Thursday, March 31, 2011
“Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Keeping the biggest possible picture in mind, paradoxically, may give us the best lens through which to focus clearly upon the messy details of our lives at every level—internationally, nationally, locally, even personally.
How big a picture? Try: the whole earth and everything and everyone on it, through hundreds of millions of years of time.
What can this abstract immensity have to do with our own lives? More than we think, because we really are a product of the changes the earth has undergone over eons, and we are totally subject to the rules that dictated those changes. By rules we mean big processes, ones we are still trying to fully understand. Processes like evolution itself.
When a gigantic asteroid hit the earth in the Yucatan area 65 million years ago, the planetary changes that resulted were enough to wipe out the dinosaurs. New forms of life, ones that eventually evolved into our mammalian ancestors, were able to flourish in the post-asteroid conditions. The dinosaurs were swept aside forever. Organisms that do not adapt to the environment around them cannot survive. The environment determines the required change—no exceptions.
Now it is human planning and foresight that will determine the fate of all the other species on earth. The true economy is not connected to the health of the stock market, but to the health of the living system as a whole. Our brains are simply not wired to think and plan within this great context. Instead, we have constructed artificial contexts that we can get our minds around more easily: the morning headlines in the newspaper, the nightly news on TV, the latest stories on our Ipad, the quarterly profit-and-loss sheet—even all our diverse religious and cultural adherences.
The separating borders of nations themselves are artificial contexts that we hope will come “between too much and me”(Robert Frost), while at the same time we know very well that all our biggest challenges do not respect borders. The earth shakes, and the jet stream carries radiation across oceans with the speed of a tsunami.
As this is being written in March of 2011, the headlines are preoccupied with two issues of daunting moral complexity: autocratic suppression of non-violent revolution in the Middle East, and the Japanese effort to regain control of their devastated nuclear plants.
The airways are buzzing with discussion about the pros and cons of the intervention to help the Libyan rebels, and at the same time with the pros and cons of nuclear energy. Has the United States overextended itself? Is NATO in danger of getting bogged down in a civil war? Was it morally supportable to let Ghaddafy massacre his own people? Can nuclear energy ever be made safe? Have we no choice but to turn to it, because the risks of global climate change are even greater?
In the larger picture, we have gone in 60 years from one nation with nuclear weapons to nine nations. That means nine complex command and control systems with fallible human beings managing them, with all the potential for mistakes, misinterpretations, or accidents. If our technology, no matter how innovative, does not work in harmony with the larger systems that gave us life, we may all find ourselves in the kind of trouble visited upon Hiroshima in 1945.
The first nuclear powered electricity was generated in Idaho in 1951. Now there are 442 plants worldwide, again with fallible humans supposedly in total control. If our technology, no matter how innovative, does not work in harmony with the systems that gave us life, we may all find ourselves in the kind of trouble visited upon Japan in 2011.
That is our present “environment.” Can it help us to situate that environment in Rumi’s field, out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing? The first thing this does is take us out of the realm of feeling righteous, right, morally pure, full of indignation and blame. In a state of mind that is inclusive of all, rather than our habitual mental condition of “us-and-them,” we can acknowledge our profound moral and physical interdependence as users of energy, creators of waste, payers of taxes, weighers of risk. We can turn toward each other humbly and “meet”—have an authentic, inclusive, responsible, open encounter. We can seek big-picture truth together, acknowledging our fallibility, our subjectivity, our default setting of short-term self-interest—and our common survival goals.
The U.N. sanctioned intervention in Libya certainly looks like a major step in the right direction compared to the unilateral U.S. intervention in Iraq. But its tragic violence is still symptomatic of a world where humans are very quick to turn to war and weapons as a “solution.” It is part of a dying paradigm, one that is not working in the many other civil wars around the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq—and the Congo. In fact all war has become civil war, fueled by an avalanche of weapons sales, never really resolving anything. What might replace it? Perhaps it is the spirit we saw in Tahrir Square, a demand for accountability that includes self-accountability: the great authority of the refusal of violence, a far more exacting discipline than the waging of war. Those courageous Egyptian citizens spoke for more than themselves when they peacefully demanded a freeing-up of their political system.
