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Hamilton Spectator July 2014

Peace deserves to get our attention
War is much more tangible and dramatic

By Richard J. Preston
Hamiltonians have a new peace garden, with a labyrinth, peace pole and beautiful flowers, at St. Mark's United Church in Dundas. This garden joins the labyrinth at Smith's Knoll in Stoney Creek's Battlefield Cemetery and the Hamilton Peace Garden at City Hall as tangible symbols of Hamilton's diverse peace, ecology and social justice groups.

As these groups have found over the years, violence reduction and peace-building is widely approved but enjoys little active support. It is hard to compete with the drama that comes with war and other kinds of violence.

There is a good reason for this difficulty. War gets our attention. It is very tangible.

Our Canadian government pays attention to wars and maintains a high-profile and well-funded Department of National Defence. Our armed forces have the continuing task of funding for the latest and most destructive armaments. They are well-trained in the skills of military performance, both offensive and defensive use of violence, and in the tasks of reconstruction where war has been.

The Canadian public celebrates our military in supporting our troops, treating our dead and wounded as heroes, and in giving rapt attention to media portrayals of war. It gets our attention. It is exciting, dramatic, awesome. In the movies, fictional wars fill the big screen with exciting, dramatic and awesome pictures of destruction and heroism as the world is saved, again and again, from seemingly overwhelming alien violence. Our everyday, ordinary lives are dull fare, and we welcome the excitement that media violence provides us, even if it is only a local murder, collision or assault. The journalist's catchphrase "If it bleeds, it leads" expresses a truth about what gets readers' attention.

Peace does not get our attention. The word peace sounds dreamy or abstract, not tangible. Changing from the word "peace" to "violence reduction and peace-building" sounds less dreamy and less abstract. But we still need more kinds of tangibility for peace-building to seem real enough to get the kind of attention that violence gets.

One step in the right direction is to make it clear that war and peace, although they sound like mirror opposites, are not on the extreme ends of a single continuum. They are very different, separate processes. They are not tied together, though people may try to connect them in their thoughts, words, and actions.

Peace is not the absence of war. It is in the respect and love we show for each other. Peace is in the beauty of nature and human creations. War is in the contempt we show for each other, and in the ugliness we create in our world. Both coexist in our lives, and we may choose to build peace in the presence of war, often with the risk of being killed. This is a brave choice that many times has changed the course of human history, and it deserves our attention.



Hamilton Spectator May 2011

Never Again: How do we build a belief in a culture of peace?

At a peace gathering a few years ago, Rabbi Bernard Baskin observed that for all the many centuries that people of good will have gathered and worked on regaining and preserving peace in our communities and nations, we are still confronted with a world where people deliberately harm each other. We still have wars. We seem not to have nearly enough effectiveness in reducing violence and building peaceableness. Humanity as a whole has not sufficiently taken the Nazi Holocaust and the Nuclear Holocaust to heart, or many ethnic wars like Rwanda, Kosovo, Somalia, and Sudan, that seem to have taken up where wars of conquest have left off.

How can we become more effective? How can we build on the nonviolent transfomation of much of Eastern Europe and the initially nonviolent “Arab Spring”?

For finding ways to build a stronger and more effective belief in the importance of a culture of peace, we do not have to start from scratch. We have good practical examples right around us in the numerous citizen groups working today for peace, social justice, and environmental protection. We estimate that there are about 300 such groups in Hamilton, alone. One, the annual Gandhi Peace Festival, is comng up in two weeks. Others include Ten Thousand Villages Hamilton, Project Plowshares, Environment Hamilton, Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, The Social Planning and Research Council, and there are many many more. While many of these dedicated Hamilton folks may not use the word ‘peace’ in their group’s name or even in their vision statements, their goals serve the wider purposes of a culture of peace.

And we have some examples that trace back to ancient inspiration and still continue today to influence people’s beliefs and actions – including the great religious traditions, all of them voicing some variation of the Christian New Testament “golden rule” of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Most of the people of the world know this rule, however it may be phrased in their particular traditional religion. The rule is that we should act peacefully toward each other. Most of us believe deeply in the rule and want it to guide our actions. But sometimes people fail to be guided by it – it loses “traction” in the face of competing rules that tell us to act aggressively to protect ourselves from threats, or to sieze the moment for personal advantage. And nations do this, too, with military actions and by gaining control of the resources of other nations.

