Sunday, July 22, 2007

A reflection on good, evil and "chronic sin.'

In my early morning time of quiet reflection I am reading, at the moment, D. Elton Trueblood’s. ‘The People Called Quakers.’ Trueblood was, for many years, Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College and before that at two other Quaker colleges, Guilford and Haverford. I am finding his description of the Quaker faith as profoundly Christian and evangelical, but experientially as well as biblically based, to be illuminating and useful. When one is surrounded by the realities of a civil war, as here in Sri Lanka, reflecting on the capacity for good and evil in human nature is, I suppose, inevitable. The following passage in Trueblood’s book helped my thinking. In particular, equating the term “chronic sin” with the biblical term “original sin” and dangers of a belief in inherent human goodness degrading to shallow sentimentality were personally useful. The passage, from pp. 71-72 in Trueblood’s book, follows.

"One major danger inherent in the idea of the [inner] Light was that of a sterile humanism. It was always possible to suppose that Quakers were talking merely about human reason or about the natural goodness of men, after the fashion later popularized in the French Enlightenment. If this interpretation had been permitted to stand, or had become general, the whole idea would have lost its power since every emphasis on natural human goodness seems to lead inevitably to sentimentality.

The truth about man is intrinsically complex and, though good human acts are possible and sometimes are demonstrated, there is a seed of evil in all men. If we did not know this before, we surely know it in the latter half of the twentieth century, after the wanton cruelty which has been experienced in two World Wars, in concentration camps, and in countless other ways. Man, alone, doesn’t do very well and assuredly needs all of the help that he can get. It is truly said today that the doctrine of original or chronic sin is the most certain of all Christian doctrines, because it is known empirically. One cure for addiction to a belief in natural human goodness is the simple one of becoming a parent."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Horton Gardens

When I visit Sri Lanka, my residence for the past four years has been #100/5 Horton Gardens. It is an old house in Colombo’s upscale, but old-fashioned Cinnamon Gardens district. Once, most of Sri Lanka’s political elite, Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and burgher lived here. Now, many of the old houses have been taken over by Non Governmental Organizations. Others have had once spacious yards encroached on by further building or been demolished to make way for condominiums.

100/5 Horton Gardens has suffered neither fate, perhaps because the area around it was built up with older houses many years ago. The living room, dining room and the room where I normally stay overlook a quiet interior garden, with sufficient trees and greenery to cool down the air at days end. It is down a long lane from the busy main road (Horton Place), which insulates residents from traffic noise and pollution.

My hostess has trained an efficient staff who clean, manage the guesthouse, provide healthy meals and do laundry inexpensively. The breakfast table and, to a lesser degree, the dinner table often gathers an interesting collection of scholars, humanitarian workers and other transients. At the moment, guests include young American professor, married to an Indian woman (also a professor) who is studying the coordination of educational programs in Sri Lanka. Another is an Indian gentleman from New Delhi who administers a de-mining program that uses trained dogs to help with detection.

From my standpoint, 100/5 Horton Gardens is the perfect home away from home in Sri Lanka. It is comfortable, but modest and inexpensive. It provides a quiet retreat, but is within walking distance or an easy “three wheeler” ride from my base of operations and most Colombo destinations. It provides mealtime conversation that is intelligent and engaging, but not intrusive. How fortunate I was to have had it recommended to me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

First week in Sri Lanka

I haven’t written about my first week in Sri Lanka because it has been such a busy one. The trip over was uneventful, with security less of a problem than I anticipated – the British seem to take terrorism in stride with less angst than the US. My London flight left Dulles at 11:30 PM, which is ideal. It gives you a full day to work and pack. Security lines are short. The airport is almost empty. Virgin Airlines staff members were cheerful and efficient, as always. It makes one wonder why employees of the problem airlines - I think of sad, deteriorating United Airlines, with its dispirited, often hostile staff - don’t visit the good ones.

Business class service on Sri Lankan airlines, too, was of high quality. Though my travel agent gets good rates, it still is expensive, but what a difference. I actually look forward to these eleven-hour flights, with ample time to work and sleep, interrupted only by too great meals. I indulged myself with a drink and wine at the late afternoon meal, but then partook sparingly of the pre-arrival offering – and with no alcohol. I arrived rested and ready for the more than full day of work that awaited me.

