A nonstop presidential campaign has months to go but has failed-despite a torrent of verbiage—to foster serious discussion of several critical issues facing Americans. Five of these issues are named in the introductory student reading below. This is followed by a question-asking assignment and criteria for good questions. Teachers can choose one or more of the issues for student reading and then question-asking, question-analyzing and discussion.
Since the lesson asks students to write questions for candidates, some preliminary work on question-asking might be helpful. For suggested approaches, see "Thinking Is Questioning" and the "doubting game" section of "Teaching Critical Thinking."
Student Reading: Introduction
The U.S. presidential campaign has been continuing non-stop since early 2007. Throughout this period, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have been hard at work every day. They have shaken hands with and said a few words to commuters at train stations and workers at factories. They have gone from table to table at coffee shops greeting customers. They have talked to network news anchors like Katie Couric and cable show interviewers like Larry King and Britt Hume. They have answered countless questions, most of which they have already answered hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and continue to answer them.
But they have rarely, if ever, discussed critically the following difficult issues, or been asked about them:
- The suffering of Iraqis
- The Pentagon budget
- Single payer health care
- Presidential campaign costs
- The suffering of Palestinians
Brief discussions of each of these issues follow. Based on them and anything else you know, write two good questions for the presidential candidates in the space provided. For this purpose, a good question:
- is clear
- is answerable
- does not include questionable assumptions
- requires a follow-up question if it can be answered with a yes or no
- leads to better understanding of an issue if answered well
You do not have to be able to answer the question yourself. But do not ask such questions as "Why don't you discuss X?" or "What do you think about X?"
The suffering of Iraqis
By now, the summer of 2008, excess deaths from violence in Iraq since March 2003 must be at least 1 million." About 310,000 innocent civilians have died as a result of U.S. airforce bombing and actions of American troops. (See "Informed Comment" at www.juancole.com, 6/22/08, for details.) Many hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis have been wounded.
Evan Wright, a reporter for Rolling Stone, was embedded in a Marine platoon in Iraq and described in Generation Kill what he saw: "Marines rely much more on artillery bombardment than on aircraft dropping precision-guided munitions. During our thirty-six hours outside Nasiriyah they have already lobbed an estimated 2,000 rounds into the city. This impact of this shelling on its 400,000 residents must be devastating."
"We pass a bus, smashed and burned, with charred human remains sitting upright in some windows. There's a man in the road with no head and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She's wearing a dress and has no legs."
"The problem with American society is we don't really understand what war is." Wright says that the view Americans get "is too sanitized."
A UNICEF report declared that in 2007 "around two million Iraqi children suffered from a variety of humanitarian ills, including poor nutrition, disease and interrupted education." ( New York Times, 12/22/07)
The UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration reported that by 2007, almost 5 million Iraqis-over 19% of the country's entire population—had been displaced by violence in their country.
About half of these people are "internally displaced," living in other places in Iraq. According to Refugees International (www.refugeesinternational.org) the rest are in Syria (1.5 million), and in Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and the Gulf States." The United Nations Relief Agency reports that more than 1 million of those staying in Iraq are "in need of shelter and food. More than 1 million have no regular income and 300,000 have no access to clean water." (www.unchr.org)
Cara Buckley reported in the New York Times ( "Refugees Risk Coming Home to an Unready Iraq," 12/20/07):
"Maha Hashim, a widow, crossed the border into Iraq from Syria at dusk last month, heading homeward. Her dwindling savings had bought her family passage aboard a crowded bus, but there was no telling what awaited her at journey's end. The only sure thing was that she would have to look for a new home and a job in a city starved for work and crudely reshaped by war.
"Four weeks later, Ms. Hashim is sharing her uncle's musty two-bedroom apartment with her four children, sister-in-law and four nieces and nephews in the once tortured Baghdad neighborhood around Haifa Street. She has no job and cannot afford an apartment of her own. Her husband, a policeman, was killed by insurgents in mid-2006, and her old house in southern Baghdad was destroyed by a truck bomb. Her old neighborhood, Saydia, remains one of the most dangerous in the capital.
"'I loved Saydia but I can never go back; it broke my heart,' said Ms. Hashim, 40, a Sunni. 'I need to get a job and a home, but how, and where?'"
