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.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Happy Birthday America: How Exceptional Are You?


Today, as we celebrate the birth of our nation as the world's beacon of freedom and democracy, we might also ponder the insights from a book by Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is an especially pertinent topic for us during this insecure period of empire, war and economic decline.

Hodgson grew up in Great Britain and became a great admirer of Americans because of what we did during World War II. He studied in Philadelphia and served as a correspondent for the London Observer in Washington, D.C. He covered the Civil Rights Movement and made films about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ronald Reagan. He taught at Harvard and Berkeley and has visited all but two states. He prides himself in spending most of his life in trying to understand the history and politics of the United States and he provides an interesting "outsider's" viewpoint.

American exceptionalism, says Hodgson, is rooted in religion where colonialists saw themselves as "a chosen people" destined to "fulfill a unique historical destiny." This ideology surfaces from time to time, especially when the nation is in crisis. Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush all used it because it resonates well with the public and reasserts our identity. President Obama is now using it by "appealing to our better natures," as Lincoln would call it.

Our schools have trained us well in exceptionalism, he says, however, what they often miss is the context of international historic processes at work. For example, the American Revolution borrowed its ideas about liberty and freedom from Europeans who had been developing them since the seventeenth century British Revolution and the eighteenth century Enlightenment.

European political rivalries and struggles also influenced America's development because they brought dispossessed immigrants to our shores. We were exceptional in that we offered the immigrants land they couldn't get in Europe. However, these lands became available through our expulsion of the indigenous tribes who once lived on them. In this way we were not exceptional to the Europeans who built their colonial empires in the same way.

Hodgson continues that westward movement, made possible mostly by the transcontinental railroads, was financed by Europeans who also invested in our manufacturing, provided us with intellectual property, and supplied us with cheap European labor-through immigration.

The twentieth century reinforced America's exceptionalist belief when we acted as "an international knight errant, riding to the rescue of the victims of oppression and injustice." Much of this ideology came from Wilson but FDR tapped it, too, and it inspired us to win two world wars. A good thing, says Hodgson.

The post-war 1950s began a new era of American exceptionalist thought and brought more good. Our victory in war bred a new prosperity, wider participation in politics, greater rights for women and minorities, belief in educational opportunity, mobility in geography and economics and concern for the welfare of others. But it also produced a dark side where we feared vulnerability with the Soviet Union. However, our Cold War textbooks taught us a "new militant sense of exceptionalism" with a re-worked religious belief that "the United States had been entrusted by God with a mission of bringing light to a darling world."

This story continues into the mid-1970s until something happens to make America seem less exceptional, he says. International institutions the United States had created, like the United Nations, became unpopular with many Americans. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 fomented a hubris where we seemed to reject "long-cherished principles."

For example, America switched from being exceedingly liberal (the legacy of FDR) to being exceedingly conservative (the legacy of Reagan), which made us drastically exceptional from the rest of the world in terms of:

* imprisoning greater numbers of people
* providing less access to health care
* sustaining a growing inequality in distribution of income and wealth
* disconnecting the campaign from the deeds done in politics
* rejecting assumptions about global warming, international law and respect for international organizations
* supporting a standing army of invincible force and superiority.

The rate of child poverty is 21.9 percent, the highest among the 17 OECD countries, makes the United States exceptional, says Hodgson, in that we are unwilling "to pay to take children out of poverty."

Additionally, our political system has become more focused on funding and winning elections than on encouraging voter participation. Politicians seek money from business and lobbyists to finance the cost of TV advertising, which is aimed at wealthier people who do vote their best interests, he says. It's no wonder unions, citizens groups, consumers and minorities have been left out!

Even the Constitution has been abused in part "as a result of the unrestrained ferocity of political conflict" between the polarized conservatives and liberals-who differ very little except in their party affiliations.

