Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Blog Site Moved


All activity for this blog has been moved to http://olgabonfiglio.blogspot.com/

Sunday, November 8, 2009

20th Anniversary of the Opening of the Berlin Wall

The opening of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago today was not only an accident but it was a dramatic dénoument to a number of events that led to the end of the Cold War. The process of dismantling the Eastern Bloc, however, was accelerated because of the collective failure of nerve by Communist Party elites who didn’t know what to do when the Soviet Union was not there to protect them anymore.

David Barclay, professor of history at Kalamazoo College and the Margaret and Roger Scholten Professor of International Studies, recently shared his reflections with the College community on the opening of the Berlin Wall. He is also director of the national German Studies Association, which attracts scholars in all fields of German Studies spanning the period from early times to the present Federal Republic of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

The old post-war German leadership was already on the wane long before the opening of the Wall or the public demonstrators advocated unification between East and West Germany, he said. The new leadership, however, was so “befuddled,” it easily lost control of the reins of power.

“I tell my students that history is about great sweeping trends like the collapse of communism, the end of the Cold War and the dissolving of the Soviet Union,” said Barclay. “But history is made interesting by the quirkiness and accidents that occur.”

The opening of the Berlin Wall began about 6:30 p.m. on November 9, 1989. The head of the East German Communist Party, Günter Schabowski, was trying to articulate new travel regulations between East and West at a press conference. He inadvertently said that East Berliners could go to West Berlin without previous permission. Western journalists, including Tom Brokaw, asked for a clarification of his surprise statement and Schabowski simply repeated himself apparently unaware of its implications.

By 8 p.m. the borders were opened even though no official confirmation had been given. By 10 p.m. 20,000 East Berliners were lined up at the border crossings ready to go West.

Barclay said that the military commanders at the gates hadn’t heard the broadcast so when they faced thousands of people, the commanders wanted to avoid any violence or loss of life so they simply opened the gates. At first, they stamped people’s visas but as the overwhelming numbers of people advanced, the guards gradually withdrew.

As dramatic and important as the opening of the Wall in Berlin was, Barclay said that the real impetus for change occurred in Liepzig, East Germany, the previous month. Citizens of Liepzig had been holding several Monday evening demonstrations that called for political reform.

On October 9, 1989, the protestors held their biggest demonstration because they thought that if Liepzig was to be their “Tiananmen Square” (referring to the Chinese government’s June 4 massacre against on-the-street reformers), it would happen that night. The situation was so tense emergency medical staff set up aid stations in anticipation of massive bloodshed. At one point, Kurt Masur, the conductor of the Liepzig Orchestra (who later became conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) also appealed to the leadership not to use violence against the protestors. In the end, the leadership did call up the army but in the end, but it didn’t order any shooting at people, so nothing happened.

Liepzig proved to be the testing ground for the Soviets’ surprisingly nonviolent response that not only tore down the Berlin Wall but pulled down the entire Iron Curtain.

“It is an example of how a number of serendipitous things can contribute to a powerful revolution and how a confluence of events can make a difference,” said Barclay. But it also illustrated how unprepared Westerners, including German scholars, were for the monumental changes taking place in Communist countries.

On the same night that Schabowski was flubbing his press conference in East Berlin, Barclay was hosting Michael Geyer, a famous German scholar from the University of Chicago, who had delivered a speech at Kalamazoo College. After his speech, the professors were having dinner at a local restaurant when they heard the news about the Berlin Wall. They scoffed at the prospect until they returned home and saw the television images of people standing on top of the Wall by the Brandenburg Gate.

“I was shocked,” said Barclay. But he wasn’t the only one. Two days before the October Liepzig incident, he was in Milwaukee attending the annual meeting of the German Studies Association. A panel of five British and American historians addressed an audience of 800 about the possibility of change in East Germany. Four of the panelists contended that the East German regime would quell any unrest and that it should not be underestimated. One British panelist believed the regime was “brain dead without a future.” Although he was hooted down by most of his colleagues, the wife of Willy Brandt, who was also present at the meeting, agreed with him. Brandt had been mayor of West Berlin in 1961 when the wall was built and later served as chancellor of West Germany 1969-74.

“My generation thought the Cold War was frozen in place and would never go away,” said Barclay. “I was teaching a course about Germany at the time and when the question of unification came up in class, I told the students it would not happen in my lifetime or even in theirs. The opening of the Berlin Wall teaches us that historians shouldn’t predict the future.”

However, Barclay was still in disbelief of what had happened until he visited Berlin in July 1989, his first trip after the opening of the Wall. He wanted to walk through the Brandenburg Gate to convince himself that what he had seen on television had actually taken place! Nearby, he found an Italian ice cream stand, so he bought a lemon gelato, a treat he’s typically unable to resist. As he stood at the Brandenburg Gate with his gelato in one hand, he touched the gate with the other.

“I’ll never forget this experience,” he said.

The opening of the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism is a lesson in “historical humility,” said Barclay, where people thought history was on their side. It also illustrates the dangers of false utopias, the arrogance of power and the law of unintended consequences.