MSNBC reported that because of "security risks," the United States has admitted fewer than 800 Iraqis seeking to live here. Many more wish to come, including some Iraqis whose lives are in danger because they have helped U.S. forces as translators and other aides. Following criticisms from human rights groups, the Bush administration announced it will admit 7,000 Iraqis by September. (www.msnbc.msn.com, 4/8/08) Sweden has taken in 40,000 Iraqi refugees ("Informed Comment" at www.juancole.com, 6/22/08)
The Pentagon budget and activities
The Pentagon budget for 2008 is $625 billion, or about 20% of the total U.S. budget. This amount is larger than that the military budgets of all other nations in the world combined, according to the World Factbook 2007 of the CIA. (www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html). But if one adds the additional hundreds of billions spent on developing and maintaining nuclear weapons, homeland security, arms aid to allies, expenses for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, care for veterans wounded in current and past wars, pensions for retired veterans, interest on the national debt for past wars, and hidden expenditures for classified projects, the defense budget comes to more like $1 trillion, or 51% of the U.S. budget.
Included in the Pentagon budget for last year are such items as an "Iraqi Salary Payment" of $320.8 million, for 1,000 workers and a payment of $5,674,075 to the Al Kasid Specialized Vehicles Trading Company in Baghdad—both for unexplained purposes. The budget does not include the projected final cost of Pentagon major weapons programs that ballooned $295 billion over initial estimates. (www.nytimes.com, 5/30 and 6/4/08)
The Pentagon budget also includes billions for military hardware the Pentagon does not want. It has been unable to cut the Boeing C-17 cargo plane or the F-22 jet whose "irrelevance and non-effectiveness" keep it from being used in Iraq or Afghanistan. Production also continues on the C-130, whose cost-effectiveness is seriously questioned. ("The Defense Monitor," May/June 2008)
There are also contracts for items the Pentagon apparently does want, like the submarines for deep ocean combat that come with a $2.5 billion price tag each. But with what enemy? Terrorists? The subs, produced by the General Electric Boat Company in Connecticut, are defended by Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who warns of China's emerging power. But even the Pentagon does not see China as a submarine threat to the U.S. in the foreseeable future. (www.latimes.com, 6/1/08)
During the Bush administration years, the Pentagon has expanded its role as overseer of the U.S. military and contractor for high-priced weaponry into allied areas. It now has centralized commands around the world including its latest, Africom in Africa. The Pentagon controls more than 80 percent of all U.S. intelligence spending. It sells $14 billion worth of arms, which is more than half of all world trade in arms, to countries around the globe. It has an expanding space weaponry program for battles of the future in outer space.
But the Pentagon has trouble keeping track of its accounts. According to the Inspector General for the Defense Department, it "cannot account for almost $15 billion worth of goods and services ranging from trucks, bottled water and mattresses to rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns that were bought from contractors in the Iraq reconstruction effort."
The Pentagon "has developed a taste for unrivaled power and unequaled access to the treasure of the country. It is an institution that has escaped the checks and balances of the nation."-Frida Berrigan, "The Pentagon Takes Over," (www.tomdispatch.com, 6/1/08) Berrigan is a Senior Associate at the New American Foundation
During at least some part of each year nearly 50 million Americans have no health care insurance. About another 25 million don't have enough coverage to avoid financial problems if they are seriously ill. Though the candidates agree that everyone should have access to insurance, they differ significantly in their approaches.
Senator John McCain would encourage coverage by providing income tax deductions to people to buy their own health insurance. He would also remove tax incentives that make it advantageous for people to get insurance through their employers.
Senator Barack Obama would require large employers to either provide insurance or contribute to the cost of insuring the uninsured and require that all children, but not necessarily all adults, be covered.
There are additional differences between the two approaches, but neither plan explains how it will deal with the problem of rising medical costs. The U.S. spend about twice as much on healthcare as other industrialized countries, and yet leaves many people uninsured.
A major reason for this is that the 1300 private insurance companies that provide coverage to many Americans are in business to make money. They spend a great deal of consumers' healthcare dollars on things like advertising and paying staff to research potential customers' medical histories and deny coverage if they indicate significant medical problems. Insurance company profits, marketing costs and paperwork make the U.S. system by far the most complex and costly in the world.
