Thursday, July 18, 2013

In Defense of Complexity

by Miki Kashtan

When I was a girl, somewhere before ten years old, it was already clear to those around me that I wanted adventure in my life. At the time, I asked my mother why it was that the people and children in the books I was reading had all these astonishing adventures and I didn’t. It is only in the last couple of years that I had the sudden awareness that I did, indeed, grow up to have a life full of adventures, even if I’ve never tracked down a murderer or exposed an international network of crooks, as the heroes and heroines of my childhood books did.

It was this sense of adventure that was ignited when I received the itinerary for my recent trip to Thailand and realized that I had, twice, a six-hour stopover in Shanghai. Without thinking twice, I decided to find my way to Shanghai, to experience, smell, see, walk in that city, feel for myself what it’s like to be in China. I’ve been curious about China for many years, both culturally and politically, and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity, despite the warnings of the travel agent.

When this turned into actually having people waiting for me at the airport, people from the Chinese Nonviolent Communication (NVC) community, I was so excited I could barely wait. Then I met Yin Hua, the person who’s been most influential about bringing NVC to China, who stayed in Shanghai an extra day after doing a workshop there (unrelated to me, just perfect timing), and the two of us got lost on the subway and barely made it to town. 

The second time I didn’t even know there would be people waiting. I was getting ready to go change money and hop into a taxi when I heard my name, and was greeted by three smiling women, local to Shanghai, who took me under their wings and into a car that one of them had, heading into just the perfect part of town, where old and new, beauty and rush, commercial and residential all mix together. We walked, we laughed, and we ate dim sum Shanghai-style.

Quite apart from this level of excitement, I also had an adventure of the heart and soul. One of the women who greeted me, Liu Yi, spoke English so well that I wondered where she learned it. That’s when I found out that she had lived abroad, in the West, for six years, then four years in a remote province in Western China before going back to her home town. What a story, I thought to myself, so many people would find this choice unthinkable, and yet she was so clearly radiant and pleased to be where she was. The inevitable why jumped out of my mouth, along with letting her know that I was living outside my own country of birth, and we launched into an intensive and satisfyingly connecting conversation. 

The reasons Liu Yi chose to return to China are entirely personal, related to the specific circumstances of her life, both growing up and beyond. In some simple way, she returned to China in search of home, and has finally found it.

In addition, Liu Yi (in blue) didn’t find an outlet for her deep passion for life and meaning in the variety of schooling and working experiences she tried out. Even after going back to China, she still experimented in a couple of places before finally settling again in her home town and finding the right path to contribution by taking on bringing tools to people who are working to find freedom and meaning in their lives as well as contribute the same to others.

As our conversation continued, I was more and more surprised. I felt a bond of inexplicable affinity with this woman I had just met. How could it be? What was so compelling? Could it be the shared experience of living outside our country of birth for years, or that of having a challenge around finding home, anywhere? Although I have lived in the USA for thirty years, and have no intention or desire to go back to Israel, in some ways I experience myself in exile. It is a voluntary exile, and still, the smells and the language and the fundamental ways of being that are woven into the fabric of what’s familiar to me are still back in Israel in some way I cannot explain. I only know the experience of immediate home that sprang on me, unannounced, when a group of Israelis has gotten together recently in the Bay Area to sing Israeli songs once a month. The immediate and visceral familiarity is simply there, regardless of whether or not I like any particular individual in the group.

And so it was that the connection with Liu Yi invited me, us, further into conversation, into honest sharing, into finding threads of meaning across our many differences. And so I told her about my own relationship with China.