“Marxism and Leninism were driven by a utopian vision where its leaders were convinced of its rectitude and absolute, scientifically-determined necessity,” he said. “They believed communism was on the right side of history.”

In the mid-1960s the communist leaders pretty much stopped believing in historical inevitability, all except for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1958-64), said Barclay, but the oafish regimes of the Eastern Bloc were still products of this belief system. In 1989, they held a monopoly of power and lived under the ultimate protective cover of the Soviet Army. They also relied on two tenets. The first was the belief in the absolute political monopoly of the Communist Party where the party was always right, even if it shifted its position.

The second tenet is the Brezhnev Doctrine, which was first articulated in 1968 after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia: any country in the Eastern Bloc that attempted to break with communist principles would confront the Soviet army. Slovak leader Alexander Dubček (1968-69) had gone a step too far in the region’s de-Stalinization effort when he tried to decentralize the Czechoslovakian economy and democratize its political system by granting certain freedoms, which included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel. However, things had drastically changed in 1980-81 when the Solidarity movement in Poland challenged its Communist leadership. The Soviet military did not intervene. By 1988-89, Soviet Premier Gorbachev finally declared he would no longer enforce these two tenets.

Gorbachev’s move was really one that came out of necessity, said Barclay. The Soviet Union had exhausted its resources, the Army had been bled dry by its nine-year war with Afghanistan (1979-89), and the economy was in shambles and unable to support any further military adventures.

Today, the developing consensus among historians is that President Ronald Reagan’s (1981-89) strategy of forcing the Soviets to spend beyond their means not only worked but it accelerated their demise. And although a lot of Americans were upset at the time by Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. Star Wars), the plan for the extravagant space-based anti-missile system scared the Russians enough that it led them to increase their military spending.

Finally, the influence of the Tiananmen Square massacre (June 4, 1989) on the opening of the Berlin Wall cannot be underestimated, said Barclay. The bloodshed inflicted by the Chinese government was a no-holds-barred reaction to popular dissent against communism.

“I watched old videos of fall 1989,” said Barclay “where the East German leadership praised the Chinese solution to uprisings and threatened their people with a bloody massacre if they tried rebellion. However, when the time came, it didn’t happen.”

The opening of the Berlin Wall is also an opportunity to see the confluence of local and global events, said Barclay.

“It was a product of local circumstances where people discovered they no longer had to be afraid of their government given the political situation and state of the Communist Party in the Eastern Bloc.”

Also, the number of serendipitous events that culminated in the fall of communism was by far the most peaceful of revolutions after the most horrifically violent century in history, said Barclay. This gave people some cause for optimism. (The exceptions to peaceful change, of course, were the 1991 overthrow of the Nicolae Ceauşescu government Romania and the Moscow coup in August 19-21, 1991 when Communist Party hardliners tried to arrest Mikhail Gorbachev.)

Barclay was in Berlin in December 1991 when the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. He noted that the huge Soviet embassy flew the red flag with the hammer and sickle one day and that it was replaced the next day with the red, white and blue-striped flag of Russia.

“I had literally seen the pages of history turn,” he said, alluding to Goethe’s comment on change.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Do We Know What We’re Doing in Afghanistan?


We’ve spent over eight years in Afghanistan with no prospect of leaving, no clear mission and no consistent strategy. Yet, we are poised to send more soldiers and pour billions more dollars into a place that has been called the “graveyard of empires.”

One has to wonder if we know what we’re doing.

Our leaders remain in a quandary over the war. For example, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, want to triple the size of the police and military in Afghanistan. General Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of Afghanistan, advocates a counter-insurgency approach and up to 40,000 troops to assist the 68,000 already there. Vice President Joe Biden suggests a counter-terrorism approach that focuses on combating al Qaeda through the use of unmanned drones and special forces instead of additional troops.

“This is the definition of insanity,” said Phyllis Bennis, a foreign policy expert who specializes in Middle East and United Nations issues and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. Recently, she spoke during Peace Week at Western Michigan University where she provided a punchy critique on the war that has already cost $225 billion, 904 Americans’ lives and God knows how many Afghani lives.

Bennis questioned the original purposes and motivations of the war, which were meant to respond to 9/11. However, the hijackers were Saudis and Egyptians who attended flight schools in the United States and they lived in Hamburg, Germany. So why did we invade Afghanistan?

And as horrific as September 11 was, it was not an act of war that warranted the invasion of that country, said Bennis. President Bush called it a “war of justice” when it was really a “war of vengeance.”

“Wars of justice are never legal, never just and they don’t work,” she said.

Bennis called for a strategy that looks at the region as a whole and supports “real diplomacy.” That strategy would include those countries that border Afghanistan including China and Iran who have a stake in what goes on there for their own security needs. However, it’s unlikely that the United States would consult or work with those countries.

She is also concerned about the drones that are launched to kill the bad guys but also kill the good guys.

“It’s harder to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people when you send more troops, destroy their schools, and kill the good guys,” said Bennis. “There is no one at the administration’s table saying this.”

Such missteps have occurred from the very start of this war, she said. From November 2001 until January 2002, American Special Forces only numbered about 2,000. The big action was in the air, mostly over Kabul where cluster bombs were used.

