Anchoring 2016: Fear Must Not Rule (Part I)

[Editor: Most of this was written at the beginning of 2016.  I could not get a full newsletter out, but I wanted this published as an opening concern for the year.  To be clear while Part I deals with U.S. politics (though “fear and despair” have global concerns, and Part II will look more at one global topic), it is not written to endorse any party or candidate.  Apart from not knowing positions well enough since I am not American, its value is simply meant as a piece for reflection for whatever value it brings, and regardless of perspective].

Fear and despair have stalked the land (fortunately so have courage, hope and tenacity; a separate topic).  While I could list the simmering conflicts around the world, this section will focus on the dynamics affecting most of this readership (Western world and primarily the U.S., given the global reverberations such responses would have).  [Addendum: Human Rights Watch just produced its annual report, entitled, “Politics of Fear”, reporting on 90 countries].

Part I: The Ominous Symptom of “The Strong Man”

The first fear dynamic surrounds Donald Trump.  The focus is not Trump himself – commentaries abound – but the glimmer of insight arising from Trump’s supporters.  The caricature by some is that Trump’s followers are crazy. I disagree. These people are responding quite normally within the framework of how they view the world. People would not respond that way in such numbers for so long unless it really was grounded in something deeply distressing.

In that context I feel I am witnessing an extremely disturbing phenomenon with the following broad contours:

  1. There exists a substantial seam of society whose sense of marginalizing dynamics is so deeply felt that the normal recourse is considered futile. Thus the only viable option they see is the archetypical “strong man” who will make things right.
  2. While a sense of marginalization / disenfranchisement can have layers and many factors and even be illusory, in this case its primary source is a disconnect from the American dream (defined as the opportunity for meaningful work which results in societal progress and standing). Part of it is the debilitating widening income gap.  Part of it is an “elite Washington” – either political party – disconnected from normal people’s reality.  Part of it is fueled and even manufactured by hidden money (see 3(i) below). Part of it is the continued globalizing trends (oversea jobs, reduced sovereignty; see TPP).  In such dynamics there is a sense of loss of control and thus easily a diminishment of one’s sense of worth.
  3. Futile normal recourses: (i) Government is part of the elite and is lobbied and shaped by the elite – corporations, etc. (for example, Koch Brothers’ “Dark Money” [CBC] and the resulting right shift that disgusts traditional conservatives [Patheos]); (ii) In a reverse “Occupy Wall Street” sense (where OWS was a great groundswell which arose from the 2008 economic collapse, yet accomplished nothing, zero), the rage against the machine is seen as futile.  Thus the only recourse is the “strong man.”
  4. A side-effect is that the thin veneer of civilization erodes, and thus racism and xenophobia increase. It also seems to bring a diminished desire for dialogue, engagement with the other and empathy.

In smaller degrees the above dynamics have played out over the years.  But this time the dynamics are potentially seismic in nature.  Three points:

  1. For the first time in my life I feel I am witnessing parallels in North America to what gives rise to the “strong men” of the past like Hitler and Mussolini. To be clear my entire focus in not on the strong men nor suggesting similarities (I find those claims quite wanting; although I find Trump’s statements often reckless and inflammatory), but rather entirely focused on the ferment beneath;
  2. While I do not think this will be a tipping point, the fermentation will continue until the underlying issues are addressed, specifically until those areas of well-being that have withered, are restored;
  3. For all the wonderful people who are attempting to tilt dynamics in sound directions, or who still uphold the core value of dialogue, listening and empathy, may you remain steadfast. This will lessen any pendulum swing and will reinforce or more quickly re-anchor solid societal grounding.

For anyone wanting an introduction to the notion of the hidden layers of power and what some consider the gutted notion of democracy in America, Sheldon Wolin’s (Princeton prof., died 2015) Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism work is briefly explored in Inverted Totalitarianism [TruthDig]

While many people warn of the demise of any form of substantive democracy, others point to some aspects that can start to strengthen democratic tendencies.  The hope here is that this is not a cache-22 limit on human aspirations – this list does deal with the rather intractable need to devolve power – but rather will be seen a century from now simply as a particularly thorny epoch.  A brief list includes:

  1. Get unbridled money out of political campaigning; create transparency in lobbying.
  2. Address the financial systems still unchanged after the 2008 financial crisis.
  3. Address the  widening income gap – its chasm has become  life-stifling and life-distorting.
  4. Provide robust oversight that can establish an appropriate surveillance balance between truly threatening activity and personal privacy.