Principal work for the trip is this: For more than a decade, I have served the Sri Lanka based International Center for Ethnic Studies as a Director. When I began, the Board had four resident directors who collectively managed the Center’s two offices and three international directors who helped institutional visibility and provided broad oversight. Now the Center’s original leadership team has been reduced to one. One was weakened by a stroke and can no longer participate actively. One was killed by a suicide bomber. One resigned to accept a prestigious UN position. The remaining active resident director lives in the US, part time. A capable, charismatic new director for the Colombo Office has been named, but the transition has surfaced problems, created mostly by the partial leadership vacuum. Suddenly, my role as an international director is requiring very significant commitment and psychic energy. It is sort of like the problems American University Board of Trustees members faced when the excesses of former president Ben Ladner became public and he had to be removed from office.

Things are going well for the most part and I am learning more than I ever thought I would know about the Center over which I exercise putative authority (and which, incidentally, published my last book, Paradise Poisoned). My early days in Sri Lanka have been filled with meetings and discussions. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Colombo, Thursday meeting with the printer of my book, Friday and Saturday in Kandy, the old capital of Sri Lanka in the mountains.

I normally don’t mind the heat and I don’t use air conditioning when I am in Sri Lanka. But it has been usually hot today and the evening has not cooled things off. A day of ninety plus temperatures can be tiring and I am tired. Time to roll down the mosquito netting, turn on the fan and call it a day.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

In Praise of Parents

New student orientation days have been happening at American University over the past several weeks. Accepted students descend our campus for two days of familiarization and bonding with their prospective classmates. Increasingly, this is also a time when universities must sell themselves, once again. Students are now sending deposits, which may be $500 or more, to more than one institution and attending more than one orientation before reaching a final decision. Given that a university education may cost upwards of $150,000, $500 or so seems a small sum to spend on being sure. The dreaded “melt” (students who accept and pay a deposit but do not appear) has become a worrisome addition to the admission officer’s lexicon.

All of this is so different than when I was an undergraduate. My parents gave me the car keys and, with a friend, I visited two institutions. Of course I already knew a lot about my first choice, Dartmouth, which both my father and maternal step-grandfather had attended. There were no events for prospective students, no orientation, no ‘welcome week.’

What interests me most about this process is the key role parents have assumed. By the time orientation arrives, most have already shepherded their sons and daughters through the arduous college tour process, often visiting ten or more institutions, from one coast to another and in between. They have sweated out the SAT’s, perhaps enrolling their prospect in a prep course. They may have hired an admissions consultant: the good ones expect to be retained at the beginning of student’s sophomore year of high school, or even earlier. They have watched the mailbox anxiously for fat envelopes (acceptance!) or thin ones (rejection). They have agonized over the final choice and, in the midst of celebration, begun worrying about how to pay the bills.

One might think that when orientation days arrive, their duties would be ended, but that is not the case. Universities now have a separate parents program and students are often accompanied by both parents for the two days. Some parents, I believe, even stay over in a residence hall, gaining a first-hand experience of residential living, including communal bathrooms (same gender only at AU).

For me, seeing students with their parents is one of the high points of being a faculty member and living on campus. It is so interesting to look for similarities and differences that define a young person, mother and father. What I think of most is the commitment and sacrifice, on the part of most parents, that the arrival of a student at AU represents. And the task is not yet complete. The parents whom I have greeted will be back again – for ‘moving in,” “parents weekend” and again and again and again, until graduation.

Students may not appreciate all of this now. They are preoccupied with adapting to a new environment, meeting new challenges, and negotiating the difficult transition from child to independent adult.

But taking time out to praise parents is something we should all do more often.

Pardoning Scooter Libby - A Message for America's Youth

My first reaction to the pardoning of Louis J. “Scooter” Libby was outrage. Libby, it seemed to me, fell within the same category as the recently deposed World Bank President and head of the Agency for International Development (See my blog of 4-28 “Do as I say not as I do.”) But Libby’s crime (he still stands convicted of a felony) was different. Almost certainly he perjured himself to protect his boss, Vice President Cheney and possibly the President himself. One can feel compassion for the pressures brought to bear on him and sadness at the price he had to pay. At a much lower level as a young military officer, I faced similar pressures and compromised. I did so out of concern not only for myself by for my young wife and child.

On the 4th of July weekend, we can celebrate the fact that the rule of law still survives in America, despite the efforts of some within the administration, sadly, it appears that the Attorney General is one of them, to subvert it.

In the wake of Mr. Libby’s commutation (President Bush holds out the possibility of a full pardon later) one might hope that compassion might be extended to others. Commentaries on the commutation mentioned other cases of equal merit that had not received Presidential attention. It is difficult to be optimistic, however. President Bush’s message for America’s youth is that there is one “rule of law” for the politically well connected that support his policies and a different rule of law for the rest of us.