The Hills We Must Now Climb
A call to understand ourselves and those unlike us
Exactly 19 years ago today, on a cloudy, gray afternoon, I happened to participate in the first civic engagement of my life – such term unbeknownst to me at the time – as an intentional act. That month, and in the preceding months, millions of antiwar demonstrators worldwide protested against a looming – and, shortly afterward, an ongoing (and domestically popular) – US invasion of a sovereign country: Iraq. One local event in northern NJ was aptly named the March Against Fear.
Protesters at the March Against Fear in Paterson, NJ, on March 30, 2003. As is evident, the organizers’ other central demand was to “free all detainees” and ensure their civil rights.
That brisk early afternoon, my dad drove with me in his recently-purchased 1995 Ford Taurus to Paterson, NJ, arriving roughly 20 minutes prior to the scheduled protest start time, parking on a quiet side street so that we could take a walk downtown together to a small triangular-shaped park, where a rally were to precede the march. As we exited the car, in my hands I clutched a cardboard handle of the sign we worked on together the previous night: I remember debating with my dad what message it should bear – green markers, poster board, and epoxy glue my dad had brought from Home Depot spread out on the living room floor of the small apartment my parents rented at the time – but in the end one of us (perhaps it was a compromise?) chose to make the slogan as unambiguous and as universal as possible.
As we sauntered toward the anticipated protest area, and the frequency of encountered passersby began to increase, I kept firmly pressing the sign to my side, inverted, and feeling jittery. That is, until an elderly driver in a 1980’s-era sedan slowed down to a crawl, coming to a halt directly across from us near the sidewalk, and asked me to hold the sign up for him to see. I made an effort not to appear anxious, reoriented the poster right-side-up, and smiled at him. In green letters, the poster read:
To my utmost relief, he immediately gave me a thumbs-up, accompanying it with a few encouraging words, before driving on. This episode, lasting a mere 20 seconds at most, was forever seared into my memory. The driver’s reaction empowered me emotionally, and over the course of the next hour listening to speeches and mingling in a crowd mostly bound by common values of peace and humanism, though still externally tense, internally I felt at home and morally content having the space to express this unpopular stance, for at the time up to 70% of the US general public supported the invasion (see Addendum* for context and references).
Indeed, a number of counter-protesters turned out, one holding a Free Iraq sign in the above photo, but they were civilly discouraged by attendees from interrupting the speakers too much; in those years, reasonable civility among disagreeing parties was still commonplace. Perhaps it is precisely in part due to the relative courtesy displayed by all parties at the protest that I recall the driver’s reaction to my poster much more vividly than the others’ interactions with the counter-protesters.
Recounting this childhood memory leads me to two realizations:
The mobilization of people – both of the humanist and the nativist types– in response to events like the unfolding global conflict since this February naturally results in often unprecedented displays of collective action. Determining which forms of action are a net long-term boon for humanity and which come at a cost of greater suffering is a question many individuals would struggle to answer on their own. A community of fellowship in search of truth, free from personal bias, is key to the emergence of solutions that are reasonable, implementable, and effective in the quest toward a humane world.
Because world history repeats itself in Hegelian natural cycles (for simplicity, let me call them hills), my earnest wish, as I’m sure yours is as well, is for the human civilization to progressrather than regress at the onset of the next hill. For this to happen, it is imperative that each of us, as equally important constituents of humankind, take care to draw correct lessons from history and psychology by means of primary sources and the scientific method.
Why the latter? It may sound overly abstract and unnecessarily stale (doesn’t it?), but failing to properly vet our sources of truth defining our (often starkly different) perceptions of reality, as has been evidenced with so many preventable tragedies over the course of the pandemic, we the people will be unable to climb over the next hill.
Humanity’s experience of the last two years has shown how prone we are to being influenced by significant disinformation and to a nearly irrevocable segmentation into disparate echo chambers. This division alone, feeding our confirmation biases, aligns with and reinforces – like iron filings in a magnetic field, to use an example from physics – other artificially-created “red lines” between “us” and “them” to cause an ever-increasing risk of violent conflicts.
To lower the degree of potential confrontation – and therefore the probability of total annihilation as an existential risk within our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of our future descendants – we ought to support each other in a crucial undertaking: vanquishing zero-sum thinking and the scarcity mindset. These will be discussed thoroughly in a future post, but where and how – you might ask – do we begin?
I feel compelled to build up this substack by not merely sharing my own half-baked analyses and prescriptions for an ideal life (imagine that!), but largely by:
interviewing ordinary people in any occupation (yes, you, the reader!)
popularizing the ideas of certain contemporary scholars and academics
to accurately relate the consequences of transformative current and historic events to fundamental elements of psychodynamics, particularly human behavior and the motivations central to our lives as sentient and interconnected beings.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said,
“forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.”
To live up to this principle, we must break with the attitudes that impede us from empathizing with others in reaching our goals. If we find ourselves aghast at the horrible practice of retaliation and exerting force to achieve one’s ends, it’s necessary to pinpoint the root causes of any violent behavior at a micro-level, before it manifests on a much larger and less manageable scale, and to prevent or minimize others’ suffering by nurturing humans’ innate goodness through concrete actions.