In the end, the high drama may fizzle, normal political discourse may return for the time being.  But without change to the disturbing undercurrents, the “strong man” catastrophe will remain waiting for the next person able to capitalize in a twisted fashion to the genuinely disturbing undercurrents.

Kony2012: Let’s Dialogue our Way to a Solution

As an activist for over 30 years I have been extremely intrigued to see the Kony2012 video and campaign go viral. Along with the publicity has come both support and criticism. This could be very promising, as long as it is founded on two basic concepts – openness and is communal counterpart, true Dialogue. In this blog I will start with some of my chief concerns (most already echoed elsewhere):

1. Good intentions and a worthy goal are not enough. Both are virtually off-the-scale here – who doesn’t want Kony captured? But the same was true of early attempts at ending overseas child labour 20 years ago, which sometimes ended simply with the child fired from the factory, on the street and in even more desperate conditions. Critical are solid, trusted partnerships of First World groups with local ones.

Two good balancing perspectives are Stop Kony but do not stop asking questions (he brings in the question of Uganda’s President Museveni’s role) and the more critical You do not have my vote, which critiques the video and Invisible Children (lack of Ugandan context, disempowering narrative for Ugandans, wisps of White savior mentality, etc.)

2. The Kony 2012 push is about advocacy. Advocacy is first of all, an admission of failure of the normal mechanisms to resolve an issue (it should never be seen as something cool to do; I always use the US Civil Rights “Keep your Eyes on the Prize” mantra to gauge this – whenever the eyes stray, such as onto the movement, the cause has lost proper anchoring). Also, advocacy must understand the failed mechanisms and their context, have the proper goal and be focused on it, and have the proper strategies (“Means”) to achieve it. The old post on Badvocacy provides some good reference points.

3. Invisible Children (hereafter, IC) spends most of its money in the US and not on actually helping those in Uganda.

There are more critiques, and properly digested, these seem to be enough to look elsewhere for solutions. But to me there is more to the picture:

4. Awareness and the “Process of Change”: IC has clearly done a phenomenal job of raising awareness. Awareness is always the first step in the process of change. I agree with the above critique of the video. But we live in a world that is not limited to the video’s content – for most people a few clicks and you can start drilling more deeply into the issue. And given this new phenomenon of “things going viral”, it quickly opens up the debate – you can’t be on Facebook or Twitter very long before the critiques seep in.

A simplified version of the process of change, premised on a stance of openness, is a continuing cycle of: (a) awareness; (b) facts; (c) action; (d) reflection. Having followed the Kony story soon after the LRA emerged as a repugnant force in the late 1980s, we have already had a few iterations of the cycle, some military and some a mobilization of local efforts (the latter being the ideal if they have the wherewithal to prevail and that can include strategic alliances with global partners – or simply put, my notion of dialogue). So we are now starting the next iteration, on the next round of awareness. Awareness here involves three levels: the general {US} public, the NGOs (US and local) and the military strategists.

For IC and its video, public awareness and buy-in is needed to form the constituency that would be required to garner the political will to have the US more involved in capturing Kony. Setting aside whether one ought to go this route, this would be no easy feat since any country’s foreign policy starts and ends on the question of national self-interest (aside: This needs to be pushed: can national self-interest be broadened, sometimes called “enlightened self-interest” such that like the Rwandan genocide & the US, a permanent stain on one’s national identity/self-esteem results due to inaction [while heeding Badvocacy’s constraint that sometimes you simply shouldn’t act?]). Anyway, for those who want buy-in, it is the third awareness – the military awareness that is critical. Given the disaster of the 2008 Operation Lightning Thunder, do wise military strategists think they have gained enough new awareness to be successful this time?

