Masked Ball on the Global Dance Floor

Dip, dive, whirl and swirl, three steps ahead, two back, feign and dodge. A waltz, a tango. Strobe lights bounce off mirrored balls hanging from the ceiling.

We are at a masked ball, reaching for the hand of one partner and then another, not sure who is behind each mask. See the fox face, rusty red? The noblewoman in black lace? Behind the column, is that magician kissing a ballerina en pointe?

A grizzly bear leads a lamb by a ribbon. An orangutan teases a leopard as a harlequin does handstands. Death is here, a scythe in one hand and the Mad Hatter in the other.

Nothing is as it seems, or perhaps everything is as it seems, which is the best disguise. We strive to see who is who and what is what in a cacophony of color, sound, and moving shapes. People disappear. Blood red dominates the smear of colors.

We strive to see behind the masks. Who is friend and who is foe? Who is aid and who is injury? We must be careful not to misjudge a friend as an enemy. Doesn’t misjudging or denying a friend create an enemy?

Sounds hit us, of guns, bombs, children crying. Louder is the silence, of hunger, kidnapping, destroyed cities, and of guilt.

Some people breech the chaos to tend children, refugees, the ill and starving, the bombed and shredded – those too vulnerable and wounded to have masks. Their faces are bare and tell us all.

My five-year-old granddaughter told me there are bad people in the world. “Pirates.”

“Pirates?” I asked.

“From Somali. There are pirates from Somali.”

I did not tell her that Somali pirates are among our lesser evils. Did the band just start playing “Pirates of Penzance”?

You want evil, I’ll tell you evil.

Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, any part of Syria, the killings and destruction in Gaza, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in Kenya. And Yemen, the Congo, and, yes, Somali.

And ISIS. Members of ISIS wear ugly black masks, which is somehow more honest: I am a monster, I behead people.

The U.S. Congress appears more innocent, perhaps because sock hops appear innocent even when the dance floor is taken over by the popular high school kids who got C’s and D’s in science, math, and geography, while the nerds have their backs against the wall.

Ted Cruz heads key Senate committees and is running for president but doesn’t believe in global warming. Tom Cotton, who received $1 million from a conservative political group that supports military solutions for Israel, fancies himself a pen pal with foreign heads of state.

Congressional masks tend to look alike – fools with “This Space for Sale” printed across their foreheads. (The few good men in Congress are mainly women.)

At the global masked ball, dancers shift, weave, clash, sell arms, form unholy alliances, claim lands and people. Masks fall off and are grabbed again. (Think Netanyahu, though that mask might as well remain off. We have seen too much.)

And us? We who think we are good people? We who have trouble seeing through our own masks? We stumble. We fall. We try to regain our balance. We try to do our best.

Duck, there’s a drone overhead!

In the madness, this global confusion and anger and fear and camouflage, there is one sure line of sanity. That is to care for all children no matter what. All children must be safe from more than Somali pirates. They must be loved and protected and educated and allowed to dance beautiful dances together, in trust, in joy, in their full humanity, unwounded, unafraid, knowing we live best when we live in harmony.


Kissinger, here’s a mirror

Men cannot be left to manage things like war or peace on their own.

Recently I was at a private reception in a brownstone on the west side of New York City. It was a lovely home and very nice hors-d’ouevres were served. Twenty or thirty highly educated men were there, with an equal number of women. The men sought the answer to how to end, or at least contain, the rising violence in the world. What can we do in the face of monsters and the expanding divide between cultures and sub-cultures and tribes and religions and barbarians from who knows where exactly and armed by who knows whom exactly,  . . . between them and us, the civilized people with goat cheese canapés sitting on comfortable sofas. Henry Kissinger was a guest.

The focus was on the Middle East, and perhaps the two presenters were only trying to convey what they see as happening, but they framed what they see happening in ways that activated the testosterone in that room until the air filled with the vapor of men who were afraid. Flight or fight has never been so safely demonstrated to me. Power had to be met by greater power and force had to be destroyed by greater force. Kill more of them than they kill of you, and do it soon.

The concept that there are different ways to fight, different ways to win, different ways to safety than power over power didn’t enter the discussion.

The discussion looked at the expansion of ISIS, the threat of Iran having nuclear power, the need to hold our collective noses regarding Egypt, and that Europe has “no backbone” regarding the Ukraine. i.e. Merkel & Co. are soft on Putin.

