Category Archives: Public Service

Madness

Photo: Honore-Daumier-Don-Quixote.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

 

Not too long ago, I took my daughter Audrey to a Washington DC production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of the play Man of La Mancha. It’s one of my favorite plays, and one that I first saw when I was her age. It is based on the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in which an elderly gentleman is deluded into thinking that he is a valiant knight – Don Quixote de la Mancha – who is sworn to uphold the strict moral code of chivalry in a cynical, brutal, violent world that is devoid of such ideals. Although long past the time of armored knights on horseback, he and his faithful squire set out across the plains of La Mancha and the mountains of the Sierra Morena on a madman’s quest, the virtuous and indefatigable champion of a better world.

Madness?

Perhaps, but for many of us Don Quixote is heroic, even if comically soft in the head. Does one need to be certifiably insane to yearn for a world in which decency, honor, love, and bravery speak to a man’s best character? Granted, chivalry is a problematic moral premise, given its machismo ethos, its disdain for the peasantry, and its relegation of women as chaste objects of beauty and purity. Still, considering what values prevailed four hundred years ago when Cervantes wrote this epic novel, chivalry was a monumental step ahead in moral evolution.

My musings are not only literary.

Given the full house at that play’s production, and the fact that this play and the novel itself have such continuing appeal to so many of us, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assert that many people yearn for a less cynical, more principled, more compassionate world…a world, for instance, in which the destruction of the planet’s environment for the sake of short term economic gain (by the few) would be recognized as the starkest madness. Our own children and grandchildren will pay a dreadful price for this morally indefensible position, and it is harrowing to even imagine what we are bequeathing to generations further into the future – if we have such a future at all. We know enough however to imagine such a dire future very clearly – yet still we as a nation respond tentatively, if at all. Madness.

Moral principles are important to me. In my decades of work in less developed countries, I’ve been face-to-face with those who are beset by intense poverty – poverty so grinding and debilitating that it is very hard for Americans to imagine. Still, we have poverty here too, yet despite being an exceptionally wealthy country we watch powerlessly as the gap between rich and poor widens inexorably, while curiously so many poor citizens celebrate a new tax law that exacerbates this trend. Simultaneously, we cut back on foreign aid and humanitarian relief. Then we wonder why the rich get richer and the refugee numbers swell. Madness.

Human rights are important. Human rights describe and set the “bare-bones” threshold conditions for how human beings ought to live, and what governments ought to do to make this happen. Demanding that human rights be taken seriously is to demand governance that is about public service, justice, duty, and empathy – and being morally responsive to the “oughts”. Instead, we see our government unapologetically abuse the most vulnerable people of all – young children – by ripping them from the loving care of their parents, to “discourage” asylum seekers who are desperate for a place of safety – America – where they believed their human rights would be respected. Instead, and acting in our name, we see our government demonstrate astounding callousness, a total lack of empathy, and a disdain for human rights as they use the intense suffering of vulnerable children and their bereft parents to make a political point. This is morally repugnant. This is madness.

America’s president has walked away from our once-celebrated leadership in human rights, to petulantly demand that a vast and expensive border wall be constructed to keep out those persons whose asylum claims are morally sound, and whose hopes, dreams, and needs are very human. Were we instead to spend the wall money on strategically helping to solve the problems that drive people to seek asylum far from their homes, we might see positive changes and a steep decline in asylum seekers. Instead, Trump and his base insist on a wall for us all to hide behind, while the human beings on the other side of that wall unrelentingly suffer. “Not our problem!” Madness.

Gender equality and fairness (equity) is important to me. While Don Quixote would have been ethically challenged to imagine such a thing, we now know better. We are reminded by the example of courageous feminists – women and men – that the principle of human dignity is for all human beings, regardless of gender (or race, or ethnicity, or age, or disability status, or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or…). Yet we have a President who has excused his boasts of sexual assaulting women as “locker room”, a Vice President who is hostile to women’s rights, and an Attorney General who has a long record of opposition to fundamental rights for women. In short, our political leadership undercuts any moral position that would recognize the worth and full humanity of the female half of the country, and of others who are marginalized. Still, more than 51% of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Madness, yet again.