Cluster bombs are softball-size and they explode into several hundred “bomblets” that spread 100 yards before they hit the ground, explained Bennis. However, 10 percent of the cluster bombs dropped don’t explode. Once they are on the ground, they become land mines that endanger civilian populations. (Many countries have banned cluster bombs but the United States still uses them.)

At the beginning of the invasion, President Bush ordered food drops over Afghanistan in order to make the point that the United States was fighting the terrorists and the Taliban, not innocent civilians. Officials calculated that 7.5 million of Afghanistan’s 27 million population was starving. However noble that gesture, the food was wrapped in the same yellow plastic as the cluster bombs, and the people didn’t know if they had come upon a bomb or a food package.

As a result of all these mishaps and the fact that Afghanistan has been largely seen as “the forgotten war,” many Americans wonder why we are still there.

“It’s not about oil pipelines, natural resources or women’s rights,” said Bennis. “George Bush found a great moment to expand the American empire and Afghanistan was the logical place to start. Obama, now, has to make a name for himself. But he had to find a war of his own and Afghanistan was available. He regards it as a good war.”

Meanwhile, American support for the war has flipped from 53 percent in 2001 to an opposition of 58 percent in mid-September. CNN recently reported that 59 percent of people questioned opposed sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan compared to 39 percent who favored the move.

Afghanistan has been a key geographic battleground since Alexander the Great in 327 B.C.E. Genghis Khan took charge of it in 1218-21 but only after reaching “painful accommodations” with the Afghans. The British lost it in 1842 and the Soviet Union was defeated there in 1989 after a nine-year struggle.

There is a reason Afghanistan has not been conquered, said Bennis. Afghanistan is one of the most tradition-bound countries in the world. Clans and tribes rule, not a national government. To try to institute a U.S.-style presidency there is overlooking the fact that whoever controls Kabul, controls nothing else.

Moreover, the United States’ counter-insurgency strategy is aimed at protecting people living in large population centers, which amounts to only 20 percent since 80 percent of the people live in the rural lands, she said.

Those arguing for staying in Afghanistan warn that our safety is at stake: if the Taliban returns because it will team up with Al Qaeda and we’ll have another 9/11.

“That’s probably not true,” said Bennis. “The Taliban and Al Qeada don’t have much in common. That Al Qeada exists at all is very dicey.”

During last year’s presidential campaign Obama promised he’d get us out of Iraq because it was a “war of bad choices.” Instead, he wanted to focus on Afghanistan as a “war of necessity” and do it right this time.

“Apparently, we didn’t hear him or believe him,” she said. “But now it’s Obama’s war.”

After he became president, Obama proposed to send 17,000 more troops in March and then sent 21,000.

George W. Bush never wanted to say what the “War on Terrorism” would cost, how long it would take or what sacrifices Americans would make. Now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that Americans have been called to sacrifice our country’s valuable resources for a war that could instead be used for health care, education, unemployment, housing foreclosures, decaying cities and crumbling infrastructures.

“The peace movement has a lot of work to do,” said Bennis. “It must demand de-escalation in Afghanistan.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Women's Eucharist


On the second Sunday of each month, a group of six to fifteen women from the Detroit area meet to pray, sing, dance, reflect on the Sunday scriptures, and to break bread together.

Many of the women come for strength. Some come for sustenance. Others are there because they don’t fit in the Church. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that they see their gatherings as an expression of the friendship and equal partnership they feel with Jesus and each other.

Their gatherings aren’t secret nor are they officially sanctioned, but they do give the women the opportunity to experience the hidden, feminine side of Church, which they find spiritually enriching and can’t get in the patriarchal Church.

The group calls itself Women’s Eucharist or WE for short, and it is part of a nationwide movement that has grown over the past couple decades without much promotion or fanfare. In fact, according to Sheila Durkin Dierks, who studied 100 WE groups across America for her book Women’s Eucharist, many of the women start a group without knowledge of other groups.

Sister Beth Rindler, 73, one of the founders of a WE begun in Detroit in 1990, started the group because she was restricted by Church law from celebrating the sacraments simply because she is a woman. As a pastoral associate with a Master of Divinity (M. Div.) degree from Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago, she found that her ministry still was not welcomed by parish priests.

“Priests really wanted women to be servants to them and not partners,” she says. “As a religious I thought of myself as a partner to live and share the Gospel in a demonstrable and public way.”

Another member of WE, Peggy Bennett, had no aspirations to the priesthood. Instead, she was looking for a practical, everyday spirituality and was “re-exploring [her] Catholic heritage after being away for a long, long time.”

Bennett had been studying in a two-year Jesuit spirituality program at Manresa in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, before she joined WE. As she looked for the “Spirit” she says she couldn’t find it in the Catholic Church—or any other organized religion. Eventually, she found that Manresa, too, lacked the kind of spirituality she was looking for because, like the Church, it was “too intellectual.” Nevertheless, her advisor suggested that she start a women’s spirituality group and that led to her finding Sister Beth.

The Detroit WE originally met on the 18th floor of a downtown apartment building that overlooked the Detroit River, consequently, the members called themselves “the Upper Room.” However, when one of the members moved out of her apartment and the group needed a new gathering place, Bennett volunteered to hold the meetings at her house in Ann Arbor. Now the group calls itself “The Cathedral” because of the high ceilings in Bennett’s house.

For Bennett, WE exemplifies a democratic form of spirituality: she offers her home and plans the music and dance for the gatherings, but it is the members of the group that make WE a participative and life-giving experience through their sharing, reflections, prayers, and meal after the service.

The intimacy of the group’s celebrations are a means toward joining the personal, political, and spiritual life, says Rosalie Riegle, 68, another member of WE, a professor and founder of a Catholic Worker House in Saginaw, Michigan. Women’s Eucharist is a feminine extension of the home Masses she attended during the early post-Vatican II period.

“[With Women’s Eucharist] everything flows together: the Eucharistic meal and our potluck, the friendship and the love we share and the love we have for God,” says Riegle, who started a Women’s Eucharist group in Saginaw, Michigan, before her recent move to Chicago.

Historical Context of Women’s Eucharist

What led women to this celebration of the breaking of bread did not just happen. Rather, it was and continues to be an evolving outcome of a changing Church in the midst of the vast social and political changes.

According to Dierks, The Council of Trent (convened three times between 1545 and 1563) re-emphasized the Eucharist as a community meal, a holy meal, for all of God’s people. Nevertheless, over the centuries Catholics remained only watchful observers of the priests’ engagement with the Eucharist.

This exclusive practice of the Eucharist was a far cry from the early Christian communities where people met in each other’s homes to share bread and wine and pray. There was no authorized leader, priest or a sacred language in the service. Both women and men also participated in the ministry through the preaching of the word, caring for the needy and managing resources because they believed they were called to these works by virtue of their baptism.

However, something happened in the third century to supplant these communities from their egalitarian structures by a select group of leaders who modeled themselves after the Judaic hierarchical patriarchy. This group became known as kleros or clergy; it differentiated itself from the rest of the people who were referred to as the laos or laity. By 1208 the order of the priesthood was fully institutionalized in the Church. Eventually, the sharing of bread and wine became ritualized, Latin became the language of the Mass and the people became further isolated and closed off from vital participation in the priesthood of Jesus, according to Swiss theologian and priest, Hans Küng.

The Vatican II Council (1962-65) reaffirmed Jesus’ call to inclusiveness while the “unleashing” of the Spirit to all people led to a re-discovery of the meaning of the “royal priesthood” into which all Christians are baptized. In calling for reform, the Council also advised a look back to the early Christian communities as a guide.

Still other events occurring during the 1960s would set the stage for the Women’s Eucharist. In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, a doctrine that prohibited Catholics from practicing birth control. Its tumultuous effect resulted in many Catholics either leaving the Church or not receiving communion because they believed that practicing birth control had excluded them from the sacraments. Divorce rates among Catholics increased as the stigma of remarriage decreased.

Secular society experienced equally earth-shattering events. The women’s movement sought to equalize the power between men and women. The war in Vietnam stimulated an anti-authority attitude. Civil rights leaders encouraged the populace to take a stand for powerless and oppressed African-Americans. They also taught the other movements how to promote the Scripture-based principles of nonviolence and justice in order to transform a society ruled by white, male privilege.
As a whole, these social, political and religious movements affected Catholics and their relationship with the Church. In the United States, a 1987 poll noted that 66 percent of Catholics believed that they could be good Catholics without obeying the church’s teaching on birth control. In 1993 that number rose to 73 percent. A 1993 poll revealed that 74 percent of Catholics felt they should have a voice in selecting a priest for their parishes, just as the Protestants did. Sixty-two percent believed in the ordination of women.

Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School has said that Jesus’ call for inclusion in the Church especially appealed to women because the Scriptures showed that Jesus’ disciples were both men and women sharing fellowship with him.

Father Kenan Osborne, OFM, professor emeritus of systematic theology at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union GTU), has pointed out that nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus call for an ordained ministry. “In fact, the word, priest, represented the sacrificial priesthood of the temple, not the discipleship of Jesus-infused ministry.”

St. Peter also emphasizes the priesthood as part of the discipleship of Jesus:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9)

Many people interpret this passage to mean that ministry, priesthood and discipleship are for everyone, not just an elite corps of priests—who happen to be men.

The Service
Women’s Eucharist uses the bread and wine in a communal ritual in the same tangible way that the Mass uses them, as a sign of Jesus’ presence when “two or three gathered in my name.

"We are excluded, women and men alike, even in the midst of many priests, if the sacraments are played out on the ordained’s terms alone,” says Dierks. “When he sets the stage, chooses the language, selects the prayers and consecrates as if he were alone in the room, then we have been denied the Eucharist in its fullness.”

Those who participate in Women’s Eucharist value the inclusiveness of each other—without regard to race, class, ethnicity, and religion—and especially as a counterweight to the gender inequities of the Church. Consequently, for some WE is a refuge, for others it is a Church substitute, and yet for others it is a religious add-on to their regular Church worship.

