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Happy New Year

January 11, 2009

Hi Everyone,

Just a few words to wish you all a happy, prosperous and peaceful new year.

Let me elaborate.

1. Happy

Science proved (or at least I heard it on NPR), that people with happy friends tend to be happier. I like that. If you think about it, it makes being happy a mitzvah!

But what does it really mean to be happy? Are there things you can do, or steps you can take, that make you happy? And anyway, what about death, old age, global warming, etc.? Can you be aware of what's going on around you (or TO you) and still be happy?

For us, it's enshrined in our founding document: "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It's a major topic for philosophers and psychologists. Can all the theories and philosophies help when you're down in the dumps? I doubt it.

But I'll tell you what works best for me: Kicking it with my friends. Lots of opportunity to do that last year, and I hope for more of the same this year, for me and all of us.

2. Prosperous

Times are tough. I heard it on NPR, otherwise I might have thought it was just me. I haven't run the figures yet, but I'm guessing that in 2008, I earned about half what I made the year before. I suspect some of you may be hurting as well.

So on the one hand, good luck! I hope your stocks go up, your retirement is secure, you don't lose your house. We all wish for prosperity, and I hope the new year is good to you all in this area.

But on the other hand, crisis brings opportunity and needed change, and my bigger hope is that we can all discover a deeper prosperity, broader and more sustainable than what we have enjoyed until now. A prosperity that doesn't depend on and perpetuate the unfair distribution of resources, with four per cent of the world's people using a quarter of its resources. That's not just, and it's not sustainable.

A recent UN report projected that world population would nearly double in the next 50 or 100 years (I can't remember which), but that wealth would increase four-fold. Clearly the environment can't sustain the stress of a four-fold increase in consumption, at least not the kind of consumption we do today.

So what I REALLY hope for is a new kind of prosperity, shared by all, and gentle on the land and sea. These are hard times, but I hope they are creative times as well, when we develop the ways and means to live the good life in a better, gentler, more sustainable fashion.

3. Peaceful

I hope you enjoy the attached songbook, which I put together for a New Year's Eve singalong. I picked topical songs that reflected my general hopes and aspirations for the incoming administration. It was a fun project, up to a point.

As I worked on it, I realized that for me, peace has always been the most important political aspiration, and the one in which I have been so often disappointed. And once again, for as I was finishing up my little collection, war flared up in Gaza, which is deeply distressing, because the conflict there is so intractable. It's easy enough to criticize another round of war-making; much more difficult to imagine an alternative.

I went to Israel and Ramallah in 2002 and interviewed more than 30 people (http://www.voicesofisraelandpalestine.com), trying to better understand the conflict. It seemed to me that these people SHOULD be able to live in peace, and that if they could ever work it out, maybe we all could.

A couple of years ago I corresponded with one of my interviewees. Israel had destroyed the main power plant in Gaza, greatly exasperating conditions for more than a million people, already living in very stressful conditions. I asked him if this wasn't a disproportional response to the annoying but largely ineffectual rocket fire launched from Gaza into southern Israel. "What should we do," he responded. "Wait until they hit a school?" I'm very sympathetic to Israelis' security concerns.

But I'm also sympathetic to the Palestinians, and after all, it is a Palestinian school that has been recently bombed, and not an Israeli one. I imagine how the situation must seem to a hypothetical young Gazan. Let's say his cousin got a Fulbright scholarship to study in the US or Britain, but has been denied an exit visa by Israel. Let's say his father was killed by the Israeli army on his way to work. Let's say he can't get a job because the economy is suppressed by Israeli occupation and blockade. Let's say he watches Roman Polanski's THE PIANIST. I wonder who he will identify with in that story.

When I was in Ramallah, Sam Bahour took me to dinner at a restaurant in the Arab quarter. It was Ramadan, and it was quite an experience, as the sun set and the celebratory meal commenced. Sam is an American-born Palestinian who returned to the West Bank after the Oslo Accords, hoping to help rebuild the community. He's on NPR from time to time so you may have heard him. He's a person I like and respect.

I remember the dinner and discussion very well. I'm strongly of the "on the one hand on the other hand" school. Some call it wishy-washy. I tend to be sympathetic to all, and see the truth in many points of view. Sam was a bit impatient with that. "You have to take a stand," he told me.

But I don't want to. I can't say one is right, one is wrong. And in fact, I'm less and less patient with the idea that there even IS a right and wrong! I see it more as better or worse. And this mess is worse!

They have got to get beyond this. And so do we. As Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye, and we all go blind."

All my life, it seems, people have called me an idealist, and I always resent it. I think I'm pragmatic, and more so as I get older. Especially as I see the harm people do to themselves and others in pursuit of their ideals. That's the problem. That's the heartbreak. In Israel, in Palestine, you can argue until you're blue in the face about who is right and who is wrong. Every bomb launched by Hamas into Israel outrages the country and offends everyone's sense of right and wrong. For the Palestinians, there are many valid causes of outrage. It goes on.

They are the idealists, not me. I'm pragmatic. I don't want to ask, is what you are doing right or wrong? Is it justified? Instead, I want to ask this: Is this really going to serve you well in the long run? Will this promote happiness? Will this promote prosperity? Is this the best we can do?

Since I don't believe in right or wrong, I don't really care. Do what you want. Whatever. But I worry about the world our grandchildren will live in. And theirs. Thanks to our astounding technological and intellectual prowess, they can inherit a world that is very good, or one that is very bad. I want them to have a good life. Our power to destroy is so great that now we really have to get beyond war. That's not idealistic. That's practical.

That's it from me for now. Have a good year!

Peace out!


We would have known, both of us, that all that was mere fluff: in the end, for millions and millions of people on the landmasses around us, the West meant only this — science and tanks and guns and bombs.

Amitav Ghosh

Why Not War?

April 13, 2002

Since September 11, the dogs of war have been loosed upon the world. Many people think it's inevitable, because we have to Do Something about "terrorism," and that "something" has to be done with tanks and bombers and men with guns.

To the people on the receiving end of that ammo, I think it must look a lot like "terrorism" aimed at them; I imagine they feel they have to Do Something, too.

When Bush chose war in Afghanistan...continued

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