600 human voices are a powerful thing, so when they opened tonight with, “Of the Father’s love begotten/ E’er the worlds began to be,” the tears came. And they kept coming over the next two hours. Luther College knows how to put me through the wringer.

I make a big act of being a scrooge at Christmastime, but the truth of the matter is that I love the sort of Christmas I experienced tonight. (It’s all the shiny trappings that bring out my inner Ebenezer.) I sing at least one Christmas carol to myself every day during Advent, a season that prepares me for the shock of Christmas– Immanuel. “How lovely shines the morning star! O, what a radiance from afar that gives us light and comfort.” I think it utterly appropriate that this season in the church calendar takes place in some of the darkest time of the year here. What better symbol for a God that just won’t stay away from us than a star lighting up the night?

So all night long I let holy words wrench tears from my eyes. I’d give just about anything to be the walls of that auditorium, so I could hear it again. All my anger and rage stood no chance against the peace and comfort of incarnation. I’ll be mad again. I’ll probably be mad tomorrow. But tonight, “the peace that passeth understanding” makes a little sense to me.

I’ll leave you with a text from Tennyson that they sang tonight. And yes, this one made me bawl.

Ring Out, Wild Bells!

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But bring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

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Estamos en el Mundial!

September 3, 2010

On October 14, in the wee hours of the Belfast morning, I was watching a soccer game. The US was playing Costa Rica in Washington DC in their final World Cup qualifying match. A win or tie would mean that the US finished first in its qualifying group. Four minutes into stoppage time the score was Costa Rica 2, US 1. Then Jonathan Bornstein got on the end of a corner kick and tied the game up, on what was essentially the last play of the game. I had a bit of a party in my room in Belfast, and probably woke up some of my neighbors. Then about a week later I heard this: (Start listening at 20 seconds, stop at 1:02.)

That was Honduran radio calling the US-Costa Rica game. You see, because Costa Rica didn’t win it meant that Honduras was going to the World Cup. “Estamos en El Mundial.” As an American, I take World Cup qualification for granted. There’d be a meltdown if we DIDN’T qualify. Honduras, though? They hadn’t made the big stage since 1982. This was a big deal. It brought home to me how perspective on an event changes ones perception of that. So that’s what I’m going to talk to you about today. How can changing your perspective allow you to see things that you couldn’t see before? How can changing your perspective let you see God differently?

Sometimes the lessons from a change in perspective aren’t so earthshaking. I learned in Jackson that watermelon is serious business. If someone asks you whether or not you want a rind on it don’t say, “I don’t care.” In Russia, shut the door behind you when you go into your apartment. Fail to do this and the police will show up with their guns drawn. (And another point, if the police show up with their guns drawn, make sure you know where your visa is.) If you’re at Casement Park in Belfast watching Armagh and Monaghan play a Gaelic football match, don’t refer to the Republic of Ireland as “the South.” Your friends will correct you, and then not look at you for a bit.

But it took going to Jackson for race relations to really matter to me. It took going to Russia for the pratfalls of international relations to have faces—faces of friends. It took going to Belfast for me to really believe that religious reconciliation is possible and necessary, even if it is difficult and tear your hair out frustrating.

Travel will mess with you, but you should do it. Leave here, leave where you’re from, and go somewhere else, somewhere alien. You’ll be disoriented at first, and your first instinct might be to double down on what you know. Don’t do that. It’s a crutch, and after a while that crutch will hobble you. So let go of your certainty. It’s an illusion anyway.

If any of you have been involved in SSPs, I’m sure you’ve been told to learn from the people you’re going to serve. This is an even more important posture to adopt when you’re going to be somewhere new for any length of time. When you see something true, make it your own. In Velvet Elvis Rob Bell talks about the effect that a brick wall of certainty can have on a person’s faith. Break one brick, and the whole structure is compromised. Instead Bell suggests thinking about faith as a trampoline. When a spring breaks it can be replaced by a new one, and you can keep jumping.

If this applies to faith, it also applies to the rest of your attitude towards the world. Most faiths aren’t shy about their transformative aims—they want to remake the believer. Christianity is no exception. This is what the writer means when he says, “For you were saved by grace…” and then ends that thought with “to do good works.” Or 1 Corinthians 13, which I’m sure you could all start reciting for me right now if I asked.

You know the verses, but have you internalized them? The Corinthians passage, in particular, is one of those ones that are easy to gloss over. It is used so much in weddings—and I don’t begrudge this—but that amount of usage begins to obscure the intent of the verse. Somehow the words, “If I have not love, I am nothing,” have lost their transformative effect. But this isn’t that uncommon. After a while, MLK has shifted from a revolutionary and a rebel—worthy of FBI Surveillance!—into a safe modern saint. This has even happened to Jesus. When he says, “Love your enemies,” he isn’t talking about just tolerating people you disagree with.

If you put that statement in the context of the rest of that speech in Matthew, Jesus is talking through the complete transformation of humanity. How does Jesus end that segment? “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the pagans do that?” It isn’t merely ok to affirm things in your head, and with your mouth. Without corresponding action and change—transformation—your words are meaningless. And in a very real way, your faith is meaningless. You’re no different from everyone else, and the life of faith is not compatible with an untransformed life.

There’s a guy I met in Belfast named Pete Rollins. His specialty is telling stories, with a particular emphasis on parables. One of the stories he’s started using recently in his talks is particularly applicable here:

There was a guy who had a terribly debilitating delusion. He was convinced he was not in fact a man, but seed, and he was terrified to go outside, lest he be eaten by birds. After years of therapy he had a breakthrough with his psychologist, and realized that, “Whoa! I’m not seed, I am a man.” He went home, and his therapist felt satisfied. But around a week later the man was back. He was disheveled, sickly, looked like he hadn’t slept or bathed in days. “Doc! You gotta help me! It’s my neighbor; he’s got chickens!” The therapist was exasperated. “Look, we’ve been over this countless times. You. Are. Not. Seed.” The man replied, “Sure, I know that, but do the chickens?”

The man’s breakthrough meant nothing if he was unable to internalize it and use it to transform his existence. By acting as though the chickens believe he is seed, in a very real way the man shows that he still believes he is seed. If your faith doesn’t transform you, then in a very real way you don’t believe what you say you believe. A little bit later in Matthew, Jesus relates the parable of the weeds in the wheat, and after that he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” The kingdom is transformative.

But where is the Kingdom? I would argue that if you believe in the God of Jacob, the kingdom is everywhere. In Genesis after Jacob has his ladder dream he wakes up and says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know!” The really killer part of this story comes right at the beginning, when the story tells you where Jacob was. “He came to the place and stayed there that night.” That’s it. The place. Nothing special about it, and yet God was there. This is a hyper-present God, whose existence so saturates creation that sometimes we forget about it. Like blood, it is only obvious when there’s a rupture or when it is absent.

Later, in Exodus, when Moses asks to see God, we are told that Moses was not allowed to see God, but rather the place that God just was. Mightn’t we look at this as God saying, “You cannot see me, because I am so in all things as to be invisible”? Or in Kings when we’re told that, “God was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” At my friends’ house in town here there’s one of those seventies era pictures of a giant Jesus standing next to the UN building in New York preparing to knock. The suggestion is that Jesus is not in the UN, and needs someone to invite him in. But that flies in the face of what we’re told. That isn’t the God whose kingdom is like yeast. That isn’t the God who shows up in random places in the desert of the Holy Lands.

Travelling will reveal this to you. God is in crazy places. God is in quiet places. God is in conflict, and God is in peace. But to get this, you have to actually do the work of orienting yourself to be receptive, and it takes practice. If you listen to the show Radiolab on NPR you may have come across their episode on sleep. In that episode they tackle the question of why it is that after practicing hard on something—be it studying, or working on a piece of music—and then sleeping on it that people seem to be able to pick things up better when they wake up. I’ll save you a bunch of science speech, and summarize. Basically, scientists think that sleep acts as a volume knob for your brain. Over the course of the day a lot of things take up space in your head, competing for your attention. Overnight sleep turns the mix down, and the loudest, most important elements come to the fore. This is not unlike the Dark Night of the Soul that St. John of the Cross describes.

In the silence that is the Dark Night the believer is able to recognize the call of God and respond. And if God is in everything, then it stands to reason that God is wherever it is you are. The silence required to get that can reveal the opportunity for great growth. The lesson—to put it crudely—could be staring you in the face, but you’ll miss it if you aren’t receptive to the messenger. In Belfast there’s a space called Ikon. Every month a group of people get together in a bar/theater and they attempt to illuminate just this point. Ikon is about breaking you down and making you quiet in order to transform you. A while back one of their bits of “transformance art,” as they call it, involved a woman reciting a sermon. As people listened to the sermon they found themselves nodding in agreement. Ever so slowly over the course of the sermon, the sound guy mixed in another voice, the voice of the person who originally gave the sermon. Ian Paisley, emblematic in Belfast of the Unionist side of the Troubles. Here, Ikon meant to throw into their participants’ faces the fact that truth can come from the least expected places. The Psalmists understood this, I think. “Oh God, you are my God. Earnestly I seek you… I seek you in the sanctuary… on my bed I remember you.” Or “For you have been my hope, o sovereign Lord… Your righteousness reaches to the skies.”

