"Execution Class"

I n October 1987 we mailed a 32-page brochure to 40,000 people, asking them to suscribe to a new radical magazine covering a wide range of topics and featuring over 35 regular writers from Noam Chomsky to bell hooks to Alexander Cockburn to Staughton Lynd to Cornell West to Juliet Schor to Leslie Cagan to Howard Zinn to  Penny Lernoux to Sheila Rowbotham to Ward Churchill to Holly Sklar…and more. 

The response to that mailing generated enough readers and funds to produce the first issue, which we mailed free to another 20,000 or so. We did this with two staff people and an initial bank account of $40,000. Everybody thought we were nuts. You can’t start a magazine with less than an initial $400,000, with another million or so promised over the next 5 years, they said. 

It’s too long and it doesn’t look like a magazine, they said. In addition, two weeks before sending the first issue to the printer, we received a letter from a lawyer prohibiting us from using the name Z Magazine , as it already being used by a Channel Z cable TV guide in Los Angeles. As we were inspired to use the name by the movie Z, about a military coup in Greece where the leader of the resistance was referred to as Comrade Z (hence, after the coup the letter Z was banned), we changed the name to Zeta Magazine until three years later, when the cable guide went out of business. 

Needless to say, all of the above were not auspicious beginnings. However, on the positive side, while we were casting about for cartoons (a few weeks before deadline), we received a large packet of wonderful political cartoons from someone named Matt Wuerker, which saved the day and his cartoons have been appearing in Z ever since that first January 1988 issue. Also, incredibly, once we got going our regular writers delivered articles on time, cartoonists mailed in material regularly, and illustrators drew graphics to fit with various articles. 

To help commemorate these 20 years, we are running a series featuring as many memorable articles from the past as we can fit in leading up to our official birthday in January 2008. We are reprinting them in the original magazine format with the original graphics. In this issue, we are featuring one of our most requested articles for reprint, "Execution Class," by Gary Olson, which appeared in the July/August 1988 issue. 

—Lydia Sargent & Michael Albert
co-founders of
Z Magazine


P undits have announced the death of the Age of Greed, but either the word has yet to filter down to college students or, with apologies to Mark Twain, perhaps the rumors are exaggerated. I teach courses on International Political Economy at a small liberal arts college in eastern Pennsylvania. A major challenge in my teaching has been to acquaint students with a radical critique of global capitalism. Essentially this has meant confronting their accumulation of fables, illusions, and deceptions while offering an alternative interpretation of reality. I have assumed that, given a fair hearing, true ideas could drive out untrue ideas and only lack of exposure to alternatives has allowed mindless orthodoxy to prevail. If this demystification process works, that is, if the arguments are found compelling, many of the students will combine this nascent analysis with a reawakened sense of compassion toward other humans—even ones in faraway places. This, in turn, will prompt a search for additional confirmation, leading ultimately to altered consciousness and behavior. 

Some recent classroom experiences raised doubts in my mind about this assumed connection between new insights on the one hand and altered behavior on the other. I will attempt to illustrate this point with an example drawn from one of my courses. International Politics is a popular introductory course drawing some 80 to 85 students. An informal atmosphere prevails and frequently a dozen students will offer comments on a given subject. I might add that students have indicated (in course evaluations) that they feel comfortable disagreeing with my approach without fear of penalty, either in grading or classroom intimidation. 

Eight weeks into the course the students have been exposed to a comprehensive critique of U.S. policy in the Third World. This entails substantiating the claim that the United States sponsors wholesale terrorism around the globe on behalf of maintaining the empire. Terrorism has an address. We include taped interviews and graphic films depicting some of the more grotesque consequences of this policy. The students become familiar with the literature on structural violence, using data on life expectancy, infant mortality, and malnutrition. Structural violence is the less obvious but numerically higher price of imperialism. I attempt to establish a virtually irrefutable link between these horrendous outcomes and the normal functioning of transnational capitalism. Finally, the bogus invocation of fighting "communism" and the so-called "Soviet Threat" as justifications for these policies is treated at length. 

Last term, in an effort to determine how the material was being received, I requested short papers on the topic, "Personal Moral Responsibility and the Human Consequences of the Global Division of Labor." In reading the essays I found, perhaps predictably, that all but eight expressed strong disapproval of U.S. policy. Many chose the word "immoral" as they cited the need for drastic change. 

Before returning the papers I read aloud (with permission) one of the eight dissenting papers. An "Ode to Greed" worthy of William Safire or Gordon Gekko’s speech in the film Wall Street , this particular essay revealed a total liberation from social conscience. Then, as a check, I asked the class to write down (anonymously) how they felt about the sentiments just verbalized. To my chagrin, threequarters of the responses expressed concurrence with this paper, totally contradicting their earlier essays. When I pointed this out, and after some prodding and awkward moments, their true feelings emerged. 

They acknowledged trying to "please the teacher" in their earlier papers, sensing this would be the more "acceptable" response. I’m quite familiar with this reflexive chameleon-like survival behavior, but I had expected my class to be an exception. I expressed my disappointment openly while I also thanked them for now sharing their feelings with me. But whatever comfort I might have taken from this moment of candor was negated by what followed, an exchange that left me shaken and disheartened. 

