Category Archives: The Peace & Justice Files

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TOWARDS AMERICAN RECOVERY

(My column for November 2018)

In the past few months, I’ve been trying to make the case that American society in the Age of Trump is very much like an addict – an addict that will soon be confronted with an existential decision: to recover or perish.

So what might that recovery look like?

The genius of the folks who developed “twelve-step” programs for alcoholics and other addicts beginning back in the 1930’s was simple. They saw that in order to recover, the addict couldn’t rely on his or her individual will alone, but needed to find something outside of themselves – they hit upon the term “higher power” – to which they could refer to help guide their decisions.

And the real genius was that they realized that it didn’t much matter exactly what that “higher power” was. It didn’t need to be a deity. In fact, it was better if the addict decided for himself or herself what it was, according to his or her own understanding. This avoided the need to reconcile oneself with someone else’s dogma or theology, and the possibility of destructive disputes or schisms. But th8s “higher power” did need to be something bigger than one’s self… something, in a sense, spiritual.

But if I were to say that the solution to America’s troubles is “spiritual” in nature, I fear that quite a few people would take me exactly the wrong way. The kind of spiritual solution of which I am thinking has absolutely nothing to do with posting monuments to the Ten Commandments, absolutely nothing to do with mandating prayer in the public schools or using the words “In God We Trust” – or, for that matter, with governments using public funds to support religious displays.

It has nothing to do with outward displays of religiosity at all.

It begins instead internally, with a strong dose of humility – a quality in short supply in the American national consciousness. It begins with an acknowledgment, an admission to ourselves that things have gotten out of control. Things are happening that seemingly exceed our ability to cope with them – from gun violence and opioid addiction to inequality and climate change.

To take even this first step would be a huge challenge for the American psyche, even in normal times. It runs completely counter to our treasured national narrative of “can-do” confidence, of “manifest destiny,” of shining cities on a hill.

That’s why this process won’t start – can’t start – until it absolutely has to.

But once it does start… then we will have to find what the term “higher power” means for us as a people. I don’t think that it’s God per se. Rather, it may be the set of values that we have always professed to believe in – things like equality, justice, fairness, freedom, responsibility – but have frequently failed to implement fully.

These qualities are not ours alone, of course. To rededicate ourselves to their service will also mean acknowledging that there is something beyond our own narrow perception of “national self-interest,” and that we are no longer some kind of final authority. Given our historical attitudes towards institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, this will also be a hard pill to swallow… but swallow it we must.

That is, if we wish to recover our collective soul.

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THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: AMERICAN PSYCHOSIS

I don’t mind telling you: back in January, when I got back to America from my yearlong sojourn to Europe, I was a mess, in many different ways.

Fortunately, I had three things going for me: a well-knit community, a network of supportive friends, and access to decent mental health services. These things have made it possible for me to start the process of pulling myself together and getting on my own feet. I’m not out of the woods yet, by any means, and I have a lot of work ahead – but these resources have really come through for me, and I am grateful.

Not everyone is so fortunate, however. As I wrote in this space a couple of months ago, depression and suicide rates have become a increasing concern, one underscored by the recent high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain.

And now many people are starting not just to ask why, but to look past the simple, facile answers and search for underlying root causes – things that may not be easy to face. CNN analyst and former FOX News staffer Kirsten Powers, in a column for USA TODAY, makes a bold statement: “…most Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.”

There is such a thing as “endogenous” depression – depression caused by internal, physical factors, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. This can be addressed by medications. But more frequently people struggle with “exogenous” or “reactive” depression, brought about by external traumatic events or circumstances. Medications can help, along with various kinds of counseling or therapy, but only to an extent.

The “medical-industrial complex” would, of course, prefer that we only focus on the endogenous kind. They can make money, after all, off of a pharmaceutical approach to the problem.

But we know in our bones that this will not be enough… because we are all, I suspect, feeling the effects of the dysfunctions inherent in our present society. We are working harder, but with fewer tangible results and greater economic uncertainty. Even people who “succeed,” as did Bourdain and Spade, may find that mere material prosperity is not fulfilling in and of itself.

“Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong,” Powers writes. “We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”

She also cites a recent bestseller by journalist Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions. Hari notes that “we exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to ‘make it’ without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.” (Click here find some interesting videos where Mr. Hari discusses his ideas.)

Now, I don’t know if Ms. Powers is quite ready to take the next logical step and recognize the role played by modern American capitalism in creating the conditions that have led to this crisis…

But I think it might be a good place to start.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: POWER, PAIN, AND PSYCHOPATHY

In 2011, I submitted a joke to the public radio program “Prairie Home Companion” for inclusion in their annual “Joke Show” – and it got in! (A small claim to fame, perhaps, but I’ll take it.) Here it is :

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”
“Bush and Cheney tortured.”
“Bush and Cheney tortured who?”
“Sorry, that information is classified – and you’re under arrest.”

