Reflections on a More Decent World
(in light of September 11,  2001)

"Until Well-being is Achieved for All" - this is the lens being used by this web article as it sketches out hopeful directions for raising standards of life on this globe. For decades people have been grappling with this issue - working in international development,  international politics and conflict, environmental work, etc. - and are increasingly aware of the interrelated nature of such fields, each area potentially impacting the other.  Into this complex mix entered the horrific events of September 11, resulting in the current efforts against terrorism (defined as the deliberate use of terror on innocent people to achieve a political goal).  To be clear, terrorists must be stopped.  But even at its best, these efforts remain but one strand in the above complex mix.

Events like September 11 jolt our senses and we must continue to extend our help and sympathies to those affected.  But it can also jolt perceptions and therein lies an opening - a rare opportunity to make this world a much better world, because altered perceptions can, though not necessarily, lead to altered actions.  The extent to which the result will be a better world depends on how high the vision is and how solid the analysis is.  Stopping terrorists is primarily addressing {repugnant} symptoms.  Can the current impetus reach higher, using some of the above decades-old grappling, and aim for a broader and deeper sense of justice and global well-being?  And can the resulting analysis be more penetrating?  For instance, some voices made direct links from the Sept 11 attacks to US foreign policies, sometimes using anti-American language.  I believe such direct linkage to be misplaced.  For sure, US policies must be clarified for their intent and effects, and named clearly, and this article will attempt that.  But what follows suggests the picture is much more nuanced, and if those nuances are missed then our hope for a better world are diminished. 

As well, this article is not focused simply on the issue of terrorism, but on overall issues that affect global well-being.  If terrorism could be relegated, like slavery, largely to past history (though pockets of slavery remain), it would be a great advancement if due process brings it about. But even so, the well-being of all depends on so much more.

The basic axiom is that the clearer our perception of reality, the better our chances of making a more decent world.  What follows are firstly some underlying foundational concepts, though they are only extremely brief sketches and may seem remote from the issue.  Secondly are some basic touchstones and then thirdly into the practical arenas for consideration.  And to be clear these are not answers, but only areas for reflection.  Nor are they complete - comments are always welcome:

  1. Worldview:  At its most elemental, a 'worldview' is simply "the way things are" - one doesn't think about a worldview, one simply lives within it.  It is the framing and all the dynamics that form one's sense of the way things are. I suggest that changing the predominant North American worldview (and Western one) is the key opening for the North American contribution to a better world, and is desperately needed due to our tremendous impact on the globe.
  2. There is much good in this worldview. Tenuously maintained by the ever-changing tensions among the overall Western principles of liberty, equality, and justice, we have a basic structure (rule of law, etc) that allows much flourishing of life: many kids can grow up well-nurtured and attain some level of their potential (and not suggesting it doesn't happen elsewhere). 

    However, germane here is that it is also a society of convenience, self-absorption, ignorance and deceit.  It is largely a cocooned world, cut off from the implications of our dynamics - we seldom know what environmental damage or human suffering occurs to give us fresh food, wood, computers, or clothes, let alone the overall costs to maintain our place in the world order.

    Thus came the plaintiff plea from a farmer nearby the crashed Sept 11 plane.  "Why do they hate us?"   While his words revealed ignorance, if his eyes revealed anything, I saw openness - distraught, he nonetheless seemed to realize his worldview could not account for this horrific event, and genuinely seemed to be seeking a dialogue towards a better framing.  Noted below, openness and dialogue form the cornerstones for more decent dynamics. 

    Why the ignorance? It's a complex mix, a few hints must suffice. First of all, while most of the unsavory dynamics to maintain the US position remain hidden, this world is full of enough covert plans that eventually turn back on us (such as the CIA involvement in equipping people like bin Laden with arms and knowledge to fight the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, only to have those people later turn against us) that the word 'blow-back' is becoming a part of our language.  This is not anti-American or anti-Western sentiment (see Self-interest below); it is simply a statement that we live in a messy world, where various agendas clash, and decisions are made.  The point is that if one wants a more decent world, one must be open to examine the dynamics to see what can be improved. 