Dierks says that WE is a gathering among friends who operate well without a hierarchy or the specialization of roles. In fact, friendship was the most frequent response to Dierks’ survey question about why people joined Women’s Eucharist. Frankly, she points out, friendship is the very model of relationship that Jesus preached to his disciples.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, professor emerita of feminist theology at Pacific School of Religion and GTU, recognizes the implications for friendship motivations in WE by calling it a “reapportioned theology” or a “de-clericalizing” of the Church that
“facilitates the taking back of ministry, word, and sacrament by the people…Eucharist is not an objectified piece of bread or cup of wine that is magically transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Rather, it is the people, the ecclesia, who are being transformed into the body of the new humanity, infused with the blood of new life.”

And that brings up the issue of transubstantiation, the changing of the bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood. Of course, only an ordained priest can perform transubstantiation during the Mass, however, the WE women are unconcerned about this for their service. First of all, since non-Catholic women attend the service, they would have a difficult time identifying with transubstantiation. Secondly, as Sister Beth says, if transubstantiation really happens in a traditional liturgy, then it must happen in the Women’s Eucharist as well, because “Jesus Christ is so inviting, I couldn’t imagine him being exclusive.” Thirdly, transubstantiation is not the reason the women gather for WE.

As radical as the WE group may seem in the eyes of some practicing Catholics, none of the WE women expresses an interest in breaking off from the Church to form a woman’s church because the group is not interested in institutionalizing itself. The members prefer to keep the group small and home-bound because numbers don’t matter to them. “The Cathedral” WE has anywhere from three to 19 women attend its services and it “holds a space” for those absent.

Women’s Eucharist also defies definition or recognition by the official Church, but that, too, matters little to its participants because they are simply no longer waiting for institutional approval or sanction. They believe that inclusion for all the People of God should be the issue for Church, so they are simply giving up their attempts to work within the structure.

“If they [the Church hierarchy] can’t hear us,” says Sister Beth, “we’ve got to look out for ourselves.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

September 11 – An Opportunity to Evolve Our Humanity


It’s been eight years since 9/11 and much has changed in this country since that dark day.

What didn’t change, however, was our inability to take time to reflect on the meaning and implications of this tragedy.

Instead, we panicked to the point that we still are unable to view the day clearly or logically, let alone respond to it responsibly. In some instances we have been willing to give up our civil liberties in the name of national security and fold against an aggressive presidency that was adamant about swooping up as much power as it could—ostensibly to protect us from the terrorists. The result? Terrorism has neither been reduced (as if it could be measured) nor have our fears of it subsided despite an investment of nearly $1 trillion on two wars. And now, after a year into the financial crisis, our uncertainties about jobs, health care and middle class life have only multiplied.

But let’s look at one notable moment when people attempted to deal with the horror of 9/11: New Yorkers were helping each other and being nice to each other. They cried together and comforted one another in the midst of death and loss. Likewise, citizens from all over the world sympathized with America and genuinely felt badly that terrorism had come to our shores. It looked as if there might be a “great turning” response to violence.

But once the politicians and the media got a hold of 9/11, they resorted to the usual rallying cry for revenge and retaliation. Americans acquiesced by waving their flags and displaying them on their cars, their houses, on their lapels, everywhere. (One older German woman told me it reminded her of Hitler and the Nazis.) Such activity helps to win public support but it ended up a missed opportunity to respond to tragedy in a new and different way.

Truth be told, Americans don’t deal well with tragedy. After the initial shock is over and the recovery effort begins, we generally resort to going on with our lives as though nothing happened. The fallout of this approach is that we are overcome by sadness, anger, fear, or denial over what has happened—and it stops there.

Confronting September 11 remains illusive for most Americans partly because we have been unable as a nation to understand or inquire about why the perpetrators of this heinous crime would do such a thing—and partly because we unwittingly entered the realm of the “terror dream.”

The “terror dream,” which Susan Faludi discusses in her book of the same name, is the American frontier-wilderness story where we are attacked by “uncivilized enemies” in our struggle to settle the North American continent. This story line is full of victimized women and children, Wild West six-gun shoot-outs, hyper-masculinity, and epic heroism.

This “captivity narrative” became a popular literary genre from the mid-17th to the late 19th century but it lives on today through what psychologists call a “transgenerational transmission of trauma” where survivors of a tragedy are left feeling humiliated and enraged. They often repress their grief and fail to allow for any collective grieving because to do so would require taking responsibility for the trauma. Instead, the survivors pass on their feelings of helplessness, shame, and rage to subsequent generations who then carry these feelings unconsciously as a potent memory and marker of their identity. It’s as though subsequent generations lived through the trauma themselves so that when another tragedy strikes, the feelings of the past are automatically projected on to it.

America’s response to September 11 was to go to war against the terrorists first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq because we were essentially replaying an old story where we saw ourselves as victims of an “Indian attack” so we had to fight back to survive. George W. Bush assumed the role of a Dodge City marshal in a Hollywood Western who promised to “smoke out” those responsible for the attacks—and Americans willingly followed the script in an attempt to make sense of the tragedy with something familiar.

