A Traveling Memoir
It happened sometime in 2003. All news headlines focused on a single event: the invasion of Iraq. September 11, 2001 was still fresh in everyone’s memories. The backlash against the United States had long moved into gear, for a much longer time than the short moment of sympathy that had followed the shocking disappearance of the Twin Towers and the 3,000 victims of the terrorist attack. In 2003, the “war on terror” was in full throttle. The United States government was about to fall into the hands of a clique of determined individuals led by Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld whose mantle on power a hapless Colin Powell was surprisingly incapable of stopping. The opposition to the war, led by a defiant French foreign minister, generated a diplomatic rift between the U.S. and some of its allies while Europe seemed appallingly irresolute and disunited. Public opinion, around the world, followed suit, generating a sentiment of animosity that had not been felt for some time. Backed by a highly favorable public opinion, Washington engaged in one of these conflicts that the optimists amongst us thought unthinkable in the post-coldwar/20th century era of renewal: a “war of choice.” At the U.S. Senate, “French fries” were renamed “Freedom Fries.” The ridiculousness of the situation would have been comical had it not implicated the lives of tens of thousands of people who would subsequently die in the war, a dire outcome that one did not yet dare to anticipate, even if a majority already had doubts as to the relevance of the endeavor.
Devising big plans at the café de l’Industrie
This is the time Gustavo Marin and I met for one of our regular lunches at our usual hangout, the café de l’Industrie, a stone’s throw away from the Bastille in Paris. While Gustavo was attacking his staple dish, a “carpaccio,” we started talking about the alarming situation, the complexity of the problem, with its political, diplomatic, economic and ethical ramifications, and what all of this meant to us. Gustavo, Program Officer at the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and head of the “Future of the Planet” program, has a fertile mind and is always in search of new ideas. As a miraculous survivor of the brutal Pinochet regime who lived to see the downfall of the dictator, Gustavo knows that things can turnaround in improbable ways, given time, patience, and energy. After thinking quietly while eating his cold meat, his voice suddenly rose up with the assurance that characterizes him: “Let’s do something!” After taking another bite, he pursued his thought: “I know we are small and insignificant, but this is ridiculous and we need to do something, even if it’s on a small scale.” “We cannot let politicians again decide our fate for some ridiculous reason.” “Let’s think of something and meet again in a couple of weeks.” Thus was born what would later become the “Building Bridges and Dialogue” project.
Identifying the problem
We did meet again a couple of weeks later and many times thereafter. At first, after our emotional reaction, we needed to identify the “problem.” For this, our minds seemed to converge at the same point, though we each took a different path to get there. The Charles-Leopold Foundation (FPH), a relative newcomer in the world of philanthropy (endowed by a famous French Chemist, C.L. Mayer, after his death) has from the beginning tried to think things in terms of the various “revolutions” that have, or are about to, change our world. The coming together of globalization and communications technology have resulted in one such “revolution” that has already profoundly changed the planet. Governance is a “revolution” that is needed, that might be triggered by the effects of globalization, but that is encountering, for obvious reasons, a strong resistance by those who wield the power that traditional politics provides to those who have the will and ability to get a hold of it, including in democratic systems.
In other words, there is a widening gap between, on the one hand, the needs of a changing world and, on the other, political structures that, increasingly, are ill-suited to our current and future lives. Bridging that gap, evidently, is incredibly complex and no blueprint has yet been drawn up to lead us through the path. The development of a transnational civil society is one such path towards bridging this gap. Creating transnational networks is one manner by which to accomplish this and it is an activity that the FPH has heavily invested in over the years.
Thus, for Gustavo, our fledgling project was tied to this general idea and, logically, was to fall within the general philosophy of the foundation of developing networks. We quickly decided that the project, whatever shape it would take, should primarily be focused on communication, that this communication should include American citizens of varied backgrounds and “internationals,” and, lastly, that the initial objective would be very simple: to engage in a dialogue.
We both felt that the American people were, for a variety of reasons, drifting away from the rest of the world and that the latter had a growing negative sentiment towards a people that they knew less and less in an age, paradoxically, marked by the “information flows” and mass communication. Alas, like the “lonely crowd” of the modern metropolis, the Internet surfer of the 21st century is increasingly isolated from a world that he or she is contributing to globalizing.
The roots of my personal vision of things were slightly different. A longtime student of political affairs, impassioned by the history of political philosophy, I had felt for sometime that the political structures that govern us are largely inadequate for our changing world. Politicians, especially in a democratic environment, are guided by a desire to win elections and motivated by the ideological forces that inevitably serve the political parties that support them and without which they would not exist. Public opinion, that magnificent counter-power, becomes the target of all policies and the center of gravity of politics, falling victim to the manipulation of political leaders, helped in this by the indirect, and independent, output of the modern media. And, while (liberal) democracy constitutes a formidable advance relative to the other political systems, it falls short, in practice, of what we are entitled to expect from a modern political system in the 21st
To put things differently, it seems evident that politicians, for the most part, govern with tools that, in essence, belong to a distant past. These tools are ill adapted to the challenges of today, and tomorrow. The policies of the Bush administration – the most visible case, but hardly alone in this predicament – fully illustrate this point with the packaging of a foreign policy based on a blueprint of the Cold War, that relies on military force to solve a complex problem (the Middle-East) that in reality necessitates new ways of thinking and doing in an age where force is considered a failure of policy rather than its continuation.
In the 18th century, philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant were faced with a similar dilemma. Given that changing the nature of politicians would prove illusory, they advocated changing the political system, in effect by promoting the idea of what we would later call democracy. But Rousseau and Kant envisioned something more than an aggregation of individual democracies – the system we are slowly arriving at today. Two centuries ago, they knew that such a system would not resolve all problems since the counterweights which limit power within a democracy are meaningless when nations face one another in the anarchical world of international politics. In other words, and to use the same example, while George W. Bush would never envision waging war on his own population to resolve a problem or another, he feels, and so does a good portion of the American public, that this solution is perfectly acceptable to resolve a problem abroad. And, at the present time, not much exists to limit or stop drastic decisions that can bring about dire consequences. Elections are one such limit but they are confined to the national environment of the decision maker; diplomacy is another, but it can do little against a determined administration and a powerful country. States tend to increase in size and their thirst for power is invariably unquenchable. Politicians who advocate “less governments” (usually conservatives) tend to do the reverse, joining liberals or social democrats who, at least, have the honesty to admit that they seek more government intervention (for the “good of the people”)!
There are no radical solutions to this conundrum. Federalism on a planetary scale (the Rousseau and Kant solution) is not realistic at this point even if Europe has shown the way, and neither is the idea of a world parliament that would limit executive powers. Democracy seems to be the only path forward. That is, more democracy on a horizontal scale (the spread of democratic systems around the world) - a trend that has ceaselessly, if unevenly, moved forward – and vertical democracy, namely greater liberty for individuals and less power to the state. At the cross between the vertical and horizontal axis is civil society, one of the building blocks of democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted during his observations of the fledgling American democracy. And, in the age of globalization, a global civil society is taking shape that is modifying political, social and economic relationships across borders, in ways that are yet unclear but that should, with time, limit the omnipotent powers of states. Indeed, reducing this power to its bare minimum might be the ultimate victory of the democratic ideal, bearing in mind the conviction that, in the long run, people generally know better what their needs might be than the officials whom, by majority, they elect (or, more often than not, don’t even have a chance to elect).
In a world where individuals and groups share more and more in common, the empowerment of a global civil society is an inevitable evolutionary trend that will bring about a revolution in politics, one that, one hopes, will not bring about, like most revolutions, hatred, conflict and bloodshed, but the opposite. One that might better understand the need for sustainable development and protection of the global environment; one that might show greater compassion towards those in need and start to solve one of the greatest problems faced by mankind: inequality, a problem that will be at the root of most of the challenges of the 21st century, starting with the persistence of extreme poverty, massive immigration, or terrorism.
It is with these ideas in mind, indeed, these convictions, that I personally became interested in this project. And, like Gustavo, I was convinced that the way to generate some kind of initiative rested on the development of a dialogue. How? Where? With whom? Now that we had a vague idea of the overarching structure of our project, we needed to give it some kind of form and flesh.
