Saturday, July 2, 2011

June, 2011: Learning Nnew

Pictured here are Matthew Hoh (standing) and Zahir Wahab (sitting). Matthew is a former U.S. Marine and State Department employee who resigned in protest of U.S. policies in Afghanistan. Zahir is a former Fulbright Scholar now teaching in the U.S. who has traveled 14 times in the past ten years to his native Afganistan as a consultant to their Ministry of Education. Both addressed an audience of over 100 while sharing their views about the consequences and future of America`s longest war.

A simple summary of realities relating to Afganistan since the U.S. invasion of October 7, 2001 (less than a month after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center which killed over 3,000) are as follows: About 1,500 U.S. soldiers dead, with up to 150,000 Afgans killed, mostly civilian casualties due to indirect consequences of combat including harm done to infrastructure (hospital, clean water availability, crops), at a total estimated real cost (including rebuilding obligations and caring for surviving U.S. soldiers) of about $4 trillion. Adding to that total each month is $10 billion in military spending alone (with a cost of $1 million/year to maintain each of the 100,000 U.S. soldiers currently in Afganistan alongside over 50,000 other NATO troops). President Obama`s pledge this month to reduce the U.S. presence by 33,000 soldiers by September of 2012 means that troop levels at the end of his first term as President will be the same as when he began -- with less than 30% of Afganistan now allegedly under control of the Government of Hamid Zarzai.

As I was learning anew from these presentations, my mind returned to Gandhi`s observation that what is gained by force may only be retained by force. Since we reap what we sow, even that may not be true. The military force wielded here has also reaped havoc in neighboring Pakistan (and globally with Afganistan accounting for over 70% of heroin exports worldwide). Zahir noted how an estimated 1.5 million Afganis are heroin addicted (out of a total population of about 25 million). Matthew noted not only how poppy production has increased, but the number of roadside bombs (50/day) detonated in response to the foreign troop surge is also at a record high. In other words, while the most mighty military the world has ever known has successfully overthrown the Taliban government, the U.S. is unable to maintain what gains it has made on the ground. A vastly superior power to inflict harm clearly does not translate to any corresponding ability to control others or to build greater harmony for the future.

It would be well for the Israeli government to take a lesson from the same law of Karma. They also have been and will continue to reap what they sow with regards to the occupied West Bank and Gaza. $3 billion in aid per year (or more) from the U.S. will not change this reality. Just one year ago my wife and I were in Bethlehem and experiencing the military occupation of the West Bank. This week we are watching with great concern as a flotilla of nonviolent activists prepare to debark from Greece with the intent to break the blockade of Gaza. Our close friend, Kathy Kelly, will be on one of the boats which the Israeli military have pledged to stop by all means necessary. The flotilla action occurring in May of 2010 resulted in 9 demonstrators being killed by the Israelis. The current flotilla has one third of the participants Jewish, including several Israeli citizens and World War II Holocaust survivors. May the courageous nonviolence of this flotilla present a challenge to military force that no amount of superior violence can defeat.

Speaking our truth to those in power is empowering in itself! Maybe that is what is most threatening to those in positions of power. As an educator, in the classroom I have seen many teachers (in a positions of power) also be reluctant to encourage student empowerment. Too often we paternalistically want those under our care to accept the Truth as we expound it – rather than to encourage them to care enough about themselves to advocate for a point of view even if that might diverge from our own. Complete honesty on my part would reveal that the tension between democracy and dictatorship can be easily found in my own teaching style. I should be (and sometimes am) more factually informed than my students – and dictate (when in lecture mode) what I believe to be true. When creative minds in the classroom find me either factually incorrect (outdated?) or confusing value judgment with fact, however, I am grateful. Such empowered students teach the teacher how to improve on a Truth previously held that needs correcting! Democracy then overcomes the dictator! So it is that speaking truth to those in power should be both valued and rewarded rather than discouraged and even punished.

Spring Quarter final exams ended our academic year at the beginning of June. Out of over 100 students enrolled in my four courses that term, 5 people complained about their course grades, but only one case left me uncomfortable. That one person had improved exam performance from an ``F`` on the first exam, to a ``D`` on the second, achieving with great effort a low ``C`` on the last. That person spoke to me their truth that a ``C`` course grade should be theirs based upon low ``Cs`` on two paper assignments which were together worth the same as an exam. Had their attendance been better, a ``C`` would have been both justified and cause for celebration. Because this person questioned my authority, I then asked why so many classes had been missed. This allowed me to learn that this person had transportation issues coming to a campus distant from their home, just because they wanted to have me as an instructor! So, ultimately, I had awarded a ``D`` to someone who, in the final analysis, was being punished for wanting me as an instructor! With this realization, I excused the absences and changed the grade to ``C`` (passing). Speaking Truth had touched my heart and justice was more closely achieved.

Life often provides realities which can be seen from a great complexity of points of view. This led Gandhi to embrace the Jain concept of anekantavada (the many-sidedness of Truth) which allowed him to both communicate with and learn from those with whom he was in disagreement. The situations relating to Afganistan, to Gaza, and to classroom conflicts are often far more complex than we may realize. When others confront our view as to what is True, let us thank them for the information they provide and be willing to change in spite of whatever embarrassment can come from changing. What do we have to lose? An oversized ego and an image of consistency and strength. What do we have to gain? A little humility and an the ability to sleep better at night knowing true strength comes from admitting our errors and understanding a situation more completely from multiple perspectives.

The only sure Truth is that we all, and always, have much to learn.

As the summer month of July begins, the Sonnleitner household has two new members: Peter Szigeli, a friend of my son Shaman who is staying with us as he considers relocating from Los Angeles to our fine city of Portland, Oregon. Iris (a friend from Ascension Church) also has moved in for a likely duration of several months as income from here work helps her husband and sons in Mexico to more easily complete building their home there. Our last available bedroom remains available for guests as the need may arise between now and August when our friends Stany and Shanty Thomas arrive from India. That said, we can always accommodate 4-6 more people on hide-a-beds and futons in case of emergency. What is even better, my employment is only half time in the summer, so my wife AND I can have more time to share with those who drop in during these few months.

Whether it be in person or through communications across a great distance, know that we enjoy sharing with you. Whatever response you may have to views expressed here is also much welcomed. Let us learn from one another anew and undertake action to more effectively build a better world based on relationships of respect.