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.