It is in the spirit of the Psalmists that I would like to offer up a song for you to ponder before we go.

Once more; with feeling, eh?

I’m leaving in the morning. (Yes, on a jet plane. Yes, don’t know if I’ll be back again. Done with this reference.) It is an odd feeling. I’m not sure what I’m feeling; I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to be feeling. I’m bad at valedictory statements; it is really good I don’t get asked to give speeches at graduations and suchness. How can I sum up what others are supposed to be feeling when they reach the end of whatever thing they’re reaching the end of when I can’t even encapsulate my own feelings in such a way? Anyway, I’m struggling to come up with ways to sum these nine months up, and I wonder if it is even possible.

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On Thursday night I had dinner with Andrew and Harriet (Or Harriet and Andrew, if you prefer.) at the Barking Dog– which, by the way, is an excellent place to eat if you’re in this city. It was a wonderful night with two people who’ve really come to mean a lot to me since I’ve been here. Andrew asked me at one point what sort of stuff I would miss from Belfast, and I stumbled through an answer which was altogether unsatisfactory, I think. I never know just what it is that I’m going to miss from a place when I leave it. When I left central Iowa to go to Northwestern I had no idea I would come to miss Des Moines so keenly. When I left Russia I would never have expected that I would long for rides on the bus to give me daily moments of zen. So what will I miss most from here? No clue. Really.

I do know for certain a few things I will miss. The kitchen on first floor Holly 1, Elms Village. Steve saying hello to Johnny. (Well!) Chi’s cooking. My classmates. Harriet’s bike. Being able to get around without a car. The Lagan river at the dead of night. Smoke breaks out front of the building. EBM. Harriet and Andrew. Common Grounds and the excellent music that people inexplicably complain about. (Radiohead is good; shut up about the noise.) QFT and my student discount there.

Just a taste.

Go to Belfast some time; you’ll like it here. Give me a month or so, and I will want to go back, badly.

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Friday I caught a train down to Newry, and Gary showed me around his neck of the woods. (Who came up with that saying, and how can I shout at them for anthropomorphizing the forest?) First, the train. It was fun. Maybe it wouldn’t be fun if I was taking the train every day during the commute, but it was just under an hour from Belfast central to Newry rail station with one stop along the way. I enjoyed myself, and the train gave me a chance to just sit and read. Lovely.

You know what else was lovely? The scenery in the South of the North. The Mournes are absolutely beautiful; the roads snake around in a decidedly un-American way; the air is crisp; the wind is bracing. (What a cliche description of air.) It really was a great time, and after driving me around for a bit (And having a really great chat) Gary and I stopped into a bar and watched the Uruguay-France World Cup match. But that was an absolutely dire game. Wonderful Friday evening.

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And then, Saturday. What an odd day.

I had to move out of Elms at noon, and as a result I didn’t really get a chance to say goodbye to anyone in there with the exception of Marita. It was a very dislocating feeling. After I had checked out, Harriet and Andrew (They’re EVERYWHERE!) and Huey, the four year old they were fostering for the weekend, picked me up, and we drove together out to Bangor where Andrew’s parents live.

Yet another lovely afternoon/evening in store. First of all, Huey was absolutely charming. Such a smart young guy, always asking questions, always full of energy. We went to the beach and walked around in the water for a bit, taking care to avoid the jelly fish. We played on the swingsets. We gave the deaf cat, Alvin, some attention. It was great. While we were off walking in the sand, Andrew’s parents cooked up a feast for us; steaks, sausages, crisps, wonderful salads, fresh fruit. At about six, Harriet and Andrew left with Huey to go home for the night, and I stayed in Bangor.

When 7:30 rolled around, Andrew’s dad, David (Gosh, I hope I got that name right; I’m so bad at names.) and I walked to the church, where we watched the USA-England match. As the only genuine Yank in the building, I was a bit of an exotic specimen; but the atmosphere was great fun, and the balance of support in the building was about even. In the evening, we had some coffee and a chat, and I settled in to bed in the most comfortable bed I have slept in in the last nine months. Truly heavenly.

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Sunday, David drove me in to Belfast, and I had my last Sunday at EBM. Andrew conducted a little interview with me in front of the congregation, and they all prayed for me, which was touching. I’m going to miss that place, really. After church, Harriet, Andrew, Huey, and I drove out again to Bangor and had another afternoon of food and fun. After that was finished I had a quiet night to myself as Jean and David went to evening church service. I watched an episode of Dr. Who, read a bit more, and attempted to write. Right before bed, we had a few glasses of wine, watched a cheesy soap together, and chatted some more. And I had another glorious night in that wonderful bed.

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Which brings me to today. I was dropped off at ten in Belfast at Common Grounds. I got one last hurrah in there, and finished up the second chapter of my dissertation. Well, a rough draft at least. Then I did a lot of walking. All told three times across the river today running various errands. I had a last meeting face to face with Neo to discuss my thesis, and headed to Harriet and Andrew’s for a final night in Belfast. Harriet had some friends over and we watched the season finale of Glee. (I got a wee bit teary a few times. Zac, you were totally right about what happens when we grow older. Mom, I’m turning into you.)

And now I’m going to go to bed.

If you’re in Des Moines, see you soon; if you’re in Belfast or I met you here, I’m glad I met you, and I will miss you.

Shared History

May 22, 2010

I’m going to open this one by sharing some links so you can read up on some of the stuff I’m talking about here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Rand Paul

Salon on Arizona’s New Ethnic Studies Law

Coates Again, This Time on Texas’ School Board—– Another Article Here

And now, the video from Rand Paul’s appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show:

I really encourage you to read those articles and watch the videos all the way through before continuing.

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After the 2008 election some people let themselves believe that the US had entered a sort of post-racial moment; that somehow electing President Obama meant that the US had moved past race, and it would no longer be the elephant in the room. How wrong those people were. These questions are still as awkward as ever, and our discourses still reveal how far we have to go. My summer in Jackson changed the way I thought about matters of racial equality. It went from being something I nodded my head to– yes, racial equality is a good thing– to being something I’m willing to get into arguments about. America has a shameful and glorious history when it comes to race; there are heroes and villains in equal share. (For an example of a more unknown hero, look up Muhammad Ali’s namesake, Cassius Clay.) Recently, these stories– Texas and its changing school curriculum, Arizona and its Hispanic population, Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act– have illuminated, for me, our continued clumsy relationship with race.

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I’ll start with Texas since this is the least explicit case. Most of the coverage of this story has centered around matters of science and economics in the classroom. Intelligent Design is being taught as hard science, and the theory of evolution is getting quotes put around “theory” by people who don’t quite understand what that word means in matters scientific. When being taught economics students are no longer learning about “capitalism” since it has a bad reputation. Instead, they’re learning about “free enterprise” and all the unalloyed good it has brought to the world. Our government is described as “republican” instead of “democratic,” which sounds innocuous enough on its own, but is clearly a dog-whistle.

That’s not what I want to talk about, though. Instead, I want to talk about the way the Texas school board has gone about revamping the way their kids learn history. There are some white folks who feel like our kids get fed nothing but guilt in the school system. They never get to learn about all the great things that have been done in America, only the bad things that white people have done. This misses the obvious fact that instead students are being taught to admire a broad range of role models of all tones of skin. Instead of taking the presence of a more diverse set of role models as a positive, people assume that an absence of white people is a negative. (Seriously. White privilege.) Texas has gone back and changed that.

Efforts by Hispanic board members to include more Latino figures as role models for the state’s large Hispanic population were consistently defeated, prompting one member, Mary Helen Berlanga, to storm out of a meeting late Thursday night, saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.”

This really is unthinkable given the mentioned large population of Latinos in the state. I don’t understand how it is that the school board members think it is necessary for their kids to have plenty of white role models, but Latino students shouldn’t get the same privilege. This final quote from the Texas case really gets my blood boiling, though.

While they concede that people like Martin Luther King Jr. deserve a place in history, they argue that they shouldn’t be given credit for advancing the rights of minorities. As Barton put it, “Only majorities can expand political rights in America’s constitutional society.” Ergo, any rights people of color have were handed to them by whites–in his view, mostly white Republican men.

White Republican men of the type that no longer exist in that party. The Republican party likes the brag that it ended slavery and played a key role in passing the Civil Rights Act. And it should. The Republican party was pivotal in those moments in American history. Current party policy is not the heir of that legacy, though. Over the next few decades the Democrats that the Republicans were helping defeat in those landmark bills of the 60s slowly migrated across to aisle, and the moderate Republicans who had been so crucial to the passage of these laws became Democrats or left office to be replaced by more “conservative” legislators. If the GOP wants to honestly claim the legacy of Civil Rights it needs to grapple with itself on these issues.