It is worth noting that in the ensuing discussion there was little resistance to our eight-week dissection of global capitalism. A few half-hearted objections were thrown up, but in a devil’s advocate style, searching for more information. In contrast to seven to ten years ago there was virtual agreement on the validity (or at least plausibility) of the radical explanation. Several students even remarked that, although the course was their first systematic exposure to this approach, it confirmed what they’d long suspected and perhaps feared. But the overwhelming class sentiment was captured by an "A" student who said, "I know what is going on is really bad. But I want a Mercedes 450SL someday and all the designer clothes I can afford. I have the uneasy feeling that if there is too much justice and equality in the world, the good life won’t be there for me in the future." From the last row another "good" student chimed in: "I really have to agree with Bill. I came to college so I could be rich in the future. If our government didn’t do terrible things it might not work out for me. I know it sounds awful, but that’s the way it is…" Surveying the room I detected visible relief as this seemingly pervasive anxiety was finally given voice. Taking courage from the earlier speakers, another added, "This discussion is irrelevant. We can’t think about morality and things like that. And if the students in this room were honest, they’d admit it too." 

Only a few students attempted rebuttals (one expressed outrage at her classmates) and I resisted the temptation to speak. In my demoralized condition I might well have uttered an instantly regrettable comment thereby permanently undermining my teaching effectiveness—even as I now doubted that effectiveness. My sense of despair was heightened by the knowledge that the remainder of the course would be devoted to fleshing out and defending the radical critique, the essentials of which offered no problems for them. It all seemed pointless. 

The Execution Class 

O n the following Monday (after an agonizing weekend), I briefly reviewed our previous discussion and then proceeded with what could be characterized as pedagogical chutzpah, but was really an act of sheer desperation. By secret prearrangement I asked one of the few African students in class (Dan from Zaire) to come down to the front of the room and occupy a stool facing the class. I encouraged the class to imagine that we were visiting a Pretoria classroom and that Dan had been tortured, convicted, and sentenced for the crime of opposing apartheid. He would be executed in fifteen minutes. In his remaining time on earth I asked them to tell him in their own words why he was going to die—that is, why it was necessary that he die. I reminded them of Friday’s discussion and encouraged them to tell Dan about the cars, diamonds, gold, and access to upscale lifestyles that might be disrupted if his movement succeeded. 

Adopting an animated Phil Donahue I moved up into the auditorium, insisting they at least have the integrity to offer a statement to Dan. As often occurs in simulations, the classroom soon became a South African courtroom. Many students were obviously uncomfortable with this turn of events and tensions mounted. Not knowing where this would lead I was acutely aware of my own queasiness and rapid pulse. Finally one student looked directly at Dan and said, "Dan, you should have known the consequences of opposing the system. Now, you pay the price." When I pressed him, he added, "I’m really sorry. I like you. But if your organization prevails, I won’t have what I need in my country." Another offered this observation: "You see, if our government didn’t cooperate in killing people like you, our corporations would lose their cheap labor, raw materials, and profits. We would suffer and, besides, someone has to be on top." There were several variations of this theme, including the student who said, "I don’t want Dan to die. This is really bad and I refuse to go along with it." I ignored her. 

I announced it was time to carry out the sentence. I drew a pistol from inside my jacket (a facsimile .38 that fired blanks) and asked for volunteers. The sight of the gun seemed to jar everyone. Genuine consternation registered on their faces as I prowled the aisles, offering the weapon first to one, then another, taunting them to action. It seemed to me that the implications of their beliefs began to dawn on them, perhaps for the first time. 

I derided them for not having the guts to do the deed themselves. Finally, a management major accepted my offer, but only on the condition that he fire from across the room so "I won’t have to see him up close…" I refused and announced that I would perform the execution for them. My only stipulation would be that they turn in their seats and face the rear wall until it was over—perhaps as they do in real life. A few protested; the rest obeyed. One student pleaded with her classmates, "Don’t let him do it! Don’t!"  

After what seemed an interminable silence, broken only by a few muffled sobs, I fired. Inside the auditorium the sound was deafening and as Dan toppled over I announced that the class was dismissed. A half-dozen students remained in their seats, staring into space and absorbed in thought, while the remainder slowly departed, minus the usual post-class chatter. I noticed that I was trembling as I contemplated the wisdom of this experiment. 

For the rest of the day students drifted into my office and most seemed slightly stunned. Many echoed the student who haltingly told me, "I know it was a game, but until today’s class… I don’t know…it all seemed so abstract, so academic, like all my classes. Until I saw Dan sitting there and I had to face him I never thought about real people dying. Dan is real to me." Other students told me they went searching for Dan after class to apologize and to try to explain what happened. 

L ater I learned that the "execution" was the subject of late night bull sessions. Some expanded into debates about the morality of arming the contras, recent events in Haiti, and the purpose of a college education. The aforementioned office scene was repeated throughout the week. Subsequent class periods proved to be the best in my memory as the material assumed new meaning for many students. It was only at this point in the course that we enumerated the considerable domestic costs of empire, costs far outweighing any presumed benefits. It seemed to me that to have had this discussion earlier would have provided an easy out in terms of the moral dilemma. 

In their highly positive course evaluations, several participants observed that the "execution class" was the single most meaningful event in their entire college experience—one they would never forget or stop pondering. From my point of view, it would be difficult to replicate this occurrence without cheapening it And it’s easy to be cynical about the more gimmicky aspects. 

What it established for me is that radical teachers cannot assume that an awakening from moral amnesia will be triggered automatically by mere exposure to radical approaches. We must find ways, perhaps outrageous and risky ways, of joining concrete analysis of the world with the badly undernourished capacities for empathy and compassion existing in our students.