Lessons from the 21st Century

Dudley Weeks, Ph.D.

In one sense, beginning a new century is nothing more than turning the page on a calendar. We go to bed one night as we always do, then wake up the next morning and it’s a new day....and a new century.
Yet, the transition from one century to the next can serve a valuable function: it can be a marking in time to reflect on the priorities we have been choosing, and encourage us to change directions if needed. A new century can be a clarion call to learn from the past and use that learning to do what we can to improve both how we conduct ourselves as individuals and how we interact with the world as a whole.

Several major events during the first few years of the 21st Century have already given us profound messages and lessons....if we choose to acknowledge them and learn from them. If we are wise, we will delve deeply within these major events and learn the essential lessons they provide. Doing so just might help us make the 21st Century a truly remarkable and positive experience. If we ignore these lessons and focus on the first years of the century in less meaningful ways, such as gleeful obsession with the advent of technological gadgets that do just about everything except make us immortal, we will hand to our children a century filled with danger and damaging conflict.
Here are some of the events and situations we have experienced during the first years of the very young 21st Century. They need to serve as our teachers.

The “Fear of the Different”

Lesson #1: During the first few years of the 21st Century, we have seen clearly how the “fear of the different” can create damaging divisions in so many aspects of life, and can obstruct the positive contributions diversity provides to human society. Rigid positions have been taken on many specific, complex issues such as immigration, sexual preference, marriage, and reproductive rights, positions based on grounds of “right vs. wrong”. To fear the different, and to perceive it as “wrong”, shows insecurity in one’s own ability to live side by side with opposing views of life.

Protecting and Promoting Values by Violating Those Values

Lesson #2: The tactics used in protecting and promoting precious values such as freedom and democracy cannot be allowed to violate those values. The values themselves are weakened, and the protectors and promoters lose credibility.
“Freedom” is weakened when, in the name of protecting and promoting freedom, the privacy rights of citizens are violated, and cultural and religious profiling is condoned.

“Democracy” is weakened when, in the name of protecting and promoting democracy,
(a) people who express their opposition to a president and his policies are ignored or treated as unpatriotic; (b) a foreign regime is democratically elected, but then treated as an illegitimate participant in the affairs of its own region; and (c) a leader is overthrown by an invading foreign power without being invited and without the participation and leadership of the people in the invaded nation.

The U.S. Elections of 2000

Lesson #3: As long as the archaic Electoral College system remains, the cherished value of a one-person-one-vote democracy loses some of its credibility. Times have changed drastically since the founding leaders instituted the system, and even back then its objectives put a higher value on protecting the political self-interests of states than on individual voters and the espoused principle of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Lesson #4: The hallowed U.S. principles of “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” should never again be compromised by allowing the politically appointed Supreme Court to decide, in effect, who becomes president.

Lesson #5: The two-party system has major flaws. During the first years of the new century, politicians have increasingly put the self-serving desires of their political parties above the needs of the American people and the world. Divisiveness and non-collaboration have characterized the George W. Bush administration from the very beginning, and many citizens have followed that pattern. The damaging and misleading “Red State-Blue State” mentality has further exacerbated the situation, basically rendering impotent any prospective leaders who do not want to be members of either major party. Surely wise minds can find an effective alternative somewhere between the way the two-party system is being managed and a cumbersome system where the number of parties is excessive.

The Attacks of September 11, 2001

Lesson #6: When a mighty nation is violently attacked, the choice of how that nation responds carries with it a responsibility to use wisdom, reason, and controlled power, not prideful indignation, paranoia, knee-jerk emotionalism, and excessive, revengeful violence. Attempts to use only violence to deal with violence will not be effective, and will perpetuate and worsen the continuing cycle of violence. Throughout history, many other countries have been brutally attacked, but the U.S. had been fortunate to avoid attacks on its homeland. When it finally came, indignation, paranoia, violation of privacy, and manipulation of fear have characterized the response. If attacks come again, it is imperative that the lessons of 9/11 help produce a more wise and effective response.

The War on Iraq

As one who strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq from the earliest planning stages, and pointed out the reasons why it would be a calamity, I have sadly watched those predictions come true. The invasion, conceived and implemented by the Bush administration, provides several critical lessons.

Lesson #7: A president has a sworn responsibility to be honest with his own people, especially when embarking on a policy that will lead to the deaths of innocent civilians and soldiers, and will require the expenditure of vast resources that could be used for constructive purposes. The citizenry must hold any president accountable for deception and fabricating lies in order to convince people to support a particular policy. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq....Saddam’s ties to al Queda....Iraq as a threat to the U.S.....all were blatantly false reasons Bush gave for declaring war on Iraq.

Lesson #8: America is but one of many nations in the world community. It is not above international law. The invasion of Iraq violated international law, and, predictably, has severely and deservedly damaged America’s standing in the world. American influence in international relations has suffered greatly. Using double standards will always come back to haunt the user. When any leader or nation breaks international law, tortures prisoners, and maintains a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, issuing demands to other nations to obey laws, condemn torture, and remain nuclear free rings hollow.

