Progress toward Peace

David Brooks dedicates his column in today’s New York Times to an encomium for Irving Kristol, a founder of the neoconservative movement and, as Brooks tells it, a participant in most of the important philosophical debates of the twentieth century. I don’t know enough about Kristol and his legacy to comment on the accuracy of Brooks’s description, though I do note that Glenn Greenwald has been less than laudatory of some of Kristol’s positions.

Still, two trends that Brooks cited struck my interest: (1) the purpose of liberty in the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment; (2) the tendency to think that moral and civic problems can be solved by economic means.

The leaders of the Scottish environment hoped that progress might come gradually and organically — if individuals were given the liberty to develop their own responsible habits and if they themselves built institutions to guide them on their way.

Kristol argued that this was the great seduction of modern politics — to believe that problems that were essentially moral and civic could be solved by economic means. They can’t. Political problems, even many economic problems, are, at heart, ethical and cultural problems. And improving the attitudes and virtues of a nation is, at best, a slow, halting process.

(In the first quotation, I assume that Brooks means Scottish enlightenment, rather than Scottish environment, as he has it.)

In its 1985 statement The Promise of World Peace, the Universal House of Justice addressed the issue of achieving peace on a global level.

The primary challenge in dealing with issues of peace is to raise the context to the level of principle, as distinct from pure pragmatism. For, in essence, peace stems from an inner state supported by a spiritual or moral attitude, and it is chiefly in evoking this attitude that the possibility of enduring solutions can be found.
There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.

The House of Justice here clarifies an underlying dynamic that Brooks touches on in focusing on individuals’ developing “responsible habits” and in noting that many political and economic problems are, “at heart, ethical and cultural problems.” Indeed, for society to flourish, it is necessary that individuals develop responsible habits, and as the House of Justice indicates, “peace stems from an inner state supported by a spiritual or moral attitude.” The House of Justice goes on to explain that the focus on and use of “spiritual principle” is necessary to resolve economic and political problems. Thus, Brooks (or at least his language) doesn’t go quite far enough in attributing political and economic problems to “ethical and cultural problems.”

If we are to make progress, we must imbue ourselves, our communities, and our institutions with spiritual principles, those moral values that will enable us to avoid disastrous pitfalls and to tackle seemingly intractable problems. If we are to have peace, the ultimate end of social progress, we must cultivate the inner state of peace in the soil of a spiritual attitude.


Global Education

At the Millennium Villages blog I mentioned yesterday, John McArthur writes about the need for a new kind of education to tackle the new kinds of challenges we increasingly face.

The world of multisectoral multilateralism requires trained professionals at all levels, across all countries, who are able to connect practical problem-solving across specialized disciplines on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, the world does not yet train people for these tasks. Our higher education systems overwhelmingly reward targeted, single discipline studies while so many of the world’s most pressing issues require solutions that draw systematically from insights across disciplines. Specialists remain essential but vastly more people should have at least a basic understanding of the spectrum of topics underpinning core global challenges.

As a solution to this limitation of the current system of education, McArthur and his colleagues have founded a multi-campus Master’s in Development Practice:

We identified a stark need for scientifically savvy policy generalists, practitioners who can bridge the work of specialists through knowledge of four pillars of sustainable development: natural sciences, health sciences, social sciences and management. In academic jargon, one could say that the commission outlined the need for “science-based policy MBAs.”
The Commission recommended a new global form of graduate degree program, a Master’s in Development Practice, to train professionals across the four basic pillars, with an emphasis on practical skills and field training. It also recommended that students practice working in networks across borders and time zones as a normal habit, empowered by simple webcams and cheap software.

No doubt this Master’s degree will enable people to study “useful” sciences, which Baha’u’llah indicates will “redound to the progress and advancement of the people.” If you’re of an age and so inclined, I would certainly recommend the program.

Alluring Community

In one of the best scenes in The Wire, from the middle of season three, Bunk confronts Omar, reminding him that they grew up together: “Rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Wasn’t nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter.” It hits home to Omar, too: just watch the last shot and see it all over his face.