A spiking stock market in the 1990s created a "mood of economic triumphalism and a belief in a ‘New Economy' that broke all the rules," says Hodgson. Americans changed from being an people of idealism and generosity to a people who were "harder, more hubristic." Most Americans truly believed that everyone was experiencing a rise in living standards-that is until the bubble burst in 2000 and again in the fall of 2008. Only then did it become obvious that the country had in fact become a debtor nation where only the very rich profited.

Since 1989 America has evinced a new attitude as "the lone superpower" with its 700+ military bases and a supremacy of force. Consequently, Americans were the last ones to believe that anyone could challenge them, says Hodgson, until 19 hijackers armed with box cutters poked through our vulnerability.

And that is yet another thing. Americans perceive 9/11 as an instance where we were exceptionally hated and then forget that terrorist attacks were carried out in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, Bali, Madrid, Casablanca, Istanbul and London.

Hodgson concludes that the United States as it is today is not exceptionally bad but that it is no longer exceptional. Instead, America is just "one great, but imperfect, country among many others."

Hodgson has taken great pains not to minimize America's achievements but rather to offer analysis about how our exceptionalism has influenced false perceptions of ourselves and a skewing of some of our policies.

Actually, this book may serve as a sounding board for our national consciousness during this time of crisis. Then, what we do as a nation is really up to us. And that will be the measure of our exceptionalism.

This article was posted on CommonDreams.org on Sunday, July 5, 2009.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How to Boil a Frog


Want to be a real hero?

Save the planet.

Don’t know how?

Start by viewing the new eco-comedy, How to Boil a Frog.

The film tells the story of Jon Cooksey, an ordinary man on a mission, who decided two years ago that he had to do something personally to make sure his 12-year-old daughter would have a future, given all the bad news on global warming.

As he began this quest he was especially keen on waking people up to the disinformation campaign against global warming. However, after interviewing top experts in the field, he discovered a much bigger picture: the world is in “overshoot” where peak oil, global warming, overpopulation, diminishing natural resources, and a system where “the privileged few rule” come together to a point that no one problem can be addressed without tackling all of them.

While too many films (and books and speeches) stop right there with the problems, Cooksey goes beyond that to offer solutions with the promise that acting on global warming can not only make our lives better but it can make a difference for people throughout our world. Here are his five suggestions:

* Don’t buy Exxon products (a foremost contributor to global warming and big-time lobbyist against change).
* Reduce or eliminate your consumption of beef. (Cows contribute to global warming more than any other animal except humans.)
* Limit families to one child per couple.
* Discover ways to transition off the energy-chugging treadmill that consumes time, money and happiness.
* Be a “giant killer” by organizing citizens to fight for sustainability in their communities and exposing corporations and projects that pollute. (Cooksey is especially fond of You-Tube for gaining the attention of both the giants and the “little people.”)

How to Boil a Frog is especially useful for people struggling with paralyzing guilt, despair and/or ignorance over the state of the environment. Here Cooksey puts it bluntly: “If you believe you can make a difference, you can; if you don’t believe you can’t make a difference, you can’t.” Of course, he hopes he can convince you to act.

One interesting effect of deciding to act is that citizens come together in cooperative ways to fight for their communities—and the can make a lot of friends, just as Cooksey did. This is something, he says, that we have gotten away from in our society where competition and the acquisition of private property and goods are more valued than our relationships with each other.

Cooksey’s message is clear in point and snarky in tone and its snappy pace is filled with many mind-boggling facts and challenges. The film will appeal to both adults and children alike as it takes a funny and irreverent look at our consumer culture, unsustainable lifestyles and general attitudes that have allowed us to wage an unprecedented war against Nature.

Finally, what is most compelling—and refreshing—about the film is to see a man who has known privilege and success illustrate to viewers how he uses his skills and talents as a TV writer/producer to communicate his concerns about the environment. Through his own example, he taps the heroic vein in all of us to do the same in our own way so that we, too, will act with purpose and hope in the future for the sake of all our children.

How to Boil a Frog is an interactive work in progress. The website provides a trailer, background information on the issues and several links about what other communities are doing for sustainability. A virtual bake sale is also being held to raise funds to finish the film and distribute it.

