Category Archives: The Peace & Justice Files

PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: HEAVY THOUGHTS ABOUT LEITKULTUR

(My column for May 2017)

I have “gone to ground” for the time being in Krefeld, a city of about 225,000, near Düsseldorf in western Germany. I am staying with my cousin and his wife while I figure out what’s supposed to happen next.

Cities like Krefeld throughout Germany have become the endpoints for the journeys of many conflict-displaced refugees (“Flüchtlinge” in German) – around 3500, I am told. There is also a much larger number of economic migrants who have come looking for work, some of whom have set up businesses. Turkish barbershops, convenience stores (“Kiosks”), and pizzerias are everywhere; the latter frequently also serve “Döner,” a halal variation of the Greek gyros.

Döner has become so popular in Germany – as has, say, Mexican food in the US – that one could almost say it’s become part of the culture.

And as you might guess, that kind of development bothers some people.

The German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maiziere, set off a bit of a stir here recently with an op-ed in which he attempted to articulate some basic values of what Germans call “Leitkultur.” This word means “leading culture” or “guiding culture” – though sometimes it gets translated as “dominant culture.”

Minister de Maiziere’s essay generally makes unsurprising and not-particularly controversial points about the important roles played by history, philosophy, and the arts in the shaping of modern German society, and the value of hard work and education. (He gives special shoutouts to Bach and Goethe, for example, though not Nietzche or Wagner.) But a couple of his suggested principles seem specifically intended to be direct swipes at certain aspects of Muslim culture. “We are an open society. We show our face. We are not Burka,” he writes.

To this last point, the Gruenen Jugend, the youth wing of the Green Party, responded curtly: “We are not Lederhosen, either.” De Maizere’s piece has drawn similar scoffs and critiques from other politicians and organizations. (If you’d like to explore further, I suggest the English-language website Deutsche Welle, which has many articles on this topic.)

My cousin thinks that the whole kerfuffle is a pre-electoral stunt – there are state elections coming soon, and Federal ones in the fall – and the discussion will wither away thereafter. He’s probably right. Issues of culture and identity are hot buttons, after all, guaranteed to touch a nerve and bring out the voters. But it’s a critical discussion that should not just be kept alive, but expanded.

Part of de Maizere’s problem, I think, is that in stopping at the national level he fails to take the next logical step. He writes, “We remain, non-negotiably, part of the West, proud Europeans, and enlightened patriots,” but it doesn’t occur to him that there might be another layer, a global “Leitweltkultur” if you will, a set of common human values that can guide the relationships between nations, cultures, and individuals alike. This would include not just the already largely acknowledged values of human rights and mutual respect, but a clearer articulation of the rights – and responsibilities – of both “hosts” and “guests.” In the unsettled times to come, as more people are uprooted by cultural and climactic unrest, this will become increasingly important.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re about to go grocery shopping. We’ll pick up some currywurst, maybe… perhaps some hummus and falafel… After all, it’s all good.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: WHEREIN I CALL FOR THE NEXT REPUBLIC

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler left the United States on January 19, and is headed towards the Eastern Mediterranean to help with refugee assistance. He’s taking a few stops along the way…)

Lage Vuursche, The Netherlands:

In the course of the years, I have had relationships with a number of cars… most of which have ended badly. My dear early-model Honda Civic took me cross-country twice, but eventually dissolved in winter road salt. My little Ford Festiva hydroplaned on the Northeast Extension on the way home from a demonstration in Philly in 2000, bouncing off a concrete divider while Don Henley was singing “End of the Innocence.” And my Hyundai Elantra… well, it got to the point where we just couldn’t afford the upkeep anymore – and then I realized that I didn’t really need it anyway.

Governments are kinda like that. For one reason or another, you have to get a new one every once in a while. They wear out, or break, or some calamity comes along and makes them unusable, or the cost of maintaining them becomes unsustainable.

I’d like to suggest that we are at that point.

I’ve been in The Hague for the last few days. Yesterday, my walk to the MC Escher Museum (highly recommended, by the way) took me past the US Embassy. Unlike most of the other embassies – indeed, unlike the Dutch Parliament or the royal residences – ours stood behind a high iron fence, ensconced between police command centers, foreboding and unwelcoming, more like a prison or fortress than anything else.