The problem with revenge and violence, however, is its detrimental effect on our humanity, as we saw in the horrendous situations of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, and Guantanamo. Meanwhile, most Americans glaze over the fact that war in Iraq has resulted in at least one million Iraqi deaths, mostly civilians (based on the 2006 Lancet Report), and the wasting of 4,342 American soldiers with nearly 31,500 wounded. An unprecedented percentage of our soldiers have committed suicide or deserted their ranks. Many of their marriages and friendships have ended. Veterans are denied benefits they were promised, including health care for non-physical wounds like post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). The war has also inflamed religious fanaticism and apocalyptic thinking at home as justification for continued war and violence.

Today, we are a nation exhausted by war to the point that we avoid talking about it! In fact, the war has largely disappeared from view. Coverage of war in 2007 occupied 23 percent of news content compared to 3 percent in 2008, according to the American Journalism Review (June 2008). During the presidential primaries and general election, the subject of war barely came up. President Obama’s promise to end the Iraq war has led to a step up of the Afghanistan war.

So how might we approach 9/11 in a more meaningful way? Here are a few ideas, but please add more.

1. Join with others to talk about what you TOGETHER can do to substitute fear, hatred or denial in your family, neighborhood or community.

2. Refuse to watch the repetitive “news alerts” or inflammatory pundits by turning off the radio, TV, and the Internet. Recognize that such coverage is intended to agitate emotions, especially anger and fear—and to sell ads. Don’t let yourself be manipulated by people making money off you.

3. Lobby your congressional representatives to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the present, it’s clear that we are going to have to deal with terrorists in our world. However, let us confront them by pulling ourselves together first. Violence, fear, shame and resignation are getting us nowhere.

As peacemakers, we can make a difference everyday by seeing to it that the spirit of cooperation and understanding operates in our local communities, which in turn can spread across the nation and the world. This is a golden opportunity to evolve our humanity.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Water, Water—Not Everywhere


Without water, nothing can live. And in the Western United States, there isn’t much of it because the region is a desert.

“Everything yearns to be alive in the desert,” says Riley Mitchell, a park ranger at Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.

For example, short, clumpy trees grow in the cracks of rock where they find even the least bit of soil. Look a little closer and you see vegetation surviving in this land and that includes many flowering plants. Lizards scurry across your path in order to alter their body temperature, which gets too cold under a rock or too hot in the sun.

In the desert everything living screams for water, including your own body. You don’t sweat in its dry heat. Your lips crack and your skin dries as your body dehydrates. If you haven’t taken care to consume enough water you’ll know it because you’ll feel faint.

Consequently, the key concern of the West is water. Patient and persistent rivers have largely carved the topography of this region over millions of years until today they are gentle streams or silvery sheens of leftover salt and gypsum lying on a dry riverbed glistening in the sun. Here a river valley is said to be any place where water might have run through it over the past 100 years.

More of these dry river valleys are appearing as the decade-long drought continues. Some people claim this drought is the worst on record—and maybe over the past 1,400 years.

For example, the waterfall of Emerald Pool at Zion National Park is supposed to gush over a ledge. Today it amounts to only a trickle.

Fires that have raged through the forests are “more catastrophic” than ever before because the forests are unable to recover, according to a University of Northern Arizona website that has tracked fires since 1916.

Last week California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Monterey counties after five wildfires burned 13,000 acres and more than 3,000 people were evacuated from their homes. The area has been experiencing dry hot, dry weather with temperatures higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) because in reality, California is a semi-arid place that has largely depended on irrigation and other water projects for its sustenance.

The Ogallala Aquifer, which covers 174,000 square miles (450,000 km) of the semi-arid Great Plains and yields about 30 percent of America's ground water for irrigation, can't replenish itself fast enough to meet the increasing demands of agriculture, industry and municipalities. If withdrawals are not abated soon, some researchers expect its depletion in 25 years.

Meanwhile, a recent study by the Nature Conservancy predicts that temperatures across the country will increase from 3 to 10 degrees by 2100 due to climate change. Hardest hit will be Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, which depend on the Ogallala Aquifer and make this region the “breadbasket of America.” Nevertheless, some senators in those states refuse to sign legislation to address this problem after having supported the “No Climate Tax Pledge” being pushed by the group, Americans for Prosperity.

Modern life and prosperity have put yet another strain on the West’s water supply.

“Condos are dotting the [southern Utah] landscape with 10-acre ranchettes on land that was formerly the home of coyotes, deer, and other wildlife,” said Mitchell. “Their environmental impact may have potentially a more long-term effect.”

Such development also inadvertently hurts people, she said, like when one person’s well drilling depletes someone else’s water down the line.

So what attracts people to the dry and dusty deserts?

“I’m an old newcomer after 20 years here,” said Mitchell. “We like it here because we want to live in a clean, remote, crime-free area where we don’t have to lock our doors and where community is close.”

Other newcomers have built homes in the desert, some of them second homes or retirement homes, and they want the green lawns, swimming pools, golf courses and fountains they are used to having. Unfortunately, these amenities require water.

For example, since 1990, St. George, UT, has been one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States. The city is 119 miles (192 km) northeast of Las Vegas on I-15, one of the major north-south highways of the West. It provides year-round golf, access to Nevada casinos and scenic vistas with several nearby national parks for outdoor activity. U.S. News and World Report named this area “one of the best places to retire,” which active Baby Boomers have found particularly appealing. In 2007, the area had 140,908 residents with projections of a sixfold increase by 2040, according to the St. George Chamber of Commerce.

