Category Archives: The Peace & Justice Files

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: WAITING FOR THE NEXT SHOE

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler fled the United States on January 19, and has spent the last couple of months volunteering with a small refugee assistance group in Serbia.)

My time in Serbia is just about up – by the time you read these words I will be in Tuzla, Bosnia, getting ready to go back to Germany and resume some creative projects I was working on there. My experience here has been wonderful, traumatic, eye-opening, and heartbreaking. I hope I get a chance to return, or maybe even proceed further “upriver,” tracing the refugees’ path farther back, into Greece, Romania or maybe even Turkey.

But in the meantime… can I get something off my chest?

Remember Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR? You may recall how the omnipresent “telescreens” would periodically blare out news of some victory or other, followed by a breathless pronouncement along the lines of, “This brings the war within measurable distance of its end!”

(If you haven’t read NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR yet, please stop what you are doing now and go read it. You will understand what is happening now much better. Trust me on this.)

Well, all these little leaks and suggestions and rumors and possibilities that keep showing up in my newsfeeds these days are starting to sound very much like Orwell’s tantalizing telescreen, except now the message is more like “The end of the Trump Nightmare is in sight!” Indictments and impeachment resolutions are just around the corner! Mueller is about to make an earth-shattering announcement!

It’s driving me nuts, I tell you.

It’s not surprising, of course. There is probably nothing, not even the final season of GAME OF THRONES, that engenders greater feelings of anticipation than the idea of Trump and his crew being cast out of power. And so of course anything that suggests the coming breaking of dawn will garner retweets and sharings.

But this anticipation is itself dangerous. It can distract us from continuing to apply the necessary daily pressure on our elected officials. It can give us a sense of false hope that, when let down often enough, exhausts us and leads to frustration and despair.  And it can be used as bait.

At the same time, we are held in thrall by similarly phrased intimations of Apocalypse from a dozen different directions. When will the other shoe drop, and where? North Korea? Iran? Venezuela? All three at once?

So I am trying my best to ignore the “Sources say…” and “According to some…” stories. I am trying to focus on the immediate tragedies and successes in whose reality I can have some confidence.

Until I see the full-page photo of Donald Trump being led out of the White House in handcuffs.

Then I might start thinking more seriously about return tickets.

 

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THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: BEOGRAD BLUES

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler left the USA on January 19, and is now in Belgrade, Serbia, helping with refugee assistance.)

First off, I’d like to thank the folks who responded to last month’s survey request, regarding how well we as a nation are fulfilling the goals set forth by the Founders in the Preamble to the Constitution. I could use a few more responses, though. Please stop by https://www.surveymonkey.de/r/MCKVFVM and let me know what you think. (So far, the results are not exactly encouraging…)

Now then:

Through a very useful website called www.greecevol.info, I found out about a fairly new NGO called BelgrAID, based in the Serbian capital city of Belgrade (also called Beograd, depending on your language). These folks cook nutritious daily meals for a group of refugees from various countries, about 800-1000 young men who are housed in a former Yugoslav army base in the nearby city of Obrenovac. They also provide help to other vulnerable communities here in Belgrade, and transport personal care supplies to various camps across Serbia.

They. Are. Amazing.

I find myself among an ever-changing gaggle of a couple of dozen competent, energetic, idealistic, practical, and motivated young people, from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, America, and other countries. (A group of awesome Portuguese Girl Scouts came through recently from Lisbon.) German, Spanish, English, Italian, and other tongues fill the air. There are also a handful of neighborhood dogs that we have adopted – or rather who have adopted us – and who provide amusement and comfort that more than makes up for the times they eat our socks.

Some of these folks are long-term, dedicated volunteers. Others are students or workers taking some time during their summer holidays to be of service. Others are travelers and adventurers, combining their wanderlusts with a desire to make a difference.

Why are they here?

I spent an afternoon talking to a young woman named Carolina, from the Bay Area of California.  She had been on vacation in Greece, and fell into a conversation with an older woman who had been spending time in the Greek Islands dealing with the huge influx of refugees last fall.

“Oh,” she remembered thinking: “I have to do that.”

