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Research Activity: Grades 10-12

We, the Traitors

Based on the article We, the Traitors by Adam Michnik, from the June 2003 issue of World Press Review (Vol. 50, No. 6)

To the teacher:

Adam Michnik is a prominent Polish essayist and intellectual, a former dissident against communist rule and a founder of one of Poland’s leading newspapers. He, along with other liberals who have usually raised their voices to oppose military conquest and other examples of government brutality, was criticized for his support of the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

In this (admittedly difficult) essay, which was reproduced in newspapers across Europe, he explains his reasons for supporting the war by looking back at other dictatorships and other military interventions.

This exercise will help students to situate the war in Iraq, Michnik’s essay, and the notion that we bear a collective responsibility to rise up against oppression, within a modern geo-political context.

Step I: Classroom discussion

Students should read Michnik’s article We, the Traitors. As a class, discuss students’ reactions to the article. It is a fairly difficult essay; framing the discussion around the questions and topics below will make it easier for students to get at its meaning.

1. Discuss some or all of the following statements. Ask students to draw on their own experiences—either generally or in the circumstances that have surrounded the recent war on Iraq—to inform the discussion:

Brutal power is repugnant no matter who wields it.

There is no rightist or leftist torture, no progressive or reactionary torture.

Bad communism is better than good capitalism.

“One cannot perceive totalitarian threats in George W. Bush’s policies and at the same time defend Saddam Hussein.”

Waiting for a brutal totalitarian regime to obtain weapons of mass destruction would be “plain recklessness.”

People who take to the streets in democratic countries to protest war are exhibiting real moral values.

“Every war presents an excellent opportunity to stifle criticism and gag the critics.”

“The climate of war promotes the violation of democratic procedures and the militarization of public life.”

There is only one patriotic way of thinking. All other views amount to betrayal.

To be a pacifist today is to “peacefully pave the way for those who committed the crimes of Sept. 11 and their allies.”

“Today, the primary threat is terrorism by Islamist fundamentalists.”

Despite all its sins and mistakes, it is important to defend the democratic world.


2. Do you agree with Michnik that a democratic regime, even if you disagree with many of its actions or policies, is fundamentally better than a totalitarian dictatorship, even if you sympathize with it underlying ideology?

3. Do you think that a movement which actively supports a brutal dictator in the name of peace while vilifying the leaders of a democracy—however flawed—is hypocritical?

4. Many people around the world marched against the war on Iraq. Do you think they were demonstrating their support of Saddam Hussein and his regime? Or do you think they were demonstrating their opposition to the use of unsanctioned military force against Iraq?

5. If you live in a democratic country, and you disagree with some of the actions or policies of your country, do you think it is important to voice your criticism?

6. Do you think someone who speaks out against general public opinion has betrayed his or her country?

Step II: Research project

Below are the people and events that Michnik refers to, but does not explain, in his article. Each student should either choose or be assigned one topic. If the size of the class permits, make sure that every topic is covered by at least one student.

Each student will research his or her topic and will produce one of the following (note that the audience for each is someone who knows nothing about the topic in question):

- a brief background paper on the topic in question

- a report in bullet points that clearly presents the main aspects of the topic

- a visual presentation, such as a poster, on the topic

- a timeline that gives a background to the topic

- [Other presentation ideas can be added or substituted. The idea is for students to summarize what they have learned in a form that will be accessible to their peers, so that they can benefit collectively from their individual research.]


People:
Vaclav Havel
Adam Michnik
George Konrad
Benito Mussolini
Adolf Hitler
Joseph Stalin
Rafael Trujillo
Augusto Pinochet
Fidel Castro
Neville Chamberlain
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Mao Zedong
Richard Nixon
Ariel Sharon
George W. Bush
Osama bin Laden
Saddam Hussein
Vladimir Putin

Events:
- The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the intervention of Soviet troops
- The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968
- The 1944 Warsaw Uprising
- The fall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989
- “Kristallnacht”
- The collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on Sept. 11, 2001
- The murder of Giacomo Matteotti
- The Vietnam War
- The conquest of South Vietnam by Communist North Vietnam in 1975
- The 1945 Yalta conference
- The 1938 Munich agreement
- The Watergate scandal
- The student revolts of 1968
- The Vietnamese “boat people”
- The Cold War
- The war in Chechnya
- The worldwide mass protests against the 2003 war in Iraq
- The passing of the Patriot Act in 2001
- McCarthyism
- World War II

Step III: Presentation

Each student will present their work to the class, sharing the results of their research with their peers. Students should consider, when preparing the presentation aspect of their research, how to make it interesting to their audience: examples might include using visual or audio aids, writing their original report in a way that makes it engaging when read aloud, making handouts that other students can use to follow along, etc.

As part of their presentations, students should also identify on a wall map any countries that they mention or that are relevant to their report (to geographically contextualize their comments). Presentations should not be long—5 to 10 minutes at most—so that all students have the opportunity to present their work.

Step IV: Compilation

The last step is to combine the results of students’ work into a book form so that all students will have a record of the work done by their peers. This will also record some of the major political events and figures of the twentieth century.

Students should be encouraged to think of creative ways to include posters and other large-format works (for example, re-formatting them to fit in book form; shrinking them with the zoom function of a photocopier; reproducing them in sections; including only some aspects of the material).

If time permits, the teacher should look at all the reports before they are compiled and should allow the students to make corrections. Students will benefit doubly by going over their own work a second time and by having a better final product.

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