Critical Race Theory: How Much Should You Tell 13-Year-Olds about U.S. Crimes?

On Thursday, my granddaughter, Eva, left her home in Westport CT – on of our country’s most affluent towns – for a service project in Panama – which has recently returned to the news because of protests and demonstrations there against policies that Panamanians see as caused by the United States.

Eva’s project is called “Amigos,” and bills itself as following:

“Discover AMIGOS is a two-week group volunteer experience for ages 13 and 14. Travel to Panama with a group of students to learn about environmental issues like conservation preserving endangered wildlife! From exploring beaches for turtle eggs to hiking through nature reserves, you’ll earn 30 service hours. See how local youth are getting involved with issues they care about. Enjoy Panama’s unspoiled Pacific beaches and immerse yourself in the tropical forests of the Azuero Peninsula.”

In other words, despite Panama’s current problems, the trip promises to be completely (or at best rather) ahistorical and almost certainly apolitical. And why not? After all, how much should you tell 13-year-olds about what our government has done in places like Panama? Why spoil kids’ beach vacation saving turtles?

And besides, opponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT) would say that early teenagers like Eva are too young to face such harsh realities.

I disagree. So, despite anticipated objections of CRT opponents, I’ve decided to share as much as I know.

That’s because I care too much about my granddaughter to pass by this highly teachable moment. After all, Eva’s already very curious about politics and history. She’s read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. She also watches Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” every day. And we discuss all of that on long walks together (as shown here in a poem I wrote for Eva on her 13th birthday).

With all that in mind, I’ve thrown caution to the wind and have written Eva the following letter. We’ve already discussed it. And I’ve tried to answer my granddaughter’s questions about references she finds obscure.

I wonder, have I gone too far?

Dearest Eva,

I’m so proud of your plan to visit Panama as part of an early teens group going there for two weeks of service and learning. I know you’ll be doing environmental work, living with a local family, and visiting places of interest in Panama. All that makes me even prouder of you than I constantly am.

I also know, Eva, that you are making this trip with pure intention. You’re not going to Panama thinking you’re somehow conferring benefit on or “helping” your hosts. Neither are you traveling south because your parents or some church youth group persuaded you to do so. You’re not going simply because this “service project” will look good on your college applications years from now.

No. Your purpose we’ve agreed, is to continue our project of learning more about the world and how it works. You ‘re already such a good student of those things. You’ve manifested that by following through on your commitment to watching “Democracy Now” every day. Our conversations about what you (and I) have learned from Amy Goodman demonstrate your interest in understanding how the world really works. You want to know what really happened in the past, what’s going on now, and how to do your part in changing the world.

Of course, I join you in those intentions. Again, it’s what we end up talking about so often on our long walks together.

In fact, Panama is an excellent place for gathering the information that will help you grasp what’s happened in the entire Global South for the last 500 years. As Raoul Peck has shown in his film series, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” it’s been a long process characterized by white supremacy, colonization, and slaughter of non-whites.

You know from Howard Zinn that by “colonization” Peck is referring to the system of robbery whereby Europeans and North Americans have invaded countries in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia to steal the natives’ rich lands, gold, silver, minerals, oil, uranium, and other products. Such colonial and imperial theft has been going on since 1492 and is the reason why countries in Europe along with the United States, and Canada are rich, while those robbed of their land and resources by the whites are either dead or left extremely poor.

The shocking fact is that all the world’s poor countries are former colonies of Europeans and North Americans. That tells you something about the entire larcenous process I’m addressing here.

And yes, it’s all involved with white supremacy. I mean the white colonists (or imperialists) from Europe and North America typically have regarded the black and brown people in countries like Panama as inferiors, as “less than,” and even as animals to be exterminated. (I know you’re aware of all that because you’ve read that book your grandma and I gave you years ago, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.)

So, keep what you’ve already learned in mind as you work in Panama. It represents a classic case illustrating the imperial and colonial practice of (1) Using force to steal land including entire continents and transferring the riches involved to the “Mother Country,” (2) governing the stolen countries through collaborating (usually white) puppet “presidents” who represent the country’s rich elite 10% (again, usually white) while the poor non-white majority is left in slums, poblaciónes, favelas, and impoverished barrios, (3) replacing the puppets by rigged elections or even assassination should they institute programs that actually help the countries’ poor brown and black majorities by providing benefits such as universal health care, free education, decent housing, low food prices, and guaranteed jobs.  (The process of replacement is called “coup d’état” or “regime change”).

