LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
15 December 2004
Great news! It appears that I was wrong to blame all of America's woes on the rise in medieval pseudo-religious conservatism in America.
Recent polls suggest that a majority of Americans (even Americans!) are a bunch of pinko progressives who support socialized health care, equal rights for women and gays and minorities, firm separation of church and state, campaign finance reform, and tax cuts for the poor instead of the wealthy, and generally show a heartening propensity toward common sense and compassion for their fellow man.
Unfortunately, this patriotic, freedom-loving majority of Americans gets smacked down because they are pluralistic and open-minded and generally minding their own business, while the hoarders and fearmongers are united like marching ants behind single-minded, unhealthy ideas that, like so many Fox reality series, cleverly appeal to our basest natures.
In short, people who live their lives based on fear and greed control the media, which makes it look like they are the mainstream. But they are not. They are just yelling the loudest.
The majority are kinda embarassed by these guys, and kinda wish they would just chill out and shut up (am I right?). But they are too busy living their own lives (or struggling against foreign military occupation and oppression, as the case may be) to do much about it.
A Lebanese guy recently wrote an eloquent article about this very subject:
"William Butler Yeats once wrote: 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.'
If you think about it, that's actually great news. People who want to chill out and get along are the vast majority, West and East, North and South. This becomes obvious to anyone who travels and talks to people (every traveler I've asked agrees wholeheartedly -- especially Westerners in the Middle East) instead of just watching the worst we're capable of on the news.
"He was commenting on violence in the 19th century, but his words resonate today. In the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world it seems that the best among us are paralyzed and muted while the most extreme proceed to determine the world in which we all must live."
An aside: A British newspaper was once accused of printing only bad news and, as a joke, just to show people how boring it would be, printed a whole newspaper that was only good news: healthy babies that were born, people who survived accidents or routine surgery, a charming new community center that was going up as planned, a nice day when the royal family were all getting along.
Anyway... the best in us is already here, and it's already the majority. And it seems to be growing. The absurd and grotesque circus that the media has become might be an indication that the old systems are in their death throes. They're dying hard, but they're dying. (Or maybe just struggling against the difficult maturing process they know they'll have to go through.) They can wreck everything before they go down, destroy entire regions in their final frantic fits, and they seem to be doing so...
They figured everyone would say, "OK, you're right, good news is boring and no one wants to read it. Go back to the murders and corruption and filth and devastation that everyone finds so entertaining."
But I read it, and it put me in a great mood for the rest of the day. I thought, "You know, we're not doing so bad after all! A lot of really great things go on every day that we never hear about." I was glowing.
Maybe doctors should think about prescribing good news before they turn to Prozac.
But we *can* take the world down a more sane path before too many more cultures and natural resources are liquidated. We just need to pool our human resources and make use of the power we have.
But... most genuinely open-minded, friendly and curious pluralists are not control freaks, almost by definition. So they're in a bit of a bind if they want to run the world -- if they want to wrest control from the superfreak psychopaths running it now.
But we can't just lay around minding our own business while the fools continue to speak for us, the bodies pile up, the corals die, and the air goes brown. So much was given to us. We have so much potentential.
If we let our brotherhood of civilizations and our exquisitely beautiful natural systems run down by default, like so many rats on an island, what will we tell our kids?
One thing we can't tell them, since they'll know we grew up in a rich country in a globalized, educated age: We didn't know.
The Laws of the Earth and the Laws of Economics
by Donella Meadows
The first commandment of economics is: grow. Grow forever. Companies must get bigger. National economies need to swell by a certain percent each year. People should want more, make more, earn more, spend more, ever more.
The first commandment of the Earth is: enough. Just so much and no more. Just so much soil. Just so much water. Just so much sunshine. Everything born of the earth grows to its appropriate size and then stops. The planet does not get bigger, it gets better. Its creatures learn, mature, diversify, evolve, create amazing beauty and novelty and complexity, but live within absolute limits.
Now, when there's an inconsistency between human economics and the laws of planet Earth, which do you think is going to win?
Economics says: compete. Only by pitting yourself against a worthy opponent will you perform efficiently. The reward for successful competition will be growth. You will eat up your opponents, one by one, and as you do, you will gain the resources to do it some more.
The Earth says: compete, yes, but keep your competition in bounds. Don't annihilate. Take only what you need. Leave your competitor enough to live. Wherever possible, don't compete, cooperate. Pollinate each other, create shelter for each other, build firm structures that lift smaller species up to the light. Pass around the nutrients, share the territory. Some kinds of excellence rise out of competition; other kinds rise out of cooperation.
You're not in a war, you're in a community.
Which of those mandates makes a world worth living in?
