A new generation rises, and with them, our hopes

Today I gave the keynote address at the regional Model UN student conference sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

On the one hand, it was heart-warming to look out and see that crowded lecture hall filled with bright, eager young faces, ready to step on to the world stage, if only in theory, and play leadership roles.

On the other hand, it was sobering to have to be the bearer of such grim tidings.

I started out by taking them back to a choral Ode in the Antigone that has always haunted me, the one where the Chorus sings the praises of human technological prowess, while at the same time sounding a warning note about how mankind’s “cunning…is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good.

“When he honors the laws of the land, and that justice which he has sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city has he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin.”

In other words, I told the students, we humans can do all kinds of amazing things with our great intelligence, but we will only prosper if we keep our moral compass and use our powers for good.

The Ode is basically a list of areas in which human beings have excelled, and that list is as valid today as it was in the 5th century B.C.: our power of navigation and transportation; agriculture; our dominion over other animals, wild and domestic; our ability to withstand the elements by building shelter and creating fire; our medical arts; our facility with language and “wind-swift thought.”

Truly we are a “wondrous” species.  And yet the fact that this list is recited in the tragedy of Antigone bears witness to the fact that our great “cunning” does not always guide us well.

In Antigone, Creon is a proud, vindictive tyrant who demands absolute allegiance from his subjects, including his niece Antigone.  When Antigone defies his order to let her brother’s remains be left in the open for the crows to feast on, and goes out alone to bury him, Creon goes into a fury and orders her arrested and sentenced to death.

It’s clear that the Chorus in this play believes Creon’s action is wrong.  Antigone was obeying her own moral judgement, putting her filial and religious obligations before her allegiance to the King. And just as the Chorus predicted in the initial Ode, because he is not using his power wisely and ethically, in the end Creon’s house will fall.

In our time, I told the students, the same kinds of battles rage, of good people standing up for their beliefs against oppressive tyrants, who don’t hesitate to imprison and even execute any who defy their power.

The Arab Spring showed us what can happen when enough people dare to speak truth to power and defy an authoritarian state  In the United States, the Occupy movements are now standing up, not so much against the state, as against the corporate capitalist elites—who often are the power behind the thrones of the various nations.

Even in our own country, the price of defying the status quo can be high.

But, I told the students, given the perilous state of the world today, the price of staying quiet and going along with the flow is inevitably going to be much higher.

I reminded them of the many dangers that face us today, including:

  • the homogenization of media and the reduction of education to multiple choice tests, instead of a media that stands strong in its watchdog role and an educational system that focuses on teaching students how to think creatively and question authority;
  • the tremendous militarization of police and national forces, with most countries fairly bristling with lethal weapons, from handguns to bombs;
  • environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, including the contamination of our air, soils and waters with toxic chemicals caused by the very agriculture celebrated in the Antigone Ode;
  • serious health problems caused by environmental toxins and chemical additives in our food supply;
  • and above all, the looming menace of anthropogenic global warming.

These will be familiar themes to anyone who has been reading my blog these past few months.  But it was good to speak these ideas out loud this time, to the young people who are going to have to bear the brunt of the problems.

I quoted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who told negotiators from 200 nations gathered at the recent COP17 climate conference in Durban that the situation was so urgent that they could not afford to wait for unified global action.

“Don’t wait for a binding agreement,” he said. “It could take years. All member states should take their own measures,” before it’s too late.

“Last year we saw the highest emissions ever,” Mr. Ban said. “If we carry on as though it is business as usual we will be out of business.”

Those are pretty stark, unequivocal words from the leader of the closest thing we have to a global government.

Given the need for drastic change in the way we do business as a civilization, I challenged the students to dare to think outside the box.

I encouraged them to let Antigone be their guide as they began their Model UN negotiations. “If you know that a policy is wrong, don’t be afraid to say so, and to fight for what you believe,” I told them.

I urged them not to let artificial boundaries like nation, race, class, religion or gender cloud their vision of what is needed to succeed in the goal of making human society safer, more nurturing, and more sustainable for us all.

“It is a deeply flawed, damaged world you will all soon be stepping out into as young adults,” I said.  “We live in a time of accelerated change and unprecedented transition.  None of us knows what lies around the bend.  But we do know that no matter what, we will be better off if we work proactively to overcome narrow national self-interests and begin to think in planetary terms—and not just about human interests, but in terms of the good of the entire web of life of which we are a part.”

Our only chance at changing the way we do business as a civilization, I said,  rests with our ability to successfully communicate with one another–to use the powers of “speech and wind-swift thought” commended by the Chorus of Antigone. 

What we need are not the stylized battles of debate, but the true, open-hearted communication of consensus building, where all viewpoints are listened to respectfully, and all positions are judged both on their own merits and on how well they’ll contribute to the collective goal of making the world a better place.

As I stepped away from the podium, I felt sad that I had to lay such a heavy burden on these bright young people, who through no fault of their own have inherited a planet in such disarray.

But I also felt the surge of hope that always rises again with each new generation.  Maybe this generation will be the one to turn off the beaten path and forge a new relationship with our planetary home.  Perhaps they will be able to resist the centripetal pull towards conformity.

As they all filed out of the room to take up their places at the Model UN negotiating tables, my heart went with them.  They are our last best hope.

 

Is there an “American Spring” around the corner?

You have to admit my blog is aptly named.  Each day brings new evidence that we are living through a speeded-up period of rapid change.

Was it only a few short months ago that we were stuck in the August doldrums of Congressional gridlock, in which the Republicans seemed to have a total stranglehold on the nation’s very lifeblood, our Treasury?

Was it only a few short weeks ago that the first Occupy Wall Street protesters arrived on the scene, the vanguard of what has now become an international political movement that just might have the power to challenge the two-party American oligarchy?

The deep distrust and disappointment Americans feel in our government is represented in a new NY Times/CBS News poll published tonight.

Get this: only 9% of those polled approve of the way Congress is doing its job.

Only 10% say they trust the American government to do what’s right for its people.

 These are dreadful numbers, especially when compared with the 46% of those polled who said they believe the views of the Occupy Wall Street protesters reflect the views of most Americans.

The urgent question becomes, will this dissatisfaction with our government and strong identification with the protest movement lead to actual sociopolitical change?

In one of my classes we are reading Allan G. Johnson’s book Privilege, Power & Difference, which seeks to understand why those with social privilege so rarely lend their support to any movement that might upset the status quo, even when they profess to be sympathetic with the goals of social equality.

Johnson says that all of us, but especially the privileged, tend to follow the path of least resistance.  Our society is set up in such a way that the paths of least resistance all favor the privileged, making it very hard for anyone to rock the boat.

But, he says, if we are aware of the ills of social inequality and do nothing about it, we will become “like the person who loses the ability to feel pain and risks bleeding to death from a thousand tiny cuts that go unnoticed, untreated and unhealed” (124).

I think that many of us privileged folks have indeed become numb to the harsh realities of our social system, which we have come to accept as natural, like the weather or the usual background noise of civilization.

That this callousness is wounding in ways we are hardly aware of is less obvious, but it comes out in the deep malaise of privileged American society: our tendency to depression, self-destructive behaviors, and underlying rage.

We are living through a moment in time when it is just possible that the privileged will wake up and decide that enough is enough.  That is the hope and the lure of the 99% movement.

There are a lot of privileged people in that 99%: educated, wealthy people, who have a lot to gain, in material terms, by not rocking the boat–but who, it seems, are doing some real soul-searching right now about taking the right path, instead of the path of least resistance.

Think about it: only 10% of Americans think Congress is doing a good job.  If that isn’t a mandate for change, I don’t know what would be.

Everything is speeded up these days.  Even last night’s solar storm, which caused spectacular aurora borealis displays all over North America, apparently hit Earth eight hours faster than predicted, and spread out much further over the U.S. than usual–visible all the way down in the Deep South.

Could it be that we will have our own “American Spring” in 2012?

WHY NOT???

Peace Day Travesties

Last night my son reminded me that it was Peace Day yesterday, and my heart sank even lower.  How could it be that on the day dedicated to world peace, the U.S. allowed an improperly tried man to be put to death by lethal injection?

Perhaps even worse, how could it be that our President chose this day to appear before the United Nations opposing the Palestinian government’s efforts to negotiate a two-state resolution with Israel?

Obama’s speech was laden with bitter irony for those who could hear between the lines.  How could he laud the people of other Middle Eastern states like Egypt, Libya and Yemen for taking matters in their own hands and violently overthrowing oppressive rulers, while at the same time telling the Palestinians that they should wait, be patient and let others decide their fate?

What difference is there, really, between an oppressive dictator like Qaddafi and an oppressive state dictatorship like the one Israel exercises over Palestine?  In both cases it’s a matter of people’s basic human rights being violated.  In neither case do the people have the “democracy” that Obama praised in his speech yesterday.  Why is it OK for the Libyans to rise up and throw out the oppressors, but not for the Palestinians?

Of course, we know the answer.  Because American Jews have too much invested in the success of the state of Israel, and are too afraid of the Palestinians to see them as anything other than potential terrorists.  Because American Jews wield considerable power in the U.S. government, and their support can make or break a political candidate here at home.

Under these circumstances, I am not proud to be an American of Jewish descent (I can’t call myself a Jew because I have never practiced the religion and am largely unfamiliar with it).

I’m not happy to be a white American either, given the clear racialization of the American criminal justice system, with people of color receiving much harsher treatment, from the police on the streets to the courts and the prisons, than people of European descent.

What do I do with my guilt over the way “my people” are treating others?  I can “pass” as a non-Jew and distance myself from that community, but I can’t exactly “pass” as a person of color.

What I have to do, and what all of us who deplore the oppression that was blazoned across the headlines on World Peace Day should do, is to ally myself firmly with those who stand for freedom.  In many cases, sad to say, this would mean opposing the policies of the U.S. government and many of its cronies, like the state of Israel.

Dissent from majority opinion has a long and proud history in our country and we should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe, even if we appear to be opposing the powers that be.

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States declined to step in and save the life of Troy Davis even though it was plain to hundreds of thousands of onlookers that he did not deserve execution.  Yesterday President Obama went on record as opposing the efforts of President Abbas of Palestine to finally take his rightful place among the league of nations at the U.N.

Justices and President, I respectfully disagree with you.  A lot of us disagree with you, a lot of the time.  You need to start listening to us ordinary folks again, and give us a government we can be proud of.

Otherwise, you might just wake up one morning and find the Arab Spring has come to America–with you, or at least the oppressive establishment you represent–as the targets this time.

 

 

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