While most newcomers have a social or economic connections to the land, others have an emotional or religious one.

The nineteenth century Mormons, a people nobody wanted, settled on land nobody wanted and turned it into a “Promised Land.” By applying their belief that stewardship required care for the land and its resources, which were put there by God, they created a sustainable life there for themselves. However, the drought has caused some in the Basin to realize that even God's resources are finite.

Las Vegas, which lies in the southern-most tip of Nevada next door to Utah uses water with reckless abandon despite all the warning signs, according to energy resources journalist Kurt Cobb.

Lake Mead, which provides 90 percent of the city's water, is down 120 feet from its peak in October 1998 and it now holds only 60 percent of its capacity. The white “bathtub ring” around the lake caused by deposition of minerals on the lake floor dramatically illustrates the lake's depletion, which is even visible from the air.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is working hard to lay pipe for a new intake to provide 40 percent of the city's water by 2012. However, this project illustrates the desperation officials feel in finding enough water for the city, a desperation that seriously affects the rest of the country.

For example, the SNWA is also making plans for a $3.5 billion, 327-mile (525-km) underground pipeline to tap aquifers beneath cattle-raising valleys northeast of the city, according to Bloomberg and it has even looked into diverting floodwaters from the Mississippi River westward. Such plans incite people from the Great Lakes region to quiver over the prospect that their precious water may be tapped for a pipeline to the West.

According to Mark Reisner in Cadillac Desert, this region initially watered itself through diverted rivers and irrigation ditches. The 1930s saw the construction of huge water projects like the Hoover Dam that were largely financed with federal tax revenues. In the 1960s, long-distance pipelines were first conceived by Western-born federal officials, including those donning the environmental mantle.

Where all of this will end up is unknown but the future does not look very promising especially as a variety of adverse environmental forces are now coming together. However, the American people as a whole are unresponsive, perhaps because they are unaware of the dangers while many Westerners are clearly in denial of the problems. Perhaps a few suggestions will help.

* We must come to grips with the fact that most of the United States west of the Mississippi River is arid or semi-arid and that attempting to “green it” with water projects is ultimately a losing battle with serious and expensive consequences on the entire country.

* We must learn to organize our communities around regional systems like water and climate rather than only geographical political units in order to respond to regional problems.

* Sustainability must be everybody's concern. Making a profit through cheap water resources, for example, must now take a back seat to being able to live well on our planet.

* Schools and colleges must promote sustainability programs both in practice and theory. The young people in these institutions are the ones who will have to live in the resource-depleted twenty-first century.

* The U.S. Congress must get on board with effective and deliberate water and climate change legislation.

During the June commencement exercises at my college, one student wore a sign: “We didn't start the fire.” I later learned that the sign referred to the 1989 Billy Joel song of the same name. The sign also alluded to the environmental problems the next generation will face.

Baby Boomers have benefited the most from twentieth century industrial society, where unlimited supplies of fresh water (and other resources) were taken for granted. Hoping for technology to fix the depletion of water is no longer a strategy. The water is running out!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Oak Ridge Conundrum on War and Peace


Oak Ridge, Tennessee, “the city that made the atom bomb,” clearly illustrates the difficult conundrum people must face when their government decides to build a stockpile of highly lethal nuclear weapons.

The origins of this conundrum are steeped with justifications like (a) “the bomb” ended the World War II and saved American lives; (b) the weapons protect us from our enemies and have prevented World War III; and (c) the research and manufacture of nuclear products preserve jobs, homes, and the local economy.

From its beginning in 1942 Oak Ridge was an unsettling place. Located in the lush and beautiful Clinch River Valley of eastern Tennessee, it “mushroomed” into a government “reservation” of 75,000 people living and working in the middle of nowhere so research and production of the atomic bomb could be hidden from the enemy fascists of Germany. Unfortunately, the farmers and their families who lived there were dispossessed of their property and told to clear out in 10 days.

Oak Ridge finally produced the plutonium for the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” bombs dropped on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) killing 140,000 and 80,000 respectively. Since then, tens of thousands more Japanese have died from leukemia and various cancers attributed to exposure to radiation released by the bombs. Nevertheless, when Japan surrendered on August 15, Oak Ridgers were jubilant because they were told that their work made a direct contribution toward ending the war.

Life in the “Secret City” wasn’t easy for the Oak Ridgers, who were mostly civilians literally living behind a security fence under the authority of the Army. Residents were expected to report any suspicious behavior of their neighbors and fellow workers. Employees had to sign a pledge not to divulge any secrets about their work, which was so broken down into smaller parts that only the top directors of the Manhattan project knew that the atom bomb was actually being built!

Oak Ridge was conceived of as a temporary city with a single purpose and no one expected it would continue after the war. Housing was made of cheap, pre-fabricated materials. Facilities and amenities were meager and mud was everywhere.

