media’s purposes is to keep our emotions stirred up so we don’t think too much.
Several students took my side, but for some of them that was because I was the teacher, the authority figure. But others had really thought about the issue and added ideas of their own that had never occurred to me. One African-American girl made brilliant connections between the kind of invisible colonialism the USA tries to enforce on other countries and its domestic colonization of poor minority groups here.
The discussion was an intense learning experience for us all. Its goal wasn’t to try to change opinions but to clarify what we really believe and help us articulate that. We all benefited from it.
Next day the principal called me in because of student complaints. My explanations didn’t convince her, but she indicated if I apologized to the class and never did anything like this again, she could let the incident slide.
When I refused, she said she’d have to bring the matter before the school board. The board — made up of business leaders, a minister, and a retired educator — interviewed me and issued a report saying my ‘inappropriate behavior and recalcitrant defense of it’ left them no choice but to dismiss me.
Previous to this, my professional evaluations had always been excellent. Since the firing, I’ve applied for other jobs in the state and haven’t got one interview. And there’s a shortage of teachers in the state.
Judy and I were talking in the cramped living-dining-room-kitchen of the rental trailer she had to move into after being fired. The air conditioner was broken, and the room was hot and humid. I was grateful for the iced tea with a sprig of mint.
She showed me photos of her as a high school and college cheerleader, full of pep and team spirit. Now she was embarrassed by them.
I can look back and see how I was serving a ritual designed to make young people identify with their school and its team, cheering it on to victory over the other team. School sports are sort of trainer wheels to prepare us for military patriotism. We cheer our athletes, then we cheer our troops. Our group is naturally the special good one who deserves to win. It’s interesting that George W. Bush was a cheerleader.
But at the time I got fired, I hadn’t thought of any of that. I was just examining the history of US involvement in the Mideast.
I wasn’t radical. My parents voted Republican, and I had followed their lead. But those days are over.
The whole incident made it clear to me how much thought control goes on in our society, how mentally manipulating the media and the educational institutions are.
After being fired I had lots of free time, so I read books by Naomi Klein, William Blum, and Howard Zinn. I learned more about how the power holders use patriotism to quash dissent and make the people afraid of outside enemies. I learned how the global rich act in their own interests regardless of nationality, and how this keeps the majority of the world in poverty. We’re not going to have peace until we stop this.
Now I’m a waitress in a chain restaurant. That’s been a good lesson in capitalism. I’m making a lot less money, but the government still takes a hefty chunk of it to kill people they think are a threat to them.
When I asked Judy what she was doing to stop that, she gestured self-mockingly at her petite form and said, “Believe it or not, this person, all 105 pounds of me, has become an enemy of the state. I’m actively working to bring it down, particularly the patriarchal, capitalist form that we live under.”
“That’s a big assignment,” I said. “How do you think we can build something different?”
Well, we first have to realize the men in charge aren’t going to let us build anything really different,” she replied. “They’ll do everything they can, no matter how vicious, to hold on to power. And they’ve got too many on their side now.
I think our job is to clear the ground so something new can be built. We have to weaken this monolith so it will eventually fall, undermine it, chip away at it however we can. That’s probably going to be a lifetime assignment for us. The generations who come after us can decide what to build in its place. That’s their job, and it’s presumptuous of us to try to do that for them.
Planning a new society at this point seems to me to be just daydreaming, spinning fantasies. First we have to break this system’s power. Otherwise our descendants will still be living under it.
I objected that this sounds pessimistic, but she didn’t agree.
“I’d call it realistic,” she countered.
It’s clear by now that this system is not going to allow basic changes. Only superficial reforms come out of congress, and they’re often reversed later on.
Both major parties are tied to the business establishment, which wields the real power. The Democrats tolerate an occasional eccentric like Dennis Kucinich to create an impression of progress, but they don’t have a chance of achieving power. The establishment uses them to channel public discontent into dead-end streets, to convince people if they wait another four years, this system could change. But it never does. Liberalism’s purpose is to maintain the power structure by stringing people’s hopes along to the next meaningless election.
It’s so much more comforting to believe things will improve someday and the system is mostly fair, just has a few problems. And from the top half of society it looks that way. But from the bottom half, especially overseas, it looks quite different. And that’s where the changes are going to come from, not from the liberals.
“What do you see happening?” I asked her.
Guerrilla warfare will gradually defeat the empire overseas, prevent it from expanding. So it’ll turn inward and start squeezing its own people more. Since it’s inherently unjust, that’s the only way it can maintain itself. When we revolt against that, it’ll turn fascist. In a couple of generations we’ll overthrow the fascism. And then we’ll build … who knows? That’s a long ways away, and we have a lot to do until then.
“That seems depressing,” I said.
