Friday, January 13, 2017

The Light of the World


There are two things that too many of us seem to be reluctant to take in about present conditions on our planet—the first is the threat of mass death, either suddenly by nuclear war, or gradually by changes in climate. The second is the possibility of reconciliation among enemies on the basis of common goals.  Our brains are not particularly well wired by evolution to see either of these both as an immediate threat and as an equally immediate, available opportunity. Perhaps for the first time in history, we are gradually becoming aware that the two shed significant light on each other. In fact, in our historical moment they have become an inseparable duality. As the poet W.S. Auden wrote, “We must love one another or die.”

In a world where nuclear weapons are so destructive that it would only take the detonation of a few hundred of them to fatally affect agricultural production around the globe, perhaps we can now begin to see the absurdity of our hatreds in a new light—almost as if we were growing a new kind of mind more evolutionarily suited to the realities that loom around us. The destructiveness of our weapons is so enormous in scale, that even the most intractable loathing and fear we may feel weighs like a feather measured against a ton of lead. It is really the same, in only a slightly less urgent way, for global climate instability: the imperative has become a level of cooperation on the basis of a shared desire to survive that our evolution has not prepared us for as well as it might, but which is nonetheless essential.

It’s as if a malign alien presence had landed on the earth and all the parties to international and civil conflict, Sunnis and Shia, Arab and Jew, the U.S. and the Taliban, suddenly realized that we had so much more in common with each other as members of the human species than with the aliens, that it would become obvious that we needed to cooperate against the common threat. But we do face  common threats: climate issues, and war itself, with the potential of any war anywhere going nuclear by accident, misunderstanding or passive drift. The “alien” we ought to fear and unite to overcome is found in two places, one physically real, the other psychologically real: the weapons themselves, and the way we have been programmed by evolution to think about the “other,” the different, the fearsome stranger, the enemy.

Our collective fears, hates and desires for security have led us to unlock the secrets of the atom and evolve out of those secrets a bizarre system: deterrence by mutually assured destruction. If we again imagined aliens coming to our planet, this time benign ones, how amazed they would be by the utter ridiculousness of the trap we have willingly set for ourselves. Would they be able to distinguish between the hapless terrorism of the suicide bomber and the strategic deliberation of the nuclear  “balance of terror”? Are these two so completely different? Certainly not either in their threat to the innocent or in their futility.

The trap in full is not just deterrence,  but the way we think about the usefulness of any kind of violence, on any level, to solve problems—the assumptions humans make that flying a plane into a building or setting off a bomb in a marketplace will make a positive difference. The extraordinary freedom of the human condition includes the tragic built-in freedom to kill. This freedom is so very easy to indulge even within the web of a quasi-organized civil society, as we see in the president of the Philippines’ murderous extra-judicial war against drugs.

Many of us are distressed that one duly elected, but apparently very thin-skinned, leader will soon be given the authority to cause mass death on a planetary level.  We pray that his obsession with business success will preoccupy him with making deals rather than making wars. At least we can be somewhat consoled by the fact that the international markets he seeks to dominate will not benefit from nuclear annihilation.

But our apparent programming, our collective thin skin, is not biologically inevitable. History confirms the absurdity of enemy-imaging by recording how arbitrary our animosities are as seen over time—Americans who once incinerated Japanese soldiers with flame throwers or Viet Cong with napalm are now welcome in Japan or Vietnam as tourists or business people.

There is only one way out of our self-devised trap, and that is relationship. The opportunity for relationship is immediate, instant, all around us at every moment, even if we seem to be wired instinctively to hide within our skin, be it thin or thick. I recently entered my first board meeting of a non-profit and made a casually insensitive comment about Mr. Trump’s press conference circus. Next to me sat a woman who unapologetically made it clear that she had voted for the man—but kept her genuine welcoming smile in place.

I felt so grateful that her friendliness and willingness to work with me did not diminish in spite of my off-hand sarcasm, and so we were able to begin a fruitful dialogue—the topic of which became—surprise!—the need for more fruitful dialogue.