Now, think about how that process evolved in Panama. There, U.S. imperialists actually created the country out of nothing back in 1903. It was then that the Colombian government refused to sell to the U.S. the part of its country which eventually became Panama. Responding to the refusal, President Theodore Roosevelt simply sponsored a “rebellion” of secession against Colombia and immediately recognized the breakaway section as a new country (now controlled by the United States as described above).

And why was the U.S. so interested in Panama? What did it have to offer? Look at a map, and you’ll see.

Panama happens to be located at the thinnest point between the North American continent (including Mexico and Central America). That means that it was an ideal place for digging a shipping canal that would help European and U.S. merchants, adventurers, and “gold rushers” obviate the need to sail all the way around the southern tip of South America (Tierra del Fuego) to reach California. This became extremely important after the 1849 discovery of gold there (on land btw stolen from Mexico whose Spanish colonizers (i.e., thieves) had in turn stolen it from the continent’s indigenous).

Well, the poorer people of Panama didn’t much like that. So, they often rebelled. But their uprisings were consistently defeated by the United States military which installed a large military base on the isthmus to keep the “peace” (i.e., U.S. control). The base was called Fort Sherman and was commissioned till 1999.

The United States also maintained “The School of the Americas” in Panama from 1946 until it was expelled from the country in 1984. In that year pressure from Panamanians forced its relocation to Fort Benning, Georgia. The school trained military officers from all over Latin America as a violent and often brutal insurance policy against the frequent rebellions of poor people against what they saw as exploitative U.S. control of their bodies and work.

One of those rebellions occurred in Panama in 1968. It was then that Omar Torrijos unseated a U.S. puppet and proceeded to change the country’s economy to help Panama’s long-disadvantaged lower classes. He also pressed the United States to cede ownership and control of the Panama Canal to Panamanians instead of the United States. That happened in 1999.

For his efforts, Torrijos was classified by the United States as a “dictator.” Still, because he was so popular with the Panamanian majority, he managed to remain in power till 1981 when he was killed in a plane “accident.” Insiders like John Perkins say the tragedy was engineered by the U.S. government. Perkins should know. He secretly worked for U.S. intelligence agencies (linked to the CIA) specifically charged with thwarting democratic tendencies in Latin America. His work assured continued United States control in places such as Panama. Conveniently, all CIA records about the Torrijos’ crash have somehow been lost.

Torrijos was succeeded by a long-time CIA asset called Manuel Noriega reputedly connected to the Torrijos plane crash as well as to Panama’s flourishing drug trade. But strangely, once in power, Noriega continued his predecessor’s programs aiding Panama’s poorest.

Noriega remained in power from 1983 to 1991. At that time, the United States decided Noriega had outlived his usefulness. So, he was reclassified from CIA asset and ally to a hideous drug dealer whose regime needed changing.

But how did the U.S remove Noriega from power? They bombed an entire neighborhood of Panama’s poorest who had benefitted from the Torrijos reforms. The barrio is called El Chorillo. The bombing killed at least 2000 mostly brown and black people (some say as many as 10,000) and created 15,000 homeless refugees – all, they alleged, in order to remove one man from power. Critics however say it was also intended to test new weapons systems on live people.

In any case, a subsequent “new order” in Panama restored to power the usual suspects (white affluent businessmen) who returned to the United States de facto control of the Panama Canal.

Chief among the businesses controlling Panama is Chiquita Banana (formerly called United Brands and United Fruit). Founded in Boston in 1870, it has controlled (exploited) Central America ever since. In fact, throughout Central America Chiquita is referred to as “the Octopus,” because in all the “Banana Republics” (Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama) the firm has its hands in everything. It controls who’s elected president and how long presidents remain in power. It controls wages, the living conditions of its workers, their education, health care, etc.  

Panama is also an infamous center of high finance. It has become a tax haven for businesses from all over the world. This means that such firms can avoid paying taxes at home by “legally” setting up fictitious offices (often mere post-office boxes) as their headquarters in Panama where taxes are kept very low. All of that was confirmed in 2016 by the publication of “The Panama Papers” detailing widespread crime, corruption, and wrongdoing by Panamanians and outside investors backed by the U.S. government.

There’s so much more to say about all of this, dear Eva. But this will have to do for now. If you want more, you should read John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and/ or The American Trajectory Divine or Demonic? by Process Theology’s David Ray Griffin (pages 328-332), and/or Jonathan Katz’s Gangsters of Capitalism (chapter nine).

With all of this in mind, as you get the opportunity, please ask your teachers and guides in Panama about these matters. You might also share these insights with any friends you happen to make there in your Amigos group.