Yes, Don Quixote de la Mancha was almost certainly the victim of a form of insanity. Still, it was an insanity that epitomized humanity’s idealistic struggle for a better world, a world that “ought to be”. I’m more inclined to follow the example of Don Quixote, tilt at the windmills of greed, callousness, ignorance, fear, arrogance, lies, bigotry, hatred, and cynicism, than accept – much less politically celebrate – the feckless, morally bereft leadership that now prevails in our once proud country.

Hopefully the Democrats can find better leadership than a modern version of Don Quixote. Leaders with a clear and transformative moral vision, leaders with a commitment to democracy and public service, leaders who are environmentally intelligent and wise, leaders who actually possess empathy and decency and integrity. Leaders who are sane.

As the November mid-terms approach, as we confront the grim prospects of the nomination (by an illegitimate President) and the confirmation (by a morally spineless Senate majority) of yet another hard-right Supreme Court Justice, and the long-awaited revelations of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation (as Trump heads off to have his summit with Putin), I have to believe that clinging to idealism isn’t madness.

It’s the definition of sanity, and hope.

Existential indifference

Existential, as the word implies, has to do with existence. Our existence.

Indifference is somewhat easier to grasp, since the sentiment of “I really don’t care” is so frequently on common display in America – most recently in large letters on the back of First Lady Melania Trump’s jacket.

Still, it isn’t accurate to say that we simply don’t care about the values, principles, and issues we hold to be important. For many of us, it’s more appropriate to describe our indifference in terms of being overwhelmed, confounded, even laid low by a comprehensive, intense, and unrelenting assault on those very values, principles, and issues that we once defined ourselves by. The hyper-nationalist, increasingly authoritarian, and deeply divisive discourse, policies, and direction in this country, as well as in once democratic (or quasi-democratic) countries like Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Turkey have grave consequences. We watch as Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam all sink deeper into authoritarianism. We see global inequalities rise more precipitously than ever before.

What does it take for ordinary citizens to withstand such a torrent of outrageous, destructive, self-serving, corrupt, often callous, and sometimes evil policies, actions, sentiments, language, and assumptions – and their dire consequences? What kind of ideologies can drive such disarray?

In the United States, labeling the politics of Trump, Pence, and Sessions as “ideologies” presumes a coherence, intelligence, and intentionality that would have to be more strategic and inspired than what we are confronting, yet the danger is no less real. Existential, even.

So, what’s the threat?

Well, the list is long…we could start (in no particular order) with human dignity and human rights. Trump regularly refers to human beings in language that denies any shared moral commitment to universal human dignity. He describes immigrants infesting our country, and members of the notorious  MS-13 drug gang as “animals”. Human beings do not “infest”, and even hardened MS-13 gang members are still human beings (after all, we seek to prosecute those who are proven to be criminals because we hold that all human beings – and not animals – are obligated to act morally and in compliance with just laws). Even Hillary Clinton’s election campaign indiscretion of labeling some Trump supporters as “deplorables” spoke about their racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamaphobic values, not their lack of human dignity. Trump, Pence, and Sessions have similarly ganged up to humiliate, malign, and deny the equal dignity and rights of between 4,000 and 10,000 patriotic US active-duty and reserve transgender military service members, not to mention those transgender persons who are aspiring recruits. The transgender phenomenon seems particularly troublesome to these and many other Republicans, as they also have acted to deny basic equal human rights and legal protections to transgender students, and to push back on transgender people accessing essential health care. Obviously in their eyes, some of us – including people just like me – are not quite human enough.

A second casualty of the current assault is truth itself. We have a president who seems to be incapable, or at least indisposed, to be truthful. Trump is on the record in saying that lying in public is acceptable. He lives this belief every day; the cascade of lies is nearly beyond the best fact-checkers’ capability to count that high. With truth so battered and eroded, day after day, we finally grow numb, even indifferent. We grow complacent, no longer expecting truth from those elected in positions of public trust. What’s “public trust”? A quaint notion, it seems.

