Category Archives: The Peace & Justice Files

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.

PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: POST-MORTEM

(My column for November 2016…)

First off, let me ask: are you alright?

Are you sure?

We’ve all been heavily traumatized, y’know. Even those of us who think they won.  

This wasn’t sudden, blunt force trauma, like 9/11 was. Oh no, this has been stretched out over months and months, long-term, torturous, a death of a thousand cuts, little bits of our national soul being pulled out and removed, one at a screaming time.

A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Tread carefully. There is unexploded ordnance everywhere. Some of it is on foot. Beware of mines, tripwires, and hidden pits filled with snakes and sharp spikes.
  • Expect aftershocks. Nothing should be considered solid, or trustworthy. Stability will not be restored for quite some time. Stay away from large teetering buildings, or shaky ground. Look out for quicksand. Test everything.
  • Marshal your resources. Reach out to neighbors, friends, passers-by, strangers. Share what you can with others. Do not be ashamed to ask for what you need.

Do I sound like I am talking to the survivors of a disaster? I am, and we are.

We are sitting, in case you haven’t noticed, in the midst of piles of rubble. A huge structure has been brought down around us, one nearly a quarter-millennium in the making.

And here’s the thing: it wasn’t even nearly finished yet.

This edifice that we have all been working on, this thing we were calling American democracy, has foundered, shattered, collapsed – the victim of a variety of factors: benign neglect, internal rot, intentional sabotage, and vicious external attacks.

Oh, it was a fine idea to begin with: construct a structure that could harness the immense power of that ravenous beast called Capital, and direct it towards beneficent ends.

But that beast grew too fast, and it grew up mean – and it was always hungry.

Some people thought we should let it loose, that it would be best unfettered. “Let it work its magic,” they said. “It’s not happy being all locked up…” And so they snuck into its keep, swore their fealty, fed it raw red meat, and loosened its chains, bit by little-bitty bit…

So. Now it has fully erupted, like one of Daenerys’ dragons, and broken through to the highest towers, spewing hot orange flame everywhere, breaking everything to bits.. Now it sits atop the rubble like Smaug on his treasure, grinning, steaming, talons clacking, waiting to be fed (only the best food will do), while we all scramble around wondering what to do with it now.

Expect no sudden knight to appear; there might have been one, but he got waylaid by an enchantress. Expect no army to come over the ridge, riding out of the sunrise at the last moment. No, frankly, I expect this beast to rule for now, and to gorge itself in grand fashion… at least, until it explodes.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: CLOSING ARGUMENTS

 

Well, that was certainly fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?

I mean that whole “democracy” thing – you know, that illusion that we nurtured for so long – that notion that “We the People” actually had the power to select our own leaders, that they would listen to our voices, and that they cared about our needs.

This election has, like none other in our history, exposed the extent to which our attitudes, desires, and choices have been carefully, calculatedly managed and manipulated.

From the blatant and systematic squelching, both politically and in the media, of the Bernie Sanders insurgency by the Democrats, and the cynical construction of Donald Trump’s so-called “revolt” by the Republicans, to the near-absolute exclusion of alternative and third-party voices from debates and public discussion, our real rulers – call them our handlers, if you will – have finally and unambiguously tipped their hand.  

In 2016, the art and science of “attitude management,” that dark and eldritch craft brought into the modern age by Edward Bernays, has truly reached its apotheosis.

So what should we do, now that Toto has opened the curtain, and we can see the wizards working their bells and levers?

That, I can’t tell you. It’s up to you. Many of you will choose to follow your own Preferred Narratives, and either vote against the Predatory Psychopathic Narcissist by supporting the Dedicated Public Servant, or support the Iconoclastic Entrepreneurial Outsider by voting against the Corrupt Murderous Harpy, depending on which propaganda you have chosen to pay attention to.

Many of you may be thinking of sitting the whole thing out. I can’t blame you – but I have a suggestion you may wish to consider.

From where I am writing from, a few days ago in your past, Clinton seems pretty secure in her leads in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. There is no telling, of course, what surprises may yet be in store for us, but at this point I feel safe in saying that in the Presidential contest voting for third-party, independent, or write-in candidacies (see voteotherproject.wordpress.com) is unlikely to make a difference in the overall result.

