Communication

The Slow Revolutions of Love

Nonviolent revolutions aren’t clear and simple and swift; they’re typically exactly the opposite. Slow and halting and frustrating.

Violent revolutions have a clarity. A, typically abusive, power structure is forcibly displaced through the expending of material and life energy. This can have a certain effectiveness and speed, and so inspires hope. And there are places where it does, indeed, have a good outcome.

The American Revolution would probably be seen by most people throughout the world as a violent revolution whose outcome had good results. That is to say: the resulting power structure was generally as free, just, and fair as the one it displaced.

But most violent revolutions are more problematic. Violent revolutions have an understandable tendency to create power structures based in violence. Places where order is maintained not so much by the consent of the governed as their fear of the new occupants of the seat of power. The entire history of the Soviet Union is the most prominent and easy to read this way today.

One is tempted, when seeing injustice in the world, to want to counteract it as quickly and effectively as possible. And almost by definition, that action which is swift and decisive will be “violent.” But beyond the dictionary play, it is unlikely that you’re going to want to respect the power structure you see perpetrating an injustice. You’re going to want to overpower it; forcibly displace it; damage it.

The politics of love doesn’t work that way. Love is a slow process of transformation. It’s a revealing, and an opening, and at times it’ll halt and even seem to stop. Its triumphs are small and partial and imperfect. It is the Civil Right Act of 1963, but it doesn’t stop the madness of cases like Rodney King or Eric Garner. It is the fact that today at the end of 2014 gay marriage is legal in a majority of, but not all, US states. It is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but that Burma is not a well-functioning popular democracy. It is the fact that Tibet is still occupied by the Chinese and that South Africa still has crazy levels of black poverty.

Governments are at their best when they’re responsive to the actual will of the people they govern. And the wills of masses of people aren’t something that’s easy to change. Coercion can make a change seem to have happened from a distant perspective, but it doesn’t actually make it happen. Real change, at the level of the individual, is a slow, inefficient, and idiosyncratic process.

Democracies are at their best when they reflect the well-considered and high-minded will of the people. But the will of the people is not something that can easily be swayed by force, nor should it be. And so it’s partial and halting and incomplete, this quest for justice founded in love in the modern political epoch.

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Practical Philosophy

Thinking the Right Thought

It wasn’t very long ago that when I found myself feeling down I would think that I just needed to think the right thought. That whatever else was true, finding this one single specific thought would solve my problem. By containing clarity and beauty and simplicity, it would make whatever ache or pain or concern I was feeling go away. But I could never find this “right” thought.

It’s taken me a fair amount of time and learning, but I now feel pretty certain that there is no right thought. No thought which will clarify my feelings and make everything easy and pleasant. No thought that will in itself rid me of a sense of dis-ease or sadness.

Thoughts are a really powerful and useful tool. I wouldn’t deny that. But you put too much faith in them and they will let you down. They have to. Come to the end of your thinking and all you have left are more thoughts. But no thought, even the best, can make the feelings you are feeling go away.

Fundamentally, feelings are a body process. And no body process can be thought away. In order to deal with pleasant or unpleasant or painful feelings, you must feel — really completely and deeply — the way you feel. The mental gymnastics I used to favor aren’t capable of changing that. They’re a grand distraction which only makes it harder than it needs to be to really be present and embodied.

We think that thinking is what separates us from the other animals. And we’re right. Thinking does separate us from the other animals. We’re the only animal that feels embarrassment, or shame, or any of a number of complex mental phenomena that we have given words to. But we mistake those new feelings for power or value to our own peril. We have nothing on the mental readiness and awareness and simple presence of a deer, or gazelle, or even the lumbering bison. We think so much about our thoughts we forget that it is our body which feels.

When you try and try to think the right thought to make yourself feel okay you deny the way that you really feel and your ability to grapple with that. But it’s only by feeling, seeing, recognizing, and accepting your feelings that you can feel the peace you are looking for. There is no the right thought.

