Power of Peace

I learned lots of things in college. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned is that my dad has theories with which no one else agrees. It’s the one lesson I remember from my international economics professor, a small man who wouldn’t tell us from which member of the former Soviet Union he hailed  – though he preferred speaking with students in Russian about his daughter to discussing the implications of steel tariffs. One day, he asked us which country had the strongest military in the world. My hand shot up before the question was out of the teacher’s mouth, forcing him to call on me.

“Switzerland,” I said with a brisk nod, and went back to eating my dinner.

“Oh – no,” the teacher said, confused. “Switzerland?”

“Yes,” I clarified.

“No,” he said, looking around for more raised hands.

“It is,” I insisted. “When was the last time they fought a war?”

“That’s not the measure of a strong military,” was my teacher’s answer.

“It is,” I explained gently, having taught this by my dad and sure of his reasoning. “It’s armed with 21st century weaponry and they serve mandatory military service. Would you go to war with Switzerland? No. No one would go to war with them because the fighting force would be awesome – and crushing. Because no one goes to war against them they automatically win. It’s the power of deterrence, if you like.”

“That’s ridiculous,” my teacher informed the class. “The strongest military is the one that fights.”

We shook our heads in sorrow at each other’s stupidity. The answer he wanted: United States of America.

 

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Let Freedom Ring

We greet July 4th with “Happy Independence Day,” and meet the New Year with “Seasons Greetings”. But even Hallmark hasn’t found a way to standardize a greeting for Martin Luther King Jr Day. However, a day celebrating the legacy of the civil rights movement – our right speak truth to power, to recognize our strength in numbers, and validate the humanity in each other – deserves a greeting of its own. A proposal: “Let freedom ring!”.

On King Day we ring in not just the freedom of civil rights, but the freedom seized by peace rather than armed force. In school we only learned about Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. The violent wing of the same movement was left out of our elementary school celebrations as well as our high school curriculum.

But side-by-side to the non-violent movement, there was an equal and opposite rise in violence trying to win the same rights for marginalized Americans. In the 1960s, many in America feared that African-Americans would overthrow the government and establish their own nation through a racial war that would  rip the country limb from limb. At the time, that idea was not unbelievable – Philadelphia rioted, Chicago burned, and armed Black Panthers policed the streets of California. And at the same time, there was a peaceful March on Washington.

People agitating for freedom had to choose between the attraction of violence with its visible consequences or the abuse heaped on the peaceful protesters – from those who supported their aims as well as those who opposed them. Despite the ease of violence, many Americans – beaten down physically, economically, and emotionally – believed that goodness resided in the hearts of their oppressors. So, they refused to lift a hand against them. Instead of setting fires, they sat at segregated lunchcounters. Rather than resist the police they registered voters – facing arrest and beatings in the process. In the end, Dr. King and those who believed in peaceful protest, rather than his violent counterparts, were credited with the creation of the Civil Rights Bill and the more equal society it helped form.

Today we recognize that mass movements have the power to shape history – to bend its arc toward freedom or to tyranny. Yet movements, at their heart, are nothing but one person acting on their belief – together with others acting on the same belief. Our celebration of King Day is not just one of the civil rights we have, but also the belief in peace and human dignity which procured those rights. Today is dedicated to how we act in face of adversity, the way in which we turn back injustice and establish freedom. Let freedom ring!

I tell them I can yield on a lot of in which my district is not particularly emotionally involved. The liberal part of my party might have an ideological problem with some of these concessions, but if you can exploit the glaring need for decent education and employment opportunities, I’ll take the hit as the price of politically practical consensus. Because as long as Republicans keep saying that education is not an issue for substantial increased federal funding, then I believe that it’s in the best interest of business to step up to the challenge of providing for an educated, productive workforce, because it will serve to increase their profitability, productivity and competitiveness.

I, for one, want American business to have a fair advantage over foreign business, so they’re not going to have a great problem with me on matters of trade. I’m ready to give something up, but they’ve got to give up something for the larger good in return.

-Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress

Antwerp Antics

I don’t get out much. But when I do get out, I like to go far. Like, 5,873 kilometers far. And while I’m out and about I like to learn. Here’s what I learned in Amsterdam:

It’s known as a city of cafes – but there should be a caveat that those cafes only open after 9am.

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Amsterdam at 6am – swans and I are kicking it at the park while the city sleeps

Cafes also serve alcohol.

It’s easiest to find a cafe if you’re in an area with other tourists. Otherwise, the easiest thing to find is a hair dresser.

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Two hours of wandering the city, and I found an open cafe that sold coffee, not just beer

Belgians call the city Antwerpen.

Things are more confusing in a city where you don’t understand any of the four national languages.

There’s more kosher food in the Jewish area than the internet lets on. Internet, you misled me.

The trains won’t wait for you. I don’t recommend the New York stick-an-arm-in-the-door to keep the train in the station trick. A conductor saw me rush toward an open door and told me it was too late – even though he was standing on the platform. His tone said he wasn’t kidding. I stayed on the platform and kept my limbs.

There’s always another train coming. If you miss your train, there are worse places to wait than a clean and well-lit Belgian train platform. If you’re uncomfortable because the only other person on the otherwise abandoned platform sits next to you, be glad you’re not in the nearly empty Brussels airport before 6am and being hit on and/or the potential victim of a kidnapping.

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Clean enough to eat off the floors

Most public areas have wifi, but it’s only accessible to people who have an account with a Belgian internet company. Sad for you, foreigners.

Trains do not have wifi.

Europe has 2-pronged circular outlets. Internet, you lied to me. Again.

It’s hard to find an adapter on short notice.

Everyone speaks English. Even the old woman who runs the discount store that doesn’t sell adapters.

Belgians usually look serous, but they love a good joke. My best line: Do you speak English? Gales of laughter, guaranteed. I didn’t get many chances to use my line, because most people started their conversations with me in English. As one museum guard explained, I look like I speak English. He didn’t care to explain.

The sidewalks are meant to be shared by bikeriders and pedestrians. People who aren’t used to sharing sidewalks occasionally find themselves walking in the bike lanes. In related news, I was a menace to Antwerp bikers.

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Antwerp is incredibly polite. No one will curse you out – or even draw your attention to the fact that your decision to walk in the bike lane has forced them into oncoming vehicular traffic. Which might be less politeness than an indifference to fools. Or a lack of self preservation.

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It’s best for everyone that the streets were empty while I was there