But that’s not even the most odious thing about that quote. No, what’s worse, it strips minorities of their agency. Rather than admitting the truth that lots of whites in the south were racists this pulls a bit of jiu jitsu and claims that were it not for the (mostly Northern) whites nothing would have changed anyway. It keeps minorities dependent and in a real way still enslaved to whites. Rather than being upset at the injustices their ancestors have suffered at the hands of the majority, minority children are now being told to thank that very same majority for allowing them to exist on equal terms. How magnanimous.

That this is what Texas children will be learning for the next ten years makes me unbelievably angry.

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Moving on to Arizona, much has already been said about the immigration law that the state has signed. I understand that in border states like Arizona illegal immigration is a real issue that needs to be addressed, but the law that the state legislature passed is the best argument I’ve seen in a long time against State’s Rights. The American legal system is predicated on the notion that a person is innocent until they are proven guilty. The reason we do this is because we have decided that it is better to let a criminal go free than to imprison an innocent person.

This legislation gets the equation precisely wrong, and worst of all, it gets it wrong in a racist way. Even with the “fixes” signed hastily into law after the backlash began to hit, this law is monumentally wrongheaded. No white person is going to fear being asked for their papers in Arizona if they’re pulled over for a routine traffic violation. Not so for anyone with a skin shade darker than someone off Jersey Shore. But it gets even worse when we talk about the changes to Arizona’s Ethnic Studies classes. The law says that schools cannot teach classes that “promote hate,” which is so ill-defined as to be unenforceable. But that’s just the point. The enforcement of this law is a total judgement call, which will have a chilling effect on any administrator or teacher wanting to teach an ethnic studies type of course. Again, given the make-up of the Arizona legislature there really is no way to convince me that this wasn’t white people feeling uncomfortable that their ancestors were being criticized.

That’s depressing. People don’t have some God-given right to never hear their predecessors’ sins.

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Finally… Rand Paul. I’m going to open this with a quote from one of Ta-Nehisi’s commenters. (These folks are almost as good as Coates himself is.)

…And, of course, the affluent ophthalmologist is on record opposing any cuts to Medicare reimbursement rates for physicians.

Still, I think this sort of critique misses the point. We’ve seen a flurry of objections from libertarians, some claiming (as you do here) that Paul’s faith is selective, others that his interpretations are in error. And both points can be sustained, after a fashion. He picks and chooses when to apply these principles, and those choices are instructive of his underlying assumptions. And it’s certainly possible to conclude, from libertarian principles, that Jim Crow was wrong.

But there’s a deeper problem here. By 1964, it would have been possible to repeal every Jim Crow law, remove every public interference in private transactions, and that would hardly have brought the institutionalized system of racial discrimination crashing down. Jim Crow was not a purely legal construct – it was a formalization, codification, and extension of a variety of privately discriminatory practices that were already taking root. Not only was overt governmental intervention necessary to undo the damage of an earlier intervention, it was necessary to change the course of a broad social consensus that had dominated the South for decades.

Libertarianism itself offers no sufficient remedies for such a situation. Every libertarian necessarily picks and chooses when to apply its doctrines strictly, and when loosely. Paul’s choices reveal his sympathies with right-wing populism; some of his more articulate libertarian critics similarly reveal their own biases, to the urban-hipster lifestyle, to the lucrative system of high-finance, or what have you. But they are no more inclined than Paul to admit this.

I think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can serve as a useful acid-test for contemporary political philosophies. Political thinkers ought to be challenged to explain how its goals, mechanisms, and achievements are consonant with their views – or if they’re not, what alternatives they would have embraced. Rand Paul has failed this test – he cannot square the circle of his views in anything other than tautological fashion. I suspect most leading Republicans would similarly choke on acknowledging the obvious truth that some problems can only be solved by the heavy-handed intervention of the federal government. And that, to me, is the big story here. Nothing Paul said is inconsistent with the stated principals of the Republican Party, other than his conclusion.

I want to expand upon this a bit.

I sort of have sympathy for Rand Paul’s position theoretically. But again, by not answering the question yes or no he gave the impression that he thought “Yeah, I think people should be allowed to discriminate in their private businesses.” He was smart enough to know that he couldn’t actually SAY that out loud, though, so he was stuck in the middle. He wouldn’t lay down his marker and make his argument.

Here’s where I part ways with Paul– and libertarians who think like him: Ending federal discrimination doesn’t go NEARLY far enough. Private businesses benefit from public money– sometimes federal money– in order to operate. We pay for the sidewalks in front of their buildings. We pay for the water in their pipes. We pay for the fire department, and we pay for the police. “Private” businesses don’t exist in a vacuum.

Furthermore in the South and end to Federal discrimination wouldn’t have meant an end to local and state discrimination, so Jim Crow laws could have stayed on the books. When Rand Paul says that violence could be prosecuted he’s ignoring what the laws said. If a black person had gone into a segregated place in the South and been assaulted, the black person would have been arrested for trespassing and causing public disturbance, because they were, in fact, breaking the law. The white people assaulting them? No troubles there.

The market wouldn’t have sorted this out, either, because the laws reflected the desires of the market. Even in those places where whites were in the minority, the whites had the power, both legally and economically. This meant that they could harass black businesses when they started up, preventing them from being profitable. They controlled the banks so they could refuse loans for no real reason. They controlled the police, so the police could decide what they wanted to enforce. The idea that “the market” would fix all this ignores the fact that the South had 100 years after the end of the Civil War to “fix” it, and hadn’t gotten around to it.

So yeah, the personal freedom of racist people to segregate was abridged by the passage of the Civil Rights Acts. A libertarian along Paul’s line of thinking would want to argue that doing so was a net negative, because the act introduced a distortion into the market and prevented it from changing itself. I hope I’ve laid out above why I think that’s just straight up wrong. I don’t think Rand Paul is a racist. I really don’t. I also don’t think he has thought through the extent to which his ideas can lead to racist outcomes, though.

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As I look at these things, it really is maddening to me the degree to which this conversation has been co-opted by people saying that criticizing figures in American history and criticizing the way that history gets taught is to teach people to hate America. What utter nonsense. The United States is an incredibly diverse country, and should embrace that fact. Being honest about our mistakes and the people our mistakes have effected is part of embracing our diversity. Role models are everywhere; we just have to be willing for them to not look like us.

Even more we need to be willing to accept that people who do look like us have messed up in some evil ways. Wishing they hadn’t doesn’t make it so.

Home Stretch

May 20, 2010

Under a month left here in Belfast now. That’s a weird thing to try to internalize, to be honest. My guess is that I’ll feel the same leaving here as I did leaving Russia the first time. That is, I’ll be glad to be home, and so relieved to see the friends I’ve left in the states that I won’t have time to dwell on the friends I’ve left behind in Northern Ireland. Give it a month or two, though. I’ll be desperate to get back. As far as school work is concerned I’ve just got one test left. The weather here is gorgeous right now, so I’m having trouble motivating myself to study. That’s going to have to change. I’ve got two other pieces that I wrote for my conflict intervention class that I haven’t put up online yet. I’ll get around to that… sometime. As far as the dissertation goes, I had a meeting with Neo on Wednesday, and he gave me some very positive feedback. I gave him a draft of the first chapter of my dissertation, which was mostly history. He cautioned that I get a bit out in the weeds, talking about stuff that non-Russia experts will find confusing– but mostly he liked it. For the record, that’s roughly 5,500 words of my dissertation done at this point. On the 14th– so, one day before I leave– I’m having a last meeting with him. There he’s expecting a revised first chapter, and drafts of my next two. That will take my total word count up to 11,500. So, just the conclusion to write after that. Mad. I’ll have the whole thing just about written before I leave. So that’s school.

(And… whoa. I just got an email from Neo saying that he’d like me to submit one of my papers for publication. Holy crap. Time to revise.)

If you don’t follow UK politics, it has been NUTS here for the past month or so. Just in Northern Ireland there have been some pretty significant developments. In the parliamentary elections the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, lost his seat in the UK parliament to Naomi Long from the Alliance party– an upset to say the least. Additionally the parade season is approaching and dissident republicans are making menacing noises. A report was recently released about poor conditions in a prison, and some are likening it to the sort of stories that touched off the Troubles in the first place, others are saying it reminds them of the climate right before the Hunger Strikes of the 80s. The very fact that things are being framed that way is disconcerting.

I’ve taken most of this week off from serious school work since I spent the last one furiously writing and reading for class. Happily, this means I’ve spent most of this week reading for fun. I’m just about half-way done with Dostoevsky’s Demons, which I’ve been working through since just before Easter break. This is a hard read; much more difficult than anything else I’ve read by him. Then again, it took me almost 300 pages to like Crime and Punishment, and then I couldn’t put it down. More immediately rewarding has been Bulgakov.

