Thursday, August 30, 2007

War as Obsolete

I found this editorial in the Ottawa Citizen a few weeks back.

It's been making the rounds of Quakerdom as it passes into email circles. But in case you haven't read it, it's a good read:

War's had its chance

Mitchell Anderson, Citizen Special

Published: Monday, July 23, 2007

War doesn't work anymore. From Iraq to Afghanistan to the Palestinian conflict, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the oldest method in human history for resolving disputes has become obsolete.

It's not that war is wrong (it usually is). It's not that war is ghastly (it always is). The simple fact is that war as a strategy to achieve a desired outcome no longer works.

Look no further than the ongoing debacle in Iraq. The U.S., with the biggest military machine in human history, is mired in a losing struggle with a determined insurgency equipped mainly with small arms and improvised roadside bombs.

After spending more than $450 billion and counting, the U.S. military still cannot pacify a country with no organized military opposition, even when the prize is the second biggest oil reserves in the world.

The grisly human toll mounts even as the prospect of a military victory fades daily. The U.S. has so far lost more than 3,500 soldiers. More than 26,000 have been wounded. Last year the Lancet estimated that more than 600,000 Iraqis had lost their lives to violence since the invasion in 2003.

Even while saddled with arguably the most docile and jingoistic media in the developed world, the American public is demanding an end to this fiasco. Two thirds of the U.S. public currently opposes the war. Over half believe that it is creating more terrorists than reducing the threat from terrorism.

This last point is key. The strategy of trying to pacify a population by killing those that don't agree with you may have worked for millennia but has now become plainly counterproductive. It is like trying to fight a fire with kerosene.

With every door kicked in, every person humiliated, every loved one killed, there are more bereaved and enraged people willing to join an insurgency. This ad-hoc volunteer force of combatants is becoming an unbeatable foe for the world's leading military powers.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a poignant example of this emerging reality. Pound for pound, Israel has one of the most effective militaries in the world. They also have employed a grimly well-honed policy of disproportionate retribution.

There is no doubt that the various groups opposed to Israel know very well that the Jewish state can and will exact a terrible cost for every action against them. This strategy, with its gruesome human toll on both sides, has been going on for generations, yet has utterly failed to make the Israeli state safe or to protect its citizens.

So what has changed? Why has is it become so much easier to mount a crippling insurgency? One factor is the global profusion of small arms. There are now about 600 million in circulation in the world, which cause 500,000 deaths each year.

The cost of a new AK-47 in Iraq is about $200. In Afghanistan, a used one is a bargain at about $10. Bullets are 30 cents each. A rocket launcher in Baghdad can be had for about $100.

According to U.S. terrorism expert Stephen Flynn, "weapons like the AK-47 are so plentiful that they can be had for the price of a chicken in Uganda, the price of a goat in Kenya, and the price of a bag of maize in Mozambique or Angola."

The other new factor is the deadly and recent phenomenon of suicide bombing. Developed as a tactic in the Lebanese civil war only in the 1980s, it has become a frighteningly effective tool that military powers are virtually powerless to prevent.

Between 1980 and 2003, suicide attacks accounted for only 3 per cent of terrorist attacks worldwide but 48 per cent of deaths due to terrorism. A conventional army trained to fight other soldiers is of little practical use against such extreme tactics.

Contrary to popular opinion, most suicide bombers are motivated not by religious fanaticism. According to Robert Pape's seminal book on the subject Dying to Win, 95 per cent of suicide attacks have had one strategic goal: to remove an occupier.

Not surprisingly, places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, where suicide tactics are commonplace, are also examples where it has become virtually impossible to achieve a "military solution."

It spite of the waning utility of war, like many sunset industries, it will be subsidized long after it makes sense to do so. Military spending around the world has increased 34 per cent since 1996 and currently eats up $1.2 trillion each year -- 46 per cent of which is accounted for by the U.S. alone.

Instead of throwing more good money after bad, we should admit that military interventions are no longer effective and reallocate those resources toward preventing conditions leading to conflict. Rather than lamenting the end of war, we should embrace the possibilities it creates.

The U.S. government spends 32 times more on the military than foreign aid. Globally, aid is less than seven per cent of military spending. Based on those numbers, the potential to make the world a more civil, just and peaceful place is enormous.

The so-called "war on terror" will not be won on a battlefield; it will be resolved through economic development, fair trade practices, strategic assistance and respectful negotiation.

Like slavery, subjugation of women and eugenics, the age of war has come and gone. It will not be missed.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Harry Potter and the Eerie Silence

Every evening, my kids curl up with me in our bed, and I read them another two chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Reading Harry Potter has been an off-and-on ritual for the past few years, since they were old enough to handle the first Potter book. It's been an adventure that we've lived together, and I'll be sad to set the last book down.

So my question is: What has happened to the great outcry against the Potter books? An eerie silence has greeted Book 7. There's barely a whimper anywhere.

The bigger question, of course, is why was there an outcry in the first place? After all, it's kind of like a fairy tale. What was the big deal? Why this book, and not a hundred others?

My personal theory is that the Potter books hit on a conservative-Christian nerve. In some parts of the States, conservatives didn't just want their own kids not to read it: they wanted nobody to read it. There were book bannings and book burnings.

Of a kids' book.

Somehow this book got too close to something.

I meant to find out what it was.

The protesters claimed that the books promoted paganism. But if you know anything about paganism, you'd recognize that this is rubbish. Paganism is an anything-goes worldview: it has no concept of a moral evil and a moral good. In the Potter books, good and evil are central to the storyline.

Neither is the book about occultism or satanism, as claimed. No occult events occur anywhere in any of the books, and satan isn't mentioned. Evil takes the form of a person who has shredded his soul in order to escape death. He is not an object of worship, but an object of fear and loathing.

Nor is the criticism that the books will lead children to believe in magic or want to be witches valid either. If kids are old enough to tackle a 500-page book, then they're old enough not to believe in magic.

This was all grasping at straws.

I don't think it was the pagan or magic aspects of the Potter books that drove the conservatives nutty: I think it was the Christian elements.

Rowling, who is not a professed Christian, took 2000 years of christendom--in the form of symbols, legends, archetypes, allegories, and values--and put it into a new story. The books are a feast for the literature-starved: a delicious mix of latin and greek, classical references, quests, myths, ancient symbols, literary references, and above all, Christ's teaching and example. It's as if she took everything in christendom's collective unconscious and wove it into a world we can see and feel. The stories are so true to our unconscious that the places and people seem achingly familiar. We don't just *like* Hogwarts: we *recognize* it.

In effect, Rowling broke the Christian copyright on these symbols. She told the story with new names and let it have new meaning. In many ways, she let the symbols tell their own story.

Take the first two books.

Hogwarts School is clearly a symbol of the church. It is where the chosen youngsters learn the power of magic.

It had four founders, who created the four houses of Hogwarts, paralleling the four authors of the gospels. The inhabitants of the three synoptic houses are ordinary, perhaps earthy and courageous; the fourth is the house whose inhabitants believe they are divine, that access to magic makes witches and wizards above all other humans. From this house comes the evil in these books.

To get to Hogwarts, first-years have to go through a ritual by water, a type of baptism that only needs to occur once to let them in.

There is at Hogwarts a friendly giant, who protects all creatures great and small. There is Dumbledore, the white-bearded God figure, the headmaster of the school, wise and kind, whose sermon is love. His patronus symbol is the phoenix, the mythical creature that dies and then is reborn from the ashes, a resurrection symbol even though it predates the gospels.

Harry is the boy who has been prophesied to conquer evil. His patronus symbol is the stag, which in the medieval bestiaries symbolized the Christ. In case the reader didn't know that, Rowling points out that the stag looks like a unicorn--another symbol of Christ. In Quidditch, he is an instinctual Seeker. Harry and his two friends Ron and Hermione form the trinity that works to keep evil out of Hogwarts. Incomplete on their own, they need each other's strengths and weaknesses to defeat evil.

The weapon of the books is love, also called forgiveness and grief. The team of good guys is known as the Order of the Phoenix, making more use of the resurrection symbol. Evil in the stories is the fear of death. The evil lord is named Voldemort ("vol de mort" = flight from death), and his followers are known as Death Eaters.

In Book 1, the evils are in the attics of the "church" - and the evil one sits in the hat on a teacher's head. Harry has to clean out the temple and banish the evil one. In Book 2, Harry must descend into hell to kill the serpent. In so doing, he is fatally wounded by the monster's poison and faces death; but his wounds are healed by Phoenix tears--symbolic of the sorrow of the Passion story--and he survives and returns from hell.

In the final book, Harry faces his own Golgotha.

I could go on. Many people do. The books are steeped in christendom's symbols, and it's kind of fun to pull them all out. Even the mist-shrouded, train station to the afterlife, where Harry ends up after his Golgotha, is called King's Cross.

Christ's teachings dominate the morals and ethics of the books. One theme is the tender care one owes to the least of one's brothers and sisters, from the powerful wizards down to the enslaved house elves--and it even extends to the bad guys. The antiracism theme develops through all seven books, until the final book, where it becomes the dominant theme--echoes of Nazi Germany pervade the book. And Dumbledore's solution to every problem is love.

Unlike Star Wars and Tolkien, where both heroes and villains kill, in the Potter books only villains use killing curses. The good guys are nonviolent: they use disarming spells, stunning spells, immobilizing spells--and sometimes end up being killed in the process. Yet they resist any temptation to do things that Dumbledore would disapprove of. Acts of love, courage, and self-sacrifice, as well as reflecting evil back onto itself, help them by slow degrees to win the day.

