Archive for the ‘Society & Culture’ Category

Are we smart enough to win the “War on Terror”? Has the very term, “War on Terror,” set us up for failure before we even embarked? It seems to me that eradicating Islamism’s guerrilla and terrorist tactics will only be possible if we come to better understand human development, on both an individual and global scale.

Can you negotiate with a two year old in the throes of a hysterical tantrum over not being allowed a third piece of candy? Does this two year old understand that too much sugar is bad for his teeth? Do you even bother explaining this fact to him? Well, you might try, but probably to little effect. If you are the parent, and your child is having his fit at, say, the mall, what do you do to stop it? Do you reason with a screaming two year old, or do you outsmart him, distract him, or ignore him until he realizes he hasn’t got a taker? Can you sweet talk him into thinking there are better things than candy? More importantly, when your two year old becomes a three, four and five year old, does he continue to have tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants, or does he eventually grow out of it? Is it because you, wise parent, have done something extraordinary to permanently alter his behavior, or would his behavior evolve naturally in a healthy social context, as he became better able to communicate his needs and wants?

I tend to view people as going through certain stages, both as individuals and as parts of larger societies. If a society is made up of mostly two year olds, well, we could probably imagine what that would look and sound like. Even if that society contained a few infants, some teenagers, some young and middle aged adults and some elders, it would still be a society dominated by two year olds.

As with an individual’s development, I believe that nearly all societies contain people at various stages on the human spectrum of potential, and that environmental factors serve to both limit and promote progress. Just as a human being goes through stages along the path to maturity, so does a society. First you (or your society) are focused solely on your physiological needs: food, shelter and some measure of emotional comfort (think of infants and very early man). Then you realize you are part of a larger world, and you begin to learn through trial and error your culture’s mores and how to communicate your needs in that context. Next you become more self-centered, focusing on your own wants, often referring to a god or gods to justify yourself. Then you learn the importance of governance, and of sacrificing yourself for the good of the community, followed by an awareness of the importance of not only pursuing your own goals, but also doing what you can for the wider community. Next you realize that you are part of a holistic system, which includes everything on earth, and while you still strive to achieve your own goals, you do it in a way that is in harmony with all life. There is no way of knowing how far we can go beyond this, but the possibilities are only limited to our ultimate, currently unknowable cognitive potential.

Of course, in this context, not every human being or society will realize its full potential. This is where we return to the issue of terrorism. Without a society to support it, it would not exist. Terrorism, in my opinion, clearly thrives in an environment where the culture is at the level where one sacrifices oneself not for the good of community, but in the context of justifying one’s actions in reference to a god, in pursuit of an aim that does not necessarily benefit the wider community (but convinces it that it does). It will take a critical mass of people within this culture to evolve to the next level, one that recognizes that one’s actions can only be justified if they benefit one’s society (and hopefully eventually evolves to a more holistic view, but one careful step at a time).

Where is the majority of America on this path? I believe we are actually regressing, responding to fundamentalism with fundamentalism. We need to move in a better, more holisitic direction, one that recognizes and works on the premise of systemic health, both environmentally and socially. While we cannot currently reason with terrorists and their networks, I do think that we can at least attempt to mitigate the circumstances that help them flourish.

We cannot forcefully impose our will on others and expect them to comply, no matter how fervently parents, executives, legislators and diplomats may hope otherwise. Terrorists will not stop terrorizing until the people who produce and support them feel that their needs are being met, until they learn to process information critically, and until they have reached a level of development that transcends their current understanding of the world. Before people can contemplate higher issues of equality, humane justice and democracy, they must have a certain level of basic comfort, security and education. We cannot achieve a successful and stable democratic revolution from without. Lasting change, by nature, comes from within.

I don’t have a cure for terrorism, but I believe our current actions only provide the proverbial aspirin tablet to a cancer patient. We can keep on slappin’ ’em with the flyswatter, but, like flies and other profoundly successful procreators, we can’t with our current methods get at their source without devastating and extreme measures. We need to outsmart and out-humanize them. They need their people to hate us in order for their engines to continue to run. I believe it is better to use honey in terms of attempting to soften and hopefully, eventually, reverse this hatred. We need to value and use reason, logic and knowledge of human and cultural development especially when dealing with people who are unable to do the same. We need to take the higher, more enlightened path, using our brains rather than our guns.

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Here I am, gearing up for another year of teaching for a major metropolitan public school system, wondering what the year will bring. I look forward to meeting my new students, to getting into the rhythm of a new year of learning. As the summer quickly comes to an end, I am reminded that I have a mountain of odd tasks that I’d like to accomplish while I still have some free time on my hands.

These two things were on my “To Do” list today:

1. Call the car dealership to schedule service

2. Call HR to confirm receipt of my transcript (documenting my updated education level, and thus my salary)

I called the car dealership first. A pleasant voice answered on the second ring, transferred me to the service department, where it rang once and another pleasant voice had my appointment set in about thirty seconds.