No! What we have now is depressing. Overthrowing it will be a great adventure. Resistance is energizing. That’s what liberation is about.
“What would you suggest doing?” I asked.
Direct action. There are all sorts of nonviolent ways to undermine power. Depriving the corporations and their government of money is a good start. This can be done by work sabotage, by tax evasion, by refusing to buy things. Consumer strikes are particularly important for women because the media are continually screaming at you to get new stuff. That’s how you’re supposed to get rid of the feelings of inadequacy that patriarchy has instilled in you — grab the latest clothes, hairstyles, makeup, furnishings so you can feel better about yourself. But if you just stop obeying them, stop buying that crap, use the old stuff until it wears out, defy the image makers, then you liberate yourself from this sick culture. That’s when you can really start feeling good about yourself.
For one thing, you’re definancing the war. Corporate and government resources are limited. Every dollar less that you give them is one they can’t use to kill people overseas.
This war has already devastated the economy. Taxes and the national debt are maxed out. They can’t go higher. If costs continue to rise and we continue to lose, the only solution will be to pull out the troops. Mass murder has become a luxury the USA can no longer afford. Thousands of small acts of citizen sabotage will help pull the plug on the war.
Making concrete suggestions about this could get me put in jail these days, so I can’t be too specific. But each of us has gifts for resistance, and I think we should use them to toss monkey wrenches into the works. I have a few personal projects that mean a lot to me.
Most Americans object to this approach because it might affect their personal lives. We’ve been brought up to see that as our top priority. But allowing our government to be viciously militaristic will inevitably harm our lives more. To end the cycle, we have to stop the killing, even if that temporarily makes things harder for us. The two forms of aggression — wars abroad and declining wages at home — are linked. Both are functions of capitalism. We need to break its hold on us.
Beneath the bravado, her voice was now tinged with anxiety. She didn’t want to say too much. She didn’t know me very well. She — like all of us — wasn’t sure how far her freedoms go anymore.
Doing something as mild as voting for a minor party deprives the major parties of votes and shows how illegitimate they are.
“What if that helps someone like Bush or McCain get elected?” I wanted to know.
With a dismissing wave she said:
It doesn’t matter. US militarism has bipartisan support. Bush’s crudeness just made clear what US policy has been for over two hundred years: Empire building. The other presidents, including Obama, just did it less blatantly.
Thomas Jefferson was the founding father of imperialism. He said we should move in to replace the fading power of the Spanish empire in Latin America. And we’ve done that, sometimes by conquest, sometimes by working through their local rulers.
The founding fathers were just rich men looking after their own interests. Just like our current leaders are. We need to knock these patriarchs off their pedestals.
They’ve become masters at recruiting women to serve their interests. Most women politicians are offering us the same old system dressed up in a new outfit, just patriarchy with perfume.
I asked her how she thinks we should oppose patriarchy.
With a mix of irony and sincerity that showed her to be both a radical feminist and a well-mannered Southern lady, she first asked me if I would like more iced tea. Then she said:
Both men and women have internalized patriarchal assumptions, and we’ve been brought up to think that’s the only way things can be. We need to root these implanted concepts out of us. Art can do that. Lesbian and gay cultures can do that. Some psychotherapies can do it. Theologies that oppose the notion of a Heavenly Father can do it.
Patriarchy has robbed women of our power. That’s why so many of us feel incomplete and inadequate. The culture tells us we need a man to fill that void, but we gradually and painfully learn that traps us in dependency. It isn’t fair to the men either, because we’ve given them the responsibility for making us whole, which is something another person can’t do for you. This romantic myth we’re fed is like a drug to keep us helpless — the opiate of the lasses. What we need is not a man. We need to take our power back. Then we can have an equal relationship with a man, if that’s what we want.
At some point opposing patriarchy almost always brings us into opposition to our fathers, and that’s scary ground for a lot of us. Before women can change, we have to confront the part of ourselves that still needs our father’s praise. As long as we unconsciously want to be daddy’s little girl, we’re going to support the system.
I commented that it sounds like she’s got over that.
She shook her head.
I’m still working on it, and it’s painful. But you know what? I actually have a better relationship with my father because of it. Now I know him more as an actual person, rather than the projection of an internalized myth. But that too has been a long process.
I said, “None of this — the political and personal change — is easy, is it?”
No, it’s not. But it’s worth doing. It’s necessary. Things can’t go on this way. We can’t let business run the world. We can’t let governments keep killing people.
• “From Cheerleader to Enemy of the State” is a chapter from Radical Peace: People Refusing War, which presents the experiences of peace activists who have moved beyond petitions and demonstrations into direct action: helping soldiers to desert, destroying computer systems, trashing recruiting offices, burning military equipment, and sabotaging defense contractors. Chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s website