"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Saturday, January 30, 2010

You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train! Thank You Howard Zinn.


Judging by the State of the Union (as evidenced by current events and President Obama's recent address) the United States is indeed, as many claim, a Christian nation.  This is evidenced by our devout leaders constantly calling on the protection of Our Lady of Perpetual War, the patron saint of the Military-Industrial Complex.  For anyone who still harbored any hope that Obama might lead us to the Promised land, those hopes should have been soundly dashed as he uttered the words "national security" during his State of the Union address.  He essentially sealed the coffin on people's hopes of "change we can believe in", if by that we think of reducing the role of the military (and its associated spending), increasing humanistic diplomacy and foreign assistance, and increasing spending on "entitlements" such as education, health care, social security and critical infrastructure.

Of course, it would be too easy to blame Obama for this entire mess, but he is really just another in a long line of Presidents, each of whom has continued building this house of cards for most of our nation's history.  We should know that we cannot rely on Presidents to change a system over which even they now have little real control. Nearly every member of Congress is beholden to one or more corporate interests.  Many, if not most, of those in other important positions in Washington got there through the revolving governmental-corporate doors.  And now, the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, with which we bestow the ultimate care of those documents on which our nation's foundation rests, have given away the farm (or should I say "foundation" to corporate, moneyed interests.

It should be obvious to each of us now that the people's interests mean little to those in whom we have given far too much of our trust.  It should be evident that we cannot trust our elected leaders to make sound decisions without our oversight and involvement.  And it should be obvious that we cannot trust what our elected (and appointed) leaders tell us because, as journalist I.F Stone used to tell journalism students, "GOVERNMENTS LIE."  These were, according to Stone, the only two words they needed to remember from their time with him.

Although Stone was speaking to students of journalism, those two words apply to every citizen.  We must question everything presented by our government, and test it for truth.  To do so requires more than just critical thinking skills; it requires a depth of knowledge of history, and not just the history that we are commonly taught in school (the history that is written by the victors) but the history beneath the thin veneer of the party line.

The recent death of historian Howard Zinn made me realize how few historians have dared to challenge (as did Zinn) the historical status quo that gives students a single, homogenous narrative that holds up a system that works to sustain itself rather than the spiritual, physical and economic well-being of its people.  Of course, the writing of history is not a purely objective undertaking.  As Zinn himself admits,
I knew that a historian (or a journalist, or anyone telling a story) was forced to choose, out of an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit.  And that decision inevitably would reflect, whether consciously or not, the interests of the historian. (source: A People's History of the United States)
What is unique about Zinn is that he was much more than a mere historian; he believed that he could help people (particularly his history students) be:
not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it.  This of course, was a recipe for trouble. (from: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train)
In testing what we are told, or what we read about historical or current events, we must hold them up to a strong, critical light and test them for truth, using all the tools at our disposal.  And then, it is up to each of us to decide what we do with that information that we derive from such a critical analysis.  It may seem daunting to even begin to stand up to a system dominated by military power, corporate wealth and an antiquated political system, but we should always remember that we have power, should we choose to exercise it.  In his book, A People's History..., Zinn closes with the last lines from a poem by Shelley, written after the massacre carried out by the British government at Peterloo, Manchester in 1819.  Even without rest of the poem (which is powerful) these word carry Zinn's message:

'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.'
Indeed - We are many, they are few.  Let us (as Zinn said) not only be better informed, but use that knowledge to speak out against injustice and for a better world.  There is strength in our numbers if we choose to be in solidarity.  As Zinn's book says, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train", particularly one that is heading for disaster.  We can get this train on a different (and sustainable) track.  Thank you Howard Zinn.  We will miss you, but your works live on!



Thursday, January 14, 2010

No More Military Bases, or Stop The Empire; I Want to Get Off!


As I contemplate the pending anniversary of the birth of one of the great peacemakers of our time, Martin Luther King Jr., I find myself replaying portions of his powerful speeches and sermons in my head.  From racism to materialism to militarism (the three evils), Dr. King spoke truth to power in such a deep and compelling way that he raised the spirits of countless members of the downtrodden masses while simultaneously striking fear and hatred into the stony hearts of racists and militarists.  He warned us of the folly of our actions, but gave us hope that we might conquer these three evils, if only we would not lose sight of the core value of love and its associated nonviolence.  Of course, it was more complex than that, but that is the heart of it.

Today, nearly 42 years after Dr. King's death, we are still struggling to learn the hard lessons of love and nonviolence.  If U.S. military spending is any indicator, we have certainly not learned any lessons.  Based on government figures, the U.S. has (based fiscal year 2003) 6000 military bases in the U.S. and protectorates, and 702 bases overseas in roughly 130 countries.  This doesn't even begin to count U.S. bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and a number of other countries; one well researched article cited the probable total of overseas bases as closer to 1000.

Perhaps 7000 military bases wouldn't be such a big deal if people in the U.S. weren't staggering under the crushing weight of a crippled economy, failing educational system, a health care system that is causing far more deaths each month than terrorists have wrought, and the list goes on...  But we, the U.S. taxpayers, are shelling out well over 50% of our tax dollars to keep this military leviathan operating, even while our nation's infrastructure (both physical and human) crumbles.

