Wednesday, December 31, 2008

That End of Year Rambling Reflections Thing

Twenty years ago I read, The Origins of the Second World War, by British historian A.J.P. Taylor . Taylor was a left wing academic and fervent critic of the Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany. Yet his revisionist book originally published in 1961, provoked outrage among critics who accused Taylor of absolving Hitler for causing the war. Among Taylor’s conclusions was that World War Two,
“far from being premeditated, was a mistake, the result on both sides of diplomatic blunders.”
Too often we examine war’s causes with knee jerk sloganeering and perpetuate myths. Taylor opted to examine the conflict’s origins as it might appear to historians 100 years hence when it could be analyzed with more detachment. Not an easy task for someone who himself was so passionately and publicly engaged in opposing the Munich Agreement and the evil Hitler represented. Nonetheless, in his opening chapter Taylor wrote,
“I am concerned to understand what happened, not to vindicate or condemn. I was an anti-appeaser from the day that Hitler came to power, and no doubt should be again under similar circumstances. But the point has no relevance in the writing of history. The purpose of political activity is to provide peace and prosperity; and in this every statesman failed, for whatever reason. This is a story without heroes; and perhaps even without villains.”
Although I found Taylor’s perspective enlightening, I still believe Hitler’s foreign policy as well as his ideology, were the primary catalysts for war. Even so, as 2008 ends, I find myself reflecting upon Taylor’s scholarship and words. If as he suggested the “purpose of political activity” is to provide “peace and prosperity” then political activity worldwide stands indicted for callous ineptitude at best and chronic brutality at worst. If he were alive today, it’s doubtful that Taylor would find any heroes to praise. Rather, Taylor would find a world he has seen before: global economic calamity combined with barbarism.

Israel’s leadership is berserk in the name of self-defense while Hamas is bloodthirsty in the name of Palestinian liberation. Neither is advancing the cause of peace and prosperity for their people. The same can be said of the United States, India, Pakistan, Russia, every political actor in Afghanistan or Iraq, China, Europe, the entire Mid-East, Africa – too many damn places to name filled with genocide, famine, slavery and horrible lingering death in the name of God, land, country, power or greed. Nothing has really changed except that non-state actors have emerged to be as feared as superpowers used to be.

Who and what is to blame for this condition? Capitalism? Globalization? Corporations? Technology? Is too much religion to blame as killing is justified in the name of God? Many blame America's pursuit of empire or Islamic radicals dedicated to global jihad. I’ve blamed all of the above at one time or another.

We often blame political leadership for the horrors and failings of a society. For example, I’ve read quite a bit how their leadership is leading both the Israeli and Palestinian people astray, just as I complained for years that my country was grievously steered off course by President George W. Bush. Yet “political activity” as Taylor referenced in his book is not solely conducted by “statesmen” and “diplomats.” Political activity is also the province of humanity’s hearts and minds.

Many Israelis and Palestinians may oppose what is being done in their name but too many are on board with it too. Many Americans opposed the homicidal indecency of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld but the Bush Administration still retained enough support to remain in power and avoid accountability for their crimes. Osama Bin Laden and his henchman have successfully recruited a new generation of terrorists to their cause. In his time, Adolph Hitler reflected the aspirations of millions of Germans. We are all “political actors” whether we support, oppose or remain apathetic to a tribe, democracy or even a dictatorship. Thus my admiration for John Lennon's slogan,
"War Is over if you want it."
As the curtain closes on 2008 an era is supposedly ending and a new one beginning. Not merely with the changing of presidents but a generational change in leadership as well. And I am hopeful that in Barack Obama we will have a president of intelligence, decency and good sense – even if I don’t always agree with him. That is no small change and I applaud it. Indeed, millions of Americans and myself devoted time and money to help make it happen.

But the world at large is hardly poised to begin anew and Obama himself is leading a citizenry that looked the other way during many of the Bush Administration’s worst abuses. Hence, as Obama attempts to bring change with renewed diplomatic engagement and rehabilitate America’s reputation, he’s likely to find our power to shape events is limited. Extricating America from Iraq and stabilizing Afghanistan will be Herculean tasks in themselves. Assembling and maintaining a coalition for peace and prosperity both at home and abroad while simultaneously restoring government’s credibility as a check on private power will be a thankless job.

Ultimately, as much as any other cause, humanity’s collective hearts and minds are responsible for our planet’s lack of peace and prosperity. People with power continue to oppress and take from the weak and the weak either succumb or try to get even. There have been exceptions of course such as the enduring peace in Ireland and South Africa’s transition from apartheid. Events in recent weeks though from terrorism in India to the current conflict in Gaza, are a reminder how the old world is very much with us and will remain with us for a long, long time no matter who the president is.

But we have to keep trying until enough people finally want war to be over.

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