Capitalism, Communism, and Complexity

Mao with Epstein (white shirt) and other foreign journalists, in Yan'an 1944
Like many in the West, I grew up on the implicit belief that communism was fundamentally flawed and directly opposed to human nature. Most of what I knew about communist countries was about the level of repression and constraints around freedom of speech. I moved to the USA in 1983, when I was 27, and still fully believed in this picture of reality. By the time I saw the movie Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom in 1996, I already had significant misgivings about the easy faith in capitalism, deep concerns about USA foreign policy in the world, and more questions about world politics and economics than I ever imagined I could settle. The movie shook up some remaining pieces of my invisible edifice of assumptions about communism. The central figure in this documentary movie is Israel Epstein, a man who chose to join the Chinese revolution in the 1950s, and stayed there, loyal to the ideals of communism, despite being imprisoned for five years during the cultural revolution, until his death in 2005. Epstein, along with the movie director, himself born in Shanghai to Jewish parents who escaped from Nazi Europe and then fled China when he was five, both represented and engaged with deep levels of complexity.

I received two permanent gifts from this movie. One was Epstein’s response to the question of the film’s director about how he survived the harshness of his time in prison. He quoted Edwin Markham’s poem, Outwitted, that has since become a cornerstone of my own deep faith in the transformative power of love:

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

If my memory is not inventing something, I remember Epstein walking around in a circle in a courtyard as he recited the poem.

The other gift was more painful, searingly so. It was footage from before the revolution. The images of misery (I am sparing those with sensitive souls the gruesome details) are etched in my heart, along with the tears and fury I experienced at what I then saw as deep hypocrisy on the part of Western countries, who were eager to criticize China without offering any alternative solution to the unimaginable problems of feeding such a huge population. I am no fan of communism, state rule, or central planning. Still, I cannot but be in awe of the clear commitment on the part of all communist regimes to ensure that the entire population has basic physical needs attended to along with health and education. Without the revolution, all that the West had to offer China was more of what was there before, more of what keeps billions in the world hungry and desperate.

In view of this, I dared to tell Liu Yi that I really wasn’t sure whether I could endorse the changes happening in China, certainly not a wholesale embrace. And when I looked at her, I could tell, immediately, that we were together, holding complexity. Her own choices attested to her understanding. After returning to China, she initially chose to live in Southwestern China, one of the most remote areas, leaving her family perplexed. As she said to me in a follow-up exchange, “For the older generation in Shanghai it is just unthinkable to leave the place which has the best material conditions in China.” Capitalism thrives on the desire of all of us for more comfort, better material conditions. One of Communism’s failures, as I see it, is the insistence on giving up pleasure, individuality, even beauty. Liu Yi’s experience of Communist education was harsh, leaving her with a longing for different learning experiences which she is now creating for others. Some of the people attracted to Nonviolent Communication in China are a new generation of full-time mothers, defying the harsh ethos of work, education, and parenting that existed under communism as well as the Western ideal of liberation for women through work. A complex mix.

And, yet, neither capitalism nor communism hold the key to solving the monumental challenges that being an over-consumptive, over-productive species holds. We both could articulate that complex view that challenges almost everyone. Yes, I want individual freedom, I treasure initiative and personal responsibility. I shudder, at the same time, about the cost: the alienation, runaway consumption, concentration of wealth, and so much else that capitalism brings with it. Similarly, I am so touched to know that some places on the planet, those still upholding some version of communism or socialism, are still committed to collective caring and attending to everyone’s basic needs. I am, nonetheless, appalled by the repressive apparatus, the pressure to conform, the fear of reprisals for dissent. (As Liu Yi reminded me, the media are still controlled by the party, and there is still no significant room for dissent. I get it: the growing individual freedom is mostly economic, not political.) I want neither of the costs and I want both of the benefits.

Liu Yi herself lives and breathes complexity. Her choices, she assured me, have nothing to do with ideology or regime. Rather, through the ongoing process of going in and out of different cultures, being insider and outsider to all, she has identified, or carved out for herself, “a way of existence that I can entirely identify with.” As individual and personal as this is, this approach formed the foundation of our meeting of hearts and minds about complexity. Here’s what she said later, as part of reflecting together in preparation for this piece: “As a result of my choices, I am now living a life truly full of strength, and completely down-to-earth. This sense of strength is tangible in the sense that I can touch it, smell it, see it every day. It's also intangible because of the complexity it bears. Such strength, combined with the capability of carrying perspectives of being an insider and outsider at the same time, keeps me from being pulled toward any extreme side of ideology. So, in summary, I’ve found my true self and strength in complexity. I think that's the very way to achieve such a purpose.” 