I was reminded of that scene today reading Heather Havrilesky’s review at Salon of a new Sundance miniseries, Brick City, which examines the lives of a variety of people in Newark, New Jersey: Mayor Cory Booker, school principals, ex-gang members. As I neither live in the U.S. nor have a television, I won’t be able to watch it unless it makes it to international DVD distribution, but it sounds like a very useful meditation on community. Having described people who stay in Newark, despite having the ability to leave, Havrilesky makes the following observation:

Boys may always grow up without fathers and Newark may always be a tough place, but this city’s heroes give us all something to aspire to. As most of us struggle mightily to improve our own lives, these people fight every day to make the world a safer and better place for their neighbors. In revealing their trials and toils, Sundance’s “Brick City” makes our luxuries, from our comforting things to the comfort of our cynicism, look downright foolish by comparison. By resisting the urge to avert our eyes, we can glimpse the blinding beauty that lies in the humblest acts of optimism, generosity and hope.

That paragraph summarizes the change of heart that needs to suffuse our conception of life. We need to turn from thinking primarily about our own improvement to “fight every day to make the world a safer and better place for [our] neighbors.” That’s at the heart of the work the Universal House of Justice has called the Baha’i world to do over the next decade. I have written about the work of community-building elsewhere, but the House of Justice’s description of April 2008 offers a beautiful vision of the seeds of a new kind of community that is being built across the planet:

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 Baha’u’llah’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.

Following Threads

The Washington Post and The Australian both follow The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland, whose op-ed sparked my post yesterday, in asserting a certain level of pessimism about the potential success of the Copenhagen negotiations. The Post sees some silver lining, while the Australian focuses on the big, gray clouds. I’ve just started reading Jeffrey Sachs‘s Common Weath, and Sachs doesn’t share that pessimism, at least in the bigger picture, though he does outline the great necessity of acting on climate change at a global level. (While I was looking up that link for Sachs, I also stumbled across two interesting blogs that I’ll start keeping track of: Millennium Villages and State of the Planet.)

On the topic of the death penalty, which I address here, Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker posts about how the death penalty works, or doesn’t work, in practice. If a process set up in the interests of ensuring justice ensures suffering in practice, perhaps it’s time to re-examine that process.

Climate Consciousness

In this op-ed, Jonathan Freedland at London’s Guardian newspaper links the current health care debate in the US to the world’s ability to tackle climate change. His basic premise is that if President Obama can’t get the Congress to enact meaningful health care reform, then he won’t be able to get it to agree to whatever targets emerge from the Copenhagen negotiations in November and December this year. (The Copenhagen negotiations will (or will not) establish the set of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that will be in force once the targets agreed on at Kyoto in 1997 expire in 2012.)

Last November, the sigh of relief among greens and diplomats could be heard around the world. While George Bush had ripped up Kyoto, Obama would surely lead the way to Copenhagen.

Now that early confidence is fading. Those same diplomats and negotiators have seen the president struggle to make what, to outsiders, look like pretty reasonable changes to US healthcare. They have seen a summer campaign demonise him as an amalgam of Stalin, Hitler and Big Brother, bent on sending America’s frail grannies to their deaths in the name of a new socialism. If that’s the response he gets when he suggests Americans should be covered even when they change jobs or get sick, imagine the monstering coming his way if he tells his compatriots they have to start cutting back on the 19 tonnes of CO2 each one of them emits per year (more than twice the amount belched out by the average Brit).

While Freedland is right that today’s national leaders will have a large impact on our planetary ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate their negative effects, he’s wrong to suggest that those leaders are the only people who matter, even in the Copenhagen-heavy short term.

As the Baha’i International Community has stated, the fundamental necessity in solving climate change is “that the principle of the oneness of humankind must become the ruling principle of international life.” The BIC also indicates that the people of the world will need to be engaged at three levels, only one of which is in the functioning of international institutions. The two other levels indicated by the BIC are as follows:

The Individual Level: Engaging children and youth. A fundamental component of resolving the climate change challenge will be the cultivation of values, attitudes and skills that give rise to just and sustainable patterns of human interaction with the environment. The engagement of children and youth will be particularly important as this population will be called upon to exercise leadership and address the dramatic and complex challenges of climate change in the decades to come. It is at a young age that new mindsets and habits can be most effectively cultivated.

The Community Level: Advancing gender equality and engaging religious communities. On the community rests the challenge of providing the setting in which decision-making can occur peacefully and individual capabilities can be channeled through collective action. One of the most pervasive social challenges besetting communities around the world is the marginalization of girls and women – a condition further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change…. It would be a mistake, however, to cast women as the victims or simply as under-resourced members of society; they represent perhaps the greatest source of untapped potential in the global effort to overcome the challenges of climate change. Their responsibilities in families, in communities, as farmers, and as stewards of natural resources make them uniquely positioned to develop strategies for adapting to changing environmental conditions. Women’s distinct knowledge and needs complement those of men, and must be duly considered in all arenas of community decision-making. In light of this reality, the United Nations must give more attention to the gender dimensions of climate change.