Clear. Obvious. No-brainer.

They are here because there is work to be done, and human needs to be filled. Pure and simple.

So I have met some of these men, these Farsi and Benghalis and Pashtuns, and shared some meals and conversations with them. They are tanners and aircraft mechanics, would-be accountants and experienced managers. They tear up when they hear emotional pop songs from their homelands. They meet, talk, and play soccer and basketball these young, free, strong Western women, but they always act as impeccable gentlemen towards them, even though you can see the longing and loneliness in their eyes.

In a few days, I’ll get to go meet some refugee kids in one of the other camps, perform for them, and maybe introduce some of them to the old-fashioned tin can stilts I’ve been making in my spare time. If you’d like to know more about supporting BelgrAID, or my work here in particular, drop me a note at skip.mendler@gmail.com.  Thanks.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: HOW ARE WE DOING?

(My column for July 2017…)

First, a quick update: my time in Germany has been fabulous, but is soon coming to an end, for now at least. My next column will be sent from Belgrade, in Serbia, where I will be spending at least the month of August volunteering with a refugee assistance agency called BelgrAid. Check my Facebook account for news as it happens.

Now then…

I hope everyone had a thoroughly enjoyable Independence Day. (I also hope we get to have another one!) The Fourth found me in a nice little Italian restaurant here in Krefeld, with a glass of pinot noir and a yummy plate of pasta with shrimp in cream sauce, thinking about where we are, where we’re going, and the importance of goals.

I got introduced to the concepts of “Total Quality Management” while I worked for a software company down in Stroudsburg back in the late nineties. Many of those concepts had to do with goal setting – everything from determining the overall purpose of a company down to identifying the acceptable error rate for widget production. I learned that goals, to be really useful, needed to be SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-oriented… at least, that was one interpretation of the acronym “SMART.” (There are others – see for instance https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/smart-goals.php.)

Maybe you’ve been in one of those annual performance reviews – where you and your manager sat down, looked at the goals you’d set last time, compared them to actual performance, and talked about what had worked well and where improvement was still possible. Properly handled, such talks can be immensely useful, both for employees and management.

Well, we have goals as a country, you know. They’re in the Preamble to the Constitution. (Test yourself! See how many you remember before reading the next paragraph!)

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Now, of course the Founders didn’t have TQM, or the idea of “SMART goals,” so perhaps they can be excused for setting some pretty fuzzy and difficult-to-measure goals. Just what did they mean by “a more perfect Union,” say, or “the Blessings of Liberty”? Heck, judging from the state of the healthcare debate, we can’t even seem to agree on what is meant by “the general Welfare.”

But here’s another important thing to remember about goals: they are not carved in stone. Situations change, and goals can change with them. Some might not prove to be realistic; some might not go far enough. The process of goal-setting can lead to some pretty serious self-examination, and also encourage some audacious visions.

So here’s your opportunity to engage in a little exercise – I’ve set up a survey called “Progress Towards America’s Goals” on the SurveyMonkey website. Go to https://www.surveymonkey.de/r/MCKVFVM, and have at it. It should take about ten to fifteen minutes to complete, maybe more if you want to get really thoughtful about it. In a couple of weeks, I hope to have enough responses to generate a kind of report card, which I can then share with you. Thanks in advance.

 

 

 

 

 

TRIBES (2009)

(My “Peace and Justice Files” column from June 2009.)

Whenever I see someone here in the North displaying a Confederate flag – whether it’s on a truck, a front porch, or a belt buckle – I find myself wondering just what, exactly, that flag means to that person, and what message that person intends to convey. Did they have ancestors, perhaps, who fought for the South in what some down there still refer to as “the recent unpleasantness,” and they’re just showing some pride in their heritage? Do they mean to demonstrate a hankerin’ for secession, or just a desire to be left alone? Are they making a nuanced political statement regarding states’ rights, encroaching Federal power, and the Tenth Amendment? Or are they simply letting it be known that their weekend schedule is likely to involve some combination of Toby Keith, Bud Light, and NASCAR?

There are all sorts of tribes – ideologies, heritages, lifestyles – and all sorts of ways to display your allegiance to the tribe (or tribes!) of your choice, from uniforms and flags to tattoos and license plate frames.

In some places, so I am told, displaying the wrong tribal symbols can get you killed – wearing the other gang’s colors, having the wrong kind of name, praying in this manner rather than that, sending your daughter to a school, that kind of thing. Sometimes the consequences are more subtle – a little delay in service, perhaps, or an extra-thorough examination at an airport gate, or maybe a bit of preventive detention.

But if you’re connected to whatever tribe happens to be in power, well then! Life becomes much easier. After all, tribes exist (among other things) to provide mutual protection for their members, and to guard the tribe’s resources against attacks from outsiders. So maybe it’s not all that surprising that folks on President Obama’s economic team like Timothy Geitner and Larry Summers, whom we might well consider members in good standing of the “Wall Street Tribe,” have been acting first and foremost to further the interests of their fellows.

Such tribal thinking has its limitations, however, in an interconnected and interdependent world. More dominant “tribes,” whether on local or global levels, can no longer afford to be quite so callous about the effects of their dominance, or imagine themselves immune either from larger responsibilities or from the consequences of irresponsible actions. I am writing these words just a few hours after President Obama delivered his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, calling on various “tribes” (our own included) to focus more on their connections than on their differences, and to think more about how to make this a better world for everyone. The world can no longer be seen as a “zero-sum” game, where my tribe can only win at the expense of yours – ways must be found for everyone to progress, or we shall all lose ground instead.

Identifying with our various tribes helps us form part of our identities. We don’t have to completely surrender our roots, or our passions, or our beliefs in order to coexist, but we must also remain mindful that, for this short time only, we are each members of the same tribe: the tribe of the living.

ATTACK MODE (2010)

(My Peace and Justice Files column from September, 2010)

attack

“Turn on the TV, we’re under attack.” As September began, James J. Lee attacked the headquarters of the Discovery Channel, taking hostages and issuing a list of demands, in which he attacked “Kate Plus Eight,” among other things. Apparently, he felt that Mother Earth herself was under attack, and he didn’t think that Discovery programming attacked global warming or overpopulation hard enough. So, police attacked in response, killing Lee. Al Sharpton attacked Glenn Beck for trying to co-opt Martin Luther King’s legacy, evangelical Christians attacked Beck for being a Mormon, and Beck attacked President Barack Obama’s faith as “a perversion of the gospel.”

The “Bleacher Report” says this year we should expect to see much more of an aerial attack from the Florida Gators than the past few years. Hamas attacked some Israelis, killing four, so you know the Israelis are going to attack someone in response, right? Nonetheless, Netanyahu and Abbas say they’re willing to attack some the thorniest problems surrounding the peace process. Turkey is still miffed at Israel for attacking that flotilla of humanitarian workers headed for Gaza, although other people defend the Israeli soldiers, whom they claim were attacked with clubs and iron bars by the people on the ships.

“Who’s behind these attacks, anyway?” Hurricane Earl is about to attack the coast of North Carolina. A Muslim imam has been under attack all summer for proposing to build a cultural center a few blocks from the site of the Ground Zero attacks in New York City. The people attacking the imam have been attacked as being Islamophobic racists, but they say they’re still outraged by the 9/11 attacks. A Muslim cab driver was attacked in his cab by a photographer who had just returned from filming attacks with the Marines in Afghanistan.

“We’re in full-attack mode now, by golly!” A mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was the target of an arson attack. Some kids in Carlton, NY, are accused of a drive-by attack harassing a Sufi mosque. Sarah Palin maintains that the American way of life is under attack. I had a major panic attack myself in January of 2008. Newt Gingrich attacks Obama’s “secular-socialist machine,” and some of Obama’s critics have attacked the veracity of the President’s citizenship. US-led aerial attacks killed 16 civilians near Kandahar, some of whom were reportedly election campaign workers.

