29 August 2007

A Peace Racketeer speaks out

I came across this article by Bruce Bawer this morning. For reasons that are probably obvious (if not, read "about me" to your right), I found it both insulting as well as inaccurate. Bawer argues that the peace movement, which he refers to as a "racket," is some sinister effort aimed at destroying America and individual liberty, and he suggests that this movement's heart is not grassroots activists (his words are "naive Quakers", which could be the subject of a whole other post), but a professional cadre of individuals seeking to subvert the Western world.

Aside from the paranoia that is rampant some of his rantings, Bawer also demonstrates some remarkably poor scholarly skills, especially with his insistence upon using leading peace scholar Johan Galtung's remarks given in the context of events as evidence that his theories, which are argued more in books rather than more political speeches or editorials, are not only flawed but destructive. I will grant you that some peace groups openly align with political groups that many in the West, myself included, might find distasteful. Yet this reality should not be used to make a judgment of peace studies as a field, as the two are not sufficiently linked together as to be relevant.

Bawer also asserts that peace studies are illiberal (using a classical definition of liberal here) because of their alleged anti-Americanism. This too, however, is unfounded. Indeed, peace studies and conflict resolution are rooted quite firmly in the liberal tradition. The difference is not that these fields are illiberal, but rather they have moved beyond a very limited definition to a more expansive view of what liberal societies consist of.

What really seems to be Bawer's problem, though, is his distaste for the notion of structural violence. Unfortunately for him, the validity of that concept has been excepted in academic disciplines well outside of just a few peace studies programs. Indeed, recognizing that whole systems and structures of societies can in themselves be agents of oppression seems more like a far deeper understanding than simply blaming human suffering on that which is easily visible at the surface. Heaven forbid someone recognize that a terrorist somewhere justify his violence on the grounds that his family has no food. Recognizing that the terrorist has a complaint does not make one sympathetic to his chosen method of voicing his grievance. It just means that perhaps some people, say peace studies and conflict resolution folks, for instance, may have realized that one effective way to reduce the threat of terrorism is to see that basic human needs are met and that human rights are respected, as opposed to the current approach of the U.S. government and others that suggests that shooting brown men in loose clothing is more effective. I hate to break it to Bawer, but blowing up terrorist camps is treating the symptom, not the problem. I agree that from time to time treating immediate symptoms is necessary, but if one never makes a holistic assessment of the body upon which the symptoms appear, there's a fairly strong chance that those symptoms -- active terrorists in this case -- will appear again.

The final troubling element in Bawer's doomsday scenario is that affluent young students are being attracted to peace studies programs, as they prepare for careers in public service, especially in government or nonprofit work. Clearly, the fact that the affluent are studying something radical should remind us of two things. 1) Peace studies isn't offered very widely, and it's usually done at private institutions, where the affluent are more likely to go. 2) Bawer is afraid of the affluent young learning something outside the established norm because affluence is a ticket to power in this society, and if the affluent change their opinions over the course of succeeding generations, then society might change.

Sorry Bruce, but societies change. While you and your cronies were busy protecting American liberties, others around the world were raising hell about the need to protect the liberties of those in the camps, the killing fields, and the villages across the world for much of the past 70 odd years. Many of us still are.

Allow me to make this confession. I'm dedicated to peace. One needn't prepare for peace by preparing for war. And preparing for peace by preparing for peace is too complicated for many to grasp. Rather, we must prepare for peace by learning how to interact with our adversaries without violence. However, there will be many around the world that will continue to be drawn to violence for the next several centuries, I'm afraid. Even if we were to shoot or detain all of those people, more would come up. This isn't because mass-scale violence is part of nature (we're the only species that kills its other members in large quantities for reasons not related to food, shelter, or species regeneration), but because shooting people doesn't get to the root of the problem. Like it or not, structural violence exists. Learning how to combat that violence, with an array of weapons ranging from food to access to sophisticated criminal justice systems, will be far less costly over the long term, and will result in a more sustainable world where not only American rights and liberties are protected, but those of every last person on earth. To effect this change, we need time, people, patience and the acceptance that no political, social or cultural system is without flaws. Finally, we need to accept that change isn't to be feared, but welcomed. That is how you prepare for peace: by seeking to preserve not just American or Western lives, but everyone's.