Her sort of friendliness may be the light of the world.  It is a ton of gold weighed against the feather of our momentary and potentially superficial political opposition to each other. Sometimes initiating and maintaining a culture of connection may not come easy, but it is constantly there as a possibility. The hoary cliché has never been more relevant and important: a stranger is just a friend we haven’t met yet.  And if that is true, why isn’t it just as true that an enemy is just someone we haven’t tried hard enough to be friends with yet?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Deterrence Has Become a Threat to All Life


Many have felt a prolonged shiver of anxiety about a foreign policy neophyte having access to the nuclear codes. Secretary Clinton referred in the third debate to the four minutes a leader would be allowed before having to decide how to respond to information that a nuclear attack might be under way. But the really haunting question is what it might mean for any leader, even the most disciplined and experienced, to have to undergo the stress and consequence of those four minutes.

The system of deterrence that has evolved among the nine existing nuclear powers, the system everyone on the planet is now reliant upon to prevent a cataclysmic third world war, is becoming ever more unworkable.

This may sound like a strange or even outrageous assertion to many. Hasn’t deterrence helped to prevent global war over the past half century? But a more relevant question is: can deterrence keep on working forever? Can we depend on a highly technological and complex system that must never make a mistake, when common sense reminds us that, however rarely, planes crash, trains collide, and nuclear reactors melt down?

There are many levels of unworkability that undermine the deterrence system. One layer is the paradox that in order that the weapons never be used, they must be kept ready for credible and instant use. Credibility requires that nuclear adversaries fear one another. Even taking into account the U.S.’s proposed efforts to refine our weapons systems to both increase their "flexibility" and render them more immune to failure or misuse, the inherent nature of a “balance of terror” can only increase paranoia among all nations. In the missile crisis of 1962 the world dodged a bullet. Add the increasing complexity of the command and control electronics attached to the weapons and the increasing possibility of infection of such electronics from without.

A further looming possibility that makes deterrence obsolete is nuclear winter. As computer models of nuclear exchanges become more refined, the number of detonations in these models sufficient to cause a decade of serious change in the total planetary atmosphere keeps dropping.  Even in a limited nuclear exchange, “victory” becomes a phantasm as the consequences of an attack rebound upon the attackers. Our species has come up against a level of destructiveness that cancels out any useful function for these weapons.

And yet the nuclear deterrence system continues to have an immense momentum of its own, irrespective of whether it makes us more secure. The three major drivers of this momentum are economic, political and psychological. Economically the nuclear arms industry is vast and profitable. Politically nuclear abolition is a third rail—because it supposedly suggests weakness to admit to constituents, of whatever nation, the truth about the actual insecurity of systems of deterrence. A senator with presidential ambitions might harbor doubts similar to mine and millions of other ordinary citizens, but he or she cannot afford to voice them. And of course we know that psychologically, deterrence assures an endless cycle of paranoia that pressures each nuclear nation to feel it has to keep up with the others technologically. Deterrence is meant to be stabilizing, but instead it is a dynamic, constantly changing system, and therefore inherently unstable. We build; they build. They build; we build.

Mr. Putin may be a bad hombre, but he is subject to the same irrefutable logic inherent in nuclear winter, as are the heads of India or Pakistan or China, Israel, or even North Korea, or anyone else with command responsibility for these world-destroying weapons. However, it is China, Russia and the U.S. who are the primary potential game-changers. These three powers are strong enough in conventional military forces to agree to mutually, gradually and reciprocally completely eliminate their nuclear arsenals without compromising their own security.  Even beginning this process could diminish the extreme paranoia of governments like Iran and North Korea. At present tensions are high between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, but a change of direction among the superpowers might help them avoid a repeat of the Cuban missile crisis or worse.  No doubt Israel would be the last to realize that the Middle East, like the planet as a whole, would be safer as a nuclear-free zone. It could take a generation, but mere commitment to the process would ease tensions and lessen the anxiety of billions around the world waiting breathlessly for someone to take the lead on the issue.