Something about that hit me hard. The day before, I had encountered a demonstration by some Sudanese folks, pressing for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes but not arrested… and I had of course spent the morning getting caught up on the news, reading about gas attacks and retaliatory bombings.

Looking at the flag over the embassy, I felt a wave of grief and shame washing over me. I sat down at the base of a nearby statue and gave myself permission to let it out.

I bawled like a child.

A couple of passing pedestrians check in on me, to make sure I was OK. A few minutes later, a couple of local policemen arrived, very kind, understanding, and sympathetic. We spoke for a while, and I gathered up my psyche and went on my way.

And that’s when it hit me.

It’s time to call for the Next American Republic. This one is broken, worn out, obsolete, and too expensive to maintain – and furthermore, it has been vandalized and tampered with, its safety mechanisms and pollution controls deliberately disabled.

Of course, we can’t go to a new government dealer, or even get a certified “pre-owned” Republic for a replacement. We’ll have to build it ourselves. We can use some of the old parts, maybe, the ones that still work – but before we get to that, we have some design work to do.

So let loose your creative imaginations, your highest ideals, your most fervent hopes:

What features would you like to see… in your Next Republic?


(Send me your ideas at skip.mendler@gmail.com, or post them on Twitter with hashtag #NextRepublic, or reply in comments below.)

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: REYKJAVIK AND THE PERILS OF MONOCULTURE

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler left the United States on January 19, and is headed towards the Eastern Mediterranean to help with refugee assistance. He’s taking a few stops along the way…)

You notice it as soon as you get off the plane at Keflavik Airport, about 50 kilometers from Reykjavík. It’d be hard to miss, actually.

Practically all the signage – welcoming you to Iceland, directing you to baggage claim, encouraging you to purchase some luxury item or other from the duty-free shop – is in English.

It’s quite a nice gesture, really, designed quite purposefully to make Anglophones not just from the US and British Isles but from all over the world feel welcomed, and allow folks to avoid having to wrestle with the bearishly difficult Icelandic language.

And it’s been a very successful choice. Even in the dead of winter, tourism has become a huge part of Iceland’s economy.

But there’s a price to pay, and a careful balance to maintain.

The Roadhouse is an American-themed restaurant, located across a street with the wonderful name of Snorrabraut from one of the hostels where I stayed. The featured burgers are a bit over-the-top even by American standards – one is served on a doughnut, and another comes graced with a couple of dollops of mac’n’cheese – but the people were friendly and the fries really were excellent. I had some great conversations with the personnel, including a couple of native Icelandic waitstaff and their Japanese-Indonesian-Hispanic (!) manager. They agreed that making aspects of Iceland seem more familiar and accessible to tourists, while certainly good for business, also threatened to override some of the characteristics of Icelandic culture that make it such an interesting destination in the first place, as well as a tightly-knit society.

The notion of “globalization” implies different things to different people, and they respond to it (or rebel against it) in different ways. The “alt-right” neo-nationalists, like Trump chief of staff Steve Bannon, see it as a threat not just to national sovereignty but also ethnic and racial identity. They would rather see everyone pull back into tightly controlled and insular “ethno-states,” with minimal interaction and even less blending. They present their vision as the only alternative to sacrificing one’s uniqueness on the altar of commerce, and then use that false dichotomy as a cover for promoting their racist and supremacist ideology.

But that is far from the only alternative. If there is to be a global “monoculture,” it must be one that serves as background, not bulldozer – one that allows local cultures to stand out, flourish, and survive. There should be no conflict between the preservation of one’s own traditional heritage and participation in global exchanges.

A friend I met invited me to see her neighborhood in the southeastern suburbs of Reykjavik. We walked along snowy sidewalks to the local branch library, which was hosting a traveling exhibition of Japanese dolls, sponsored by the Japan Foundation. Some of the more formal dolls were exquisite studies in porcelain and cloth, remarkably detailed. I marveled, not just at the artistry, but at all that had brought me and this exhibit together, in a small-town library at the top of our confused but deeply interconnected world.