The main message that has to come out of the Presidential election returns is this:

The present System sucks, and we the American people deserve better.

We deserve more choices, and better ones. We deserve an honest exchange of viewpoints on the issues that affect our everyday lives, not shouting matches between competing teams of scandal-mongers.  We deserve to have our divergent views heard and taken seriously, and our common values celebrated, without the dehumanization and ridicule of those who dare to be different.

Sitting out this election, even if you’re doing it as a protest, doesn’t send the right message. The System likes it when we don’t participate – it just figures we’re apathetic or lazy, and it can keep right on doing what it’s been doing.

So please, disaffected voters, come out and vote – but Vote Other. Send a message to our handlers that we reject their clumsy groping, their forcing choices down our throats, their cynical disregard for our real needs.

Or else we make Lincoln a liar, and let “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” truly perish from the face of the Earth.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TWO PARTIES ARE TOO DAMN FEW

Next time you’re in your favorite local grocery store, take a little stroll down the breakfast cereal aisle. Plant yourself in front of the Cheerios section – and start counting.  How many different varieties of “toasted oat cereal” do you find? Seven? Twelve?

According to Wikipedia, there are actually SEVENTEEN – including, of course, the inevitable limited-edition “Pumpkin Spice.” (There were 7 others that have been discontinued.)

Similar scenarios play out across the store, of course, in the interest of gaining shelf space and squeezing out smaller competitors. There are at least sixteen flavors of Lay’s Potato Chips, including regional variations – not counting the “Wavy” and “Kettle Cooked” sub-brands. THIRTY-EIGHT different dental hygiene products – toothpaste, that is – sport the Crest brand, including one with the catchy title of  “CREST PRO-HEALTH ADVANCED EXTRA WHITENING POWER + FRESHNESS TOOTHPASTE.”

As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, “What a country!”

Now imagine this: what would happen if one day we suddenly found that we were restricted to only two different kinds of Cheerios? And what if those choices were not, shall we say, the most popular or palatable –  Liver’n’Onions, say, or Crunchy Kale?

Consumers would be outraged! There would be chaos, riots in the aisles, cars burning in the parking lots! General Mills’ stock price would plummet! Congressional hearings would be called!

But this is pretty much the situation that most Americans settle for, each and every general election. Two parties. Two choices. Period.

(You folks in New York State have it better than most – the “fusion voting” system used in NY and a few other states at least allows you to vote for different brands, even if sometimes it’s the same product.)

How is it that in the United States of America – bastion of free enterprise, champion of consumer choice, empire of innovation – we should find ourselves in such a limited predicament?

The historical reasons are long and complex, of course, but the short answer has to do with the way we conduct our elections. In “first past the post” or “winner-take-all” systems like ours, a two-party system becomes almost inevitable, as political groups form coalitions to gain majority advantage. (The political science folks call it “Duverger’s Law.”)

There are other reasons, too. A two-party system makes it much easier to manage the range of acceptable political discourse (the so-called “Overton Window”). Outliers, innovators, and those who question basic beliefs are easily dismissed and ridiculed. Party leaders only have to say, “Vote for us, or else – THEY win!!” to avoid any serious reexaminations of their policies, or accountability to their followers.

So how many parties should we have?

The existing Democrats have at least two factions: the centrist, technocratic “Third Way” Democrats, like Hillary and Bill Clinton, and the more left-leaning Progressives (sometimes called “Wellstone Democrats”), who rallied to the cause of Bernie Sanders. (There are also conservative “Blue Dogs,” but I think they’re almost extinct.) The present, unwieldy Republican coalition – theocratic, conservative Christians, small-government Libertarians, and the Plutocrats who represent Big Business and Wall Street finance – is about to shatter under the onslaught of Trumpism, which is itself a resurgence of “America-First” Populism. Add the Green Party – postcapitalist, ecologically minded, and community-focused – and I think there’s room for at least seven, maybe more.

I believe that a true, multiparty democracy would encourage more citizens to get involved in politics, as they would be more likely to find political homes they can believe in and support wholeheartedly. It wouldn’t be a panacea – just look at Italy, or Israel – but it would be a big improvement.

And there would still be plenty of Cheerios – and granola, and even Frosted Flakes – to go around.