Our existing energy systems are also part of a dying paradigm, a kind of civil war with the earth. It may be that humans can design a fail-safe nuclear power plant, even figure out what to do with the wastes. So far we haven’t come close. But with the biggest context in mind, we can meet together “out beyond” and focus upon our energy challenge the great lens of our earth’s story over millions of years. Maybe we will create some entirely new form of energy that is unambiguously life enhancing. Perhaps we will learn a new non-violence toward the planet that has given us so much, just as those in Tahrir Square modeled the treatment of others as they themselves wished to be treated. I’ll meet you there.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
The Unconquerable Authority
Muhammar Khaddafy’s brutal reaction to the aspirations of his own people has become a textbook case in the futility of opposing the citizens from whose consent a leader’s political authority derives, however illegitimately. Instead, his stubborness has led to absurd violence, even civil war.
We can still hope that the Khaddafy case will he an exception in the region generally. The non-violent invincibility of people power, the argument of Jonathan Schell’s underrated masterpiece of political philosophy, The Unconquerable World, may be coming true before our eyes again as it did in the Philippines in 1986 and Czechoslovakia in 1989. We do not yet know which model will dominate in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the violence of state power, or the non-violence of citizens seeking their rights and discredited leaders abdicating peacefully. Citizen invincibility may not prevail without additional tragic sacrifice to the callous will of dictators. But in the end it will prevail.
Meanwhile we Americans need to acknowledge our own role in the stagnation and double standards pervading desert autocracies. Our subtle oppression has been as abundant as the oil underneath those sands that we covet and even assume is rightfully ours, obtainable by any means necessary. As we condemn Khaddafy’s brutality, let’s not forget our own over-reliance on military “solutions”—rationalized by our own desperate conviction that we can only fight fire with fire, only prevail with raw power, with drones over Pakistan or million-dollar-a-year soldiers attempting to kill people and win their hearts and minds at the same time. On a small planet, all war is civil war.
The subversive and hopeful message of Egypt’s Tahrir Square is that change does not have to come by violence, just as the message from Tripoli—or Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq—is that violence only cycles into worse violence. If unarmed citizens in Tahrir Square can create positive change, why can’t the most powerful democracy on earth choose to bring about change not with military violence, but with magnanimous humanitarian aid and adherence to international laws and institutions?
From what source does civil authority ultimately flow, if not from the consent of the governed to join together non-violently to meet common needs? Isn't this an expression of the golden rule—with variants found in most of the world's philosophies and belief systems?
We have already come close, with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, to the polar opposite of this universal rule: if you try to destroy me totally, I will destroy you totally, and if we really let fly with everything we have, we will all be dead ten times over.
Enough Egyptian citizens understood that as they wished to be done to, so should they do. In this they demonstrated that the Ghandis and Kings of this world are not some idealistic exception. The strategies of non-violent change have become just as realistic and practical as the notion that dictators can deny their citizens’ aspirations by brute force has become unrealistic and impractical—just as building schools for girls in Afghanistan is not only a more realistic way to increase U.S. security than 800 foreign bases; without so many bases we could afford to pay our own teachers and civil servants in Wisconsin and elsewhere a living wage.
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable,” asserted President Kennedy in a resonant aphorism. This applies universally, to protestors and the governments trying to appease or oppose them, to near-failed states and to great powers. Non-violent alternatives are available to all governments as well as all protestors. Autocrats can capitulate peacefully and fly into exile, and free and fair elections can, with forbearance and hard work, fill the power vacuum. The mother of all might-have-beens comes to mind—what is happening now in the region could eventually have happened in Iraq without disastrous U.S. meddling.
After 9/11, stereotypes of a mysterious, unknowable ‘other,’ an other who hates us for our freedoms, quickly took over. The “enemy image” gripping the collective American psyche morphed from Soviet communists who (almost) made peaceful revolution impossible in Eastern Europe, into suicidal Islamic martyrs who tried and failed to make violent revolution inevitable.
Now these Arab and Persian and Sunni and Shia and Coptic Christian ‘others’ not only have faces and names, they are martyring themselves for the same liberties we ourselves hold dear. On a planet so small that that the news flashes instantly from Wisconsin to Bahrain, Tripoli to Jerusalem, isn’t it time we gave up enemy-images altogether? We are one human family. In the spirit of Tahrir Square, isn’t it time to reject the illusory authority of violence and embrace the unconquerable authority of non-violence?