A third casualty is compassion. This administration equates compassion with leniency, weakness, and a lack of virility. We’ve had the most graphic example this past week in the boldly callous Trump policy of separating the children of immigrants charged with illegal crossings along our southern border. The reality of innocent, vulnerable, distraught, traumatized young children and even toddlers being ripped away from their parents’ arms does not appear to elicit a scintilla of care, concern, or compassion from Trump, Pence, Sessions, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, or White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. Most Republicans in Congress demonstrate their own callousness by their silence. Continue reading Existential indifference

On thin ice

I can’t remember the last time I saw someone fall through the ice. Given that my high school and college years were spent in upstate New York, there’s little doubt that I’ve seen such a thing, but somehow watching this happen again yesterday – several times – transfixed me.

Saturday January 20th was auspicious – Year #2 for the Women’s March in Washington and around the world. So I probably should’ve been paying more attention to the many “big name” speakers up there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the heart of my city. Thousands of people (yes, mostly women) gathered around the Reflecting Pool, which was covered with ice from our long bout of extreme cold weather. Yesterday, however, the sun baked down and the temperatures soared. A few of those gathered chose to wander out onto the ice… and in time, a few of them fell through.

Their mishaps were little more than uncomfortably cold brief embarrassments; the water was barely deeper than their knees. Still, it offered an apt metaphor to where my thoughts had wandered. As I mused on their icy exploits, speaker after speaker exhorted us to redouble our resistance, to mobilize in strength for the upcoming midterm elections, to “do politics – or else politics will do you”. I knew they were preaching to the choir – we were there because we’re the committed ones. Still, even our staunch commitment had limits; the speeches were too many, too long, and most of us wandered off after the speeches had droned on for well over an hour past the official march start time. So technically I did not march yesterday, but the afternoon was well spent and reinforcing; at this stage I will take whatever solidarity I can find. Living in Trump’s Washington is dispiriting in the extreme, and the harshly cold winter has only exacerbated the misery – and the alarm.

After all, we’re walking on thin ice. Our democracy itself is in peril, as most in Congress prove – yet again – to be ineffectual or inept, unprincipled or simply opportunistic. It’s hard to find a positive narrative as I watch the U.S. Government shut down again, irrefutable evidence that our legislators cannot perform the most fundamental task that they were sent there to do – pass a budget. Living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I know that so many of my neighbors who are hard-working, vastly under-appreciated federal civil servants or foreign service officers will again feel that they’re pawns in a cruel and unnecessary game. Continue reading On thin ice

The ugly Americans

American flag

It used to feel special to travel abroad with that blue passport. In my evolving world view, I had ample reason to feel pride in my country and its democratic ideals and in my conviction, that despite our many flaws and occasional deep hypocrisies, we truly meant well in the world. We cared about the plight of others, we were generous in our assistance to the less fortunate, and we held our allies in the highest regard.

That was then; this is now. I am much older, and as I travel first to India and now back in Uganda, the sordid, sorry news from the United States is never far away. Large screen monitors in airports and hotels expose the latest in what we’ve now come to accept will be an unending series of Trump media distractions (intentional?) achieved through egregious and unpresidential tweets, along with reprehensible political statements and policies that fly in the face of the ideals that I grew up thinking defined us as a people. “America First” is code for screw the rest of the world (nations, and the environment) – we don’t care and you don’t matter.

From my short-term perch in Kampala, I can tell you that indeed we do make a lot of noise in the world. The polarized, angry name-calling and lack of even basic civility that has come to define the United States in the era of Trump is heard regularly more than 10,000 miles away. More people than you can imagine around the world now know who Mika Brzezinski is. No surprise then that I encounter, every day, perplexed looks by the citizens I meet in these two countries as they ask their variation of the same question:

“What has happened to America?”

