Appropriation (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

Sometimes silence is unintended, and stories need to be unearthed in order to create justice for a federally protected population (even those whose need for protection is hidden behind a façade of feigned friendship).  Excavating our own history as veterans and as alumni of institutions like Duke revises and augments a master narrative that diminishes the full dignity of military personnel and communities. It counteracts social plagiarism like “stolen valor” and cultural appropriation.

Kathleen Ashley and Veronique Plesch, in an academic volume published by Duke University Press, describe “the fundamentally active nature of appropriation” and its linguistic roots;

from the Latin verb appropriare, “to make one’s own,” a combination of “ad, meaning ‘to,’ with the notion of ‘rendering to,’ and proprius, ‘own or personal.’” Beyond the simple acknowledgment of borrowing or influence, what the concept of appropriation stresses is, above all, the motivation for the appropriation: to gain power over.[1]

In their essay, they draw inspiration from Craig Owen’s “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” published in 1982. For Owen, appropriation within “a humanistic discipline” like theology, for example, implies

a desire for property, which conveys man’s sense of his ‘power over things’; a desire for propriety, a standard of decorum based upon respect for property relations; a desire for the proper name, which designates the specific person who is invariably identified as the subject of the work of art; finally, a desire for appropriation.[2]

e621f522-ba93-40d5-a961-abce9244c23fOn September 28, 1921, an article in the school newspaper, The Trinity Chronicle, began soliciting responses to the question “What name shall represent Trinity?” The school’s dark blue colors made returning WWI veterans think of a French alpine unit known as les Diables Bleus, or ‘the blue devils.’ The graduating class of 1923 “had been the first post-war freshmen and the student body was full of returning veterans” who would have fought alongside les Diables bleus in the European theater. Their distinctive blue capes were unique amidst the otherwise earthen color tones normally found in military attire and the unit had also been widely recognized for bravery. The article explained the need for a name to match the mascots and nicknames of other college men. Dissatisfied with the simple term “Methodists,” students desired “something… that shall be our own possession.” (p.2, middle column, third of the way down)

This sentiment is still very much alive, 96 years later. In 2014, after the “Faculty Panel on War,” one panelist tweeted something that reflects not just symbolic appropriation, but epistemological appropriation; a tenured professor attempted, however unwittingly, to not just steal military culture, but to even claim credibility belonging properly to soldiers and veterans themselves. Here is her tweet;

Hall Tweet

Implicit in the message to the left is that soldier’s stories and experience are owned (or more properly ‘known’) by agents external to the soldier. As Jodi Simon, a lawyer in California, stated about Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Sarver’s defamation lawsuit against the crew behind The Hurt Locker, “soldiers don’t have privacy.” Likewise, this tenured professor’s comment becomes an assertion of ownership; she suggests individual martial experience belongs to an entity other than that individual. The words and actions surrounding the panel represents an appropriation of the experience of military personnel as “something… that shall be our own possession.”

This forcible pluralization of the first person dependent possessive form (“my” knowledge to “our” knowledge) is a derogatory assertion of ownership or propriety; i.e. this knowledge is not, or should not, be properly possessed by “combat vets” themselves, for that would be “not good for vets”. “Our,” in this case, displays the standard pacifist justification of credibility regarding any event about “war” which invites participation by “academic[s]” whose expertise derives exclusively from having “written about” a subject with which they have no “first hand” experience. (Panel transcript, p.10)

As for the university, there is no evidence that any student or staff was ever in contact with les Diables Bleus. The Duke Blue Devil logo and branding continues to appear with their distinctive blue cape, and a student recently found that the university has trademarked the (English) words “Blue Devils.” Continuing to use a military unit’s distinctive dress when the military is treated in the ways Duke has represents to many veterans a kind of unjust appropriation which contrasts sharply with Duke’s moral and legal responsibilities to the military community. After all, ownership is nine tenths of the law.

But more importantly, appropriation like this silences and erases the contribution of  veterans in higher education. When told about les Diables Bleu, none of the students in my Virtues of War course had any idea. As graduating seniors, they have absorbed Duke culture and imagery for four years, time in which the experience of veterans on campus has been excluded and editorialized away. I refuse to be silent about the community and culture to which I belong.


[1] “The Cultural Processes of Appropriation,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (32:1, Winter 2002), page 3.

[2] “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. Scott Bryson et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 95–96.

Exclusion (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

By speaking up as a veteran and for veterans, regardless of their social status, I am apparently committing a subversive act. I am confronting a status quo that not only has both actively silenced veterans, but has also cavalierly ignored them altogether.

