Mapping the Nation: John Walker as Pedagogical Text
by Kerry Burch - August 12, 2002
This article treats the Walker Lindh case as a pedagogically-ripe site of civic conflict, a site in which radically opposed ideological frameworks and models of citizenship can be seen to vie for primacy in the ongoing struggle to shape the meaning of American identity.
This unfolding spectacle ought to be understood as an extraordinary pedagogical event and opportunity. I argue in the following pages that, as his public trial proceeds, the figure of John Walker Lindh will increasingly become a site of contestation, a “pedagogical text” in which the contradictory dynamics of national identity production can be identified and interrogated. In this way, I treat the Walker Lindh case as a pedagogically-ripe site of civic conflict, a site in which radically opposed ideological frameworks and models of citizenship can be seen to vie for primacy in the ongoing struggle to shape the meaning of American identity. In particular, I focus attention on three distinct yet related categories of analysis crucial to the project of educating democratic citizens.
First, I use the Walker Lindh case to revisit the widely accepted but frequently ignored principle that American identity (as in all national identity formations) is defined by absence, by the lack of a pre-fixed, ontological character. Here I want to develop the civic import of this feature not in the conventional way as a threat to unity and stability, but in a positive sense, as a pedagogical terrain teeming with democratic and liberatory possibility. Second, I highlight the politics of gender operative in American culture in the period immediately after September 11, a time in which hostile images of the “American Taliban” figured prominently. Third, from the standpoint of our role as public pedagogues, I consider the Walker Lindh case in the context of the questions it poses about whether we ought to educate a primary allegiance to the “imagined community” of the nation-state or to “the world,” or perhaps to certain regulative principles and values, such as democracy or justice. Walker Lindh’s love of the Taliban clearly blurs the boundaries of identity between the national and the global, and in doing so, raises questions about how concepts like democracy and justice might be understood and applied in relation to his public trial. These national/global tensions are reflected quite effectively in a book edited by Martha Nussbaum, For Love of Country (1996) in which a diverse group of American philosophers debate Nussbaum’s educational philosophy of cosmopolitanism. Nussbaum’s “cosmopolitan education” provides philosophical justification for moving toward more globalized forms of identity and attachment. My hope is that critical analysis of the Walker Lindh case, mediated through the lens of this text, will illuminate some of the core democratic values at stake in the negotiation of American national identity. After exploring the interpretive tensions which characterize each of these three themes, I conclude by discussing the implications these civic predicaments have for helping us to clarify a philosophy of democratic pedagogy relevant to a post-9/11 American classroom.
“There’s No There There:” On the Pedagogical Conundrum of American Identity.
One of the most remarkable problems that accompanies our interpretation of the Walker Lindh case as a civic text is that scholars of American identity have long observed that a fundamental aporia, or zone of unknowing, occupies the very center of our national identity formation (Wallerstein 2001; Campbell 1998). If we are to take this theoretical insight seriously, the Walker Lindh case becomes more complicated to assess since his “seditious” behavior, to be declared seditious, requires an ontological standard of behavior upon which to judge his activities. As many commentators have noted, without the existence of an objective or foundational essence to organize a hierarchy of values, we invariably float on unsettled waters in asserting claims about the “true nature” of any national identity. David Campbell (1998) develops this theme.
Identity is an inescapable dimension of being. No body could be without it. Inescapable as it is, identity—whether personal or collective—is not fixed by nature, given by god, or planned by intentional behavior. Rather, identity is constituted in relation to difference. But neither is difference fixed by nature, given by god, or planned by intentional behavior. Difference is constituted in relation to identity. The problematic of identity/difference contains, therefore, no foundations that are prior to, or outside of, its operation. Whether we are talking of “the body” or “the state” or of particular bodies and states, the identity of each is performatively constituted. Moreover, the constitution of identity is achieved through the inscription of boundaries that serve to demarcate an “inside” from an “outside,” a “self” from an “other,” a “domestic” from a “foreign” (p. 9).