It’s depressing that I don’t have the words to answer that. It is too easy to blame the other side, when an insufficient number of liberal and progressive Americans failed to show up when it mattered the most – at the polls last November.  For the first time in my long life I feel shame for my country, and particularly for the leader and his many supporters who are committed to a boorish politics of unapologetic selfishness, who are sowing the seeds of deep discord and division within the United States and beyond, and who seem united in their utter rejection that the globe is now interdependent. “America First” is telling the people I meet abroad every day as I travel that they simply aren’t significant, unless they have a terrorist’s agenda. Then they will be crushed (along with innumerable civilians who just happen to be in the way, and desperate refugees fleeing such terrorism who simply long for a modicum of peace, stability, and hope). To people abroad, America is now perceived as an increasingly reclusive, isolationist, heavy-handed and uncaring country. Yes, we are respected as militarily strong and quick to punish those who would do us harm (at least when it is in the Trump team’s perceived national interest to do so, which is an unsettling thought). And sure, as a citizen of the United States and the daughter of a U.S. Marine, I am gratified that my security is a priority, even if I have deep questions as to the prevailing assumption in Republican circles that there is no such thing as too much defense spending. So what does it all add up to for America in the world?

An ugly truth – Americans are no longer nice. Continue reading The ugly Americans

Still angry!

protest

What do I say to my neighbor?

I’m hardly alone in pondering that vexing question. She and I always seem to get along so well, in that informal, rather superficially friendly but consistently pleasant way in which women often interact with other women. Lots of smiles, small talk about our children and pets, a word or two about the weather; seldom more. Yet that was enough – it was comforting to know that she, her children, and their little dog lived next door, even if her boyfriend barely said a word to me. He didn’t seem like the talkative type, but together they made for nice neighbors.

In late October everything changed, when they placed the Trump sign on their lawn and the very rude anti-Hillary bumper sticker on his truck.  That lawn sign stayed put right through Inauguration Day, and the coarse bumper sticker remains on his truck.

As for me, I’ve not found my way to saying a word to her since election night. I’m not proud about that. To the contrary, I’m saddened that I suddenly feel such an enormous distance between us. The awkwardness has been mitigated a little given that it is winter and too cold for any of us to linger outdoors; I barely cross paths with her. In time, we will probably return to our innocuous shared pleasantries.

Maybe.

But maybe not. How can I possibly get to a place in my mind and spirit where I “get over it”? Everything is different now. Suddenly, America feels different – crystallized into people with disparate realities and differing “facts” who neither care nor know how to engage across the chasm that has come to divide us. I’m not describing just the Red State – Blue State divide; the chasm I experience has opened up even between my house and my neighbor’s. It’s depth and width are exacerbated by the anger that still wells up inside of me, undiminished. Yes – I’m angry. Furious even. I feel indignation and outrage that the country that I know and love, a country of caring and progressive persons, has suddenly been snatched away. I’m angry that a man who embodies the antithesis of the virtues of everything that I honor and look up to in a leader is now at the helm of our great country. I’m angry that he has gathered around him the counsel and company of billionaires and extreme right wing people, people who have no respect or time for minorities, women, the poor, or anyone who doesn’t see the world as “us” and “them”. The bizarre combination of Russian intrigue, FBI Director malfeasance, an abundance of fake news, and outdated electoral college mechanisms have handed the government of my country to an Administration who lost the popular vote by an historic margin, and who now enjoy power with at best a very questionable mandate, and arguably no mandate at all. Continue reading Still angry!

Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving, and so far I have sat mute as numerous messages have reached me across the Internet from friends and family, effusive in their gratitude for the many blessings that characterize their lives and relationships. These are sincere, warm, caring messages, and it is wonderful that this holiday opens the door to such expressions. Throughout the rest of the year, none of us says “thank you” nearly enough.