Initially our leaders would have to risk a huge amount of political capital educating not just our own nation but the world to the need for Gorbachev-type new thinking, and for sponsoring an ongoing international nuclear disarmament conference, first involving the three superpowers and eventually the six remaining nuclear powers, along with increased regulation and sequestration of nuclear materials. Experienced hands such as Dr. Kissinger (like him or not), William Perry, Sam Nunn and George Shultz have been actively advocating for this goal for almost a decade.

In terms of sticks and carrots, the biggest stick is that disaster down the road is inevitable unless there is a fundamental change of direction—to repeat, no complex technological system developed by fallible humans has been completely error-free. The biggest carrots are increased security and the blessings of freeing up trillions to apply to global issues like ensuring the food supply and mitigating climate change.

One key to success is surely education, building worldwide agreement around such issues as the dangers of human or computer misinterpretation of electronic information, the futility and madness of launch-on-warning, especially in the context of nuclear winter, and the reality that a nuclear war would not only do nothing to resolve any conflict that began it, but also could extinguish our species altogether, setting aside the unimaginable human suffering.

It seems extraordinary that we can outlaw certain weapons like land mines or chemical weapons, but we contentedly tolerate weapons that can destroy us utterly. Deterrence is a bargain with the devil. Despite our sleepy acceptance of its flawed premises, it is also an emperor with no clothes. Who among our leaders will be the first to have the courage to admit this out loud?

Monday, November 14, 2016

The High Calling of Teaching


Post-election shock has invited many of us to look within. What might have been our own role in this extraordinary outcome? I hope having been a teacher for forty years gives me sufficient credibility to address my own profession.  Many teachers are underpaid and asked to do too much, but that’s not where my concerns lie at this anxious moment.

Whatever else it means, this campaign season surely denotes a landmark failure to help our citizenry learn to think independently—the difficult job of our benighted teachers. Voting did not break along class lines that would indicate that those with fewer educational opportunities were more susceptible to demagoguery and lies.  Forty-two percent of all women—all women!—voted for a serial sexual assaulter, an over-promiser in an empty suit, upon whom we now must project our best wishes, for his successes and failures will be ours, up to and including the prevention of nuclear war. 

I was privileged to graduate from a top-ranked private high school and university. These two “elitist” institutions had one thing in common: they put together the best teachers with small groups of students in a circle, encouraging the dialogue to become, at its best, student-led.

Educational research demonstrates the counterintuitive fact that we learn to think autonomously, expand our worldviews, and temper our judgments by speaking. And thus the counterpart to speaking, listening, also becomes a sacred act in the classroom. So much teaching is debased simply by teachers slipping into a lifetime of being in love with their own voice, with student cynicism the awful consequence—cynicism that can lead ultimately to making debased choices in the voting booth. 

I had a colleague who could not have cared more deeply for his charges—except that he pretty much undermined his own authenticity by asking a question, waiting two beats, three beats—but not long enough for the students to believe he really wanted to know their thoughts. After silence hung in the air for a few seconds, he would inevitably answer his own question. It was just easier.  Soon enough students were content to remain silent if that was what he wanted, and his classes, year after year, became permanently univocal.

Early in my career I myself believed I was a mediocre teacher, precisely because I had had such remarkable models at the institutions from which I had graduated. But that forced me back upon myself. What did it mean to teach well, and what was worth knowing? What gradually helped me improve were two things: first, appreciating at the heart level the fundamental interaction through which a teacher awakens the mind of a student, deepening the teacher’s readiness for further, ever-richer relationships with students and with the infinite body of collective wisdom and hard-won truth. This led me to set up my physical teaching space in the same kind of circle, as opposed to a lectern and desks in rows, I had experienced in my own education.

Second was my encounter with what is now being called “deep history,” the scientific story of the 13.8 billion year development of the universe—the story we all share. From the natural coherence of that story I began to sense that however much the departmentalization of knowledge had given the world by way of dissection into chewable bits, there was a crying need for students to see the vast spectrum of knowledge in a larger context of a single great unfolding, a new way to apprehend all knowledge, the whole of history, scientific endeavor, the arts. From that perspective the widest artificial gap of all had become the divide between the scientific and the humanistic, what Stephen Jay Gould mistakenly called “non-overlapping magisteria.” 