The Bush-era torture program – sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – was no laughing matter, of course. From the infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, to Guantanamo and who knows how many “black sites” around the world, prisoners were subjected to horrific treatment, ostensibly to extract information about possible future attacks. Convoluted legal and moral arguments were put forward to justify conduct that violated not only international law, but fundamental standards of civilized behavior, and the very values that Americans were supposedly fighting to defend. A great debate erupted about what the willingness to torture said about the character of the American spirit. (The Senate’s final investigative report remains classified, though a summary was published.)
This sordid history was resurrected with the recent nominations of Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State, and Gina Haskel to replace him as CIA Director – but let’s go a little deeper.
Part of the debate about torture was whether or not it was even a good way of getting information. Conservative commentators and politicians, caught up in fantasies of Jack Bauer from “24,” expressed an almost religious faith in its efficacy. Academic studies, meanwhile, suggested that the practice was not only useless but counterproductive. Not only were prisoners likely to give false information just to make the torture stop, the revelations undermined America’s reputation, and gave potential enemies greater motivation to attack us. Less coercive and vicious means were shown to provide viable alternatives and produce worthwhile results.
Watching this debate unfold, I was suddenly struck by a dark and deeply disturbing possibility.
Why, I wondered, would these people be such cheerleaders for torture, even in the face of contrary evidence? Why so passionate, so insistent, in its defense?
Could it be simply… that they liked the idea?
Go back, if you have the stomach, and look at the photos from Abu Ghraib. Look at the gleeful smiles, the thumbs-up gestures. These people weren’t just doing a job…
They were having fun.
There’s a word for that. That word is sadism.
(Please note that I‘m not speaking of the sexual hobby, but the psychopathic condition – wherein one derives pleasure from witnessing or causing someone else’s pain.)
There is a certain correlation between sadism and the urge to have and exert power. Consider this quote from Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, in which Winston is being tortured by O’Brien:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?“

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation…”

Would it be so crazy to imagine that within the halls of power there are people who seek and wield power, who devise, influence, and implement policy, motivated not by the desire to serve, but by the desire to inflict suffering? Could such gratuitous cruelty actually operate openly, undetected and unchallenged?
Try reading the headlines through such a lens, and then you tell me.
PS. For more information on studies about torture and interrogation, see this recent article from Scientific American magazine: “We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work”

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TO BE OR NOT TO BE

That is the question. – Shakespeare, HAMLET

On April 5, I attended a very moving event at The Cooperage in Honesdale – an “open mic” benefit for an organization called the Northeast Suicide Prevention Initiative. Besides the excellent musical performances, the evening featured heartfelt remembrances from survivors of loved ones who had lost their individual struggles, and inspiring testimonies from others who had faced the abyss but had been able to keep going.

The evening also included a skit performed by high-schoolers from the “Wallenpaupack Players,” illustrating some of the warning signs exhibited by a potential suicide, and demonstrating possible ways to intervene.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that suicide is an increasingly serious public health problem in the United States – the tenth leading cause of death, according to some studies. Nor do you need me to list for you the many external and internal factors that can contribute to a person’s decision to give up on life, from addiction to isolation, from depression to hopelessness, from economic distress to medical difficulties.

And you certainly don’t need me to draw you a picture to show you how much these factors have become more and more prevalent in the life of 21st-century America. A life devoid both of purpose and of pleasure, after all, leaves little reason to stick around to witness another sunrise.

But I want to put this problem into an even larger context.

I found myself thinking about this event a few days later, when Donald Trump issued his now-infamous “get ready” tweet, taunting the Russians regarding the escalating tensions around the Syrian civil war. Suddenly, a prospect that many of us may have thought was an unwelcome artifact from a long-gone era – the scenario of a rapidly escalating military conflict between Washington and Moscow, with potential nuclear consequences – re-emerged as a very real possibility.

The thought occurred to me: can a society… or a nation… or an entire sentient species… itself become suicidal?

And if so, who could possibly intervene?

“We’re like the dinosaurs,” wrote Percy Farrell in his song “Pets” – “only we are doing ourselves in / much faster than they ever did.” Maybe it’s just me projecting my own existential struggles – I’ve considered the lure of the abyss myself more than once – but it sure seems to me at times that we are collectively wrestling with what Albert Camus called the only “really serious philosophical question.”

After all, if we were truly sincere about keeping this thing called human existence going for the long haul, we might be taking better care of the things that make that existence possible. We wouldn’t be focusing so much on narrow-minded power games, short-term interests, and petty territorial squabbles. We might pay more attention, and devote more effort, to making sure that everyone has the chance for a meaningful and joyful existence.

There was one song I expected to hear at that suicide prevention event but didn’t – so let me close this by quoting it…

When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on

Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

(I’d like to dedicate this column to the memory of my friend and former TRR writer Tom Kane.)