To further these aims, in parallel to upkeeping this substack, I will be launching a “collective conscience” project, constituting an association of local networks to mutually support each other’s endeavors and the causes or individuals we (may neglect or be unable to) help on our own, while remaining steadfast in upholding compassion, grace, and forgiveness as the core guiding principles. Such community is what would allow us to collectively climb the hills to ensure our future.
Please let me know if you’d welcome an opportunity to share your own views, either on ideas presented in this post or as the project’s future participant.
More to come soon. In the meantime, be well!
Note: the 3/28/03 date set in the camera and imprinted on the photo is two days behind – the protest took place that Sunday, not Friday. I would never miss school for a rally! This is my scan of a physical photograph on Kodak paper from a family album.
This must have referred to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where hundreds of people were sent to since January 2002, brutal interrogation tactics employed routinely. Twenty years later, a few dozen are still held in captivity, without ever being charged.
I must give huge credit to my father for introducing me to the idea of civil protest at a young age, then just 10 years old, having moved to the US less than two years prior.
Addendum (brief context: my interpretation, citing archived primary and secondary sources):
It was late March 2003. After a year of major TV networks in the US drumming up a possible war against Iraq and falsely convincing Americans of its role in 9/11, many outlets’ messaging orchestrated through covert efforts by the Pentagon (an exposure of which in 2008 led to a Pulitzer Prize, sadly five years too late), 60-70% of US public supported going to war (notably, over two-thirds of the younger age groups supported military action, while only a minority of the WWII generation, 65+ at the time, did). Ignoring the tens of millions of antiwar marchers (termed the “second superpower”) in Europe, Asia, US, and across the globe taking to the streets after supermajorities of both US Congress chambers had passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution (still legally in force to this day in 2022!) and the UN Security Council members’ opposition to the war, GWB ordered the beginning of an aerial bombing campaign of Baghdad and other cities in Iraq on March 19, precipitating what would be nearly a decade-long war, on false pretenses and faulty intelligence, a war in which hundreds of thousands of civilians would ultimately lose their lives. (During the month-long invasion phase alone, multiple thousand civilians are confirmed to have been killed by US-led airstrikes and misses.) There was also a ban barring the media from fully reporting on US troop casualties for the remainder of the Bush administration’s time in office, nearly six years.
Is any of the above reminiscent of current events in other parts of the globe? Unfortunately, much of the run-up to what we are witnessing today, albeit involving different powers and geography, bears a tragic resemblance to a whole series of acts in those years. If you’d like, comment below with your thoughts or memories of that time period, or how your views have changed over the subsequent years.
Someone who will definitely not read this post needs to face this excerpt from March 6, 2003: “Vladimir P. Lukin, deputy speaker of the lower house of Russia's Parliament, said Moscow was taking a principled stand. "There is a principle here, a basic principle," he said in an interview, echoing arguments repeatedly put forth by President Jacques Chirac of France, "that if someone tries to wage war on their own account, without other states, without an international mandate, it means all the world is confusion and a wild jungle." Mr. Lukin, a former Russian ambassador to the United States, said he had urged his government to seek a compromise and to help the United States to save face. But he added: "Do you know the difference between a policeman and a gangster? A policeman complies with rules that are elaborated not by the policeman, but a certain democratic community accepted by everyone. A gangster implements his own rules."”
As an aside, I invite readers to reflect: would a hypothetical child’s brain retain and store information similarly for any US-based protest featuring counter-protesters among those that took place within the past few years? If you happen to have first/second-hand experience or would like to share an insight, the comment section is for you!
These are not always in opposition to each other, to be sure. Here I am only listing them.
I have not yet publicly written anything about it, beyond sharing thoughts in private chats with trusted contacts (after, as might be expected of someone with personal connections in the geographic regions involved, entering a state of shock and disconcertedness at the outset).
Thank you to one of my friends, N.P., for emphasizing progress in our brief conversation involving the cycles of history the other week. This partly led me to brainstorm a physical entity for such construct as a metaphor.
I appreciated the touching reminiscence of your childhood civic engagement as a motivating force for continued efforts to foster a better world. This project seems very necessary in our ever-fractured world.
I do have one question that I would like to see explored more - specifically, the notion that to promote tolerance, we must be intolerant of the intolerant. I would like to see more of your thoughts on how you wrestle with the tension of taking principled stands against nativism, group-mindset, zero-sum thinking etc., without helping to reproduce these divisions in the first place. Developing empathy is the answer, but what does that look like in practice?
Regardless, I'm looking forward to the continued conversation and seeing how the "collective conscience" project unfolds!
Hi Pavel, really appreciate your thoughtful, optimistic outlook on humanity's future and your personal experiences as an impetus for change! Looking forward to reading more of your work and the launch of your podcast! Your mention of a “collective conscience” project harkens back to Carl Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. Stay gold, Nita