In applying this analysis to our present inquiry, one could say that the Walker Lindh case provides an opportunity for the nation to “perform itself” once again, to wrestle symbolically with a figure who profoundly disturbs the inscriptions of identity—inside/outside, self/other, domestic/foreign, masculine/feminine—that are conventionally written on the American body politic. As a pedagogical opportunity, then, the Walker Lindh case can be used as a heuristic device to illuminate and intensify the contradictions nested within the American negotiation of identity. Chief among these contradictions is the ambivalence in
For example, in bringing the
Consider, for example, the question of jurisdiction. The Bush administration’s decision to issue their criminal complaint through the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia tacitly exposes the contradictions and aporias which characterize the slippery reproduction of American identity. Why not bring the suit in the state in which Walker Lindh last resided, among a “jury of his peers,” in the U.S. District Court in
For this reason, we can speculate that the official custodians of American identity did not want to put Walker Lindh on trial in a location where the jury members would be drawn from the liberal/progressive areas of northern
If all states are “imagined communities,” devoid of ontological being apart from the many practices that constitute their reality, then
As his upcoming public trial will undoubtedly demonstrate, John Walker Lindh will increasingly become an ideological lightening-rod for those “representational practices” necessary for marking the ethical boundaries between what is considered inside and outside the American identity formation. From the standpoint of civic education, inquiry into the depth of hostility exhibited toward Walker Lindh could be the single most instructive dimension of the case. At the deepest level of analysis, Walker Lindh is an unwelcome reminder that no essential national identity to which we can securely cling, as if to an ontologically-secure raft amid the roiling waters of plurality, exists. That is our learned, political dis-ease.
In a post-9/11 analysis of the American cultural landscape, Immanuel Wallerstein (2002) also emphasizes the principle of absence and variation in describing the American identity.
For the purpose of educating a democratic civic identity, I am intrigued by the reconstructive possibilities latent in the principle that, “there’s no there there.” This insight into the American identity formation is curricularly underdeveloped, and for understandable reasons. It is easy to be vexed, pedagogically, in trying to provoke others to engage and value the tropes of absence, variation and contradiction as they relate to the construction of American civic identity. Nevertheless, the passage above suggests that our pedagogical efforts should be directed toward cultivating appreciation for the quality of “variation” as against promoting images of an essentialized national identity. One could argue that the legal fate of Walker Lindh rests upon the extent to which a judge and jury will value this “democratic” principle in reality, or if the proceedings will be dominated by attempts to reassert the sanctity of an increasingly masculinized American “essence.” The validity of the idea that we should privilege the quality of variation in our pedagogical treatment of American identity is reinforced when we recognize that the allied quality of “revisability” is a value and disposition central to democratic political knowledge (Ober 1996). The capacity and willingness to revise, according to Josiah Ober, is indivisibly linked to the positive value of dissent. Furthermore, the existence of these two binaries within the construction of social identity—essence/variation, form/formlessness—are best understood in terms of gender analysis.
Patriotism and the Remasculinization of
The closely intertwined relation between patriotism and gender can be detected in Martha Nussbaum’s recent work on the subject (2001, 1997, 1996). Although she does not explicitly make the argument, Nussbaum’s call for the education of “world citizens” depends for its actualization, in my view, on a relational epistemology which revalues key feminine qualities. She argues that the strictly nationalist model of American patriotism so evident today, embodies a pedagogy that disenables citizens from seeing and feeling and knowing in a way that would widen their circle of caring beyond the cartographic limits imposed by the nation-state. In a post-9/11 article, Nussbaum declares:
Since compassion contains thought, it can be educated. We can take this disaster as occasion for narrowing our focus, distrusting the rest of the world and feeling solidarity with Americans alone. Or we can take it as an occasion for expanding our ethical horizons. Seeing how vulnerable our great country is, we can learn something about the vulnerability that all human beings share, about what it is like for distant others to lose those they love to a disaster not of their own making, whether it is hunger or flood or war (2001, pp. 11-13).
