Thursday, December 25, 2014

Longing for Peace and Justice in 2015

If a single sentence is to summarize the year 2014, it will probably be “I can’t breathe.”

Those were the fateful words a 43-year-old black man named Eric Garner managed to utter before dying when police officer Daniel Pantaleo applied a chokehold on him in Staten Island, NY, on July 17. Just three weeks later, on August 9, 2014, an unarmed 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown was shot dead by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
Neither officer was indicted.

The protests and civil unrests that followed put America on edge as the distrust between police and people, particularly African-Americans, grew intense. Almost inevitably, a criminal named Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a black man, shot dead two police officers in Brooklyn, NY, on December 20, before killing himself.

Can there be a silver lining to these horrific events? Perhaps this: Brinsley tried to invoke the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as motivation for killing two policemen. Both the Brown and the Garner families denounced and rejected his reasoning.

Racism lurks beneath the fa├žade of normalcy in America. We have progressed beyond Jim Crow but the progress has been uneven and slow. Blacks have legitimate reasons to fear the police for reasons both historical and structural. It is a tragedy that progress in race relations in America occurs only after blacks die, mainly because it forces us to question existing laws and attempt to make them less cruel and more human.

Year 2014 has been a difficult year. Murderous organizations like ISIS went on a killing spree, beheading journalists and civilians who challenged their barbarity. In Peshawar, Pakistan, the Taliban killed over 130 children in a single horrific attack in a school.

Yet the fanatics are steadily losing ground as Muslims overwhelmingly reject them and coalition forces retake territories.

Every nation in the Middle East unfortunately lived down to their unexceptional state. None showed any imagination or daring to break out of the cycle of distrust and violence.

On December 9, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 6000-page report on the CIA's "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques." CIA’s depravity against 9/11 detainees shocked America. Yet there was something else too: In how many countries could such a report see the light of day? America’s willingness to question itself is one of its strengths, although its capacity to learn lessons from its failures gets at best a c-.

It was not all dystopia, of course.

The Nobel committee honored Malala Yousafzay of Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India with the Nobel peace Prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” The Taliban had shot Malala in the head in 2012 when she was 15 but that only strengthened her determination to secure universal access to education, particularly for girls. Satyarthi, 60, had been waging a tireless war against the exploitation of children for decades. The “Save the Childhood Movement” he launched in 1980 has saved over 80,000 children from exploitation, bonded labor and trafficking.

Openings are always better than closings. President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba was welcomed by most Americans. “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” declared the President. “It’s time for a new approach.” (Are leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere listening?) Pope Francis played a critical role in bringing the two sides together. This humble man has shown that religion can be a catalyst for diplomacy when applied with the right touch of humility and foresight. Transcending the naysayers was the euphoria that gripped ordinary Cubans. “For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen,” exulted a 32-year-old IT specialist in Havana. “It’s a wish-come-true, because with this we have overcome our differences.”

Cynicism is supposedly the hallmark of the modern man but even the most hardened heart has to acknowledge that peace is a universal human longing.

In education, the Common Core Curriculum (CCC) is going through its trial by fire. More parents than teachers seem to be against it, only because CCC is forcing children to analyze what’s going on under the hood – critical thinking - and that has shaken parents off their complacency. For the first time in years, parents were forced to confront the possibility that their children were perhaps not as smart as they imagined them to be. Yet what they need to consider is that CCC can actually make their kids smarter, if only they give the curriculum a chance.

In community colleges, the tension between learning and relevance continues to frustrate students and teachers alike. Students are convinced that education is important but they are not convinced that what they learn at community colleges will help them in their lives. “As soon as I am done with this algebra course, I will flush it completely out of my brain, so I can make room for what will really help me,” said a despairing student. Replace ‘algebra’ with any other subject and this is a refrain one hears frequently in the corridors of community colleges across America.

But teachers are stepping up to the challenge. They are making relevance and connection with real-world problems a priority in the student-centric learning environment they are striving to create, recognizing that the main purpose of education is not to train students for jobs but to kindle their passion for knowledge and for their capacity to think independently.
Also laudable is the effort by organizations like California Open Educational Resource Council (OERC) to reduce textbook costs by making peer-reviewed quality textbooks available to students for free.

What is perhaps missing from our perspective is an awareness of the countless acts of kindness and generosity that ordinary people perform every day to propel us forward. It is the anonymous goodness of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, teachers, nurses, volunteers and others that animate our humanity. It is their sacrifices, and not the antics of the headline grabbers, that keep the world humming. The source of the extraordinary, we often forget, is ordinary lives. No one captured this more eloquently than George Eliot in Middlemarch:

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

The world may appear more unsettled and dangerous than ever but when we believe in the generosity and selflessness of those “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in uninvited tombs,” our faith in humanity is restored. We sense that a new beginning is ours for the taking, that the fanatics and the extremists will be defeated by the humble and the resolute, that cruelty and stupidity will surrender to kindness and reason.

We long for peace and justice and hope that 2015 will be a year when we will be graced by both. Perhaps 2015 will be our personal Year of Innisfree (W.B. Yeats – The Lake Isle of Innisfree)

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.