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: LOVE WILL DO THAT

I was 40000 or so feet above the North Atlantic a few days ago, on my way back to the States after nearly a year away. I was speaking with my seatmate, a young German grad student in economics, who was traveling to Canada to visit his Colombian girlfriend, who’s at university near Toronto. Having met at a hostel in Thailand a year and a half ago, they’ve been maintaining a trans-Atlantic relationship ever since – but now he’s planning a move to Canada. “It’s been difficult, of course – and expensive,” he was saying. “But we know it’ll be worth it.”

I am thinking of the hostel where I stayed for a few days before leaving Belgrade – where one of the Serbian managers was having a tempestuous relationship with one of the guests, a refugee from Iran I believe. I couldn’t help but overhear as they had long and intense conversations out on the balcony of the large shared room where I slept. (English was their meeting ground!) Bit by bit, step by faltering step, they tried to negotiate the tricky, perilous spaces that culture and conditioning had set up between them, trying to reconcile what their hearts were telling them with the harsh realities of the world outside.  And I prayed for them, that they would find a way to build the bridges that would help them share their lives, and I thought of the song by Bruce Cockburn:

When you’re lovers in a dangerous time,
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime.
Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
You gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight

This is more than wistful romanticism, though.

Think of cultures as tectonic plates – slowly drifting, colliding, sometimes scraping against each other. The interesting stuff happens in the places where they touch, where boundaries start to break, where new possibilities can emerge. In the middle, far away from these edges, the integrity of the whole is not usually threatened… if these collisions happen in the right way. If there is resistance, though… if unresolved tensions are allowed to build up along fault lines… if there is only pushing, and no yielding… if there is nothing to ameliorate the friction… that’s when earthquakes happen.   

Sometimes that amelioration is driven by commerce, sometimes by expedience. Sometimes it is driven by love.

We can’t merge, after all, without melting a little.

This was one of the things that I saw during my trip that gave me great hope for the future – to see young people from all over the world meeting and interacting with each other, finding common ground and common humanity, exploring how to transcend the limitations of nationalism and isolationism, laying the groundwork for entirely new ways of not only coexisting but flourishing together.

Because of course love will do that.

That’s what love does.

I’ll tell you more next month.

 

PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler is wrapping up a year of travel in Europe, and is returning to the States in January.)

Survival is not enough. – Emily St. John Mandel, STATION ELEVEN

Let me share three data points:

  1. I met a Syrian visual artist not long ago. His life’s works had all been destroyed by Islamic State personnel, who controlled his city for a while. He fled towards Europe. Now, after years of displacement and uncertainty, he has found his way to safety, and hopefully to a new life… but he has not yet been able to create new work. His creative spirit, unsurprisingly, is still recovering from the trauma he experienced.
  2. On my way back from Serbia to Germany, I spent a few days in the city of Tuzla, in Bosnia. I happened to be there during their International Film Festival, and before one of the public screening sessions I met a young Bosnian-American filmmaker and choreographer. He talked about how difficult he had found it to get his fellow Bosnians interested in the arts again, following the tragedies of the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s. He was guardedly optimistic, though. He felt that the tide was just now starting to turn – that more than twenty years since the Dayton Accords ended the conflict, some kind of cultural thaw might finally be underway.
  3. Last month I had the privilege of attending the Köln premiere of one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen: the documentary HUMAN FLOW, directed by Chinese conceptual artist Ai Wei Wei. In this immensely powerful and deeply compassionate work, Ai takes us along with him as he journeys with a group of refugees through Northern Greece, and visits camps and war zones throughout the Middle East, including Gaza. He also unflinchingly shows us the scope of the refugee crisis around the world – from the plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, to the Sudan, to the US-Mexico border. This relentless survey of suffering is punctuated with interviews with humanitarian workers and international experts, who point out that the impact of the present situation will be felt for decades if not generations to come, and that countries who try to “protect” themselves by reinforcing their borders and brutally repelling migrants are in fact making their futures less secure. Furthermore, it is vitally important that the psychological and, yes, spiritual needs of displaced populations be met, not just the physical ones.

The arts – and artists – are crucial to our retaining our humanness in the face of increasingly dire circumstances, and equally crucial to recovering that humanness in their aftermath. But war, displacement, deprivation, and repression do not only wound, cripple, and kill bodies, but spirits as well. Even the brightest lights may be dimmed, if not extinguished altogether, if not given what they need to heal. And they must heal if they are to help their societies to heal.

So this holiday season, I would call on us to make an especially joyful noise… to actively reaffirm the power of imagination and festivity, to insist on the possibility of transcendent beauty, to seek out the flowers hidden in the ruins… because, as the quote at the top of the column says, survival is not enough.

(PS: One project I’d like to take on when I get back is arranging a showing of HUMAN FLOW in our area. Let me know if you’d like to help.)

(PPS: Dear Reader, I’ve left you a Christmas present… on my YouTube account. It’s a song called “Let It Be a Quiet Christmas.” It’s not exactly joyful, but I hope you enjoy it.)

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.