This article appeared in Energy Bulletin on Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Friday, May 29, 2009

Who Wants to Be George W. Bush?


BENTON HARBOR/ST. JOSEPH, Michigan – Private citizen George W. Bush poked his head out from his quiet, exclusive Dallas neighborhood last night to give his first major speech since leaving office. Ironically, the place he picked is near one of the nation’s poorest, most racially divided cities. It also happens to be in one of the reddest, most conservative congressional districts.

The Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan attracted 2,500 people who greeted the former president with great warmth and excitement. It was obvious that they must be the 30 percent of Americans who have remained loyal to Bush. Perhaps this is the way he now can attract a friendly crowd, a much different approach from his 2004 campaign rallies where dissenters were barred from attending.

However, it was evident that one of the lowest-rated presidents of all time is not someone office holders want to be around these days. Republican Representative “Freddie-boy” Upton, Bush’s nickname for him, was not there nor were other local political officials who are customarily introduced at such affairs.

Nevertheless, Bush was in his best form and he didn’t hold back his folksy informality. He looked relaxed and comfortable as he told a few tales of his presidency—without notes. The whole event felt much like neighbors gathering around the pickle barrel in a country store. And that’s his magic. He ingratiated the audience with his wit, charm and affability. Even his skeptics might be persuaded to accept his world view—until they recall the past eight years of Hell he put this country through.

Bush gave a self-effacing performance, especially when it came to pointing out his mistakes in following the evening’s format, but not the mistakes of his presidency. It appears that he truly believes he didn’t make any and that he exercised responsible leadership in a time of great trial.

For example, he told the audience that his guide for decision-making included five principles. They read like a cross between the Declaration of Independence, Grover Norquist and an MBA leadership text:
· Freedom is universal.
· The people can spend their money better than the government can.
· The organizational structure must allow information to get to the decision-
maker.
· Timeliness is important.
· A leader has to be willing to make tough calls, stand by them and insist
that they be carried out.

Choosing a vice presidential candidate was Bush’s first big decision, he said, and he looked for someone who could advance his own credibility. Cheney was a “thoughtful guy” who would “do a good job.” Besides, Cheney wasn’t interested in running for president so he wouldn’t distance himself from the president if something went wrong.

Such ironic comment was typical throughout the speech and Bush and the audience seemed quite oblivious to it.

In another instance, a woman asked what impact his strong religious beliefs had on his presidency. He replied that “religion and politics are a dangerous mix” and that he “made religion a personal matter” by trying to practice Jesus’ commandment to ‘love thy neighbor.’

“Muslim mothers want their children to grow up in peace,” said Bush. “There’s more commonality [between us and them] than you think.” And he seemed concerned that Americans had somehow taken to negatively stereotyping Muslims in the Middle East.

Such comments made it hard to believe that Bush’s perspective and reality could be one and the same thing and if this is how his book goes, he may risk losing sales.

The former president seems to have forgotten how quickly he called the 9/11 hijackers “evil doers” (code for the Religious Right) and how he later attacked Saddam, whom he now identifies as “a dangerous man who sponsored terrorism.” He also unfairly drew lines between Americans: those who were with him and those against him. Some fundamentalist Christians were so whipped up by his apocalyptic rhetoric that they called protesters against the war in Iraq traitors!

Bush still holds fast to the idea that we are waging an ideological struggle with “a group of people who murdered the innocent to spread an ideology of hate.” These enemies are similar to the fascists and communists in days gone by, only they do not represent nation-states and they plot and plan against us just the same.

His reaction to the September 11 attacks was based on how he viewed it, which author Reza Aslan calls a “cosmic war” view in his new book on the subject. A cosmic war is a religious war not between armies or nations but rather between the forces of good and evil where God is believed to be on one side against the other. How do you win a cosmic war? By refusing to fight one, Aslan answers.