Next, I called the school system’s HR department. It rang several times, asked me to hold (“Your call is VERY important to us,” explains a silky voice, “but all HR representatives are assisting other callers. Please hold.”) Finally, a tired sounding person answered, and I explained why I was calling. “Um. You are calling the Elm Street location. Where did you have the transcript sent to?” I explained politely that I dialed the number for the other location, which is where I was instructed to send the transcript. “Oh. We’ve recently moved.” After a little back and forth, ironing out the apparent misunderstanding, I was then informed that I needed to speak with someone else, anyway, so I was transferred to another person’s line.

After about four rings, I was asked to hold, which I did…and then I held some more. Finally, another tired sounding voice answered, and I had to explain myself again. When I stated that I mailed in the requisite application and transcript, my friendly helper exclaimed, “Why do all you people do that?!?! You should have delivered it in person!” At this point, I said, “Oh no, no, no. We are not going in that direction. I mailed it in because the form instructed me to MAIL IT IN. I asked whether you have received my transcript, and that is all I need.” My friendly helper said gruffly, “hold on.” And boy did I ever hold on. My guess is about 8 minutes (enough time to empty the dishwasher and clean up the kitchen). Then, finally, my friendly helper came back on to ask me when the transcript was sent, which forced me to log onto my on-line banking account, to tell him the date I was charged for the transcript. “So this is just your first Master’s degree?” he sniffed. “Yes, just the first.” “Hold on………” Finally, my friendly helper returned to grudgingly report that yes, my transcript had been received (I got the distinct impression that this was the result of a physical search, not something that he looked up on a database).

This is not a new experience. In fact, every single time I have had some business with the central office, there has been some sort of bureaucratic problem. Last year they needed some (seemingly trivial) paperwork from me, which, I was told, I must hand deliver downtown. Weeks after I did this (and received a date stamped copy), I was informed in a rather threatening way that I had not submitted the paperwork. I had to fax it to them (twice!) before they “received” it. Oh, and don’t even bother showing up to “hand deliver” something or otherwise in need of assistance any time between 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM. It will be a ghost town in the name of “lunch.” Teachers are not treated as clients – they are treated as obstacles to an otherwise blissful day of solitaire and Internet shopping. I have never witnessed such unprofessionalism, such mismanagement, and, ultimately, such waste. I guarantee I could do the work of at least four people at this bloated operation. I read with no small measure of glee about the plan to cut jobs at headquarters, in an attempt to “balance the budget.”

My point here? When the system doesn’t value its teachers, and in fact treats them with grudging condescension, I wonder what that does to overall morale, to the sense that we teachers are a valued and integral part of making any school system succeed. Students deserve the very best teachers, and teachers deserve the very best support from their districts. Believe me, every time I have an experience like this, I start thinking about working in the suburbs.

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I live a few blocks from a major city street. On this street is a Middle Eastern grocery, a “Muslim Community Center,” an “Islamic Reading Room,” and a couple of other businesses that cater to the Muslim community. When I’m walking along this particular street, I ususally make an attempt (usually not acknowledged or returned) at eye contact and a smile to the women (I think it’s “improper” to do this with Muslim men, or improper for them…). Am I subconsciously trying to say, “Hi! I like Muslim people!”? I don’t know. I smile at little old Catholic ladies, too.

But the other day, after working myself into panicked dismay about what is going on specifically in Israel and Lebanon, and the entire Middle East more generally, I found myself cringing a bit on my walk past the community center, keeping my eyes low and quickening my pace. Strangely for this place and time, a woman walking toward me from the opposite direction flashed a big smile (or was it a grin?), while looking me in the eye (or was it a piercing stare?). It was sort of like she was still thinking about a funny joke somebody told her. Was she doing the same thing that I do – consciously or not? Was she just naturally a friendly person among a street full indifferent people? Or did I detect something a little menacing in her expression? Was she thinking, “just you wait!”? Was I just being paranoid? Either way, I felt a bit unnerved. I hate living in a world where I can’t tell these kinds of things about the people that I live among.