This year, however, I have not found the words inside me to be warmly responsive to these sentiments. Maybe I am just in a funky place…which might be forgivable in my current circumstances. I’m still trying – without measurable success – to make any sense of the recent presidential election, as the American political landscape seems to have entered into a place of irrationality and deep division. While the world around me seems very insecure, my own personal world also has more than a fair share of insecurity.  I’ve been unemployed (not counting a few consulting assignments and some modestly-remunerated adjunct teaching) for the past two years, despite my monumental efforts to find a new job. Success in securing employment eludes me. My small savings long ago were depleted, and despite many job applications still “pending” my prospects continue to look bleak. So…I am finding myself blocked from that congenial space in which to muse upon my blessings. I might take some small satisfaction in laying some blame for my plight on ageism and transphobia, but placing blame won’t change a culture that excludes well-qualified people from employment opportunities simply because they are mature, experienced, and living authentically.

Still, I know all too well that I am blessed.

I do indeed have much to be thankful for: my health, my family and friends, my Quaker faith community, my excellent education, my life’s narrative of so many international adventures, my growing and inspirational global community of LGBTI persons and allies. I should even be grateful for my cat…he’s a good cat.

Optimistic, idealistic do-gooders are generally not esteemed in society (cats or no cats), especially by those of a more hard-edged, pragmatic character. Still, I am grateful for my resilient idealism, despite the many knocks along the way. Among these ideals that mean the most to me are two: 1) that human dignity is universal, and 2) that ethical leadership makes all the difference in getting to a place where societies honor that dignity…for everyone. Continue reading Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

The fight for America’s soul

bench

Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

moral-compass-3

I would never have believed we, as a nation, could come to this.

Perhaps I should take some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in my perplexed disbelief. In an op-ed in the Washington Post published today, Republican columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson shared his own incredulity, and his words speak directly to my own pre-election anxieties:

“It is almost beyond belief that Americans should bless and normalize Trump’s appeal. Normalize vindictiveness and prejudice. Normalize bragging about sexual assault and the objectification of women. Normalize conspiracy theories and the abandonment of reason. Normalize contempt for the vulnerable, including disabled people and refugees fleeing oppression. Normalize a political tone that dehumanizes opponents and excuses violence. Normalize an appeal to white identity in a nation where racial discord and conflict are always close to the surface. Normalize every shouted epithet, every cruel ethnic and religious stereotype, every act of bullying in the cause of American “greatness” … In the end, a Trump victory would normalize the belief that the structures of self-government are unequal to the crisis of our time.”

Why are such pernicious, appalling values being normalized? Why are so many Americans completely unconcerned as Trump wreaks havoc with truthfulness by doubling down on lies and on his distortions of well-documented facts?  Why are so many Americans committed to a leader who assaults the very premise of our democracy, i.e. that we as a nation are able to rise together in collaboration to address the challenges that confront us, and to seize the opportunities that await us?  Why are so many Americans so  enthusiastic in their support of a leader who takes pride in turning his back on the urgent threat of global climate change – despite the proven (and progressively self-evident) devastating impacts that will affect their own children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn? Why are the promises of short-term economic gains so alluring, ignoring all of the subsequent trade-offs of long term (and in many cases) irreparable harms to our economy, our environment, our security, and our sense of ourselves as a nation? In short, why are the polls so damnably close, with the election just days away?

My best guess is that we have lost our sense of direction as a nation.  We have no moral compass, and many of us don’t give a damn.

No, a moral compass isn’t the latest app that can be downloaded onto your smartphone. You may know it best by its absence – the lack of any discernible institutionalized process of robust discussion of secular values in our society at large, and specifically in the corridors of governance. Instead, “values” and “morality” have fallen victim to claims associated with narrow ideologies – and to vagueness – with expressions such as “traditional values”, “family values”, the “moral majority”, and even “American values” often being rhetorical devices to advocate for very narrow and often very polarizing political, cultural, or religious objectives. The idea that secular morality and ethics forms a common societal unifying platform – a deliberative space in which people are respected, listened to, and able to share their well-informed and considered views without jeopardy – is now largely a lost notion. Even our fundamental national institution of deliberation, our Congress, has lost even the pretense of deliberative, mutually respectful discourse and debate on the issues that affect us all. When was the last time that Senators or Representatives actually debated an issue?