I’m currently about a third of the way through White Guard, and I’m trying to figure out how to square this one with his other works. Earlier this term I read A Country Doctor’s Notebook and Heart of a Dog, and I’ve mentioned before how much I like The Master and Margarita. There’s an interesting progression at work here in Bulgakov’s work. A Country Doctor’s Notebook is very much like Chekhov. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say Bulgakov was influenced by him. Perhaps there’s something about being a doctor that lends itself to this sort of writing (both Chekhov and Bulgakov were doctors), but the spare nature of Chekhov’s writing, the sense that absolutely no word is ornamental, extends into this first work by Bulgakov.

Chronologically White Guard is next in Bulgakov’s career, and while the precision of the writing remains, the content has begun to stray from the stark realism of A Country Doctor’s Notebook. This is a story of the first days of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the turbulence of the time is evident. Still, the dream sequences and surrealism of White Guard would have been inconceivable in the previous book. Bulgakov goes further down this rabbit hole as his career progresses. Heart of a Dog is a pretty fantastic scenario; a stray dog is given the testicles and pituitary gland of a deceased convict, and proceeds to transform into an irascible human. Pretty crazy stuff, right there. And The Master and Margarita is a full on hallucination. A wonderful, page turner of a hallucination, but, well, when you’re writing about the Devil walking the streets of Moscow, how can a sense of the surreal not permeate every sentence?

All this to say, I very much like White Guard and would recommend any of Bulgakov’s works without reservation. He’s great.

This is a rough draft of the first chapter of my dissertation. As such, it kind of… leaves off a whole chunk I’m not confident enough to actually write about yet. Still, I think there’s some interesting stuff in here, so enjoy if you want.

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The Volga Tatars and Russians have a long co-history, and they share prominent places in each other’s national psyche. No attempt to understand the current peaceful relations between the two groups would be possible without first understanding their history. In many ways, it is a story that could have all too easily led to long simmering hatred and conflict. This is a story of conquest, forced conversion, land grabs, and repression– on both sides. The peace in Tatarstan is made even more remarkable for the fact that within Russia’s borders there are areas that are emphatically not at peace. Chechnya, Inigushetia, and Dagestan are frequently in the Russian news because of fresh violence and conflict. This chapter will outline the various ways that Russian and Islamic relations have seemed ripe for conflict, the ways that Dagestan, Chechnya, and Inigushetia and Tatarstan differ, and the impacts on collective psyche that Russian and Tatar actions have had upon one another.

Russia and Islam have been intertwined since the founding of Kievan Rus, indeed when founding the state one of Vladimir’s first real decisions of import was his choice of state religion. In the course of his deliberations he considered Islam, but ultimately rejected it because of the prohibition of alcohol consumption. His ultimate choice of Orthodox Christianity shaped Russia in ways Vladimir probably could not have conceived of. From the beginning, Russians were aware of their surroundings, then. They knew of neighboring religions and tribes, and Kievan Rus lasted for a long while as a strong trading power in Eastern Europe. The coming of the Mongols changed that rubric and threw Russian self-conception into question.

Shireen Hunter explains that Russian culture tends to have a siege mentality. It is them against the world. In some respects this is correct. Excluding the fact of weather, the Russian heartland is very easy to invade. The invasion of the Mongols served as a decisive breaking point, “a point of no return in the branching of the Russian people into Belorussians in the east, Ukrainians in the southwest, and the Great Russians in the northeast,” because the ensuing weakness of Russian institutions was taken advantage of by Lithuanians and Poles. The broad Russian plains rendered the land vulnerable to the Mongol style of conquest, and vast swathes of the countryside were taken by the invaders. Today Some Russians consider that the conquests of the Mongols in the Russian heartland blunted the Mongol army making it possible for the rest of continental Europe to turn the Horde away.

Often lost in the story of the “Tatar Yoke” is the fact that the Tatars themselves suffered conquest at the hands of the Mongol Horde. The Tatars did not exist as they currently conceive of themselves. When the Mongols moved through in 1228 the Tatars existed as a group called the Bulgars. The annihilation of their state spurred the Bulgars to move up the river towards the confluence of the Kazanka and the Volga, site of present day Kazan. At this time the Mongols had not yet converted to Islam; that came in the middle of the 13th century, but the Bulgars were already Muslim. It was at this point that things conspired to fix the image of the Tatar as the aggressive “other” in the mind of ethnic Russia.

In the conquered Russian territory the Mongols took the same approach to governance as they did elsewhere; regional powers were delegated and groups were generally allowed a large degree of latitude in the execution of their affairs. So long as “efficient support of the complex state bureaucracy and the army through taxes” was accomplished the Khans of the Golden Horde cared little for the personal lives and beliefs of their subjects. Likely because they were already Muslim the Bulgar/Tatars were chosen to administrate the region also occupied by the Russians; at this point they were essentially the taxmen of the Khans, and it is not for nothing that taxmen are nearly universally scorned in history. This is the point at which the Tatars became identified as the oppressor by the Russians.

The Tatar administration of the authority of the Golden Horde had the effect of entrenching the idea of Islamic culture as the “other.” This led, in turn, to the creation of a solidly “Russian” culture in opposition, centered around Orthodoxy. “The process of collective, including national, identity formation entails the need for communities not only to determine who they are and what they value, but also to decide who they are not and what they do not value.” This process is at work in most societies applies to both the Russians and to the Tatars. Particularly nationalist Russians may identify the fate of the Orthodox church with the fate of Russia and see Moscow as the “Third Rome.” This view is particularly durable, and has persisted despite four hundred years of imperial expansion and dilution of a “perfect Russia” with other ethnic groups and religions. Hunter quotes Samuel Huntington as saying, “We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.”

It was in this interaction– as the conquered– that the Russians became truly Russian, doubling down on Orthodoxy. 1445 marked the height of Kazan/Tatarstan’s control over Russia. Russia at this time was nowhere near the imperial power it would later become, and at this point was roundly beaten by the Tatars, who captured their Tsar and ransomed him. These setbacks had the effect of convincing an already pious Russian hierarchy that they were being subjected to divine refining. Well before the conquest of Kazan the Tatar Yoke was explained by Russians in an Old Testament fashion: as punishment for collective sin. Russia took on an Israeli character in this reading, the Russians an exiled but still faithful remnant who would be restored. This growing religious conviction among Russians coincided with a reversal of position between the two powers. From the high point of 1445 things deteriorated fairly quickly for the Tatars, and the rest of the 1400s were a period of decline for the Kazan Khanate.

Ravil Bukharaev sees the failure of Islam and the political structures to change of the Astrakhan/Kazan khanates as the primary reasons for their failure and subsequent conquest by the Russians. Whereas Christianity was a dynamic faith at the time, with many competing ideologies, Islam stagnated. By 1480, the Kazan Khanate had been sufficiently weakened that the leadership of Moscow felt confident enough to stop paying tribute to their nominal rulers. By the end of the century it was clear that the tables had turned, and was perhaps surprising that it took Russian rulers more than half the century to expand and conquer the Tatars.

The period immediately before the Russian conquest of Kazan saw a concentrated program of propaganda not unlike that used during the Crusades employed by the secular and religious leaders of Russia. Russian historians of the time take a uniformly dim view of the moral standing of the Kazan Tatars, accusing them of all manner of atrocities against the consciences of the ethnic Russians “trapped” in Kazan and Tatarstan. Some of this propaganda remains in the Russian popular imagination today, as a friend in Nizhny Novgorod once explained to me that, “When the Tatars were in charge, they acted like monsters. They stole from the Russians.” Kazan was seen as the “lair” from which anti-Christian religions launched their attacks upon ordinary Russians. In the view of many within the church at the time, this made the city a target. Only the conquest of Kazan would make Russia safe and Christian. Obviously this conflation of the Church and the state is nothing new (or old, in fact), and many, many clergy members actively politicked within the Russian court to get rid of Muslim influence in Kazan.

Jaroslaw Pelenski’s book, Russia and Kazan: Conquest and Imperial Ideology, is a particularly useful resource when considering this period in Russian-Tatar relations. Russian writers engaged in an absolutely massive reframing of every issue. When it suited them, disputes were couched in religious terms; when religious rhetoric was inappropriate, they refrained. In examining the records on the subject, Pelenski notes that most observers say that the relations were “unaffected by national and religious hostilities.” Pelenski rightly notes that if this were completely true they probably would not have fought at all, which plainly did happen. He does not, however, push back significantly against this assertion on the part of the primary sources except to say that one former Tatar leader was “probably” executed in Moscow for refusing to convert to Christianity.

In 1502 the Ivan III decided that the puppet ruler he had installed on the Kazan throne was no longer serving his best interests and had him replaced by the man he had originally usurped. From 1480, when Ivan III stopped paying tribute to the Tatars up until 1552 when Ivan IV conquered Kazan the Khanate went through a succession of bewildering power struggles, with rulers enthroned and deposed seemingly at random. Behind more of these moves was the Russian monarchy, which was by and large abetted by the Russian church. During this period the Russians lacked the military strength to attack and subdue the Kazan Khanate, but they possessed enough political and economic clout to exercise a significant amount of control over domestic events in Kazan and Tatarstan. Negotiations with the Tatars led to Moscow pulling it’s commercial interests out of Kazan and moving them to Nizhny Novgorod. This had the effect of weakening the Tatar state since it was heavily dependent upon trade, and it created Nizhny Novgorod as a regional power– letting it be the city it is today.

