John Hopkins' school of international affairs has this piece of the Berlin Wall sitting outside its D.C. main entrance.
This stone marks the end of the iron curtain and the epic failure of communism. Stalin's 25 million victims, the 30 million who starved under Mao showed us exactly what Hayek feared-- communism is simply too dangerous because the worst get on top.
He says to organize society requires that someone organize it; the only people that would be drawn to that kind of power are the last people you want running your life.
I am no fan of communism; that said, I am also not a fan of killing communists, something that the United States and Indonesian government did with abandon in the 1960s.
Why bring this up, now? The past few weeks I have been talking with some Indonesia students about their 1965 genocide and witnessing our own national narratives about communists.
As a conflict resolution scholar with a focus on narrative, I wanted to share with you some of these powerful conversations and how our stories about communists led to more slaughter.
I had the delicious opportunity to work with these fabulous students and their classmates around how their nation talked about communists (and how that narrative was similar to how the Nazis talked about Jews).
Indonesian students today are taught that their country's government heroically saved the country from communists (by slaughtering over 1 million people). Communists, they are taught, are godless people who want to destroy society.
Josh Oppenheimer's films (The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) as well as the work of many Indonesian activists and others have revealed the opposite. In fact, the military and the government were the ones slaughtering innocent people. The students struggled with much cognitive dissonance. "But we were taught communists were bad!" Firstly, many of the people killed were not communists and the majority of those communists killed may have wanted a different society, but should not have been killed for their views.
I tell them, though, that the United States also lives in all kinds of shadowy stories too. In fact, the United States supported the Indonesian slaughter of the communists by providing a list of 5,000 communists leaders. The United States was as freaked out about communism as the Indonesians. There was global hysteria and panic that led to the murder of so many innocent people; the reverberations are felt in Indonesia today.
The story has not really changed; teachers in school still justify the genocide. Oppenheimer's film The Look of Silence shows one of these classrooms. It's not just Indonesia that tells the old story.
U.S. Military History
U.S. Military history also tells a funky story. This last week I attended the spirited, beautiful and musically phenomenal "Twilight Tatoo." This free event that happens on Fort Myer in D.C. Wednesdays in the summer delights crowds with historic military bands, crowd pleasing songs, horses, canons and a rendition of military history.
Soldiers come out in war uniforms from the various battles. You can see the photo below of the different uniforms over time. The historic renditions were charming and heart wrenching. 600,000 dead in the Civil War. As the years advanced the story turned to the battles against communism in Korea and Vietnam.
The U.S. military version -- to honor the lives lost -- positions Vietnam and Korea as important battles that the soldiers were proud to fight. Many young men died; thousands of parents grieved.
Our military, they tell us, protected us from the dangerous communists. Many still live with the trauma from those wars.
As I told the students, my goal is not to figure out the "true story." I do not believe there is one "true" version. I agree communism fails; I do not agree with slaughtering an entire political group.
Genocide means the annihilation of another group -- including a political group.If an ideology justifies the murder of an entire group it is genocide -- even if the United States sanctions it.
Yes, the world has plenty of thugs who want power and will kill anyone to get it. The world has even more average people, however, who will kill if someone gives them a good story that justifies their killing.
Stories have power.
A colleague who just returned from the Ukraine where he met with senior officials said the country has banned people from even saying the word "communist" publicly. Again, I am not for communism as a system; I am, however, for the freedom of speech. Creating an environment where one cannot even say the word is clearly a tyrannical and repressive regime. Terrifying.
Indonesia still actively encourages people to distrust communists. Visit Jakarta's Communist Museum of Treachery to see how it teaches people to hate "communists" (they do not explain why communism is dangerous-- they just teach people to hate). If Jakarta is too far, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and see how the Nazis used propaganda to make people (young and hold) believe Jews were evil and had horns.
Still many people are taught to hate these groups...I showed the Indonesian kids, some of whom said their religion teaches them to hate Jews, "Look, No Horns"... they giggled nervously and we got along just fine.
I can forget my love libraries because I so often find myself working in them. I can momentarily lose the sense of wonder.
Monday, however, I found myself enraptured again with the idea of the library. Meandering around Bryant Park, one of my favorite spaces in Manhattan, I stumbled upon their outdoor Reading Room. I pursued the magazines (Self, People, Lucky) and newspapers, hanging on their beautiful wooden rods with little interest until finding a bookshelf of classics.
I settled on Seneca, Roman tutor to the young Nero, and author of a variety of dialogues on practical philosophy. Having just returned from a visit to the Forum in Rome earlier this June, I was curious about the variety of of thoughts that space inspired. Here’s the line that finally sold me on the book,
“Here the Stoic philosopher outlines his thoughts on how to live in a troubled world.”
Yes, that’s what we need, something practical that acknowledges the challenging landscape in which we find ourselves.
I found a chair that allowed me to both watch folks settle on the lawn in preparation for the film showing at sunset and view the top 10 floors of the Empire State Building..I settled into his fascinating chapter on Anger that I will share with you now.
Surprisingly, Seneca sounded far more like a modern day psychiatrist than an ancient roman musing on daily life.
Oh, he knew anger so well. He remarks how anger is one of those few passions that ignites in a moment versus over time, unlike greed or sloth that can embed slowly in our experience.
Anger erupts and often works to destroy the beholder.
I think sex can be the same way, but he steered clear of that one. It’s an important omission because sex seems to have within it a destructive force that somehow creates life. Anger does not seem to create the same life- it seems to destroy.
He disagrees with Aristotle that anger ought to be cut out of our experience. I would agree with Seneca here. Anger fueled so many liberations and revolutions- it helps us set new standards and not put up with poor treatment in our personal as well as political lives.
Seneca thinks, however, that we would benefit from managing our anger better. I would agree with this one too.
We can feel so powerful when we are angry. So inebriated with our own righteousness and self-importance that thoughts of patience, kindness, and consequences seem remote and even inaccessible. In anger, we can take down our own house.
Orwell demonstrates this in his “Two Minutes of Hate” scene in 1984. He talked about how people could, within 30 seconds, experience “a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces with a sledgehammer…”
Then he noted how quickly the target of that rage could be turned,
“And yet that rage that one felt was abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”
This I believe is one of our most valuable lessons for conflict. People's rage can be directed by leaders...think of Troy. 50,000 Greeks leaving their families to cross the Aegean Sea just satisfy their king's greedy desire to take Troy. The kings and military leaders ignite the rage and direct it.
People were pawns and in many ways still are.
Next time you are angry, consider what or who might benefit from your rage? rarely, will it be you.
For personal anger, Seneca offers a solution. His solution does not eliminating the cause of anger, rather addresses what to do when anger appears….It’s a sensible solution, one that can save us weeks of trying to “fix” things after we’ve let our rage have center stage.
Just wait it out.
“No one keeps himself waiting when the greatest cure for anger is to wait, so that the initial passions anger engenders may die down, and the fog that shrouds the mind subsides, or becomes less thick. Some of the affronts that were sweeping you off your feet will lose their edge in an hour, not just in a day or disappear all together.”
Anger and the Body
Here's a take on Anger by modern day psychiatrist, Dr. Brian Weiss, supporting Seneca's claim from a physiological perspective. Anger does not serve us.
Weiss says anger creates "damaging chemicals in our body that adversely affect our stomach lining, our blood pressure, the blood vessels of the heart and head, our endocrine glands, our immune system and so on."
He also points out that our TV programs and movies glorify anger...serving up angry people as role models. Captain Kirk in Star Trek never had a happy day. The anger is often positioned as "righteous" and therefore permissible and even admirable. Regardless of how anger is portrayed around us, it rarely serves our physiology, our relationships or our larger goals. It can be manipulated by those more in control of themselves. I really don't like the idea of being a tornado that someone or something else directs.
One caveat here on anger. I have found, through my coach trainings on how to help people have breakthroughs that anger can be used as a force to change behavior. For example, you get so angry about your weight you say angrily, "that's it, no more. I am taking my power back and deciding to be in charge." This turning point often arrived at with anger can get someone who has been smoking for 20 years to go cold turkey. This would be guiding the tornado into some useful activity. Getting fed up with a bad relationship, unhappy work environment, or a health condition can be used as the momentum for true change.
But we have to know the difference between self-righteous anger and anger that has the power to change our lives for the better.
Orwell, George. 1984 (Signet Classics). Signet Book, n.d.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Dialogues and Letters. London; New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Weiss, Brian L. Messages from the Masters: Tapping into the Power of Love. New York: Warner Books, 2001.
Today will be teaching a class in Yogykarta with Haverford and Indonesian students looking at the language of conflict. We're going to use an exercise from Paul Lederach's article "Preparing for Peace." To raise students awareness of language, we will first have each student free write for 5 minutes answering the questions "What I feel about conflict..." Then we will have them get into groups by institution (e.g. language) and for 15 minutes write up all their associations around conflict. This will include metaphors like "if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen" or Roosevelt's "Speak softly and carry a big stick". They can be metaphors and associations both with how conflict is resolved and what causes conflict. At the end of that time, we will return as a group and create a single list. Indonesian students will share their words and expressions as well. We will unpack our metaphors see if we see any cultural differences and also consider how our understanding or associations with conflict might affect how we address conflict. For example, if we associate conflict with "uncomfortable feelings" then we may be less likely to engage than if we think of conflict as an opportunity to express our highest values.