Closer to my approach, I would first ask whether, now that the push-back is coming to Western intervention or supporting the Ugandan army, etc., can we hear more clearly from those who live in the region regarding their strategies to resolve the whole issue? Are NGOs like IC open to absorbing such dialogue?

5. There are three potentially complementary goals: (a) capturing Kony and ending the LRA, along with rehabilitating victims on both sides; (b) elevating good governance in the region; and (c) having Kony stand trial at the ICC. Are there ways to align the planets so that all three can be accomplished? The closer we can come to this, the closer we not only save children from being abducted, but also increase the stability of the region, and finally, strengthen the global social fabric in the sense that any law (The ICC here) needs a credible track record for it to start reshaping our dynamics and ethos.

6. I do want to mention the critique about IC and using most money in the US. Advocacy simply requires substantial funding if it needs to create a broad constituency, which for IC is the case here. This mirrors the Darfur crisis in its early days – US advocacy groups formed a substantial backing of citizens, which built a political constituency allowing Save Darfur to pressure members of Congress, resulting in the US declaring the atrocities in Darfur to be genocide, and put the US on its conflicted policy course. Bec Hamilton wrote “Fighting for Darfur” which is a good review of the same advocacy failings (oversimplified narrative due to not understanding or properly consulting the local people, etc.) that hover around IC. One of her main concerns was that advocacy and actual policy-making are separate endeavours and shoud stay separate; and also when the policy end is hastily done in reaction to pressure, the consequences may not advance the cause and may set it back.

In this regard I want to raise David Algoso’s golden rule for advocacy (where one must simplify if the target is a general audience), which is basically, yes, simplify but don’t distort as mentioned in his blog. I think that both Bec and David felt that too much distortion happened with the early and mid Save Darfur days (and I believe both feel the same about the IC video).

Again, there is so much more to this issue. In the end I believe that the basic human desire of most people – somewhere, somehow, sometime – to be part of something truly worthy, something that helps nudge live along, can at times be used to do exactly that. But it doesn’t come easily; there is careful work to do and lessons to be learned. And in the real world this will almost always involve less-than-savoury compromises. The trick is knowing, first, when you are well-founded, and second, when the positives outweigh the negatives. And so to IC, I say “Thank you – you have done a fine service in raising the issue and outlining a stand.” But this is simply the next iteration in the process of change. Thus let the dialogue begin.

[Update Mar. 8: As part of the dialogue, Here is the IC response to the criticism. To me this advances the dialogue slightly in that they did respond (I did my homework and knew they were much more than the video, but time-constrained, I focused on the dynamics surrounding the video, and I may later give my sense of what would have been some better signals within the video, and what they are doing right with the African-side of their work). Anyway at the end they invited exactly what dialogue entails – in essence, “here is our best answer; if you have a better one, explain it and if you convince us, we’ll heed it”. For sure they are being given alternatives (if they can be found among the viral responses), so again, let the dialogue continue and we’ll see – key – who should change and is open to it].

Reflections for 9/11: Part II: Factors Affecting the Shape of the Story

On September 12, 2001 the newsletter associated with this website had the following brief second point (link to original email below):

“(b) ROOT CAUSES: While nothing could possibly justify the abhorrent terrorist acts, and terrorists need to be stopped, there are nonetheless root causes for the violence in this world. We can add our voices to those who suggest the only long-term way out of the spiral of violence, fear and hate is a more just sharing of the world’s resources including issues of power.”

The full essay (also linked below) clarified that one should not make any easy linkages between the terrorist attack of 9/11 and its root causes. The above quote appears to hover around such a mistake. In fact that is why the full essay was later written – I knew even one day after the attacks that root causes are in some way tied to the ultimate vision being upheld and the story that packages it. I already knew of the spiteful anti-modern ideology being taught in certain Pakistani madrissas. The unjust sharing of resources fuelled the anger and recruited sympathizers but was not the basic cause. And thus the full essay wanted at least to list some of the areas that play into such global dynamics.

