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Archive for July, 2009

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Baha’u’llah, “wishing to reveal the prerequisites of the peace and tranquillity of the world and the advancement of its peoples” wrote these words:

The time must come when the imperative necessity for the holding of a vast, an all-embracing assemblage of men will be universally realized. The rulers and kings of the earth must needs attend it, and, participating in its deliberations, must consider such ways and means as will lay the foundations of the world’s Great Peace amongst men. Such a peace demandeth that the Great Powers should resolve, for the sake of the tranquillity of the peoples of the earth, to be fully reconciled among themselves.

He further wrote:

We pray God—exalted be His glory—and cherish the hope that He may graciously assist the manifestations of affluence and power and the daysprings of sovereignty and glory, the kings of the earth—may God aid them through His strengthening grace—to establish the Lesser Peace. This, indeed, is the greatest means for insuring the tranquillity of the nations. It is incumbent upon the Sovereigns of the world—may God assist them—unitedly to hold fast unto this Peace, which is the chief instrument for the protection of all mankind. It is Our hope that they will arise to achieve what will be conducive to the well-being of man. It is their duty to convene an all-inclusive assembly, which either they themselves or their ministers will attend, and to enforce whatever measures are required to establish unity and concord amongst men.

Shoghi Effendi, Baha’u’llah’s great-grandson and Guardian of the Baha’i Faith from 1921-1957, gave further detail about what such an international system of governance would entail in a letter of 1929, known as The World Order of Baha’u’llah. Though it is a lengthy excerpt, it is so stirring as to be worth quoting in full:

The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Bahá’u’lláh, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded. This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples. A world executive, backed by an international Force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth. A world tribunal will adjudicate and deliver its compulsory and final verdict in all and any disputes that may arise between the various elements constituting this universal system. A mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity. A world metropolis will act as the nerve center of a world civilization, the focus towards which the unifying forces of life will converge and from which its energizing influences will radiate. A world language will either be invented or chosen from among the existing languages and will be taught in the schools of all the federated nations as an auxiliary to their mother tongue. A world script, a world literature, a uniform and universal system of currency, of weights and measures, will simplify and facilitate intercourse and understanding among the nations and races of mankind. In such a world society, science and religion, the two most potent forces in human life, will be reconciled, will cöoperate, and will harmoniously develop. The press will, under such a system, while giving full scope to the expression of the diversified views and convictions of mankind, cease to be mischievously manipulated by vested interests, whether private or public, and will be liberated from the influence of contending governments and peoples. The economic resources of the world will be organized, its sources of raw materials will be tapped and fully utilized, its markets will be cöordinated and developed, and the distribution of its products will be equitably regulated.
National rivalries, hatreds, and intrigues will cease, and racial animosity and prejudice will be replaced by racial amity, understanding and cöoperation. The causes of religious strife will be permanently removed, economic barriers and restrictions will be completely abolished, and the inordinate distinction between classes will be obliterated. Destitution on the one hand, and gross accumulation of ownership on the other, will disappear. The enormous energy dissipated and wasted on war, whether economic or political, will be consecrated to such ends as will extend the range of human inventions and technical development, to the increase of the productivity of mankind, to the extermination of disease, to the extension of scientific research, to the raising of the standard of physical health, to the sharpening and refinement of the human brain, to the exploitation of the unused and unsuspected resources of the planet, to the prolongation of human life, and to the furtherance of any other agency that can stimulate the intellectual, the moral, and spiritual life of the entire human race.
(Emphasis added.)

In the context of this vision of Baha’u’llah, so movingly rendered in His own pen and that of Shoghi Effendi, it is heartening to see two of the “manifestations of affluence and power” turn their energies to accomplishing parts of it. Bill Gates and Gordon Brown talk at recent TED conferences.

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Human Drama, Part II

In my previous post under this title, I examined David Simon’s thoughts on the purpose and social role of The Wire as a way of thinking about what role drama can play in the advancement of our society. I left with the thought that The Wire has not had, as yet, any distinct social impact, though it does perform the educational function that ‘Abdu’l-Baha specifies for drama.

So, is drama only good for the education on individuals, or can it play a broader role in advancing society, too?

