Slouching Out Of Iraq

Yesterday the New York Times reported on Iraq in the immediate wake of the U.S. withdrawal:  “Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq threatened on Wednesday to abandon an American-backed power-sharing government created a year ago, throwing the country’s fragile democracy into further turmoil just days after the departure of American troops.”

Okay, for starters, could we please agree to stop using the term “fragile democracy” in this context? Iraq is not and has never been a democracy, fragile or otherwise. Constructing a democratic government was the thin disguise for a U.S. invasion that was premised on other things: illusory weapons of mass destruction, getting rid of Saddam Hussein and the drive to secure the American oil supply.

Webster’s defines “democracy” as:                                                                                       a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority                                                   b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. 

The stage props that the United States set up to create an illusion of this definition are swiftly crumbling just days after our army withdrew, so let’s stop pretending that it is a “fragile democracy” that’s struggling in Iraq.  The Times article continues: “The escalating political crisis underscores the divisions between Iraq’s three main factions — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — that were largely papered over while the American military maintained a presence here and lays bare the myriad problems left behind with the final departure of American troops: sectarianism, a judiciary that the populace views as beholden to one man, and a political culture with no space for compromise…..I’d say that this analysis is a direct contradiction of the earlier characterization in this article of a “fragile democracy”.

Why am I making a big deal about this? Because words matter, and the truth matters. Call Iraq a “fragile democracy” and it implies all kinds of things: that the United States really intended to foster democracy in Iraq and truly succeeded in that wildly ambitious plan; that this delicate new flower of freedom is now threatened by outside forces bent on destroying it; and that the United States will be positioned on the sidelines, wringing its collective hands in regret that our well-intentioned efforts, so heavily financed by both money and the lives of over 4,000 Americans, are threatened by the forces of evil.

It would be well to point out that if our goal in Iraq had been democracy, we could have begun at any point during Saddam Hussein’s rule, since we established and sustained him in the first place. And it would be honorable to admit that the people of Iraq might organize for their own democracy, like those in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have begun to do, if they’d not been beaten down not only by years of dictatorship, an earlier US war, terrifically costly sanctions and then nine years of another US war.

I’m in the mood for a little humility and a lot of truth-telling as this shameful war winds down. I will not say “ends” because it is not going to end, though the US troops are largely withdrawn. We have set the conditions for more suffering. The least we can do is be honest about it.

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Evicting the Occupiers (or not)

I’ve been scratching my head a bit over the Occupy Wall Street events of the last 24 hours. Why would the Bloomberg administration order an evacuation of the protesters right on the eve of a well-publicized call to action? It was completely predictable that since several thousand new protesters were already gearing up to join in, a significant percentage of them would get there early in order to prevent evacuation. Hence the “oops” moment early this morning, when the police action was called off in the face of 3,000 new bodies.

But the whole thing was a bit peculiar. Why would the police decide in the first place to descend the day before a major mobilization? Why not wait until Sunday, after the day trippers had returned to their jobs and other commitments far from the epicenter and media attention? (Of course, that’s probably exactly what they’ll now do).

Maybe the timing was absolutely arbitrary: it took this long to figure out some marginally legal ploy for booting people off the property. Maybe it was just a dumb mistake on the part of the city administration, so fixated on getting rid of the protest that they neglected to notice the gathering energy right under their noses. But another, grimmer possibility exists as well. It’s conceivable that the choice of timing was a cynical calculation made precisely because larger numbers were expected this weekend. More people means more chaos, especially when the police are pushing people around.

One of the images noticeably absent from all the Occupy protests thus far has been any violence on the part of the protesters. Is it possible that the timing of today’s aborted police action was chosen in the hope of serious confrontation? One clear image of a bandana-disguised protester hurling a brick through the pristine glass of the surrounding office buildings would just about do it, if the goal is to scuttle support for this movement. Is it possible that the Bloomberg administration is itching for just this kind of image to broadcast?

When I visited Liberty Square this past Monday, one of the most striking things in the densely packed community was the high level of organization of the physical space (kitchen, comfort station, media table, meditation corner). But just as evident is the philosophical organization. It’s crystal clear that beneath the profoundly egalitarian, participatory nature of this action, there is a foundation of disciplined nonviolence. All around the square there are reminders of this commitment. Everyone there has been educated in the practices of nonviolent resistance, and among the consensus statements reiterated in flyers and on the website is the repetition of zero tolerance for any level of physical violence.

So when the postponed confrontation finally comes, if it results in one of those iconic images of protester violence I’ll be among the skeptical. The government use of provocateurs has a long and well-documented history in our country. If we see violence, my bet is that it won’t arise from Occupy Wall Street, but from those who want to deflect attention from the compelling message at the heart of the protest. May we hold to that message — of the culpability of corporate greed and the need for fundamental, nonviolent change — no matter what provocations arise.