TORONTO AND THE PROMISE OF POLYCULTURALISM

Reports from the Road #2: TORONTO AND THE PROMISE OF POLYCULTURALISM

There were so many choices for dinner, just along that particular two-block stretch in Midtown Toronto, I hardly knew where to turn. Moroccan, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Chinese… I picked one more or less at random, a Chinese restaurant, and settled in with a Tsingtao and some delicious mushroom egg-drop soup. I knew I’d found a good spot when a gaggle of Chinese students came in for dinner. As I wrestled with some unfamiliar vegetable (gai lan, I found out later – Chinese broccoli), they kept up a steady stream of laughter and conversation, delighting in each other’s company. The staff was also clearly pleased to have them there, as they brought out dish after dish for a family-style repast.

It occurred to me that these folks had probably not come to Canada to gain an appreciation of poutine and hockey – that is, not to be assimilated or digested into some generic one-size-fits-all kind of Canadian identity. They also hadn’t come to take over and enforce their own cultural norms. Rather, they came to benefit from and contribute to a vibrant and varied society. I thought of the young Punjabi women I had talked to in Niagara Falls, who were studying nursing and early childhood education, and preparing to take their skills back home. I thought of the elderly Colombian gentleman I had met in a pub, a chef who had come to Montreal to work on his French before heading for culinary school in France – but who found love instead, and stayed put.

Toronto has a long-standing reputation as one of the most diverse and multicultural cities on the planet, and from what I’ve seen it’s well deserved. Conflicts here seem to be more class-based, as hard-driving developers (from many different nationalities!) put pressure on neighborhoods to allow more and more high-priced luxury condo development.  Ethnic communities, where they have developed, get nudged further out towards the suburbs.   

But they not only coexist, they interact, and cross-fertilize.

As I understand it, there’s a difference between “multiculturalism” – where different cultural communities exist in close proximity, but within distinct borders, and claim certain physical and ideological spaces as their own – and what some call “polyculturalism,” where there is more openness towards hybridization, and a recognition that the overall community is in fact greater than the sum of its parts. So we can see things here like “Pad Thai burritos” – and even a Japanese variant of poutine, French fries and cheese curds covered with Japanese curry gravy with seaweed and scallions.

One of the things that I am interested in exploring and learning more about during this trip is how such polycultural societies are created – and more importantly, maintained. It seems to me that learning to exist in multiple worlds, so to speak – to be a part of one’s communities of heritage but also part of something larger – could be an important skill for avoiding the kinds of intercultural conflicts that threaten to tear our country (and our planet) apart literally at the seams.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: EVERY NEW BEGINNING

It’s not often that a rock song nails a deep philosophical truth in a single pithy lyric… but that’s just what the band Semisonic did back in 1998, with their anthemic hit “Closing Time,” which includes this great line:

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

In this case, 2009 was that “other beginning.” Barack Obama’s Inauguration was the crest of a wave, a flowering of post-Bush “si, se puede” optimism that unfortunately was quickly squelched (let us not say “betrayed”) by his own centrist pragmatism and the Republicans’ petty, partisan obstreperousness.

So now here we are, at that beginning’s end – and a new beginning. On January 20, we will see what I am calling the “Dysauguration” of Donald J. Trump – as massive a perversion of the democratic process as the planet has seen since the emperor Caligula supposedly named his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate.

I plan to see this event from a different perspective. By the time Mr. Trump intones the words “So help me God,” I’ll be across the border, in Canada. (You might want to join me, even if just in spirit, or just for the day. See the article “Vote With Your Feet?” on my website, skipmendler.wordpress.com.)

I’m taking advantage of this “new beginning” to stage a new beginning of my own. I am headed to Europe for an indefinite period, with two goals in mind.

One is to get involved with refugee assistance over there. I am aiming for the Greek Isles, but I might find that I can be useful elsewhere along the route. Ideally, I’ll be able to use my performing experience by hooking up with one of the groups like Clowns Without Borders that has been doing shows to entertain the kids in the camps, but I’m willing to do whatever. (Look up “refugee clown circus” for a raft of articles about what some folks have been doing already, and why.)

The other is to get some opinions and suggestions from activists and academics over there regarding what can be done to fix our broken system, and our fractured society. I am particularly interested in how they make multiparty democracy work, and how we might bring the American system more in line with European democracies in this regard. (See my September column, “Two Parties Are Too Damn Few.”) I also plan to attend the 2017 Global Greens Congress in Liverpool at the end of March.