What are we to do to be more influential, to have more “traction” in the political arenas that sooner or later will fail our ideals of peaceableness? And in our home communities, how can we become more effective? What can we do to build a more peaceable community and a more peaceable world? We are not likely to do it by hitting violent persons with a stick in order to make them stop their violence, or by incarceration that deprives an aggressive person from the human contact that can help some of them mature into better neighbours. Violent ways of responding to violence is not the pathway to peaceful families, communities or nations. This is our age-old, fundamental problem.

Fundamental problems may require fundamental solutions. I invite you to think radically about this problem – to truly “think outside of the box” and consider a most unlikely sounding solution. I propose that we work on building a stronger mythology of peace. I know that some of you will think, “Why a mythology?” On the face of it, myths sound like a hopeless path to peace. If myths just result in delusions, why do we need them? Or why do we have them? Is there more to myths than delusion? Yes, quite a lot more. The word “myth” covers a vast amount of ground, historically and globally.

We know that they are sometimes a way of teaching essential moral truths, like the myths of the Garden of Eden or of the Sermon on the Mount. Was the ancient Greek mythology of the Olympians a similar kind of truth about how we should live, using the play of the gods whose power and ambition provides tabloid-like Illustrations of human follies? The results of these follies are entertaining stories that serve as cautionary guidance to humans. Indigenous mythologies everywhere offer similar kinds of cautionary truth. 

For some curious reason, every culture, including ours, provides a body of stories that cohere in peoples’ minds into a mythology that serves as a path for living and having a purpose in this world. The fact of the universal presence of myths tells us that, at some deep level, we want to believe in some fundamental, life-guiding truths about the world and about ourselves – perhaps we hope for an invisible hand of compassion, fairness and justice – of peacefulness. 
Myths probably have to be gripping stories in order to get our attention and have a motivating traction. A myth built upon a martyr’s cause has a special traction - is emotionally strong. We feel this our reverence for the martyrs who were champions of peace, such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus of Nazareth, and Lao Tzu. The problem of having to have emotional traction – of myths being gripping – is that violence in its very many forms is also gripping, whether war, riots, vandalism, bar fights, airplane crashes, rapes, football games, fireworks, and so on and on and on…

Now we are faced with the mythic, but not trivial, Doomsday Clock at 5 minutes to midnight, looming environmental catastrophe, nuclear terrorism, and the necessity of a sustainable, harm reducing and peace-building environmental transformation. How much traction do these myths have? So far, not enough. How can prevention of violence, or harm reduction and processes of peace-building be given traction? One way is to construct a persuasive and comprehensive mythology of peace that can be a corrective to the mythology of war.

In Hamilton, our branch of the United Nations Association of Canada, our Culture of Peace network, and our chapter of the Canadian Department of Peace Initiative are good and practical strategies for achieving our mythic goal, but these do not build the mythology of peace. A peace mythology will be a coherent collection of myths expressing persuasive and memorable ideas about peacefulness, and the recognition of the terrible foolishness and wastefulness of war. We have a very large inventory of narratives to choose from.

The best known expert on comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, believed that we have the task of evolving a planetary mythology – transcending the old and new imperial mythologies, and below them, the societal or national mythologies – in a kind of recapitulation of the ancient, earth-based Gaia mythology of our ancestral hunting cultures. The ecology movement with its premise of the holistic interconnected dynamics of our environment – the basis of reasoning about the spirituality of the earth - is a step in this direction. And the peace movement, with its premise of universal rights and responsibilities – the basis of reasoning about the spirituality of human nature - is a step in this direction.

We need to take one more step, towards a planetary peace mythology – a body of moral narratives that guides us towards more peaceful lives. We have learned that historically, all peoples have developed a national or a traditional, myth-based spirituality that was meaningful to their lives. And now we have the challenge to develop a planetary spirituality that guides our attitudes and actions in living more peacefully in a globalized world.

Mythologies are the fundamental notions of a culture, comparable to the way that premises are fundamental to a system of thought, belief, and practice. But myth is not abstract, theoretical, or intellectual. Myth is a compilation of episodes of experience, remembered or imagined, that are gathered around a unifying theme. Mythologies are clusters of myths that share common themes, and they have the ability to evoke actions guided by our spiritual experience, both emotional and perceptual, and both imaginative and concrete. We have some familiar examples of mythologies, though we usually call them great religions rather than mythologies. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three great Abrahamic mythologies. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism are the three great East Asian mythologies. And these are only six religions among a great many others. Are they obsolete? Certainly not in the eternal values they teach, such as compassion, fairness, and justice. Mythologies teach these values while continualing adapting their view of the world to the changes experienced by people in their contemporary world.