Economics says: use it up fast. Don't bother with repair; the sooner something wears out, the sooner you'll buy another. That makes the gross national product go round. Throw things out when you get tired of them. Throw them to a place where they become useless. Grab materials and energy to make more. Shave the forests every 30 years. Get the oil out of the ground and burn it now. Make jobs so people can earn money, so they can buy more stuff and throw it out.
The Earth says what's the hurry? Take your time building soils, forests, coral reefs, mountains. Take centuries or millennia. When any part wears out, don't discard it, turn it into food for something else. If it takes hundreds of years to grow a forest, millions of years to compress oil, maybe that's the rate at which they ought to be used.
Economics discounts the future. Two dollars ten years from now is worth only one dollar now, because you could invest that dollar at seven percent and double it in ten years. So a resource ten years from now is worth only half of what it's worth now. Take it now. Turn it into dollars.
The Earth says: nonsense. Those invested dollars grow in value only if something worth buying grows too. The earth and its treasures will not double in ten years. What will you spend your doubled dollars on, if there is less soil, less oil, dirtier water, fewer creatures, less beauty? The earth's rule is: give to the future. Lay up a fraction of an inch of topsoil each year. Give your all to nurture the young. Never take more in your generation than you give back to the next.
The economic rule is: do whatever makes sense in money terms.
The Earth says money measures nothing more than the relative power of some humans over other humans, and that power is puny compared with the powers of the climate, the oceans, the uncounted multitudes of one-celled organisms that created the atmosphere, that recycle the waste, that have lasted for three billion years. The fact that the economy, which has lasted for maybe 200 years, puts zero value on these things means only that the economy knows nothing about value -- or about lasting.
Economics says: worry, struggle, be dissatisfied. The permanent condition of humankind is scarcity. The only way out of scarcity is to accumulate and hoard, though that means, regrettably, that others will have less. Too bad, but there is not enough to go around.
The Earth says: rejoice! You have been born into a world of self-maintaining abundance and incredible beauty. Feel it, taste it, be amazed by it. If you stop your struggle and lift your eyes long enough to see Earth's wonders, to play and dance with the glories around you, you will discover what you really need. It isn't that much. There is enough. As long as you control your numbers, there will be enough for everyone and for as long as you can imagine.
We don't get to choose which laws, those of the economy or those of the Earth, will ultimately prevail. We can choose which ones we will personally live under -- and whether to make our economic laws consistent with planetary ones or to find out what happens if we don't.
Next up, a letter from JOHN PAUL, my awesome half-Palestinian Christian friend from Horse Cave, Kentucky (West Bank Southern Pride!), who does counseling at a Christian high school here in Ramallah:
11 December 2004
Greetings from Ramallah!
As you probably already know, Yasser Arafat died last month and I am sure that many of you watched the scenes from your television set. Being in Ramallah, there was no way that I was going to miss anything during that week.
The morning they announced his death there were demonstrations in the streets that lasted all day long. The people were grieving, but I will never those few hours waiting at the Mukata (Arafat's compound) for the helicopters from Cairo bringing him to Ramallah.
Some say there were 30,000 people, others say 300,000 [I've heard estimates as high as 700,000 and wouldn't be surprised -- it would have been well over a million if Israel hadn't closed all the checkpoints]. I have no idea, but I can surely say that in my life I have never seen so many people in one single place.
The first hour before he arrived I stayed in with the crowds of people down at the compound walls. On the other side of the wall from where I was standing is the place where the helicopters landed. After a while it got a bit too crowded so I slipped out to the hillside with a few thousand others to watch from a distance.
All of the rooftops of the houses and buildings surrounding the Mukata were lined with cameramen, journalists and spectators. People rented their houses out for a day to accommodate the news agencies. As the hours passed the masses grew until finally the compound was entirely overrun. I'll never forget that moment when the helicopters were spotted in the distance. Some were cheering, some were clapping, some were crying, and some were praying. I just watched.
Emotion consumed the atmosphere and it left me breathless. I will never forget that day. Arafat is a controversial figure. I know that, and it is not my intention here to start a debate, but whether or not he was good or bad, he has been the primary figure of the Palestinian national movement for more than forty years, and that is no small thing for Palestinians. His face represented the effort to regain all that they have lost, their lands, their homes, their lives, their dignity. The face of a fifty-year old struggle for freedom was buried in a day, and there was no other place I would have rather been that right here with my people. May God bring comfort to those who mourn and hope for the renewed opportunities for peace.
With regards to school, I cannot say enough about the work here. We are at the end of the semester and tomorrow the students will begin their weeklong midyear exams.