Yet--and this is a big yet--despite being saturated with christendom, the books do not weave in a creed. There is no gospel-based event-by-event allegory, like CS Lewis. Except for "Christmas," "Easter," and "godfather," Christian words are not used, not even where the gospels are being quoted or paraphrased.

And that's what I believe sent the conservatives into howls. They saw what was theirs, stolen.

So then why did the hue and cry suddenly end?

It seems on the surface as if conservative Christians have suddenly decided to accept the Potter books, maybe because the Christian symbolism is so strong, that they believe the books just *have* to be Christian, that Rowling has secretly been a CS Lewis without telling anyone.

I beg to differ.

Book 6 ends with the killing of Dumbledore. Focus, people. There is no God at Hogwarts after that. Harry is left on his own with a few shreds of information to save the world from evil, a task he does not know how to do. He is not a saviour: he is just a kid who doesn't have a clue.

Book 7 is "death of god" theology, told not by philosophers but by our own collective unconscious. God is dead, Harry keeps saying, the Messiah has to be us. And so the trio finds and roots out the scraps of evil's soul until the awful moment when Harry realizes that completion of his task requires him to give up his life. And so he does, without hesitation.

But Harry is not the only Messiah. When his apparently dead body is carried back to Hogwarts, the students find that the power of evil over them is no longer strong. They become their own Messiahs, starting with stuttering, awkward Neville Longbottom, and followed by the others. They resist, refuse to obey, and draw new power over evil, until at least evil is defeated.

In effect, Harry is a Christ figure without the redemption idea. The message is not that Christ died to save us, but that Christ died to show us how to die. We are Christs when we accept the possibility of suffering and death in order to protect love.

There's the nerve that Rowling stepped on.


Interestingly, the epigraph to the final book is from William Penn, on death and dying. Is this the only influence of Quakerism? Maybe just one other thing--the way the Light in children is treated with the same respect as the Light in adults in these books.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Fundamentalism Revisited

After a long summer break, I'm ready (I hope) to devote some time to blogging again. It is a spiritual discipline, isn't it? Since I'm not attending Meeting at the moment, it's about my only spiritual discipline, so I should get back at it...

Husband and I have been discussing fundamentalism a lot lately. Topics like this sit with me for a long time, walking along with me as I go on my daily walks. We find fundamentalism fascinating because it is so far outside of our worldview.

Husband just finds it nutty.

What is it about fundamentalists that makes them act in a way that is, while not exactly "insane," certainly "counter-sane"?


The collective, unspoken, but accepted perception of reality of an entire culture.

Fundamentalism juxtaposes itself against the worldview. Opposing a worldview in which you are immersed is remarkably difficult. Fundamentalism is high maintenance.

Hundreds of years ago, literalist religion was not high maintenance. Religion was just all there was to believe. There was no science. There were no facts. Reality wasn't knowable. The Old English root of the word "truth" is "trow"--which just meant "belief" or "trust." "Truth" did not convey any idea of "fact" at all. The "truth" was just something you believed.

Written religion provided a theory of reality that people could believe in, and that was enough to make them believable. Requirements weren't very strict -- that hadn't been invented yet. In a worldview devoid of science or facts, God made the wind blow, God made the tides come in and go out every day, God made the sun rise and turned the seasons, God made people sick. There was no other explanation.

It made religion pretty easy. Just believe what you already believe.

Fundamentalism today is hard work. To literally believe everything in the bible and the early doctrines, you have to deny the reality you already believe in. You can't choose not to believe in your worldview: it's part of your everyday experience of life. It's just there, like air or water.

This puts fundamentalists in a terrible dilemma. Even if you don't really believe in witches, the fact that the Old Testament makes a statement or two about witches means you have to believe in them (and condemn them). So you force yourself to believe in witches.

But you don't really believe in them. Witches (in the satanic sense) are not part of the worldview. People today don't believe in magic, flying broomsticks, evil curses, or potions--unless they're insane. Plus, the Old Testament doesn't exactly tell you what a witch is. So you have to revert to folklore and descriptions by medieval inquisitors. After all, if the bible mentions a witch, then it has to be a thing--and a definable thing at that. So hate literature from the Dark Ages becomes part of your required belief system.

And so the net of required beliefs gets larger and larger. It doesn't just conflict with your worldview on one or two levels (e.g. taking one book literally while scorning all others, ignoring historical research into the roots of biblical writings). It requires you to concoct an entire unbelievable worldview.

This kicks off what Thomas Carlyle called "our spasmodic efforts to believe that we believe." It's hard, hard work. You can't look anywhere. You can't read anything. It's dark and scary because all that has to happen is for one small Yop to cut through the spells you've woven around yourself, and the whole thing could cave in.

Fear that there's nothing there.

Fear that the whole promise of life after death is hollow.

Fear that if just one word of one book is shown to be untrue, then nothing is true but the sad, hard world we live in.

That's why fundamentalists work so hard. Our sermon to them should be "Don't be afraid. Put the trust back into truth. Let your worldview guide you."