America The Beautiful

EDITORIAL, 26 Oct 2008

#33 | Johan Galtung

We had left Harrisonburg VA early to get the sunrise when crossing the Skyline Drive–a national, historical landmark–with hilly Virginia, a little misty, in front of us. The sun was redlining that traditionally Republican state.  The flaming fall colors were lighted by the rising sun as the road twisted and curled and rose and sank and we floated along, utterly taken in by the beauty. And down we went, slowly, at the prescribed speed, no hurry, just gratefully inhaling the beauty.

Like the other drivers, who disciplined a somewhat unruly European with their contagious respect for traffic rules, topped by a fair amount of courtesy and politeness, making driving in beautiful America such a pleasure. And we turn in somewhere for the morning coffee, parking well marked, the lady equally courteous and pleasant, making even a rather plain coffee tasty.

And memories come up.  Once upon a time, some years ago, in Beirut, the extreme opposite: the electricity was out, the police was on strike, watch what happens at the intersections. Big, fast cars rushing to position themselves, squeezing small cars out, to the curb; some of them even trying the sidewalk. All honking their high decibel horns and the total unstructured madness coming to a standstill with drivers out on the street to shout their human or inhuman rights as if the mess is decided by decibels. Everybody pushes and nobody moves.

Conclusion: there is clear virtue to traffic rules, lights and police. And yet I could not help thinking at the time that US drivers would somehow have managed. There would have been a tacit agreement, now you, then we. Or some blessed busybody volunteer, the deputy sheriff type, sensing the calling. My time has come, the moment of truth. Rising to the occasion.

This ode to US driving, then, predictably, also highlights a paradox: Why not also in world affairs? Why so much of a rush to position oneself, and reap the harvest, why so much Tragedy of the Commons? Everybody trying to maximize the self-benefit, like in the Wealth of Nations, sawing off the branch on which they are all sitting in the process? Like the proverbial last Eastern Islander facing the last tree, possibly pondering to cut or not to cut, that is the question, answering with the equally proverbial “If I don’t cut it, somebody else will.”  And down it goes, leaving Rapa Nui (in Polynesian) stark naked.

A law of human nature? Not at all. The beautiful US national parks are monuments to The Success of the Commons, and so are the many commons in Europe, traditionally far removed from civilization, high up in the Apennines and the Alps, and in the Northern European Barbaria, beautifully tended to, turning professional litterers into semi-saints. Something takes on an almost sacred character. There are Moral Sentiments at work, to quote the other side of the yin/yang Adam Smith. Maybe we do not understand them very well. Of course there is rational self-benefit at work: if I treat others reasonably, in the traffic, they will do the same to me; if I treat traffic, nature well they will reward me. But there may also be a deeper collective sentiment at work: my fellow driver’s suffering is also mine, and his joy is my joy; nature’s suffering is mine and so is nature’s joy. Better be guided by both sentiments.

Like in those Big Commons called the Market, and the Peace. Treat them well, and you are rewarded. Push for positioning and harvest, and you may destroy the very tissue that makes any harvest possible at all. “Do unto others,” etc. is insufficient, there has to be some understanding of traffic, market, peace.

And that means regulation. Rules. Like in traffic rules. And of course they can be excessive. It takes time to identify the optimum. Maybe much pragmatism. And much common sense, like better be sure there is gas in the tank when negotiating heavy traffic lest you cause a major hassle. Translated: have that extras equity, also in the form of liquidity, when heading into the market. If not you get stuck and make others likewise, like lenders and banks with no backing for their unconsidered and utterly inconsiderate transactions. Translated: do not destroy the precious self-healing capacity of human communities to meet and talk it over, to negotiate, mediate and conciliate. Medicus curat, natura sanat, the physician cures, nature heals.  Do not rush in like in Beirut traffic, heavy armored cars first until the system comes to a tragic standstill.  Consider this:

A Force for Peace and Security: US and Allied Commanders’ Views of the Military’s Role in Peace Operations, Peace Through Law Education Fund, 2002:

The European Approach: “[Peace Operations] are operations amongst the people. If you’re in your shirtsleeve and your weapon is down the side of your leg and you’re no looking aggressive, then you have a calming effect… The more you seek to isolate yourself from the people, be it in your helmet and flak jacket, be it in your large four man vehicle patrol, the less you will be able to find the person or people who matter to you, among those people. (General Rupert Smith)

The U.S. Approach: “It’s pretty simple. When you’re under arms, you wear your combat kit. We insist on helmets in HUMVEES and trucks because it saves lives when there’s an accident. The U.S. Army’s philosophy on this is, ‘Look, if you want us to go to the field and do peace enforcement, under arms, you get an organization with military discipline that’s ready to respond to any kind of lethal threat. If you don’t like that, send for the U.N’. (General Montgomery Meigs)

Well, it took Europeans some time to arrive at that type of military culture. No doubt the USA will follow, and revise their military culture, maybe to more Sun Tzu, less Clausewitz. Solving the American paradox, the contradiction between the extremes of the considerate and the inconsiderate; driving equally well in the market, and the peace, as in the traffic.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 Oct 2008.

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