The power of mythology is partly in the coherence that each of the stories gives to the other stories, creating an aesthetic, spiritual whole world view.  The power of myth is partly in realizing their guidance of our life experiences – an awareness that makes them not just plausible, but forceful.  The mythology of Christianity is forceful for those who have actually learned it, as for example the apostle Paul, the dissident Martin Luther, and the founder of Quakerism George Fox. So mythology is a kind of ethos, an emotional tone, but it is also a network of experience, bits of experience, and these things coalesce around particular stories and make them sound far more than merely plausible – as being actually necessary to living a good life. 

It took me the better part of a lifetime to realize just how profoundly we are influenced by our mythology. It is something that, from childhood, comes so gradually into our lives that we rarely think of it consciously, and are rarely aware of how all our accumulation of stories coalesces in our minds and hearts. Thanks to my becoming an anthropologist, I have, as an adult, consciously experienced this coalescence during just a few years. I discovered the reality of another culture, to my surprise, while listening to the old stories and finding myself saying -- ‘yeah, that makes sense,…. yeah that makes sense….’ – until one day in the third summer I was there – I had a rush of recognition where I inwardly said ‘and it really does make sense!’  That was the point at which I began to perceive a little of Cree culture.  When it really does make sense, that’s when it becomes forceful, when you really “get it!”  It is like somebody getting classical music.  Or getting it in some other kind of experience of a breakthrough. You suddenly realize this is a part of something much larger.  It carries with it a very powerful domain of meaning that makes sense of life – and that’s what I’m now looking for – in a mythology of peace.

The myth-makers and myth-tellers create by taking stories or pieces of stories from here and there to build a narrative – a work of art - that people will recognize and feel a deep emotional relation to. In a real sense, they will “get it.” It may be a sudden epiphany or it may be a more gradual awakening where you perceive cumulatively until you “get” the whole in a way similar to “getting” any other work of art.

Finding our myths of peace is a fundamental way of orienting us to a hopeful way of life: living well together in a society that we respect and cherish, with nonkilling politics, ecologically sustainable and fair-sharing economics, and inclusive spirituality. We know that we can find some of this in our own traditions and aspirations. What is holding us back? Unfortunately, this is not the most common kind of contemporary myth. What is our contemporary mythology? It draws on a long tradition of The Triumph of Good Over Evil. How does it appear?

We can take a lead from Joseph Campbell’s books and TV series, The Power of Myth. Campbell answered Bill Moyers’ question of what the American contemporary mythology is, by pointing at Star Wars as a widely known example of a mythic narrative of the triumph of good over evil. Luke Skywalker’s epic of final victory in Star Wars, and other big epic narratives like Frodo’s victorious epic in The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter’s victorious epic have this common underlying myth of overwhelming the evil that threatens us. Indeed, our three heros have much in common – nice, non-threatening, modest boys-next-door, although with parents strangely absent – they are the proverbial orphan youth who overcomes awful adversities and saves his people. Out of the conflict between opposites (good versus evil) comes the resolution where the well-meaning hero (who is really peace-loving at heart) is mortally threatened by a powerful villian. At the last moment the hero miraculously marshalls overwhelming power to achieve victory. The winner takes it all, and evil disappears from its active part in the world. 

But, you might say, this is just entertainment, not reality. Yes, but notice that millions are spent on each of these mythic films and billions are spent by the vast audiences who go to see them. I have seen them all, and found them fascinating – and thrilling. They resonate within us.

In the real world, many billions, no, trillions are spent in the service of the myth of rising with overwheming power and destroying evil, and the daily news of these struggles holds our rapt attention. Think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and hundreds of other cities bombed in WW2, and in Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The myths of the triumph of good over evil are very engaging and exciting. They help convince political and military leaders of the rightness of using their power, and motivate the wars that result in killing of millions of people, mostly civilians. Not only by deliberate and organized brutality, but also by uncounted small acts of casual brutality. And the victories are always, I repeat, always, only temporary, with more enemies gathering force, while our formerly evil enemies are now our friends. 
These are contemporary echoes of very ancient narratives, mythologies of conflict, the power to subdue enemies, and the triumph of good over evil, as Shelley envisions for us in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

So, how about contributing to a mythology of peace?