At present, I’m thinking I should be away for six months to a year, maybe more, depending on what happens (and how long the money holds out). In the meantime, I intend to continue this column, but I’ll be focusing primarily on my experiences along the way.

I remain an “apocaloptimist”: I believe that things are about to get quite rough, but I also believe they will work themselves out in the long run. This particular “new beginning,” this onslaught called Trumpism, will run its course and eventually end, hopefully sooner rather than later, but end it will.

And then there will be more – and better – new beginnings on the way.

 

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: GOVERNING FROM CENTER

(This was originally published in two parts.)

One of the things I appreciate about social media sites like Twitter and Facebook is that they expose me to many things that I might otherwise miss. Usually, these items are posted by the people and organizations I follow, but every once in a great while I actually see a relevant and interesting advertisement. The other day, for example, my eye was caught by an ad on Facebook.

“Click ‘Like’ if you are tired of the gridlock in Washington, DC!” it said.

Well, heck, who’s not tired of that? But before reflexively clicking the link, I thought maybe I should check out the sponsoring organization, which was identified as “Center Forward.”

After a bit of digging, I found that the organization was connected with the so-called “Blue Dogs,” the more fiscally conservative wing of the Democratic Party, whose presence and influence in Congress have been shrinking of late.  As you might expect, their chosen issues and approaches have a narrow range and a very business-friendly emphasis.

There have been many organizations like this cropping up over the past few years, ever since Ross Perot’s Reform Party knocked the system into such a tizzy back in 1992. Such organizations try, with varying degrees of success, to leverage America’s disillusionment and disgust with the present state of political discourse by rallying folks around something they call “the center.”

For example, consider the statement that tops Center Forward’s website:

“America is neither right nor left. Republican nor Democrat. Red nor blue. The solutions that will move us forward come from where they always have—the center.”

But what, or where, exactly, is that “center”? If you think of it as just “the middle of the road,” some position taken up between two extremes, then your definition is going to vary depending on how wide you think that “road” is.

There’s an interesting concept called the “Overton Window,” which describes the range of politically acceptable discourse at any given time. Conservatives have been very successful over the past half-century or so at moving that window to the right, and making it narrower and narrower. So for an outfit like Center Forward, “center” means the center of a fairly restricted set of possibilities.

(And by the way, as far as the “neither right nor left, Republican nor Democrat, red nor blue” part goes, that’s patently false. It’s not that America is “neither one nor the other:” it is, in fact, both. That’s the reality of the situation—and the problem—and the opportunity.)

For some, this elusive center presents an opportunity – and their search is motivated by a sense that there might be advantage to be gained by formulating an attractive vision of a unifying, centrist politics.  They calculate that the right person, with the right set of “non-partisan” positions, might be able to leverage people’s frustrations with business-as-usual and draw a strong following.

For others, perhaps less cynical, the motivation comes from a perception that the increasing polarization of our political system truly has made progress impossible, and stymied meaningful action on the many issues that confront us.   

This center, one supposes, would represent some kind of “middle ground” along the left/right spectrum, some place where enough people of good will from different sides could coalesce to reclaim power from the “extremes.”

But even if such a point of view could be coherently put forward, it would not transcend our divisions – it would only add another player to the practical and philosophical conflicts we have,  Entrenched partisans, from force of habit if nothing else, would resist what they would see as betrayals of their deeply-held principles.

We are an increasingly diverse nation, and I believe that when democracy is allowed to function properly, solutions can be crafted even from that diversity – because of it, not in spite of it.  Maybe we can and should go deeper. Maybe we can think in terms of our core values, our common interests, our shared goals. The Constitution, after all, begins with a specific list of defining purposes: “…form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Remember? Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be able to agree on what some of those words even mean, much less how to implement them in practice. But thinking in such terms might move us away from ideological wrangling and closer to actual communication and productive cooperation – closer to a government that is more inclusive and more diverse – closer to a government where everyone feels that they have both a voice and a stake.

For that to happen – for a government to truly be a government of “all the people,” then it must be rooted in a different kind of “center.”

This center is not simply a matter of compromise, or a mere averaging of extremes in the hopes of minimizing overall dissatisfaction.  This center would appeal, not to our “lowest common denominators,” but rather to our “greatest common factors.”