Compassion, empathy, imagining the vulnerability of others, expanding our ethical horizons: In the present climate, one cannot help but notice the degree to which these noble dispositions of an educated citizenship are in a state of eclipse. Indeed, it appears that the psychological “turning around” of civic identity envisioned by Nussbaum is a kind of transformation which would require a prior shift in the value accorded to the feminine. However, a problem arises here since the ritual performances of patriotism dominant in post 9/11
Only when we appreciate the historical backdrop of the American myth of innocence, amplified as it is by the Disneyization of American culture (Giroux, 2000), can we begin to grasp why so many were shocked at how anyone could possibly “hate America.” Given the power of the American myth of innocence, we should not be surprised that emotions of rage would occur as a result of millions witnessing the symbolic castration of America − the stunning if not demoralizing collapse of the Twin Towers. Since that time, we have seen repeated emphasis on the (male) police and firefighters going into the WTC, and (male) heroes on the flight that crashed in
Owing to the repetition of these and similar images, the “American Taliban” has been cast by official authority as a demonic counter-example to the values of heroic manhood which underwrite the nationalist form of citizenship. For brazenly subverting this norm, we can expect Walker Lindh to be symbolically located at the “scene of the crime” and implicated in the primal horror of September 11th. Although he had absolutely nothing to do with the event—and everyone seems to know it—lack of material evidence has not stopped official authority from relentlessly identifying him with this epic and wanton act. The attempted linkage is itself part of the pedagogical lesson the case teaches us about the politics of identity and the attempt by official others to discipline the boundaries of civic identity.
Confusion surrounding John Walker Lindh’s very name suggests that he is a figure who troubles the conventional boundaries between masculine and feminine. Initially we learned, for example, that his name was “John Walker,” and only later, after his arraignment, did his lawyers insist on calling him “John Lindh.” This seemingly trivial detail is noteworthy, for this young seeker apparently preferred to assume his mother’s name (
For the Spring 2002 semester I designed an undergraduate course for the purpose of surveying the influence of September 11 on the pedagogical construction of American identity. On the first day of class I gave about 20 students a questionnaire. One question was intended to gauge student opinion about John Walker Lindh, what they thought should happen to him, and why. Here is the question:
In your opinion, how should the American people, through the instrument of the state, respond legally to the case of John Walker Lindh, the 20 year old
In constructing this question I wondered if any of them saw the
I think he should be treated harshly and given the death sentence. The
I feel he should be given the death penalty, especially b/c he went against his country.
The key facts are he was lucky enough to be born in
He should be treated and punished just as our legal system would punish any individual they found contributing to the events of 9/11. The key principles are whether this man is fully aware of his actions/beliefs or if he has been brainwashed.
Read in the context of Nussbaum’s theoretical framework, these admittedly random expressions do not display the qualities and sentiments she deems necessary for the development of a cosmopolitan model of patriotism. The tension between the nationalist and cosmopolitan models of citizenship raises a question: If the appreciation of other people’s vulnerability, of empathetic identification to those inside or outside the national boundaries, is itself a feminine quality, wouldn’t the truth of this claim forcefully suggest a radical departure, pedagogically, from dominant conceptions of citizenship education, which, in their liberal incarnation, often pose as gender neutral? With the quickening of nationalist patriotism we see today, the project of educating compassion and extending it outward seems impossible to achieve absent an analysis of how gender valuations are sequestered within all forms of patriotism and within all our emotional allegiances. I believe the critical edge of gender analysis can permit students to better recognize how exactly the nationalist paradigm of identity tends to place the individual in a “cartographic prison,” since its state-centric epistemology for conceptualizing otherness alienates one from any meaningful identification with the vast majority of human beings on the planet. The Walker Lindh case highlights the need to focus more pedagogical attention on the morally ambivalent emotional relations that bond the individual to the state, to the imagination of otherness, and to the idea and practice of democracy itself.
As Megan Boler (1998) elaborates, our emotions, far from being “naturally” occurring, actually constitute “learned rules of conduct” which are by no means innocent of power relations (p. 32). My students’ emotional relations to the figure of Walker Lindh are clearly in process and unfinished, but also shaped in decisive ways by dominant images of gendered power relations. Thus, our emotional attachments (and detachments) are pedagogically-constructed, whether they derive from textbook histories or from radio talk shows, whether they express emotions of love, anger or boredom.