    Secondly, an almost unbridled consumerist culture perpetually whispers almost from birth about focusing on the self, on self-gratification through buying things, on deserving them, that this is the good life. And powerful deceitful forces keep hidden the costs (see the recent Washington Post article on the repugnant Monsanto cover-up regarding its PCB plant in Alabama (see  Monsanto). Or regarding the strength of the lure, consider that despite technological advances to improve gas efficiency, and juxtaposed with continued warnings about global warming, last year was the worst overall fuel efficiency in the last 21 years (due primarily to the SUV market).  This is pervasive - according to my actions, I am generally losing the battle to see clearly what is important in our global life together. A supportive, aware community would be an invaluable resource to counteract the omnipresent lure.

    I am not linking North American 'worldview' directly to 9/11, but I am suggesting it is a fundamental issue that provides the fertile soil for unrest because, by inaction either through ignorance, uncaring or simply by being swamped by other life concerns, the world injustices and oppression persist and fester.  The terrorist leaders, many of whom came from wealthy and educated backgrounds (suggesting more to this picture; see NYT article), have made use of such impoverished situations to recruit potential terrorists (see Harvard prof's report, below).  This is a enormous topic and the points below can only hint at some of the factors to better anchor our dynamics.

    Finally, the 'typical' North American worldview is not the only one needing attention.  I would love to join a dialogue on the ongoing massive Islamic worldview struggle (which has been a simmering issue even if bin Laden never existed).  See Religions, below.

  3. Openness: Given the vast complexity of life on this planet, openness is the most essential attitude for a more decent world, even underlying other such needed attitudes as compassion.  We simply can't see or know all and so must be open if we want to gain greater insight into what makes a more humane world.  See the five base points in What is Openness, (as well as Well-being for a sense of the touchstones for a more decent world).  For the most part, 'Reality' can only be adequately perceived when sufficient differing perspectives are explored.  Openness is the primary foundation upon which that exploration rests.

  5. Perspective and Ideology:  An adequate framing suggests that, on my own, I generally have a partial perspective on things, and can almost never grasp the full nature of a given reality.  There is seldom an "objective reality."  See  Postmodern.   At its most polarized, has come such sentiments that one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist.  While there are situations where the layers in such a dynamic seem almost impenetrable, more often the dynamics have not been coherently mapped out (which generally would find that the above sentiment would not hold), which is enhanced by exposure to differing perspectives.  Thus a vital first step for a more decent world is that one MUST seek out differing perspectives.  The "CNN view" is only a single partial perspective.  And while face-to-face contact is highly desired and should be encouraged where possible, it too is only partial unless there is in-depth, broad representation.  Here are samples of easily accessible broadening resources:
  6. On the relation between perspective and ideology:  What distinguishes perspective from ideology is openness – when something new is presented that is at odds with one's current view, ideology will mask it out or stifle its debate;  perspective will explore its implications.  Given the ideological nature of much of this topic, the distinction is crucial.  And given the basic axiom above, the harm of ideology is that one loses touch with aspects of reality.

  7. Relationship and Dialogue: This places the above point in a more sociological framework.  We are social creatures and thus seek relationship, though selectively.  A useful framing here, using David Lochhead's language (The Dialogical Imperative) might be to say we  easily tend to select 'monologue', that is, people who reinforce our comfort zone.  Instead we need to see true relationship as 'dialogue', that is, engaging openly and honestly with vastly different perceptions.  Critiques may ensue, from either side, but it only has substance after dialogue has been attempted.  Lochhead applies these notions sociologically and indicates that instead of dialogue, Group A's perception of Group B tends to fall into categories of ignorance, hostility, competition or partnership.  As well, both ideological and pathological dynamics may prohibit dialogue, and one is then left with solipsism or coercion.  See  Dialogue Guidelines.
  1. Justice: What anchors the dialogue is justice - what one is due - which, given the axiom of the inherent equality of all people, leads to notions of universal rights (see  UN Charter of Rights ) and basic levels of well-being (see  Well-being ).  Given the incredible inequity around the world, one has to name our current structures and dynamics as still grossly unjust.  And while, as stated earlier, many people are diligently helping to nudge things along and the basic principles are well understood (see: Development Principles), the question before us now is whether out of the tragedy of Sept 11 there can arise a more quantum advance, whether we can use our imaginative and compassionate abilities to forge better structures and dynamics.  It rests largely on the next category.

  3. Human Nature and Society:  Self-Interest, Altruism and Vision:  The call for a more hopeful world can bring images of people selflessly toiling for the greater good - essential for its compelling vision and ability to evoke imaginative responses, but dangerous if it is presumed that all currently want to be altruistic.  On the other hand, self-interest often sounds negative.  Yet, from an evolutionary standpoint, we wouldn't have survived if we didn't have a basic sense of self-preservation.  Almost everything one does will have a self-interest component to it.  In this sense one can distinguish more base levels of self-interest (short-term focus, or not willing to give up anything) from more enlightened ones (where one recognizes the long term value of certain give and take, such as in issues of the common good).  Examples:  (1) A more altruistic example would be the fight to abolish slavery which reaped few direct gains by those fighting for it, the chief self-interest being indirect: the satisfaction of having done the decent, humane thing or not having the guilt of letting it continue (aside: slavery of various forms does still continue around the world though);  (2) A more base, abysmal example would be the Rwandan genocide, which was entirely preventable:  the UN was given advance notice and a few thousand troops could have entirely shut it down with little incident, but preemptive action was blocked, in no small part from the US who still felt the sting of Somolia.

    This gives a sense of the terrain: on the one hand, a nation willing to risk civil war  to abolish slavery, and on the other hand a nation and thus world paralyzed in no small part by the sight of a US soldier being dragged through a dusty road in Somolia.  Now the historical gulf between the two eras voids many parallels, but not the overall question of moral vision and leadership.  And the shape that such vision and leadership gives to US national interest will heavily impact the well-being of many on this planet.

  1. Vision  "The fight against terror isn't just a matter of security - it's a matter of values." (Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch).  I have heard a few US citizens indicate the need to get back to the founding principles of their country, primarily the phrase "And justice for all", recognizing that "All" must include all people and not just Americans.  And the founding sense of the word was not retribution, but its fullest sense of the human spirit and equality of all.  That said, the fuller picture includes all three Western pillars - liberty, equality and justice - and requires a focus on well-being.  The following gives the briefest sketch as to what gives shape and movement to the vision:
  2. Structure:  We are currently a rather primitive collection of nation-states.  The ideal is to move toward comprehensive, workable global dynamics.  We have moved from city-states to nation-states, some of which historically have been enemies.  Can we take it one step further?  Somehow war between England and France has become unthinkable.  The U.N. gives us a hint of both the vision (international courts, treaties, peace-keeping, etc) and the problems (bureaucratic, unwieldy, caught in lower self-interests and imbalance of power sharing). 

    But here I wish simply to envision by the coarsest of analogies, a world similar to my city.  Still quite imperfect, there are nonetheless rules of law that are clearly known, people generally adhere to them, and they keep our interactions more civilized via a 'fair' court system (for most), and police force (for most). My point is to somehow develop a system whereby we would no longer be hamstrung by issues of 'national sovereignty' when an Idi Amin, bin Laden, or Rwanda arise.  In a city, we still have a long way to go regarding what to do with dysfunctional families: preventive work, remedial work and where the boundary is when the state must simply step in.  But progress does occur - it hasn't been that long that it has become acceptable to talk about and deal with various physical and sexual abuses, or that we have started to uncover early childhood symptoms that if treated, prevent long term adult problems, etc.  On the global level, we are in initial stages of struggling with issues of genocide, terrorism and maybe someday, despotism.  The question is whether we will move toward appropriate international structures in our grappling.  And to be clear, I do not envision a super world government - nations remain a safeguard for true regional interests, in a similar way that I would feel less empowered if Canada did away with provinces.

    Our current dyanmics - using either multinational coalitions or unilateral national actions - are a step in the proper direction in that action is attempted and sometimes achieved.  That said, such dynamics are vulnerable to only forming when self-interest prompts it, its actions are susceptible to being shaped by a narrower (self-interest) vision than the entire international community, and self-scrutiny is almost impossible.

    In sum, the three most fundamental international building blocks are:  (1) the acceptance of universal rights (and responsibilities),  (2) the upholding of those rights via a fair and impartial legal system (rule of law) and  (3) the appropriate vehicles to ensure that transgressions of the accepted rules will be addressed and remedied.  The weakest link is in point (3), where there is no form of, for illustrative purposes, a UN-based Rapid Response unit, well beyond anything yet attempted in terms of capability, effectiveness and deep regard.