As well, religious communities and their leaders bear an inescapable and weighty role in the climate change arena, especially given their tremendous capacity to mobilize public opinion and their extensive reach in the most remote communities around the world…. This role, however, must now unfold in the context of an emerging conversation – a rapprochement – between the discourses of science and religion. The time has come for the entrenched dichotomy between these two systems of knowledge to be earnestly re-examined. Both are needed to mobilize and direct human energies to the resolution of the problem at hand: methods of science facilitate a more objective and systematic approach to problem solving while religion concerns itself with those moral inclinations that motivate action for the common good.

So, wherever you are, you can play a role in addressing climate change as an individual and within your community. Only when we begin to act do we truly demonstrate our consciousness of the oneness of humanity. That consciousness is essential to our survival.

Remembering Tragedy

Last Friday marked the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. To reflect on those events and their place in the American consciousness, The Washington Post ran an article about a new high school curriculum designed to help students learn about the attacks. Apparently, many of them are too young to remember that day or to know the degree to which it influences American thought and politics today. Despite what that fact says about the level of our public discourse and our ability as a culture to engage young people with important events, I was most struck by the narrative about one student who, for extra credit in Michael Hutchinson’s social studies class in Vincennes, Indiana, interviewed her grandfather about his response that day.

JaLeah Hedrick, 18, had never learned about Sept. 11 in school until she entered Hutchison’s class this week, but consequences of that day surrounded her as she began her pursuit of extra credit. For Hedrick, Sept. 11 was the pledge of allegiance that Vincennes area schools had begun playing over loudspeakers every morning since late 2001. It was the “Threat Level Orange” that she heard each time she visited the Indianapolis airport. It was the way her grandfather, a World War II veteran, grimaced when he spoke of “those Muslims.” It was the USA T-shirt her dad wore when he picked her up from school in an aging Pontiac with a red-white-and-blue license plate inscribed with the phrase “In God We Trust.”

And now, it was homework — due to Hutchison by 1 p.m. Friday.

Hedrick wanted to interview her grandfather Ed Hedrick, because he is a veteran and, she said, “an American hero.” Other classmates were planning to interview fathers serving in Iraq or distant relatives who had worked at the Pentagon, but Ed Hedrick, 83, was the only person his granddaughter knew whose recollections of Sept. 11 might have the gravitas worthy of extra credit.

She rode a mile across town and sat across from her grandfather on his front porch. She pulled a blue notebook and a pink pen from her backpack and then looked at a class handout that provided a list of possible interview questions. “I have to ask you some of these for homework,” she told her grandfather, her eyes still fixed on the sheet. “Where were you when you first heard about the attack?”

“I was sitting in that red chair over there in the living room,” he said.

She nodded and then read the next question. “Did you continue to listen to the radio or watch TV?”

“Yes,” her grandfather said. “I barely moved all week. I couldn’t stop watching.”

“How did it affect you?” she asked.

“Severe anger, for days,” he said.

“What action did you want the government to take?” she asked.

“Well, I guess I wanted them to load up three or four of those H-bombs and send them over there. That’s how I felt at the time.”

Mr. Hedrick’s response struck me because his desire for vengeance mirrored so closely the reaction many of my students had on that clear fall day eight years ago. I remember very clearly my sixth period class. By the time they entered, we had been aware of the attacks for at least three hours. Most of us had watched the plane hit the second tower, had seen the towers collapse, had heard about the destruction at the Pentagon and the crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. We had had some time to process our emotions. Still, the faces of the juniors entering my class were dark.

We began to discuss their thoughts and feelings, and I was taken aback by the strength of their emotions. As I asked them to consider what they thought we ought to do, one student yelled, “Just go over there and blow ’em all up, just wipe the whole place out!” No matter that he couldn’t say who they were or where we should wipe out, he was hurt and wanted to express that hurt with the most destructive violence he could imagine. This lashing out, as a cursory reading of the news of any day will tell you, is a common response to violence against one’s own. Though it is a thirst for vengeance, it is also the root of the desire for justice, for an evening of the scales of rights done and wrongs inflicted. In her book Payback, transcribed from her Massey Lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Margaret Atwood fixes this pattern within the larger cultural pattern of debts, going back at least to the Code of Hammurabi in ancient Mesopotamia.

Another Washington Post article, this one from Saturday, documents an different response to the tragedy, more in keeping with hindsight and coolness of mind.