The mechanism at the heart of any moral compass is ethics – a system of moral values that guides discernment and decision-making. Sadly, that mechanism has atrophied, due in large measure to semantics. Few really know what “ethics” means. In the media and in the public consciousness, “ethics” as a discipline has been narrowly redefined by the lawyers and legislators, who have reduced and reinterpreted the word to mean little more than compliance with codes of conduct and disclosure, with legal requirements, and with avoidance of conflicts of interest (or the appearance thereof). It’s pretty dry stuff, and not likely to stimulate much lively discourse. While compliance and legal propriety have obvious importance, limiting the role of ethics in this way diminishes ethics to nothing more than a skeletal version of its essential secular and governance role.  Secular ethics and morality exist to make our values explicit and meaningful, to provide the societal glue to bind us together and to guide our progress and direction as a society. Through the application of secular ethics, we learn to recognize which values have the most relevance to specific situations, which values deserve to be respected as universal, and how best to use this knowledge to forge a persuasive social consensus on the shared values, rights, and principles that allow us to cohere as a society and as a nation.

In short, we need that moral compass to guide how we normalize the secular values and human rights that ought to define us, and to reject those values that discredit us as a people. Michael Gerson’s description of what is now being “normalized” clearly shows little reference by Americans to the application of such a moral compass.

What might such a moral compass guide us toward? Continue reading Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

Peace Corps 1

I often (perhaps too often) post on social media about some urgent human rights, social inclusion, or justice issue that I’m feeling deeply moved by. Such concerns are a very prominent part of who I am and what I’m about, and how I strive in my own small ways to make this a better world. Yet I know that personal and family news always seems to score the highest number of “likes” on Facebook or Twitter postings. When I recently posted about my son Ian’s very positive interview to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (possibly in the West African, Francophone country of Benin) the response was overwhelming. I’ve never received so many “likes” on Facebook, from both Ian’s friends and mine.

While Ian and I await a decision on his application, I’m left to ponder what it is that makes the Peace Corps so special in the American psyche, and so respected by me and by so many people here and in developing countries. And perhaps not surprising for someone with over three decades working as an international development practitioner and activist, I can’t help but compare the Peace Corps model to the evolving and ever-consolidating modern American (and increasingly multinational) development “industry” of for-profit firms and NGOs, fiercely competing for each contract and grant in a tight and under-resourced market.

To be clear, the Peace Corps is not universally admired. It’s regularly criticized as a federal Agency without a clear mission: a development agency that isn’t all that good at sustainable development and one that doesn’t hold its development results or effectiveness abroad up to public scrutiny by hard-pressed American taxpayers. It is castigated as an organization that places Volunteers – many fresh out of college and largely innocent in the ways of the world – into situations that are potentially very dangerous, all for reasons that are not all that clear.  Others see it as yet another example of federal government overreach; a chrysalis of globalization or a taxpayer-sponsored development “boot camp” to forge the future leaders of American development firms and non-profits to be competitive in the international arena. Why should taxpayers carry the burden of transforming Volunteers into dirt-under-their-fingernails global citizens made world-weary by the complexities and impact of poverty, diverse cultural values, and faraway community dynamics? Still others see it as a government sponsored extended summer camp, where mostly young Volunteers go to exotic and remote locations to spend a great deal of time over two years interacting with other Volunteers. And then there are those who simply dismiss the Peace Corps as an idealistic experiment from a bye-gone era, barely relevant to the turbulent and hard-nosed international scene in 2016 – an Agency struggling to retain its aura at a time when President Kennedy, its founder back in 1961, is “ancient history” for most Americans born long afterwards.

That’s quite a blistering critique, but it hardly squares with the enthusiastic outpouring of warmth and support for my son’s application process. So quite clearly, there is another side to the Peace Corps.

I’ve seen that other side again and again in my own career. I’ve experienced it in the resilient enthusiasm and sheer gumption of the many Volunteers whom I used to host to Thanksgiving dinners every year at my home in Nairobi, Kenya during the decade that I worked as an architect there. I’ve seen it in the fond, almost dewy-eyed recollections of so many colleagues in international development as they recall with both pride and immense satisfaction those profoundly formative years from their own service as Peace Corps Volunteers. I’ve also appreciated it being made manifest by the sensitive and wise assessments made by former Volunteers of America’s interactions with complicated foreign cultures, even on such charged and often conflicting values-based situations as women’s equality and the social inclusion of LGBTI persons.

