Tuesday, April 29, 2008

We got mittens too!

One of my heirloom trinkets is my great-grandfather's World War I German Army cigarette lighter. It's a big round hunk of brass with the words Gott mit uns inscribed on the side. Depending on how you translate it, that comes out as God is with us or may God be with us. It's an open question how much good that did; the Germans lost the war.

Another relative of mine fought on the American side. When he was well into his nineties he showed me how he used to mock that slogan. He and his buddies would stand with their hands held high and shout, Yeah, we got mittens too!

Both of those relatives were infantry, and for a few months their units actually faced each other, and they both got wounded during that war. I wonder how that mockery looked to my great-grandfather. The Americans joined the war late and were well supplied. By the war's final months, my great-grandfather's children back home were so hungry that they were stealing turnips from the trucks that carried food to the front. When my great-grandfather got discharged from the hospital he was still too weak to hold a job and his children had to go to work to support him until he recovered. When he tried to demand a pension the government threatened to throw him in jail. He took his family out of the country in the 1920s because he didn't want his sons to end up in the next war.

Gott mit uns.
We got mittens too!

It may be surprising that both of those men come frome the same side of my family. 13 years after the war ended they became father-in-law and son-in-law. To the end of their days they both personally blamed each other for their wounds, but they found a way to be jocular about it.

Yesterday I was talking to a Serbian editor about ethnic/national disputes and learned, to my amazement, that the Serbian and Croatian Wikipedias actually get along pretty well. Basically some editors piled into a car and drove over to Zagreb, where they shook some hands. Then some other editors piled into a car and drove to Belgrade, where they shook more hands. Once they got to know each other a little and could see that they were all basically normal people, relations improved.

This is the kind of local solution that I'm really interested in replicating. I'd like to try it globally. Smaller steps first. And in this instance, a small step is still a pretty big step.

Over at the English Wikipedia Israeli-Palestinian disputes I mentor one of the participants. It isn't easy, as you might imagine. The case has been through arbitration and is up on the arbitration enforcement board right now. This isn't the first time it's been there. The thread is long and bitter and frustrated on both sides.

So last night I posted to the talk pages of ten editors who had participated in that thread, sharing the experience of the Serb editors and the Croat editors and inviting these people to a voice chat on Skype. If some of them aren't comfortable with the suggestion, that's understandable. Voice does help communicate nuance and I hope some of them are willing to give this a try. Maybe they'll negotiate; maybe instead they'll talk about their favorite movies and falafel recipes. If it humanizes things enough to bridge a few gaps then it's worth it.

It isn't easy, but it can happen.

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