#112: The Normality of Not Knowing

We are all seemingly stressed by a growing sense of uncertainty, it seems. When will the pandemic end? How will foreign policy shape up – will there be a new stable world order or utter chaos? What will climate change bring? Will we be able to keep our jobs? How can we navigate these increasingly troublesome times? Will we ever be able to retire? What kind of world are we leaving for our children and grandchildren? Everything around us seems to be changing. We are caught in quicksand, and the future is less and less certain. We don’t seem to know anymore how this will all turn out in the end.

These fears and concerns may well ring true for many if not most of us, but they certainly are not the worst fears you could have. As I am writing, I am well aware that the likelihood that you – dear reader – just as myself may not necessarily have to worry about our next meal, or about our housing situation. Otherwise, both of us would have better things to do than to spend time on an internet blog.

It seems, in fact, that such fears as voiced earlier are indeed a sign that we have been privileged enough to ask these questions, and also, that we may have the wrong idea about reality.

If we believe that we can know the future, we are deluding ourselves. Life cannot be planned. You may get your family started, have employment, plan for retirement and for how your kids may be able to live, but then life gets in the way. This has always been true. Nobody plans on losing their jobs or changing employment. Nobody plans to get sick or chronically ill. Nobody assumes their children would get in trouble. Nobody plans to die early. Nobody plans on their houses burning down, their countries being invaded, air plane toilets falling from the sky, etc. We may be able to make plans, but their coming to pass is never guaranteed.

The true illusion within the affluent and free world since probably  around the 1970 has been that we can take charge of our lives. It has always been an illusion. We cannot know the future, we can only try to navigate through time as best we can.

There is peace in that. Not fatalism, but peace. Surely, the world can be a scary place; certainly right now. But we cannot lose hope, and we cannot lose perspective. Plan for the future, but live in the moment. Appreciate what you have. It will be over too soon.

#106: How to Be Happy

One of the oldest problems of humanity seems to be centered around the question of how to be happy.

This is certainly understandable: So many things stand in our way, so many challenges await us in life, so many things are not as they should be. Wherever we look, there is misery, tragedy, injustice, illness, death, pain, suffering, etc.

We are born in pain, build a life, succeed more or less with what we are trying to do in life, cannot possibly achieve everything, have to make compromises, nothing is working out as planned, and even if it does for a brief moment, we are growing older, losing friends and family, facing a future of death and diminishing faculties, till we ourselves are dead. Whatever awaits us beyond death hinges on faith, which in most cases is wishful thinking. We cannot know what follows death, and for all we know, it will follow similar trajectories of life but be happier – or be so different from what we have known that we cannot even comprehend it. Most likely though, life itself is special, and especially depressing.

This is one way to see things. All of it is true. Is it helpful? Yes! Accept the negative for what it is: the reality of living in an imperfect world. Our task is to make meaning in meaninglessness, make sense in senselessness, to be happy even if we could not possibly be happy.

Happiness is not a goal you can reach once everything is working out as intended. It is the attitude you bring to an unpredictable world, and to the people around you. It is the light you nurture inside, the feeling you need to maintain to accept life for what it is, and to make it bearable.

Happiness is the realization that in spite of everything, this is how it is, and you can either be miserable or happy. In the face of extreme adversity, humans have made a great invention: Gallows Humor. Discover the absurdity in life, the impossibility to have it all, and the realization that in the larger scheme of things, we matter far less than we like to think, and our little lives are significant only to us and the people around us in our time and space.

There is levity in this, and mental space to see our life as a gift – as a window on a specific point in time and space. The mark we leave may be big or small, but at least we are given the chance to make it, to live it, to see what it’s all about. The very insignificance of everything highlights, ironically, the significance for us to ourselves.

Happiness, then, is a combination of acceptance, humility, absurdist amusement, and the celebration of the little things in life that do bring us pleasure, and of the people we meet on our voyage.

How can we be happy? By deciding to simply be happy, come what may. Que será, será.

#99: Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism

Zionism is the understanding that Israel is the historical home of the Jewish people. This is not a belief, this is not ideology, it is the truth. Just because there are also non-Jewish people living in the area does not change the fact. Jews are indigenous to the area, and have every right to have established a state therein after the occupation by the Ottoman and British empires ended.

The foundation of Israel was legitimized by the United Nations. The so-called occupation of Palestinian territory is the reaction to decades of partially Nazi-inspired antisemitic campaigns, terrorism, and outright war against the Jewish state, and against the very idea of a Jewish state.