But wait - What's this???  The U.S. wants to build another base???  The U.S. Navy is planning to build a base on Jeju Island (known as the Island of Peace), South Korea (roughly 500 miles south of the Korean Peninsula).  According to Bruce Gagnon, the "US will be jointly using the Navy base with the South Korean Navy as a port to deploy Aegis ships that will be used to help surround the coast of China and to give the US the capability to choke off China's ability to import 80% of its oil through the Malaka Straight that flows right off Jeju Island."  Hmm... Gunboats without the diplomacy?

Dr. King once said that, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom."  It is time to stop the military madness that is dragging our nation towards economic and spiritual collapse.  We cannot afford the (economic, diplomatic, and spiritual) costs of this ever expanding empire.

SAY NO to more military bases.  SAY NO to the Navy's plan for Jeju Island.  Bruce Gagnon has tirelessly worked to support the people of Jeju Island who are resisting the plan to build the new base.

We, the undersigned global organizations and individuals, call upon the South Korean and US governments to cancel all plans to build a Navy base on Jeju Island. The base will destroy coral reefs that have been listed as world heritage environmental sites by the UNESCO and will destroy the fishing and way of life of the people.
The deployment of naval Aegis destroyers, outfitted with missile defense systems, will be used to surround and provoke China and will make Jeju Island a prime target.
Jeju is called the peace island and must remain free of provocative military bases.
Please send an email stating your support for the appeal - with your name, city, state, and organization (if any) - to globalnet@mindspring.com.

Get your family, friends and co-workers to sign on as well.  What better way to honor Dr. King's memory and help the people of Jeju Island, than by resisting militarism.  We choose PEACE.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Real Faith... Real Action... Real Peacemakers

Dear Friends,

I have been at a loss for what to write to begin the new year. Everyone else has already looked back on 2009 as well as the entire past decade. No matter how one attempts to focus, it is all pretty nauseating. And so we approach a new year filled with extraordinary challenges. In the U.S. we face an ever growing Military Industrial Complex fueled by the continuing Global War on Terror, a cancerous Financial Predatory Complex fueled by supersized influxes of cash and superficial regulation, and an Energy/Corporate Industrial Complex that is still using resources (and spewing carbon dioxide) as if there is no tomorrow.

And of course, that's what it's all about - tomorrow. It's about how each of us can sleep at night knowing that we are preparing to leave future generations a legacy of endless war, bankruptcy (both moral and financial) and environmental degradation on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And therein lies the rub; we desparately need our imaginations to be able to envision something better for both ourselves and future generations. We need to ask ourselves the question, "Will our children one day thank us or curse us for having brought them into this world?"

This is a time for perserverance; forget the cynicism and pessimism. There is serious work to be done in the coming year; the words of theologian, philosopher, educator, civil rights leader and author, Howard Thurman come to mind:
When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart.
I will leave it to each of you to dig deep within to find your place in this picture. For now, I will leave you with a story of a peacemaker I recently had the pleasure to meet.

If you drive (or walk) by the corner of Second Avenue and Madison in downtown Seattle, Washington on any tuesday between 11:00am and 1:00pm, you will see a group of people standing with signs conveying a variety of peace and justice messages. You will also see a display of photos of every U.S. soldier (from Washington State) who has been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. If you stop at the information table you can write postcards to your Senators asking them to stop funding both these wars. And if you stick around long enough you may have the pleasure of meeting Joe Colgan, the person behind (and in the middle of) this vigil.

Joe Colgan, and his wife Patricia are long-time peace activists. From vigils protesting the white trains delivering nuclear warheads to the local Trident nuclear submarine base in Kitsap County in the 1970s to peace and justice work with neighbors and Catholic parishes in South King County in subsequent years, the Colgans have a deep committment to peace and justice for all.

This is not, however, the whole story. Joe and Patricia have raised eight children. One of them, Ben, enlisted in the Army, became a First Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, and was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on November 1, 2003, at age 30. And now, the Colgans "hold a much more personal vigil" (as my friend Jean Sundborg described it) every Tuesday in downtown Seattle. Joe pulls up a little before 11:00, and a few faithful regulars help unload all the gear. Besides the regulars, others show up from time to time to join in; everyone is welcome.

Joe Colgan faithfully stands on the corner of Second and Madison each week, both as a vigil to honor his son Ben and as a way to speak out for peace and justice. Both require strength and courage, which Joe has in abundance. Here is an excerpt from Joe's guest column in the Seattle Times, published November 21, 2007; it gives a glimpse into the deep, nonviolent roots of Joe's journey:
As a Catholic, am I wrong in my understanding that nonviolence, for Christians and all people of goodwill, is not merely tactical behavior but a person's way of being? It is the attitude and stance of one who is convinced of God's love and power and who is not afraid to confront evil with the weapons of love and truth alone.
Joe goes on to say that, "Those weapons of love and truth must be more than just words." And so, he puts his feet to the pavement - one might say putting his faith into action - and presents a model for us all. If you happen to be in the vicinity of Second and Madison some Tuesday, drop by and meet Joe and company. There are always extra signs in case you decide to join the vigil. And don't forget to sign a postcard.

Keeping the Faith in 2010,


Click here to read the article about Joe, written by Jean Sundborg, in the July 2009 Ground Zero for Nonviolent Action Newsletter. Thanks to Jean's article for much of the material in this post.