  3. Power:  The issues below can seem intractable. But they hinge on national self-interest and political will, and those are influenced by citizen voice. And that is shaped by both personal self-interest which is shaped by broader worldview. Line all of these up properly and a change in ethos is possible. Again, the understandings are basically there (see: Development Principles); it is a question of will - of shaping, coaxing, nurturing a humane, globally concerned one.
  4. Sources of Insight:  Our world is very technologically driven.  Many benefits have resulted including my ability to create and communicate this via the web  Nonetheless, at this point I would much rather have future efforts be much, much more heavily weighted on the social sciences - sociology, psychology, social work, history, conflict resolution, etc. - with a focus on what nurtures and sustains a vibrant community.  To grossly oversimplify, a "well-adjusted person" (that needn't be a one-dimensional image) - the person who has all their basic levels of well-being satisfied - has no cause to do violence.  From the social sciences we gain glimpses of the building blocks for decent living, but surely if we are interested in root causes and solutions, we should be spending billions more dollars on as systematic and thorough an attempt to address such root issues as on the systematic attempt to stop terrorists.  Again it needs to be a two-tiered approach whereby at one level you always address the immediate concerns (whether wife-beating, a terrorist, a bully, or potential suicide) while spending even more effort at eliminating the factors that cause it.


 (These are simple script fragments that people use to make sense of their world; it is a separate issue whether they are true/untrue/partially true.  The first section deals with points related to the terrorist attacks; the other are more general areas of discontent):

I. Middle East
In the Arab and wider Muslim worlds bitter political grievances abound, among them:  

II. Central America
The School of the Americas:  A military school located in Fort Benning, Georgia, it has trained thousands of students, primarily from Central America.  The question is:  training in what?  In basic military training or in destabilizing and counter-insurgency tactics?  After the House came to within 10 votes of calling for its dissolution, it was renamed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Among the SOA's nearly 60,000 graduates are notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia.  Lower-level SOA graduates have participated in human rights abuses that include the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the El Mozote Massacre of 900 civilians.

Advocates of the school say that, while disputing much of such analysis, that some of the graduates have helped restrain terrorist activities, and indicate that human rights is a core part of the new school.  Critics say that any changes are primarily cosmetic, and regardless, unsavory history should not be kept hidden since such inaction mocks justice.
Source:  SOA Watch

III. Other International

  1. Funding covert activities that trample local human rights, political process, etc.  The rights of local people easily verge on the inconsequential compared to US self-interests.
  3. Protecting US self-interests, usually corporate.  This sense of economic manipulation for self-gain is further exacerbated by real and/or presumed undue influence in such influential institutions as the WTO, IMF and World Bank (see below for suggested perspective and advocacy).  This point plus the above one often leads to the sentiment that the US is trying to "impose a new world order on the rest of the world", the salient word being 'impose', which leads to resentment. 
  5. Environmental:  The US continues its keen oil interests in the Middle East, rather than trying to wean itself off such oil.  The 1970’s oil crisis reminds us how quickly US domestic policy can be changed to significantly lower energy needs.  And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that someday renewable resource industries will be the next major growth industry.  Yet the US president ignores this and instead tries to open up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for oil (remember that even if the green light was given tomorrow, it would take years before significant oil would be available; lowering the speed limit 10 mph was done in most states within months & lowering the thermostat could be done within weeks).
  7. International treaties:  are upheld when in US self-interest, but rejected if there is even a whiff of problematic implications:

Again, the above are simply a variety of voices, which while there is no corner on truth in them, there are sufficient such voices to suggest a re-examination of US policies is desperately in order.  It is not within the expertise here to advocate any particular policy change, but rather to indicate that the basic principles of international development exist and the underlying influence is in the hands of the people.

  1. Economic
    The global economic dynamics of governments and multi-national corporations along with such supporting present-day institutions as the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB), play a major role in the well-being of people around the world.  One doesn't need to know much history to know the legacy runs from the abysmal (18th century Opium Wars in China, or later gunboat diplomacy) to the overall positive transformations of Japan and Taiwan into modern economic nations.  The first point is that politics and economics can't be treated independently.  Middle eastern oil is a case in point.  As is the case with certain Pakistan madrissas (see Religion, below) - people in grinding poverty who find someone who will feed them, will be more receptive to the accompanying explanation of their plight, which in this case, is the infidel US.

    One of the pre-Sept 11 strong voices was lumped under the term "anti-globalization".  While it covers a vast spectrum of voices regarding global problems and solutions, here are the most hopeful perspectives.  First I am  not against trade - it is inevitable and can help raise people out of poverty.  But the current policies - roughly called neoliberal policies, the Washington Concensus, etc - need to be seen as setting an abysmal lower bounds on global dynamics.  That is, whatever else we do, let's make sure we do no worse.  For the current policies do bring living standards up for some, but not like the classic quote ("a rising tide lifts all boats") - the more apt analogy is to add that a rising tide makes things worse if your boat is leaky or if you have no boat.   The real results of current policies also include leaving many worse off and making the rich and powerful, more so (thus increasing the rich-poor gap), and often have environmentally destructive fallout.