At the same time, Hamas is unequivocally clear that their aim is the elimination of what they call the “Zionist entity.” There is no desire for peace till Israel and its Israeli inhabitants are eradicated. Hamas says it in their charter, it says it through their actions. Jewish lives, according to Hamas and other Palestinian terror organizations, do not matter.

But it is even worse. To Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and their allies, Palestinian lives do not matter either. Gaza is not occupied. It is well-funded. Hamas has used the funding to support their mission of destruction of Israel. Gaza could be a rich and functioning society, but it is Hamas who is holding it back. Hamas – and Fatah – are actively sabotaging democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a peaceful and prosperous existence for their own citizens. They are not interested in democracy or in human rights. They say so, and they act accordingly.

The only friend of Palestinian people is Israel. It has a functioning democracy, and Jews and non-Jews alike can live in peace and are equal citizens. This is not what is happening wherever the enemies of Israel are in power.

The Zionist vision is not an exclusive vision. It is the vision of a peaceful and democratic homeland not just for Jews but also for Arabs, Christians and others. To be antizionist means to be antidemocratic, to be a-historical and to sell out to terrorists and the enemies of democracy.

There used to be a time when it was perfectly well understood on the political left that Zionism means just that. Israel was, rightfully so, seen as the shining example to the region that liberal democracy was possible after centuries of autocratic government. That a people that have been demonized and persecuted throughout all of history deserve to have a home. It was also understood that the biggest critics of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians actually are Israelis themselves.

Peace cannot come if the antisemitic, antidemocratic and pro-violence narrative of Hamas and others gets to win the day.

If the political left starts sounding like their alleged National Socialist enemies, then there will be hell to pay. Without a supportive left that does not even for a second support the continued existence of Israel, there cannot be any legitimate criticism of settlement policies either. Without a supportive left, it will be the conservatives and the proponents of the security state who will rule the day.

I have said it before, but it needs to keep saying: If you want to support a Palestinian cause for sovereignty, you need to support Israel. If you want to support liberal democracy, you need to support the democratic forces in Palestine and Israel, and not the warmongers.

The left needs to wake up from its delusion that Anti-Zionism somehow is different from Anti-Semitism. It isn’t. Such a confusion of epic proportions destroyed the ambitions of the Labor Party in Britain, and it will destroy the ambitions of the Democrats in the United States as well. Nothing good can come of siding with an aggressor, and the aggressor is Hamas and its supporters. What is best for Israel is also best for Palestine. It is time that this is understood again amongst those claiming to support truth, justice and liberalism.

#95: For Israel, For Palestine, For Peace

Please let me preface this with a personal note: This is my current perspective on the matter. I may be biased, but I am always willing to learn. I have known people from both sides, and I know that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. The clearest bias that I am willing to defend, though, is a bias towards peace, cooperation, and shared humanity. Maybe we need to think more in the now than in interpretations of the past.

(I)

Israel has been the undeniable homeland of the Jewish people for millennia. Throughout its existence it has been the target of outside imperial aggressors. Over the centuries, the land has been occupied by a succession of forces, some more than others obsessed with the eradication of every last trace of Jewish life. The Persian, Macedonian, Roman and Byzantine empires, various Islamic caliphates and Crusader states, the Ottoman and finally the British Empire all laid claim to the territory. With the continued presence of antisemitic pogroms in Europe, and the weakening of the Ottoman occupation force, a return of the Jewish diaspora to the homeland became possible and led to the movement known as Zionism. Its mission became even more urgent during the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. The United Nations finally resolved in 1947 to create the state of Israel, and partition the area known as Palestine accordingly.

Since the re-establishment of the state of Israel as the Jewish homeland, the new (and old) state has faced constant aggression by other factions newly released from Ottoman rule. The Jerusalem Riots initiated by the Arab Higher Committee of 1947 led to a Civil War. Israel was finally officially founded in 1948. Immediately, against UN intentions, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq launched the Arab-Israeli War, with other states joining in. That effort failed. Jordan and Egypt annexed Palestinian and Israeli territories. As the result of the riots and the war, the majority of Palestinians who had remained in Israel left the land or were forced to leave, but some remained and became Israeli citizens. The circumstances of the escape or expulsion of the Palestinians are of some debate, but in the end, the non-Jewish population lost their home due to a mixture of voluntary relocation, pressure or outright force. Several Israeli leaders have always criticized this expulsion or, as it is also known, catastrophe, or naqba.

After years of anti-Israel terrorist attacks, in 1967, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq attacked Israel, but after Six Days, Israel won and captured the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights. The so-called “Occupied Territories” were lost due to this attack. Terrorism continued, and in 1973, Egypt and Syria again attacked during Yom Kippur, and lost again.