Simon clearly thinks the latter, though he emphasizes the can. Simon gingerly encourages political activism (though not necessarily radical); he thinks we may “demand, where possible, a more sophisticated and meaningful response from authority when it comes to such things as the drug war, educational reform or responsible political leadership.” Though Simon is right in encouraging us to take an active role in shaping our communities, he gives short shrift to thinking through what might make for an effective contribution. Instead of merely demanding that authority give a more sophisticated and meaningful response to our complex problems, we must ourselves engage with all levels of our communities so that we develop capacity ourselves to respond meaningfully and with sophistication.

*   *   *

Over the last several years I have, for probably the first time in my life, engaged my community in such a way.  In doing so, I have been responding to the call of the Universal House of Justice to develop my capacity through a study of the Baha’i Writings and to share with my neighbors and friends the Message of Baha’u’llah. The House of Justice eloquently described the endeavors of the worldwide Baha’i community in its annual Ridvan Message in 2008:

Thousands upon thousands, embracing the diversity of the entire human family, are engaged in systematic study of the Creative Word in an environment that is at once serious and uplifting. As they strive to apply through a process of action, reflection and consultation the insights thus gained, they see their capacity to serve the Cause rise to new levels. Responding to the inmost longing of every heart to commune with its Maker, they carry out acts of collective worship in diverse settings, uniting with others in prayer, awakening spiritual susceptibilities, and shaping a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character. As they call on one another in their homes and pay visits to families, friends and acquaintances, they enter into purposeful discussion on themes of spiritual import, deepen their knowledge of the Faith, share Bahá’u’lláh’s message, and welcome increasing numbers to join them in a mighty spiritual enterprise. Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they extend their efforts widely to involve ever-growing contingents of participants in classes that become centres of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society. They assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization. And with the advantage of a greater abundance of human resources, an increasing number of them are able to express their faith through a rising tide of endeavours that address the needs of humanity in both their spiritual and material dimensions.

This is the process of community-building that I participated in. Through that process I met many people with whom I would never otherwise have come in contact: new migrants from South Asia struggling to adapt to Australian society, young teenagers yearning to channel their energy in positive actions, parents of many races and strata in society who craved a structured atmosphere in which their children could develop virtues. As I befriended these people and came to know their hopes and dreams, their challenges and obstacles, I saw myself being “drawn further and further into the life of the society” around me, as the House of Justice indicated at Ridvan 2008.

As I look back on the last few years, I see that the most important element to the community-building process I engaged in, however limited and humble its scope, was the spiritual purpose and impetus at its core. Without the explicit purpose of engaging in a spiritual enterprise of building unity in our community and serving humanity, our efforts would very quickly have dissipated as our challenges and disappointments – endemic to any human enterprise – mounted. Without a spiritual perception, we would not have been able to see the nobility inherent in all those people we met, no matter their outward social status, and respond to them as fellow-travelers on a spiritual journey. And it was only through that spiritual connection that we began to have an understanding of the human consequences of particular social and political structures at work in our community.

This may seem to have little to do with how drama can have an influence on society, but as I consider what The Wire asks of us, I see that it asks us to become aware of the human consequences of social and political structures. No matter how much the drama moves me, though, without a personal, human understanding of such structures at work in my own community, I will have little real way of engaging the problems and finding solutions. So though I may watch The Wire and be moved, being so moved will only make me feel impotent unless I am engaged in my community in a meaningful way, unless I have a direct, daily outlet for the heart-stirring energies the drama releases.

Further, the endeavor must be a collective one, fired by individual will and effort but reinforced by the alchemy of many individual efforts, spiritually-centered, becoming more than just many small flames next to each other. Only as more and more communities take shape in this way can we overcome the elements in our culture that lead us to seek titillation rather than engagement with complex problems.

So, whereas Simon encourages us to demand things from those in authority, I encourage us to demand more of ourselves. We must meet people in our communities. We must build bonds of real fellow-feeling among us, no matter the boundaries that seem to divide us. And on the basis of those bonds, we must seek to address the problems that we find and face in the workings of our communities.

The compelling human drama enacted in The Wire can move us, can educate our hearts and minds. But only living integrally in our communities, with spiritual endeavor at the core of our lives, can bring the change Simon, and the rest of humanity, really wants.

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Human Drama, Part I

I’ve just finished watching the final season (or series, depending which country you’re in) of The Wire, David Simon’s drama about Baltimore, Maryland, USA.  It is my favorite television show, better than two near rivals, Deadwood and Rome, in that it asks the same kinds of systemic questions and dramatizes the same types of systemic problems, but does so in a contemporary setting.  Unlike in previous ages, there is no need today, in the Western democracies at least, to mask criticism of contemporary life or policies in historical narratives.  Whereas Shakespeare lived in a police state and needed to get by the censors with any drama that might look like political criticism, Western artists today can do the same kind of searching work that Shakespeare did without fear of official censors.  (I would not, at this point, make the same claim for journalists, though people like Jane Mayer, Seymour Hersch, and Steve Coll have been able to publish without censorship, as far as I can tell.)