Almost immediately after his coronation in 1447 Ivan IV began his wars against the Tatars. Ivan IV connected his conquest of Kazan to explicitly Vladimir’s Christianization of Rus, demonstrating that as the primary aggressor in this fight he saw his role in a religious light. It is difficult to overemphasize the influence of the Russian clergy at this point in the story, as nearly every royal proclamation regarding Kazan and the Tatars had, at the very least, a Biblical allusion, if not an outright quotation or co-optation in order to serve the interests of the Russians. But it is important, however, not to fundamentalize this period of activity. It would be dangerous to assume that this episode was solely due to inflamed religious passion. Kazan was, after all, strategically located. Securing it would give the Russians control over more of the Volga, putting them in a stronger economic position relative their neighbors. Additionally, it is possible that some in Russia saw Ukraine, most importantly Kiev, as coming under the influence of foreign powers, specifically of the Catholic church. They saw, then, the need for Moscow to take Kiev’s place, and for Ivan to take the place that Vladimir had all those years ago, Christianizing the area. This helps to explain his conquesting, particularly in Kazan.

In 1552 the Russians finally captured Kazan, having fought a concentrated campaign for most of the year to achieve victory. This signaled the end of Tatar independence, and from then on they were to be subjects within the border of an imperial Russia, Ivan IV having established the the patterns of Russian rule over its Muslim subjects for the next four and a half centuries. Both Moscow and Kazan hold lasting monuments to this conquest, with St. Basil’s in the Red Square of Moscow being built to commemorate Ivan’s victory, and the buildings of Kazan’s kremlin rebuilt to reflect Russian sensibilities. Between 66,000 and 100,000 Russians– by default, “Christians”– were “liberated” from Kazanian hands during the course of the conquest. Providing for their safety had been another motivation for the fighting, at least outwardly.

The period directly after Russian conquest was not exactly easy for the Tatars. Modern day Kazan boasts a beautiful canal running through the city near the Kremlin. Today this canal is a quaint, romantic walk near the bustling economic heart of the city. Its construction, however, was akin to the “Peace Walls” of Belfast, with the canal signifying the line between the area the Russians lives and the “Tatar suburbs.” From the beginning, despite Imperial pro-Orthodox/Russian policy and rhetoric, the Tatars and the Russians enjoyed a good deal of cooperation after the Russian conquest, at least among the elites. Before too long Tatar elites had assumed fairly powerful roles within Russian society. The attitude towards common Tatars was considerably less magnanimous, though. Some were even deported, to the north to work on Russia’s naval fleet.

The Russians made a concerted effort to convert and Christianize the Tatars. Those who did convert were called Kryashen, and over time came to be seen as an entirely different people group within the region. Still, though, the Tatars did not convert en masse. Bukharaev thinks that part of the reason Kazanians did not convert is that they had no real economic or political incentive to do so. Russians were given the most important jobs in the region regardless, and those jobs that were made available to the Tatar elite were available regardless of religion. Over the course of the next two centuries things remained difficult for the Tatars. Catherine the Great eased the restrictions on the Tatars somewhat, and even allowed an assembly to form with jurisdiction over religious and civil matters. Things weren’t perfect, and even after the emancipation of serfs, some Tatars chose to emigrate to Turkey rather than stay in Russia.

Widening our focus further to the south of Russian territory muddies the picture considerably. For one thing, Alexander Bennigsen and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay are at pains to demonstrate that Islam in Russia was hardly a unified thing. The different nationalities didn’t think of themselves as unified in any real way. There was even a slight hierarchy of Islam among the truly faithful groups (Tatars, Bashkirs, etc.) and the slightly newer converts who tempered their Islam with traditional beliefs (Balkars, Kirghiz, Kazakhs, etc.). This absence of pan-Islamic identity in Imperial-, and subsequently Soviet-, Russia doesn’t mean that individual nationalities didn’t have strong identities. It did lessen their ability to leverage their numbers to their benefit, though. The Russians were able to use this disunity to their advantage as their Empire expanded over the years. The Russian hierarchy took the conquest of Kazan as a sign of divine favor and used it as justification to continue to subdue Islamic territories adjacent to its ever expanding empire.

Despite the fact that it has been nearly five centuries since the conquest of Kazan by the Russians, it is the Russians who seem to bear the most bitterness about their past history. The years of the “Tatar Yoke” are considered to have three major consequences by most Russians:

(1) “the Mongol invasion and later Mongol-Tatar dominion sapped Russia’s energies and greatly contributed to its backwardness; (2) Mongol-Tatar domination severed Russia from the West for centuries, thus preventing the country from benefiting from the scientific and economic changes that transformed Europe from the time of the Renaissance onward; and (3) Russia inherited the dictatorial and authoritarian tendencies of the Mongols, and, therefore, democracy did not flourish in Russia.”

Meanwhile, my discussions with Tatars in the Nizhny Novgorod region seem to indicate that the greatest and most painful memory of their shared past is the forced conversions that created the Kryashen. This is seen by the Tatars as a splitting of their nationality, and as such they are no longer complete.

Pitfalls and Potential

May 15, 2010

Ethnic conflict is rarely a simple matter, and yet, when violence breaks out in the world, international humanitarian organizations tend to follow a predictable pattern. After, and even sometimes while, the fighting is still going on these organizations rush into place to begin the relief effort. Increasingly these relief agencies find themselves under fire for failure to understand local conditions and for being insufficiently independent of the international government actors who are often involved militarily in the working out of conflicts. States can use their inordinate funding power over humanitarian actors to direct their actions. So when images of humanitarian crisis are seared into the collective consciousness of Western citizens instead of governments sending in troops they can send in humanitarians. This has a dual effect. First, they are not seen as militaristic; second they are seen as sensitive to the problem and active without risking the lives of soldiers.

In pursuing the interests of their international donors, humanitarian agencies may miss the opportunity to aid in the stable rebuilding of a post-conflict society. This paper will examine the pitfalls that many humanitarian relief organizations face in the current world of international aid and intervention using the frameworks provided by the work of Hugo Slim and Roberto Belloni. Having understood this point, the case studies of Ashutosh Varshney, Roman Krzarnic, and Camilla Orjeula in India, Guatemala, and Sri Lanka respectively point towards a need for international humanitarian organizations to focus on the work of rebuilding post-conflict societies’ organs of civil society. This work will prove useful in building and sustaining lasting ethnic trust and peace with post-conflict areas.

In the beginning humanitarian organizations were careful to distance themselves from politics. Organizations like the Red Cross still do this, enshrining in policy the idea that they are to be totally neutral, even when events around them are not. What this did, though, was circumscribe some efforts. Humanitarian organizations operating under these guidelines could not intervene on behalf of women’s right to vote, for example, because to do that would be to politicize their efforts. “All international orders have winners and losers and thus require their quota of victims. Humanitarianism interrupts this selection process by saving lives, thus reducing the number of sacrifices. However, it does not aspire to alter that order; that is the job of politics.” Just as this classical humanitarianism does not seek to alter politics, its stance serves to render politics unable to alter it. Political considerations are (allegedly) absent in classical humanitarian undertakings. ”In the 90s, though, some relief organizations started to work alongside states in certain situations, and states began to operate their own pseudo-relief organizations. The line blurred. “Humanitarian principles were completely shattered in places like Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where many agencies were funded by the very governments that were combatants and thus partly responsible for the emergency.”

Some see the changes in humanitarianism and the expansion of humanitarian efforts as part of a Western rejection of the legitimacy of war. “For Keegan and others, the international community’s new emphasis on humanitarian action is part of a deeper and increasing objection to war itself.” John Keegan, aforementioned, says that in cases like Somalia the “effort at peace-making is motivated not by calculation of political interest, but repulsion at the spectacle of what war does.” More cynical people would suggest that increasing humanitarian intervention gives states and international actors like the UN an excuse for not getting more intimately involved in the conflicts across the world. Still others hold that humanitarianism is a stand-in for sustainable development and that the first world has given up on dreams of universal development and now wants to simply contain discontent with an international welfare state. Mark Duffield and others argue that humanitarianism is now nothing more than a front for the spread of liberal democracy by states and actors who have limited understandings (at best) of the societies they are attempting to work within.

For example, international borders do not accurately reflect the areas in which power is exercised in many cases. “There is strikingly little innovation among diplomats to try to revise current international legal practice to take account of the failed state phenomenon.” One must also understand the political economy that determines the funding of humanitarian agencies. States and corporations derive benefit from being seen to support worthy causes, and in some cases aid agencies work towards the same goals that states want to see achieved and are able to do so more cheaply than a state would be able to. The legal environment changed also, as states began demanding structural changes from countries they intervened in. Conflict states were now expected to adopt democracy and market economies and the rule of law. These changes opened the door for various agencies to step in and help conflict societies make the transitions. Belloni orients his criticism of international humanitarianism and its current state around eight theses:

1. “Humanitarianism simplifies too much.” Belloni argues that humanitarian actors refuse to acknowledge the complexity of human existence, instead reducing people into victims and perpetrators. In doing so, humanitarianism closes itself off to the complexity of the issues it enters into.