Many people argue that healthcare will never be "universal" so long as costs keep rising so rapidly. Instead, they say, the current trend will continue: growing healthcare costs will be pushed onto consumers through rising premiums and deductibles, making it too expensive for many people to go to the doctor or get the medications they need.
A high percentage of Americans—including many doctors and nurses—support healthcare reform that would control spiraling costs by eliminating health insurance companies from the system. Instead of getting private health insurance through their employers, all Americans would be guaranteed insurance through the federal government-the way seniors are currently guaranteed insurance under the federal Medicare program.
This kind of health insurance system, which is used in most of the rest of the industrialized world, is called "single payer," which means that only entity (such as government) pays all healthcare bills. In most single-payer systems around the world, healthcare itself is provided through a mix of private and public hospitals and clinics. Those countries that do allow private insurance companies usually require companies to accept everyone who applies and forbids companies from profiting from basic care. Insurance and drug companies, doctors and hospitals must accept standard, fixed prices to keep costs down.
Despite many studies showing that single-payer is the most effective healthcare system, neither major candidate has discussed it at any length.
Presidential campaign costs
More than $1 billion, an all-time record, was raised for presidential candidates by the close of the primary season. Many tens of millions more will be raised before the elections. Contributors may be ordinary Americans who contribute $25 or $50 because they think Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain will make a fine president. But the torrent of money also comes from other sources and for other reasons.
Consider the money the two parties are raising for their conventions in Denver in the last week of August (Democrats) and Minneapolis-St. Paul in the first week of September (Republicans). Local companies contribute and fundraise for convention expenses because they hope to bring attention to their city and attract new business. For these reasons, any contributions are tax deductible.
"The Federal Election Committee and the Internal Revenue Service have permitted a vast expansion of host committee fundraising on the grounds that since these organizations are non-partisan 'charities' or 'business leagues,' contribution to them does not present an issue of potential political corruption or appearance of corruption," reports the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), a non-partisan and non-profit organization affiliated with George Washington University that conducts research and education.
A CFI investigation shows that, in fact, Democratic and Republican officials "are asking largely for corporate money" with promises of "special access to donors to federal elected and other officials, national party leaders and other influentials." Half the corporate money will come from companies that have no connection with either Denver or Minneapolis. (www.cfinst.org)
According to a Democratic Party brochure, potential donors to its convention will have a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to have access to members of Congress, senators and governors. "This is a rare opportunity" for discussion "on timely issues affecting your industry with elected officials and members of the media." Donors who give $1 million or more are promised invitations to private party events in hospitality suites. Potential donors to the Republican convention are in line for "golf outings and private dinners with Republican leaders, including Mr. McCain and other members of Congress." (www.nytimes.com, 6/7/08)
At the same time, pharmaceutical and real estate companies and law firms and defense industries continue to pump many millions of dollars into the campaigns of Senators McCain and Obama.
The suffering of Palestinians
The conflict between Israel and Palestinians is 60 years old. The rights and wrongs of it are in the eyes of the beholder.
The conflict dates back at least to 1948, to what Israel calls the War for Independence and Palestinians call Al Nakba, the catastrophe. At that time, in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, many Jews moved to the region, displacing some 700,000 Palestinians. Many were forced off their land, which Israel confiscated. Palestinians ended up in refugee camps where their descendants still live. Today Israel also occupies and controls Palestinians in the West Bank. Another Palestinian area, Gaza, is no longer occupied, but its people are essentially locked into a narrow strip of territory along the Mediterranean.
No end to the conflict is in sight. In the past eight years, 16 Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket or mortar fire from Gaza. Gaza is controlled by the Palestinian organization Hamas, which is regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and other nations. Since November 2007, at least 488 Palestinian civilians and Gaza militants have been killed in Israeli reprisals.
The New York Times describes Gaza as "a poor, chaotic place of 1.5 million people, 70 percent of them refugees or their descendants." Gaza men under 30 "are virtually unable to leave their tiny, poor and overcrowded territory." ( New York Times, 3/12/07). According to the BBC, more than 80 percent of Gaza's people "rely on humanitarian aid, unemployment runs at about 40 percent, and 25-30 percent of Gazans have no running water."