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Middle Eastern culture – the music, the carpets, the food, the art and architecture. I’ve always wondered about the people, about why there has been so much conflict in their places of origin. It is heartbreaking to see the continual degradation of a once magnificent culture into a living hell. I spend a lot of time looking back, trying to figure out the origin of this mess. In a recent email to a friend, I wrote this:

[I actually think that] traditions and cultural wealth have been eroded because of Islam. There is a hadith that basically says, “If your wife gives you trouble, try to get along with her, but if all else fails, it’s ok to slap her around.” Of course there are also troubling things like that in the Bible, as well. I do think, though, that Islam is a particularly difficult religion in terms of accordance with human rights. Mohammad became a campaigner, while Jesus, I don’t think, ever would have wanted his message spread in a military way (although, of course, it ultimately was, just not by him). Mohammad also, after Fatima died, married a bunch of daughters of various leaders, in an effort to consolidate power – a humble prophet he was not. I see a similarity between Islam and the South American origin myth about humans falling to earth as drops of blood from an injured warrior-god. The people (I forget their name) were, no surprise here, very warlike. When your prophet is a warrior, well…

Then, more recently, I wrote this:

What do you think of all the madness in Israel and Lebanon? I’ve dug out my old Islamic history books (“The Venture of Islam” in 3 volumes by Marshall Hodgson) to try to understand the history behind all of this. So far, I’m in the 18th century, where the West has become an increasingly powerful economic, military and political force, and “Islamdom” has made a bunch of strategic internal and external mistakes, underestimating and misunderstanding the West, while at the same time giving up more and more economic control. I like the question the author poses: can Islam be both modern and nonwestern? I have a feeling that this might be a really important idea.

Here is my friend’s response:

What do I think about Israel/Lebanon? Well, last night on the news a reporter was in an underground parking garage somewhere in southern Lebanon which is serving as a temporary shelter for displaced people. And he was talking to a girl no more than eight or nine years old, asking her what she thought of the current situation. She said, “They are killing us! They are killing children! We need to kill their children as well!” And she said it with that kind of crazed, maniacal vehemence that most people from that region seem to display, spit flying from her mouth and her eyes hard and cold as ice, and I thought, “Good grief! She’s eight years old!” So basically, I just think it seems hopeless, a vicious cycle destined to repeat itself over and over. Because the only lasting solution is to change people from the inside out, the way they see the world, the way they see themselves. And that ain’t happening. Any type of truce or ceasefire would be a very temporary solution and would be like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. The problem that everyone has addressed but no one seems to have the foggiest idea what to do about is the fact that Syria and Iran are such an integral part of the problem…

I thought about this response quite a bit. She didn’t address the history, didn’t seem to worry obsessively about what caused these people to view human life in a very nonhuman way. She pointed to an indoctrinated child.

Even previous to this email exchange, in this particular case, I’ve been rethinking my usual “give peace a chance” and “there’s a root cause behind this that must be fixed” and “peace is work” mentality. How can there be peace in this situation? Right here, right now, how can there be? How can Israel put down its arms right now, when Hezbollah has been so emboldened? How can there be peace when Iran and Syria lurk in the shadows, paying Hezbollah to do their dirty work?

And that brings me to this, coming from one of the more doveish people around: I’m tired of it. It’s been going on all my life. There is no political or religious cause, no matter how wronged you believe you have been, that justifies the defilement of humanity. This must be stopped, for the sake of everyone, even if the price we pay is more dear than we can now imagine. I want the next generation in this country and around the world to feel more hopeful than the current one does today, to be able to smile at strangers with confidence and ease. Someday I hope to see news footage of a little girl, in a burka or not, smiling at the camera and expressing genuine, unmitigated joy.

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I spend a lot of time imagining what the future will bring. Being wholly convinced that we are facing major changes on at least two fronts (military conflict and environmental degradation, and the related consequences), I am naturally inclined to entertain nighmarish apocalyptic scenarios. However, I find the need to continually question my instincts and a fairly dim view of humanity’s capability to forge a better future for itself. I’ve come to believe that we must transcend our current situation, not just change direction or tweak things here and there, in order to avoid catastrophe.

People throughout history have generally viewed their particular time as more dangerous, with the most at stake, than any other previous era. I think this has always been true – we are working our way, very quickly, to a global, or planetary society (distinct, of course, from culture). We are discovering the interconnectedness of everything, the way systems (political, biological, technological, etc.) seem to have the tendency to become more and more complex. 

Not only does social complexity and the extent of spatial connectedness increase from one epoch to the next, so does the pace of change. Just as historical transitions occur more rapidly than natural evolutionary transitions, historical transitions are accelerating. This is illustrated in Figure 2 [p.16], which represents schematically the evolution of complexity of the four major historical phases. Since the time-axis is logarithmic, the repetitive pattern suggests that change is accelerating in a regular fashion. The duration of successive eras decreases by roughly a factor of ten—the Stone Age lasted roughly 100,000 years, Early Civilization about 10,000 years and the Modern Era some 1,000 years. Curiously, if the transition to a Planetary Phase takes about 100 years (a reasonable hypothesis, we shall argue) the pattern would continue.

As a result of the observed increased pace of change, we can expect to see vast changes within our lifetimes. What will happen? Will this be an adventure, a bumpy nailbiter but ultimately a great human success story? Will we be able to identify and choose the correct path in time?

To learn about the Global Scenario Group and their work, click here. The long PDF, “The Great Transition,” is fascinating and well worth the time.

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