In the classroom or in the great world beyond it, is the search for truth exemplified by the scientific method so different from Socratic dialogue as practiced in the humanities?  Are such questions as “how does the chemical process of photosynthesis work?” and “what is Robert Frost trying to say in his poems about spring?” entirely “non-overlapping ”?  Pregnant, endlessly searchable mystery hangs equally over these only apparently separate realms of knowledge.

Teachers provide the initial role-models, after parents, for what it feels like to be a sensitive, independent, fair, thinking and feeling citizen engaged in a sincere search for truth. Teachers can lead students into skepticism about bunkum, but only by authentic, not instrumental, encounters between themselves and their constituents. The needed skills are endlessly perfectible and challenging; there is no final arrival. 

Take for example the essential skill of leading a discussion about any aspect of our current national political scene—our original sin of slavery, the uses and misuses of great power, if or how America is an exceptional nation, bias in the news. To bring it off without betraying one’s private preferences while encouraging the civil engagement of diverse points of view can never be easy. But not to have the discussion at all out of fear of what might go awry is a tragic reinforcement of the ignorance that oozed out not just on Election Day but overflows from our whole gridlocked, venal and science-averse political culture.

How different might our recent history have been if Henry Kissinger had had a history professor who taught him to see the truth of the thousand-year enmity between Vietnam and China, dispelling the simplistic nature of the “domino theory” in favor of the Jefferson-admiring nationalism of Ho Chi Minh? If the ethical context of Nixon’s Quaker background had sunk in more deeply? If George Bush or Dick Cheney had taken in something in college about the Middle East and the fraught record of the colonial powers in that region since World War 1? If the Fox News folks had been educated to the ever-unreachable but always worthy ideal of objectivity over ratings-based partisanship? And yes, if someone at Wellesley had touched Hillary Clinton’s heart deeply enough to give her from the outset an instinctive sense of what ethical short-cuts to avoid?

The sacred encounter of teacher and student, where teachers hope they can set students on their way toward both self- and teacher-surpassing, replicates the interdependence of all growing, evolving, blossoming life, and even points toward the ideal of ideals, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community.” That the United States produced a teacher, for he was that as much as preacher, on King’s level is one exceptionalism we can claim with pride. King taught us well by making connections across race on the basis of constitutional rights, and by dispelling the illusion that grinding poverty at home and racist wars abroad were “non-overlapping magisteria.” Teaching at its best is true servant leadership. Servant leadership on behalf of an inclusive beloved community is what we admired in King—servant leadership the spirit of which we can only hope will touch our new president.

Friday, November 4, 2016

To Survive, Evolve


Evolution is a good deal more than Darwin’s natural selection. The whole cosmos has been evolving for 13.8 billion years, from energy to matter to, here on earth, life and self-conscious life. Evolutionary processes are alive, dynamic, an unstoppable juggernaut pervading every aspect of reality. Evolution is the context of our reality, the story all humans share. We evolve from childhood into adulthood, and, ideally, from self-centeredness toward the good of larger entities like our community or nation (and now, faced with climate change, the good of our planet). Political arrangements have evolved from the divine right of kings into still–evolving democratic systems.

The story of cosmic evolution is beginning to seep into collective consciousness in a way that may yet render obsolete divisions such as those between Shia and Sunni, let alone between “radical Islamic fundamentalism” and the “post-Enlightenment West.” We all evolved from the same mysterious source. The world is in a race between exclusivity and inclusivity. Inclusivity appears in similar form in all the religions as the Golden Rule. We will live together or die together. As we treat others, so we will be treated.

It is not surprising that fundamentalism in whatever form has often found the evolutionary paradigm threatening, because it implies a challenging dynamic of change that feels insecure. A Supreme Court justice’s orientation toward evolution in this basic sense determines whether he or she is a strict originalist (a nicer word for fundamentalist), or sees the Constitution as a living document that must be responsive to changing conditions. No founding father composing the second amendment could have foreseen the surfeit of guns decimating our country today.