I also recognize my own pride that I feel in my son’s choice. Whether selected or not to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m heartened by his commitment both to public service and to volunteerism. Indeed, I cherish his idealism, as I recall how very difficult it has been in my years of work in international development to find those types of conversations – those passions expressed – among my colleagues, even though it is clearly what motivated most of them into such careers.

We just don’t make space to talk about ideals, or values. But you’ve heard me say that before. Continue reading Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Washington conference 3

Washington, D.C. abounds with (free) opportunities to participate in erudite deliberations, cutting-edge topical presentations by highly respected experts, and diverse policy discussions including people who actually wield enormous power (or once did). Then there are those by-invitation-only gatherings of the “high-level” people – gatherings beyond the range of mere mortals such as I, with the occasional quirky exception (such as when I was invited to join Ambassador Samantha Power for a dinner). Elite-invitation-envy aside, Washington events are populated with many folks who are unquestionably very smart, remarkably accomplished, influential (just ask them), and affiliated with just the right institutions or government departments (again, just ask them – they expect to be asked).

With the notable exception of the few “fringe” or “radical” gatherings (e.g. feminists, LGBTI people, religious devotees, environmentalists, or philosophers), those who attend the more typical Washington discourse events are also usually quite well-invested in the prevailing paradigm, which is always a variation on the preeminence of Power and Wealth (occasionally made glamorous by close association with Technology). It’s a paradigm + variations that comes with baggage: an almost off-hand acceptance of the many inherent failings of human nature, the wave-of-the-hand disavowal of “old notions” of morality, or a dismissive snicker at the naïveté of anyone idealistic enough to suggest someone might actually be motivated by public service.

No one really talks about public service. Just like no one really talks about integrity, when it is so much more fashionable to frame everything through the lens of corruption. People will be corrupt to the extent that they can get away with it, right? What else is there to say, except to exhort a stop to these corrupt miscreants (who of course by definition are those of us who get caught)?

It goes deeper still, however. There exists an unspoken premise that citizens will always bend to incentive structures that have been cleverly crafted to appear to maximize their individual self-interest, but which are more likely to be all about manipulating people towards ulterior ends, i.e. entrenching and amassing the power and wealth of the elites. And about those ulterior ends… the adjective “nefarious” is usually left off. Why assume motives, eh? The economy will do what it does.

We who frequent such events do take some small measure of comfort knowing that the many conferences and workshops and gatherings in Washington almost always are provisioned with ample – if not particularly good – free coffee. If you’re lucky, or very selective, there’s even free food. No, the food’s not particularly good either, but the price is sweet.

Do I sound just a little despairing of my Washington colleagues? After all, cynicism about humanity and its venal motivations is well supported by so much of history (or at least by what we’ve chosen to report on in our history books, or on Fox news, or on Twitter). It’s become the norm to be suspicious (or knowingly condescending) about the possibility that morality might mean something, or that human dignity has any practical influence. The evidence to the contrary is just so plentiful – as all around the world senseless conflicts rage on, and millions of people are displaced or condemned to a grueling life as refugees. The tally of human suffering is beyond calculation.

So we don’t try.

That’s just “the way it is”, right? Deal with it. Realism means that we’ve long since put aside the ritual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. If you’re going to play in this Washington game at this level, you damn well better know the rules. And in the context of international development, conflict management & peacebuilding, and human rights advocacy, the prevailing rules are rooted in the dynamics of power and wealth. Everything else is “soft”. Sure, it’s “nice” to pay rhetorical homage from time to time (and in passing) to ideals like justice, compassion, patriotism, public service, dignity, second-generation human rights, or – dare I even mention it – love, but in the end the players in this game adhere to the well-worn dictates of the patriarchy: only Power and Money (and the self-interest that can be pursued through these) matter.

Period. Continue reading Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman