At first, many thought that the jolly general from the King’s African Rifles was a droll African joke.
Today, few are laughing about him.
On January 25, 1971, Idi Amin deposed president Milton Obote to become Uganda’s most notorious leader. A veteran of the British colonial forces, Amin’s delusions, his lust for riches and power, and especially his brutality would create a figure both fascinating and horrifying in the public imagination.
In a nutshell, Amin was a stone cold bad guy. Estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000 deaths during his eight-year regime from 1971-1979. His wrath spread to ethnic minorities, Asians (whom Amin expelled in 1972 amid an ill-conceived program of reappopriation), religious leaders, journalists, artists, senior bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, students and intellectuals, criminal suspects, foreign nationals, and pretty much anyone who stood in his way.
How did he dispatch so many people at will? Don’t ask.
Amin was also fond of pissing off pretty much everybody. An early supporter of the United States and Israel, he did an abrupt about-face in 1972, siding with Muammar Quaddafi’s Libya, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, which supplied arms and helped in interrogation and torture. The expulsion of the Ugandan Asians didn’t sit well with India, which severed relations with Uganda, as did Great Britain. By 1973, even the US had to jump ship.
This, of course, didn’t prevent Amin from taking top billing in a notorious international incident. In 1976, Amin allowed an Air France airliner hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two members of the German Revolutionäre Zellen to land at Entebbe Airport. Once landed, the non-Jewish hostages were released, and another 103 hostages were held at the airport. Amin took to the cameras to play the diplomat, but Israel wasn’t fooled. A group of Israeli commandos seized the airport and freed all the hostages, killing seven hijackers and 45 Ugandan troops.
As time went on, Amin would further dip into madness. His official title became, “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” The VC, by the way, was the Victorious Cross, which he made up after the British Victoria Cross (The real VC). His doctorate was one he conferred on himself. He never got a real DSO (Distinguished Service Order) or an MC (Military Cross), but Amin was never one to worry about the facts.
He also didn’t have to worry about atoning for his sins, neither.
After he was deposed in 1979, Amin would first live in Libya, then Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, in a twisted sense of generosity, bankrolled his sorry butt in order that he stay out of politics. He lived out the rest of his days not feeling one ounce of remorse for what he did, right up to his death in 2003.
The attached film is a 1974 French documentary named Idi Amin Dada. It shows Amin at the height of his power, and you can almost taste the crazy coming off the screen.
WARNING: It’s probably too violent for classroom use.
A Dear John Letter to my Textbooks
Dear NYC Social Studies Core Curriculum Textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
This is a difficult letter for me to write…and an even more difficult letter for you to read, so I hope that you are sitting down.
Remember when we first met? I trembled in excitement upon hearing of a textbook option for New York City’s social studies curriculum. Once I had you (or the fourth grade version of you at the time), it was as if a great weight was lifted from me—finally, a concrete guide to instruction.
I was smitten just by looking at your spine…the glow off your glossy cover…the sharp color photos that littered almost every page.
Those first few months were incredible, weren’t they? Every day was something new, something exciting. We were so wild, so adventurous…we could take on the world. To be honest, we were into some really kinky shit, but that was all in the fun.
Each year, another book would await me, and my love affair renewed. The roller-coaster ride we shared made the mundane phone order to the central office in Tweed so—dare I say—exhilarating. The maps, the optional activities, the worksheets and games: at last, I thought, I found the one.
Yet, something changed.
At first, I thought it was just me. After a while, we settled into our routine. Occasionally, you provide a surprise to spice things up—a game on the Internet, or a music selection. That, however, was the exception to the rule. To be fair, that routine suited me fine…for a while.
Then, maybe it was my weakness…but I started to feel restless. The chapters and units weren’t doing it for me anymore. I felt trapped.
It was then that I met someone else…more like some other people, plural.
There were some websites on the Internet. I was leery, at first. But then, they lured me with their siren song of primary source documents, streaming video and interactive games. Once I saw the ever-changing and ever-expanding volumes of media, lesson plans, worksheets and graphic organizers, that old excitement, that feeling of adventure exploded over me again.
I had mentioned that I was attached, that I couldn’t turn my back on my beloved. They, in turn, mentioned some shocking things about you: that you don’t fact-check your information that well, that there are numerous mistakes in historical maps, that terminology and vocabulary are often misstated.
Worst of all, they said that by watering down the content for the sake of “readability”, you were holding me back—and even worse, holding my students hostage to shoddy literature.
I wouldn’t believe it. They were just jealous, after all, I thought. How could they appreciate the passion, the connection we have…besides, if there were flaws, you would have told me, right?
Well, I did some digging myself. On page 161 of the grade 3 book, this is what you say about the Roman Empire:
Fair enough, it is only for 3rd graders, but sometimes you water down way too much. Look at page 163:
Umm, that’s it? No mention of the nightmare of a 21-year fascist dictatorship that preceded it? No mention of the other countries that bear more responsibility for losing—the ones that had more blood on their hands. Those kids can get that…why do you treat them like morons?
If that’s not bad enough, I found outright lies—lies that you should’ve told me about. Why did you keep it a secret that the leaders of the New Netherland colony were incorrectly called “governors” instead of the correct “directors-general”?
Why does a map of North America in the 18th century use flags from another century? I see an 1801 British flag, a 1793 French flag, and a 1981 Spanish flag.
I’m not even going into the problems in the 5th grade book.
Why? Why did you hold me back so many years? Why the lies? The deceit? The lack of clarity and depth of content?
I’m sorry, but our relationship has really run its course. It’s over.
Please, no tears…it’s not entirely your fault. I was too stupid to realize how badly written you were. I didn’t see your limited vision and lack of depth.
Basically, we’ve really grown apart these past few years. I expanded my base of knowledge and resources through the internet, seminars, grants and lectures.
You just can’t grow past your binding.
You were suffocating me, and screwing my students in the process. There’s nowhere else for this to go.
Believe me, it’s better for both of us.
Goodbye, and good luck. Perhaps we’ll see each other again… that odd day that I need to waste a period with busywork in June.
Just don’t wait up for my call. Sorry, babe.
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