Since then, the peace process has seen a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, and an uneasy peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the territories administered by Israel. The Jordan peace treaty followed in 1994. In 2000, Israel offered the return of Gaza and over 90% of the West Bank. Jerusalem was supposed to be the joint capital of both Israel and the Palestinian State. The offer was rejected by the Palestinian leadership. Nevertheless, in 2005, Israel granted independence to Gaza, hoping for the peaceful establishment of the core of a Palestinian state, and yet, Hamas has continued its campaign of terror to this day. The Palestinian people are not occupied primarily by Israel but by a leadership controlled by or allied with terrorist organizations whose solitary aim is the destruction of the Jewish homeland and its people.

Every other state on the planet has the right to exist. Yet somehow, it is seen as acceptable to problematize the very existence of Israel. “Zionism” means nothing else but the legitimate claim to the land of Israel as the Jewish homeland, and yet, it is seen as acceptable by an odd alliance of extremists on the far right and far left to approve of the label “antizionist.” When any other state in the world defends itself against aggressors and holds control over their territories, won after the attacker loses, this is seen as an acceptable victory, and yet with regards to Israel, it is called “occupation” and “settler colonialism.”

(II)

Nevertheless, the land is also home to the Palestinian populations. These dual claims are both legitimate, which complicates the fact. Who was where and when at which time in history is a question for the history books, but who is where now is a question for politics.

Certainly, Israel needs to find a way to work together with Palestinians who have lost their home, and who suffer daily from the terrorism unleashed or tolerated by their leadership. This terrorism is the cause for the Israeli security state and the deprivations imposed on innocent Palestinian civilians. If the terror stopped, peace would be possible, and what is called “occupation” could be shaped differently.

Criticism of specific policies of the State of Israel, and specific forms of settlement is always legitimate. But if the criticism is mounted at Israel in a way that treats it as essentially different from any other nation on the planet, then this is clearly anti-Semitic. Just as Anti-Zionism is just another code for Anti-Semitism, “criticism of Israel” is code for the denial of the legitimacy of the Jewish homeland.

Debates about territory are not helpful. Historically, every single state sits on the territory of someone else. Relitigating history typically leads to nothing but newer pain. We do need to put every conflict in perspective, and how we talk about it. For instance, do we call Turkey’s possession of territories gained after the genocide of Greeks and Armenians “occupied territories”? Do we call Tibet and Xinjiang province “occupied territories”? How about Crimea, South Tyrol, Northern Cyprus, Kashmir (by all sides), Northern Ireland, and the entirety of the Americas? Examples abound. What does that mean for the future of Israel and Palestine?

(III)

Consider the continent of Europe: Centuries, if not millennia of warfare have left no stone untouched. Every single border is drawn in blood. Yet the brilliant idea of European integration has brought peace: Focus on the economy, focus on the people, make borders matter less, and conflicts that were centuries or longer in the making will matter less and less.

Maybe the idea of a two-state solution has not been the right answer. Maybe a federal model with some form of shared leadership would work. I could dream of two states with a joint government, joint Israeli-Palestinian government departments, a collegialism enforced throughout institutions. But the solution has to be developed in Israel and Palestine itself.

Both belong together. Both represent the indigenous heritage of the area. They are intertwined, and both cannot tolerate much more pain.

One thing above all though: The solution has to be negotiated by the people on the ground. This is about how to make people see each other again as neighbors, as possible friends, as colleagues, as partners by fate and circumstance. Take the pressure out. Let foreign interests cede. Let truth speak, and let us hear both sides, but let us speak peace, salam, shalom.

#68: We Do Not Need Enemies

We are seeing increasing tension in the world again. There were a few years, namely the 1990s, when the world seemed to be growing more closely together, overcoming differences and seeking understanding over division (with a few painful exceptions). Then, 9/11 happened, which brought new wars. The transatlantic alliance was put under strain, globalization brought out new players, strengthened older ones, and a slow shift began to recalibrate the power dynamics on a planet that in its current path towards global climate change could need cooperation more than antagonism. The West appears more fractured than ever in the last decades, China’s dictatorship is making gains, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan are flexing their muscles, and only in the Middle East are some signs of hope (how ironic!).

While a global pandemic is still out of control, and other challenges await, we are entertaining the luxury of having arch-enemies again. This is not how civilizations survive, it is how they end.

I grew up under Soviet rule. I have little patience for theoretical discussions over the value of real-existing socialism or communism. As a German, I deeply loathe and oppose any form of fascism and national socialism. There is no value in extremism – on either side, if those are even sides. Between the extermination camps and the killing fields, I fail to see the difference. But these were ideologies run amuck, and people and countries fell succumbed to their spell. Our fight is with the kind of ideas that want to radically remake the world politically, exert absolute power, and create the new man, to cast out the old in the process, mercilessly. But our enemy is not the people themselves, neither the countries.

I may have had to learn Russian at grade 5, which was the language of our Soviet occupiers. The Soviets, as needs mentioning, had a hand in defeating National Socialism together with the West, and in liberating the Germans from a toxic idea, sadly, enabling another toxic idea, but that does not take away from the Soviet sacrifices made to rid the world of Hitler and his ilk. The Soviet Union as an idea and organization also oppressed its people, and their ideas. When learning Russian, I learned about the people and their culture, and I know that without Russian music, I would feel majorly deprived.

We need to see people first, systems second. If we don’t, we enter the domain of arch-enemies and perpetual wars. France and Germany were enemies for so long that it seemed genetic almost, but European integration changed this unhealthy and deadly dynamic completely. This brings hope also to Israel and the Arab world, to Cyprus and Greece, to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the Congo, to Kashmir, etc. Peace is possible, but it has to be made with great effort. It needs cooperation, shared institutional frameworks, and most of all, a shared conviction that your benefit will be mine also.

Surely, differences and problems need to be addressed. Dictatorships are wrong because they never work in the long run, as they never can allow the development of the full potential of their peoples. For that, it would need absolute free speech and free criticism, and dictatorships are intolerant of that. Once we can make clear that we want peace and cooperation, above all, and that – while we are prepared for war – we will never seek it unless in defense, and that we take a genuine and sincere interest in helping each other face the challenges of today and tomorrow, then things can change.

I have had students and colleagues from all continents, from dozens upon dozens of countries, from every race, color, gender and creed imaginable. We are all the same. I know that sounds preachy, hippie-esque, too optimistic, whatever. It has to be. Hope starts inside, and once we recognize each other, their face, their value, their humanity, their being alive, we can see that what divides us can be overcome. Read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and Martin Buber, I and Thou.

These days, any of our outdated conceptions of who an enemy is will stand in the way of saving the best parts of our way of life, saving our planet’s living beings, and ourselves. The stakes are high. We are also seeing new opportunities out there. A galaxy with more planets than ever thought possible. Sky’s the limit.

Maybe I have just watched too much Stargate. I just finished re-watching an episode dealing with Americans and Russians working together on interplanetary travel. It is a show from the 1990s. We could dream it then, and we should be dreaming it now.

Happy New Year!

#48: Moderation is Strength; Radicality is Weakness

This is not a time of extremes. This is not a time of extreme crisis. The world is not ending. We are not at the end of goodness. We are not at the end of democracy. We are not living in the most racist / sexist / ageist / classist / divisive / time ever.

How do I know? A solid knowledge of history is immensely helpful to put things into perspective. Does that mean there are no more challenges left? Of course not. But we need to approach these challenges in a way that is focused on solutions. We need to keep people in dialog, make change that is actually sustainably, and keep building coalitions.

If you seek change, you need to change hearts and minds, otherwise, you will only create resentment, and the change you seek will be undone easily. You do not build a house that is supposed to last for decades without a foundation, and you do not make political change without laying a solid, patient groundwork.

Patience is hard, especially if lives are at stake. Moderation is hard if there is a sense of urgency. I understand this completely. But unless the solution you seek can be allowed to wither away again, moderation is the key to success. Had Gandhi followed a different path than the one laid out by Thoreau in his “Resistance to Civil Government”, there would not have been Indian independence. Spartacus held the moral high ground till he allowed his followers to exert revenge on the Roman civilian population. Both Martin Luther King jr,. and Malcolm X expressed their righteous anger at racism, but both advocated for peaceful solutions eventually. Peace works violence (including verbal violence, and violence against objects and people) fails. The bomb may have ended the war, but the UN sustained the peace. There are plenty of other examples.

Moderation is true strength. Holding back anger, frustration, desperation and impatience is difficult, but it will pay off eventually. Giving in to these impulses looks superficially strong, but will discredit itself.

#42: Be the World You Want It to Be

Unhappiness with the world is abounding right now. Reasons for unhappiness are never difficult to find, nothing is ever as it should be, and there are always things that need improvement, issues that need to be addressed, change to be made.

But most importantly, within yourself lies the power of the future. Not to just create it, but to be it. You seek justice, be just. You seek peace, be peaceful. You seek equity, be equitable. You seek truth, be truthful. You seek love, be loving. You seek understanding, be understanding.