Gustavo, who had been working extensively in China, brought to mind a project he had helped engineer whereby a group of non-Chinese people had traveled by train to and through China to discuss specific problems with various groups of people, before attending a large conference. This seemed like a good idea for our initiative and it is on this basis that we started to work.
A traveling seminar
The idea of a “traveling seminar” thus constituted the basic superstructure we had been looking for. Like China, the United States is a geographic giant that is characterized by its diversity. A traveling seminar would allow a group of people to move about and to actually go and meet others where they live and work. Questions remained – important ones: How many people would go? Where would they travel and for how long? Whom would they meet? What would we talk about?
Our reasonable, but limited, budget helped create a fence around the project and determine some of the parameters. We thought that a group of about ten people would be both manageable and big enough to engage in various dialogues. We sought as diverse a group as possible, fully knowing that ten individuals would not represent the entire world. It seemed that a working knowledge of English would be necessary, with Spanish also being useful. We decided that two weeks would represent a good compromise in terms of time spent on the road. Several weeks would have been optimal but too long for a group of busy, working individuals (who were not paid for the trip). The human element being all-important for such a trip, it was vital that we gather a group of individuals who would get along with one another. This latter point, perhaps the most important if the trip was to be a success, relied on perfectly subjective considerations when making the invitations, as well as a bit of luck once things got rolling. I would be in charge of managing the trip. I had never done anything like this and all the horror stories I heard from friends who had worked as travel guides did not assuage my growing fears!
Where would we travel? Ideally, we would go from one coast to the other and travel through the north, the south and the center. The train seemed like the perfect medium. Images of Teddy Roosevelt making speeches from the platform of a train in the remoteness of the Western plains were whetting my appetite. I could see us with a big banner on the side “Traveling Seminar,” going from New York to Chicago to San Francisco to Los Angeles, stopping in remote towns along the way. The dream quickly faded however when we started examining the logistical constraints. At this point, a bus seemed like a better bet – and would allow us to keep a banner on the side of the vehicle. The big problem, though, did not immediately concern the type of vehicle, but the distances to be covered.
Quickly, we realized that a two-week trip through all the major regions of the U.S. would be impossible to accomplish. At best, we could travel within two regions. Which ones? One coast at least, seemed like a must, to which one could add one interior region such as the mid-West. Having lived most of my life on the East coast, I felt most comfortable starting there, all the more so since most of the participants would come from, or transfer through Europe. Having friends in Saint-Louis who could help out, I decided to go through that route. In the end, the actual trip would be very different from this first blueprint!
Enter Linda Pollack
It is during a trip to Porto Allegro in Brazil that Gustavo introduced the person who would become the third pillar of the project. Linda Pollack, a Philadelphian now living in Southern California was, and still is, the director of an organization called My Daily Constitution. Very active within the L.A. activist community, her interests and activities were very close to ours. Quickly, we asked her if she would be interested in working with us on this project. Ultimately, her impact would be great on the direction that the seminar would take, for, in the end, we would all travel to Philadelphia and L.A., two cities that did not really appear in our initial plan. Washington, which was high up on our list of possible venues, was ultimately dropped while Saint-Louis never materialized and was abandoned late in the planning game.
New York City seemed, however, inescapable and thus, we chose to begin our travel seminar there. As the cultural center of gravity of the United States, New York seemed like a good place to start, all the more so since this is traditionally where all the immigrants began their new life before moving inside the country towards the West. The fact the 2001 terrorist attacks – in effect the starting point of our project – took place in Manhattan also played a big part in this decision. Finally, for practical reasons, New York seemed like a perfect place to gather the troops before commencing our journey.
Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Cortland
Philadelphia, not as famous as other big American cities, has a special place in U.S. history and it proved a good choice as well. Philadelphia is the city of the American Revolution, of 18th century American enlightenment. This is the actual birthplace of the New World and of modern democracy. Like most European cities of the same era, it is built on a human scale. Quaint and beautiful, it has retained the charm of its glorious past while adapting to the exigencies of modernity. With its charming brick townhouses lining the streets, its modest architecture illustrates throughout the city those two pillars that are celebrated by the two documents – the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution - that were drafted here: liberty and equality. One could also see why Thomas Jefferson, feverishly putting words on the papers of the future Declaration from one of these houses, would improbably include happiness as one of those inalienable rights.
Step forward into another era: New York epitomizes the industrial revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries and symbolizes the rise to superpower status of the United States. It is not the liberty or opportunity to be happy that seems to be the big motivator, but the liberty and opportunity to be rich and powerful. Much larger than Philadelphia, whom it once challenged as the capital of the United States (Washington being the compromise), New York is both the ultimate symbol of American greatness and the place that a majority of U.S. citizens perceive as the least American of American cities. Like Paris or London, New York is one of the very few places on earth that seem to belong not to one country but to the world as a whole. Its peculiar architecture is entirely vertical. Only the sky seems to be its limit. It is no coincidence that New York was the primary target of the terrorists of 2001 (after a trial run in 1993).
Step into another world altogether: Los Angeles is the 20th century metropolis that has always projected itself into the third millennium. It is here that all the issues that affect the rest of the industrialized world seem to take root. L.A. is the city of paradoxes. A massive urban sprawl that can hardly be called a city, dotted by rare but parasitic coastal enclaves, enslaved to the car-goddess and in perpetual awe of the make-believe business that is Hollywood, the unreality of L.A. projects the hard reality of tomorrow’s world, in the U.S. and elsewhere. L.A. is as horizontal as a large city can be. It is limitless and seems to extend endlessly into oblivion. Waiting amorphously for a huge earthquake that might destroy everything tomorrow or might never come, L.A. has no shape, no flavor, no seasons and, ultimately, perhaps no real future: by perpetually projecting itself into the future, it is in constant danger of becoming obsolete. Like New York, it has operated as a magnet for immigrants, national and foreign. For the first time in its history, though, it is now also witnessing a significant exodus of a portion of its population, initiating a counter movement towards the interior of the country.
But if the United States has, over the last two hundred years, undergone a spectacular metamorphosis from a primarily agrarian society to a decidedly urban one, its collective consciousness is steeped into the mythical nostalgia of the great outdoors. Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Ansel Adams, and the Hollywood fascination for the “Western” genre all play into this nostalgia, and the urge to conquer new paradises beyond the horizon still feeds the imaginary minds of Americans, old and new, who, for the most part live subdued lives within the confines of urban and suburban environments. The seemingly limitless horizons of New York and Los Angeles constitute an attempt to reconcile this thirst for the conquest of new frontiers on the one hand, and, on the other, the realities of modern life where territorial conquests are now irreversibly locked up into the cellars of history. Political leaders, who usually trail the citizens they are supposed to represent by a few decades, have yet to realize this hard fact, which accounts for some of the questionable decisions that are made with regards to foreign policy.
Thus, it was imperative that our ‘traveling seminar” make a journey outside the big urban centers and into the unbeaten path, so to speak. Rather than spend a few days in Washington listening to policy makers, lobbyists or “think tank” analysts, as was initially planned, we decided to venture into other territories. Rather than throw a dart on a map of the United States, we examined the regions where we might have the necessary contacts to organize an interesting dialogue. In the end, we chose the Cortland area in the Finger lakes/Central New York region (where, for almost a decade, I have been spending a couple of months every year). Unknown to the participants who showed much curiosity before the trip towards this unknown quantity, the Cortland part of the journey would prove one of the most interesting and fruitful.
Cortland is a “small town,” as Americans say, nested between the Catskills mountains – well known to New Yorkers seeking to escape Manhattan or Brooklyn – and the Finger Lakes area, about five or six hours from New York City. Traversed by Highway-81, it has the allure of a typical, early twentieth century, semi-industrial town. It lies in the middle of a vast agricultural area. The nearest big town is Syracuse. It is not far from Ithaca, home of Cornell University, the only landmark of the region known to many foreigners, a reassuring name for what is otherwise un-chartered territory to the average traveler. The center of Cortland has charm but a drive through various neighborhoods quickly shows that the post-industrial evolution has not been particularly kind to what was once an economic magnet for European immigrants. Indeed, the Italian presence, in particular, is strongly felt here. With a couple of colleges, Cortland boasts a fairly large, and vibrant, student community. Cortland resembles many towns in the United States but it has a (strong) character of its own. It lays in the middle of a region that Tocqueville and his friend Beaumont traveled to in the early 19th century, then a “desert” in the middle of the wilderness that made a lasting impression to the author of Democracy in America.