It is the role of us peace advocates to create a stronger mythology of peace, using what we already know and also creating new myths. I believe that it is within our power to do this, and I am convinced that we have to. Many peace myths are already here …at least pieces of them are here. Its not going to take a genius who can create a mythology out of nothing. It IS going to take the efforts of many of us to bring violence reduction and peace building narratives and story bits together in the way that gifted mythologists like Joseph Campbell, George Lucas, J R R Tolkien, or Ekhart Tolle have done. 

But its time to get started. The first step is to listen, read, learn and then to tell the stories. This is a non-violent kind of social action. The next step would be to get involved in some of the groups involved in the telling and writing of the stories, to learn more of our myths, and then to share them, and to add to them. Not only the verbal arts are involved. Peacefulness is expressed in all of the arts. Mythology, like culture, is an aesthetic whole, where the whole transcends its parts. And finally, as we keep up the telling, we can be visible patterns for peaceful living – living our myths.

"If there is going to be change in the world, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves." (Howard Zinn) 





Hamilton Spectator February 2008

The Manley Report on Afghanistan and Canada’s Responsibility to Protect.

The Report of the Independent Panel chaired by John Manley is now, and will continue to be, a pivotal statement in governmental debate and decision-making. There is widespread unity in Canada, including the government, the military, the public, and now the Manley Panel, that the overall goal of our presence in Afghanistan is to bring peace and better living conditions to one of the poorest and most fragile nations in the world. As the Manley Report says, 

“The essential questions for Canada are: how do we move from a military role to a civilian one, and how do we oversee a shift in responsibility for Afghanistan’s security from the international community to Afghans themselves?” 

The specific steps for these changes are also specified in the Manley report: developing local and national government institutions that are respected and not corrupt, recruiting and training Afghan soldiers and police, reclaiming of agricultural lands from mines and opium poppy crops, roads, bridges, electrification. With the exception of recruiting and training soldiers and police, these are activities that the NATO military are not suited to perform. Diplomacy and development requires other people with non-military abilities, yet the solutions proposed by the Manley panel focus almost exclusively on the need for increased military resources. This focus on war rather than on peace-making and rebuilding is a concern for several reasons:

First, the field of political influence that is operative in the Afghanistan War is broad. Canadians need to achieve clarity on the leading role of the U.S. administration in their Afghan adventure. The U.N. and NATO are where they are now, in response to more than the U.N. Security Council’s post 9/11 declaration. I refer to U.S. initiatives that converted the basically policing task of containing and diminishing Al Qaeda into a U.S.-escalated War on Terror. Several commentators claim that Canadian troops are in Afghanistan because of a perceived need to make amends for refusing to go with the U.S. into the Iraq War.

Second, the level of Canadian, NATO and especially U.S. moral responsibility for substantially increasing the level of violence in Afghanistan needs recognition. In escalating the extent and level of conflict, NATO has taken on the role of increasing the level of armament of the region; with the Taliban and others reciprocating with their own increased armaments, much of it coming through Iran. This echoes the U.S. arming of the Mujahadeen and Taliban to drive out the U.S.S.R., and more distantly echoes what happened when the French left Vietnam to the U.S. The escalation of the technical capacity for violence makes the possibility of reducing violence and negotiating an end to war much more difficult, and the result is a sharp rise in people wounded and killed. In Viet Nam, the U.S.S.R. armed the Viet Cong to counter the American forces, the level of destruction went sharply up, and the U.S. lost the war. In the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. armament matched the Soviet armament, the U.S.S.R. withdrew, and left a potential for destructive violence that we have been witnessing in the current War.

Most of the other NATO nations have been loath to commit battle troops, and this should tell us something about the nature of this adventure. The U.S. administration’s position is one of unilateralism, and pre-emptive strike. This extraordinary self-image as the single global superpower is not shared by the other NATO member nations, who regard it as dangerous and unrealistic, especially in the light of the Soviet failure in Afghanistan and U.S. failures in Vietnam and Korea. It is now quite possible that NATO and the U.N. and the U.S. will all be seen to have failed again, and to have left Afghanistan in civil war with the bloody local purging of those suspected of having supported the U.S.