Bush, however, indulged himself and the nation in this fight. He described his actions with a paternalistic tone by telling the audience of his vow “to take whatever steps that were necessary to protect you” and to do whatever it took to get information so that decisions could be made. He was not as brash as Dick Cheney usually is with the protection-of-America argument, but the message was the same.

Then Bush addressed and justified the torture memos without naming them.

“The first thing you do is ask, what's legal?” he said regarding the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in March 2003. “What do the lawyers say is possible? I made the decision, within the law, to get information so I can say to myself, ‘I've done what it takes to do my duty to protect the American people.’ I can tell you that the information we got saved lives.”

The declining economy was on everyone’s mind and Bush explained that his advisers told him to either make a move (institute the Troubled Asset Relief Program), or preside over a depression worse than the Great Depression.

Wall Street bankers, whom he benevolently characterized as “thoroughbreds” chasing after money, were responsible for the economic downturn but that the “lack of responsible regulation” was the major culprit. In trying to fix the situation, he also blamed Congress for its inaction and globalization for the lack of maneuverability.

“I’m a big free trader,” he said, “but the markets obviously need restraint and oversight.” If we export our products, all will be well with our economy and poverty can be eradicated, too, he said.

“We’ll recover. We’ve always recovered,” he said to great cheers from the crowd. “Capitalism works and it will work again.”

As usual, Bush relied on his words and force of personality to convince people of his best hopes.
The former president also received a standing ovation when asked what he wanted his legacy to be.
“Well, I hope it is this: The man showed up with a set of principles, and he was unwilling to sacrifice his soul for the sake of popularity.”
Little did Americans realize after the 2000 election that this administration would attack American civil liberties and regard the Constitution as just a piece of paper!
Of course, September 11 pervaded his speech. Only this time he used it less to strike fear in his listeners but more to solicit pity for himself.

“You have to convey a sense of calm,” he said. “If you’re president of the United States, if you overreact, you send shock waves throughout society.”

Security at the event was surprisingly loose. There were no metal detectors or purse searches. Police and Secret Service were present, of course, but they did not occupy the area as though it were a fortress.

The former president spoke for about 30 minutes and then took spontaneous questions for nearly an hour. This was a diversion from the plan where questions were solicited before the event.

Officials for the event refused to say how much Bush received for the speech but the eight protesters who showed up to demonstrate outside the building claimed it was $150,000 too much.

So how will the country ultimately judge George W. Bush? Seeing him in action clearly illustrates that he is a tragic figure not because he presided over the worst attack on the United States in history but rather that he thought he could be a competent president.

“It was my honor [to serve as president]” he said. “I love America and I wanted to serve in any capacity.” Such statements belie his actions, starting with when he went AWOL from the Texas National Guard.

Bush also illustrated that he is not aware of whom he is: a man who took political advantage of a disaster and then ruined his own presidency. He will forever remain responsible for our fallen and wounded; the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani dead, wounded, and homeless; our shrinking treasury; and our reputation in the world.

Bush may have charmed his supporters in the room last night but it is doubtful he will have the same effect on most people. And after witnessing this first major speech, it is obvious that it will be difficult for him to be George W. Bush probably for the rest of his life.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Climax man seeks common bonds amid societal conflicts


Many people want to change the world. Steve Olweean of Climax is doing it.

Olweean helps people to focus on their common bonds rather than their differences, particularly people who have been traumatized by war or violence.

“Outsiders provide food, clothing and shelter after the war, but they ignore the trauma that goes with war,” said the psychotherapist and founding director of the Common Bond Institute (CBI).

As head of the institute, Olweean provides training programs to local health professionals and relief workers around the world who then help traumatized victims in their regions. So far, his work has taken him to Russia, the Balkans, Middle East, Caucuses, Caribbean and Basque country in Spain.

To help people cope with the traumas of war, Olweean developed something called the Catastrophic Trauma Recovery training model. It operates on the premise that “there is no bad society” and that when violence occurs, it is regarded as something that has gone awry to make the community extremely inhumane.

In 1998, Olweean joined with the Harmony Institute of St. Petersburg to organize an intensive CTR-training conference for therapists to address war’s inhumane behaviors and seek healing.

Catastrophic Trauma Recovery training has been used in Bosnia and with mental-health groups in Gaza. Olweean also helped establish a children's trauma-treatment center in Nablus on Israel’s West Bank.

Olweean got his start as an activist in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s.

Those efforts were spiritually motivating for him, he said, and they increased in importance during the 1980s when the tensions of the Cold War threatened world peace and security.

His sensitivity to social justice grew out of his childhood where his parents and grandparents encouraged him to become familiar with, experience and appreciate many different religions. As a Muslim, he discovered that people of various faiths were seeking goodness, compassion, wisdom and peace.

He first came to the Kalamazoo area in the 1970s for graduate study in psychology at Western Michigan University. Then he worked for the Douglass Community Association as a community advocate and mental-heath worker. Although he never intended to stay in the area, he liked it and found that he could be involved in global work through the Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP) and its International Soviet-American Professional Exchange.

The Exchange was intended “to reach commonalities and to introduce humanistic psychology to our Soviet counterparts,” said Olweean.

Humanistic psychology, according to the AHP website (www.ahpweb.org), seeks to “enhance the quality of human experience and to advance the evolution of human consciousness” through the principles of integrity, authenticity, compassion and skill in listening, and respect for all people.

“What we discovered was that we were bridging stereotypes and forming strong bonds,” said Olweean who coordinated several exchanges until he decided to devote himself full-time to the Common Bond Institute in 1992. He then worked with his Russian colleagues to create the Annual International Conference on Conflict Resolution (ICR) in 1993.

“The ICR grew on its own from a half-day annual exchange to a six-day conference and it has continued over the past 16 years with therapists from 65 countries participating,” said Olweean.

In 2006 the ICR began its annual “Engaging the Other” conference in San Francisco, which focused on confronting religious, racial, ethnic, political and national conflicts.

“If we are separated from people, we only go on what we don't know about them,” said Olweean. “This is where prejudice, threat, and discomfort arises. So we get people together and create an inclusiveness where there is mutual honoring of each other. New learning takes place as people realize how they lock themselves into certain ideas.”

Olweean said that the distinction between ourselves and “the Other” occurs from birth when we identify who we are in comparison to everyone else. People who are closest to us are the first examples of who we are not.

This natural psychological process is the means by which we create our internal compass, he said. But conflicts occur when we adopt a belief system where our encounters with “the Other” are shrouded in fear and anxiety.

One key element in this training is that participants learn to focus on their commonalities more than their differences, said Olweean.

They also learn how societies pass on a cultural heritage that typically distinguishes “the Other” by harboring memories of their victimization or victory in war. These memories carry past grudges and tragedies rather than moving people toward a new future.

People who have gone through war and violence have memories that can traumatize them psychologically and emotionally over many generations, which was the case in the Balkans during the 1990s. The Serbs were demonized as perpetrators of the war although they felt they were victims of the Bosnians centuries before.

This is called “inter-generational trauma,” said Olweean. Such trauma is so strong that some Jews have shown signs of being traumatized by the Holocaust even though they were born after World War II.

Recently, Olweean held the inaugural Conference on Religion, Conflict and Peace at southeastern Michigann’s Oakland University upon the invitation of Imam Achmat Salie, founder and director of the Islamic Studies Program there.

“The significance of this conference was that we were openly debating the issue of religion in a public university,” said Salie. “Private universities are doing a good job with such discussions but public universities hesitate because they feel bound by separation of church and state.”

Penny Zago, one of the conference speakers, first participated in a CBI conference in St. Petersburg in 1997. The retired special education teacher trainer and consultant to the Michigan Department of Education currently volunteers for the Shalom Center for Justice and Peace at the United Methodist Church in Lansing.

“Steve always has outstanding presenters who have a great knowledge and passion for what they do. I always come back with a lot of ideas to gnaw on,” said Zago. “His conferences are very interactive and always focused on building relationships among participants.”

For Olweean, it’s all about giving peace a chance.

This article appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette on May 9, 2009.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Organizing for Peace and Social Justice


“There's nothing magical about organizing people for peace and social justice,” said 1997 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams, but it's a lot of work because it requires logic, planning, follow up, follow through and the constant search for allies.

This is what Williams did in 1992 when she headed the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Five years later she and a team of activists persuaded 121 nations to ban the use of landmines, weapons, which at the time were considered legal in over 80 countries.

Williams is one of several Nobel Peace laureates working with PeaceJam (www.peacejam.org) to help create a new generation of young leaders committed to peace through positive change in themselves, their communities and the world.

Organizing first requires that you figure out whom you can get to build a coalition to work on an issue, she said. Then you find existing laws or treaties and figure out how they can be used to advance your issue. Finally, you find allies in government who share your view and will push through legislation.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) turned out to be her government contact, which was a natural since she, too, was a native Vermonter. He'd seen victims of landmines in the late 1980s and had started the Leahy War Victims Relief Fund in 1989, which is administered by USAID for civilians disabled by civil strife, war and landmines. He also sponsored legislation—the first in the world—to lead a moratorium on the exportation of landmines.

“We got a big boost for banning landmines right at the starting gate,” said Williams. “It energized Europe [who was also involved in these exportation practices] and created a competition among nations to outdo each other.” For example, France upped the ante on the United States and proposed a three-year moratorium. After that, the movement just gained momentum.

Unfortunately, the United States, Russia and China did not sign the treaty, but that has not stopped Williams from continuing her effort to rid the world of violence.

“You must have an outline for a plan of action for the next six to twelve months,” she said. “Most people don't think through strategy but instead adopt yours, if you have one.

The key to the ICBL's success on banning landmines was in forming close partnerships with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments, the (ICRC) and United Nations agencies, according to the organization's website (www.icbl.org). In order to obtain these partnerships, the ICBL managed the following activities:

· Provide expertise and credible documentation
· Articulate goals and messages clearly and simply
· Maintain a flexible but unified coalition structure that is inclusive and diverse
· Recognize that most of the work is done by a few
· Communicate key developments with all concerned
· Organize people to move an issue forward
· Formulate plans with achievable deadlines and goals to build momentum and excitement

Prior to her starting ICBL, Williams worked for eleven years to build public awareness about U.S. Policy toward Central America. From 1986 to 1992, she developed and directed humanitarian relief projects as the deputy director of the Los Angeles-based Medical Aid for El Salvador. From 1984 to 1986 she was co-coordinator of the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project, leading fact-finding delegations to the region. Previously, she taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Washington, D.C.

Teaching the young about nonviolence is essential, said Williams, who contends that peace is about talking through differences and finding compromises. It takes schools and families to change things and end the continuum of violence that pervades a culture that “glorifies screeching.”

One example of effective education, organization and action Williams cited was a fourth grade teacher who taught a unit about banning landmines. The students then decided to go to the University of West Virginia near their home to teach the college students there about the dangers of landmines. Recently, the students had a tenth anniversary to celebrate their work.

“Those are the ones who blow me away,” said Williams.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

High School Students Flock to PeaceJam Conference


There's no doubt about it: Many of today's youths are highly motivated and very excited about engaging themselves in community-service projects.

What's different about PeaceJam youths, however, is that they are focused on projects that change the world to make it a more peaceful and nonviolent place.

The weekend of March 27, 200 high school students from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio converged on the Bernhard Center ballrooms at Western Michigan University to celebrate their yearlong study of peacemaking at the annual Great Lakes PeaceJam conference. They were treated to an appearance of 1997 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams.

Williams won the Peace Prize for her work in heading up the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (www.icbl.org) in 1992. Five years later she and a team of activists persuaded 121 nations to sign a treaty usually called ``the Ottawa Convention'' to ban the use, stockpiling, production and sale of landmines, which at the time was considered a legal weapon for military arsenals.

Although the United States, Russia and China did not sign the treaty, Williams has not stopped her effort to rid the world of violence. She is one of several Nobel Peace laureates who are working with PeaceJam to help create a new generation of young leaders committed to peace through positive change in themselves, their communities and the world.

This year's laureate was a passionate advocate for peace whom teens widely admired and appreciated for both her style and her message.

``She's a firecracker,'' said Quinn Stifler, an eleventh-grader from Portage Northern High School who got the chance to interview Williams for her school newspaper, The Northern Light. ``I like her great energy and her easy way to have a discussion. She's very personable.''

Lili Marchak, the eleventh grade managing editor for the Portage Northern newspaper, noted that not many high school journalists get such an opportunity to talk to a worldwide figure.

``(Williams) is someone who's really made a difference,'' Marchak said. ``In this story I want to inspire students to do the same.''

Williams' message focused on substituting national security policies and initiatives with human security policies and initiatives. She contended that the world can no longer sustain military solutions when people are without basic human needs, such as food, water or shelter, or when they lack dignity, employment, health care, education and safety against various forms of violence.

``We can only be secure when justice and the sharing of resources in the world are present,'' Williams said to an audience of nearly 400 at the March 27 public event that preceded the students' weekend conference.

``Human security, not national security, will bring security to everyone in the world.''

PeaceJam has enlisted the help of the Nobel laureates in order to inspire students and serve as models.

``She wasn't afraid of anything and was willing to do anything to get her message across,'' said Eileen Zimmerman, a 12th-grader from Waverly High School in Lansing.

Tenth-grader Ryan Walling, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, found Williams not to be the stereotypical laureate he expected.

``It's kind of boring to hear about being nice and peaceful and that war is terrible,'' he said. ``(Williams) is more realistic. She understands that people get angry sometimes and want to punch out someone. However, peace is about overcoming such emotions.''

A big part of the PeaceJam conference is students' involvement in peace projects during the afternoon session. On Saturday, students chose from among several activities like clearing the brush at a Habitat for Humanity house, demonstrating for peace with the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War, helping youngsters read at the Lincoln School YMCA, making blankets for the YWCA domestic violence shelter.

``We're here to make the world believe that anything is possible and that there's a solution to every question,'' said Kimyahtta Morris, a twelfth-grader from Southfield Academy in Battle Creek. She participated in the peace demonstration in front of the Federal Building on Michigan Avenue.

``It gets you thinking about different issues in the world and how to [promote peace] locally,'' said Zimmerman, who volunteered for the Habitat for Humanity project. ``It's such an easy thing to do to volunteer your time to help people in need.''

On Sunday, students learned how to derive inner peace through lessons in yoga, tai chi, chi kung, poetry, healthy food, conflict resolution, dialogue and becoming ``green fashionistas'' with a recession budget.

Youth volunteer for PeaceJam in an after-school club setting starting in the fall. They study a particular Nobel laureate and the peace issue that she or he pursued.

``PeaceJam is truly a path to enabling youth to make positive social change,'' Nott said. They meet students from other states and ``learn (peacemaking) is happening all over the country.

This article appeared in the City Life section of the Kalamazoo Gazette on Saturday, April 4, 2009.

Monday, March 30, 2009

It's Human Security, Stupid, Not National Security


She is emotional, strong-willed and determined. She is also passionate and not averse to yelling, swearing or pounding on the podium to make a point. And when it comes to national security, 1997 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams is dead set against using our country's power and resources to kill or maim other people. Instead, she promotes “human security” as a way of forging world peace.

“We can only be secure when justice and the sharing of resources in the world are present,” she said to an audience of nearly 400 at the annual Great Lakes PeaceJam held last weekend at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. “Human security, not national security will bring security to everyone in the world.”

PeaceJam's (www.peacejam.org) mission is to work with Nobel Peace Laureates to help create a new generation of young leaders committed to peace through positive change in themselves, their communities and the world.

