One in Either Direction Makes a Difference

Sometimes the shear power of numbers overwhelms me. For instance this blog has had over 11,000 hits. The human population upon the earth according to World Bank will exceed 7 billion before the end of 2011. According to the United Nations more than 2.5 billion people live in poverty and subsist on less than $2 per day. Preventable diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV which afflict a larger portion of the peoples of the developing world than the industrialized nations receive a fraction of the research funding of such maladies as heart disease and cancer. Heart disease and cancer have been linked to lifestyles of consumption which require vast energy resources that contribute to global warming.

I was ashamed to learn this week that countrymen of mine, members of the Tea Party, enthusiastically answered yes to the question of whether or not a man who was dying should be left to die if he did not have the required health insurance to gain hospital admittance. Considering according to the US Census Bureau the number of people in poverty and without health insurance in the United States has continued to rise and is somewhere around 50 million this is a possible human tragedy hinging on the fanatical politics of an ultra-conservative few who have gained a toe hold of popularity by preying on the fears generated during a time of national crisis.

Not to diminish the appalling lack of compassion and blatant inhumane ethic of the Tea Party proponents who would let a man die for lack of insurance, but is this any different than turning a blind eye away from the global tragedies occurring across the planet?

In Somalia foreign aid workers have been banned to go into parts of the country to provide famine relief because of threat of kidnapping.

In Dadaab, Kenya a half million people are starving in a refugee camp where rape and other forms of violence are rampant. The rains did not come last October and November to Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. The rains did not come in April or May. The soil blows in the winds.

In July in Malawi the government killed 20 protesters in a crackdown on protests in part due to energy shortages and poverty. Britain and the US have both frozen aid to the country. Forty percent of the total economy of Malawi is made up of foreign aid. The country is an agricultural country. New protests are scheduled for this week as President Bingu wa Mutharika appeals to the IMF and World Bank to unfreeze the aid. His government has been criticized for appointing family members to his cabinet and activists have been asking for an accounting of his wealth.

Much like Hosni Mubarek in Egypt? How many people suffered in the revolutions of last winter?

Three hundred and fifty four Libyan people were reported killed in Sirte yesterday. The Libyan interim government was unable to gain control of Bani Walid. The fighting goes on.

In Syria a purported 2600 people have been killed in pro-democracy protests. The UN five days ago named a three member panel of international experts to investigate Syrian crimes against humanity. Rights groups this week called for the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership.

This is only a sampling of the suffering and violence occurring throughout the world. In 2000 at a United Nations Summit 189 countries adopted the Millennium Development Goals which include: halving the number of people who live without clean water and adequate sanitation, increasing the number of boys and girls who complete their education, decrease the rate of green house emissions, reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, and halve the number of people who suffer from hunger.

These may seem like lofty goals, but as compassionate human beings can we allow ourselves to aim for anything less?

From my own reading one of the things that indicates a better outcome and higher standard of living for a population is the mean level of education in the area. Life expectancies, the rate of violence, the rate of disease– all the numbers go in directions indicating a better life for the people involved if a higher level of education can be achieved.

One person amongst our soon to be 7 billion who offers some hope is Sugata Mitra. He talks about the hope of education, how children will educate themselves, and how people together in simple acts can improve situations. His 200 British grandmothers, the Granny Cloud, are volunteering an hour a week across the world via broadband to make a difference by spreading love. He talks about bringing hope to areas where people do not want to go. Here is a TED talk in which he talks about his ideas:

In this time of global crisis will the cruel and callous few be allowed to bring poverty, violence, and spreading darkness? What number of people can we call upon to pitch in and create solutions and hope? One in either direction makes a difference.

What We Choose to Believe

When I was a kid the Soviet Union was the “evil empire” and everyone was terrified of what the Soviets might do. They weren’t like us– good, upstanding, moral Americans. Of course, there was the message out in the media that they “loved their children too”, which was supposed to mean that they weren’t going to be likely to start a nuclear war and was an argument against the Star Wars defense system. The Soviets were built up to be ruthless, powerful, and scary. They were an enemy to generate paranoia. Fear.

But then there was this odd article that I remember reading in the Christian Science Monitor when I was in about sixth grade that talked about the Soviet state farms and that they were having a hard time plowing their fields and keeping food in production. And there were stories about food shortages in the Soviet Union. And then I read about how they designed a huge tractor for the Soviet state farms to plow the fields and miscalculated the weight of the tractor and what the spring mud could support. The tractor sank half way up its man-sized wheels in the mud.

I grew up in rural Michigan. Michigan. The home of the US auto industry and some of the best blueberries, apples, peaches, cherries, corn– well awesome produce. This did not add up in my thinking. Suddenly, when Ronald Reagan was calling the Soviets the “evil empire” it didn’t make sense. They weren’t so terrifying to me if they were simply having that much trouble feeding their people and designing a tractor. They needed some assistance. Wouldn’t we all be better off with improved relations, mutual exchange of ideas and information, and cooperative trade?

On a regular basis I talk to people. Parents of children. Whoever. I remember when I was a kid, my cousins and I were allowed to run pretty free during the day. We got into mischief and got ourselves out of it. But we felt a great deal of confidence being on our own. We had trust in world, trust in ourselves. Now, I have heard it repeatedly expressed that kids should not play out on their own because it is too dangerous. Play dates, lessons, after-school activities, and more take up kids time rather than free, independent play outside. When I have asked parents about what they think is dangerous about their children playing outside independently, I have had numerous people tell me that they fear harm to their children from strangers. Child molesters. When I ask them who they think these molesters are, they tell me that they are predators just waiting for kids. Kind of like the boogie man.

Most people do not know their neighbors. Houses are like isolated pods where each family lives their life separate from their community. They do not know the strangers on their street. Any of them might be a predator. Isolation creates fear and fear creates isolation.

I have been listening the last couple days to the reports on NPR about Osama Bin Laden being captured and killed. For so long he has been the Al Queda Boogie Man. After Sadam Husein was killed, he was the primary focus. But this one man doesn’t solely represent the face of terrorism. And for US policy killing one target means momentarily “celebrating” how mighty the US is in being able to hunt down and kill a man after a decade of trying, but already the rhetoric is ramping up and the number two man who will take over is being built up as really bad. Someone potentially worse. We have to stay vigilant. Keep sending those troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today I read the State of the World’s Mothers 2011 Report that was released by Save the Children. The United States, the world’s wealthiest country, placed an embarrassing 31st on the list. But we love our children too. Right? While we are spending over $800 billion per year bombing Iraq, we spend approximately .5% of our federal budget on programs that are focused towards programs dealing with poverty. One of the best ways that we could create a more secure United States would be by focusing more money towards humanitarian aid and education. Both within the US and outside the United States. Our rate of childhood poverty is deplorable as is the fact that we have the worst rate of pregnancy related deaths of any of the industrialized nations.

I have heard it said that we are now part of a global economy. A global community. But I think many views within the US do not follow this. Our foreign policy feels to me like more than a bit of a relic from a time past. It is there to support the war time industries– companies like Halliburton. It feels like a gross application of individual isolationism where we do not really know our neighbors or try to foster good relations with them because they might be dangerous. Better to have a gun and be able to defend ourselves rather than try to reach out and create a relationship.

So what makes an enemy?

“it will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the pentagon has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

Yesterday I was driving back from a training in a town about 45 minutes from where I live. I had the radio on and was listening to National Public Radio. The program that I was listening to was focusing on various United States states’ budget woes and discussing how a side effect of the Great Recession is that many states are close to bankruptcy. The state governments are making budget cuts. In addition to the conservative governor of Wisconsin trying to break the unions of the public employees of that state by passing legislation to reduce the power of the unions to be able to bargain and slashing public employees’ benefits, many states are cutting the funding for public education. Public education is typically the largest expenditure that most states have. The host of the radio program jokingly went on to say that perhaps the schools should run for president and began naming presidential hopefuls for the next election that had already raised a billion dollars.

The school district that I work for had to cut over a million dollars out of its budget last year and is faced with cutting another $300,000 to $400,000. Other districts in this area are faced with another year of having to cut over a million dollars from their budgets.

I was speaking with a friend today and mentioned all of this. He began looking up the cost of the one Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

That’s a picture of one. It is still under development and has yet to be able to work properly. Only 13 test flight status prototypes have been built. The cost for each one is $110 million dollars. Where is the accountability for tax payer dollars? The district that I work for is small and operates on a budget of approximately $13 million. The operating budget last year for the Los Angeles school district which served 694,300 was $7.16 billion. They were forced to cut a billion dollars from their budget. What if instead of working on 13 planes to circle Afghanistan and drop GPS loaded bombs that money had gone to the schools?