There have been two lifelines for me in Ramallah. The first is my family and the second are my students. Without the both of them, life here would be difficult. I have gotten to know the students well, especially the seniors. Right now most of them are at the end of the process of choosing colleges and completing applications. I have students applying to schools all over the world: Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Italy, UK, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, USA.
One of the difficulties of college counseling is becoming familiar with all of the different processes that higher education takes from country to country. Before I came here, I already had things figured out for the States, but other countries do things differently. Nevertheless, the students are working me hard to complete transcripts and school recommendations before Christmas break.
Those students in the senior class, I cannot say enough about the quality of the time we have spent together. They come in my office and we sit and talk about school, about life and about faith. They seem to be comfortable around me and I am with them.
Last month we had two students propose to the administration that they be sent to Amman, Jordan as school representatives at the yearly Model United Nations (MUN) conference, and they requested me as their chaperone. It was approved as a pilot project for only two students and if the trip proved beneficial, the school would opt to participate each semester, one in Amman and the other in Cairo.
So, we went and I will say without hesitation that it was one of best educational experiences I have had in life. The conference is designed exactly like the United Nations. There are different general assemblies, an economic and social assembly, the Security Council and the International Court of Justice.
In each, the students each adopt a country to represent in their respective forums. They make speeches and debate resolutions to the topics designated for their particular assembly. The issues include discussions about underdeveloped countries, child labor, procedures for dealing with countries who violate POW rights, arms trade, oil crisis, international banking regulations, espionage, AIDS epidemic, the Israeli security fence and much more.
The trip to MUN was amazing. We not only learned about the function and nature of the United Nations, but also about the various world issues at hand. Students typically spend two months researching and preparing for the conference. They have to know in detail every aspect of the country being represented. Besides all of this, it was simply fun. The conference was held in a very nice hotel and we met people from all over the Middle East and Africa.
We had the time of our lives, and it was exciting to watch the students get special attention because they were the only ones from Palestine at a conference of more than three hundred students.
In some ways, the conference reminded me of the many summer weeks I spent in church camp as a kid. For us, church camp wasn't as much about church as it was meeting other people, and especially girls!
Osama, one of my seniors, was placed at a table beside a beautiful young girl from Kuwait. They had a lot of time to talk and hang out during all of those long meetings and dinners.
Well, now he tells me that they are in love, that they have spoken to their families, and are applying to the same college in the UK!!! Isn't that funny? I told him he better cool off a little bit, especially since he has a girlfriend back home! Anyways, what can I say? I remember doing the same stuff at church camp!
Coming back into Israel through the northern bridge, I unfortunately had some difficulties at the border. They only gave me a one-month visa because I don't have a work permit to be working in Israel/Palestine. I have tried numerous times to bring one from the proper authorities but they are usually unresponsive and rude to us. I suppose the government isn't interested in accommodating people who are interested in peace. So, the teenage passport officer gave me one month to obtain a work permit, which I have since tried to do again unsuccessfully.
I have now been in Ramallah for eight months and I must say that it was been the most interesting, challenging and amazing months of my life. I am happy here and every day I watch my relationships grow. The ministry among my students, family and friends is outstanding. I think that I take from them more than I give, or at least that is how I feel.
As I said earlier, the two lifelines in Ramallah have been my family and the students. I take pleasure in both and they are my life here. When/if I leave after a couple of years it will be hard to let them go. In the mean time though, I will continue to pour myself into these relationships, build on our work at the school and share in the Christian community here in Ramallah.
Many of you have written to me in response to my emails or just to ask about the situation here. I always welcome feedback and/or any inquiries about the conflict. And, questions from my Quaker friends who might have specific interests about the school or Quakerism in Ramallah are always welcome. Until next time, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Thank you for your continuing love and support!
Thanks for letting me post your story, John.
I don't write about my positive experiences as much as John does, because I feel like I have a job to do in reporting the under-reported tragedies and injustices that I see daily. Maybe it's silly to think I can make any difference, but the situation is overwhelming to me; I feel like I'm living in a house that's on fire, and the neighbors are all ignoring it. When I have a minute to sit down and write, it's hard to think about much of anything but the fire.
But, for the record, my months in Ramallah have been some of the most challenging, rewarding, and affirming of my life, too. John said he feels like he takes more than he gives, and I feel the same, no question.
For every bad thing I write about, there are just as many great things, beautiful things, new friends, fun nights out, sunsets, relationships growing and social circles expanding. As hard as things are sometimes, there's nowhere I'd rather be. The friends I've made and the things we share make it all worthwhile and help me tremendously on the difficult path to becoming a more complete and honest human being. Insha'Allah.
Thanks for reading, Happy Holidays, and God (whatever your definition of God happens to be) bless!