A New Century

Date: Mon, 20 Dec 1999 10:39:46 -0500 (EST)

Dear All,

The concluding century has seen advances in human knowledge and affairs the nature of which might be described as awe-inspiring -- but that would be a serious understatement. Today telescopes peer billions of years into the distant past to see galaxies innumerable trillions of miles away. We have cracked the DNA code and have begun using this knowledge to bring health to the ill. Our understanding of the human brain is growing tremendously, even as neuroscience is yet early along the path it may come to travel. Relativity and quantum physics have literally transformed our understanding of the universe. The Internet gives each of us ready access to a global if (as yet?) partial and somewhat haphazard network of knowledge.
We live much longer than in the past. The life expectancy in the United States has grown by nearly 30 years this century; the life expectancy in Mexico has grown by over 40 years. http://www.pathfinder.com/time/time100/timewarp/timewarp.html.
And yet, as human knowledge of the world around us and within us has charged ahead, this century has been marked too by the extreme narrowness of the human mind and failings of the human heart. Certainly this century will be remembered in large part for new heights of "man's murderous ways towards man." Such horrors are not themselves new, but this century, they reached a scale and a degree of organization unprecedented and, I fervently hope, never to be matched again: the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the deadly plans of Stalin which caused millions to starve to death, the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, Idi Amin of Uganda, apartheid, Afghanistan, the trenches of the first World War, the bombs of the Second...and the list of humanity's most inhumane acts could go on.
This century, sadly but aptly, has been termed the bloodiest century. Risks of this form of violence -- violence marked by people intentionally inflicting harm, pain, suffering, death upon other people -- will continue. The present decade has seen such violence in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone...and sadly, this list too could go on. Weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, chemical, and some would say especially biological -- are a threat that is on the rise. But the mass intentional destruction of human life has, I believe, peaked in the twentieth century. Increasing interdependence among nations, economies and cultures intertwined, the knowledge that all-out war could now mean all-out destruction, a forum to which virtually all states belong -- the United Nations...
I think the greatest threat for the next century is another form of violence, of inhumanity, one that is more subtle but no less fatal. It is the violence of the void. It is the violence of disregard. It is the violence of lethal inequality. It is the violence of passing off this or that tragedy as someone else's problem. It is the violence of not what people do, but what people fail to do. It is the violence of indifference. Bullets and an empty stomach can be equally fatal. This violence is not new, but it is more painful than ever because in our wealthy world, it is now possible to bring peace to the battlefield of poverty.
The mark of this violence is that it can -- and does -- exist all around us, yet we do not see it. Bombs fall, bullets fly, buildings crumble -- these are loud events. Sometimes we respond -- as in the world wars -- sometimes we do not, as in Rwanda. But whether or not we respond, at the very least we have no doubt that this is violence. We know that there is a crisis out there.
Today, the danger is that the violence of poverty is too subtle, too distant, for us to notice. We look around our neighborhood -- willfully or otherwise failing to see shadows under the bridge and curled up in the doorway -- and tell ourselves, things are good. Our neighborhood, our country, our world, they are doing well. The Cold War is over, democracy is spreading, the economy is prospering. The biggest threats seem to be so-called rogue nations -- or at least their governments. For the most part, the picture is bright, hopes are high, the future is filled with promise.
But tell that to the parents who cannot feed their children. Tell the parents in Bangladesh who must decide whether to give their children water contaminated with arsenic or no water at all that there is no crisis. Tell the homeless mother who who must decide whether she and her children will sleep outside in the cold or face the possibly greater dangers of a public shelter, tell her that there is no crisis. Tell the Venezuelans (or the Nicaraguans and Hondurans before them), as their flimsy shacks were being washed away by rain and mud, that there is no crisis. Tell the women of Afghanistan that there is no crisis. Tell the people of Somalia that there is no crisis. Tell the people of the Indian state Orissa that there is no crisis. Tell the Botswanan orphan whose parents have died of AIDS that there is no crisis. Tell the street children of Mexico City or New Delhi that there is no crisis. Tell the newborns of Sierra Leone, Uganda and Malawi -- whose life expectancy is less than 40 years (http://www.popin.org/6billion/t27.htm) -- that there is no crisis. Tell them that this is not a time when the well-being and often the very lives of a substantial portion of the people of this earth depend on whether we who think that times are good will rise our sights beyond ourselves to the broader humanity.
In that spirit of looking beyond ourselves and into the eyes of humanity, I offer you these hopeful glimpses of the coming century:

A world in which the twentieth century dream of "all human rights for all" is realized.

A world in which we are cognizant of the fact that "there but for fortune go you or go I," and we treat those who have gone there, where life is tough, with respect and dignity.

A world where your land is my land and my land is yours, where you are welcome into my home and I into yours, where the walls around nations and ethnicities and races and classes have fallen.

A world in which we value people for who they are.

A world where I seek to understand you and you to understand me.

A world in which we understand our common humanity as we embrace the differences in culture that come from our various expressions of that humanity.

A world where people laugh only with each other, and not at each other.

A world of inclusion, a world in which we treat those who have had "a bad break" -- whether in their health, their work, their ability to support themselves... -- in such a way that they still feel -- and are -- part of the community.

A world where the proclamation that followed the Holocaust, "never again," is taken seriously and is realized.

A world where we are aware that our actions today will have effects tomorrow -- on the climate, on our environment -- and where we act with due respect for those who will be here tomorrow.

A world that still has significant amounts of rainforests, a world that is rich with the diversity of life.

A world in which communication technology expands and enhances the connections, relations, interactions among people, and does not replace or dehumanize human contact.

A world in which we appreciate that while we may each be, in the grand scheme of things, but a single atom, these atoms are the building blocks of the universe entire.

A world in which people have enough education not only to get by, to earn a living, but also to begin to appreciate what an incredible gift life is, what a wonderful pocket of the universe is our planet Earth.

A world that moves forward as one, with all people sharing in the wonders of life and of science, which gives us a deeper understanding and ability to enjoy and live that life.

A world where we realize that the moral foundation of our society, that all people are equal, crumbles in the midst of opportunities and realities that are filled with such inequality -- but where we stand by justice and refuse to let that foundation crumble.

A world at peace, filled with justice.

"A better world, a world of harmony and understanding, a world in which it is a joy to live. This is not asking for too much."

Will this better world be our world? Is this a dream that can be realized? That, my friends, is up to us.

Thank you for taking the time to read this message, and a happy and peaceful new year and new century to you,



"I have only dreams: to build a better world, a world of harmony and understanding, a world in which it is a joy to live. This is not asking for too much."
-- Yitzhak Rabin

"The dream knows no frontier or tongue The dream no class or race... To save the dream for one it must be saved for all."

-- Langston Hughes, "Dream of Freedom"

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

-- Eleanor Roosevelt

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