But I’ll bet you this: even the leaders of your adventure probably won’t know this story in as much detail as I’ve shared with you. Panama’s history (and history in general) is way more complicated and shocking than our “teachers” are willing to admit. They’ll never tell you that “our” wealth has been based on the transfer of resources from the world’s poor to the coffers of largely white bankers and businessmen. They’ll never admit that the United States has been an unrelenting force of hardship and oppression in the Global South. They’ll never tell you the unvarnished history of countries like Panama.

But now you know the rest of the story. You’re now in position to employ your sharp research skills to first of all check out the veracity of what I’ve shared here. Then having done so, you can ask questions and weigh the “experts’” responses.

Needless to say, I look forward to our discussing all of this and your experience when you return home in a couple of weeks.

Till then, have a great time in Panama. Make friends. Keep your eyes open. And if you can, visit El Chorillo. That would be much more interesting than the tour I’m sure they have planned for you.

With great love,

Baba

The Canonization of George H.W. and the Elevation of the Bush Crime Family

Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent: BAR 5:1-9; PS 126: 1-6; PHIL 1:4-6, 8-11; LK 3:1-6

It all made me very sad. I’m referring to this week’s post-mortem celebration of George H.W. Bush. I was saddened not only because of a family’s loss, but because of what the event said about our country’s amnesia concerning Mr. Bush’s crimes.

Absent that forgetfulness, I saw the funeral as the transformation of a deplorable mass murderer into some kind of Christian saint. It demonstrated what’s wrong with our country and with its supporting Christian ideology.

I’m emboldened to make such irreverent observations because the readings for this Second Sunday of Advent. They reintroduce us to the great prophet, John the Baptist who got himself martyred because of his own irreverent criticism of the royal family of his day. And the Bushes, who occupied the very highest offices in our country for 20 years [8 as vice-president + 4 as president (Bush 41) + 8 as president (Bush 43)] come as close to royalty as our country will allow. So, consider these remarks as coming from John’s voice in the wilderness. They may get me in trouble too.

In any case, I watched H.W.’s celebratory funeral unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of the other side of the story that I and my students at Berea College had learned about the man back in 1990. That’s when participants in my Freshman Seminar section researched Bush’s Desert Shield and Desert Storm disasters as they developed. We produced a book on it all: Eye on the Storm: Berea College Students Examine the First Gulf War.

The book was finally published in 2002 as Mr. Bush’s disgraced son prepared for the even more disastrous Second Gulf War. Here’s how the book-jacket blurb described our work:

“This book shows how the Gulf War was motivated by greed for oil, how it violated elementary ethical principles, and even more elementary human rights. Additionally, this study indicates how such motivations and violations were papered over by a basically uncritical, cheerleading press.

But not all Americans joined in the cheers. There was significant opposition to the war throughout the United States. That opposition surfaced strongly at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky. There, teach-ins and rallies were held regularly; many students traveled to Washington to join the national protest; General Studies courses focused on understanding the war. One student, whose essay appears in this volume, spent days encamped in front of Berea College’s administration building to make his dissenting voice heard.

That voice and the others appearing in this volume, deserve to be heard. So do dissenting voices today, at Berea and throughout the country. For the Bush war on our immediate horizon threatens not simply to repeat the history of twelve years ago, but to make its horror seem benign.”

Right now, all of that seems eerily prophetic – especially in the light of Bush 43’s indirect creation of ISIS, the absolute devastation of Iraq, and the more-than-one-million deaths caused by his war of aggression.

But before I get to what I and my students learned about W’s father, think of the contrasting story we heard and witnessed about the patriarch last week. 

“He was such a good and noble man,” all the mainstream commentators seemed to whisper in hushed and reverent chorale refrain. “A class act,” Ms. Clinton said. “I so admire his family – so dignified even in mourning,”others gushed. “He was so unlike the present occupant of the White House.” “There’ll never be another like him – such a statesman. “A wonderful father,” Mr. Bush’s son (the greatest war criminal of the 21st century) proclaimed from a pulpit of all places!

That’s what we heard. What we saw was even worse.

All the surviving war-criminal heads of American Empire had come together in Washington’s National Cathedral to normalize a mafia don and invoke God in doing so. There they were: Carter, Clinton, George W., Obama, and Donald Trump. As Chomsky has said, they’re all war lords and mass murderers, every one of them.  

