The first recesses following principal Ken Bernabee’s executive order restricting the rights of the third-graders at James Caldwell Elementary School — banning kickballs and basketballs — occurred without incident. We turned instead to action figures, endurance contests, derivatives of tag and imaginary games of X-Men — I was always Wolverine — to satiate our youthful energies in between classroom breaks.
Maybe it was our inability to flirt with the cute girls — even now I find it almost impossible to flirt without pelting them with kickballs and pulling their hair — or maybe we just needed a good game of basketball, but at some point within the first week of this Draconian policy we reached our breaking point.
Spontaneously, a number of my friends and I began to protest. We put down our pogs. We marched the blacktop. Gaining support along our journey, we reached the window of the principal’s office. We even had a slogan.
No balls, no peace.
Like many arbitrary and petty leaders, Bernabee instructed us to return to our games. Many disbanded, but a brave few, pacified no longer, remained. Bernabee put us on “the wall” and contacted our parents. But those he called found the school’s policy absurd — our parents, unlike school administrators, were once children and enjoyed playing games. The policy was summarily reversed.
I told this story to a friend as we rode the train to New York. We were discussing Obama’s foreign policy toward undemocratic regimes, among other things, and this was but a rambling interlude. Yet it struck me that perhaps my scattershot brain had made a connection that ought to inspire future policy efforts of the administration.
In the war against illiberal, repressive regimes, the greatest weapon in the democratic world’s arsenal — save the United States soldier — is the nonviolent social movement, especially the fledgling trade union. But a movement needs support, both monetary and moral, to succeed. This is where the world comes in.
There is precedence for such an undertaking: the Solidarity movement, a Polish trade union organized by Lech Walesa in 1980. Over the course of the decade, the workers striking at the Gdansk Shipyard would unite millions across the Eastern Bloc, spreading anticommunist ideas, inspiring the revolutions of 1989 which would culminate in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Solidarity successfully transformed itself from a local trade union into a Polish social movement into an international revolution. But it was not able to do this overnight, nor was it able to do it without broad-based support from abroad. In the context of fighting Soviet oppression, President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, the leaders of the Spanish and Italian Communist Parties, far-left British politicians, Cold Warriors, socialists and religious organizations stood up for Walesa and his compatriots.
But they didn’t just speak; they took pragmatic steps to assist Walesa. America and Britain imposed economic sanctions on Poland. The CIA, in conjunction with the Roman Catholic Church and Western trade unions including the Lane Kirkland’s AFL-CIO, provided capital and counsel to the movement that would end the Cold War. So now, what is to be done?
The United States ought to work to build a coalition as big and diverse as the one that supported the efforts of Solidarity. The issues that divide right and left in America are petty compared to those issues that divide liberals and repressive leaders. We need to reignite the movement to assist fledgling trade unions in oppressive regimes. China and Venezuela and many countries within the Arab world have workers in need of our resources and our recognition.
A dichotomy has developed within American political life between those who advocate fighting for democracy abroad and those against such efforts. The freedom hawks have often pushed for war, while those in opposition have tended towards an untenable, neo-isolationist position that closer resembles the America First Committee than the best traditions of the progressives. This division needs not cripple our ability to defend republican government.
President Obama has described America as the moral leader of the free world. In the coming months, he ought to work to support his fellow community organizers who face oppression beyond that of the South Side of Chicago. He ought to meet with the leaders of these organizations, legitimize them in the eyes of the international community and arm them with the resources they need.
This is not say that Obama’s task is simple. Mediating between disparate factions both at home and abroad and generating monetary support in the recession will no doubt require a fight.
But as the third graders at James Caldwell would say, “No balls, no peace.”
Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.