This blog, however, wants to ponder some of factors that have shaped the story of the Western reaction to 9/11. It presumes Part I of the blog has been read. It is not a full essay and can only highlight a few issues:

1. The overall story of 9/11: The story typically opens on September 11, 2001, while perhaps that should be the start of chapter six of the story, and by now we must be on maybe chapter 32. The original full essay, below, tried to fill in some of those earlier chapters, although since then countless books have been written on the subject. The point is that anyone wanting to break current violent patterns will never succeed without at least having a well-grounded sense of history of how we got to that point, complete with its basic human nature dynamics.

2. Fear: Fear is part of what allowed us as a species to survive – we learned to fear what truly put our lives at risk. But fear is also insidious. It easily seeps into other areas, having a corrosive effect on situations or relations that could otherwise be supportive. And fear is easily manipulated by others, as was definitely the case here. The original newsletter that questioned talk about an Iraq War (link below), while definitely not getting everything right, was correct in it skepticism of why suddenly an invasion was necessary when no new compelling evidence supported it. What did support it, among other things, was the play upon fear. Have we found an alternative vision that is noble and encompassing, and yet also pragmatic enough to deal with the hard realities that face the world?

3. “War on . . .” language: I find such language (“war on drugs”, “war on terror”) has two aspects. On the one hand it is “reassuring” language – it makes my world seem like someone knows what the problem is, what the solution is, and has the overwhelming resources to succeed – things will be taken care of. But I also find a disconnect – it is nonsensical language since there is no identifiable enemy to attack; rather there are hidden networks. Such was part of the short-lived argument in the days following 9/11 – that the best alternative approach to “war” is via an overwhelming combination of international criminal justice, political pressure and providing compelling alternatives. In this regard some commentators have said that the Arab Spring has done more to weaken Al Qaeda in the long term than any military action. Have we become more aware how terminology can be used to manipulate, or how to distinguish attempts at true journalism from an ideologically-based one, whether from the right or left? What is true insight and where is it found?

4. Cost of the War on Terror: Because this newsletter is focused on the well-being of all on this planet, it is absurd to think one can calculate a true “cost” of 9/11 – what is the value of a human life? That said, there are two concerns which give rise to this section. First, it can be a helpful exercise to attempt to plumb the scope of the reverberations. The underlying assumption that “the clearer our perception of reality, the better our chance of success (of a more humane world)” compels us to examine the breadth and depth of what ensued. Secondly, coverage of the 9/11 anniversary will include many images and statistics. This section will hopefully assist in giving some perspective to the adequacy of any such claims.

The most comprehensive website on the overall costs that I know is: http://costsofwar.org/. The work was done by a number of respected academics, with the project centered at Brown University in the U.S. While the focus is on war costs (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan), and even this narrower range is impossible to completely quantify, here are a few of its findings under some of its sub-categories:

  • Human direct costs: Over 6000 US soldiers killed (stunning: unsure injured/illness count, due to Pentagon; over 500,000); 1100 Western allied deaths (70,000 wounded); 18,000 Afghan/Iraq Security deaths; 3500 Pakistan Security deaths; 2300 Pentagon contractor deaths; 200 media people killed; 137,000 civilians killed.  For returning US, about 25% have known mental health issues as well; plus toxic dust exposure can produce other problems. There are a staggering 7.8 million displaced people.
  • Financial cost: $3.2 to $4 trillion, which includes Pentagon budget (& its hidden costs), veterans, Homeland Security, interest, etc.
  • Erosion of Civil Liberties: Issues of detention, torture, rendition, surveillance, data privacy;
  • Media: In addition to the above media-related deaths, they examine the accuracy and skewing of the media related to the wars (no examination of other 9/11 coverage);
  • Growth of Corporate Power and Profiting: The growth is due to $400 billion in military contracts, primarily to 5 companies. Fraud, abandoned project, etc., are examined. For US intelligence, private contract employees now outnumber government employees;
  • Environmental costs: This seldom-mentioned area has sprawling implications – high fuel needs (made two-fold worse: often an actual gallon for use required two gallons to transport it; total DoD fuel needs: 4.6 billion gallons/year), toxic legacies, habitat loss, wetland destruction, deforestation, depleted uranium.
  • Benefits: The original goals were the removal of safe havens for terrorists and elimination of WMD. The goals shifted into issues of democracy and also women’s rights. Setting aside the discredited WMD issue, the report’s analysis seems quite thin here, perhaps reflecting the open nature of all three questions. However, thus far democracy is rated very poorly (Freedom House, Transparency International) and women’s groups in these areas are alarmed at the backward movement of their issues. Finally, a benefit not part of the report’s focus is that no subsequent major successful terrorist attack has yet occurred on US soil. A future blog may ponder that fact in light of the well-being of all around this planet.