But each had his church game-face on as if they themselves were followers rather than enemies of the non-violent Jesus who was ironically a victim of imperialists exactly like themselves. That’s right: Jesus was tortured and executed in an imperialized province – his own day’s equivalent of our oligarchs’ killing fields in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

But there they all sat solemnly honoring one of their own – a rich patrician, a CIA spook, an inveterate racist, a bald-faced liar, and contemptible war criminal. So, we heard the prayers (I’m not sure addressed to whom); we witnessed the crime- boss’ canonization, and our hearts went out to the members of the Bush crime family.

And yes, we all listened in respectful silence. Instead, all of us should have been shouting “Shame! Shame!”

And that returns me to my students’ research. What we discovered was eye-opening. We found out that:

  • George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, did business with the Nazis during World War II. In other words, President Bush came from a right-wing Nazi-sympathizer family. (Can you imagine the dinner-table-conversations young George overheard and participated in?)
  • Bush was a racist and misogynist. He pioneered dog-whistle campaign tactics to become POTUS through his infamous Willie Horton campaign ad. He opposed Anita Hill in her testimony against his SCOTUS appointee, Clarence Thomas. (We later learned that Mr. Bush was a serial groper as well.)
  • H.W. was the first ex-CIA Director (1976-’77) to become U.S. president – having served as Vice-President during Ronald Reagan’s genocidal war of terror in Central America which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. In those official capacities, and contradicting the hypocritical “war on drugs,” Bush employed the drug cartel boss, Manuel Noriega, as a CIA asset. He looked the other way as Noriega dealt drugs that eventually ended up in the veins of U.S. citizens.
  • Then just before leaving office, Mr. Bush pardoned his Iran-Contra co-conspirators — the ones responsible for all those Central American deaths.   
  • After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush invaded Panama to arrest Noriega (1989) when the Panamanian leader got too independent for his own good. In the process Bush oversaw the killing of anywhere from 3000 to 10,000 impoverished and unarmed Panamanians in the country’s poorest neighborhood. He destroyed the Panamanian Army so that the U.S. would have reason to stay on after a recently-signed treaty turned over ownership of the Panama Canal to local authorities. 
  • According to a long-standing goal articulated in 1988 by Miles Ignotus, the real reason for Bush’s First Persian Gulf War (1990-’91) was to “Seize Arab Oil.”
  • To that end, Bush induced former CIA asset, Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait by allowing his ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, to mislead Saddam into believing that the Bush administration would not interfere with his invasion of Kuwait.
  • Bush also manipulated U.S. public opinion by using a 15-year-old “eye-witness” from Iraq to falsely allege that Iraqi soldiers tore infants from incubators and left them to die on hospital floors. Bush’s lies swung national opinion in favor of his war.  
  • In the first Gulf War, Bush oversaw the slaughter of retreating Iraqi soldiers, shooting untold (literally!) thousands of them in the back in what perpetrators described as a “turkey shoot.”
  • In a clear effort to dispel the “Vietnam Syndrome,” Mr. Bush elevated the concept of “fake news” to an entirely new level by strictly controlling reporters’ access to combat zones in Panama and Iraq.

That last point deserves special notice, because of my daughter Maggie’s contribution to my class’ study of the Persian Gulf War. At the time of our work, Maggie was in the 6th grade at our local Berea Community School (BCS). For her science project that year, we decided to study the war’s coverage by our local Lexington Herald-Leader.

Together, we collected and examined all editions of the paper from day-one to the war’s official end. We categorized its news accounts, editorials, and cartoons as pro-war, anti-war, or simply descriptive. We counted words and measured column inches.

As you might expect, Maggie found that Bush’s implementation of his “embedded journalist” strategy proved completely successful in his prescient creation of fake news and alternative facts. Words criticizing the war were few and far between. But Maggie’s project ended up achieving recognition beyond BCS. It got her into a regional competition for best science project. As a result, she was exposed to the concept of fake, state-controlled news long before Donald Trump. So were the judges who reviewed her work.

It was all so ironic, isn’t it — transforming a war criminal into a noble saint?  It’s a complete distortion of American history – not to mention of God, Jesus, and Christianity itself.

But what else can we expect in a nation whose entire people have been systematically taught to ignore what all our leaders have done without exception at least since World War II. None of them deserve our admiration.

Our “Christian” leaders are not much better. They’ve wedded themselves to blood-thirsty, deceptive regimes. They’ve sent the authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth down Orwell’s memory hole. In his place they would have us worship as our saviors the rich white patricians who rob us blind while terrorizing and exterminating poor red, yellow, brown and black people across the globe?

As John the Baptist might say, “Shame! Shame!”