2. “Humanitarianism misinterprets reality and delays effective intervention.” Humanitarianism often takes crises and events as discrete things that have happened incomprehensibly. Agencies are constantly reacting to events rather than understanding and anticipating conflict. Because of this many humanitarian organizations are ill equipped to actually intervene in an effective way when conflict flares up.

3. “Humanitarianism induces minorities to raise the level of violence.” If belligerents know that assistance will come if they cause trouble, then they are incentivized to cause trouble.

4. “Humanitarianism prolongs war and misery” Humanitarian rhetoric often slows down peace negotiations. “Critics of humanitarianism argue that the expectation that respect for human rights must be part of a peace settlement complicates the work of international mediators who cannot endorse, or be seen to endorse, political solutions which cannot be justified in human rights terms.”

5. “Humanitarianism is not altruistic.” The actions of modern humanitarianism are more often than not designed to negate the effects of conflict on the west. Furthermore, in situations where the West might have to take on a risk, humanitarian organizations insulate them against this risk.

6. “Humanitarianism is organizationally dysfunctional.” Many humanitarian agencies share similar make-ups to government agencies and international actors. NGOs in these positions of interconnectivity are often unable to speak truth to power in any significant way because of conflicts of interest and connections that they cannot risk offending.

7. “Humanitarianism reinforces the predominance of local warlike elites.” It is all too easy for warlords and conflict wagers to take advantage of the money and supply that rolls in as a result of humanitarian efforts.

8. “Humanitarianism reproduces the very same cleavages it tries to overcome.” Very often international humanitarian intervention perpetuates and entrenches the separations that contributed to the outbreak of violence and conflict in the first place. “Once again, the Balkans offers an important illustration. While the international presence has been justified in humanitarian terms to overcome fear and divisions, it has endorsed and perpetuated the very same cleavages it sought to address.”

Having identified these problems, the experts disagree on the ramifications. Stephen John Stedman says that in every post-Cold War conflict critics have retrospectively claimed that the tragedy could have been prevented if only steps X, Y, and Z had been taken. There is certainly an air of truth to this, but perhaps only because conditions in conflict zones are rarely understood due to lack of attention until after the fighting has died down. If resources were devoted to identifying potential trouble spots and working to diffuse them, might this problem be addressed?

Accordingly, Belloni recommends a focus on prevention rather than on reaction. More study to identify potential trouble spots and work to diffuse burgeoning conflict will reduce the eventual outlay in monetary and human costs to fix post-war societies and will greatly reduce human suffering. Claims and actions, particularly by state actors, need to match up, for one thing. The US is one of the largest donors to humanitarian causes in the world, but it could be argued that its position as the world’s largest arms manufacturer contributes to the very causes it helps clean up. Alice Ackerman would agree, further stipulating that when discussing the scope of conflict prevention it is useful to separate preventative measures into two categories, direct and structural. Direct prevention focuses on immediate threats to peace, while structural prevention seeks to address the underlying causes. Direct prevention can be thought of as first aid, while structural prevention is surgery. Research into conflict analysis and early warning can help people situate conflicts within rough frameworks to help them understand what they are facing and what the underlying factors are.

In post-conflict situations international actors generally impose democratic forms upon societies after intervening in conflict situations. Beatrice Pouligny notes the burgeoning literature showing that simple reliance on democracy is not enough to ensure the continuation of peace. “PCPB (post conflict peacebuilding) projects have traditionally focused more on economic and physical infrastructures or on formal institutional processes, but have tended to forget that wars destroy not only buildings but also trust, hope, identity, family and social ties.” Here is where an acknowledgement of the role that civil society plays within post-conflict zones becomes important.

Post-conflict “social capital” is destroyed. According to Robert Putnam’s definition, “’(s)ocial capital’ refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit.” Social capital is built slowly over time as successful collaborations between people and groups create contextual, local templates for continued, broadened cooperation. As these templates spread throughout society capital is built up increasing the solidarity felt by those in the area. Post-conflict the rebuilding of social capital is critical. Yet many international humanitarian organizations make it a point to administer their services from a distance. The power that state donors have over their recipients also plays a role in this. For example, in Iraq humanitarian actors who wished to receive funding from the United States had to fly the American flag. This has two significant consequences. First, it removes any sheen of impartiality from the humanitarian organizations rendering aid and allies them with foreign powers. Second, it shuts local actors out of the process of relief, since the efforts are now explicitly linked with foreign states.

Civil society is a difficult concept to pin down. One idea holds that civil society should be understood to “attend to the cultural, social, economic, and political needs of the citizens.” Another requires “that the associations be modern and voluntaristic, not ascriptive.” The most important thing that civil society does is encourage and facilitate communal engagement. “Empirically speaking, whether such engagement takes place in associations or in the traditional sites of social get-togethers depends on the degree of urbanization and economic development, as well as on the nature of the political system. Cities tend to have formal associations; villages make do with informal sites and meetings.”

Varshney argues that civil society, be it interethnic or intraethnic, has two dimensions: organized and quotidian. This is, on the surface, a banal observation, but it is important to break things down in this way because formal, organized ties between ethnic groups may be strong, but if informal, “quotidian,” ties are not, then interethnic interaction will be more strained. The two must be understood as simultaneously separate and whole. The role of civil society in multi-religious cities is important in India for two reasons, “(f)irst, by promoting communication between members of different religious communities, civic networks often make neighborhood peace possible… (second) If vibrant organizations serving the economic, cultural, and social needs of the two communities exists, the support for communal peace tends not only to be strong but also more solidly expressed.” According to Varshney’s research cities that feature high degrees of segregation these mechanisms are not present and the risk of conflict is greater.

In Indian cities with poor civil society organs, politicians and gangs are able to stir up trouble and induce people to move from ethnically diverse neighborhoods to ethnically homogenous neighborhoods. This creates “an institutionalized riot system.” In cities with vibrant civil society, politicians and criminals are not as able to stir up tensions. Varshney calls this “an institutionalized peace system.” Civil society acts as a sort of immune system for ethnically diverse societies.

Two cities in India make Varshney’s point rather dramatically. In Calicut 83% of Muslims and Hindus eat together socially, that number is just 54% in Aligarh. 90% of Hindu and Muslim children play together compared to just 42% in Aligarh. 84% of Hindus and Muslims in Calicut regularly spend time together, while in Aligarh the number is just 60%, “and not often at that.” Calicut’s social capital is much stronger than Aligarh’s, and this is reflected in the number of cross-religious groups. But it is not as simple as just having strong social capital. Individual ethnically motivated societal groups can have large amounts of social capital, but unless that capital is able to move across ethnic and religious boundaries it will have little effect on ameliorating ethinc and religious conflict. “Trust based in interethnic, not intraethnic, networks is critical.”

Camilla Orjeula’s research in Sri Lanka shows the difficulty that results when the interethnic issues present in Aligarh are scaled out to an entire country. Orjeula’s article was written before the recent victories by the Sri Lankan government over the Tamil Tigers, nevertheless her research is pertinent to this topic. In Sri Lanka civil society tends to be top down, with the state dominating large portions of social space. What remains is often taken care of by international and local NGOs that are not very responsive to the grassroots. In Sri Lankan history, most civil society groups that do exist have been formed on an intraethnic basis, with the first being anti-Christian, and more recent ones being anti-Tamil.

“Mobilizing people to demonstrate against the war has proved rather difficult.” Despite this fact any peace protests are singled out by ultra-nationalists as dangerous, which gives an insight into just how tenuous the situation is. Even a small amount of protest could conceivably have changed a lot in Sri Lanka. Peace activists have made efforts to change school curricula so that Sinhalese children do not learn that the Tamils are invaders and come to see them as “other.” Instead the revised curricula focus on the mutual mistakes that all parties have made during the course of the conflicts and the recent history that has spurred much of the island’s polarization. Another strategy is to devise ways in which Sinhalese and Tamils come together and interact with each other. One such effort was a joint appearance of Sinhalese and Tamil artists at an event in Jaffna. This networking of artists is one way to begin creating links between the groups. Over time, ideally, these links will strengthen and multiply.

“In Sri Lanka a war economy has developed, making continued military confrontations profitable for a wide range of people.” The political economy of war serves to undermine efforts to create functioning, insulating civil society. This is an area in which humanitarian intervention could be seen to work; the interdiction of drugs and weapons traffic and the creation of alternative economies might help marginalize the power of war economies. In Orjeula’s view another way in which international actors can help spur the peace process along is to assist in the judgment and punishment of those who have committed war crimes. This is obviously a delicate subject that is different in every societal context, but the public administration of justice can go a long way towards healing societal wounds.