The Unacknowledged Complexity of Zionism

I was surprised when the tears started coming, the joy of finding such unlikely camaraderie. I hadn’t fully realized how much anguish was living in me about not trusting that many others would see that challenge with me. The relief was beyond words, hence the tears.

Without seeing it coming, I literally found myself talking about my own country of birth, the one I chose to leave, for very political reasons. It was the focus on complexity that brought it on. Once again, I shared with Liu Yi, and once again she understood, the loneliness of holding Zionism as being, at once, a national liberation movement and a system of oppression; not one or the other, as most narratives hold. In 1991, during the first Iraq war, my sister put together a sign we both marched with. It said: “I am pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli.” I have shied away from any involvement in Middle East peace movements because I could not see them except through the lens of being asked to hate my country of birth. I will not. (And I am aware that this may be my own interpretation, not what people actually want of me.) I equally cannot find an easy way to talk with those who accuse anyone who criticizes Israel or Zionism of being anti-Semitic. The complex tragedy of the region is that Zionism is truly both: the gift of liberation to a people persecuted for centuries, and a brutally oppressive system for another people that has never known independence. I don’t see good guys and bad guys. I see two peoples, traumatized by events which are different and partially related, with equally deep longings for the same piece of land, lacking imagination about how to sort it out.

The absence of good buys and bad guys was also apparent for me in the wars against Saddam Hussein. In the traditional model, either he or George Bush would have to have been “good guys” fighting the “good war.” In my understanding, the complex one, this was a war in which I couldn’t find a way to sympathize with either party, only with the suffering people who were pawns in this great struggle. Perhaps if we can hold complexity collectively in a much more effective way, there will be no more war.

A Final Complexity: Beyond Guilty or Innocent

In the days leading up to this writing, I came back to the USA from Thailand only to hear of Zimmerman’s acquittal (the white man who, a year ago, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an African American youth). Hearing of the verdict, I was beset by so many reactions. Now, a few days later, sitting here to choose what on earth I can say in the face of this event, I am still mostly paralyzed. So I start with others’ words. Because today’s topic is complexity, I want to share two articles that touched me in particular, both of which hold a complex position in response to the aquittal. One is Michael Lerner’s "Trayvon Martin: A Jewish Response". In the context of having just written about my own complex perspective about Zionism, I found the version of Judaism he presents refreshing, allowing me access to grief about the way things are without disconnecting from the events themselves. “Most of Jewish theology,” says Lerner, “sees karma as playing out on a societal scale, and over the long run.” I find home in this view, even and including the realization that interdependence means that people who have done no harm will suffer consequences alongside those who bring about the harm. Truth liberates, even through pain, and I breathe more fully.

The other article that caught my eye is Joshua DuBois’ "The Enduring Rift: Understanding our inner Trayvons and inner Zimmermans". Something was heartening about reading of a Southern Baptist leader, Russell Moore, who speaks fully and openly about the rift between blacks and whites, about having two different experiences, two different conversations, and calls on white Americans to recognize the social and political context within which a killing such as that of Trayvon takes place. That is exactly what the court apparently forbade in insisting that racism not be discussed as part of the case. Something was hopeful, in the midst of the incomprehensibility, about having Representative John Lewis, a prominent black leader, say that “any meaningful action on the topic of race must begin with forgiveness,” referring to James Lawson, one of the key theoreticians and strategists of the Civil Rights movement, as the source.

All of which allows me to experience my own complexity. I find it demoralizing to live in a world where the only way, in a situation like Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon, that the reality of how race operates in USA society can be recognized is through conviction and punishment. I want to go beyond recognition of the existence of an oppressive system that makes the lives of millions fraught with ongoing dangers, summed up so poignantly in DuBois’ fiancee’s words: “Can they really just kill our kids?” I want that system to be transformed! Would a conviction of Zimmerman change race relations in the USA? I doubt it! And yet, like so many this week, I find the acquittal crushing to my soul. What I really want is new options other than conviction or acquittal. I want a way for the conversations to be had, for the systems to be transformed. More than anything, I want a restorative process that would allow for the fullness of all to be held, with full responsibility and with complete compassion. 