The comparison with the Korean War, including Canada’s level of participation in the U.S. adventure in Korea is instructive. I was there, with the First Marine Division, for the winter of 1951-52. A half-century later, I still do not understand why I was there. Sure, South Korea is wealthy now. And North Korea is poor and nuclear now. The U.S. did not win, and in the long (nuclear) run, may be seen to have lost in terms of global security. Will we wind up with two nations - a Northern Afghanistan that is developed, and a Southern Afghanistan that is militantly theocratic, with nuclear Pakistani neighbours?

A strength of the Manley report is its recognition of leadership limitations both within Canada, and more broadly, within NATO military. A striking phrase in the Report says that Canada is in Kandahar Province "for whatever reason". Mr. Manley told us, via the CBC, that the person(s) responsible for this sustained commitment is not known even to the Independent Panel. The military leadership may be making decisions and operating without sufficient political leadership - as argued in Janice Stein and Eugene Lang's recent book “The Unexpected War”. 

Afghanistan was the first real test of the Three D policy, and officials from all three departments do not think that Canada has done as well as it could. The Three Ds are not working well together and some are not working well alone. In Ottawa, words like dysfunctional, debilitated, and broken are common descriptions of the institutions at the centre of Canadian foreign policy. These descriptions come not from hostile outsiders but from people who have spent years working within one of the three big departments---Defense, Foreign Affairs and CIDA---that are Canada's face to the world. The balance among those three departments has shifted markedly in the last three years. Defense has been reinvigorated under strategic and focused leadership, while the other two have largely lost their way. (260)

We are encouraged by the recommendation that a high-profile UN special representative should be appointed for coordination of the NATO and other participants, since the poor coordination of Canadian policy is mirrored in the poor coordination of the Afghan government, NATO participants, the ISAF, and Canada. It is a UN responsibility to address the ownership of the Afghanistan project.

We note that the Report also faults both the Martin and Harper governments on more than a failure of honesty and full disclosure, and recommends that the PM take a personal leadership role and also establish a special Cabinet Committee with a mandate for political oversight of the Afghanistan project. Currently, oversight of this (and other) projects is hindered by chronic disarticulation within and between Canadian governmental departments, especially Defense and Foreign Affairs. 

The establishment of a Canadian Department for Peace would provide an inter-departmental coordination structure with focus on peace-building strategy and project funding. An attempt at a coordinating structure has begun with START – the Stabilization and Reconstruction Taskforce. Foreign Affairs chairs the group. START is an interdepartmental body that attempts to coordinate and implement activities of the 3D policy of the government – Defence, Development and Diplomacy. However, START can only achieve part of the overriding task of peace-building. We propose that a full Cabinet-level Minister and Department of Peace, in place alongside Defence and Foreign Affairs, would be the best coordinating re-structuring plan to respond effectively to the diverse needs involved in helping Afghanistan to establish a long-lasting peace and rebuild. The Manley report states on several occasions, that there is currently no role for peacekeeping in Afghanistan because there is currently no peace to keep. This view is reactive rather than proactive and fails to recognize that peace is a process, not a stagnant state. This is precisely the time for active peace-making and peace diplomacy, leading to a large-scale peace-building effort.

In the recent Environics poll, 60% of Canadians, 60% chose Canada as a country that exerted a positive force in the world. Now is the time for Canada to take a major, forward-looking peace initiative by establishing a Canadian Department of Peace. Afghanistan is the current challenge, but certainly will not be the last. Canada needs to anticipate the larger challenge of reducing violence in the global world and at home. The CDPI now enjoys the support of such prominent Canadians as Sen. Doug Roche, the Hon. Lloyd Axworthy, the federal NDP Caucus and the Green Party. Discussions have been held with many Liberal members where there has also been a great deal of interest. Borys Wrzesnewskyj (Etobicoke Centre-Liberal) is reported in Hansard to have called for a Cabinet Minister of Peace, April 24, > 2006.

The overall mandate of a Minister of Peace would be conflict transformation by peaceful means, consistent with the UN Declaration and Program of Action for the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010), of which Canada is a signatory. The proposed Department of Peace would have the overall responsibility for the coordination and timely implementation of peace-related policy and would be composed partly of existing offices that are now spread across several Federal departments, relocated to ensure coordination of their activities. The department would act as a sensor for the early warning of potential violent conflict, serve as an incubator of creative responses to violent conflict, and design effective long term peace-building projects responding to the root causes of violence.*

Dr. Richard J. Preston, Professor Emeritus, on behalf of the Committee on a Response to the Manley Report, Canadian Department of Peace Initiative.

*A well-developed website at www.departmentofpeace.ca provides substantial information on this initiative.