Not specifically mentioned was Boko Haram, possibly because they kill, abduct, and rape people most Westerners don’t identify with. And the Palestinian-Israeli “problem” was not discussed in any depth, possibly because some of us in the room might have identified closely and differently than others of us. We were polite and unwilling to turn against our own.

In addition to experiencing the fear-driven energy of men answering the call to defend themselves, their families, and their cultures, I saw how statistics can be isolated as truth and dressed up as proof that a Larger Hammer is the only option.

The prospect of a horrific, entrenched, prolonged war on many fronts seemed imminent, inevitable, unavoidable. The only manly thing to do is to face reality and take on the enemy hard and fast, with something like “shock and awe.” . . . well, that’s proven to be effective.

No woman spoke up, including myself. I am not proud of that. In retrospect it was a mistake, but I was mesmerized by what was happening and wanted the experience of seeing how far it would go. No, stop! That’s only partly true. I, too, was being polite. I, too, didn’t want to disturb anyone. We were such a convivial group and the men presented with such confidence and so many numbers. My contributions would have raised questions, been more complex, given hesitancies. My questions would have interrupted the flow of things.


“What would Henry do?” was the unspoken question before all of us. Most people in the room accorded him great respect. I regarded him with profound suspicion. The phrase “blood on his hands” kept going through my mind.

To be sure, we have real enemies who do horrific things. They would like to kill us and many other people, and destroy our cultures. How did that happen? Did we do anything that contributed to that? Is our doing the same old same old the best response we have? This is a complex threat that cannot be solved by simplistic answers. Violence is a simplistic response.

The discussion, when deconstructed, was about our safety by the destruction of others, not about our safety through common humanity and vested interests. It supported outlooks and actions that would further divisions – if you are not with us, you are against us – rather than outlooks and actions that would strengthen the middle ground of rational well-meaning people in all groups.

The discussion was conducted along the Masculine Principles that favor short-term solutions such as 1) making statements rather than asking questions, 2) equating dominance with safety, 3) thinking the only way from A to B is a straight line, 4) believing numbers tell the full truth, and 5) favoring conversations between people at the top of hierarchies to such an extent that the effectiveness of conversations and cooperation at other levels is lost.

Note: Masculine and Feminine Principles of perception, communication styles, and action can be carried out by either men and women. It’s not who does it, but what is done. We’ve all seen women leaders out-macho men.

Note: Both Masculine and Feminine Principles have their pros and cons. The most productive Masculine Principles include building the systems and structures necessary to sustain peace, uphold high ideals, and enact laws that are just.

Masculine and Feminine Principles can be thought of as hardware and software. We need both the hardware of structures and the software of creative generous communication and connection. Hardware without heart, conscience, and empathy is ultimately dangerous. Software without structures and systems is ultimately ineffective.

I spoke of this evening and the energy in the room afterwards with a male friend who has had considerable experience in peace building inside conflict zones. He said that the most holistic approaches to peace often come from men in the military, people who know first hand what violence does to the human body, men who have been not only hardened but softened by fighting, men who saw testosterone flattened and dead on the field of battle.

Henry Kissinger sat there, looking content. He spoke impromptu on the imperative first to know what we want to happen, then to examine if that is possible, and then to do what is needed to make it possible. It sounds practical enough, but it felt like someone talking from inside a sealed room, a safe sound-proof sealed room. What was his success rate again? How many people died? When he looks in the mirror, does he see what I see?

What I see is that until we have the wisdom and courage to find our safety in tending others we will not be safe. It is the most complex thing in front of us. The first step is to look ourselves in the mirror. The second step is to trust our better impulses, masculine and feminine, and create innovative structures and institutions for inclusive peace across divides.

The third step is to love our enemies. If we’re not quite ready for that, we can stick with the first two for now. It’s a start.


Shoot first or never shoot?

For a brief period in the fall and winter of 1975 I simultaneously dated two men. One was David Hume Kennerly, the White House photographer for President Ford who received the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his photography in Vietnam and Cambodia. The other was Richard (“Flashlight”) Gordon, a member of a religious commune in New York state and former teacher at Smith College.

David was a little miffed. I don’t remember it being as much about my seeing another man as by the choice of Richard, a dropout with long hair, drawstring pants, and sandals. The Vietnam war was over by only a few months. David had been on the frontlines, he had photographed death.

Once he called me from San Francisco and said there had been an assassination attempt less than an hour before on President Ford. His gut had told him to demand that Ford go around the back of his waiting car, not the front – a move that surely saved the President’s life. The bullet skimmed by David, who credited his gut with saving his life then and in Vietnam.