In Feeling Power, it is interesting that Boler is suspicious of Nussbaum’s attempt to educate forms of empathy through the vehicle of literature, arguing that such an approach may merely result in what she calls “passive empathy,” a disposition largely devoid of the imperative to take action to change unjust conditions (pp. 158-161). Despite their disagreements about the nature of empathy, however, both thinkers, significantly, emphasize the learned, pedagogical essence of the self/other negotiation of cultural difference. As a vehicle for learning how to imagine “internal others,” the Walker Lindh case is an exemplary site of civic controversy in which radically opposed frameworks for conceptualizing the self/other difference can be seen to vie for primacy in the ongoing contest over American identity.
“My Heart Became Attached to Them:” Reflections on Educating World Citizens in a Nation-State System
While it is impossible to adequately examine the sixteen essays which comprise For Love of Country within the space of this paper, it is possible, I think, to connect the main theoretical tension in the book to important facets of the Walker Lindh case. As previously mentioned, the book represents diverse responses to Martha Nussbaum’s lead article which expressed the belief that teachers ought to educate youngsters to develop a primary allegiance to the world, not to the nation-state. Notable democratic thinkers such as Benjamin Barber and Amy Gutmann, among others, take serious exception to Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan approach, arguing that the imagination required to love or identify with distant others must start first at the local level, within the domestic. Barber, writing in For Love of Country (1996) is succinct: “Our attachments start parochially and only then grow outward. To bypass them in favor of an immediate cosmopolitanism is to risk ending up nowhere—feeling at home neither at home or in the world” (p. 34). In reply, Nussbaum claims that her advocacy of cosmopolitanism is not intended to erase local allegiances but to reconfigure them. The tension between the two orientations obviously invites further analysis, but the tension itself is probably best understood as interminable, as a productive ambiguity we ought to keep intact and place at the center of our pedagogical focus. Insight into this dynamic can be obtained by looking at Walker Lindh’s remarkable educational trajectory.
In examining his career as a student, one is struck by the intelligence, commitment, and intensity of participation he brought to the educational process. Walker Lindh is described as a model student: epistemologically curious, idealistic, and preoccupied with issues of social justice. Perhaps reflecting the benefits of what appears to be a fine cosmopolitan education, his closest friends in
I was a student in
Walker Lindh’s transgressive love of the Taliban is a moment of high pedagogical importance. It throws light on the fundamental tension between the nationalist and cosmopolitan models of citizenship, for Walker Lindh’s explicit love of the other—his ability to actualize the principle of variation in cultural life—arguably represents one of the defining acts of cosmopolitanism as a form of civic identity. Nussbaum: “What I am saying about education is that we should cultivate the factual and imaginative prerequisites for recognizing humanity in the stranger and the other” (2000, p. 133). Echoing Dewey, Nussbaum writes that we learn more about ourselves from exposure to diverse stimuli, especially that of cultural difference. Walker Lindh appears to have already developed the factual and imaginative prerequisites for recognizing the stranger, a threshold attained in part by his passionate reading of Haley’s (1964) American literary classic, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Largely as a result of this engaged reading, soon the young seeker chooses to become fluent in Arabic and to study the Koran, first in
One of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation in politics is the unexamined feeling that one’s own preferences and ways are neutral and natural. An education that takes national boundaries as morally salient too often reinforces this kind of irrationality, by lending to what is an accident of history a false air of moral weight and glory. By looking at ourselves through the lens of the other, we come to see what in our practices is local and nonessential, what is more broadly or deeply shared. Our nation is appallingly ignorant of most of the rest of the world. I think this means that it is also, in many crucial ways, ignorant of itself. (p. 11)
What if more youngsters received a cosmopolitan education? Would they, on this basis, bolt en masse from the merely local or parochial truths we see reflected in what passes for common sense today? At the very least, the ethical elaboration of such an education would seem to untether the individual from what amounts to a life-long, pedagogically-induced romance with the nation as an “artificially-constructed” object of affection. Cosmopolitan education would thus involve a redirection of erotic desire in which the objects of affection are fundamentally renegotiated. With this broadly stated distinction in mind, between the nation as an object of affection and the world as an object of affection, how should those of us committed to democratic education respond pedagogically to this conceptual predicament?