Far from being a benign, feel-good process, evolution is often painful, one step forward, two back. Take the tortured but necessary demise of the American coal industry. No one wants to see the debilitating effects of unemployment on real people with real families, but so far the technology of coal burning hasn’t evolved a way not to accelerate global warming.

We humans are supposedly not built to respond effectively to long-term threats like changes in climate, but, late in the game as it is, we do seem to be collectively learning what is at stake and evolving locally and globally. Entrepreneurs are rapidly bringing to market solar, wind, and other cleaner and more sustainable energy sources.

Unfortunately, negative and harmful processes can also become subject to an evolutionary juggernaut. Since 1945 weapons systems have evolved (more accurately, we have evolved them) to a level of complexity and destructive power that we are already powerless to control. The Pentagon is reported to be spending its usual vast sums on research into computer-controlled robotic drones capable of making their own autonomous decisions about who is an enemy.  The defense establishments of other great nations are presumably up to the same mischief, or soon will be, because the arms race never stops evolving. Or won’t until we embrace a new way of thinking: that we must evolve to survive.

The threat of nuclear extinction provides a new evolutionary pressure upon the obsolete parochialism of the world’s conflicts. Is not all war civil war, and does not all war have the potential of drawing in the nuclear powers? Our caution in the Syrian mess confirms this possibility.

We, we the nations, are hopelessly complacent in our present reliance upon deterrence as a workable security system. As the fellow falling from the hundredth floor said as he passed the sixtieth: so far so good. The system, an emperor with no clothes solemnly worshipped by legions of self-confident experts, is too complex not to be subject to breakdown at any moment, perhaps by accident, perhaps where NATO and Russia push up against each other in Eastern Europe, perhaps in Kashmir.

If this threat isn’t enough to accelerate an ecumenical impulse that wipes out obsolete distinctions between tribes and races and religions, what is? As people of diverse spiritual worldviews acknowledge that they have in common the possibility of annihilation, our shared anxiety can energize evolution toward inclusivity and non-violent solutions to conflict. Instead, our own nation’s attention has been distracted by the Trump-Clinton mud-wrestle.

Will we citizens, and our leaders, and even the arms manufacturers evolve in the face of the nuclear threat in a way similar to our growing positive responses to the challenge of climate instability? I live in Maine, where the state’s largest private employer is the Bath Iron Works. They are building three of a new kind of guided missile destroyer that is contoured to hide from radar. Each one costs 4 billion dollars.  Recently I had a conversation with an Iron Works employee. I made the assumption that, given his job, he would be hawkishly supportive of a robust military. Not at all.  His exact parting words were “I’d be much happier building solar panels.”

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Open letter to Clinton/Kaine

Dear Secretary Clinton and Senator Kaine:

I am unreservedly delighted that Secretary Clinton picked Senator Kaine and assume that all is on track for both of you to assume high office in January.

However I did take note of Secretary Clinton’s reference in the third debate to the four minutes a leader would be allowed before having to decide how to respond to information that a nuclear attack was under way. The context of course was the unassailable fact of Mr. Trump’s lack of fitness were he to find himself in the same position.

But the question that haunts me and many others is what it might mean for even the most disciplined and experienced leader to have to undergo the stress and consequence of those four minutes.
It seems to me that the system of deterrence that has evolved among the nine existing nuclear powers, the system we all rely upon for our security, is becoming ever more unworkable. Granting that the system may have helped to prevent a third world war over the past half century, what is its future? Even taking into account our own extraordinarily expensive efforts to refine our weapons systems to both increase their "flexibility" and render them more immune to failure or misuse, the inherent nature of a “balance of terror” can only increase paranoia among all parties. In the missile crisis of 1962 we dodged a bullet. Add in the increasing complexity of the electronics attached to the weapons and the possible infection of such electronics from without.

Add further the political third rail—because it suggests weakness—of telling constituents, of whatever nation, the truth about the actual insecurity of such systems of deterrence.

Disaster down the road is inevitable unless there is a fundamental change of direction.

Mr. Putin may be a bad hombre, but he is subject to the same irrefutable logic, as are the heads of India or Pakistan or China, Israel, or even North Korea, or anyone else with command responsibility for these hideously destructive weapons.