“Ask that guy you see,” David said, “what he would do if people were running at him and shooting at him.”

Me: “Flashlight, what you do if people were running at you and shooting at you?”

Flashlight: “If I had a gun, I’d shoot them first.”

This issue of shoot first or not at all is a tricky one. Just because both the Pulitzer Prize winner and an imitation yogi agreed on shooting first did not mean to me that it was the best thing to do. (I had also started going to the commune, which centered around universal love. The mice were caught in humane traps and transported off grounds.)

Most significantly, death is permanent. I’m not making a case for no life after death. I am saying that when your body dies you no longer walk, talk, eat, feel, think, dream, kiss, hold hands, study, go to school, go to theater, feed your children, have children, dance, sing, raise a family, make love. You’re dead.

We tend to slide over this fact in regards to other people, especially when the number of dead gets large, especially when we kill by drones, especially after we decide to hate them, especially if they have killed people we like or identify with, especially if they believe things we don’t believe, especially if we are afraid of them, and especially if we think they want to kill us.

Yet we never lose sight of the fact that we personally don’t want to die. We are fully and always aware when it comes to ourselves that death means the end of being here.

So, is it all about clearing the way so we feel we won’t have to die, at least not soon? Some Israelis said of Gaza that it occasionally needs mowing. It’s not that Israelis are meaner than other people. It’s the position they are in that includes fear, historical beliefs and harsh realities, isolation, and having the power at hand to “mow.”

Circumstances, real and imagined, affect how people – individually and collectively – perceive. In turn, what people perceive affects what they are willing to do to others, including to kill them. Given a potent dose of the “right” circumstances many, maybe most, people lose empathy. They become empathetically illiterate.

Look at ISIS. They perceive – literally live in – a different reality than most of us do. Their beliefs, which are circumstances, seal them inside a “truth” that gives them a mission and radical zeal. They want power and territory to bring the world into line with their image of truth and they will kill for it. You and I may not buy into their vision but they are pretty intent about it. They believe their perceived reality.

We could also say that we in the US perceive people are coming at us, and our friends and other good people, with the intent to kill us. It seems real from here. What can we do except shoot before they get here or before the number of dead becomes even more astronomical? Hold that question.

Why two beheadings was a catalyst instead of more than 140,000 dead Syrians and 900,000 Syrian refugees and displaced people is another question. Well, we know why. The beheadings were two from the US home team. Our empathic literacy only spoke English.

In the midst of this violent catastrophe we forget that all people are people are people are people and killing means real people die.

Our major flaw as human animals is that we forget that each of us is potential and future and love and art and creation and compassion and beauty. We forget our existence is an incomprehensible miracle, and it ends.

Given the stakes, you would think we would put more thought and action into creating circumstances where people perceive their good as invested in the good of others, where we give each other what we all need so we become friends and family, so it becomes unthinkable to kill each other.

But once the horror is underway, . . .  Well, I, too, would probably pick up the gun and shoot first if the option were between them and me. Certainly I would if it were between them and my family or friends. Now, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to save myself or family or friends if faced with murderous assault.

I know that in reality this is a moot point since I personally will never fight in a war and I will never own a gun, but if I am hypothetically willing to kill in some circumstances, how can I say my nation never can?

And I believe, faced with a choice between my death and that of a member of my family or a close friend, I would go on the sword. Hopefully this is never tested.

But it is tested endlessly around the world, isn’t it? Parents are constantly giving up their lives to save their children due to real and desperate circumstances. Average people do heroic things.

Can we average people do what is needed to prevent future wars and lessen the wars now around us?

Average people brought an end to the war in Vietnam even if it was late in the game. Such a futile stupid war.

Has there ever been a wise war? President Carter referred to war as sometimes a “necessary evil,” which raises the pertinent question of if wars can be prevented in advance by actions taken by you and me, average people.

Assuming the answer is “yes,” the most pertinent question is, are we willing to build communities across cultures, to minister to each other’s needs, and to become empathically literate in all languages?

It would take conscious evolution of our consciences, voluntary opening up, leaps of faith in ourselves and others, and going against our impulses to shut down and shut out. Many good people do peace-making work now. How do we build on their work to create a massive coalition of the willing? This is the question. What are the answers?

The question “shoot first or never shoot” must become obsolete, a relic of when we were more primitive. War photos of dead, wounded, and dying men, women, and children should only be seen in historical archives.