Williams won the Peace Prize for her work in starting and heading up the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (www.icbl.org) in 1992. Five years later she and her team of activists persuaded 121 nations to ban the use of landmines, which at the time was considered a conventional practice in supplying over 80 countries' military arsenals. Unfortunately, the United States, Russia and China did not sign the treaty. But that has not stopped Williams from continuing her effort to rid the world of violence.

In fact, she has stepped up her campaign for human security by participating in PeaceJam's “Global Call to Action.” The program involves several Nobel Peace Laureates who work with and inspire the youth of the world to be involved in a decade-long quest to effect change by addressing the following needs:
· Providing equal access to water and other natural resources
· Ending racism and hate
· Halting the spread of global disease
· Eliminating extreme poverty
· Fighting for social justice and human rights
· Promoting rights for women and children and their roles as leaders
· Restoring the earth's environment
· Controlling the proliferation of weapons
· Breaking the cycle of violence
Many governmental leaders believe that they need a mighty military machine to make their people safe and secure, said Williams. Investing in human security, however, means that when we work to stop global warming; provide people with decent housing, education and health care; and deal with conflict through compromise instead of violence, then we are creating a more secure world.

To illustrate the hapless pursuit of national security, Williams noted that on September 10, 2001, the United States had the strongest military presence the world had ever seen. On September 11, after Americans “freaked out” over four hijacked airplanes, $44 billion was allocated to the Pentagon “to make our country more secure.”

Beefing up the military, as important as it is for the defense of our nation is not the path to increased security, said Williams.

“We talk about U.S. interests being advanced by the military,” said Williams, who received a master's degree from the prestigious School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, which trains American diplomats, policymakers, businesspeople and organizational leaders. Her experience of the SAIS curriculum was that its emphasis on economics left out the human element.

“The military is supposed to be our last resort when diplomacy has been lost,” said Williams.

“We make all sorts of calculations and analyses of our military actions but forget to analyze the impact we make on the people we bomb.

In fact, Williams hated her time at SAIS and they hated her, she said—until she received the Nobel Peace Prize. Paul Wolfowitz, who was dean at the time, sent
her a letter inviting her to receive recognition for the most achieved alum award.

“I didn't answer it and threw the letter away,” she said with disgust.
However, Williams takes pains to distinguish between the policymakers and the soldiers who are sent to do battle.

“I have nothing against soldiers who die for our country, but rather for those who send them there to die.”

Of late, she is very concerned about President Obama's decision to step up the war in
Afghanistan and send drones to bomb Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan.

“Won't the people who are bombed there try to send some drones over here?” she asked.
Williams promotes peace activism but warned her audience that such work is considered as kumbya, guitars, doves and rainbows.

“They call us peaceniks and tree-hugging liberals. That means that we are little wimps who don't understand what makes peace in the world. It implies that we can't deal with the complexities of national security like the big-time policymakers do.”

Attaining peace in the world today, she said, requires a different mindset and a new way of thinking that advocates justice and equality and strives to meet basic human needs.

There is something wrong when 20 percent of the world's population controls 80 percent of the planet's resources, she said. There is something wrong when 1.5
billion people are without clean drinking water. There is something wrong when a handful of billionaires have more wealth than sub-Saharan Africa. That's why people strap on a bomb and blow it up.

“We need to think about security in terms of human beings, not the state,” said Williams. “We'll still have conflict, but not at the scale we have now.”

Williams also urged her audience to commit themselves to a brand of peace activism that is bigger than just being against war. Instead they should be focused on making sure that people's basic needs are met, they are treated with dignity, they have a right to choose their own forms of government, and that conflicts are resolved without violence.

She also advised that activists can get more done if they join together with activists of
different causes and “realize that we're all part of the same thing” when we contribute to human security and not national security where we strive to have “the biggest, most muscular missiles and defense in the world.”

PeaceJam participants donned gray t-shirts with Williams' advice printed on their backs: “Emotion without action is irrelevant.”

“Emotion is the first step,” said Williams. “But if it's not channeled positively, it
is a waste.”