Care about People

As a quick follow-up to last week’s post, I encountered a quotation recently which was super relevant but I forgot to include. No commentary, just a line from the writer James Baldwin who said, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

What a beautiful thing unconditional love is.

Anyway, we’re in this week now so we’ll move on. This week has held… not a whole lot for me. Surprise. I have fallen once more into the unemployed, unmotivated bleh of nothingness that has become a bit of an annual affair for me. Still applying and things but it’s a big yikes. Whatever.

I have also been reading in the sun, one of my favorite things in the world, as you know. I have been trying to have friends, as you know, and trying to balance being honest about my needs with listening and honoring their needs. It’s hard to do both simultaneously, work in progress.


Because nothing is happening in my life, I would like to talk for a moment about the world and the people in it.

I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned it on here before, but I have been to Russia. Twice, in fact, in the same summer. First, I went on tour with my university choir and then, only a couple weeks after our return, I went to study in St. Petersburg for six weeks. It was such an experience.

It is not my place to give you a rundown on recent Russian political history, current events in Russia, or the geopolitical dynamics involving Russia. Though, if you’re interested, I would encourage even a cursory look into those topics (as long as you remain humble about it; a cursory look isn’t going to make you any kind of expert). But those things are on my mind because things are happening and they matter to me because I’m interested but they also should matter at least a little to you because you’re a part of this world.

I do keep up on world news, because I find it interesting and I have some higher-level background on the subject than others may. And I like to pay special attention to a few places that have grabbed my heart in often random but definitely meaningful ways (see: Croatia).  But I bring up Russia as a place to start because I have several memories, specific and vivid (at least relative to my memory) memories, that speak so loudly to the kind of international understanding and across-boundaries/through-barriers camaraderie that is possible among people who are so very different and whose countries are not, shall we say, supposed to be particularly friendly.

Two fictional moments that I ponder often:

  • in The Phantom Tollbooth when one of the princesses says “Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in the pond; and whenever you’re sad, no one anywhere can be really happy.”
  • in The Two Towers when the ents refuse to act and Pippin says “But you’re a part of this world! Aren’t you?”

We cannot all be responsible for keeping track of all that is going on in the world. And we should not be condemned to perpetual sadness because people somewhere are sad. That is not what I am advocating here. We have to live our lives, as they’re the only ones we’re able to live.

Acknowledging that, however, I think we do bear two responsibilities when it comes to thinking about issues in the world on a global level. First, though we don’t need to keep up with every single thing that is going on (as much as I am an advocate for reading world news), we ought to be aware that things are tough in the world. That we are blessed. That problems exist in other places, for other people, and those problems matter.

Second, as obvious and ridiculous as it may sound, we need to remember that the world is populated by human beings. Some would try to tell us that certain people–from a certain neighborhood/region/country, with a different sexual orientation or gender identity, who speak a different language, who are differently abled, who are otherwise overtly different–are distinct on some fundamental level and that they are not like you. This is a lie. Our differences matter but they are not fundamental. We are we.

I read yesterday that Americans are much more supportive of dropping nuclear bombs on people than I thought. When asked why, many respond that it is a quick, painless death and a sure way to achieve the desired results. But when people are given information about the actual effects are–the horrific, grueling, gruesome effects that nuclear weapons have on the human body–support drops dramatically.

So please. I know that you have to live your lives, that we are all inevitably trapped in a sphere that, on some level, we cannot make any larger. We simply don’t have the capacity. But please, please, care for your fellow people. They are facing problems, too, and they are, deep in their core, exactly like you.  Refuse to believe that any human being is less worthy of love, safety, provision, or life.

Loving your neighbor isn’t about who your neighbor is. It’s about who you are.

Cessation of Hostilities is Not Peace

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one hundred years ago, something ended and something began.

The peace after the first World War was hard-won but it was also half-hearted. Fighting stopped but many issues remained either unresolved or resolved poorly. It could have been a time of great hope and instead proved to be the intermezzo between two conflagrations.

In my studies of international relations, the term negative peace is generally used to refer to the absence of war, while positive peace indicates the presence of just, peaceful, and equitable systems. Clearly, the latter is as elusive as unicorns in Sunday bonnets because I’m going to go out on a limb and say that positive peace has never been a reality on this good earth.

I don’t really know what else to say about this upcoming anniversary. In my experience, the topic of the war and ensuing events tends to get short shrift in the US. During my time at Exeter, I took a class on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the first-hand readings for that class repeatedly made me weep. The first day of the Somme– 1 July, 1916–was and remains the bloodiest day in British military history.

And, in my current context, that makes me think of the US. The day when the most Americans died in war was the Battle of Antietam in 1862. Americans fighting Americans.