In light of the above, I have already found commentators say that bin Laden has largely won beyond his fondest expectations; I have also found the opposite, either on the belief of a weakened Al Qaeda network or to the rise of the Arab Spring, which provides an alternative vision and reflects the real aspirations of most in the Arab world. Perhaps it is both. For sure moving toward a more decent world will depend on the shape of the story being used.

Original Email:

http://www.untilall.org/uwaa-10.htm

Original Full Essay:

http://www.untilall.org/hopeful.htm

Original Skepticism of Iraq War Talk:

http://www.untilall.org/uwaa-21.htm

Reflections for 9/11: Part I: Broadening Empathy

On September 12, 2001 this newsletter started with the following:

“After yesterday’s horrific deaths due to terrorist action, this email endeavour would be remiss if it remained silent. Remembering that these emails are simply a forum for action and not in-depth analysis and discussion (needed as they are and available elsewhere), the following actions are given for your consideration:”

A link to the full email is below. But I wanted to highlight two notions for reflection as the tenth anniversary coverage unfolds, largely by posing questions. Here is the first snippet:

“We can help bring a broader, more solid perspective into the overall dynamics . . .

(a) EMPATHY: Even as a Canadian, the sight of the massive towers collapsing, the loss of life, the vulnerability of even the Pentagon, was traumatic and jolting. And yet I had a hard time saying that “this email would be remiss” unless it is thus always remiss – violent deaths of innocent people occur daily around this planet. I am generally so insulated from all the suffering and violence . . . but at least here is an opening for empathy. We can try to channel the reaction to one of empathy and understanding for all those who are innocent yet traumatized for whatever reason . . . We have a gut-wrenching glimmer of what some people constantly face. Let’s use it to build bridges and understanding and action.”

 

I recently saw a little TV coverage of 9/11, focused on the personal stories of sorrow and heroism. A few people were still traumatized by the event. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a well-known phrase that tragically gets remedied far too seldom. For sure, we must do what we can to help such people heal. But while remaining genuinely focused on them I can at the same time broaden that sense of empathy. It made me think of a recent report which found PTSD criteria in 75% of Darfuri children in IDP camps (Reuters article based on Lancet study) – in front of their eyes, unspeakable acts of terror were committed before they entered the camps. Both groups remain genuinely traumatized, as are many people around the world – the question is whether I can find the above openings and thus find my world enlarged.

So as I ponder these last ten years I will be asking myself: in what ways and from where has my empathy been broadened? And in what ways and from where has it been the opposite? And as 9/11 coverage unfolds, because I am quite susceptible to the tug of the video images and reports, I will be asking: Why did they choose {whatever} images? Who is trying to evoke what response in me and why? Is it fair coverage? In what ways is it helping broaden my sense of empathy and in what ways does it diminish it? And so on. As indicated in earlier newsletters, our sense of the world is shaped by many factors, media being one of the most prominent. We must seek that which expands and deepens our sense of life and also name that which diminishes it (recall in the Previous Newsletter, there was an article, Fear Inc. on a $40 million deliberately funded group that spreads inflammatory, distorted views on Islam).

Authentic empathy requires our clearest perceptions of reality. It is already clear that such empathetic connections will be readily and rightly available to the victims and heroic people of the World Trade Center buildings collapse. During the unfolding anniversary events of such a world-pivotal event, may we all also examine how easy or difficult it is and has been to broaden that empathy, examine what factors have been at work, good and bad, in that process, and endeavour to use the insight to build a stronger, more human global fabric.

Original Email:

http://www.untilall.org/uwaa-10.htm

 

Original Full Essay:

http://www.untilall.org/hopeful.htm

 

Original Skepticism of Iraq War Talk:

http://www.untilall.org/uwaa-21.htm