For 40 years Israel has developed more than 100 settlements in the West Bank, many on Palestinian land requisitioned by the Israeli government for what it calls "public purposes." Tens of thousands of Israelis live in the settlements, separated from Palestinians by a barrier wall more than 450 miles long and 9 yards high. It also divides Palestinians from Palestinians, whose freedom of movement is further curtailed by separate roads and 600 checkpoints.
In his book The End of the Peace Process, the late Edward Said wrote: "I once stopped on the main road from Jerusalem to Hebron to record on film an Israeli bulldozer, surrounded and protected by soldiers, plowing through some fertile land just alongside the road. About a hundred meters away stood four Palestinian men, looking both miserable and angry. It was their land, I was told, which they had worked for generations, now being destroyed on the pretext that it was needed to widen already wide road built for the settlements. I went over to the Israeli soldiers and was lucky to find one who clearly seemed troubled by the whole business. 'But don't you see how unjust it is to take land from farmers who have no defense against you,' I said, to which he replied, 'It's not their land really. It belongs to the state of Israel.' I recall saying to him that sixty years ago the same arguments were made against Jews in Germany, and now here were Jews using it against their victims, the Palestinians."
Amos Elon, an Israeli writer, wrote in the New York Review ( "Olmert & Israel: The Change," 2/14/08): "Armed with weapons supplied by the army for self-defense, [some Israeli settlers] harass Palestinian shepherds with impunity, uproot olive groves, poison fields and plants in the hope of forcing Palestinians to abandon nearby lands. They often enter Palestinian villages shooting wildly in the air."
Much of the world views all Israeli settlements as illegal under international law. The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that the barrier and the road network create "isolated Palestinian enclaves" and make it increasingly difficult "for some Palestinians to easily reach Jerusalem's schools and hospitals. Even visiting requires a permit that can be hard to get." ( New York Times , 5/15/07).
Peace Now, an activist Israeli group, reported that Israeli government data "showed that 38.8 percent of the land on which Israeli settlements were built was listed as private Palestinian land. (New York Times, 3/14/07) Close to 60 percent is considered "state land though Palestinians say that at least some of it represents agricultural land expropriated by the state." ( New York Times, 11/21/06)
"Israel has degenerated into heartlessness. Look at them [the Palestinians] not through a rifle's sights and not through a roadblock. You will see a people a conquered, persecuted hopeless people." So said David Grossman, an Israeli writer, in Tel Aviv on November 4, 2006, in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
On June 3, 2008, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama were the main speakers at a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main pro-Israel lobby. A sample of their remarks:
McCain: "My friends, all of you involved in the work of AIPAC have taken up a great and vital cause and a cause set firmly in the American heart I saw for myself the work of Hamas in the town of Sderot. I visited the home of a man named Pinhas Amar, who lives with his disabled wife, Alize, and their children. One day last year [Alize] was knocked out of her wheelchair and struck by shrapnel. We went to the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem."
Obama: "I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was 11. The story made a powerful impression on me [Near Gaza] I met a family who saw their house destroyed by a Katyusha rocket. I talked to people who wanted nothing more simple, or elusive, than secure future for their children. My great-uncle had been a part of the 89th Infantry Division, the first Americans to reach a Nazi concentration camp. The horrors of that camp go beyond our capacity to imagine."
Neither candidate said anything about Palestinians struck by shrapnel or whose houses were destroyed by bombs. According to Edward Said: "To expect the United States to lessen support of Israel, or even to become critical of it is unthinkable without a massive campaign in the United States on behalf of Palestinian political and human rights."
For discussion in groups
Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Ask each student to read her or his questions on a particular issue to the group. Then, taking into consideration the criteria for a good question, have students select the two questions they regard as best. The group should then go on to any additional issues and follow the same procedure. A recorder should keep track of the group's choices.
For class discussion
1. As each recorder reports a group's questions on an issue, the teacher might write them on the board without comment. The class can then analyze the questions after all recorders have reported. Which questions might profit from revision? Which questions do students regard as best and why?
2. Invite student answers to each question. How satisfactory are they? Do any suggest the need for further investigation?
3. What explanations do students have for the virtual absence of questions to-or answers from—candidates about each issue? How might students investigate this question further?
For writing and citizenship
Ask each student whose question was selected by the class as best to e-mail or mail it to both candidates with a brief note of explanation that includes a request for a reply.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org