I will tell you, I am not happy with the results of the US election this week. My fears were not realized but my hopes were disappointed. It could have been worse but it could have been so much better. In Washington, they supported some gun and public safety measures but rejected the carbon fee. In Michigan, I supported all three initiatives and all three passed, but my district’s Republican Congressional representative was reelected. Political mixed bags are rather par for the course but still.

Lots of exciting ground was broken nationally–for LGBTQ+ candidates, women, people of color. Lots of things happening and there are good things among them, so there’s that, at least.

I was going to write this whole post about the anniversary of the armistice, but here we are. In many ways, though, it’s a similar kind of feeling. No war ended, of course. But there was an opportunity for some structural change and I feel like most of that opportunity was squandered.

This is all just kind of processing. These are just my initial thoughts and feelings. I don’t really consider myself a huge politico or policy wonk (or whatever bizarre term you prefer) but over the past few years I’ve gotten a great deal more into it. Simply put, I’ve recognized that all of these things effect me. They impact me.

On Facebook, I’ve seen a little saying going around. “You can’t say you love someone and then vote for people who will hurt them.” And I don’t have much else to say at this juncture.

The Gift Shop at the Edge of the War

In an atmosphere maybe eight steps down from impending doom (as regards expected missile firings) and a feeling like it was any ordinary day, last Saturday I went to North Korea and lived to tell the tale. The day went sort of like this:

I got up early(ish) to get into the city center to meet up with the tour, made sure I was on the right bus, and drove about an hour to the edge of the civilian control line, a buffer zone created by the south to give the actual DMZ some extra breathing space. And yes, for your reference, all that follows took place really only an hour casual drive from the center of Seoul.

So let me explain a little of the political/military geography of the border area. The border itself is called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) because the war is not actually over, they just signed a ceasefire and the ‘border’ became the last point of hostile contact between the armies. A small buffer area on either side of the MDL was created to keep the armies apart for the ceasefire and this is the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. On the southern side, they added an additional barrier zone called the Civilian Control Line (CCL) within which the Korean military is basically in charge, though some normal people do live there. I don’t really understand all the complexities of it (and believe you me it is complex) but that’s the gist.

Anyway, we drove up to the CCL and got our passports cursorily checked by the South Korean army (colloquially known as ROK soldiers for the Republic of Korea–as opposed to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Once inside the CCL, we first went to a train station. This station, on the line from Seoul to Pyongyang, served briefly as a cargo holding area while the two countries were operating the Kaesong Industrial Complex. That was a set of factories financed by Southern companies and mostly worked by Northern employees in an effort at rapprochement. It was shut down after some continuing conflict between the two but may be opened again eventually. The South would really like the rail line to be totally open because it would connect the South by land to China, Russia, and even Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, among others. As it is, however, it’s an empty, though modern, station that serves as the last stop in the South.

Next up was a stop at Tunnel #3. This is a small tunnel fairly deep underground dug by the North under the DMZ in order to support a supposed invasion. It is the third such tunnel found, of four, and who knows how many others there may be, if any. Once discovered, the North obviously collapsed their end and the South put in place cameras and a great deal of dynamite. And then opened it to tourists–but more on that later.

Driving around the CCL, one encounters a great deal of dynamite. It’s typically in big towers next to the road, or else unmarked overpass-type things. These are meant to be exploded in the event of an invasion so as to bloc the road and prevent tanks from taking the highway to Seoul which, you’ll recall, is only an hour away.

The last stop in the morning was an observation post atop a small mountain/hill. From here, you could see the DMZ, the Industrial Park, and the nearest North Korean city. Unfortunately for us, we had some pretty terrible haze that day so our vision was considerably obscured. We could sort of make some things out and I guess that’s going to have to be good enough for me.

After lunch, we made a quick stop at a park just outside the CCL commemorating the bridge across which prisoners of war were exchanged after the ceasefire. Here were an abundance of prayer ribbons and mementos, tokens of families divided and a country of hopefuls wishing for reunification. Obviously, there was a quasi-fair-theme park vibe going on next door, and there were several restaurants (including a Popeye’s) and a convenience store. You could climb up to the roof and look out over the river past the CCL and, in decent weather, perhaps into the DMZ itself.

After a change of bus, we headed back across the CCL and straight on into the DMZ for a brief stop at Camp Boniface, he headquarters of the UN-administered mission along the border. There, we received a little presentation about the history of the zone, events that had occurred at the Joint Security Area (JSA), and what they do there. The JSA is a small complex of buildings that housed negotiations for the ceasefire and a number of talks since. There is a large building for each side and a few small ones in the middle. There is also the set of buildings administered by neutral country observers–the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission or NNSC– since the end of the Soviet bloc Sweden, Switzerland, and sometimes Poland (previously Czechoslovakia was also a member).