    Out of all the cacophony, here are some promising positive contributions being voiced that would make for a fairer and more equitable world:

  3. Religions
    Religions exert a strong influence on the well-being around the globe.  At their best, they provide vehicles for openness and links to our common humanity.  At their worst they cater to self-absorption or are usurped by people like bin Laden (or in a very different context, a Jim Jones).   A revealing sample that shows something of the dynamics that can make a steady stream of terrorists, comes from a Harvard professor who visited Pakistan in early 2001. She found up to 15% of the madrissas teaching a spiteful anti-modern view. Of note is that the children were largely from desperate circumstances - the religion provided much in the way of social support and basic items like food (back to the issue of fertile ground). See Pakistan Madrissas ).

    On the larger scale, I would be keen for further dialogue on Arab and Islamic worldviews, in particular, what appears to be a monumental struggle within those domains to grapple with their appropriate sense of relationship with modernity.  All religions need to evaluate the ways in which their highest visions are capable of nurturing life and the ways in which their sense of our common humanity and appropriate place within the planetary eco-system are co-opted or diminshed by lesser influences.


Simply stated: lots! - Much effort is being done, but so much more effort could be unleashed if we can alter our sense of place in the world and our priorities on what makes for a meaningful life. 

After the trauma of Sept 11, part of me just wanted things to return to normal.  Part of me (shallowly) wanted to point a finger at US policies and leave it at that.  But part of me recognized that even if I only view my self-interest, that it is sufficient motivation to say that I must move toward a more decent world for all - that is the only way to lasting security ("Gated communities" whether locally or as a nation, is a diminution of humanity and is not lasting, since, as a failure to address root causes, it will perpetually divert more resources and require ever stronger gates).  And if my self-interest is higher, then I can find satisfaction in seeing a more humane world take shape or at least in being part of the process trying to achieve it. Either way, it starts with a more aware and continually open worldview.

While this article is primarily focused on the underlying issues, they do translate into actions, broadly summarized.

  1. Globally
    1. Create appropriate dynamics and structures that can stop immediate violence
      • This topic shows the limits of our 'civilized' progress.  Envisioning viable, appropriate vehicles (UN Rapid response force??, etc) to get us beyond this impasse is an essential step - it is a complex, thorny issue internationally, but the dialogue must be raised and flagged as important.  Thugs should not be able to hide behind "national sovereignty.";
      • Conveying one's desire to national governments for such dynamics/structures, to help change the sense of "political will" is the corresponding second essential step.
    2. Create appropriate dynamics and structures that address root causes of violence, poverty and oppression
      • Fund appropriate international development:  With basic development principles well-known, what is needed is visionary "Marshall Plan-like thinking", where you seek to enhance the impoverished conditions of a people, even an enemy, like they did after World War II, thereby ending the animosity that had existed.  See: Marshall Plan .
      • Develop/strengthen international structures, based on fundamental human rights and a sense of the well-being of all, including international courts, laws and treaties, peace-keeping efforts, economic forums, etc.
      • Fund and Alter priorities of research/education toward areas more directly involved in furthering humane responses and dynamics among people.
  2. Personally
    1. Nurture openness and a relationship of dialogue;  Find/read/listen to alternative sources of interpretation;
    2. Reflect on a more adequate worldview and the structures and dynamics that make for a just world;
    3. Promote endeavours that bring dignity, respect and basic levels of well-being to people, whether with people across the globe, within one's city, one's family or for oneself as needed;
    4. Be active and vocal; maintain the distinction between government policy, government rhetoric and highest national principles;
    5. Create passionate communities/groups to promote decent change

While the focus is on the dominant-power, the US, it applies to all Western nations.  Political statements about what " is or is not in our national self-interest" arise out of many influences, one of which is the perception of the desires or restraints of its people.  Public participation is crucial, but will only make for movement in the proper direction once the highest vision and clear-sighted evaluations have been made and a re-invigorated public is engaged. The influences against such change are enormous but not insurmountable.

    Back to Home

This is ongoing.  All response is welcome and can be sent to:  Rod Downing

This is being done in the few tiny gaps of time that I have available - I will respond as soon as possible.  Thank you for your interest and patience.  

Last major revision: Jan 13/02    (Last minor revision:   May 07/02)