When will we ever learn that the very search for the one right, virtuous, simple answer is one factor that undermines our collective ability to live together on this one overcrowded and progressively hotter planet. May we find our collective path to embracing the inevitable, overwhelming, and wondrous complexity of all life. As Liu Yi concluded: “the true needs of people can only be seen and understood in complexity and when we hold complexity in mind.”

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  1. Thank you. This is helping me see how I can hold the complexity in my own life and not get myself trapped in absolutes of how things should be. When one is tied to some absolute rightness or always searching for it, it leaves no room to be challenged and no room for the creative to emerge. I'm seeing how holding my life dilemmas in their complexity can allow room for me to be shown things I can't currently see that could help me move forward.

  2. This is such a compelling reflection. For some reason, I connect it to my lifelong fascination with thinkers, artists, etc., who live and work at the crossroads of multiple systems or movements (Beethoven, at the juncture of the classical and romantic periods, comes to mind). Somehow they seem called to live in tension and hold the complexity in a way that others do not feel. Maybe I'm fascinated because the complexity is a wild and beautiful and generative place--even ultimately a compassionate place.

    I do not know if this makes any sense, but that is one thing I love about your posts, Miki: they push me to the very limits of my thinking and language. That can only be a good thing.

  3. is an article about the Martin-Zimmerman situation that offers new options beyond conviction or acquittal. Thank you for sharing such thought-provoking posts.

    1. Thank you so much for bringing this article to my attention. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am deeply familiar with the restorative process described, and hope that someone, somewhere, may find a way to initiate such a process in this case.

  4. Miki, it was great to read your blog post about China and the connections you made there. I was struck, though, by the paragraph where you talked about how appalling the starvation and conditions were in China before the revolution, and how the communist revolutionaries had (you imply) attempted to fix those problems. Here's the sentence that (if I were a less lazy person) would have sent me sprawling out of my chair and onto the floor: "Still, I cannot but be in awe of the clear commitment on the part of all communist regimes to ensure that the entire population has basic physical needs attended to along with health and education."

    I teach a course on mass murder and genocide under communist (so-called 'communist') regimes around the world, and the one thing that they excel in -- from the Soviet Union, to China, to Cambodia, to North Korea -- is quite literally starving the population on purpose. All of those regimes imposed genocidal famines. Ukraine and southern Russia in the early 1930s; China during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s-early 1960s; Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the mid to late 70s. Something like 30 million people died in China of starvation in the Great Leap Forward, and it was not an accident.

    There is no question that China before the revolution was run by people who didn't consider the lives of the peasants to be worth anything. And the communists talked a good line. But within a decade of taking over, they were right back to starving the peasantry -- intentionally this time. There's been a lot written on this subject, but for archival research and grotesque details per page, Jasper Becker's book, Hungry Ghosts, is still the best. The techniques used to drive any notion of independence out of the farming class in Ukraine/Southern Russia in the 1930s and China in the Great Leap Forward were eerily similar -- because the Chinese Communist Party leaders were well versed in what the Soviet Communist Party leaders had done.

    People are not taught about this stuff. Nearly all of my students have come out of high school without ever hearing a word about these famines (and knowing almost as little about the regimes that imposed them). I didn't have any idea about the Great Leap Forward until I set out to teach this class (for the first time over a decade ago), and knew only the vaguest things about the Soviet famine (which was part and parcel of the collectivization drive). I figure you - like me - got through life thus far without knowing these literally gory details. But now that I know them, I can't help but react to sentences like the one in your blog, about the great commitments of communist regimes to their populations' health, education and welfare. It just makes my skin crawl.