Then we hopped on a base bus which took us to the JSA, walked quietly in double file through the ROK building and over to the building in which we could actually cross the MDL and enter the North (in a technical and, let me tell you, very real sense). We took a moment back at Camp Boniface to look through the gift shop and then we were finished. We drove back to Seoul. That was it.

Just before leaving, I was talking with one of the other tourists on my bus, a German chemistry teacher, about how strange it all was. Surreal. Not only the experience itself, crossing into North Korea, but also the whole feeling of the tour. The fact that there was a tour. It somehow (not somehow, very clearly) felt wrong to commodify tragedy and what is literally a war without a peace treaty. And yet, there we both were, participating in said commodification. I even bought a small souvenir, I’m a little ashamed to admit, because I simply couldn’t not.

As much as I’m generally against capitalism (you know what, scratch that ‘generally’) and harbor moderate distaste for democracy, the tour and the numerous gift shops epitomize South Korea. The whole point of the war was Capitalism and Democracy. So it’s fitting that overpriced souvenirs are on sale less than a mile from one of the most dangerous/undangerous places in the world. It makes me uncomfortable but it also makes me marvel at the tenacity of humans who have decided what they believe.

Anyway, it was early evening when I returned, just outside Seoul Plaza. Walking to the metro station there, I saw a great deal of something which, upon investigation, turned out to be a book festival. In the stunning goldish yellow of the last couple hours of daylight, I searched for and found an English-language table of used books and walked away with the Wal-Mart copy of Robinson Crusoe which I’ve never read but think I’ll enjoy when I finally get around to it.

The end of a surreal day, crowned with an impulsive book buy. I’m still not really sure how I feel about everything. In particular, I’m not sure how I feel about the gift shop that’s practically in the middle of a frozen war, but I can’t say it’s disrespectful. It knows exactly what it’s doing.

This Beautiful, Broken Speck

I’m going to start off with cats because today’s topic is pretty heavy.

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BubbaCamaro2017-5-9

“War! I did not hate the enemy, I hated the spirit that made war possible.”

I first encountered this sentiment in an exhibit at the British Library on the Great War, printed on the wall next to an original manuscript for Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. Mabel Dearmer, a British woman who would later die serving as a nurse in Serbia, did not like war. She continued in that same letter, “…I envied the proud mother who sends her sons, proud of them, proud of the war that calls them out, proud of the God of battles. But that God is not my God, and my heart was heavy.”

I’ve had war sort of on the mind of late. I do not think there will actually be a war, but this is the closest I’ve come to its possibility in my immediate surroundings. South Korea elected a new president on Tuesday and he seems to want a much more conciliatory approach to relations with the North (Sunshine Policy 2.0?). And, of course, I am thinking about World War I because we are still in the midst of its 100th anniversary. And also, people hating other people.

Some of you will be familiar with the photograph below, often dubbed “The Pale Blue Dot.” It even has it’s own Wikipedia page. It is a picture of Earth as seen from approximately 3.7 billion miles away in the vastness of space. It takes up just over one tenth of one pixel, caught in the middle-ish of the rightmost band of light.

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The Pale Blue Dot, credit to NASA

Carl Sagan, who asked that the picture be taken, said this about the image:

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

I’ve thought about joining the armed forces. Not particularly hard, but I’ve considered it. I’ve contemplated what kind of war I would fight in, how I would handle it, what I would think about it. I honestly am not certain how I would react if our country went to war again, especially if the draft was instituted.

I’m very much a flawed individual but I think that I’ve determined for myself that there is no jus ad bellum. No just cause to go to war. There may be situations in which I think a war should occur, but there is no justice in it.

I’d like to think of myself as a pretty empathetic person but sometimes people totally confound me. It’s like when you’re watching a movie or show practically yelling at the character not to do the stupid thing because we all know how it turns out and then they do the stupid thing anyway. How could someone conceivably act and think like this? How could they be so stupid, so blind, so cruel and hateful? I mean, I’ve taken enough classes on conflict to know how, at least sort of. My undergrad capstone class was literally Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing. Still.

I want to preserve and cherish. I want kindness and compassion.

We live on a cosmic speck. It is full of incredible beauty, miracles, wonders. But it is terribly, if not irreparably, damaged. I truly do not believe that this peninsula will go to war, at least not soon. But come on, you have to actively goad conflict for things to feel like this, the status quo was (I almost don’t want to say it) better. Who do you think you are and what are you doing? This hate thing, this war, what are they good for?

Absolutely nothing.