In short, the final road map of the traveling seminar looked like this: New York City >> Drive to Cortland >> Drive to Philadelphia (through Ithaca) >> Fly to Los Angeles. As many people would remind us along the way, the trip lacked a stopover in the mid-section of the country. That said, the traveling seminar still covered a lot of ground.
Having optimistically combined a long-planned conference tour with the Traveling seminar trip, I had arrived on U.S. ground a couple of weeks before the participants. Traveling almost each day to a different city, I had been able to immerse myself back into the American body, realizing how things had changed since the 2001 terrorist attack and its aftermath. The country was not altogether different at its base but people’s perceptions of things had changed profoundly, more so even than during a Cold War whose stakes, in reality, where much bigger than the minor threat posed by the largely hapless Al-Qaeda networks.
Alas, something had been broken in 2001 and the collective resolve had augmented in the same proportions as the national sentiment of insecurity. In terms of moving about in what was for a long time the most user-friendly and fluid country in the world, I quickly realized on my first flight that the fluidity had now been replaced by an annoying and tiring obstacle course. I was relieved that the group would only take one domestic flight together – as it turned out, one that would not be devoid of the omnipresent set of obstacles and small humiliations that are part of the life of the everyday flyer.
My conference tour ended in New York City where the traveling seminar was to start. My last conference ended at 4 P.M. on a Thursday afternoon with the majority of participants arriving at 6 P.M. A couple of days earlier, Linda Pollack had flown in from Los Angeles to help prepare the trip. One participant had also arrived a few days earlier.
Siddhartha was probably the first person that Gustavo had mentioned when we first discussed the idea of the traveling seminar. I had never met him. I had, on the other hand, heard much about him. Hearing them, Siddhartha seemed like a legendary figure that one hardly could perceive as a mere mortal. A well-known and popular intellectual figure in his country, India, where intellectuals are respected and revered, Siddhartha appeared so large a figure that he seemed to belong to that category of people that one usually only reads about in history books. With only a minimal knowledge of Indian culture, I immediately associated Siddhartha with the one figure that many of us associate with India: Mohandas Gandhi. To add to the awe-inspiring figure, Siddhartha does not have any other name or surname. His name is, simply, Siddhartha (incidentally, also the name of the Buddha).
Thus, I was a bit nervous calling the hotel in Chelsea where I had booked a room for him, all the more so since the hotel – the only one it seems that still had a room when I called - was hardly up to the standards. The pressure went down a bit over the phone as I was able to converse, albeit for a couple of minutes, with what was resolutely a human voice. The next day, I was to meet him for lunch, a daunting perspective.
As I approached the hotel, I had ingrained in my mind the image I had entertained for a while of what Siddhartha might actually look like. Small, frail, mild mannered – my Siddhartha basically espoused the traits the Mahatma. I had not even conceived that Siddhartha might look remotely different from the Gandhi I knew from pictures and movies. As I penetrated through the front door, a mild-mannered voice with a gentle Oxfordian accent greeted me from above. As I raised my head, the figure that appeared before my eyes looked nothing like Gandhi. Very tall, strong and burly, with a thick beard and deep dark eyes, Siddhartha looked a lot more like a character actor from Hollywood than the Mahatma. Despite the intimidating physique, Siddhartha had the simplicity that befalls great men and women and the two hours spent together at lunch were very pleasant and devoid of the stress and awkward silences that often constrain such venues. We discussed the trip and what we might try to accomplish through it, as well as other philosophical questions about the world. Siddhartha was well versed in United States culture and, as I learned, spoke fluent French, having spent many years in Paris. More than anything, I was reassured that Siddhartha would prove a pleasant travel companion. Having traveled in the past with difficult characters, I knew that the success of the trip hinged on the personality traits of the individuals that composed the group.
Only one person remained whom I had never met: Fleur de Lys Cupino, known by her nickname “Pinky.” Everyone seemed to know Pinky except myself and everyone agreed that she was an exceptional human being. From my perspective, however, Pinky was at that point a virtual person at the other end of the Internet with whom I had exchanged dozens of e-mails regarding the logistics of her (complicated) trip. Like Siddhartha, Pinky had arrived a couple of days before everyone else; however, I would only get to meet her after the group had gathered around our hotel-headquarters at Kennedy airport.
On Thursday evening, I rushed out of my last conference, picked my suitcase up from the hotel and plunged into the subway where a group of police officers proceeded to open and thoroughly examine my luggage, an utterly unpleasant experience owed to the specter of Ben Laden that hovers over New York. I picked Siddhartha up at his hotel and off we went to Kennedy airport to gather the rest of the group: Delphine Leroux-Astier, Henri Bauer, Larbi Bouguerra, and John Stewart. Caroline Mac Kenzie would join us a few days later in Philadelphia.
Thankfully, all members of the group arrived safely and on time and the dreaded scenario of late or cancelled planes that might have shattered our schedule never materialized. Aside from Caroline, every one was now in New York. Our long-awaited “traveling seminar” was no longer a project on a piece of paper. As I closed my eyes that evening, it dawned on me that this initiative was completely crazy, one that only could be conceived by a completely naïve - and irresponsible - mind: mine. I could no longer backtrack or abandon the project and I had only one choice: move forward. I thought about all these busy and important people I had brought here for more than two weeks. The weight of the responsibility seemed unbearable. I did what I always do when faced with this type of situation: flush it out of my brain. Within a few minutes, I was sound asleep. The trip could begin.
If Siddhartha was the character actor; Pinky was the antithesis with an Audrey Hepburn physique that also did not correspond with what I had envisioned. A mother of two adult children, Pinky looked twenty years younger than what I calculated to be her age. Like the other members of the group, her accomplishments were extraordinary, having, among other things, founded a series of schools in the Philippines for under-privileged children. In other words, this affable and self-effaced person before my eyes belonged to that small group of individuals that can one day come out of obscurity to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace (an idea that would probably shock Pinky if she heard it). In other words, Pinky is one of these people who truly makes a difference and whose accomplishments are inversely proportional to the media attention they (do not) generate. As she walked unnoticed through the lobby of the hotel, I could not but ponder the strange fact that any second-rate actor or actress with a difficult personality would probably be asked several autographs if he or she were to penetrate in the same lobby. Like everyone else on the seminar, Pinky proved a delightful travel companion.
Delphine Leroux-Astier was the person I knew best. She was my colleague at the School for Peace in Grenoble, and I had worked on a couple of projects with her even before moving to Grenoble. Delphine had, for many years, devoted her energies to developing “Communities for Peace” in Columbia. On several occasions, she had traveled to remote regions of Colombia, in the Magdalena Medio, in effect one of the most dangerous regions of the world. In her twenties, she was the youngest member of the group. Delphine was a true friend who, with husband Etienne, was among the people with whom my wife and I enjoyed dining with on a regular basis. However, the personal and professional ties had little to do her inclusion to the trip, Gustavo and I having decided to invite her because of what we thought she could contribute to the traveling seminar.
The ever-young Larbi Bouguerra was born before all of us and thus acted as the elder statesman of the group. Behind the humor and lightheartedness that Larbi displays lies one of the most respected scientific figures of the Francophone world, and the scientific world as a whole. A chemist who left a trail of seminal books and dozens of scientific articles behind him, Larbi attained the highest rungs of the Tunisian scientific community. A renowned scientist, Larbi has also been an Intellectuel engage since the 1950’s, in the tradition of Camus or Sartre. During his youth, Larbi ran into trouble with the French authorities during his country’s, and the other colonies’, fight for independence. Afterwards, Larbi did not abandon his ideals of liberty and he proved a thorn for both Bourguiba and his successor, Ben Ali, who did not appreciate that such a respected figure might criticize their policies and political abuses. Jailed and ostracized by the authoritarian Tunisian government, Larbi now lives in Paris with his (French) wife. A world-renowned expert on water, Larbi now combines his scientific knowledge with his militancy to advocate greater environmental consciousness. Throughout the trip, Larbi would delight us with his stories and scientific lessons on a wide range of topics, including Linus Pauling, the double Nobel Prize winner who fought McCarthyism, and whose biography, written by Larbi, can be found in French bookstores. I had worked on a project with Larbi before and I was delighted that he could make the trip. During the long drives on American highways, I would be at the wheel with Larbi next to me on the front passenger seat: not for as much as a few seconds did Larbi ever stop talking! It is during one of these drives that we both learned that he had worked with my father… in the 1950’s. No wonder we were resolutely on the same wavelength!
I did not know Henri Bauer very well at the time although we worked on similar research topics, starting with peace and conflict. Henri, a Guatemalan hailing from the beautiful city of Antigua, now living in Paris, had studied theology and politics and he taught at the Catholic University in Paris. He had launched the Irenees initiative, a vast Internet project on peace that was to gather a lot of momentum and quickly establish itself as the main resource on peace, on the Internet and beyond. Henri was the only one amongst us who was not fluent in English but his Spanish background was very helpful in Los Angeles where a few of the people we met only spoke the language of Cervantes.
I had briefly met John Stewart in Porto Allegro during the World Social Forum where I had been dispatched with a small group that included Larbi and Caroline to study the proposals of the Forum. (Funded by the Charles-Leopold Mayer Foundation and the Ford Foundation, our mission in Porto Allegro was to determine if the Forum actually produced concrete proposals, it being criticized for not really doing that. Personally, I was dubious about the Social Forum’s ability to go beyond its simplistic criticism of globalization. But, observing the Forum up close, it was clear that behind the ideological rhetoric that forms the visible tip of the forum iceberg, lay dozens of organizations with brilliant ideas, practical know-how and inexhaustible energy and courage.)
One the groups that impressed me the most was John Stewart’s outfit which, in a nutshell, seeks to create a civilian “army” specializing in conflict resolution. John, who hails from Zimbabwe, one of the most poorly managed countries on the planet, has retained from his British roots a very articulate manner of speaking, which, combined with a sharp mind, served us very well when presenting our purpose to the many groups we met who had little clue as to what it was exactly that we were trying to do. A militant for the interests of the South, John’s critical outlook on U.S. policies helped liven up the various debates we engaged in during the journey, including amongst ourselves.
Caroline Mac Kenzie’s background followed a somewhat different path from that of other members of our group as she was the only one who had not, as yet, worked extensively with the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation. A writer and translator originally from England who now lives in Provence, Caroline had been an active militant on immigration issues in the Marseille region. Having lived in various places around the globe, including Australia, Caroline had a rare quality: a truly multi-cultural outlook that enables her to see things that most of us overlook. Although she initially found herself a bit lost in a project she was unfamiliar with, she would eventually become one of the most active proponents of follow-up projects after the trip, launching an initiative of her own on immigration issues.
New York, city and State
There we were in New York City. For less than two days. The goal was to get the group acquainted with each other while getting over fatigue and jet lag, all the while visiting the window on the world that is New York City. Friday morning saw us leave our hotel to go downtown, more precisely Chinatown where we had brunch in a Chinese restaurant. Nina Gregg, who works with FPH-related projects, had made the trip to New York City from Tennessee and this first meal together was a means for us to get formally acquainted and to discuss the philosophy and mechanics of the journey. Also present was Mary Mac Bride, a friend of Siddhartha and university professor in New York, who would also join us in Philadelphia.
That afternoon, the group gathered around Ground Zero. A visit to the nearby chapel devoted to the memory of the September 11, 2001 attacks proved a highly emotional moment where each one of us was able to ponder the impact of the event. Little was said during and after the visit, as all of us knew that words would be far too weak to translate the strength of the emotions. I had felt this strong feeling while visiting a public memorial only once in my life: in the Struthof Nazi concentration camp in the Alsace region of France. Places such as Verdun or Gettysburg where thousands, if not hundreds of thousands died in battle, do not carry the emotional strength that befalls these civilian cemeteries where the sentiment of injustice and waste reach unknown heights. Terror, perpetrated by authoritarian state apparatuses or by small terrorist groups, has that unrivaled effect of turning our ethical and emotional setup upside down. Visiting this small chapel had an impact that, in the end, was much closer to reality than the articles, books or even images we had read or seen for several years now. It is here that the ultimate signification of the event took meaning and, more importantly, could be felt. September 11 was not an attack on a country, but on humankind as a whole. I had read it and heard it, but now, I could understand it.
And I think that we all did. Now, we could undertake our journey in a country that, since that fateful date, had changed. Now, it would be easier to separate the emotion felt by a nation and the politics of an administration which, with the utmost cynicism, had profited from the shock to undertake dubious policies abroad that, in the end, would liberate a country before plunging it just as quickly into civil war. As all historians are well aware, the combination of idealism and cynicism is as dangerous as any, especially when incompetence is thrown into the mix.
For the majority of us in the group, it was difficult to come to terms with the American attitude after that fateful day in 2001. Everyone had felt an initial sentiment of sympathy towards the American people. And a majority of non-Americans had not approved the invasion of Iraq that followed, even those who were happy to see the end of the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein. The war reeked of antiquated thinking whereby war is perceived of as a normal instrument of national policies. After hearing, during the decade that followed the end of the Cold War, that this was the dawn of a new era where war would gradually disappear as a usual recourse of governments, the decision to invade Iraq was perceived as a death knell to the hope that this might actually be the case. The fact that the United States, the most vocal among those advocating a new world order, would actually be the one breaking the new social contract, was a great disappointment. But governments sometimes make unpopular decisions of which the public disapproves, with elections - at least in democracies - serving as the ultimate punishment for those who go astray.
What was baffling for most of us was not so much the fact that the Bush administration had launched this absurd war on terror against a government that had only one redeeming quality, namely not to harbor terrorists, but the fact that the American public approved this conflict and, worse still, that it had re-elected a man whose entire legitimacy rested on this very war. For this meant one of two things: that the American public was not intelligent enough to perceive the absurdity of the decision and the dangerous consequences it carried with it. Or that it understood what was going on and approved the decisions. For the non-American, it was difficult to accept the fact that Bill Clinton would be harassed to the point of being threatened with impeachment for a trivial private affair while the Bush administration could lie repeatedly to the world (about the weapons of mass destruction) on a much graver issue and not face any sort of criticism at home, even amongst the usually ferocious press. The chapel visit offered us a first clue; an entire nation had experienced an emotional shock so strong and abrupt that it had momentarily blinded its citizens. This, in itself was a frightening thought, especially with the McCarthy episode not too distant in our memories, but at least it offered some rational explanations for what appeared to be an irrational collective attitude.
A second clue would be provided that very evening, during a very interesting conference organized at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in downtown Manhattan. The topic: the press reaction to the Iraq war. A group of prestigious panelists, including the famous economist and columnist Paul Krugman, the producer for the late Peter Jennings, and a couple of other journalists shared their candid comments about the manner in which they covered the events following 9/11. Clearly, the journalists, while doing their mea culpa, seemed to have believed what the government was telling them without too much questioning of the arguments. From an outsider’s point of view, it seemed, however, that the desire to cater to the public’s demands was stronger in this case than the will to question what is presented as the official truth. The Watergate investigation, for example, was able to take root at a time when Richard Nixon’s unpopularity was growing. In contrast, the post-9/11 George Bush was untouchable and a negative reaction by a press organ would have been too dangerous to undertake.
In other words, while the media acts as a democratic counterweight to governments’ propensity to exploit if not abuse their powers, this case illustrated once again the fact, underlined by Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, that the press is not immune to that unavoidable side effect of democracy: the “tyranny of the majority.” The debate we were witnessing at the Barnes and Noble bookstore was intelligent, informative and interesting, but it should have taken place a couple of years before, in 2003.