Hat tip to Arts and Letters Daily.

100th post: now home to the "smurfs thesis communist doctrine"

That, friends, is how one lucky googler came across this very blog, and bless their little souls for getting here this way. Now, I'm not sure which post(s) they may have read when they landed here, as I don't recall ever having written each of those four words in any one post. I know I've written about each of those words in separate posts. Anyway, perhaps this blog, when taken as a sum of its parts, reveals the deeper meaning behind the Smurfs Thesis Communist Doctrine. If so, trust me that I didn't intend it that way.

I'm not even sure what the Smurfs Thesis Communist Doctrine is. But that's the kind of quality scholarship you'll find here at Is that a gavel in your pants?

[FYI, I googled that phrase myself, and this blog didn't pop up within the first 8 pages of results, which is my usual stopping place for more obscure things, so I'm now especially intrigued at how hard one must have to work to make the link between this site and that phrase.]

Anyway, on this particularly goofy note, allow me to celebrate my 100th post. Look for more drivel to come.

27 August 2007

American exceptionalism, the Constitution, and Madeleine Albright

This past weekend Two weeks ago, I had the chance to explore the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. I also recently finished Madeleine Albright's The Mighty and the Almighty. Both the center and the book place an emphasis on the concept of American exceptionalism, and the more I mulled over each, the more I realized their claims in this regard are related. I personally find this notion of exceptionalism to be problematic -- sometimes it is troubling, egotistical, and imperialist; and other times the concept seems right on point, at least in theory.

The Constitution Center's main argument (to the extent that a museum can have an argument), seems to be that the United States, being the first rights-based democracy on earth that has endured into the present, has had a tumultuous relationship between the values enshrined in its founding documents and the reality of the practice of governance. In other words, based upon a simple reading of the Constitution, one would expect that the U.S. would have a far less discriminatory history and encompass a far more egalitarian society than it does. Because this country is the home to these documents, it is inherently held to a higher standard, as far as justice and human rights are concerned, than most every other nation. Thus it is the documents, and not how various elements of our government have adhered to them, that makes the United States unique, and living up to those documents has become our national challenge.

Albright, obviously, takes a different focus but ends up with a few similar points. While she focuses much less on founding documents and more on foreign policy activities, she comes to a similar conclusion about how the U.S. should act in the world that the Constitution Center arrives at for the domestic front. Namely, because the United States chose to make promoting respect for human rights a foundation of its foreign policy during the Carter administration (of which she was a member), and because much of today's current foreign policy is informed by the idealism of the Wilson and FDR administrations (remember that neo-cons started out as frustrated liberals), the U.S. has a special obligation to ensuring that human rights are protected around the world. She points to the old (yet resonant) rhetoric that the United States is to be a "shining city upon a hill" and though she critiques some of the underlying assumptions that come along with that, in the end she seems to agree with the core premise.

Yet it is these very arguments that make American exceptionalism such a problematic concept. I do tend to agree that certain documents and certain leaders in our nation's past have seen to leave us with a national charge to better ourselves and our fellow human beings. However, our very failure to realize the dream of these core principles at home and the hubris and hypocrisy with which we sometimes conduct our affairs abroad (under administrations of all political persuasions) makes me wonder if it's not just a pile of malarky. Perhaps the the United States, writ large, isn't terribly special. Maybe we were just blessed with a series of particularly visionary leaders who had enough rhetorical skill and popular appeal to ingrain themselves in the national memory, to the extent that one exists. If this is indeed the case, then the U.S. isn't terribly exceptional at all, and may well just be an ordinary country that is just wealthier and larger than most and thus more noticeable. But that potentially cynical perspective still fails to fully answer the question, because failure to live up to an exceptional charge does not necessarily mean that the country and its society (which admittedly is not a unitary, monolithic creature) is not exceptional, but just struggling along a particularly tough road where perhaps the end is still not in reach. This is view is more accepting of a history of oppression at home and arrogance abroad, as these elements become natural obstacles on a path to some enlightened future.

There are certainly other views on American exceptionalism beyond the two I just laid out, but clearly, neither of the ones I have here can really satisfy the questions of 1) is the United States fundamentally unique and 2) if so, why and if not, why not? If we've failed to live up to expectations, that doesn't mean that something better does not lay ahead, and that we should just give up. Likewise, if this is just a particularly difficult chore with which we've been tasked, there is too much room there to excuse too much of the past that are a disgrace to morality and basic human dignity.

I thought both the book and the center were quite well done. Nonetheless, I would have liked to see a greater framing of these particularly complex complexities in both places. The question of exceptionalism gets to the very core of this country's identity (to the extent that social and political constructions can have identities independent of individual perceptions). I certainly do not have the answer to these questions, but they do make for a particularly challenging discourse and precipitate an incredible range of thought.

[Note: I initially started writing this at the end of my trip, but ended up neglecting the draft and the rest of this blog while I dealt with some particularly challenging work events. Hopefully I'll be back up to pace soon. Otherwise, just blame my quietness on a slow, hot summer.]

08 August 2007

Back on topic

I was looking over my most recent entries last night, and realized that I've moved incredibly away from my original focus, which is international post-conflict... stuff. Anyway, let's get back to that with a little humor. You may have seen it before, but now you can enjoy it again.

07 August 2007

Assistance, SVP

I need to learn a bit about micro-finance and micro-business stuff. Not a whole big thing, just a few cases or exemplary works that would help me get a grasp of the subject. If there is a case of a micro-enterprise project in a refugee setting, that would be especially helpful. Thus I'm asking you, my loyal readers, for suggestions of books or articles that might be useful.

As background, I've been asked to advice to a few people I used to work with at the Buduburam Camp in Ghana, as they start a new micro-business initiative. As this isn't really my field, I'm looking for some guidance. If you know of something good, drop me a comment.


05 August 2007

Back from vacation, ha ha

What's that? Oh, yeah, think back to a week ago and imagine me saying "I'm going on vacation." Then again, only 5 people read this anyway, and at least one of them is in Portugal. Anyway, back, I am.

I spent the last half of my week off camping with the boy in Shenandoah NP. Once again, I'm convinced that the national parks are one of the few things the federal government has done mostly right. Yes, they need more money, but still. Incredible places, they are.

I guess this is talk like Yoda night.

Anyway, the downside of camping is that sometimes other people camp around you, and they're unsavory. Last night we had an outbreak of Kappa Sigma Shenandoah, a cool new frat for you to join. This, of course, prompts a public service announcement from me. It goes as follows:

Testicles are not funny. Yes, some bears have them. Some bobcats have them too. A large percentage of human beings also have testicles. Nonetheless, they remain un-funny. People beyond the age of 12 should not laugh at testicle jokes. They're not funny. Similarly, the word sausage is not amusing. Finally, there is no need to repeat a noun multiple times within a single sentence when a pronoun will suffice. This rule especially applies to foods, like chicken or steak. This PSA is rooted in the following known facts about frat types: they are male, most of them have testicles, and many of them eat dead animals. However, none of that is funny either. /PSA

All that aside, seeing a bear up close and in the wild was great fun, though I didn't get the camera out of the bag as it seemed content so long as we didn't make much noise. Hearing a bobcat go after a deer from my tent was mildly more unsettling. Much hiking has been accomplished, and now my legs ache.

And now, with another work week looming, I leave you with this: