Category Archives: The Peace & Justice Files

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.

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.