Readers' Forum

Listen to the Wisdom

I greatly appreciated your issue on elders. I am blessed at age 24 to still have four living grandparents. Witnessing them grow old has offered me many lessons. It has shown me how bodies deteriorate and how the smartest mind can be slowly, painfully lost to Alzheimer's. It has taught me that changes and choices do not get easier with age and burdens of pain become greater. It has also taught me what grace and dignity look like. My grandparents are brave people. Despite approaching death, they know how to live, how to take joy in the moment, and the people around them. They know how to respect their limits and then surprise us with what they can do. They know from decades of practice how to make themselves vulnerable to love.

I am also learning how to honor my elders and listen to the wisdom they have to offer. This can be as simple as the patience of walking at a slower pace. My grandpa has commissioned me to write down the history of his parents' lives and his own youth. In understanding how my predecessors went through the various stages of their lives, I am supported as I move through my own life stages. With time, my successes and mistakes, triumphs and travails will be history too. Then it will be my turn to quietly share my wisdom, patiently allowing someone to bring me my cane or something hot to drink.

- Julia Richards (Madison, Wisconsin)

Age Discrimination

Your “Elders” issue (Fall 2005), while presenting numerous worthy views, failed to include at least one vital area of concern: age discrimination. The reality, the enormity, and the impacts of this form of prejudice need to be addressed if the topic of older citizens is to be realistically discussed.

Your articles point out the value that elders can, and should, have in a society. But the tragic truth is that many elders have very little opportunity to be involved and productive, beyond such tasks as babysitting and helping close friends or relatives during a time of need. Many yearn to do so much more, and are simply unable to make it happen. A major reason is that many people in the autumn and winter of their years find it impossible to achieve any financial security. Their seemingly endless job applications are repeatedly ignored, even though they often have far more knowledge and experience than the people who are hired.

Many of us in our 50s and older can't just “do what Jimmy Carter did,” as Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi suggests. We don't have the fame, the freedom, or the means, not to mention the sad fact that most people in a materialistic society such as ours simply aren't interested in what we have to say or offer.  Your issue would have been an ideal place for an overview of, and ideas for correcting, the waste of the resource represented by elders.

- John Conners via email

A Blessing for the President

Mahalo nui for your quick response to the New Orleans and Biloxi tragedy. I do look forward to the stories and insight you folks put together for that specific issue. It vividly brings home how our lives are dominated by our adherence to an economic system that places diminishing value on human life, human relationships, and any sense of community.

We can damn our president or we can bless him for his extremism that has given more than just a few of us a wake-up call. As David Korten writes, the sustained need of some to dominate and have control of others has been going on for at least 6,000 years. I would like to think that this tragedy could be a catalyst for a new level of awareness and openness to creating a different and more inclusive paradigm.

- Pete Bower, (Honolulu, Hawaii)

Graduation Pledge

I write to call readers' attention to a project called the Graduation Pledge Alliance. Students at more than 100 colleges and universities have signed the Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility, which states: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work.” Students define for themselves what it means to be socially and environmentally responsible.

Graduates who voluntarily signed the pledge have turned down jobs with which they did not feel morally comfortable; once on the job, they have promoted recycling, removed racist language from a training manual, worked for gender parity in high school athletics, and helped convince an employer to refuse a chemical-weapons-related contract.

The Pledge operates at three levels: students making choices about employment; schools, educating about values and citizenship rather than just knowledge and skills; and the workplace and society being concerned about more than just the bottom line.

The impact is immense, even if only a significant minority of the 1 million college graduates each year sign and live out the Pledge.  For more information, see

-Neil Wollman, Ph. D. Manchester College (North Manchester, Indiana)

The Politics of Sprawl

YES!'s Summer 2005 issue has almost a score of interesting articles on making “great places” to live in a nation devoted to “sprawl.” None of these articles, however, considers the many laws that must change for these ideas to be implemented on a scale large enough to improve conditions for masses of people.

During the 20th century, some 200,000,000 additional people found places to live in the United States, mostly in metropolitan suburbs. The system that was invented to settle all these people created both the ubiquitous sprawl we know today, and the regional inequities discussed in YES!.
That system is firmly based on two things: (a) autonomous suburbs with exclusionary zoning authority and (b) domination of state and local governments by suburbanites who, in fact, constitute a majority of the population. Absent major political change, the system which caused the problem will determine how and where 100,000,000 more people will be housed in the next three or four decades.

