Book review: This Side of Peace

April 6, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was excited to read This Side of Peace, by Hanan Ashrawi, because I have not read (or even come across) many books by either women or non-Westerners about peace. Ashrawi is a high-ranking woman in the Palestinian movement and served as a spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this book she discusses her involvement in the events leading up to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

I found This Side of Peace at times quite interesting and at other times quite boring. I was most interested in the parts where Ashrawi discussed her background and personal experiences, thought, and feelings. However, there was not as much of this as I expected in the book – a great part of the book was a fairly detailed account of all the negotiations Ashrawi participated in. I was not particularly interested in all the back and forth details of these negotiations and found myself even skimming a little bit at certain points.

There is no question that this book casts Israel in a negative light, but this was not unexpected since it is written by a Palestinian. I have read some critiques of the book that criticize how one-sided her perspective is – how she mentions the harmful things Israel has done to Palestinians but not vice versa. However, I don’t think Ashrawi would deny that the book is one-sided – she wrote it to give us her and the Palestinian’s perspective on the issues, not to present an unbiased look at all perspectives in the Middle East. I believe it is important to hear the Palestinian perspective from a Palestinian, not filtered through what the American media would like us to hear.

This Side of Peace also casts the United States in a negative light – from Ashrawi’s perspective, the United States negotiators who were involved in the peace process were clearly biased towards Israel rather than truely uninvolved third parties. I found this aspect and Ashrawi’s description of the negotiation process quite troubling. Of course Ashrawi’s perspective is filtered through her own desires and beliefs, but I have no doubt that negotiations do in fact follow a process similar to what she described: each side has its position, and does its best to hold firm to that position, demanding that the other side do X, Y, or Z before they will sign any agreement. Reading descriptions of these processes strengthened my belief that true peace cannot be reached through such negotiations. We need to at a minimum move away from position-based negotiation and towards interest-based mediation. As long as the parties stick firmly to their positions the best that can happen is a compromise that neither side is happy with. The “peace” that results is unlikely to be long-lasting, as we have in fact seen in the years since the famous 1993 handshake. The parties involved deserve a truly unbiased third-party intermediary guiding them through the process, rather than people working for a government that has a clear interest in one side.

I felt that the personal aspects of This Side of Peace were most effective in evoking compassion from the reader and allowing the reader to view the Palestinian people as human beings rather than simply the “other.” Ashrawi describes air raids and the complexities they had to go through simply to have adequate schooling for the children in their community. This sort of story needs to be told and heard by people on both sides if we truly want to achieve peace. Ashrawi is clearly a compassionate human being who cares deeply about her family and her people. Scattered through-out the more tedious negotiation descriptions, she had insightful comments into human rights and personal motivations. I was most touched by this passage from the first chapter:

My life has been taking shape as a Palestinian, as a woman – as mother, daughter, wife – as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical and a peace activist, as an academic and a political being. And as a composite of all these constituents, I am hopeful that one day I shall attain the only identity and name worth seeking – that of human being.

Although I was not as captivated by This Side of Peace as I hoped to be, I am glad that I read it and have therefore broadened my perspective a bit more.

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Book review: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

October 1, 2010

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community is a collection of eight essays by Wendell Berry. Although each essay is on a different topic, covering subjects such as economics, conservation, tobacco farming, war and peace, Christianity, and sex, all eight essays are closely linked through a centering focus on the concept of community. Wendell Berry is an exceptionally clear thinker and writer, and he presents compelling arguments for why globalization is causing more harm than good and why we must instead return to true, localized communities (and, consequently, economies). In the title essay, he defines community as follows:

By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature… Lacking the interest of or in such a community, private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their “right” to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the “rights” of other individuals to act as they please.

A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power – not invariably but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behavior. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.

A community as described above serves neither private interests nor “public” interests, but rather the interests of the localized community as a whole. A major point that Berry makes is that it is only in the context of such a community that we will take care of each other and the land and live out the higher human values of respect and compassion. For example, in the globalized economy, where our food comes from thousands of miles away, it does not seem to matter how we treat the land around us, because it does not directly impact our ability to obtain food. On the other hand, when our food comes from the land near where we live, we see the consequences of poor treatment and are therefore are more motivated to care for that land in a way that ensures it continues to produce the food we need.

Occasionally as I read the essays I sensed a hint of glorifying the past. However, on the whole Berry maintains a nuanced perspective on the reasons our society is broken and what it would take to fix it. Although his proposal for more localized communities and economies does hint back to lifestyles in the past, I do not think the Berry is proposing that we return everything to exactly as it was 100 years ago. Although Berry does not address this explicitly, I believe that we can take the aspects of life 100 years that will improve our society (e.g. more tightly-knit, localized communities and economies) and leave other aspects (such as oppression of women) behind. Overall, Berry makes important points about globalization and communities that hold a lot of truth.

Although I agree with much of Berry’s arguments, I do not agree 100% with everything he says. Take this perspective on technology:

We must give up also our superstitious conviction that we can contrive technological solutions to all our problems. Soil loss, for example, is a problem that embarrasses all of our technological pretensions. If soil were all being lost in a huge slab somewhere, that would appeal to the would-be heroes of “science and technology,” who might conceivably engineer a glamorous, large, and speedy solution – however many new problems they might cause in doing so. But soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires. Soil loss is ultimately a cultural problem; it will be corrected only by cultural solutions.

I do agree that we sometimes try to solve problems with technology when in fact they cannot be solved in that way, because they are cultural and societal problems. However, I think there is a place for science and technology, for example in harnessing clean energy sources. Our extreme overuse of unsustainable energy sources is of course partly a cultural problem, but ultimately we will need sustainable, clean energy, and that requires a technical solution.

Reading Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community left me feeling a bit hopeless. The community-based society he describes is so very different from our current globalized society, and things seem to be going only further in the direction of globalization. I am left wondering how we get from here to there? The obstacles sometimes seem insurmountable.

I do not mean to leave you with negativity, however. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community contains important, and at times very radical, ideas and one way that we will get from here to there is if more people read it and contemplate the ideas in it. I highly recommend it – you do not have to agree 100% with Berry in order to find his ideas worth thinking about. If you are not already convinced, here are some more quotes:

But a conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exists within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

Many people would like to think that our diseases are caused by one simple thing, like tobacco, which can be easily blamed on one group and fairly easily given up. But of course they are fooling themselves. One reason that people die of diseases is that they have grown old enough to die of something; they are mortal, a fact that modern humans don’t like to face. Another reason is that as a people we live unhealthy lives. We breathe unhealthy air, drink unhealthy water, eat unhealthy food, eat too much, do no physical work, and so forth.

So long as there is a demonstrable need and an imaginable answer, there is hope.

This war was said to be “about peace.” So have they all been said to be. This was another in our series of wars “to end war.” But peace is not the result of war, any more than love is the result of hate or generosity the result of greed. As a war in defense of peace, this one in the Middle East has failed, as all its predecessors have done. Like all its predecessors, it was the result of the failure, on the part of all its participants, to be peaceable.

The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice – though, of course, they all must try for it. The depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness – in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.


Book review: A Strategy for Peace

February 9, 2009

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I chose to read A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War, by Sissela Bok, because I was looking for a book that would offer an alternative to the perspective of just war theory. I specifically wanted a book that addressed the topics of war and peace in the same philosophical vein as Arguing About War, including a focus on morality. This book seemed like a promising choice: the author has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University and the title and book jacket description emphasize moral values. As it turned out, the perspective that Bok offers is not necessarily contradictory with just war theory, but, unlike just war theory, it does focus on the goal of one day eliminating war. Overall, I found the book more dense and less accessible than Arguing About War. It took significant attention to take in what I was reading, and I found myself reading entire pages and realizing that I hadn’t quite registered what I had just read. This perhaps contributed to the fact that I did not get as much out of the book as I hoped I would.

Bok’s premise in A Strategy for Peace is that we must make a directed effort towards peace in order to avoid destroying ourselves in a nuclear war. To do this, she proposes a practical strategy that can and should be followed by both nations and individuals. She draws on two seemingly opposite philosophers to develop her strategy for peace: Kant and Clausewitz. She proposes that in order to take steps towards peace, we need both a moral framework to guide us and a clear strategy to follow. From Kant, she gets her moral framework, drawing in particular on his work “Perpetual Peace.” Kant lays out four moral constraints that must be adhered to in order to reach peace, and all of which are fairly universal across cultures and religions, to at least some degree: constraints on violence, deceit, betrayal, and excessive secrecy (which correspond the the positive moral principles of nonviolence, veracity, fidelity, and publicity). From Clausewitz, who wrote On War, Bok takes a sharp strategic sense. She suggests that the work towards peace should be approached as a “war” on war; that is, instead of nations warring against each other, they are together waging a war against a common adversary. When looked at in this light, it becomes clear that many of the stragies used during war apply equally to the fight for peace, as Bok explains:

A strategy of peace directed against such a threat [of world-wide nuclear war] is no longer opposed to the wisest military strategy, including that of Clausewitz. It requires the same long-range planning and coordination of efforts as the most intricate military campaign. And it calls for the same coolheaded skepticism about the rhetoric of trust, harmony, and peace that Clausewitz evinced about that of glory, honor, and invulnerability.

An important overarching theme in A Strategy for Peace is that of trust. Bok emphasizes that distrust between nations contributes to an atmosphere ripe for war. At the same time, she reassures the reader that “healthy” distrust is necessary to avoid being taken advantage of:

The second distinction is that between rational and irrational distrust. Everyone needs a measure of distrust to be able to discern and evaluate dangers and to guard against them while there is still time to do so. It is when such distrust veers toward paranoia or invites excessive, damaging distrust from others that it becomes unreasonable and, in the end, self-distructive.

She also points out that it is possible to have rational distrust without increasing your adversary’s distrust:

…there need be no automatic link between exercising rational distrust and behaving in such a way as to intensify distrust on the part of one’s adversary. It is when the two are seen as linked and stimulate one another that partisanship is most likely to reach the point of pathology and to encourage a spiral of escalation.

I think this is a very important point; so often it seems that a nation claims it is only “defending” itself, but it is doing so in such a way as to appear offensive and thus threatening to other nations.

A Strategy for Peace offered a new perspective to me. Although the question of trust is one that I have thought about before, Bok draws out its nuances quite clearly. The idea of laying out a firm moral framework that governments and individuals should adhere to was mostly new to me, and Bok has persuaded me of its importance. I do not like the language of approaching peace as a “war” against war, but I agree for the most part with the content of this approach: that we need a strategy for peace, and much of this strategy is in fact not so different from military strategy. However, although I find Bok’s arguments persuasive, I did not come away from the book feeling especially inspired or hopeful. Instead, I find myself harboring doubts. Is it really possible for governments to adhere to a moral framework? Is it really possible to move from our current atmosphere of immense distrust between nations to a more trusting one? I do not feel after reading this book that I have a clear sense of how exactly we can go about making changes for the better, even though she seems to be proposing a definite strategy. I have a sense that something more is needed that what Bok proposes – that everything she discusses is necessary, but it is not enough. I have not, however, clarified in my mind what that something more might be.


A vote for Obama is a vote for peace

November 4, 2008

Today is the presidential election in the U.S. and I voted for Barack Obama. There are many reasons I did so, but I want to highlight the reasons most relevant to peace. Based on what Obama and McCain have each said and the various analyses of their positions, I believe that Obama will make much greater progress towards a peaceful world than McCain will.

One issue is fundamental human rights, including health care and the right to privacy. Obama’s health care plan is much more comprehensive and goes further towards providing coverage for more Americans than McCain’s does. Obama has pledged to protect women’s right to privacy in the arena of reproductive rights, and I’m confident that he will make efforts to reverse the damage done around the world by the global gag rule. In general, I believe that Obama is in touch with the needs of people whose rights are not being upheld, and McCain is not.

Another issue is economic security. Obama’s plans will allow more people to be economically secure and obtain jobs. This is very important, since conflict is most likely to arise when people are struggling to obtain basic necessities. Again, Obama has demonstrated through his words and his sincerity that he understands the hardships of these people, while McCain has shown himself to be deeply out of touch.

Finally, most directly related to peace, there is the war in Iraq and homeland security. Both Obama and McCain have pledged to end the war, but McCain emphasizes ending it “victoriously” while Obama emphasizes ending it “responsibly”.

In the area of homeland security, McCain primarily focuses on having a strong military. On his website, it states that “He knows that to protect our homeland, our interests, and our values – and to keep the peace – America must have the best-manned, best-equipped, and best-supported military in the world.” He also believes in strengthening our missile defense and increasing the size of the military. In other words, McCain believes and will act upon the idea that security is found in being the strongest, biggest, baddest kid on the block. I strongly disagree with this position.

On the other hand, Obama addresses a wide variety of approaches to security, including strengthening biosecurity, protecting information networks, improving our intelligence capacity, protecting civil liberties, protecting and modernizing our transportation infrastructure (including public transportation), supporting first responders to crises (who received budget cuts under Bush, supported by McCain), and preventing nuclear terrorism. It explicitly says on his website that “Barack Obama will show the world that America believes in its existing commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to work to ultimately eliminate all nuclear weapons. Barack Obama fully supports reaffirming this goal, as called for by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, and the specific steps they propose to move us in that direction. He has made clear that America will not disarm unilaterally.” Nuclear disarmament is critical to future peace and I am pleased that Obama supports it.

Obama has a much more well-rounded view than McCain on what it means to be secure. McCain seems to have a one-track mind, that the military is the end-all be-all of security, which is quite a frightening prospect. I want someone as president who has demonstrated that he is aware of the complexities and multi-faceted aspects of security, and I believe that Obama is that person.

It is true that Obama does not go far enough for my liking. Clearly he will be willing to use military force and I do not know how much he would hesitate before doing so. Will he try diplomacy, mediation, and other nonviolent techniques to resolve conflict first? I do not know. However, I think I can safely predict that McCain definitely would NOT hesitate to use force. I would much rather take a gamble that Obama will try other things than take the guarantee that McCain will not.

These are only some of the reasons that I believe Obama will make positive change. If you haven’t voted already, please go vote for Obama!