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"Ignorance is the worst form of violence" - E. G.
Life

The Depths of Our Ignorance

When you stop to think about it, it’s shocking how little we actually understand about anything. We know only the edges of things, and use them to guide our reasoning about them. Neuroscientists and psychologist are increasingly aware how few of our decisions and thoughts are a result of careful consideration. We constantly make inferences and jump to conclusions without a lot of evidence. This is what makes it possible for us to do as many things as we do, but it’s also a big source for the growth and stability of ignorance.

Continue reading

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world

Prosperity, Then Peace

Tracy O (ASA)money money money

I recently wrote about how globalization could make the world a much safer place. The logic is essentially this: countries that have significant business interactions are much less likely to go to war. A China that relies on exports to the West probably won’t start a war with anyone, and a West that relies on imports from China is less likely to go to war with them. If you extend this logic to a world in which each country relies on imports and exports to and from everywhere else, a completely “globalized” world seems destined for peace.

In explaining that theory, I drew on the (easy) example of Europe. The logic is straightforward: trade liberalization under the auspices of the European Union has made Europe more interconnected. That interconnections has made war all but impossible. After publishing, a very interesting and reasonable counter-argument came to mind: the prosperity of Europe, not it’s liberalization, has kept it at peace.

Consider, for example, that almost all the violence in Europe to have occurred in the last few decades happened in the relatively poor Balkans. Consider too, that Africa–a continent almost synonymous with war–is easily the poorest inhabited continent on the planet.

Now I’m not that interested in listing hundreds of examples. I’m well aware that for every example I can give there are probably an equal number of  counterexamples.

The mechanism by which prosperity would yield peace is more intuitive than rational. The basic idea would be that the wealthier a person is, the more social capital–education, acquaintances, leisure time–they have, and the more resistant they are to putting a nice life on hold to risk their own neck in war. This makes sense, but without some actual data remains “just a theory.”

However, it follows that if this worked, generally speaking, to turn a populous against war a responsive government would almost necessarily be less likely to wage war. Even a government deaf to the desires of its citizens would likely struggle to conscript people to join an undesired military action.

Certainly the theory has flaws. Rich countries do start wars. There are poor countries that are peaceful. But I can’t and wouldn’t contend that prosperity alone makes a country or population less likely to go to war. I would say, however, that it’s a factor that shouldn’t be ignored if one desires to end all wars.

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politics, world

A Good Week For International Change

IrotzabalFidel Castro

If there are four big pieces of international news this week, it would be hard to make them anything but these. And if there were for big pieces of good international news this week, it would be hard to make them anything but these:

  1. The Kofi Annan-led mediation team seems to be getting close to a real resolution to the months-long violence in Kenya that has left over one thousand dead.
  2. Kosovo, a former province of Serbia under United Nations control for nearly a decade, declared independence. Little–though sadly not none–violence or meaningful disruption followed this long-feared move.
  3. In a largely symbolic but long anticipated move, Fidel Castro has announced that he will officially resign his posts of president and commander-in-chief of Cuba.
  4. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf appear willing and able to accept the results of Monday’s election, preventing the type of chaos that was unleashed in Kenya when Mr. Mbeki refused to accept the legitimate results of the election in his country.

Surely this list isn’t all sunshine and daisies. There’s still a long road toward peace and stability that Kenya must travel before it regains some of the stability and sheen it had less than a year ago. Kosovo still has a large Serbian population in it which will likely continue to cause disruption. That will also be exacerbated by Serbia’s unwilling to accept the legality of the fracture. While Fidel’s Castro role in Cuba’s day-to-day activities has clearly diminished, it’s hard to see Cuba becoming a free and open country while he’s still alive and his brother retains power. Though Pakistan’s begun the transition back to civilian governance, it’s still a mess of country with large ungovernable portions. The legislative future is still far from smooth while the newly-elected parliment is to be checked by a president it doesn’t like but can’t impeach.