The schoolkids are back to attacking their books, and here in Honesdale it’s football season, and you know what that means – it’s time for the “Red and Black Attack!” Political campaigns are working on new series of attack ads, in preparation for the November elections. “The attack came before dawn, while the village was asleep.” Shark attacks against swimmers in coastal waters have grabbed headlines. Police are investigating a series of acid-throwing attacks in the Northwest. Bee colonies are under attack from a mysterious illness. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton thinks that Israel should already have attacked Iran’s nuclear program by now. An Iranian newspaper has attacked Carla Bruni, the wife of French President Sarkozy, as a “prostitute” for defending the rights of Iranian women from attack by conservative clerics.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) renewed calls for a missile defense system, saying “I think we are naked in terms of an attack on the East Coast.” Archaeologists have attacked BP’s plans to start exploratory oil drilling off the coast of Libya. Two people died in Port Huron, MI, as a result of one of a number of recent attacks around the country involving machetes. Some conservatives attacked Ann Coulter for speaking at an event for gay Republicans, and of course she attacked them right back. The Defense Department recently confirmed a major cyber-attack against US military computers. Wikileaks founder Julius Assange contends the rape charges against him are part of an attack campaign following Wikileaks’ release of a huge number of military attack reports from Iraq. A fungus has attacked the bat population in the Northeast, and is spreading.

So when Obama says that our days of attacking Iraq are over… somehow, for some reason, that gives me little comfort.

RUMBLINGS (2011)

(My “Peace and Justice Files” column from March, 2011, recently unearthed.)

Has the earth shifted under your feet yet?

No, I’m not talking about Christchurch, New Zealand, which was recently hit by its second major earthquake in less than six months. I’m not talking about Arkansas, where a recent increase in seismic activity has been linked to the “fracking” process for extracting natural gas. And while I am speaking metaphorically, I’m also not referring to the political changes that are still reverberating across many Arab countries as I write, “earth-shattering” though those changes certainly are.

It’s tempting, to be sure, to paint what’s going on in places as diverse as Libya and Wisconsin – and here around us in the Upper Delaware Valley, for that matter – in terms of grand tectonic movements, to think of massive historical forces grinding against each other, sending out shock waves as old forms are destroyed and new ones created. But my concern at the moment is more on the individual, personal level.

Namely: what do we do when our old stories, our tried-and-true ways of seeing the world, become obsolete? These stories – or “narratives,” as I’ve been referring to them in the last couple of columns – help us comprehend what is going on around us. What happens when they are taken away?

We spend the first parts of our lifetimes learning how to see, how to categorize the flood of sensory data we experience, how to evaluate patterns, and how to sort out real dangers from illusory ones. We learn what others expect from us, and what we can usually expect from them. We learn to predict, and generalize, and navigate our way through the world. We learn the rules, and the exceptions to the rules.

But sometimes the rules change. They change when personal tragedy strikes, when disasters hit, when conflicts erupt… or when the existing order of society becomes no longer sustainable.

And when that happens, the disorientation can be gutwrenching. Like a neophyte on a bad LSD trip, one can find things that should be solid, that have always been firm and reliable, become fluid and changeable, or disappear altogether. Suddenly one doesn’t know what to do, or how to react, or exactly what is really happening. Things normally benign can take on threatening aspects, or one can unwittingly throw oneself into harm’s way.

At such times, the very ground we stand on no longer seems steady. With nothing to hold onto, nothing to guide us, our own sense of identity can itself be shaken, possibly even shattered.

This is what I mean when I speak of feeling the earth shifting beneath our feet – the awareness that a transition, a basic and profound change, is bearing down upon us.

I do not think it is overly alarmist to suggest, as gently as possible, that it may be time to begin preparing for such a moment. Fundamental institutions – like the fossil-fuel economy, for example, or the idea of Western hegemony in world affairs – are nearing the ends of their natural lives, and their replacements are not yet born. We can feel the early rumblings, the harbingers of the shocks to come.

How can we prepare? Among other ways, by finding our place within larger stories. We can connect more deeply to our communities; we can reinforce our bonds both with those who surround us now in physical space, and those who come before and after us in time. We can connect more strongly to ourselves, through spiritual disciplines, mental practices, or creative activities that help keep us centered. And we can keep reminding ourselves that these changes are part of a natural process, part of the ongoing development of life.

 

 

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.