The Democratic Virtue of Dissent and the Analysis of Contradictions: John Walker Lindh as Classroom Text
I believe the civic value derived from an investigation of the nation/world contradiction does not lie in the expectation that we shall see a final resolution any time soon, but rather because a heightened awareness of this tension among broader segments of an articulate public would contribute to a more substantive national conversation about our role as a global force, and to what extent we imagine ourselves as being fundamentally with or against the world. As some authors in For Love of Country are quick to point out, however, the question for democratic education is not so much if we are for or against the world, but in what ways the quality and depth of our relation to both state and world can be deepened and improved. The fact that the incumbent U.S. President has informed the world that they are either “for us, or against us” in the current “war on terrorism,” only reaffirms the importance of introducing this conversation in our classrooms. Such a crude civilization/barbarism ideological dividing line has already been deployed against Walker Lindh (notably by the Attorney General) and the future deployment of this rhetoric against domestic critics of the new militarization can safely be assumed. All this should prompt the democratic educator to make the theme of dissent the focus of our pedagogical efforts.
The ambivalence in
A democratic regime must allow the cultural critic to maintain his or her distance, to remain a partial outsider, if it is to remain truly democratic and avoid the totalizing tendencies inherent in every value-based system of social organization. In a direct democracy on the Athenian model, therefore, not only is freedom of speech a good idea, but the power of the people exists in a symbiotic relationship with resistance to that selfsame power. (p. 142)
As a present-day personification of dissent, the Walker Lindh case represents an opportunity to sharpen our questions about what kind of political knowledge is required for educating democratic citizens. Genuinely understanding the value and role of dissent in a democratic society is a central piece of this political knowledge. If it is the case that democracy as an historical project must continually re-form itself to remain viable, it follows that the capacity and willingness to revise must somehow be pedagogically created in the schools. The lack of an essential American identity is thus conducive to and consistent with the project of perpetual revision. The capacity to revise, as discussed earlier, also shares a deep conceptual affinity with the principle of variation, insofar as each signifies a fluid process. Citizens whose personality formation embodies these principles will tend to be citizens whose subjectivity is mobile and self-conscious of that mobility. These types of democratic citizens have learned to actively listen to diverse others, a practice which places one’s own cherished assumptions and opinions in a state of suspension. In this way, the role of dissent, in order for it to play a positive role in society, requires persons who have learned to value the benefits of listening. Jim Garrison (1996) argues for a Deweyan form of democratic listening, a generally undertheorized quality of democratic knowledge: “Dialogues across difference are disturbing. Listening is dangerous. It places us at risk and leaves us vulnerable, so why listen? Because others may have what we need in thought, action, and feeling, and we might not even know it” (429-51). In thus listening to Walker Lindh, we can learn a great deal about the contested ideological terrain that is American identity. Therein lies the pedagogical dimension of the case as a civic text.
In a post 9/11 social environment which finds the
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I ground this claim in the assumption that certain feminine qualities, such as contractive, cooperative, intuitive, and synthesizing, to name a few, are human potentialities that are not rooted in sex difference. These are the relational contents contained under the rubric of the feminine, as against the different psychological contents contained under the rubric of the masculine, such as expansive, demanding, aggressive, competitive, analytical, to name a few. I maintain the learned capacities to intuit and to synthesize (or to imagine and to make connections) are required in order to make the radical leap into cosmopolitanism. For a further elaboration of this gender-based theoretical scaffolding, see Capra (1982, p. 38). For another feminist analysis which embraces these same basic assumptions, see Mai and Alpert (2000).
The Nazi brand of nationalism is a textbook example of this functional relationship in action. See Adorno (1998, pp. 191-204). For an analysis of how images of gender are operative within American culture, see Jeffords (1989).