Angela Blackwell, a leader in the fight for policies to ameliorate sprawl, told YES! that America lost its opportunity for greatness when “sprawl took off during the 1950s.” I believe the opportunity was really lost about 1898, when the Anglo-American development community misread Ebenezer Howard's monumental To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path To Real Reform with its proposals for sustainable agriculture, greenbelts, and a galaxy of garden cities in a socially responsible urban environment. Unfortunately they gleaned only pallid notions of garden cities stripped of Howard's original implications for economic and social fairness.

Unfortunately, as Carl Anthony notes (p.13) more than a century later, “new urbanists have been slow to engage advocates of social and racial justice, civil rights, labor, housing, and faith-based leaders concerned about the challenges facing marginalized city populations.”

A positive future for our metropolitan areas can only happen, I believe, through dramatic action to overhaul our state and local governments. But politicians seem loath to face the sticky economic and moral issues involved in sprawl: the topic hasn't seen the light of day since early 2000, when both presidential candidates talked about the need for change. Perhaps YES! could devote an issue to the politics of sprawl and to those brave political leaders willing and able to use their “political capital” to try to change the habits of their suburban constituent voters.

- Alan Rabinowitz, Ph.D. Author of Urban Economics and Land Use in America: The Transformation of Cities in the Twentieth Century

Operation Homecoming

Erik Leaver's argument in “Operation Homecoming” (Fall 2005) is not compelling; he offers no practical solutions for ending the occupation of Iraq. Leaver states, “With the withdrawal of the occupation forces … the major target for resistance attacks will disappear.”Leaver assumes that violence in Iraq will evaporate as a result of U.S. withdrawal but offers no evidence in support. An end to violence is a possible outcome of withdrawal, but not a reasonably certain one. Leaver admits to the uncertainty. Any prudent plan to end the military occupation of Iraq cannot be based on overly optimistic assumptions. Reliance on optimism, rather than reason, allowed the U.S. to needlessly invade in the first place.

A U.S. pullout as early as January 2006 could be disastrous for the Iraqi people. A prudent person must accept that just because the situation in Iraq is bad does not mean it cannot get worse. As Leaver concedes, “It is likely that withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to the collapse of at least some parts of the current government. …” If that is the least we can expect, what is the most: famine, anarchy, widespread genocide? How much of a collapse is acceptable? Leaver insists on reducing the number of troops and ending offensive operations. Reducing troop strength when units are already overextended is unfair to the troops and tactically unsound. Arbitrarily ending offensive operations is equally unsound. U.S. forces must use appropriate force when necessary and not be hamstrung by orders from civilian politicians.

The invasion of Iraq was a mistake; a hasty withdrawal would be a mistake, as well. The U.S. is responsible for leaving the Iraqi people with a government capable of running Iraq equitably. Without a U.S. presence in Iraq, a void of power exists that could be filled by anyone with a little charisma and an AK-47. Leaver should consider a more realistic position regarding U.S. withdrawal and make his arguments more compelling if he expects to sway a reasonable person.

- Caleb DiPeso via e-mail

Erik Leaver responds:

It is not clear exactly what will unfold when the U.S. withdraws from Iraq; it is clear that the situation is getting worse as the U.S. remains. Suicide attacks have doubled since 2004; resistance attacks per month have doubled since the Iraqi elections; Iraq is a center for terrorist activity; the National Guard is losing more soldiers per month than ever; and (future) American taxpayers will foot a $700 billion bill.

Democracy at the barrel of a gun has not been effective. Mr. DiPeso notes that the U.S. has a “responsibility to leave them with a government.” But there has been little input from Iraqi citizens in the process and far too much influence by the U.S. In fact, the Iraqi National Assembly released a report saying that the presence of the American military prevents Iraq from becoming fully sovereign. The notions of freedom, democracy, and sovereignty touted by our president demand that the political, security, and reconstruction processes be for Iraqis and led by Iraqis.

Given the failure to properly train and equip Iraqi troops, the lack of a democratic consensus under the current process, the inability to reconstruct what we've destroyed—;and, most important—;no plan from the president outlining next steps, goals or benchmarks, there is little possibility that our country can do good staying in Iraq.

The proposed withdrawal plan involves measured steps to try to mitigate the dangers. But I wanted to be clear (unlike our president) that this plan does have risks: the government may collapse; Iraq could split apart; neighboring countries could be brought in. But all of these risks exist today, even while 140,000 U.S. soldiers are on the ground.

I agree with Mr. DiPeso that the U.S. has a tremendous responsibility to help the Iraqi people get back on their feet. But the best way to do this is recognize that the U.S. has a deadly reverse Midas touch and begin to withdraw our troops in a measured manner, offer financial resources, and help assemble support from the international community.

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