It is easy. It is hard. But it works.

The other way works too. Be obstinate, and obstinacy is the result. Be without respect, and you shall not have any. Be violent, and you will live in a world of violence.

When Kant said, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, he also described that if you model a certain behavior, it will be normalized.

You want a better world? I assume you do. Be it. Show it. Now. We cannot wait for heaven, we need to bring heaven to earth right now. Our lives are too short.

#39: Free Speech is Absolute

The dividing line between a just society and barbarism is whether free speech is valued or not. With “free speech” I mean any speech, no matter how offensive. With protected, I mean that the only answer to speech you do not like shall be counter-speech. The truth will win out in an equal, peaceful, respectful exchange of ideas.

  • Equal, because we are all living beings on this planet, and in a dialogic situation, equality of discourse needs to be maintained by fostering equity. Free societies understand this principle – we will all be different, but in our most impactful moment of speech, our vote, we are all (ideally) the same.
  • Peaceful, because only an attitude of peacefulness will allow you to listen to somebody else, and also to your true self. Peace is non-aggression, love, true freedom, true strength; only by being at peace can you achieve it. Peace is absolute also: you are only peaceful if you talk in a soft voice, allow for rational arguments be exchanged, do not hurt other beings or things. Be the peace you seek.
  • Respectful, because you cannot pretend to be all-knowing, and need to realize that someone else may hold a different piece of the truth that you may disagree with, but it may still be true.
  • Exchange means that speech flows from person to person after each has been given ample time to make the best argument possible for their case. It also means that you should not mistake a person’s utterances for their true and steadfast opinion; it may just be an argument that needs to be discussed, whether heartfelt or not; also, people’s opinions change over time depending on the availability of convincing facts and interpretations.

Only week societies shut out other people for expressing ideas, holding beliefs, or for simply being obstinate to what may be considered acceptable or correct opinion. Strong societies relish the open exchange of ideas, right or wrong, offensive or inoffensive, in order to correctly gauge the political and cultural imaginary of the state, and to design policy accordingly, democratically, representatively, cautiously, and sustainably.

Only if everyone has a voice, and knows their voice will be taken seriously, and they will not be harmed for voicing it, will they be in a state of mind to listen to your arguments, if you have some, and give you a change to convince them otherwise. Or, you may be convinced by them. And so it will go, in an eternal circle of discourse; true democracy; true humanity; true utopia. (I think Habermas may be sighing somewhere).

The path of disallowing free speech, even in increments, and even if it starts with just a few things that are somehow seen as “offensive” by the few or the many, will lead further and further down the road, where new categories of offensiveness will be invented, and as a result, all speech will become unfree. The logical end point of the banning of speech has many names: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, in fact all Socialist/Communist states, especially currently the so-called “People’s Republic” of China. In such countries, there cannot be any criticism of injustice, intolerance, inequity, inequality, inhumanity.

Those of us in the West fighting against what we see as injustice should never look to become like that, but the road is very slippery. The fight for freedom and improvement cannot be won by curtailing the freedoms and limiting the paths to improvement of those you disagree with. Freedom of Speech is always the Freedom of the Speech of those we clearly disagree with – otherwise, we would need no such commandment.

But in its wisdom, all of democracy, all of justice, all of peace-building work is contained within the demand that freedom of speech must always be absolute.

#28: Violent Protest Does Not Work

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

#27: What is Peace?

Peace is not just the absence of war, it is not just the absence of violence, it is not just the absence of strife, it is not passivity. Peace is the active practice of a state of mind that is at peace, that seeks peace, that acts in peace. That excludes violence both in action as in words. For that to happen, it needs peace at heart, it needs compassion, it needs humility, it needs grace.

Peace is not easy; it is the hardest thing to ever achieve and maintain. It requires strength, perseverance, and constancy. A peaceful person does not give in to negativity, does not yield to temptations of aggression, does not diminish others, even if they are wrong.

Peace can only be the goal if it is the path. That does not imply pacifism, but it means that even if you have to fight an enemy, you should do it with the goal of peace in mind. Any enemy of today will have to become a friend as soon as possible. We should never make reconciliation nor forgiveness impossible, but see them as the path out of the conflict. Every war is a war with ourselves, as we are all one. If we reject that unity, we have already lost; and once inner peace is lost, outer peace cannot be gained.

Gandhi knew that, King knew that, Thoreau knew that. Black Elk knew it, according to John Neihardt: “know the power that is peace”1.

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1 Black Elk, John G. Neihardt, Raymond J. DeMallie. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, the Premier Edition. SUNY Press, Oct 16, 2008. 27.