It would not be the middle of the road – it would be the ground upon which the road is built.

I am speaking here of “center” in a sense that is familiar, as a matter of personal experience, to martial artists and meditators, potters and performers.  It is a place of internal stillness even when one is in motion, of focused calm even in the midst of chaos.  When one is in contact with this center, one is able to respond to the requirements of the moment with minimal yet perfectly appropriate effort.  “The centered state,” says aikido master Thomas Crum in his excellent book The Magic of Conflict, “is simple, natural, and powerful.”  It is a state of heightened awareness, of insightful perception, of profound integration of body, mind, and spirit.

Now consider: what would it mean to govern from such a state – or to have a government that was not centralized, or even centrist, but truly, deeply centered.

Such a government would not be rigidly bound by ideology, but would be flexible and fluid.  It would respond quickly, but not reflexively; it would not be easily swayed by fear, anger, or panic.  It would not be monolithic, mind you – it would be broad-based and inclusive, but have effective and efficient decision-making mechanisms for identifying and balancing the various needs and interests of the different parts of society.  It would able to apply the right kinds of action to the particular situation at hand, whether such action might be labeled “liberal” or “conservative.”

Best of all: beginning the creation of such a government does not have to wait for the establishment of a new party, or the issuance of a think tank proposal.

It begins when we find where the true center is: within ourselves.

(2013)

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: A SLIGHTLY BETTER WORLD

My column for December 2016…

When we lived in Pittsburgh some 25 years ago, I stood in for St. Nicholas at a couple of corporate Christmas parties.Fake-bearded and properly pillowed (I was thinner then, and clean-shaven), I’d wander from table to table, inviting folks to share their holiday wishes. Rather than extravagant desires for Porsches and diamonds, I was gratified – and a little surprised, frankly – to hear folks express instead a general sense of contentment, and gratitude for their health, their families, and their friends.

I’d had some training from a temp agency that provided Santas to the various department stores around town. (They called their training program the “University of Santa Claus.”) There were a few basic rules – simple enough when you hear them, but not necessarily what you might think of yourself. I’ll share some of them here for any of you who might find yourselves doing Santa duty this year:

  • Keep a twinkle in your eye at all times.
  • Never let loose with a big “HO, HO, HO!!” – you might startle or even terrify a small child. Restrained chuckles will work just fine.
  • If a child does start crying, sympathize with them and gently return them to their adult – your attempts to make them stop will usually just make matters worse. You’re bigger than life, after all, and maybe a little intimidating, despite your twinkle. Keeping your good cheer about you, tell the adult the child may return ”whenever they’re ready.”
  • Never ask about a child’s “parents” – after all, you don’t know what their situation is.
  • Always refer to yourself as “Santa,” not “I” or “me” – for example, “Come talk to Santa!” or “What would you like to ask Santa today?”
  • And most importantly: NEVER promise ANYTHING – the best response is some variation on “Hmmm. Santa will see what he can do.”

So what would I say if Santa aimed his twinkly gaze at me and asked, “So, Skip – come tell Santa what you’d like this year”?

All I want for Christmas…? Well, I can’t say I’m content, exactly, though I am certainly grateful for the many blessings I’ve had in my life so far. There’s just one thing I’d wish for:

A slightly better world.

Liberals are sometimes criticized for harboring utopian beliefs in the “perfectibility” of humankind. It’s a theological and philosophical debate that goes all the way back to ancient Greece, and I’m certainly not going to try to rehash it all here. But our imperfectibility, I’d argue, while pretty obvious, is also no excuse for not trying to make things better… even if only slightly.

Let there be a slightly better world …

  • where it isn’t quite so easy to cause harm
  • where people are a little less reckless with themselves and each other
  • where facts have a bit more power than demagogues
  • where jerks don’t get rewarded just for being jerks
  • where simple kindness is the default choice
  • where it’s harder to make profit from war
  • where we have learned the meaning of “enough” and “too much”
  • where love is always natural and hate is always a disease
  • where we better understand the actual costs of things
  • where the laughter of children outweighs any item on any balance sheet

I hope that’s not too much to ask for … oh yes, I know: Santa will see what he can do.

Happy Holidays to you, whatever your path – and best of luck to us all in 2017.