Nevertheless, the fact that such a debate took place, even so late in the game, was indicative of a turning of the tide. And, in effect, the tide was turning as the Bush presidency started its downward spiral, beginning with the popularity of the president and his administration vis à vis the American public. To our group, which was altogether very critical of the Bush policies, and of the support it had garnered until then, this first contact with the new American “reality” provided the important indication that a dialogue would actually be possible. Obviously, this turnaround or opening up that we witnessed in the center of Manhattan was to be taken with caution, as one knows too well that the “East Coast Elites,” particularly in Boston and New York have been notoriously isolated over the centuries from the rest of the country. As time would confirm, though, this change of mood reflected a profound change that would affect all parts and regions of the country. If anything, the debate had the immediate effect of opening up our own mindset as we were reminded that societies, starting with American society, are a complex and diverse array of outlooks and opinions.
After our first contact with each other and with the United States, the “traveling seminar” began its actual journey on Saturday morning. The weather was one of those cold, crisp, sunny affairs that announce the arrival of the winter. Our vehicle was not quite the steam-engine train that Gustavo and I had dreamed of but the spacious white van that we picked up at the car rental parking lot was perfectly suited to our needs.
Almost as soon as we made our foray onto the freeway after leaving the airport rental car parking, we found ourselves stuck in a New York traffic jam. As we would later learn in Los Angeles, the New York version of automotive gridlock is a lot milder than the Angelino. At least New York has the excuse of having been designed for horse and carriage, unlike its west coast counterpart, the first city built for the automobile. This slow exit allowed us to admire, at leisure, the Manhattan skyscrapers from afar -- its original symbol, the Empire State Building, towering once again, with a degree of uneasiness, above all others.
After an hour and a half, once past the Tappenzee Bridge, our van left the endless concrete landscape for the green forests announcing the Catskill mountain chain. An hour later, we stopped at the Quickway Diner in Bloomingburg, New York, a typical American diner that doubles up as a used-car, or “pre-owned”, dealership. Already, we were in that “other” America to which academics often make reference, and which is also referred to as the “real” America by politicians on the campaign trail. In reality, and more simply, it is the rural America that, even a few dozen miles from New York City, seems like another world altogether. And, like most rural areas around the world, this one exuded a sentiment of authenticity that has abandoned the large metropolises of this world, the global village having emerged in big cities and not really in villages per se. Strangely, the global urbanites that should feel equally at home in Paris, New York or Santiago sipping a Starbucks cappuccino seem more comfortable in those places that remind us that our histories and cultures are vastly different from one another. In Bloomingburg, we already seemed removed from this much-criticized globalization that much of the world, starting with the anti-globalists, attribute to United States. In any case, the friendliness of the restaurant workers served as a healthy reminder that Americans are, like most other peoples around the world, are happy to see foreigners venture into their territory and are eager to talk to them.
There is nothing like a good meal to put everyone in the right mood and I have always noticed that during a journey, first impressions are vital in giving a certain tone or mood to the rest of the stay. Now, every one in the group was laughing at the jokes that Siddhartha was sharing with all of us. Sitting next to me, Larbi was suddenly reminded of the numerous trips he had taken to this country over the last decades, giving him a historical perspective as to how much had changed since the early sixties. I had landed here myself in 1969, arriving as one still did back then -- by ship, the week that the Apollo mission members first set foot on the moon, at the height of a Cold War that now seems but a distant, historical parenthesis. I remembered how different the United States appeared from Europe back then, and how far removed it really was, with exorbitantly expensive long-distance calling, and the Internet or satellite television decades away. Despite the communication revolution that has overtaken a large portion of our planet since then, Americans still seemed, in the 21st century, to speak another language from the rest of the world, living in a cultural bubble that we had courageously and immodestly undertaken to pierce.
Driving up, Larbi had asked me why a lot of the automobiles adorned yellow and stars and stripe “ribbons” that were plastered at the back of the vehicles. The question made me smile. I had left the country from Dulles airport a few hours before the 9/11 attacks and had been stunned to return a few months later to see a majority of cars with American flags attached to the radio antennas. The following year, the real flags had been replaced with large bumper sticker flags that blocked the rear windows of most SUV’s before quickly leading the way to the ribbons signifying support for the U.S. troops in Iraq, the four-wheeled equivalent of the stars and stripes pin that a lot of politicians, journalists and others had been wearing on their suits since the first contingent of American soldiers had been sent to remove Saddam Hussein from power. I explained to Larbi that the ribbons did not signify support for Bush but support for the troops, a distinction that at first seemed hard to fathom, myself being a bit confused in my explanations since at this juncture wanting an end to the war seemed logically a better way of supporting the undermanned troops. Driving up through Central New York, I noticed that the number of ribbons were ostensibly less visible than they had been just a few months before. I figured that if people probably did not actually remove them from their cars (a painful task!), they probably did not stick ribbons to the new cars they purchased. Since the Americans have a very high rate of automobile change-over, I thought that this might explain my visual impression. Whatever the explanation, the trip would confirm the general idea that support for the administration and for Iraq was dwindling rapidly. I was surprised at the rapidity of the ribbon erosion.
It was shortly after I giving what I thought was an impressive inductive analysis on this issue that I decided to take an exit in order to get some snacks for our now-empty stomachs. It had been a few hours since lunch and we were at least another hour from our destination. As we turned off the exit ramp into a charming 18th century village, a gigantic banner above the main commercial street pierced through the argument I had just gracefully laid out and drew a well-deserved roar of laughter in the van. The sign? “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS IN IRAQ.” I masochistically parked facing the banner while courageously enduring the sarcasms of my peers, arguing more or less convincingly that the presence of this sign did not negate the cogency of my argument. Beyond the comicality of the situation, the group was genuinely surprised to see this banner, at a time when the rest of the world, it seems –including public opinion in Spain, Britain and Australia, whose governments had sent troops in the Middle East – spoke in one voice against the intervention which, already, was in danger of provoking all out civil war. If anything, this was a reminder that the virulent criticism of the war we had heard from the New York journalists had perhaps not yet trickled outside of the big cities.
At this juncture, and with the benefit of hindsight, the disagreements over the war were clearly along partisan lines, Democrats becoming more critical, Republicans sticking to their guns, so to speak. It would take another year before the bipartisan line would erode almost completely, as illustrated by the (bi-partisan) commission headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton (The Iraq Study group) that criticized the government’s handling of the war and precipitated the resignation of its main architect, Donald Rumsfeld.
Finally out of the Catskills, we hit Highway-81 at Binghamton, on the southern border of New York State, north of Pennsylvania. A sign indicating Syracuse showed our wary group that we were getting closer. The few hours we had just spent on the American freeways reminded us of how vast this country is and it gave me relief that we did not finalize the initial idea of traveling from one coast to the other. As we headed into the Central New York/Finger Lakes area, many of us were happy to encounter familiar names like Syracuse or Marathon, in a region that, for some reason, reads like a chapter of Plutarch’s stories with towns like Pompey, Fabius or Marcellus.
We arrived in Cortland a couple of hours into the evening, just in time for dinner. The next day constituted the true beginning of the “traveling seminar,” an all-day affair with two-dozen or so people that our main contact here, Kristie Bliss, had courageously convinced to spent a few hours with us on a Sunday. Although the trip had thus far proved far easier than I had anticipated, I was nervous with this first event that, I knew, would define in part the success of the rest of the journey. I knew that a complete flop would have a devastating affect and might also announce more disasters to come. The group dynamic was excellent but it is very easy to lose control and never be able to regain it. Thus far, much of what had been done had been my responsibility and I felt a certain degree of control over everything, even if the element of luck had thus far played in my favor. The Cortland meeting, however, was no more under my control. I had long hesitated over the idea of whether or not to bring the group here and I would now see if this had been a good or a bad decision. Having been tied down with logistical problems during the final few weeks that led to the seminar, I had left a good part of the final tweaking of this meeting to Kristie. As I went to see Kristie that evening, I was not re-assured when she told me she did not know how many, if any, of the people would actually show up. It is with this thought that I went to bed that night.
The meeting was to take place in a conference room at the same hotel where we were staying. A big sign at the entrance of the hotel gave the whole traveling seminar idea a life and, strangely enough, a kind of legitimacy that it did not really have until then. Knowing that all the logistical problems were solved – food, coffee, etc… - was already a big relief and I thanked the fax machine, the Internet and other modern technologies for allowing us to organize this meeting -- right down to the types of pastries we would eat for breakfast, from Grenoble; in other words, from the other ends of the earth.
As Kristie and I were getting the room ready, with Linda taking care of the audio recordings, the participants began to gather in high numbers with just about everyone on the list actually there. With our group, close to thirty people were actually around the big table when we officially launched the session. Once again, things were unfolding in a manner that exceeded my expectations. I had little time to rejoice, as I had to think about the next phase.
The first minutes were spent introducing the project and the participants. The atmosphere was a bit tense, especially when one of the local participants complained that one had not been warned that the session would be taped. I hadn’t thought of this issue, and although a long-time Washingtonian, I had somehow forgotten the paranoid dimension of a society crippled by millions of law suits and now plagued by the Big Brother threat posed by the new government measures taken in haste to combat the terrorist threat. Our audio recordings were designed to keep a record of the seminar and nothing that would be discussed were thought to constitute subversive material. Alas, the participant who had complained was a former high official of a prominent international organization, which might explain the sensitive reaction.
In any case, we did not stop the audio recordings, but the degree of tension was significantly higher than it had been. And it would go up a few notches with the launching of the actual discussion as the group of travelers, beginning with John Stewart, put on the table some of the criticisms that are commonly voiced against the United States around the world but that rarely reach the shores of America. This approach was a bit risky and a couple of participants reacted forcefully to the criticisms. Larbi, who tried to ease the tension by introducing the less explosive topic of the environment, was quickly rebuffed when he mentioned that the U.S., among other countries, was not up to par with its global environmental policies. One might be able to understand and explain this reaction by the fact that the only widely-viewed documentary on the subject was that of Michael Moore – colored with a strong anti-American slant, as Al Gore’s more constructive, Oscar-winning (2007) documentary warning about global warming had not yet come out.
During the entire time we had spent preparing the project and the seminar, we kept in mind our original goal of opening a dialogue between people who had suddenly become at odds with one another. The last thing we wanted was a tense discussion between factions that did not understand, or want to understand, each other. Despite our preliminary talks within the group, it was clear that some of us were resentful towards a country that, in some minds, was responsible for some of the ills of this world. While the whole debate around globalization (is it good? or bad? who does it profit? who are its victims? etc…) is open to discussion, the Iraq issue was a godsend for those eager to criticize the United States.
At the other end of the spectrum, Americans who have traveled or been exposed to foreign criticism are naturally and logically sensitive to the subjective nature of this criticism which, all too often, is unjustified or, at least, exaggerated. The individuals at the two ends of this spectrum were now having a go at it with what was turning into a verbal brawl, with the usual spectators watching helplessly. And a brawl, albeit a verbal one, was the last thing Gustavo and I had on our mind when we launched the project.
Somehow, thanks to the reasonable voices of Kristie, Siddhartha and others, the discussion was quickly put back on track. The initial fireworks had somehow released the tension that was felt from within our group and, from then on, not much tension was felt for the rest of the day, or the rest of the trip for that matter. The one or two participants who had been particularly sensitive to our criticisms departed and the tension went down as quickly as it had gone up. Clearly, the great majority of people around the room, from high school and college students to retired professors, were ready to talk to foreigners on a number of issues which would prove of interest to everyone: education, the future of our youths, the environment, the Middle East.
The media had given us the image of an America removed from the world -- ignorant, superficial and disinterested, and we were confronted with an array of people who were the exact opposite. The remoteness of our geographic situation – a couple of hundred miles at least from the nearest big city (New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, Toronto or Boston) – gave a vivid contrast to the worldly and informed discussion that developed during the day. Yet, we were not in the presence of an “elite,” as the diversity of the group attested.
Gradually, after the shaky start to the discussion, a very rich dialogue developed. Beyond the cultural and political differences that had initially created barriers between us and them, it became clear that global interests are far stronger than national ones, an important observation since the big political decisions are still made by governments who still function in the age-old “national interest” mantra. Listening to the informed and intelligent conversation, I could only ponder this thought that I had heard from the economist Joseph Stiglitz. Stiglitz once stated that the big problem of globalization is that economic globalization has not been met or followed by political globalization, creating a structural gap that is the source of the serious problems that affect the world today.
Initially, we had planned a morning session on various topics, including free topics, with a smaller afternoon gathering on education. As it turned out, the morning session extended into lunch which itself extended into the afternoon session. All the while, the general discussion extended into small group conversations during the meal. Many of those who had attended the morning event decided to stay for the rest of the day. Education was probably the one area that generated the most interest among the participants. Several students, teachers and university professors were present, including a couple of high school administrators.
Christine Gregory was one of the people that attended the meeting that afternoon, along with a couple of her students. After (re)engaging the conversation on the topic of education, Christine talked at length about the interest that her students take in reading and analyzing newspaper articles in their classes. Then Christine did something that had a profound impact on our group and which served as a launching pad for the Global Classroom Initiative that would eventually take core in 2007. Christine took out a pile of papers written by students for this meeting and she started reading them. These (short) essays were written on various topics, a lot of them on politics. They were so candid, so sincere, and so intelligent that everyone around the table felt overwhelmed with emotion. Everyone was impressed by the quality of these essays and the reading brought the discussion to a whole new level. From the us and them, to the me and you, we were now in a configuration were everyone was talking about ourselves, about us.
The discussion lasted until the early hours of the evening and everyone vowed to make something happen in the future that would enable our students, French, American, Filipino, and others, to talk directly to each other about these problems that concern each of them, but which they see through the prism of their culture and the media that filters it.
The next morning was an altogether different setting. We were meeting with the architects and organizers of the SUNY-ESF Willow Biomass Project: Larry Abrahamson, Dick Schwab, and Mike Bliss. In a barn adjacent to the biomass project, Larry Abrahamson gave us a lengthy and captivating lecture on the project before taking us in the field. The project, funded by a couple of universities, is looking at an alternative renewable energy source: the willow tree. In a way, this highly impressive project – everyone seemed convinced by Larry about the potential of the willow tree as a clean, renewable energy for the future, was a practical answer to some of the questions that had been raised in earlier discussions. After the tour, we let Larbi grill Larry on scientific and technical questions while enjoying our coffee and donuts. The sub-zero temperatures that did not seem to bother the team of researchers reminded us that in a couple of days we would be flying to warm southern California.
We bade everyone goodbye before heading south to Philadelphia. Along the way, we made a stop at Cornell University to tour the campus. After that it was another long road trip. Larbi was once again in the passenger seat and, true to his reputation, did not allow a single awkward silence to arise. Despite Siddhartha’s suggestion that we stop for afternoon tea, no tea house worthy of that name was found on the Pennsylvania turnpike. As we headed to the city where the declaration of independence was signed, it was clear that America and Britain have profound cultural differences, tea being foremost amongst the latter, to the dismay of tea-deprived Siddhartha. But, after all, the Revolution had started with the Boston tea party…
Arriving in the early evening in Philadelphia, we only had a few minutes to check into the hotel before attending a lecture and dinner with a prominent American intellectual, Gar Alperowitz. I was relieved to see that the last (by order of arrival) member of our group, Caroline Mac Kenzie, had made it safely and was ready to join the action. Linda took over the wheel and off we went to listen to Gar Alperowitz.
I knew Gar Alperowitz from my student days when we dissected his history books, most notably his writings on the U.S. decision to use the atomic bomb in Japan. Breaking with the American tendency among academics to confine themselves to a microscopic specialty, Gar Alperowitz has written about various topics relating to U.S. political and social life. But Gar Aleprowitz is living proof that one can have broad interests while remaining a serious scholar, his sharp analyses profiting from his vast historical knowledge. It was a delight to listen to him, meet him and converse with him. He was in Philadelphia to talk about the topic of his latest book, America Beyond Capitalism: reclaiming our wealth, our liberty and our democracy.