As a final case study, Roman Krzarnic’s examination of the peace process in Guatemala provides an interesting look at the ways in which civil society groups can both work towards greater social cohesion and work against cultural reconciliation. In the late 80s, Guatemala held peace talks discussing security and peace issues, but the most important rebel group was banned from attending, the most significant economic organization, CACIF, refused to cooperate with the talks, and some of the delegates to the talks had their rights violated. As a result the talks did not accomplish much. In the 1990s the outcome of final peace talks was the creation of Asamblea, a group of eleven sector of civil society organs designed to come together to discuss matters of national unity. Unfortunately, CACIF withdrew from Asamblea contending that many of the groups involved in the umbrella organization were nothing more than façades for narrow interest groups. “Many ASC (Asamblea) proposals for reform of the state and civil society appear in the final record, such as the recognition of Guatemala as ‘multiethnic, pluricultural, and multilingual.’” Asamblea’s efforts on land reform were much more limited, and even their small gains were bluntly refused by CACIF.

One of the great successes of the Asamblea was its incorporation of marginal groups within broader Guatemalan society into an integrated civil society framework. The inclusion of a women’s sector in the Asamblea was seen as a marginal choice at first, with the women pushed to the periphery. But the fact of their inclusion meant that they were always in close contact with the other groups and in communication with them. This meant that before too long women’s issues were included in the Asamblea’s agenda.

In opposition to the Asamblea, CACIF’s main interests lay in the economic arena. This explains why it, perhaps shortsightedly, ignored the societal reforms for the most part. Larger societal change could end up backfiring on CACIF and undoing their work in the economic sphere. Nonetheless, as Guatemala operated under the typical post-conflict liberalized economy, the delegates of CACIF wielded a disproportionate amount of influence in the economic sphere. Any thing that was bad for them was immediately nixed.

These case studies show the necessity of strong organs of civil society to prevent civil unrest in the first place and to knit societies back together after conflict. In the changed world of humanitarian intervention, relief agencies need to be able to adapt their strategies to meet these requirements, but first they need to be given the latitude to do so by their donors. This requires understanding the societies before entering them and allowing a degree of local control and flexibility that many organizations are unwilling to cede. In their study of ways that states and donor agencies can improve civil society in post-conflict zones, Axel Hadenius and Fredrik Uggla note that economically and socially heterogeneous institutions are “more likely to strengthen popular influence on decision making.” That is, these institutions carry greater moral weight within their societies. Furthermore international actors seeking to build civil society must take into account already existing forms of “horizontal cooperation.”

The authors insist that in order to build strong, stable societies, states must allow space for civil society to form and function. International actors looking to foster this kind of growth need to be aware of the ways in which civil society can impinge upon the privileges of the powerful and look at ways of convincing these power brokers that it is in their best interests to let civil society do its work and not interfere. This work is not simple, and in post-conflict situations the rebuilding of social capital is an arduous process. But if relief agencies and international donors ignore civil society and implement the forms of democracy and market economies absent real attempts to rebuild societal trust the forms will remain empty, and real recovery will remain elusive.

I’d like to note that between this post and my next one you’re going to see my thinking evolve a little bit. I wrote this piece earlier in the semester, and my research for the paper I wrote last night has pushed my thinking further down the road on this sort of question. This is a short one, only about 800 words. The next one is long. I had trouble keeping within the word limit. Enjoy, and comment away.

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“Are International Administrations of war-torn societies useful peacebuilding instruments?”

This question is a fraught one, and the answers one comes to reveal more about the person asking the question than about international administrations. Here, as in every other area in human experience, personal prejudices and biases guide one’s conclusions. Obviously any sort of international administration can go wrong in any number of ways but Tolstoy’s maxim on happy families also does not apply here, since there is no one way to do international administration correctly. This seems to suggest that any efforts will lead to a hopeless chasing of the tail. This difficulty—numerous ways to administer post conflict societies wrong, no one way to do it correctly—has led some to suggest that it is best not to try. I think this is wrongheaded. Here, I’ll expand upon some of the pratfalls of international post-conflict administration and argue that despite the difficulties they are good and worthy endeavors using Belloni’s State Building and International Intervention in Bosnia and Talentino’s “Perceptions of Peacebuilding.”

In her article, Talentino points out perhaps the most significant problem for international administrators in post-conflict zones to keep in mind: the “source factor.” Many of the problems she later identifies can be said to spring from international actors not identifying the sources that can cause them trouble and acting adequately in response to them. To everyone, everywhere in the world, the source matters. People are more likely to believe things a source they trust says even if those things are demonstrably false. This is an important factor to take into account when embarking upon peacebuilding, because there are usually leaders who stand to lose a lot from any sort of peace, and who also control the means of disseminating information. These people and means are likely to be trusted sources, and need to be accounted for on the part of the peacebuilders.

Whose perception really matters, though? Elites, spoilers, and ordinary citizens are all likely to be concentrating on different things, but all of these groups, and the sources that they get their information from, have to be accounted for. It is important for the terms of peace to actually address the concerns of the belligerents, not to shoehorn fit some mandate from an international actor. Those definitions of peace rarely sync well with conditions on the ground. International organizations prize, as a rule, “neutrality” when interacting with groups in conflict situations, for example. There’s a delicate balancing act, as “too much” neutrality can lead to the perception that things are not in fact fair. On the other hand, in Haiti, refusal to engage with the Spoilers in the area undermined the international community’s credibility. Too much neutrality; not enough neutrality. Tough proposition.

The actual stance of international administrators matters, too. Talentino says, “Citizens in target states have at times reacted against what appear to be displays of conspicuous consumption. This may become particularly important in caseswhere locals cannot afford basic monthly expenses.” Most post-conflict zones are sites of severe economic devastation, with the civilians of the area living in poverty. In The Punishment of Virtue, Sarah Chayes describes the disconnect between international aid workers availing themselves of swanky cafes and private cars while ordinary Afghan citizens had to worry about making it home alive. In Kosovo, the appearance is that international actors are benefitting more from intervention than the people of Kosovo are.

Part of the problem, I think, is “Wilsonianism,” which Belloni tackles at length. Wilsonianism, the norm for international development, fails to take into account identity politics and the way that they can short circuit the push for reform. Since stateness in these countries is up for debate, the ability of reforms to be effective is very small. The liberalisation of markets has tended to further entrenchment of belligerent powers in Bosnia, making the peace process more difficult. International actors are often so focused on bringing “democracy and economic liberalism” to post-conflict societies that they ignore the nuances of the societies they’re dealing with. Thus, in the case of Bosnia, economic reform served to entrench adversarial powers and provide them with economic muscle rather than reducing their influence.

I do not think, however, that the fact that international actions are seldom (never?) perfect is a strong argument against international actions themselves. The difficulty of a task is rarely used as an argument against doing things in other spheres, and I believe it applies here, too. Intervention has its problems, but surely nonintervention is just as problematic. Overcoming these difficulties requires international actors to remain watchful at all stages and ready to be flexible when conditions on the ground are not what was anticipated.

I know this sounds like an unbelievably dry topic, but this was actually the most interested I’ve been in a single thing I’ve done so far in my grad program. I took close to three times as many words of notes for this piece as I ended up actually typing. After the piece is done I’m going to include a few quotes and thoughts that I couldn’t squeeze in to the 800 word limit. Also, I cannot recommend enough the article from The Atlantic by Samantha Power that I reference in this piece. If you can get ahold of it, read it. Your blood pressure will be through the roof, but it is absolutely vital stuff. Without further ado, the journal entry:

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Alan Kuperman’s essay “Humanitarian Hazard: Revisiting Doctrines of Intervention” sets out to question the consensus reached in December 2001, when an international panel introduced the idea of the responsibility to protect, or the idea that international actors are obliged to intervene in cases of ethnic conflict. Kuperman thinks this is a risky stance to take, one that actually encourages conflict and makes intervention almost inevitable. In order to interrogate his ideas, I will use Samantha Power’s article from The Atlantic from September 2001, “Bystanders to Genocide,” in which she argues, contra Kuperman’s assertions, that a robust international military intervention could have saved countless lives in Rwanda in 1993. The views play off each other and ultimately leave the reader in a place of uncertainty.

Kuperman opens by acknowledging the good intentions of interveners and those who espouse a “responsibility to protect.” But he argues “a more sophisticated analysis calls into question the value of humanitarian military intervention, even when judged by its own explicit standard of saving lives.” Where Power thought that appropriate military response could be mustered to counter the Rwandan genocide, Kuperman thinks that the three weeks most of the killing was done in would not have been enough time to muster an adequate force to draw down the conflict. In the cases of Croatia and the Serbs, Kosovo, Serbs and Bosnia, and East Timor and Indonesia most of the killing was finished within a few weeks, arguably before any credible military effort could have intervened.