Lesson #9: Military might and economic wealth will never be viable substitutes for intelligent, wise, and effective policy. As the war on Iraq clearly demonstrates, waging war without a cohesive postwar peacebuilding strategy is doomed to failure. The new government in Iraq has been put in an almost impossible position. The situation is analogous to an uninvited intruder tearing down your house, then insisting you rebuild it as vandals from far and wide steal your supplies and fight over building plans while chaotic carnage engulfs the neighborhood.

Lesson #10: An outside nation overthrowing a dictator it despises can result in worse conditions for the people of the invaded country than was the case under the dictator, especially if Lesson # 7 is not followed. Believing in and acting on the simplistic notion that American-style “democracy and freedom” can be planted in other cultures through the use of force is not only unrealistic, it shows a blindness and disrespect for other cultures. In the past, U.S. presidents have either tolerated or supported dictators who were pro-U.S., including aiding Saddam during Iraq’s war with Iran. The flight of the best and brightest citizens to other countries, the lack of basic facilities such as water and electricity, the greatly damaged health care system that was effective before the war, the chaotic violence enveloping the nation....these and many other conditions in today’s Iraq are the direct result of the invasion and the lack of effective postwar planning. It is no wonder many Iraq citizens say they are worse off now than under Saddam.
The point is this. It is not the right of any leader or nation to topple a regime in another country. Such behavior sows seeds of chaos and civil war. Can you imagine the response of American citizens if some other leader or nation would somehow topple a U.S. president, even if that president was unpopular to many Americans?

The “War on Terrorism”

At its generic root, terrorism is defined as “the use of violence and intimidation, especially for political purposes”. I would add to that definition, “terrorism is often directed at innocent citizens who may have no official political role”. Several important lessons concerning the complex, multifaceted issue of “terrorism” have emerged in the early years of the 21st Century.

Lesson #11: Many Americans seem to think “terrorism” is limited to the tactics used by individuals and groups who are anti-American and anti-West. That convenient notion is false. An objective consideration of the definition of terrorism clearly implicates any individual, group or nation who “uses violence and intimidation, especially for political purposes”, and whose tactics, either intended or not, often cause suffering to innocent civilians. Dealing with terrorism effectively requires that we find alternatives to the tactics of terrorism, whether used by Osama bin Laden or any government, including the U.S.

Lesson #12: Terrorism is not simply the result of crazed fanatics run wild. The policies of a nation are a major contributor to creating a climate in which extremist behavior against those policies is likely. In no way does that fact justify terrorist behavior, no more than violent extremist behavior on the part of the U.S. or any other nation can be justified. Yet, we are foolish if we ignore the reality that the flames of terrorism have been fanned by U.S. policy in the Middle East, by U.S. ignorance of other cultures and religions, and by the arrogant “God is on our side” posturing of some U.S. government officials and their supporters.

Bully Power

Lesson #13: The contemporary world will not tolerate the attempt by any single leader or nation to impose values, economic philosophy, or cultural preferences on the other members of the human family. Being powerful carries with it the responsibility to use that power for the common good. Bully power is a poor substitute for wise and effective policy, and will eventually lessen the positive influence of the bully and will create fervent enemies.

The Exploitation of God and Religion

Lesson #14: When a leader or group claims to be “chosen by God” and uses such a self-serving claim to try to justify policy, several results occur. Leaders of other religions are emboldened to do the same thing. Religion loses much of its positive potential. Religious texts are grossly misinterpreted for self-serving ends. And any and all policies, no matter how damaging, are falsely justified in the “name of God”. A leader’s policies should be able to stand on their own merits without claiming God’s support. Hopefully, the first years of the 21st Century are strongly reminding us to beware of leaders who exploit God and religion.

The Influence of Leaders

Lesson #15: The attitudes and policies of leaders influence the attitudes and behavior of the citizenry. When non-collaboration with those who disagree is the policy among leaders, the citizenry is more likely to be divisive and to condone an “I vs. you” mentality. When violence is the first response to conflict in the foreign policy of a leader, violence increases and is more readily condoned among the citizenry in their daily lives. When deception is used by a leader in dealing with his own citizens, deception as a condoned behavior seeps into the mainstream of a society.

Favoring the Wealthy

Lesson #16: Favoring and giving additional advantage to the already wealthy and powerful entities in a society will NOT result in wealth and opportunity “trickling down” to the rest of society. Indeed, gravity is turned on its head as wealth and access to opportunity trickle UP.

These and other lessons provided by the first few years of the 21st Century cry out for our wise attention. The sooner we learn from them, and make the needed changes they suggest, the better it will be for the generations who will shape the rest of this new century.

Dudley Weeks

(Copyright 2006: Domestic and international law prohibits the public use of this article without the written permission of the author. Any reprint must bear the author’s name and notice of copyright.)

NOTE: During the coming months, some of the topics mentioned in this essay will be discussed in greater depth as separate articles in the Commentaries section of this website.

(Copyright 2006: Domestic and international law prohibits the public use of this article without the written permission of the author. Any reprint must bear the author’s name and notice of legal restrictions.}