Although we arrived at the tail-end of the presentation, Gar was gracious enough to talk with us over (a superb) dinner after the lecture. The event was taking place at the White Dog Café, about which we will have more to say. Although a staunch defender of the American “nation,” Gar Alperowitz was clearly on the same wavelength as most of us when the topic of current affairs was evoked. Now used to associating criticism of the Bush administration and of capitalism, I was surprised at first to see that Gar was an ardent believer in the market forces. But, this is where Americans and others differ intellectually, the former having no qualms reconciling a desire for social policies while being adamant that the invisible hand of the markets and globalization do its work. Being used to hearing in France and elsewhere that economic liberalism is the root of all evil, it was refreshing to listen to another point of view.
The next day was another busy affair with a series of meetings awaiting us. We still managed to tour the city, the fact that it is a pedestrian town facilitating the task. The Liberty bell and other historical points of interest acted as vivid reminders that democracy has to start somewhere and that a nation need not to have a “long democratic tradition” to be able to take the path of liberty, an important point to remember for all those (numerous) critics who argue that the Middle East or Africa are unsuited for democracy for lack of tradition or experience. As I entered the various buildings of the liberty tour, passing through security check after security check, I could not but remember the trip I had taken ten years earlier when one was totally free to roam about : Liberty has its price and it is a fragile thing…
The seductive nature of Philadelphia, especially on a beautiful autumn morning was difficult to resist, and our desire to walk through all the small paved streets of the down town area, as well as the plazas made us late for our lunch appointment with the American Friends Committee. It is during this memorable morning that Siddhartha and Pinky demonstrated the benefit of “hugging trees.”
The AFC, an organization founded by the Quakers is one of the oldest NGO’s on the planet and one of first institutions to actively oppose wars of all kinds. Still headquartered in Pennsylvania, where it originated, the AFC is as active as ever, and it is present around the globe. It was a privilege for all of us to meet several members of the organization around a brown bag lunch. Since several of us had already worked with the AFC, a few familiar faces appeared around the table. The discussion, unfortunately, was much too short to develop into something concrete but we were able to establish new contacts or re-establish old ones.
After that, all of us returned to the White Dog Café to have an informal talk – over tea – with the founders. As if to illustrate the ideas that Gar Alperowitz had shared with us the previous night, the White Dog Café combines a profit making business with vigorous social activism. The founders have for the last years twenty run a high quality restaurant and café, an active non-profit foundation (The White Dog Café Foundation), a small souvenir shop. The White Dog Café newsletter informs the public about the activities promoted by the foundation and the café. The organization promotes sustainable development and the local economy. Through its “sister” program with other socially active cafés and restaurants in the area and beyond, it helps the public reach out to new neighborhoods and communities. In a sense, the White Dog Café is the perfect example of the novel ideas that help constitute a stronger civil society able to outpace lagging state structures that are unable to keep up with the current economic and social transformations.
As such, it provides a good example of solidarity, not just amongst the very wealthy to the very poor but from a small business to its community. With the United States having earned the reputation of being ruthless with the underprivileged, it was refreshing and instructive to see such an initiative up close. (www.whitedog.com)
For our last morning in Philadelphia before embarking on a plane, we went for a tour of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Project, another interesting initiative – this time from the local government – to allow young artists to express their artistic talents on the walls of the city. The result is a gigantic display of modern art adorning the walls of the city, harmonizing the old 18th century architecture with 21st century frescoes. www.muralarts.org
It was now time to leave the East coast of the United States for the Pacific Ocean. An afternoon plane would take us to California, arriving in the early evening. I was dreading the ordeal, having suffered the long lines and security checks that now plague all American airports, knowing that the trigger happy security people might not let a group of ten internationals on a plane just that easily. And, of course, my fears were not unfounded as we were denied flying just moments after checking into the airport. For what appeared to be a very long time, and with no information, we were told that at least one person presented a security risk. Who? Guessing the answer to the question helped us pass the time with various distinct responses. Siddartha had the look, so to speak, Pinky absolutely not, which made her our prime suspect. Larbi’s Arabic name made him a contender as did John’s Zimbabwean background or Delphine’s Columbian connections.
After a good hour of waiting, not knowing whether or not we would make our flight, we finally had the go ahead. Who had been the grave security threat? The unfriendly airport security person reluctantly gave the answer: Siddhartha. His one-dimensional name had been blocked by the security clearance…
After an uneventful flight across the country, we landed in California as planned. The temperature was indeed a lot warmer and the ocean breeze testified to the fact that we were at the other end of the continent. Our headquarters were situated in Santa Monica, one of these beach paradises that dot the coast between San Diego and San Francisco. The contrast with New York, Cortland and Philadelphia could not have been greater. The weight of the Mexican-American population in this part of the country gives Los Angeles a truly multi-cultural flavor that is largely absent in the East Coast, including New York. The role of minorities and immigration would indeed be the two main topics we would discuss during our several days here.
Our first meeting did indeed take us to an organization that defends and promotes the rights of Hispanic Americans, CHIRLA. After our hosts exposed the plight of Latin immigrants in Southern California, and the many problems that arise with this massive immigration, a discussion ensued on the various ways that different countries deal with immigration. Our Immigration expert, Caroline, gave an interesting exposé of immigration in France which highlighted the different approaches that countries can use to deal with a phenomenon that is now part of the globalizing world. Henri Bauer, more at ease in the language of Cervantes than that of Shakespeare, was able to put things in a philosophical and historical perspective that gave an original touch to this complex topic.
Our first evening was spent out, watching a play, WHAT I HEARD ABOUT IRAQ! At the Fountain Theater in East Hollywood. Directed by Simon Levy, it annihilated any doubts we may have had about the existence of dissent over the war in the United States! Intelligent, controversial, powerful, the play was a strong testimony to the idiocy and special interests that guide decisions to go to war. The play focused among other things on the oil interests that might have pushed American policy makers to send troops in the Middle East. A lively discussion followed and it was clear that the majority of the audience was highly critical of the war.
The next morning was spent at the Harry Bridges Institute (www.harrybridges.com) touring the Port of Los Angeles at San Pedro. As its statement of purpose suggests, the Harry Bridges Institute ”was founded in 1993 to meet a pressing need to educate a new generation of workers about the rich history of the labor movement; to demonstrate the benefit of union membership to the working community - and to showcase and celebrate the contributions of labor leaders as well as rank-and-file trade unionists, not only in the founding of unions but in the continued struggle for workers' rights.” Sponsoring classes and organizing a variety of events showcasing labor union membership, the HBI is, in a way, bridging the gap between industrialization and post-industrialization by reminding a new generation of workers about the role that labor unions played and continue to play in the development of democracy. Personally used to the weak but vocal French unions who continue to brandish the old communist rhetoric of old, this meeting with the directors and founders of the HBI was a healthy reminder that unions are an indispensable element of democracy and that they can adapt to a working environment that has changed radically in the last thirty years.
After a tour of the Los Angeles Gate Cultural Center / Network of Culture and Media www.angelsgateart.org; www.cultureandmedia.org, our group attended another event critical of the Irak War at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena. Meeting local peace activists and peace community as part of premier of new documentary, SOLDIERS SPEAK OUT with Director Barbara Trent and Abdul Henderson from Iraq Veterans Against the War, the evening was a very emotional testimony against the war.
The next day, a Sunday, was spent in the morning at the farmers market in Santa Monica, in the afternoon at the Getty Museum, by far the most notable architectural monument of Los Angeles, with several interesting collections in the museum itself and an incomparable view of the city and the ocean in the gardens. In the evening, Sheila Pinkel, a friend of Linda’s, artist and professor at Pomona College, had generously organized a soirée with local activists and friends in her house in Los Angeles. This evening, an afterthought in our schedule of activities, turned out to be the most successful event, with the Cortland meeting, of the whole trip. With a number of activists present, including Mexican-Americans, an informal roundtable discussion started on its own, with emotional testimonies and a vivid exchange between our group and the local guests, and between the guests themselves. In the end, several individuals vowed to continue these exchanges in more formal settings. Upon leaving Sheila’s house, I could not but ponder the fact that this type exchange was what we had in mind when we launched the project. I felt a sense of accomplishment. Once again, luck played its part : neither myself nor Linda would have expected this particular venue to be the one where the whole project would take form and meaning.