Obama designated Sept. 11 a national day of service and encouraged communities across the United States to participate. It was part of a national push to commemorate the attacks through good works.

The Obamas helped paint the living room in a Habitat for Humanity housing project in the Deanwood neighborhood of Northeast Washington. The president opted for a roller; the first lady used a brush.

About 200 volunteers with Greater DC Cares were at RFK Stadium, piecing together quilts to give to children who have parents serving overseas in the military. Douglas Cribbes smoothed an iron across a piece of cloth printed with a photograph of a newborn, whose tiny pink hand held his father’s finger. A team from Rolls-Royce North America of Reston cut, ironed and sewed scraps of fabric into a gift for the little boy.

Harper Holmes and Seven Bloom, both 19, turned up at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bethesda, helping about 45 other volunteers write postcards to service members overseas, sand doors, weed the yard or just clean up. The pair were sixth-graders when the towers fell, and now work with the National Civilian Community Corps, a public service program for young adults.

They’ve spent the past several months traveling across the country doing community service projects. “To see fear turned into a mass uprising of people working for others is amazing,” Bloom said.

Those who strive through these acts of service to transform fear and anger into development and advancement have perhaps a different notion of justice than Mr. Hedrick does. No doubt, theirs is easier to hold eight years after the tragedy than on that day of violence.

In a world where no one nation can claim authority over others or others’ citizens, where the interactions between nations are necessarily the interactions of peers, it is not easy to move away from the tit-for-tat pattern of justice. How is a nation to respond to aggression by another nation or by the citizens of other nations? With no higher authority for appeal, a nation must seemingly use its own power of deterrence. Unfortunately, that power of deterrence is often used out of anger rather than justice. Presidents, prime ministers and kings follow Mr. Hedrick’s feelings and “load up” some bombs.

Baha’u’llah in “Words of Paradise” makes the following exhortation to rulers:

A king who is not deterred by the vainglory of power and authority from observing justice, nor is deprived of the splendours of the day-star of equity by luxury, riches, glory or the marshalling of hosts and legions shall occupy a high rank and a sublime station amongst the Concourse on high. It is incumbent upon everyone to extend aid and to manifest kindness to so noble a soul. Well is it with the king who keepeth a tight hold on the reins of his passion, restraineth his anger and preferreth justice and fairness to injustice and tyranny.

In Tablet of Maqsud, He further commands:

Take heed, O concourse of the rulers of the world! There is no force on earth that can equal in its conquering power the force of justice and wisdom. I, verily, affirm that there is not, and hath never been, a host more mighty than that of justice and wisdom. Blessed is the king who marcheth with the ensign of wisdom unfurled before him, and the battalions of justice massed in his rear. He verily is the ornament that adorneth the brow of peace and the countenance of security.

Perhaps if the rulers of the world restrained their anger to act with justice and combined justice with wisdom in their actions, a new pattern of relations between states would emerge. Then we might imagine a world in which we are not still waging two wars in response to the actions of a small group of terrorists on one day eight years ago.

Guarding a Sacred Trust

“O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease.”

Such is the exhortation of Baha’u’llah in the Persian Hidden Words, #54. The difficult thing, of course, is translating that high ideal into practical reality.

In at least one sphere, child mortality, a New York Times article today indicates that some progress is being made. According to Unicef, 2008 was the first year since 1960, when the fund began keeping records, that fewer than nine million children under the age of five have died.

The article uses activities and programs in Malawi as a case study of how the change has been about. Two paragraphs are especially interesting:

Malawi illustrates the essence of the most successful efforts to reduce child mortality: it has found many creative ways to get the most cost-effective treatments and prevention methods to women and children, even in remote rural areas. Those interventions have included not just mosquito nets and vaccinations, but also deworming medicines and vitamin A supplements that boost children’s immunity.

Perhaps Malawi’s most powerful weapon is its ranks of more than 10,000 high school-educated village health workers. With a minimum 10 weeks of training, medical checklists to aid them in diagnosing childhood killers and hardy bicycles to get around, they dispense medicines and give injections, tasks only doctors and nurses do in many other countries.

These village health workers play a crucial role in the reduction of child mortality because they are local. Malawi has seen that its own people are excellent resources: raising their capacity allows the country to tackle its difficult problems. The article gives one example of a health worker at work:

“These days, when a child falls sick in the night, the mother can knock on the door of the health assistant,” said Teresa Frazier, 40. Her own 5-year-old daughter died after falling violently ill one night when Ms. Frazier was a young mother in a Malawian village of mud huts that, at the time, was many miles from the nearest medical help.

But as the sun went down on Monday, Ms. Frazier walked up to the tiny, two-room home of Blessings Mwaraya, 27, a health worker who lives amid banana, avocado and mango trees. Ms. Frazier, who gave birth to nine children, seven of whom survived, said she could not manage any more.

She had come for an injection of Depo Provera for birth control. Mr. Mwaraya, who earns $90 a month, painstakingly shook the little glass bottle containing the solution, drew it into the needle and stuck it in her arm. Health experts say family planning enables women to space births apart and have fewer children, aiding them in bearing healthier babies and better providing for them as they grow up.

“It’s still difficult to feed them all,” Ms. Frazier said of her surviving children, noting the paltry yield of corn on her small plot. Had Mr. Mwaraya been in the village in her younger days, she would have chosen to have had only four children, she said.

And Mr. Mwaraya clearly has the spirit of service in mind as he fulfills his role:

“My interest was to assist my fellow Malawians who were falling sick but never had treatment at the village level,” said Mr. Mwaraya, dressed in a uniform of light blue pants and a short-sleeve jacket.

Even though he is not among the “rich ones on earth,” Mr. Mwaraya is guarding the poor among his countrymen through his work. His work at the local level strikes me as being crucial to its success; he has undergone training that allows him to fulfill a role in the heath of his community, but he is not expected to have advanced training which his work does not require. So what might be perceived as a weakness – his lack of formal education – does not become a barrier to improving the lives of people in the country.

Mr. Mwaraya’s work parallels the work happening in Papua New Guinea under the auspices of a Baha’i-inspired agency, the Rays of Light Foundation, and their Preparation for Social Action program. This program focuses on building capacities for people to be of service to their communities.

One of the first texts studied is “Classification” which engenders in students the capability to classify things. One of the themes explored in this text is that of ‘parasitism’, i.e. when one species benefits at the expense of another. A case study on malaria is presented giving explanation of how the disease is transmitted, how it affects the body and information about how the disease can best be minimised is given to the reader.

The World Health Organization has described malaria as the “leading cause of illness and death in Papua New Guinea” and statistics show over 70000 reported infections for the year 2003. Many communities in Papua New Guinea are plagued with mosquitoes and are often ill-informed about the disease and have little access to relief from it. By being able to inform others of the key prevention techniques and by undertaking projects such as draining stagnant water holes the PSA group is able to help lessen the impact of malaria in their microregion.

Training that took place in Lae, Papua New Guinea in 2008 included one such project on the grounds where the training was taking place. Participants noticed that a ditch dug for a fish pond that was never completed was harbouring thousands of mosquito larvae and was one of the probable causes for sickness of some of the attendees. By filling in the pond the PSA tutors took one step towards protecting the surrounding inhabitants from malaria. Draining swampy areas, using protective clothing and mosquito nets, educating community members about the responsible use of anti-malarial medicines, reducing exposure to mosquitoes during the peak hours of transmittance of the disease and other similar steps are all different aspects of this grass roots approach to solving one of the world’s most widespread problems.

So, just as in Malawi, local people do the work of improving their own communities. This is part of a larger effort within Baha’i communities to engage in meaningful and productive social action, beginning in earnest in the 1990s. Century of Light, a publication commissioned by the Universal House of Justice on the twentieth century, and titled with the name given to that century by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, describes the 1990s this way:

The decade that followed saw wide experimentation in a field of work for which most Bahá’í institutions had little preparation. While striving to benefit from the models being tried by the many development agencies operating around the world, Bahá’í communities faced the challenge of relating what they found in various areas of concern—education, health, literacy, agriculture and communications technology—to their understanding of Bahá’í principles. The temptation was great, given the magnitude of the resources being invested by governments and foundations, and the confidence with which this effort was pursued, merely to borrow methods current at the moment or to adapt Bahá’í efforts to prevailing theories. As the work evolved, however, Bahá’í institutions began turning their attention to the goal of devising development paradigms that could assimilate what they were observing in the larger society to the Faith’s unique conception of human potentialities.

Perhaps the world is learning how to guard Baha’u’llah’s sacred trust.

It’s also important to note that at least some of the “rich ones on earth” are doing their part, too. From the Times article again.

Wealthy nations, international agencies and philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates have committed billions of dollars to the effort. Schoolchildren and church groups have also pitched in, paying for mosquito nets and feeding programs.

“If we say as a world we care about saving children, and tackle the problem systematically, piece by piece, we can make progress, and it’s really important for people to know that,” Mrs. Gates said in an interview.