Two days after Veterans Day in 2015, the president of of my alma mater convened a Town Hall for marginalized student groups with a university provost and an undergraduate dean. Student veterans groups were not represented and university administrators displayed no “intensive and inclusive” effort to reach out to this protected population, despite there being at least three active groups on campus at the time; Duke Armed Forces AssociationDuke Law Veterans, and Duke Divinity Veterans Partnership.  For reference, the university has had a legal responsibility to be aware of protected veterans as early as March 24, 2014, when the Final Rule on VEVRAA took effect.

The Bias and Hate Taskforce was formed that same month “to carry out a broad review of Duke’s policies, practices, and culture as they pertain to bias and hate in the Duke student experience.”[1] This “intensive and inclusive” review included a series of “listening sessions,” none of which indicate any direct connection with student veterans associations active on campus at the time.

Screenshot 2017-04-10 12.38.49Listening sessions were convened at schools for faculty and students as well, including environment (March 2), business (March 22), policy (March 24), law (March 29), nursing (March 31), and divinity (April 4). While the sessions at schools themselves may have been inclusive of student veterans there, other sessions did focus on protected populations, including LGBTQ (March 3), African American (March 7), female (March 9), Muslim (March 11), and Jewish (April 13) students. No mention is made of the student veterans groups active at the business, law, or divinity schools, nor the Veterans Advisory Committee within GPSC, which

Meets to discuss matters dealing with veterans affairs in higher education and to draft policy recommendations that address the unique administrative needs of Duke graduate and professional students who are or have family members or friends that are former or current members of the US Armed Forces.

Furthermore, some of the listening sessions were conducted at sites with  particularly active student veteran contingents, such as the business (March 22), law (March 29), and the divinity schools (April 4), the latter of which founded the university’s Student Veterans of America chapter. In fact, it was a divinity professor who served as the Chair of the Listening Tour working group (Final Report, p.59), but this person made no apparent contact even within his own school’s student veteran groups or individuals.

An Office of Student Affairs administrator has voluntarily adopted unpaid responsibility for veterans since before I arrived in fall 2010. This office had a Listening Tour session on March 31. The Vice President for Student Affairs is named as the party responsible for appointing the Bias Response Advisory Committee, (Final Report, p.23) who, with the unpaid volunteer controlling university resources, was made aware of multiple veteran concerns in 2012-2013 academic term. However, Student Affairs made no apparent effort whatsoever to apply the “intensive and inclusive” standard for reaching out to “traditionally underrepresented” groups on campus to student veterans. (2016 AAP, p.15)

Despite all the above, in May 2016, the Taskforce ended its work and entered an Implementation phase by publishing a “Final Report” which covered numerous protected classifications but left out any mention of veterans or veteran status.

Screenshot 2017-04-10 12.44.49

The Everyday Discrimination Scale, outlined on pages 19 and 65 of the Final Report, was emailed to 4,544 students on March 21, 2016. It allowed for responses that included;

  • Ancestry or national origin
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Weight
  • Another aspect of physical Appearance
  • Sexual orientation
  • Education or income level
  • Physical disability
  • Shade of skin color
  • Tribe
  • Political orientation
  • Gender
  • Race

There are neither explicit nor implicit options above suggestive of “Veteran Status.” Veteran status is the only protected population not covered by the Taskforce’s Final Report.

Veteran Status was not added to the university’s Discrimination Grievance Procedure policy until November 7, 2016, after the taskforce completed its report. (first page, third paragraph) “Gender expression” did not appear prior to this date either, but unlike veteran status, it is dealt with in detail by the taskforce. (Final Report, pp.29 & 35) It may be argued that “gender expression” became enforceable under Duke’s Harassment policy as early as the report’s publication on April 30, 2016, nearly seven months before “Veteran Status” finally appears in Duke’s grievance procedures.

The total omission of protected veterans in the Taskforce’s work represents what the United States EEOC calls “disparate impact,” describing activity, like a listening tour or recommendations of the Taskforce, which results in “a different and more inhibiting effect” on a protected population. This profound oversight, from the top administration on down, creates limited access to resources and programs which most protected populations receive but which are effectively denied to protected veterans.

It is not always individual silence that harms veterans. It is often the silence of institutions and social groups. In situations in which the veteran community is divided, as I’ve experienced as a student, those veterans with the most difficulty often suffer the most. They receive the least resources, they face the stiffest challenges, and they stand to be the most alienated not just by the wider civilian community, but, worst of all, by their fellow veterans.