    Welcome home -- I'm really glad that your Shanghai adventure led you to such a great connection! valerie

    1. Hi Valerie and everyone,

      I am quite distressed to discover how little I knew about disasters that affected so many people. I don't see myself engaging in the research to find answers for myself. I imagine I would find more complexity. I have deep awareness of the intense levels of repression in communist regimes. I don't know how to reach conclusions for myself about the relative weight of local fear (e.g. about what would happen if a certain region is found wanting in its quota of production), central intention to starve the population, sheer human incompetence in handling difficult conditions, and many other factors.

      Without doing this I cannot assess how likely it is that the reality of famines could possibly coincide with a general commitment to basic human needs, in the short or long run.

      I am super grateful to you for bringing this up, so that I and others could be educated about a really grim piece of human reality.


    2. After further conversation with Valerie, I want to add some things I have reflected on to my original post and comment – for my integrity and to honor the millions who died.

      1. It is impossible to speak of a commitment to feed “the entire population,” as I have done, when famines were taking place which many believe were human-made, and when, at the very least, clear actions that could have averted the horrors were not taken – not by local officials (with rare and exceptions of courageous behavior that had severe consequences), and not by central government. Part of how most communist revolutions have unfolded was that the “in” group and the “out” group kept shifting, with the commitments always being only to the “in” group. The “out” group kept growing as more and more people and groups were (re)classified as “enemies of communism”.

      2. With that fundamental distortion built into their thinking, it is entirely possible that the leaders truly believed they were doing all they could to prioritize the overall success of the revolution as they saw it and the blissful future they envisioned, or some other value or image that was important to them – while at the same time engaging in acts of unprecedented horror and repression. Hitler's brutality can be understood in this way, too; this is nothing unique about Communists. While the majority of the world’s population deeply disagrees with the ideal of national purity, some people continue to be inspired and moved by this ideal and willing to take horrific actions towards others as a result. The Christian Church, in earlier times, also inflicted untold suffering and horror (e.g. the Inquisition) in the name of a set of values that include love as core and center. The relationship between our values/vision and what we actually do in the name of those values is far from simple. The Communist leaders might even have seen their actions as horrendous sacrifices they were willing to make – compromising their integrity for the great vision they saw. If nothing else, they were clearly sacrificing their own conscience, their own humanity, knowingly or not.

      3. Ultimately, what I am unable to know, and we may have no way of knowing overall, is not the actions and the extent of the horrors. That is fully documented, and I have a lot of sorrow if anything I wrote sounded to anyone like I am not grasping it. The only thing I don't know is what the intention was. That doesn't “justify” or “exonerate” as it appears my words may have seemed to do. Rather, that allows any of us who wants to engage in the very difficult process of humanizing people with blood on their hands the possibility of seeing the continuity of our needs, dreams, and values even as there is an incomprehensible gap in actions and beliefs. To say that all that people want – whether communist leaders or others – is power and to sustain their regime to me misses a point. Power is always in the service of something. It is only when I can see and imagine the “something” that I believe the humanity comes through. That “something” can be entirely personal, as in power to have a sense of being able to make things happen, or power as a way to ensure that our own needs would be met. It can also be larger, as in some vision, or complex and distorted sense of contributing something to the world, which no one else can do and therefore power must be retained. Whatever it is, this distinction is foundational to the entire project that my work is in the service of: to excavate and understand the common needs that underlie all human actions, including the most horrific.

      While Valerie and I can disagree about how much of a commitment to some distorted version of the population or a future dream there was, this conversation was illuminating for both of us.

      Ultimately, finding a way to understand a human being without ever justifying their actions is deeply important to me given my own dream of transcending reward and punishment, good and bad, altogether. That is the topic of another, possibly several, whole piece.


  5. Thank you Miki - even though I agree with you that the acquittal of Zimmerman was painful, I also agree that a conviction would have had very little positive change in race relations in the USA - perhaps it would simply enabled more people to go back to sleep for a little while longer. The dream of having a restorative process to hold the larger discussion is a beautiful and awe-inspiring vision... I'm sad that I will be unable to be a part of the discussion tonite... enjoying my family back in Wales! Love, jas...