Monday, December 24, 2012

From the Tampa Bay Times

A U.N. treaty on disabilities and the ghost of Henry Cabot Lodge

By David Lee McMullen, Special to the Times

Published Friday, December 14, 2012

When the Senate failed to ratify the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities this month, one of the main reasons offered by Republican senators voting against the treaty was that it would infringe on American sovereignty, undercutting the nation's freedom and independence.
Interestingly, that is the same argument Republicans used to block the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, thus keeping the United States out of the League of Nations.
During the early years of World War I, before the United States became a combatant nation, President Woodrow Wilson sought unsuccessfully to negotiate a "victory-less peace," where the killing could stop and the conflict would be resolved at the conference table. Then, after the United States entered the war in 1917, he introduced his famous Fourteen Points, the centerpiece being the creation of an international body of nations where conflicts could be resolved peacefully, without the need for future wars.
Wilson took his ideas to Paris in 1919 but met intense opposition from the leaders of Britain and France, who wanted revenge for the suffering they had endured during the war. Ultimately, Wilson was forced to limit his proposal to the single point he considered most important — the establishment of a League of Nations. As a result, this provision was successfully incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles, which Wilson signed and brought back to the Senate for ratification.
The Senate, which had been united in its support of the war against Germany, now divided along party lines over the peace treaty. Democrats, under the leadership of Wilson, supported ratification. Republicans, under the leadership of Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed the treaty.
The partisan battle lasted for months and centered around one major sticking point, the idea that joining the League of Nations would force the United States into surrendering a portion of its sovereignty to a global power superior to all nations. Those who understood the treaty knew that this was not the case, but fear has always been a potent political tool. As Sen. Lodge explained his position, "I am certain that we can do it best by not … subjecting our policies and our sovereignty to other nations."
Such political rhetoric sounds remarkably similar to the arguments presented by the senators who opposed the U.N. disability treaty. (Only eight Republicans joined all Democrats in supporting the treaty, which has been signed by 155 nations and ratified by 126. The final vote was 61-38. With 99 senators present, ratification would have required 66 votes.)
Former Sen. Rick Santorum explained the opposition this way: "Our nation has been the worldwide leader when it comes to protecting the disabled. We should be telling the U.N., not the other way around, how to ensure dignity and respect for the disabled."
Actually, the U.N. disability treaty does just that. It simply asks the rest of the world to develop policies to protect the rights of the disabled, to set standards equal to those established by the United States in the Americans With Disabilities Act. It does not infringe upon the sovereignty of the United States or any other nation for that matter.
Despite these facts, it appears that many modern-day Republicans oppose the United Nations for the same reason their colleagues in post-World War I America opposed the League of Nations. They distrust the rest of the world and they are afraid that the United States loses something when it participates in the international community of nations as an equal rather than as a global superpower.
History is a tug-of-war, and here is an excellent example of an ongoing struggle. It is a conflict that pits those who envision a world where the United States stands alone, superior to the rest of the nations on the planet, against those who seek to bring all nations to the conference table in search of peaceful solutions to the common problems of our world.
Defeating the U.N. disability treaty must have made the ghost of Sen. Lodge a very happy fellow.

Monday, May 28, 2012

More than flags and hot dogs

Memorial Day sounds the starting gun for summer and, like most national holidays in the United States, it provides an excuse for retailers to promote their wares, for families to enjoy long weekends together, and for Americans all across the nation to gather at baseball games, patriotic concerts, cookouts or to simply bask in the sun. 

From a more serious perspective, Memorial Day is the day we honor the memory of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who died in service to our country.  While few of us take the time to decorate the graves of the fallen, many do take a few moment to think about the enormous sacrifice made by these individuals, especially if we served in the military or know of someone who did.

This holiday was born from some of the worst days in U.S. History – the Civil War. When and where the first Memorial Day was celebrated is unclear.  Historians point to many different communities throughout the country.  Perhaps the first occurred in May of 1865, when newly freed slaves, Union soldiers and whites from the North decorated the graves of Unions soldiers who died in a prisoner of war camp in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Regardless of when or where the holiday began, the idea of decorating the graves of those who died in the war spread quickly across the nation. In the North, Decoration Day became a national observance, first celebrated in May of 1868. In the South, the holiday evolved at the state level, often called Confederate Memorial Day.  The photo above shows young women from the Ann Smith Academy visiting the grave of Stonewall Jackson in Lexington, Virginia during the late Nineteenth Century.

As time passed, more Americans died in more wars and so we starting using the holiday as a way of honoring all Americans who have died in war.  Finally, in 1967 Memorial Day was officially established as a national holiday.

Today, when we look around and realize that this may be one of the most divisive periods in U.S. history – some have compared it to the years leading up to the Civil War – perhaps we should consider expanding the ways we celebrate Memorial Day. After all, the evolution of Memorial Day offers proof that America can overcome differences, that we can respect each other and that we can work together for the common good. 

Perhaps we should show our respect for those who gave their lives in service to our nation by ending all the divisive rhetoric and looking for ways to solve the challenges that face our nation today.  Men and women, rich and poor, old and young, Republican and Democrat, religious believers and atheists, traditionalists and modernizers, gays and straights – we should stop fixating on the problems and start working together to find meaningful solutions.

Better than just sticking a flag on a grave, or eating a hot dog at a ballgame, working together would be a great way to honor the sacrifice that those hundreds of thousands of men and women made to preserve our nation.

Monday, April 30, 2012

This is finals week, which means I am working my way through a large stack of research papers from my two upper division courses -- "Civil War and Reconstruction" and "U.S. History 1914 to 1945".  I allow my students to select their topic in the belief that they will pick something they find fascinating and thus produce a better paper.  There are always a few outstanding papers, a few really bad papers, and a majority of "Gentleman C" papers.  At my age, and my level, I find it hard to understand why so many students seem to lack any serious interest in their own education.  I thought my graduate studies at Northwestern were some of the greatest years of my life. I honestly loved every minute. My doctorate was both a challenge and an adventure, well worth all the time and effort.  Even back in the Dark Ages, during my early undergraduate days, when being an academic meant smoking a pipe, growing a beard, and nodding knowingly even if you did not have a clue, I valued the importance of a good education.  So, as I look out at my students today, I wonder what can I do to inspire them?  What can I do to motivate them?  What can I do to prepare them for the future?