We are at a fateful moment similar to when Lincoln took the risk of abolishing slavery. I’m aware of just how much political capital would have to be risked in taking leadership and educating not just our own nation but the world to the need for Gorbachev-type new thinking, and for sponsoring an ongoing international conference leading to a gradual, reciprocal, total abolition of nuclear weapons, along with increased regulation and sequestration of nuclear materials. It pleases me that old hands such as Dr. Kissinger (like him or not), William Perry, Sam Nunn and George Shultz are already actively advocating for this goal.

One key to success is surely education, building worldwide agreement around such issues as the dangers of human or computer misinterpretation of electronic information, the insanity of launch-on-warning, and the potential for nuclear winter as a result of the detonation of a very small number of warheads. It could take a generation, but mere commitment to the process would ease tensions on a small planet waiting breathlessly for someone to take the lead on this issue.

And after all I am only suggesting that we fulfill our obligations as signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968.

Real international security will come, I hope and believe,
•from small, even merely symbolic, confidence-building measures
•from heart-to-heart relationships among leaders who share hopes for their grandchildren
•from proven non-violent processes for the resolution of conflict
•from consistent adherence to a growing body of international law
•from collaboration on issues of common concern to all members of our global village
•from a gradual repurposing of precious resources away from wars without clear outcome toward meeting humanitarian needs in the urgent context of climate instability.

All this can be done without compromising the security of the United States, especially given our overwhelming superiority in conventional military strength. In fact such initiatives and changes in thought and action will increase that security.

Respectfully and with all good wishes for the years ahead,
 
Winslow Myers

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"13th"


Netflix’s new 100-minute documentary, “13th,” conceived and directed by Ava DuVernay, should be required viewing not only for high school civics classes (assuming they still exist) across the nation, but also for everyone else who needs to be reminded that America remains a constitutional promise unfulfilled for our black citizens.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery, but did it in language that has come back to haunt African-Americans in ever more perverse manifestations: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The film spells out the implications of that brief but toxic phrase of exception: punishment for crime. The phrase has rationalized a tragic history that continues to unfold even today—if not more than ever today. As soon as Lincoln decreed the end of slavery in 1865, thousands of freed blacks immediately began to be arrested for petty crimes like vagrancy, and found themselves on chain gangs and in prisons, in a word, back into the state of rampant injustice from which they had so recently been released.

“13th” reviews with painful specificity the history of our nation’s failure to honor its commitments to our African-American citizens between 1865 and today, when we have 2.3 million people in our prisons, more than any other country, a grossly disproportionate number of these prisoners of course being black. Many such prisoners perform involuntary servitude, almost always without meaningful compensation, increasing the profits of many a corporation all too happy to exploit a convenient source of free or nearly free labor. Sounds like slavery all over again to me.

Slavery by other names has been the story in phase after phase of African-American history since the Civil War, almost all of it enabled by the strategic criminalization of blackness. A 2007 statement by our Chief Justice epitomizes the ongoing blindness of white privilege to this story: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Well, yes. But here’s a white man at the very top of the food chain, responsible more than anyone except perhaps our Attorney General for how questions of race and justice interact, and this is the best he can come up with?

Damn all these casually obtuse politicians calculatedly misusing the privilege of their power. Damn the repellent Richard Nixon and his Southern Strategy, who won elections by ranting on about law and order and the silent majority. It was Dr. King, in his trenchant, rarely remembered speech at Riverside Church of 1967, who pointed out the deep connections between racism at home and the moral rot of the dubious wars America was lawlessly conducting abroad. Bless the heroic young Mohammed Ali for saying he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong. Damn the unhinged Donald Trump and his absurd attempts to rebirth the virulent racism of the pre-civil rights era. And damn all those hypocritical politicians too cowardly to cut him loose.

Honest to God, any white person taking an objective look at the history of blacks in this country—brought here forcibly as slaves, bought and sold, families torn apart, exploited in every possible way, women abused and raped, men castrated and hung, boys shot by law enforcement, spiritual and political leaders assassinated by the state, generations of their youth swallowed by the prison-industrial complex, others repeatedly stopped and frisked on the basis of skin color alone—should find it amazing that the African-American community has not risen up in a paroxysm of bloody, frustrated rage and torn this country into small enough pieces to start all over again.