It is the responsibility of people and their institutions to protect the least of us. Silence is no longer an option, it is a betrayal.


[1] The Forum is also listed as a “community conversation” resource at https://spotlight.duke.edu/taskforce/campus-resourcess/

[2] According to university hosted site https://spotlight.duke.edu/taskforce retrieved December 3, 2016. A test on Archive.org to determine the age of this website found that it was first saved in March 2016; https://web.archive.org/web/*/https://spotlight.duke.edu/taskforce

NCR Podcast Interview

It was a thrill to be interviewed recently by host Brittany Wilmes, of the National Catholic Reporter. Here is the full recording;

More context and resources from the show;

Editorializing (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving silence.

I recently verbalized something to friends that had been in my head for a long time; in being silent, I thought I was following etiquette, I was worried about whether sharing my experiences would boil down to gossip. I thought I was acting within some framework of professional decorum. I figured I was playing the game and that, eventually, things would change and my patience would pay off. Others thought this same way, people I trusted, people who had ‘made it.’

I was wrong.

Things don’t change when people are silent; silence secures the status quo. Neutrality is not a moral value, it isn’t even a privilege; neutrality is an illusion. It’s no coincidence that it derives from neuter (think: Bob Barker)… Neutrality is a carefully crafted illusion, it requires the status quo editing out contrasting voices and complicating factors, like human beings. I know because I’ve been dehumanized editorialized in the past
fisher420

Featured image for a July 2013 article highlighting a 451% increase in student veterans at Duke University.

On June 17, 2013, a rep from the Duke News & Communication Office emailed me seeking an interview and connections to other veterans for research into “a story about the growth in the number of veterans on campus, in part the result of VA funding.” As a result of numerous instances of bias and harassment I knew had been occurring, I advised the writer “if this is for literature meant to attract more students, I may not be the best person to speak with.” The author described the project as follows;

The article I plan to write essentially highlights the fact that the number of veterans at Duke has risen lately, in large part due to VA programs now available. I want to talk with vets about the opportunity the VA has given them, how they plan to use their Duke degree and, yes, what their experience was like at Duke.

The “VA Programs” to which they referred are the “Post 9/11 GI Bill” and a subordinate program called “The Yellow Ribbon Program” (YRP) passed into law in 2008. During the 2012-2013 academic year, I learned that the implementation of the YRP was not uniform across Duke. In the case of the Divinity School, for example, only five YRP slots were allocated that year. A direct byproduct of this was to create silent competition between veteran applicants when enrollments exceeded available slots in any given year.

Screenshot 2017-04-05 20.54.06

This is the Duke Yellow Ribbon cluster fuck

The first draft of the article went to the me and the two other veterans he interviewed on July 1, 2013. The draft offered disproportionate attention to non veterans over veterans, which is ironic because veterans were supposed to be the subject matter of the article. He talked to four administrators (the provost at the time, the Vice President for Student Affairs, an associate dean of students, and a registrar), but only three veterans.

 

The unbalanced devotion given to non veterans extended to the length and quality of quotations the author pulled from interviews. In the first draft shared with the student veterans involved, the article dedicated 129 words to the registrar, 38 words to the provost, and 18 to the associate dean. Though it never quotes the Student Affairs VP directly, the draft attributed 68 words to him in paraphrase. In contrast, the article only dedicated 20 words to one veteran, 15 words to me, and 13 words to the veteran whose likeness appears with the article.

Mid-article, as the out-going president of Duke Veterans, I was quoted as saying “Duke is not doing anything wrong, but there are more things they can be doing,” including establishing a veteran center on campus, which every other college in the triangle had except for Duke. After me, he cited the VP describing several measures Student Affairs was taking to address, as well as the VP’s “doubt” about the creation of a vet center. The author concluded his article by quoting a vet saying ““I have zero regrets… It was a pretty cool experience.”

The narrative arch created by the article seemed to me to significantly undermine my concerns as well as the credentials I brought with two years of leadership at Duke and my experience as a student veteran. The ordering of the quotations was objectionable, the editorial choices reflected a positive bias in favor of Duke which, I told the author, “requires much of the story about why I said what I did to be left unsaid.” So I asked for my name to be removed from the article before publication, which it was.

Another veteran reflected on the draft saying

No suicide rates, PTSD stats, nothing real… I’m not getting used for a back pat from a dude that didnt have enough integrity to do background research.  I just emailed him and told him to take me out.

