Improving the World or Improving the Trenches

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A few days ago, a Yahoo! news alert brought the following headlines to my computer screen:

“Source: Bush to Send Powell to Middle East.”

“Sharon Vows to Keep Arafat Caged, Fighting Rages.”

“Israel Widens West Bank Offensive”

“Blair to Bush: Act Now on Middle East.”

“Michael Jordan to Miss Rest of NBA Season”

“Megadeath No More.”

Although it’s embarrassing to admit, of those headlines, I really only read and processed the two about Michael and Megadeath, both of whom I care very little for. In skimming over the headlines about the turbulence in Israel and the Middle East8212;the headlines of greater importance8212;I wondered if I care less about bombings than basketball.

That is not so. But lately I have questioned how much I8212;or any other college student8212;should worry about the discord in Israel. Or hunger in third-world countries. Or global pollution.

As individuals among billions, students can hardly be blamed for feeling incredibly small next to such weighty problems. Alienation and powerlessness are understandable responses to the world’s troubles, and at times I have felt both. Henry Kissinger’s view on the Israeli crisis, however, has lately given me a new perspective: People should focus on doing what they can, rather than fretting over what they cannot.

I think I stopped paying attention to the conflict between Israel and Palestine because nothing ever seemed to change. The newspaper headlines about the situation there, although not identical, certainly sound similar through the years. Two Deseret News headlines from October and June of 1991 read: “Radical Groups are Threatening to Attack Israel” and “Israeli Jets Hit PLO with Fiercest Blast Since ’82.” So what’s new?

The complexities of the Israel/Palestine problem also discouraged me from thinking about a solution. The tensions between the groups have been escalating and ebbing for years. When President Clinton, Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak met at Camp David in July 2000, many media types talked about the possibility of “reaching lasting peace” through the talks. Skeptics estimated otherwise. I remember one analyst saying, “Do they think this is how it will work8212;they’ll sit down, have a few good conversations and a few gourmet meals and suddenly they’ll solve years of economic, social, political and religious antagonism? I have my doubts.”

Because of the conflict’s duration and complexity, for me, worrying about Israel and Palestine has always been like worrying about the weather or gas prices. Even if I watch news reports or get online weather updates, if it’s going to rain, it will rain. Similarly, the price of gas is what it is when I get to the pump. My opinion on the matter hasn’t yet affected OPEC or the capacity of oil refineries. So why get in a dither about either?

Sentiments like these8212;that what a person does won’t make a difference, and that the world’s predicaments are too macro for people who feel very micro8212;can apply to any of society’s problems. Even the recent Associated Students of the University of Utah primary elections, in which about 10 percent of U students voted, reflect the attitude “what I say won’t really matter anyway.”

In many cases, that may be true. Regardless, Kissinger’s words in a recent Newsweek article make a good case for still trying, and for the way to do it. His advice for quelling violence in Israel can be equally useful for U students in settings as extravagant as political action committees or as common as the PTA.

The title of Kissinger’s article perhaps gives the most important message. It is called, “What We Can Do.” People often feel limited by what they cannot accomplish8212;many call it a “feeling of powerlessness.” They would do better to focus on what they can achieve.

In addition, Kissinger calls for working toward “attainable goals.” According to him, the result of working for unreachable objectives can sometimes even make matters worse. Speaking of the meeting between Clinton, Arafat and Barak, Kissinger said, “In 2000, the impetuous attempt to settle all issues in one negotiation of limited duration at Camp David contributed to the outbreak of the current warfare.”

Rather, Kissinger supports finding solutions that are realistic. He bases his answer for the current Israeli/Palestinian on realism and compromise. “America can bridge [the gap between Palestine and Israel] only by making clear to both sides that the only feasible goal is a limited settlement in which each will achieve less than its maximum aim but more than it can accomplish by a continuation of the conflict.”

U students can take Kissinger’s ideas of focusing on what can be done, working for realistic goals and accepting compromises when necessary, into any situation. Rather than trying to stop crime in America, set up a neighborhood watch. Forget about test scores at the nation’s schools, and instead focus on the health concerns of a local school or school district. Some people will be fortunate to affect the macro, as has Kissinger; most people, though, will just live and work in the trenches.

But the trenches need improvement, too.

Michael welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].