I am suddenly reminded of the Vietnam Era slogan “it will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the pentagon has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

No Child Left Behind requires that all children are capable of passing standardized tests based on state curriculums. This sounds reasonable until you realize that the only children to be excluded from this requirement are the 2% with extreme and multiple disabilities. Children with high incidence learning disabilities are still required to pass at their grade level. And perhaps that is achievable with enough intervention. But then you have to factor in that the curriculum standards are making it so that children are expected to learn more at younger ages. And now the schools are having their budgets slashed which will require teacher layoffs and increase classroom sizes while potentially limiting the funding for extra adults who can provide extra intervention.

Worldwide the biggest indicator of whether or not a region will remain peaceful, productive, and have a high standard of living is the educational level of its population. Not whether or not the United States can come in and use 13 highly specialized and problematic bombers to bomb the countryside. Clinton failed in creating the New World Order of enforced peace by collective world operations when the peacekeeping mission in Somalia failed after the reporting of casualties proved that the public had no stomach to make the sacrifice of lives necessary and the UN military forces were pulled out. Consider Somalia now. The UN failed in Rwanda when the genocide happened while UN peacekeepers powerlessly watched and US diplomats dickered over the term “genocide”. The war in Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist acts of 9/11 but the United States actions in the region have created a quagmire. An ongoing one. The development of American military weapons and the aerospace industry has brought many technological advancements and in the past helped to stabilize the world with the threat of war. But we live in a different time period where economic power and information have might.

What if instead of buying a M16A2 rifle for $582 which is the standard issue rifle carried by all US soldiers in combat zones we bought an iPad for $500?

The M40A1 is the preferred sniper rifle of the U.S. Marine Corps. What if instead of paying over $2000 for each one of these we bought four computers that we placed in public kiosks and made public distance education available in developing areas? There is a wonderful TED talk by Sugata Mitra that can be found at: He talks about how there are places on the planet where there are no schools and good teachers will not go and how in these places there is unrest and violence. He talks about how education can make a difference. What if we worked for a peaceful world not by exporting violence and military might but changed our agenda to export the means for people to raise themselves up via education? Could we create world peace and less need for a military?

What if the military had to think in terms of accountability and efficiency in the same terms that the schools do? What if the Pentagon had to hold a bake sale to raise money for an F-35?

One Person Can Make A Difference

President John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Change always happens. Sometimes slowly and gradually. Sometimes with a violent lurch.

In Tunisia a fruit stand operator who had had his fruit stand confiscated by the police set himself on fire and started a revolution that resulted in the 23-year reign of Tunisia’s strongman, 74-year-old Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, coming to an end two weeks ago.

Currently, Hosni Mubarak who has ruled Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 is seeing his country protest his regime. A regime that has become increasingly more autocratic. Mubarak has created a virtual police state. Over the last thirty years his regime has instituted censorship of the media even going so far as to try to censor bloggers, imprisoned prominent pro-democracy activists such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and during the most recent protests placed 2005 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei under house arrest. All this while while a younger generation of Egyptians goes hungry and without opportunity. It is not one fruit stand owner who is protesting, but many people.

I remember in 1989 when one lone man in Tiananmen Square refused to yield to a column of tanks. He stood with his plastic grocery bags and defied the military might of the Chinese government and halted the progress of the military machine. He became the symbol of one person standing up and saying that things had to change. He refused to be oppressed any longer. That image of him before the tanks is burned in my memory. He is and will always be a source of inspiration.

I think revolutions come in waves when people witness that others are standing up and fighting or protesting oppression and realize that it is possible for one man to make a difference. Then others can see that their voices can be heard and/or their influence can be felt. They can make a difference. The Chinese student protest happened in 1989. Czechoslovakia finally became a democratic nation during the non-violent Velvet Revolution of 1989 after thirty years of nonviolent protest lead by that country’s citizens. P.W. Botha resigned as the president of South Africa in 1989 and Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 ending the era of Apartheid. While the dissolution of the Soviet Union began around 1985, it split into 15 separate states in 1991. Germany was reunified in 1990. The years between 1989 and 1991 were exciting and there was hope. Hope for peace and a more open world. Hope that the arms race of the cold war would be over and the nuclear arsenal would be dismantled. Hope for a more humanitarian world.

Now we have revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, and the Yemen. It is my hope that peace and a better way of life ensue for the peoples of those countries. I can only imagine that the desire to revolt is born out of anger and frustration. To take to the streets and confront tanks takes both courage and hope that something better can be obtained. It is the result of years of people not being able to be heard until they feel they have nothing to lose.