Editorializing the experience of veterans is does not serve their interests, nor does it promote diversity and inclusion and the long term health of the institution. What it does is silence and stratify a population protected by federal regulations as well as university policy. Such exclusionary and selective editorializing interferes with or limits one’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or privileges” extended to other alumni, employees, or local stake holders; the definition of the EEOC “hostile environment” standard.

Rather than attracting veterans or enriching the student body by promoting a diversity of voices and experiences, back-patting articles like this downplay and deny the “real” difficulties faced by many veterans at Duke. Marginalizing the experiences of those veterans who do not fit the mold serves to enforce a standard of behavior, appearance, and expression that not all veterans can meet. As the “fastest growing student group,” it is imperative upon Duke to represent a wider array of student concerns, not to propagate articles that reinforce its own false self-perception or ideal brand.

Better (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

I have been silent about my interactions with 2001’s “best theologian,” according to TIME Magazine. In an earlier post, I described interviewing him for a conference I organized in 2011 and the problems inherent therein, which I didn’t even realize at the time. Over the following three years, I remained silent as his words and actions declined in quality and consideration. As the years passed, he refused to adjust his rhetorical belligerence, which is unmatched in the mainstream church (‘pastor Mark‘ might exceed him in language, but even the disgraced neo-calvinist had the dignity to apologize…).

In 2014, I was out of the country studying historical theology in Scotland. Student veteran friends back at my alma mater told me about a panel “on war” organized by another tenured faculty member which was to take place one week before Veterans Day. You can read a transcript of the panel here. One question from a student veteran was especially poignant;

What does it mean to be [a pacifist] here, at the divinity school, where there’s no bullets, no bodies flying, there’s no air raid sirens going on, what does it mean to hold that position when you don’t get—where you have the privilege not to experience it?

In his reply, the best acknowledged that being a pacifist was easy, “But simply because it’s too easy doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” His choice of words is significant – he defends himself (morally, as in right and wrong) because he acknowledges the privilege of ideology detached from embodied experience, whether that experience is of civilian “collateral damage” or combatants suffering from combat stress, the latter of whom are killing themselves at a rate never before witnessed in human history.

The illustration he chose to prove his point was beyond the pale;

During Vietnam, when my son was six, and Richard Nixon bombed Cambodia, I told my son, when Richard Nixon’s name was mentioned in elementary school to raise his hand and say, “Oh, you mean the murderer?” [laughter] I knew that that would not make his life easy. But I didn’t want to make his life easy, I wanted to make it difficult. I would like, I mean, you know, it’s too easy to be a pacifist, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Without any context, christian soldiers and veterans hearing this anecdote may have taken exceeding offense. If, they may wonder, a president’s thousand-mile mechanical distance from that war, or any war, qualified them as the “murderer” in the eyes of a “best” theologian, then were they not something exponentially worse than “murderer”?

The problem the Best fails to see is that he was making his son’s life difficult not for being a pacifist, but for being an asshole; such crude and heartless anecdotes only make it obvious that to be a pacifist is more important to some Christians than the call to be discipled by Christ, who threw neither physical nor rhetorical stones. The danger here is that this theologian has groomed an entire generation of church people to put the pacifist cart before the discipleship horse. I hesitate to use the identifier “christian” because that title is determined by love, not callousness.

The Waco Tribune-Herald, a local paper, reported on a visit “The Best” made to Baylor on the thirteenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. While visiting a student group off campus, he made the same comment about presidential murder. What he didn’t seem to realize is that Baylor has an even more active and organized student veteran group than his own home institution of Duke Divinity. Both the Waco and Duke students laughed at his remarks, not unlike the way nearly 200 of my own peers laughed at the moral significance of my service before I started seminary in 2010.

Christians, theologically trained or not, can do better. If it is by our love for one another that we are properly identified as followers of Christ, then we must do better than cheap anecdotes based of fucked up caricatures that demean, belittle, and shame a federally protected population.

After reading the Waco story, I wrote to him and demanded, in no uncertain terms, that he cease using the anecdote because

It does not reflect the high standard expected of serious scholars and it demeans the morally complex perspective of Christians struggling with what it means to serve. Furthermore, it creates an atmosphere hostile to a community that has already been subjected to demoralizing caricatures of itself by tribalists in pacifist and patriot camps alike. It is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, to reduce Christian soldiers to one word abstractions by a general populace or an academic guild already insulated from the nuanced and painful reality of military service.

Christians can do better, we must do better, and we must expect better from those in service to the Church within academia. I will no longer be silent when I see or hear destructive and inaccurate shit like this, because it hurts people, it hurts me. I hope it hurts all Christians, for what we do to “the least of these” is felt by the whole Body of Christ.