The following day, November 21st, was another busy affair. We started off in little Tokyo, at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy where a poignant exhibit showing pictures of Japanese Americans during World War II reminds the public of the fragility of democracy, even in a country that boasts the oldest and strongest democracy. This ugly and forgotten episode of American history is especially relevant as the Bush government has used the pretext of war to quench civil liberties, especially for those originating from the same regions as the Islamic terrorists. The exhibit is done with that special sense of esthetics that characterizes Japanese culture.
Around a delicious meal prepared by our hosts, we were able to start an interesting conversation on the topic of democracy and one of its major faults, the tyranny of the majority. Unfortunately, the conversation ended much too soon but, once again, all parties were eager to keep in touch and perhaps join forces to start joint projects together.
Our next stop took us Los Angeles City Hall, where an aide to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the first Hispanic American to take that post, talked to all of us in his office. Despite the novelty of the Villaraigosa election and of his political agenda, the discussion turned without surprise to be one of those political exercises that with some exaggeration can be equated with soft propaganda. Having some experience with political types and political staff, I was not as disappointed as I could have been but the highlight of this trip was the view we enjoyed after the meeting, on top of the historic building. If anything, the blandness of the political discourse brought out the quality of the work displayed by the civil society organizations we had met throughout the trip. Although the new mayor seemed to be doing good things, I remained skeptical as to the local government´s ability to resolve some of the more pressing problems of the city.
The gap between the political world and the plight of the struggling individual or community was illustrated in vivo by our next meeting, with the Filipino Workers Center on Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles (www.pwcsc.org). The location of the center in itself summarizes the tale of two cities. The center is located on top of a small hill, in a poor neighborhood of run down houses, with a unique view of the skyscrapers of Los Angeles. Arriving as we did at night, the contrast between the sparkling modern buildings in the Los Angeles skyline and the poverty of our immediate environment was all the more disturbing. Although the center in itself is very modest, our hosts greeted us with unusual warmth and friendliness before telling us about the extent and breadth of their work helping the Filipino community - one of the largest immigrant community - in California. Learning about the various problems faced by this diverse community would have left us depressed were it not for the enthusiasms, intelligence and courage of the small group of activists that devote their lives to helping their compatriots. The task at hand seemed daunting, with few means. In this respect, the PWC did not seem to have the firepower that CHIRLA, for example, is able to garner. The optimism coupled with realism displayed by the PWC activists did not prevent us from leaving the center with a subdued feeling. We left late in the night. Driving through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, we were able to witness from behind the car windows the all too real poverty that pervades the city of dreams.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving was our last full day of activities. The first meeting at the Muslim Public Affairs Council in downtown L.A. was one of these political operations that I have grown familiar with over the years in Washington. While our hosts were generous with their time and presence, the meeting was not, as it had been with other grass roots organizations, meant to be an exchange. The MPAC is a very well organized outfit that lobbies Washington and local governments while diffusing (quality) information about the Muslim community at large. After 9/11, its activities have been crucial in enabling the American public and its political representatives to avoid making gross confusions about Muslims and Islamic radicals. Their exposé was interesting but we had little to share with the organization and the meeting ended at that.
The second meeting of the day was our first in a university environment, at the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California Irvine. At this point, we had spent almost a week in Los Angeles and grown accustomed to spending vast amounts of time stuck in our van, trying to get from one meeting to another through the snarling traffic that seems to be a permanent and perpetual fixture of life in these parts. The first metropolis built for the car was evidently, less than a century after its inception as the automobile city, clearly overwhelmed by the beast it had created and was unable to control. The tentacles of the Los Angeles freeways are now smothering the city and its inhabitants like Dr. Frankenstein’s creature.
We had much time to ponder this phenomenon that, on a small scale symbolizes the whole environmental predicament that sees the consequences of industrialization now threatening the sustenance and survival of the global community. During our various discussions, the topic of the environment had not had the resonance that most of us expected, especially those of us living in Europe where the issue is on the top of the political agendas. In this domain, the United States is uncharacteristically behind, perhaps due to the fact that the individual and the small community is at the forefront of a world whose image is largely defined by the Bible, where man is in God´s image, rather than nature. The European tradition, steeped in the humanism of the enlightenment is more attuned to man’s relationship to nature than it is here.
Nevertheless, the United States is not devoid of an environmentalist conscience, as exemplified by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau or by organizations like the Audubon Society or the National Geographic Society. Surely, if, or rather when, an environmental consciousness arises in the United States, it might very well be from the shores of California.
The short drive from Los Angeles to Irvine took three hours, with three hours on the way back. On the lovely Irvine campus, we met professors and students from the political science department and the Center for Global Peace. Working myself, at the time, for an institute in Grenoble with the same objectives and practically the same name, I was particularly eager to visit the campus. We met in a small conference room with professors around the table and students scattered around the room. Having spent a great amount of time in academia, I knew that our message might be difficult to convey in an environment that tends to be impatient to hear specifics. Academics, particularly in political science departments are notoriously opinionated and I was aware that John Stewart’s adamant defense of the South might not go over very well. I also knew that American academics have a tendency to underplay individuals that come from other professional environments or foreign countries. Indeed, after John’s opening statement, the tension rose a few notches as it had in the opening rounds of the Cortland roundtable. Even though things eased up after a while, thanks in great part to Siddhartha’s adroit diplomatic talents, the discussion never really took off as it was clear that our respective interests did not really match. Contact with the students proved more pleasant and fruitful than with the professors and the informal talk that followed the official discussion was not uninteresting. A short tour of the campus proved once more that American college students are a privileged lot, even if they have to carry a heavy financial burden for this privilege.
A long drive back to Los Angeles took us to our last meeting, a concluding public roundtable discussion at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions on Hollywood Boulevard (www.artleak.org). We were the co-organizers of this discussion and reception where we had invited the people and organizations we had encountered during our California visit. We had given the roundtable a title, "Sustaining Human Values in a Globalized World” in order to launch the discussion. This was for most of us our first foray in mythical Hollywood Boulevard where the stars with famous or less famous Hollywood names adorn the sidewalks. Like everything in Hollywood, the boulevard is but a façade with one tiny glittering portion of the long strip hiding a sad, run down area with not much to write home about.
LACE was the perfect venue for this concluding discussion that allowed many of us to pursue topics that we had started to discuss. Art was one of the topics that were brought up that evening with a few original testimonies from local artists. The positive energy that came out that evening was an appropriate conclusion to the trip. Several of us exchanged cards and e-mails, vowing to stay in contact and to launch cross-cultural projects together.
The group spent its last evening in a restaurant, drawing some conclusions about the traveling seminar, about its positive aspects and its inevitable shortcomings. After more than two very busy weeks, most of us were happy to go back home the next days, as America was preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving. I was happy about the trip, first because it had flowed without any major, or even minor, problem. More importantly because I felt that objectives were met, even if the traveling seminar had always been a means to an end and not an end in itself. On a personal note, I had met an incredible array of individuals, starting with those who had joined our nomadic group : Caroline, Delphine, Pinky, Linda, Henry, John, Larbi and Siddhartha. I was a bit surprised at how a group of people with such diverse backgrounds could get along so well during an extended period of time. I attributed this fact at first to luck but realized since then that the human qualities that all these individuals possessed must have played a greater role than pure chance. Would anything come out of this trip? I was too tired at this point to foresee what would come out but the enthusiasm was certainly there.
The final morning was spent shopping or walking on the Santa Monica and Venice beach. Siddhartha, John and Linda were designated as our representatives for a radio show, aired nationally, that allowed them to describe and explain our seminar to a (much) larger audience. In the early afternoon, we started off to the airport where we would all go our separate ways. Siddhartha and myself were the last to take off. The big hug that the big man – and tree hugging advocate – gave me before departing was the perfect conclusion to a unique human experience. Linda was with us until the end, fitting since she had been a big part of the success of the traveling seminar that now officially bore the name she had imagined. Soon after the plane left the tarmac, the largest city in the world faded gradually away into the night. The first chapter of a book that had yet to be written was now closed. It had been a great human adventure and I was determined to let it continue.