Soon after the war when the Oak Ridge mission was accomplished, some people left the “Secret City” relieved to get out. Many people, however, wanted to stay because they believed that the knowledge discovered there was too valuable not to be further developed. Others stayed because they just wanted to keep their jobs. Then, Eugene Wigner, one of the legendary refugee scientists from Europe who provided the theoretical and practical knowledge that fueled the Manhattan project, created a new, peacetime purpose for nuclear research. As a result, the city was saved and this new purpose came in the form of radioactive isotopes that are used extensively in medicine (especially for thyroid disease and cancer therapy), agriculture, powering spacecrafts, smoke detectors, DNA analysis, diagnostic imaging and other advanced scientific applications. Now, the facilities behind the fence are known as the world-famous and highly-respected Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Oak Ridge, today, is a thriving multicultural community of 27,000. It has a rich and proud history, good schools and wonderful cultural and environmental amenities that make the city an attractive place to live. ORNL and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (25 miles away) help populate the city with well-traveled, well-read, well-educated, well-informed people who are very smart and like living in Oak Ridge. But even this is a conundrum when it comes to peacemaking activities.

Residents have been involved in various peace causes over the years. For example, the city entered into a sister-city relationship with Naka-shi, Ibaraki-ken, Japan, on October 29, 1990. It also hosts the Ulster Project where Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland “build a peaceful parity of esteem between each other by building tolerance, trust, and ongoing positive relationships.”

So far, 11 greenways comprise 1,566 acres of sanctuary for wildlife and native plants as well as trails and other opportunities for residents to enjoy nature in unspoiled settings. Walking tours and excursion trains take people through the area’s history.

The American Museum of Science and Energy provides exhibits on the peaceful uses of atomic energy and serves as a “center for exploration dedicated to personalizing science and technology.” However, while museums generally help visitors to remember and reflect on the past in order to shape the future, this one has a sense of ironic tragedy with its shiny war exhibits like a replica of “Little Boy” and a Mark 28, the oldest thermonuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal. I found these exhibits difficult to admire. In fact, they were downright frightening—second only to the elderly gentleman at the museum’s info desk. He had worked on “the bomb” and now he was breathing from an oxygen machine and living with cancer, presumably due to his exposure to radiation.

Being a peace activist in Oak Ridge creates a confrontation with the legacy of the “Secret City,” where residents resist engaging in talk or activities that might affect the ORNL’s nuclear weapons research or production. They risk losing their jobs, government contracts, lifestyles or valued relationships in this tight-knit community and company town. Now that is a terrible conundrum to live with.

Nevertheless, the Oak Ridge Peacemaking Alliance (ORPAX), begun in 1982, joined other Americans in their concern about the nuclear arms race. ORPAX joined a group of “outsiders” (another legacy of Oak Ridge living where you were either “inside” or “outside” the security fence) to commemorate Hiroshima Day in 1983. Even so, it was careful to stipulate that the day would be a memorial to those who died and not a condemnation of Oak Ridge or of the Y-12 plant that made “the bomb.” These demands were not realized.

Since 1988, the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) has also demonstrated against nuclear weapons at the gates of the Y-12 plant in its Stop the Bombs campaign. It, too, holds a Hiroshima Day and since 1998 members have made over 500 presentations on WMD and militarism and invited thousands of people to Oak Ridge to demonstrate against nuclear weapons. Hundreds of OREPA members have also been arrested for acts of civil disobedience on this issue.

Peace activists report that their Hiroshima observances have been mocked. Newspaper editorials have issued scathing commentaries against their anti-war activities. During the 1990s, obstructionists tried to scuttle proposals for an International Friendship Bell whose aim was to unite the people of Oak Ridge and Japan in friendship and remembrance over the terrible death and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so that it would never happen again. But this issue was eventually resolved and the bell stands tall in A.K. Bissell Park and is promoted as a must-see site on the Visitors and Convention Bureau city map.

When the United States threatened war against Iraq in 2002, Oak Ridge peace activists demonstrated against it—and were met with counter-protests across the street by people who dismissed the activists as “way overboard.” Nevertheless, some activists are undeterred. One elderly woman regularly writes letters to the editor in the local newspaper about her opposition to the war despite bloggers’ labeling her a “radical activist.”

Another woman wrote a booklet for high school students on the practical realities of enlisting in the military in order to balance the influence of military recruiters. She informed parents that the military has access to students’ records and then lobbied the school board to give parents the option of having their child receive information on enlistment.

And one more conundrum: a lot of the local residents appreciated the activists’ peacemaking efforts even though they don’t stand with them.

Today, members of ORPAX conduct their demonstrations “in very harmless ways.” said one middle-aged member.

“We’re not trying to get coverage in the newspaper. And when we go out to ring the International Friendship Bell on Sundays [in honor of the fallen Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan], we do it more for ourselves in a private way. If we were public about it, we’d put ourselves at risk.”

Oak Ridgers understand what it means to be a part of a place that has a great effect on the world—in both war and peace. And in some ways, Oak Ridge still remains a “secret city”—for those who thirst for peace.

However, it is important to recognize that the Oak Ridge conundrum of war and peace reflects the conundrum of our entire nation. Oak Ridge may be the place where WMD were and are constructed, but all Americans share a responsibility for what we do with these weapons. For my money, especially on this day of remembrance in Hiroshima, they should all be banned and disassembled.