Indeed, too, there are large problems in many other places around the world. Civil wars still rage, the rule of law is still a dream in far too many countries, totalitarian leaders still have meaningful influence in far too much of the world.

But seen from a distance–the only way I know how to see international affairs–this has been a good week. Certainly we’d need many good weeks like this to see a meaningful trend toward openness, democracy, and prosperity sweeping over the world. Probably we’d really need something closer to many years like this week for us to reach something like satisfaction about the way the world is now.

But we should be glad for what we’ve gotten this week. Too rarely does so much good news come without a break of the bad, the terrible, or the catastrophic. Though I have no idea what tomorrow will bring these countries and all the others in desperate need of change, I’m thankful for what progress we’ve had so far.

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Dispatches, fiction

Dispatches: The YZ Prize for Peace

Our roving reporter, Steve Finch, has an interesting story today that he asked us to file under “that’s something that would really benefit humanity.”

SANTA MONICA, CA — The YZ Prize Foundation–of no relation to the X Prize Foundation–announced a new reward today which they’ve called simply the Peace YZ Prize. Like all such prizes, the foundation is offering substantial financial reward–they’ve estimated that it will be nearly five billion dollars–to anyone who can accomplish it’s objective.

The prize’s conditions for completion aren’t pinned down exactly, but the foundation assures us that it requires a substantial commitment to peace by two longstanding rivals. They suggested that the resolution in Northern Ireland is a good model for the type and stability of solution they’re seeking.

Asked where they would like this prize won, the chairman said, “anywhere that needs peace.” Pressed he offered that he’d like to see peace anywhere, and agreed that Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Darfur, Columbia, Chechnya, and Spain’s Basque regions were all viable candidates. “And of course,” the chairman said, “we’d love to reward the prize for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

When questioned as to whether those were the only possible candidates the panel admitted it’s ignorance. “Anywhere which has a substantial history of conflict and can muster a meaningful resolution to the grievances is a candidate. We’d certainly consider places other than those mentioned. A favorable solution between Ethiopia and Eritrea could certainly be considered, for example.”

The disbursement of the prize also raised some questions. The rough response was that it would be split between the two parties involved, or given as a lump sum to the government in the case of internal conflicts. This lead to some disappointment that the resolution would not go to a person, as the Nobel Peace Prize does.

Reached for comment, most observers feel that this is a good move. Said Ben Silverburg, a professor of International Relations at Yale, “I’m not naïve enough to believe that the prize will lead to a sudden outbreak of peace movements all over the world, but I do think it’s a good idea. Anything that offers increased incentives for peace is likely to, if only a little bit, lead to greater peace in the world.”

The prize has no deadline. If it takes 3, 35 350 years for this prize to have a viable winner, the organizers assert that they will get the prize. How exactly that will work is unclear. Also unclear as we go to print, is how exactly this prize will be paid for. Though some have speculated that The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has financed the prize, there is absolutely no support on that notion.

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USA, world

Kenya and International Impotence

DEMOSHMwai Kibaki

The world recently celebrated a rather unceremonious “monthiversary.” Kenya–which up until a month ago was often described as the brightest spot in East Africa, if not the whole continent–is still in chaos. See some of the haunting reports and photographs of The Vigilante Journalist if you doubt that fact.

A month ago Kenya’s president, Mwai Kibaki (at right), “won” reelection. After this incredibly questionable result was announced, “tribal” violence “erupted.” Estimates are that by now at least 800 have been killed and 300,000 displaced. Though many forces–best known in America are presidential candidate Barack Obama and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan–have attempted to reach some accord between President Kibaki and the oppositions leader Raila Odinga, none have succeeded, or even produced much externally-visible progress.

If one pairs this sad story with the continued mess of Darfur, you’ve got a good base for a pessimistic soup which proves that the international community is unable or unwilling to help create lasting peace on the continent. Even worse, you could find proof that Africans themselves are incapable of living in peace.

But I wouldn’t say that. Nor would I interject the ever-growing messes of Somalia, Zimbabwe, and the ever-simmering border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea as proof that East Africa’s the bad side of the continent. Or that nothing can change.

We could reasonably say that all of this makes a strong case for a reconsideration of priorities at the United Nations and other international bodies. That it also shows signs that Africa’s still growing and maturing, and though it may sound (or even be) patronizing, the current problems on the continent are necessary growing pains for young nation states with limited resources.

Before that though, I must admit something. On nearly every topic I’ve written about thus far and will write about through the rest of this piece I know enough to appear–to most–to know what I’m talking about but not enough to actually know what I’m talking about. It’s an admittedly dangerous fact that means I should probably be barred from talking about it at all. Alas, I’m not.

And so I can tell you that though we could make this to look like a strong case for the United States to disengage from the impotent United Nations, it’s not. And that I remain hopeful that though progress in Africa and elsewhere is slow and all UN actions are encumbered by the veto power of self-serving states like China, Russia, and the United States I think the organization shows progress.

Surely the Bush presidency and the farce that was made of international law in invading Iraq was bad. Surely it is troubling that both Russia and China are willing and able to stand up against even the most well-intended efforts to intervene for human rights.

But in the broad stroke of history, progress is unquestionably toward greater openness, greater rule of law, and greater democracy. Surely there are a number of painful steps left–many ugly and troubling steps–before the world arrives at the place I’d like it to be. But as long as and as strong as I can, I’ll hope that someday soon the world will be more like the hope for Kenya from last December, and less like the pessimism engendered by the Kenya of this January.

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big ideas

The Triviality of Difference

Everywhere you look, especially as a teenager, the world is full of others. Of people “not like me.” And though teenagers feel this most intensely, few do not feel it regularly.

Just look at the latent antipathy that exists in this country toward Iranians. Or Arabs. Or Mexicans. Or even the French.

Surely these people are different from us. They live in different parts of the world. They look different. They sound different. Put face to face, we’d probably struggle to understand each other fully. And that’s ignoring language.

For all my years, I still don’t understand fully the people I’ve known since I was young. I don’t know my friends. I don’t know my family. Sometimes I don’t even know myself.

There’s a real and meaningful distance that seems to exist between “me” and “you.” And that’s assuming you’re someone I’ve met in some capacity. If we float in the same circles but don’t know each other by name that distance seems bigger still. If we’ve never seen each other, it seems impossible that there’s anything between us. And if we’ll never see each other we may as well give up entirely.

But before we lapse into nihlistic despair at the fact that we’re too different, I’d hope we could consider this. In his wonderful 1989 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the 14th Dalai Lama said:

No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all basically the same human beings. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic human needs and concerns. All of us human beings want freedom and the right to determine our own destiny as individuals and as peoples.

I, at least, find this point indisputable. Surely there are people in the world who think that they want to suffer, but it’s usually in some search for a separate and durable happiness. Religious self-flagellation is the imposition of temporary pain in exchange for long term happiness when God is satisfied with one’s commitment. And though I find the practice unfathomably odd and barbaric, even its practitioners seek long-term happiness.

From the time we first recognize differences amongst people, they become an easy way to understand the world. To see that we exist, as people and persons, because of our differences. That they define us.

And though I’m not foolish enough to ignore all differences, I think it’s terribly important that we see the commonality that exists underneath all the superficial difference. It’s sometimes trendy in the West to evangelize against superficiality. But beyond popular culture and children’s feelings, this evangelization rapidly dies.

And that’s certainly unfortunate. I feel rather certain that if the anti-superficiality crusade went all the way to the fundamental commonality that the Dalai Lamas and others point out to us, we’d live in a much better world.

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OPW, poetry

OPW: Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata”

There’s a large soft spot in my heart for broad and sweeping pieces of advice about how to live you life. Even if I don’t agree with everything such poems, columns, commencement speeches, or songs say, I still like them. And even if they seem to be off on a few points, they say things that are probably worth listening to. Such is the case with today’s “Other People’s Words,” Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata.”

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

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