Now that our country has made the transition to a new presidential administration, we’re hearing a lot of high-level talk about forgiveness and “moving on” from Republicans and about the need for consequences and accountability from Democrats – particularly with reference to the events of January 6. Some of us are well and truly weary of the strife with our neighbors and kin that has characterized the past four years; others among us take a more jaundiced view of the sudden calls for letting bygones be bygones, just at the moment when the balance of power has shifted. The image of Yoda taking a whack at Luke Skywalker, then responding to his look of shock by telling him to forget it because it’s already in the past, takes on a new, ironic resonance in such times.
Setting aside the question of whether reconciliation between polarized political factions at this particular moment in time is desirable, we are left with another: Is it even possible? And if so, how do we get there? People who put the quest for peace above all other priorities are coming forward with strategies that we can apply to our personal relationships, if not the highly volatile public arena. Among those teachers and role models are the good people at Mohonk Consultations, who seek to embody the Quaker ideals that made Mohonk Mountain House the locus for conferences that led to the founding of the League of Nations and called for restitution of rights that had been taken away from this continent’s indigenous peoples.
In his words of welcome at the beginning of Finding Common Ground, a webinar that streamed on February 11 and is now available for free viewing on YouTube, Mohonk Consultations board member Brad Berg referenced the New Paltz resort’s “125-year tradition of convening peace conferences.” Normally the organization’s annual gatherings are live, but the one that was supposed to happen at the Mountain House in the spring of 2020 was called off due to the pandemic. It has taken a new, more broadly accessible form as this videoconference and features some of the same speakers originally scheduled to participate in last year’s aborted convocation.
The headliner is Dennis Kucinich, whose 16-year stint (1997-2013) representing Ohio’s tenth district in the US House of Representatives built him a reputation as one of the most committed peacemakers in Congress. It was Kucinich who (unsuccessfully) introduced articles of impeachment against George W. Bush in 2008, in response to his invasion of Iraq. He also locked horns with Barack Obama over the 2011 missile strikes in Libya. He proposed the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace, was awarded the Gandhi Peace Award in 2003 and the US Peace Prize in 2010.
Kucinich took over the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in 1999 from its founder, Bernie Sanders. He ran for the Democratic Party nomination for president twice, in 2004 and 2008, and is also known as an advocate for universal healthcare, the environment, gun control and reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. He and the late Hudson Valley congressman Maurice Hinchey were frequent allies, having in common not only their similar views on many national issues, but also the experience of being targeted by organize crime hitmen in response to their work on local environmental cleanups.
More recently, as an occasional pundit on Fox News, Kucinich has taken some flak from former supporters for opposing impeachment efforts against Donald Trump in the name of “unity.” So, it should come as no surprise that his approach to the current political divide skews toward reconciliation rather than accountability. He notes in his presentation that he has mostly kept a low profile during the past four years, avoiding Washington, DC and working on a new book about his battle to save a public utility from commercialization during his term as mayor of Cleveland. Decrying the “polarities that can feed into dichotomous thinking, which is a precursor of war,” he says, “I chose not to participate.”
Advocating peacemaking on an interpersonal level, Kucinich sees the present as “a time to help reconstruct human connections,” as a new regime takes the helm of government and Americans begin to emerge from the isolation of the pandemic. The work to remake a strife-torn world begins with the self: “You can transform your experience if you don’t carry around the weight of your conflicts.” For the future, he says, “We’re not doomed as a society or a culture, but it starts with us. I’m very optimistic about the fact that the world can be a better place.”
Also emphasizing the need to work on one’s personal skills for coping with conflict is the second speaker, Lester Strong. A retired TV journalist known to some as the Significant Other of urban planner Pat Courtney Strong, who ran for the State Senate in 2018, he is the president/CEO of the Siddha Yoga Foundation. Strong also served as vice president of the AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps tutoring/mentoring program for elementary school students. Currently coordinator for the City of Kingston’s Reenvision Public Safety Task Force, his big project in recent years has been directing the Peaceful Guardians Initiative, an attempt to bridge the trust gap between the Kingston Police Department and the city’s minority communities by bringing cops and middle-school kids together for shared activities.
“A strong precept with me is living your life with intention,” Strong says in the webinar. “Rather than try to change the world, I choose to live the way I want to be in the world. I can serve as a bridge of communication between people who don’t necessarily want to agree.” His presentation focuses on practicing the “Four Gateways of Speech: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it timely and clear? Is it beneficial?”
Rounding out the virtual panel is 17-year-old Dior Williams, a member of the Human Rights Club at Rondout Valley High School. As a practical approach to enhancing dialogue between people on opposite sides of an ideological spectrum, he advocates the virtue of “intellectual humility: recognizing that the thing you believe in might in fact be wrong.” Williams notes that we all need to unlearn the assumption drummed into us from childhood on that being wrong equals being bad, and makes a strong case for the art of listening well.
Finding Common Ground wraps up with video footage, from the Beacon Sloop Club and the deck of the Clearwater, of the late Pete Seeger singing a song that is purportedly the last one he ever wrote, “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You.” While perhaps not as spiritually refreshing as an in-person visit to Mohonk, it’s a thought-provoking hour of wise observations by some deep thinkers who are deeply engaged in the big issues of our times. To watch, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQsgrs8ybsA.