What interests me, though, is that despite the deep political and social analysis offered by a show like The Wire (or in a lighter, more satiric bent, a show like The Hollowmen in Australia), nothing changes in the broader political or social life of the country. David Simon seems to know that and to have created the last season of The Wire to address the issue. Here’s a quote from his final letter to fans of The Wire:

This year, our drama asked its last thematic question: Why, if there is any truth to anything presented in The Wire over the last four seasons, does that truth go unaddressed by our political culture, by most of our mass media, and by our society in general?

We’ve given our answer:

We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. We enjoy being provoked and titillated, but resist the rigorous, painstaking examination of issues that might, in the end, bring us to the point of recognizing our problems, which is the essential first step to solving any of them.

In my experience of watching it, The Wire attempts in its complex drama to fight against the complacent tendencies in our culture. It does the “rigorous, painstaking examination of issues” and leads its audience into “recognizing our problems,” or at least some of them, as they exist at the level of the city. Simon indicates that this examination has been the purpose of the show:

We tried to provoke, to critique and debate and rant a bit. We wanted an argument. We think a few good arguments are needed still, that there is much more to be said and it is entirely likely that there are better ideas than the ones we offered. But nothing happens unless the shit is stirred. That, for us, was job one.

Simon goes on to suggest what people might do if “job one,” as he puts it, has succeeded:

If you followed us for sixty hours, and you find yourself caring about these issues more than you thought you would, then perhaps the next step is to engage and to demand, where possible, a more sophisticated and meaningful response from authority when it comes to such things as the drug war, educational reform or responsible political leadership. The Wire is about the America we pay for and tolerate. Perhaps it is possible to pay for, and demand, something more.

So Simon has a notion about the social and political roles his drama can play. He envisions a two-stage process (which, his conditional language suggests, will not happen for every viewer): (1) viewers may come to care about important issues in the lives of their communities; (2) viewers may then demand more effective responses to those issues from community leaders. The basic dynamic Simon describes gets many things right, but I’d like to analyze its processes in a bit more detail to see why such powerful drama as The Wire has not, as yet, had a lasting impact on social institutions.

*   *   *

When he visited London in the autumn of 1911, ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave talks and made comments on many subjects, including the role of the arts, and drama in particular:

“The drama is of the utmost importance.” said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “It has been a great educational power in the past; it will be so again.” He described how as a young boy he witnessed the Mystery Play of ‘Alí’s Betrayal and Passion, and how it affected him so deeply that he wept and could not sleep for many nights.

‘Abdu’l-Baha affirms the importance of drama and mentions especially its role as an educational power. This affirmation, along with his description of being moved by the play of the story of the Imam ‘Ali, demonstrates that Simon’s understanding of the dynamics of drama as it relates to an individual is right.  Human beings are moved by drama and, being so affected, often come to care about issues they would not have cared about otherwise.  Drama has the power to educate us.  When done well, it touches our hearts and, through our hearts, affects our minds.  It helps us to see and care about problems we avoid; it helps us to see alternatives to the status quo; it helps develop our will to act to address those problems and bring about those alternatives.  To frame it in a slightly different way, drama like The Wire helps us “to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization,” which is one way of understanding our purpose on the planet.

So, if drama is necessary to our advancement, why isn’t it working in society as it should? That question gets to the second part of the dynamic Simon outlines in his letter, and I will address it in a future post.

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Mission

 Baha’u’llah writes, “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” These words provide the mission for this blog.

I will examine a variety of decisions and actions in the public life of the world through the lens of the Baha’i Writings, always conscious that my understanding of the true meaning of the Writings is evolving and always aware of my limitations as a scholar of world affairs. I enter this project with an open mind, hoping to interact with many people and have my thoughts shaped by theirs, hoping to refine my understanding of how the world works and what the world needs. To the task I bring a life-long curiosity about how things work, an academic background in English, education, and cognitive psychology, an appetite for reading widely and well, and a desire to collaborate with others.

Above all, I hope this blog helps me and all those who will deliberate here to better understand our age and its needs, so that we may be able to make decisions and take actions that are commensurate with those needs.

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