Power argues that in Rwanda threats to remove peacekeepers if the peace process was not adhered to simply spurred violent rebels on, because the removal or marginalization of the peacekeepers would make it easier for them to carry out their plans. In diplomatic negotiations the US made the attempt to keep “both sides” of the story involved when apportioning blame, even if the actions of Tutsi groups were nowhere near as significant as the actions of Hutu ones, they were conflated. “We were looking for the hopeful signs, not the dark signs. In fact, we were looking away from the dark signs.” Ambassador David Rowson. The assumption was that the framework for peace would work, that negotiations would work. The smallest ray of hope needed to be clung to.

This is almost the direct inverse of Kuperman’s claim, “(t)he most counterintuitive aspect of humanitarian military intervention is that it sometimes may cause the very tragedies it is intended to prevent.” The reasoning behind this position is that if insurgent groups know that the escalation of conflict will induce foreign intervention. In Bosnia and Kosovo there is plenty of evidence that nationalist independence groups waited to launch their campaigns until after they knew that they could reasonably expect international backing. In this case, foreign military backing served to guarantee conflict rather than prevent it. In the wake of 9/11, insurgent groups have quickly realized that the US is more likely to deem them a terrorist threat than assist them, so things have calmed down.

Under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention, the US would have been obliged to act in Rwanda had the killings there been defined as genocidal. So, despite widespread popular acceptance that what was going on was indeed genocide, the Genocide Convention acted to disincentivize the US from acting to prevent genocide. Furthermore, in conflict situations the primary focus of international actors is in keeping their own nationals safe. In Rwanda the mission was essentially considered over for the US once the embassy and all the diplomats had been evacuated from the area. Additionally, some US officials feared that the situation in Rwanda represented a choice between “staying out of Rwanda (or wherever conflict might crop up) and ‘getting involved everywhere.’”

Kuperman’s argument comes most into its own as he advocates finding ways for the international community to reward nonviolent movements, and simultaneously discouraging armed protest. This will shift the risk/reward equation and take away the moral hazard of intervention. Finally he advocates a ratcheting back of the rhetoric when it comes to dealing with conflict groups, and this can spur them to kill with even more ferocity. Both articles leave one feeling uneasy about the chance of success of international military intervention. Part of this is because, until the very end of Kuperman’s piece, both take for granted the utility of military intervention. Very obviously Kuperman and Power are right that the existence and absence of militaries can incentivize fighters. If rebel groups know they can garner international aid by starting a war, then of course they’re incentivized to do so. Likewise armed groups know that they can inflict enough damage on international actors and act out enough to induce them to withdraw their forces. Focusing on nonmilitary modes of conflict management and assessment, as Kuperman advocates, can begin to turn this assumption on its head, reshaping conflicts.

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The first additional thing I wanted to share was a journal entry that Power cites in her article on Rwanda. We have, it says,

“A military that wants to go nowhere to do anything—or let go of their toys so someone else can do it. A White House cowed by the brass. (and we are to give lessons on how the armed forces take orders from civilians?). An National Security Council that does peacekeeping by the book—the accounting book, that is. And an assistance program that prefers whites (Europe) to blacks. When it comes to human rights we have no problem drawing a line in the sand of the dark continent (just don’t ask us to do anything—agonizing is our specialty.), but not China or any place else business looks good.

“We have a foreign policy based on our amoral economic interests run by amateurs who want to stand for something—hence the agony—but ultimately don’t want to exercise any leadership that has a cost.

“They say there may be as many as a million massacred in Rwanda. The militias continue to slay the innocent and the educated… Has it really cost the United States nothing?”

I’ll be honest and say that this quote made me want to puke. There’s evidence in the article that a big reason the US avoided going into Rwanda was economics. We didn’t have much to gain from the place, for one thing. Also, this was 1993. The US had just come out of a recession, and Clinton administration officials didn’t think– particularly after the Somalia fiasco– that the Congress would approve of diverting resources to Rwanda. At one point some State Department officials had the idea to deploy a military plane that could jam radio communications. This wouldn’t have been a panacea, but since the government and paramilitary groups doing the slaughter in Rwanda were communicating via radio stations, it would have slowed things down. Instead, they got this answer, “Commando Solo… costs approximately $8500 per flight hour and requires a semi-secure area of operations due to its vulnerability and limited self-protection.” $8500 per hour apparently being worth more than the lives of almost one million Rwandans. When one of the State Department officials objected to this analysis she was told, “Pru, radios don’t kill people. People kill people.”

That’s just fucking stupid.

But this thinking wasn’t limited to just the government. The Washington Post wrote this in an editorial: “The United States has no recognizable national interest in taking a role, certainly not a leading role.” That’s right. We don’t have enough of a stake there to care, so don’t worry if one million people are slaughtered with machetes. This blinkered utilitarianism is symptomatic of our consumptive society. Things only matter to us anymore if they can make us money, and since we had no economic stake in Rwanda– none of our shirts came from there; there were no well known entertainers from Rwanda; Nike didn’t make our shoes there– we had no emotional stake in preventing a preventable disaster.

The Rwandans were just numbers in a cost/benefit analysis. The same ideas used to siphon public education funding away from the arts and into “economically productive” areas of education ultimately leads us to think of each other as nothing more than just dollar signs. So in 1993, one million Rwandans were deemed not worthy of $8500 an hour from the US government. In 2008 the biggest financial corporations had no problem betting against their customers and rigging the system. They were just dollars after all.

This is all of a piece. Obsession with money and making more of it is dehumanizing us.

Are International Administrations of war-torn societies useful peacebuilding instruments?

This question is a fraught one, and the answers one comes to reveal more about the person asking the question than about international administrations. Here, as in every other area in human experience, personal prejudices and biases guide one’s conclusions. Obviously any sort of international administration can go wrong in any number of ways but Tolstoy’s maxim on happy families also does not apply here, since there is no one way to do international administration correctly. This seems to suggest that any efforts will lead to a hopeless chasing of the tail. This difficulty—numerous ways to administer post conflict societies wrong, no one way to do it correctly—has led some to suggest that it is best not to try. I think this is wrongheaded. Here, I’ll expand upon some of the pratfalls of international post-conflict administration and argue that despite the difficulties they are good and worthy endeavors using Belloni’s State Building and International Intervention in Bosnia and Talentino’s “Perceptions of Peacebuilding.”

In her article, Talentino points out perhaps the most significant problem for international administrators in post-conflict zones to keep in mind: the “source factor.” Many of the problems she later identifies can be said to spring from international actors not identifying the sources that can cause them trouble and acting adequately in response to them. To everyone, everywhere in the world, the source matters. People are more likely to believe things a source they trust says even if those things are demonstrably false. This is an important factor to take into account when embarking upon peacebuilding, because there are usually leaders who stand to lose a lot from any sort of peace, and who also control the means of disseminating information. These people and means are likely to be trusted sources, and need to be accounted for on the part of the peacebuilders.

Whose perception really matters, though? Elites, spoilers, and ordinary citizens are all likely to be concentrating on different things, but all of these groups, and the sources that they get their information from, have to be accounted for. It is important for the terms of peace to actually address the concerns of the belligerents, not to shoehorn fit some mandate from an international actor. Those definitions of peace rarely sync well with conditions on the ground. International organizations prize, as a rule, “neutrality” when interacting with groups in conflict situations, for example. There’s a delicate balancing act, as “too much” neutrality can lead to the perception that things are not in fact fair. On the other hand, in Haiti, refusal to engage with the Spoilers in the area undermined the international community’s credibility. Too much neutrality; not enough neutrality. Tough proposition.

The actual stance of international administrators matters, too. Talentino says, “Citizens in target states have at times reacted against what appear to be displays of conspicuous consumption. This may become particularly important in caseswhere locals cannot afford basic monthly expenses.” Most post-conflict zones are sites of severe economic devastation, with the civilians of the area living in poverty. In The Punishment of Virtue, Sarah Chayes describes the disconnect between international aid workers availing themselves of swanky cafes and private cars while ordinary Afghan citizens had to worry about making it home alive. In Kosovo, the appearance is that international actors are benefitting more from intervention than the people of Kosovo are.

Part of the problem, I think, is “Wilsonianism,” which Belloni tackles at length. Wilsonianism, the norm for international development, fails to take into account identity politics and the way that they can short circuit the push for reform. Since stateness in these countries is up for debate, the ability of reforms to be effective is very small. The liberalisation of markets has tended to further entrenchment of belligerent powers in Bosnia, making the peace process more difficult. International actors are often so focused on bringing “democracy and economic liberalism” to post-conflict societies that they ignore the nuances of the societies they’re dealing with. Thus, in the case of Bosnia, economic reform served to entrench adversarial powers and provide them with economic muscle rather than reducing their influence.

I do not think, however, that the fact that international actions are seldom (never?) perfect is a strong argument against international actions themselves. The difficulty of a task is rarely used as an argument against doing things in other spheres, and I believe it applies here, too. Intervention has its problems, but surely nonintervention is just as problematic. Overcoming these difficulties requires international actors to remain watchful at all stages and ready to be flexible when conditions on the ground are not what was anticipated.