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Carl Hertel

Friends and enemies

Carl Hertel

Carl HertelPulling the despicable and disheveled dictator Saddam Hussein out of a hole in the ground provides us with an interesting image of the man who has become the archenemy of the free world.

However, his actions and appearance in capture did not fit our idea of the mainstay of the Axis of Evil. Somehow, it seems he should have been blown to bits, died angrily defending himself, or at least committed suicide.

Some eagerly await the public trial that will allow us to revile him all over again. Some wonder about this business of “enemies,” and reflect on the fact that years ago this evil man Saddam was our friend—being visited by Donald Rumsfeld offering aid for his war against Iran.

For those of us who are content to continue hating Saddam, things are relatively simple: we’ll get our wish. As our President has already said, Saddam should pay the ultimate price for his heinous crimes. For others, the complexity of the situation will raise certain issues. If Saddam is guilty, then is Donald Rumsfeld also guilty because he befriended him and gave him weapons in President Reagan’s name? What about the French president Chirac’s many contracts with Iraq before the war? What of Russia and President Putin’s aid to Saddam’s Axis of Evil? What about China, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, and North Korea helping Saddam? Where are we going to draw the line about who is guilty? Who is going to draw that line?

In his new book Citizenship Papers, the American author Wendell Berry probes the many complexities of our current situation and demonstrates why and how the simple answers to such knotty questions will not work. Berry asserts that things are inherently complicated and require “conversation” to be understood and acted upon. Real conversation requires both time and the ability of participants to listen as well as to speak. Asked in a recent C-SPAN program what he would say to President Bush if he had five minutes with the President, Berry replied “I wouldn’t accept five minutes, maybe two days.”

Years ago Berry visited the Claremont Colleges where I taught. He would not give a standard one-hour lecture, but agreed to sit for a week at a table with theologian John Cobb and his old friend Wes Jackson and have a conversation.

On C-SPAN Berry opined that you need time to discuss things so as not to oversimplify. He said, “To over-simplify everything [as TV does] is meaningless.” He gave an example of oversimplification: how historians accept the explanation that the Civil War was about slavery. He said this oversimplification misses important facts about the Civil War. For example, he cites the fact that the “habit of slavery” in American life was not eradicated by the Civil War. This can be witnessed in subtler forms of enslavement in American political and economic life today. Berry refers to the treatment of migrant labor, the salary-slaves among us, various aspects of racism in America, and how we enslave the environment and waste and abuse the land. As an agrarian conservationist, he is especially passionate about the problems created by treating the environment as if it were a slave.

As an antidote, Berry suggests that we seek meaningful conversations about complex subjects like Where are we?–an important geographical question that answered honestly can be of great benefit to ourselves, our community, and our environment. He asks that we converse about such questions without resorting to the language of specialization but rather on the basis of the common language of what we see, feel, intuit, and know through history, common sense, and experience.

Berry is not hopeful about American higher education, where he believes languages of specialization separate and exclude to a fault. He also feels we need to change America’s violent culture. In the end, he believes these changes can best arise out of citizens’ initiatives—as in the nonviolent movement of Martin Luther King for civil rights, or some of the nonviolent peace-action groups of the Vietnam era. In these movements, grassroots participants worked as hard for civil rights and peace as leaders in government and their followers were working for racism and war. In such movements toward peace and cultural change in the twenty-first century there should be no “enemies” and no “struggle.” All this takes,” says Berry, “is imagination—and giving up the wish to win, even the wish be right.”

He recommends we begin this process of peace and nonviolence by having genuine conversations with our loved ones and even ourselves. Then, perhaps, we can learn to risk peace and nonviolence on a broader scale instead of insisting on fighting perpetual wars with imagined enemies at home and abroad and against the natural environment.

In the chapter “The Failure of War” Berry cites as a final argument the biblical exhortation “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use and persecute you.” Modern technological warfare, he asserts, is no longer sustainable and will lead to the destruction of those individual freedoms and that land which as Americans we cherish and dearly hope to preserve for our children and grandchildren.

 

 

 

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