Happy New Year
Just a few words to wish you all
a happy, prosperous and peaceful
Let me elaborate.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 it from me for now. Have a good year!
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.
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