Even when the protest is non-violent, it takes courage. The concepts of nonviolent civil disobedience taught by such individuals as Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King do offer an alternative to violent revolution and when there is a peaceful path for revolution, a violent revolution is not necessary. But even civil disobedience is not without danger, it means risking one’s life as the man who stood before the tank. It means sacrificing one way of life for something better and pouring energy into that ideal. It means going against those who are in power and resolutely, albeit peacefully, demanding change. Civil disobedience works when the participant has a belief that they can make their voice heard with enough persistence. It is the higher ground that can bring change to improve everyone’s lives and do so without the hatred that sometimes comes as an aftermath of violence. And after change reconciliation and solidification of the new ideals is necessary. Violent protest and revolution comes when there is no belief that those protesting will be heard and are willing to die to effect change.

One person can make a difference whether it is a man peacefully standing in front of a tank or another committing suicide to protest the seizure of his fruit stand.

Our Savage Nature

I watched the movie Twilight last night.  I have read the entire Twilight series and thought that the first book was a very sweet love story– even with the love interest being a vampire. Stephanie Meyer also touches on themes in the book about evil.  Edward, her vampire, considers himself a monster.  An evil monster and yet he and his entire family make the choice to not take human lives to feed themselves.  By their own choice they demonstrate an awareness of their own savage nature and they rise above it.  It is their awareness and conscious choice that makes them virtuous and they are working against their own instincts and nature.

I believe that humanity as a group is more or less savage in nature. A lack of resources and survival needs fuel this savageness and it mainly becomes clear in extreme situations where survival is not necessarily a guarantee.
Currently, living in the United States, I don’t necessarily witness many glimpses of the extremes of humanity’s savage nature. What is brought to the press are those instances of aberrant behavior where a murderer has chosen to take another person’s life– and this is all too common.  Or someone filled with hate and feeling threatened by the ‘differentness’ of another person commits a hate crime. Or someone commits robbery and it appears in the crime blotter of the local paper.
Of course there are unreported instances of unethical behavior. If there is a chance to gain surreptitiously, some people will take advantage of the situation.  I have read statistics stating that 30 percent of high schoolers will cheat on tests, 60 percent of high school students have stolen something, and 67 percent of the population has stolen something from work.
However, most people are harmless because it is easier to be so.  Community and the threat of being ostracized or punished keeps most people in line. There is more benefit to be had from being a good, law abiding citizen than not. Right?
I was reading the Sunday paper this morning and one of the inserts is Parade magazine.  The cover story on Parade magazine is “The World’s 10 Worst Dictators”. On the cover a sub-caption reads “In Zimbabwe, strongman Robert Mugabe (#1) has allowed a campaign of rape and violence against women: ‘When We Catch You, We Will Kill You'”. While I am a little put off at the sensational presentation of this information in Parade magazine, the information needs to be available and distributed. The ten men who are listed as “The World’s Worst Dictators” are the leaders of countries where such things as rape and murder are considered government policies to coerce their citizenry. In one of the countries it is acceptable to execute children for purported crimes.  In this country boys as young as 15  and girls as young as 9 can be executed. In another country there is no penal code and “trial defendants often cannot question witnesses”(Parade, March 22, 2009 p.5). In these countries the press is controlled and elections are only held to confirm the rule of the dictator. Humanity’s savage nature is brought to the fore in these countries and made to be the norm.
What’s worse is that the United States while condemning the human rights abuses in these countries continues to trade with seven of them, is dependent on four of them for oil, and one of them is the largest foreign creditor that the United States has. So while we can look at our lifestyle and creation of our insular notion of what is proper behavior and feel good about how civilized we as Americans are, we as Americans are condoning by our tacit refusal to be aware abuses in other countries.  We are only less savage by degrees than someone in one of these countries where human rights abuse is the norm  and who commits an atrocity because that has become the normalized behavior. Is our need for oil, the raw materials for manufacturing, or credit worth human suffering and death?
Turning my attention back to society within the United States it occurs to me further that there are thousands of small instances where cruelties are committed because they are the norm. Instances of discrimination or prejudice against anyone is a denying of who that person is as individual.  And often these instances are just accepted within the culture.
So what does make a person decent?  I believe it is an awareness of the savage nature of humanity and the decision to treat others with kindness. I believe it is the decision to orient oneself by one’s own internal compass of what constitutes right behavior and act better than society would consider acceptable.  I also believe that actions show the measure of a person.  We are all potential monsters but we can choose to be virtuous.