Occupying Wall Street

I’ve been a little slow to really focus in on the demonstrations against Wall Street in New York — which have now begun to spread to other US cities. September is a busy month under normal circumstances, and it was easy to be doubly distracted by taking one kid off to college and helping another one launch into her last year of high school.

I’m chagrined that it took me a few weeks, but I have begun paying more attention, and next week I plan to spend a day with the protesters myself. I know that the whole idea of occupying Wall Street might seem the perfect example of tilting at windmills, an analogy that is supported by some of the earnest, idealistic rhetoric coming out of the protesters. But I’m actually in the mood for some earnest idealism, and I’m also in the mood to join my own voice to others who are venting their outrage at the appallingly skewed system we’ve been living with docilely for far too long. And idealistic or not, I am quite certain of one thing: Wall Street is precisely the right target.

Do you remember the massive protests that were held all over the world in February 2003? An effort to prevent the disastrous Iraq War, they involved many millions of people in over 800 cities globally. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the most massive protest in human history. I joined it in New York City, along with my mother and oldest daughter, and in frigid temperatures we walked until the crowd became so utterly massive that it couldn’t move: we filled the streets for dozens of blocks and by sheer numbers rather than intent, brought the city to a halt. I remember city buses and taxi cabs simply abandoned in intersections: they couldn’t move. In all my years of activism I had never experienced anything close to the size of that crowd, and our knowledge that similar crowds had gathered around the globe, passionately speaking out for peace, made it feel possible that our voices would actually carry the day.

Remember what happened next? We went to war, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and still counting all of these years later.

When the war began I remember thinking with fierce sorrow that if we could have brought those same crowds to New York on a weekday rather than a weekend, we would have paralyzed Wall Street. And paralyzing Wall Street might have kept the war from happening.

Whatever is beginning right now, Wall Street has not yet been occupied, at least not to any degree that forces the attention of the powers that be. But maybe we’ll get there, this time. At least it’s starting in the right place.

Beyond Earth Day

A few months ago, I had a date with my dentist for the tedious and unpleasant process of a root canal. Like dentists everywhere he knows that no one comes into his office with eager anticipation so in an effort to put his patients at ease, he chats for a minute or two before he gets started. My visit came in the middle of February which, as you may recall, was a kind of wild time weather-wise for parts of the Northeast, where people found themselves digging out from record levels of snowfall. So this was the topic of my dentist’s chat, and he ended his commentary on the weather by stating, with absolute conviction, “I guess this finally proves that global warming is a myth.”

I, of course, begged to differ, and though I was at a physical disadvantage with my head already tilted toward the ground and a very bright light shining on my face, I started in on climate change and the scientific consensus that three feet of snow in Washington DC is irrelevant to the overall rising of the earth’s temperature and the devastating consequences. My dentist replied, with a touch of irritation, that there are just as many scientists who think the earth’s climate is doing just fine.

At about that point I realized that he was poised to put some very sharp things into my mouth and that it was probably not the best time to continue the argument, so I murmured something placating and he went about his work.

But it got me thinking about the whole realm of denial when it comes to climate change. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming that it’s quite literally undeniable. So why is there still so much denial? Part of the reason surely has to do with politics, on the largest scale. Of the one hundred largest economies in the world, fifty-three are corporations. Exxon-Mobil is larger than 180 nations. Corporate interests have enormous power to influence policy and public opinion, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

But part of the problem also has to do with the simple, powerful human tendency to not want to see or know or feel what is painful. We are all together in this. Even among those of us who are absolutely convinced about the threats to our environment, most of us don’t live as though this were true. For instance, despite how far apart we are in our perspectives on the environment, my dentist and I may not be far apart at all in how we’re actually living on the Earth. He drives an SUV, but I drive an aging mini-van, which is not much better when it comes to fuel efficiency. We both live in a small town that has absolutely nothing in the way of public transportation, and there are no economies of scale for energy supply.

I don’t know whether or not my dentist recycles or hangs out his laundry on a line instead of using the dryer or puts his garbage into compost instead of the dump or uses energy efficient light bulbs or keeps his heat turned down in the winter. I do all of these things, and I know that they weigh almost nothing on the scales of climate change. What we’re up against requires much more of me than I have so far been willing to give: more of my attention, more focus on what I can change in how I live, more will and determination to make those changes, more advocacy and agitation at the policy level than what I have given. To what can I attribute these truths about my own life except some form of denial?

It is disturbing to turn and look squarely at the toll that industrialized human life has taken and is taking on the Earth. It is painful to accept the truth about what is already happening: to know how rapidly the deserts are growing, how steadily the rainforests are being destroyed, how vast the dead regions already are in the oceans, how imperiled are the glaciers, the coral reefs, the polar bears, the bats, the wild tigers, even the lovely little peepers, the frogs that cry out the sound of spring all around us here in New England.

And it is heartbreaking almost beyond the bearing to let in the information about where all of this is leading us, the steep slope down which we are already tumbling pell-mell.

So even though the information is all around us, even though we might make ourselves read it or listen to it, it’s very hard to make ourselves really take it all the way into consciousness. We know, but so many of us don’t live as though we know. We watch ourselves instead live as though all is well, as though it’s okay, as though somehow these enormous problems will solve themselves.  We are living in a dream.

In his book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, Gus Speth writes, “People have conversion experiences and epiphanies. Can an entire society have a conversion experience?” He doesn’t know the answer to his own question, and neither do we; but we know that nothing less than this kind of society-wide conversion will be enough to bring us back from the tipping point in climate change.

Culture change on this scale means a completely different orientation toward what we mean by words like success and responsibility. Success cannot mean bigger or more or richer; it has to mean less stuff, greater wisdom, and finding joy in one another’s joy rather than in winning out over each other. The focus on individual wants and preferences has to yield to a sense of solidarity.

And the long human habit of seeing ourselves as somehow outside of nature, in control of it, has to yield to the truth about our place in the scheme of things. We are part of the Earth: a part that has consciousness, so we have a lot more responsibility than a rock or a tree. We have to use our minds to figure out how to protect and preserve the planet.

And infinitely more challenging than this, we have to use our minds to change our minds: to take charge of our own endless desires and to finally stop our grasping and our using up, our dumping and our reckless speed, our denial and our indifference. It isn’t easy, but it isn’t hopeless either. As Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy puts it, “Another world is not only possible. She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Primitive Theology

News began to filter out of Haiti Wednesday morning and through the day, revealing to the rest of the world the full and catastrophic dimensions left in the wake of Tuesday’s earthquake. By today there is still no clear understanding of how many are dead and dying, but the numbers will surely reach into the tens of thousands. If international aid on an enormous and sustained scale is not organized and delivered soon, the toll will go on rising for months.

That’s how it works among the poorest of the poor. Catastrophe strikes dramatically in the form of earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, and for a few weeks or months your town or country hits the headlines, your suffering eyes look back at us from the photos, and people who live elsewhere, who live in the unimaginable comfort of running water and supermarkets, scramble to find the best place to send their twenty dollars. And then it all fades out of the world’s consciousness as the next disaster bumps yours off the front pages.

But for you, living in Haiti or Nicaragua or Darfur, the crisis never ends. You were at the rock bottom to begin with, already suffering what is for you an almost normal level of calamity. Now you’re living about as close to a definition of hell as any person could conjure, and you know — because in one form or another you’ve seen it before — that “recovery” will almost certainly mean a new plateau, a new “stability” in which daily suffering is even more profound than what you were living out before the earthquake.

Into the unspeakable injustice of this reality steps televangelist Pat Robertson. On his Wednesday television show he said, “…something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil.  They said we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True Story. And so the Devil said “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

Set aside for the moment that Robertson is not obligated, unfortunately, to cite his sources for this extraordinary declaration. Think instead about Robertson’s notion of God. It is a primitive theology that imagines a Devil with whom one can make a pact: “Okay, it’s a deal!” It is a cruel, senseless theology that posits a God who routinely (eternally?) punishes any single person — much less generation after generation of people — by sending natural disasters to ravage their nation. The Christian Broadcasting Network should be ashamed to have such manifestly un-Christian poison spewed over its airwaves, but Pat Robertson is well-known for this kind of venom. Shame at the cruelty of his own statements or on the part of those who send it out into the world appears to be beyond their moral powers.

So it falls to the rest of us to lift up not only the voice of compassion but a sustained attention to the literally unimaginable suffering that now unfolds in Haiti. It falls to the rest of us to name the Holiness that can move through us, putting our compassion into action. It falls to people of any faith who put connection ahead of blame to not turn away this time, once the media has lost interest, and to sustain our commitment in the weeks and months ahead so that Haitians might not live perpetually in the hell that is created not by Robertson’s “Devil” but by the insidious and far more banal devils of colonialism, racism, corruption and poverty.

Today the New York Times described a scene from last night in Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of people camped outside a wrecked clinic afraid to sleep inside any building because of the aftershocks. “With no electricity, stars offered the only illumination in the city, which, with its suburbs, is home to nearly 3 million people…Then the singing began. Those gathered outside in tents, on lawn chairs, sitting in the middle of empty streets, sang their hymns. One phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls, as if those voicing the words were trying to make sense of the madness around them.

“Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”

Cute Doesn’t Cut It

My oldest daughter has always been petite — one of the smallest kids in her class. As recently as last month, a woman in our congregation asked her whether she’d begun sixth grade this year (she’s a sophomore). My daughter takes it in stride — except if someone makes the mistake of declaring her “cute”. The deep-freeze chill that instantly enters the room makes it pretty clear to the transgressor that the word is not considered a compliment.

This attitude runs in our bloodlines: the women in my family don’t do “cute”. My younger daughter is far more interested in her skill and strength at riding horses than in how she looks in the latest fashion. My aunt was the first female ranger and then biologist in Yellowstone Park, and has faced off grizzly bears, rutting elk and renegade buffalo in the course of her years there. My Montana cousin and both her daughters hunt deer and elk enough to feed themselves and a few lucky relatives, and they do everything themselves: from tracking the animals to making them into steak and sausages. My sister sells commercial real estate in Chicago, where she routinely plays hardball with the big boys. And I came into ministry early enough to be told from more than one male colleague (though not within my own denomination) that a woman in the pulpit was an abomination.

We do very well, thanks. We’re tough and smart and skilled; we’re opinionated as hell, and sometimes way too judgmental and impatient. Along with these qualities, some of us are even damned attractive. But ‘cute’?

Please.

Enter Sarah Palin. During last night’s debate, I was startled the first time she gave that flirtatious little wink of hers. The second and third times I was simply revolted. This is the woman the Republicans think should be the political partner to the President of the United States? This is the woman who wants our help to bust through the glass ceiling right next to the one Hillary Clinton almost cracked? This is the woman we’re supposed to believe could competently lead our nation if a President McCain should die in office? And she’s letting us know that she’s ready for all of this because she’s so…cute??

It’s probably too much to hope that Palin feels a bit ashamed of herself. She’s been using these li’l lady tricks for much too long. But the Republican party, and especially smart, competent Republican women, should be ashamed. What we need is experience and savvy, intelligence and creativity, skilled diplomacy, intellectual curiosity, compassionate attention to those who suffer, brilliant problem solving, a good dose of humility and as little self-righteousness as is humanly possible.

“Cute” isn’t even on the list.

Let Them Eat Dirt

Some get the gravy, some get the gristle; some get the marrow bone, and some get nothing, though there’s plenty to spare…” — Joni Mitchell

I saw the first photo about a month ago in the Hartford Courant: a close-up of a Haitian child’s face, eyes wide and dark with misery, the mouth smeared with dust.

Did you know that in Haiti, hunger has become so extreme that the poorest of these poor are now eating dirt? They make it into patties by mixing it with water, a little oil and some salt. They dry it in the sun until it’s brittle and then they eat it. They feed it to their children. Their lips are lined with dust, because dust is what they have been reduced to eating. And believe it or not, it isn’t even free. Imagine that, if you can: imagine counting out your meager coins and handing them over in order to buy this thing: dirt to feed your baby.

This is the same world in which you and I live. Haiti is not so far away from our American shores. It is in fact a stone’s throw, in earth-sized terms, from the Caribbean playground islands so many Americans have visited on their vacations, where they snorkel and lounge on the beach and then sigh with bliss as they sip their martinis and wait for the lovely supper to arrive.

World food prices in the last year have gone up over 40%. For even the middle class in America, that’s enough to force some changes in eating habits; for the poorest, it’s enough to mean genuine hunger at least on some days during any given month. But in Haiti, where the average person lives on less than $2 a day in the best of times, it means that the people are eating dirt. This is a statement of fact so unbearably searing in the suffering it names that the mind wants to behave like a skittish horse, startling and moving sideways to avoid it.

But we can’t avoid it. This is not a momentary crisis born of one bad drought or the sudden destruction of an earthquake. It is the legacy of slavery and colonialism and corruption in Haiti’s past; deforestation, erosion and almost no  capacity to grow its own food; and a ‘perfect storm’ created from all the linkages in the present moment: the Iraq war and current oil prices; the co-opting of crops for biofuel; continual government corruption and incompetence in Haiti; the amazing shrinking American dollar; and the long-term greed and obliviousness of so many of us in the wealthiest countries.

What do we do about the fact that people in Haiti are now eating dirt? Most immediately, I guess, we look hard at our own personal resources and send as much money as we can to Oxfam (http://www.oxfam.org) or other aid groups working in Haiti. We agitate ceaselessly for more aid to go directly from the US and the UN to Haiti, immediately.

But the long-term solution will surely require much more from us. It will require, among other things, that we grow up, and leave behind the lovely illusion that a “growth economy” is sustainable, or has ever truthfully fit into this real world of ours. The American Dream would be more aptly called the American Delusion. We cannot keep on using up the world in the way we have been using it up: its oil, water and food, as though any of them are unlimited. As though any of them belong only to us.

Will we keep on sucking down the gravy when the people of Haiti are eating dirt?