September 20, 2010

Wendell Berry on the first U.S.-Iraq war (from the essay “Peaceableness Toward Enemies,” in the book Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community):

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.


Imagine compassion

December 7, 2008

At my Unitarian church this morning, our speaker was Dahlia Wasfi, M.D., a peace activist with an Iraqi father and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother. Using a mix of personal photographs and depressing statistics, she spoke strongly for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the United States from Iraq. Immediately following her talk, I sang with the choir John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” a beautiful and appropriate song with powerful lyrics such as “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” At the end I felt compassion and a strong agreement that the United States has no business being in Iraq and should get out.

I was therefore deeply disturbed by the reactions of other people. I heard several people say that they thought her talk was “over the top,” that she had an “edge,” and that leaving Iraq was “complicated.” I even heard indications that some people were questioning the truth of the statistics and claims in her talk. Many of these same people do not think we should have invaded Iraq in the first place, and yet now that we are there they seem unwilling to admit the extent of damage that our military presence there has and is continuing to cause. I am disappointed that this is the reaction from individuals in a liberal community.

Yes, her talk was strongly worded, and perhaps that was just not the right technique to get through to these people. I agree that I would have liked more of a focus on the personal impact, but the pictures said more than enough to evoke my compassion: some of the most striking were a contrast of herself as a happy 4-year-old in Basrah with a 3-year-old whose parents were killed by American troops last summer, a photo of a hospital destroyed by American bombs, and a photo of an American soldier giving a thumbs up and a grin over the body of an Iraqi she helped torture to death.

No, all violence is not going to magically stop when American troops leave Iraqi, but I can guarantee it won’t stop as long as we are there. I don’t want to hear excuses for why getting out is “complicated.” I don’t care what the latest reason for staying is. The simple fact of the matter is that the Iraqis see us as invaders, not liberators, and they want us to leave. And if they see us as invaders then that’s what we are. It is unacceptable to have invaded a country, to kill civilians (or anyone, for that matter), to destroy hopitals, to cause thousands of people to become refugees, and then to insist that getting out is complicated. Leaving Iraq may be “complicated” from an intellectual, strategical, or economic point of view, but that does not change the fact that it is the compassionate and right thing to do.

If all of us, every day, based our actions on compassion for other human beings, we would have peace. I challenge each of you to make an effort every day to live as a compassionate person, with awareness of everyone’s shared humanity, and to base your decisions in that compassion.

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!

On the middle east and legitimating your enemy

May 2, 2008

On IntentBlog, Rabbi Lerner wrote about former President Jimmy Carter’s recent talks with Palestinian leaders and how we should be thanking him, not scorning him. I agree with his points. They are not going to get to peace anytime soon if Israel is not even willing to talk to Palestine. One paragraph in particular stood out to me and highlights what I think is at the core of the problem not only with Israel and Palestine but with the United States and the middle east in general:

Ostensibly, the reason for Israel refusing to talk to Hamas or Hezbollah is the same as that of the U.S. refusing to talk to negotiate with Iran or Syria-talking, they insist, involves legitimating these terrorist-supporting-states. Just as for decades many Arab states talked of Israel as “the Zionist entity” rather than acknowledge that Israel was really there in the Middle East and unlikely to go away, and the U.S. refused to talk to Communist China until President Nixon reversed a policy that he himself had championed for decades, so the U.S. leadership imagines that talks will strengthen the regimes they wish to overthrow. Yet there is little evidence that terrorist groups or terrorist-supporting-states have been significantly weakened by being ignored by their enemies.

It seems clear to me that the U.S. and Israel, in being unwilling to talk to their enemies because it means legitimating the states, do not actually want to come to peaceful resolutions. Because in order to reach a state of peace in which the two parties are no longer antagonistic and fighting each other, they necessarily have to talk to each other. Not only that, legitimating the other party is a crucial part of reaching a solution to their differences. Each side needs to see that the other side has a valid point of view in the conflict – getting people to do this is one of the steps in mediation – and it’s pretty hard to do that if you won’t admit that the other side even has a right to exist.

I think the phrase “terrorist-supporting-states” plays right in to the us versus them dichotomy, allowing us to ignore the complexities of a government and boil an entire state down to one thing that we disapprove of. Not that I condone terrorists or the actions of a government supporting them, but I think there may be more complexity in these governments than this phrase allows for. Not only that, but the U.S. is not exactly innocent of being a terrorist-supporting state (e.g. U.S. support of Afghanistan in the 1980s).

At the end of the quote, Lerner states that “there is little evidence that terrorist groups or terrorist-supporting-states have been significantly weakened by being ignored by their enemies”. Indeed, this does not surprise me. It is not as if we are totally ignoring these groups and allowing them to exist in peace (yes, I realize that the terrorists are not allowing us to exist in peace, but we do tend to rather egg them on); rather we are waging war against them and denying their right to exist as independent states. If anything, I would expect this to make them stronger, as they pull together against their common enemy.

Once again, it boils down to the dangerous and prevelant us versus them mentality. There is not going to be peace in the middle east until our leaders can see beyond this dichotomy. As Lerner concludes, “This may not change until the larger dysfunctional policy of ‘not talking to our enemies’ is rejected as fundamentally irrational by a majority of Americans.”

So, like Lerner, I applaud Carter for taking a step towards talking instead of fighting. I do not think his step is going to be enough, because I doubt that Palestine is committed heart and soul to ending the fighting, and clearly Israel is not at all committed to such a thing, but it is a step in the right direction.

Buying a hybrid is not enough

April 9, 2008

In the airport yesterday I browsed the bestsellers in one of the bookstores and came across the book 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth. I came away from this book feeling incensed, which is rather suprising given that I am quite environmentally conscious.

Why was I incensed? One of the 50 things is titled “Too Much Gas”. It lists a few things you can do to help decrease America’s dependency on oil. However, can you guess what one thing was not listed? The most obvious (but apparently not so obvious) and most effective thing you can do: drive less. To really change things, we need to decrease our dependency on cars. Not just on oil, but on cars. I grant you, this is not necessarily a simple thing to do, at least not from the point of view of most Americans. But I feel strongly that it is necessary. Let me mention that I am not just repeating rhetoric without living by it: I try hard to use a car as infrequently as possible, by using a combination of walking or biking (first and foremost), public transportation, and carpooling. I would say that I don’t use our car more than once a month on average (and often less than that), and the most common thing I use it for is to visit family who live in a location 80 miles away to which there is no feasible public transportation option. I will grant that another one of the 50 things in the book is related to alternative transportation, specifically high-speed trains, which is great. But there still seems to be a big roadblock in people’s mind when it comes to cars: people simply cannot imagine doing their daily activities without a car. And thus, even when talking about living green, the suggestions surrounding gas usage are only about things like driving at 65 instead of 75 to get better mileage or turning off your engine at long lights, rather than about leaving the car in the garage altogether and dusting off the bike instead.

This book about simple things you can do to be more “green” frustrates me because I think it reflects a larger problem. Living in an environmentally conscious manner and doing the best thing to make a positive difference on the environment is not simple. I don’t want to entirely dismiss this book as worthless; even though I only skimmed it I have no doubt that it contains a lot of positive, important things people can do. I recognize that even small changes and small actions can help – they add up and do have an effect. However, the danger is that people will stop with the small changes, thinking that that is enough. I don’t think that everyone making small changes is enough; I think there need to be some very big changes in order for things to really change. And the big changes are not simple because they require a change in attitude, not just in behavior. We need to change our attitude about consumption: we need to consume less, drastically less, not just of gas but of everything. As long as we tell people that they can continue to live their very comfortable, consumption-oriented, upper-middle-class life (or strive for such a life, which seems to be what the American Dream has turned in to), and all they have to do to relieve their guilt about the environment are these 50 simple things, we are not truly creating change.

Unfortunately, I do not have an easy answer for how we do in fact get people to change their attitudes. I only fear that a book such as 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth does not go far enough or deep enough, and allows people to feel less guilty about their lifestyle without causing them to change their attitude (people who don’t feel guilty about their lifestyle to begin with are a whole other problem). Perhaps I should be more optimistic, however. Perhaps as people start to do these simple things, they will gradually start to question more of their actions and decision, and eventually come to a change in attitude. I can hope, in any case. In the meantime, I will continue to work on being a living example of how one can live in a less consumption-driven manner (far from perfectly, of course; I am not immune to a desire for material things and the convenience of a car).

By this point, you may be wondering how this post is related to peace. I feel that it is quite related. First of all, there is the obvious one: the current war in Iraq is very much about our dependency on oil. If we as a country managed to have a change in attitude and significantly decreased our consumption of oil, there would be no excuse for the war any longer. In general, if humans lived in a sustainable manner, there would be less conflict: historically, conflicts and wars are almost always about resources.

The other aspect of peace is inner peace. I think that a lot of the unhappiness in society can be attributed to people trying to fill a perceived void with material items. It is difficult to let go of this because it requires you to face yourself, rather than allowing you to hide from yourself. I believe that if people can become free of the need to constantly consume, they will be more at peace with themselves. In addition, using means of transportation other than cars, such as walking and biking, forces you to slow down, literally, and this is something that helps me personally live more in the present.