Yes, there have indeed been moments of angry urban riot and anarchy, but it’s almost miraculous that it hasn’t been a hundred times worse, given the endless provocation. Why hasn’t it? Because the rest of the Constitution offered the promise, the ever-hoped-for promise, of real equality, upon which Dr. King quietly, nonviolently insisted (for this insistence he was killed)—and at the same time the promise must seem gallingly ever-receding, ever changing in its excuses for delay and denial.

One liberal explanation for the reason blacks have managed to keep their covenant with our country’s promise is the stereotype of the saintly African-American, soulful, courageous, able to forgive seventy times seven like the daughter of the Charleston women who was one of nine gunned down in church by Dylann Roof. To the extent that African-Americans are not other to whites either by demonization or sanctification, they become people with all the usual flaws and virtues of people.

But black forbearance isn’t merely another stereotype. To endure what black people have had to endure in this country must often have been a choice between going mad with rage and grief or finding some gospel bedrock of love that would be the only creative resistance to ignorance and hate. Not only in my African-American friends and colleagues and the black students I have been privileged to encounter over decades of teaching, but also in the black writers and activists I admire, like Jelani Cobb, Van Jones, Angela Davis, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a certain dignified poise is operative, a combination of wariness and weariness distilled from a collective cultural frustration that shades their orientation toward the white mind-set that they are tired of trying to educate, whether by explicit polemic or implicit example.

Having had a dignified, poised black leader in the White House can only help and has helped. Obama and his extraordinary spouse Michelle have undercut many noxious stereotypes. But, as “13th” demonstrates, this country has a long, long way to go before it can deliver on its promises to all its citizens and call itself truly post-racial, and not split in two by a combination of race and economic disparity, where only one in 17 whites end up in corporate prisons while one in three blacks do. "13th" is a clarion call to all of us, citizens, politicians, police, the justice system, to confront the depths of our original sin as a country and do our part to permanently de-criminalize being black in America.  








Friday, August 26, 2016

Objectivity


Donald Trump’s wobbliness with facts underlines our crying need for objectivity as a value ripe for renewal. Despite differences of perception across the spectrum of class and race, solid data can push against the tsunami of bull that threatens to sweep us off our collective feet. Trump’s immigration rants underscore the statistically verified fact that illegal immigration has been declining for years.  His fear mongering about crime fails to account for the extended descent of crime rates in all categories. His exaggerations of international threats belie the fact that there has been a steady worldwide diminishment in the number of wars—even taking into account the ongoing horrors in the Middle East.

Politicians do debate approaches to difficult challenges like terrorism, drugs, poverty or racism. But the context for dialogue is often not an accurate overview, because it is blurred by the need of candidates to win and hold power by pandering. Browbeaten by oversimplified messages, citizens go along with conventional definitions of what constitutes significance. Millions of dollars were wasted by members of congress trying to use the Benghazi issue for political advantage.

Trump’s “colorful” demagoguery has provided an endless supply of juicy headlines. The drive for ratings has weakened the immune system of our media to such an extent that the oversimplified, the sensational and the rankly untrue have metastasized, squeezing aside cool appraisal. Here are three interrelated realities that provide a context for political debate grounded in the real:

First, we have arrived at a super-challenging moment in history where our human presence on the planet is exceeding its carrying capacity. Aside from a few odd ducks in our Congress bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry, no one can deny this. Free-market capitalists are compelled to change their definition of growth from money manipulation, sheer quantity and planned obsolescence to meeting real human needs, quality and sustainability. In the 19th century, corporations had to justify their usefulness to society to receive their lawful charters. Entrepreneurs need only look for potential models of real prosperity to the creativity of natural systems that reuse everything and waste nothing. Without a vibrant, healthy ecosystem, there will be less and less vibrant, healthy people to ensure the success of markets.

Second, it is a relief that war is on the decline, because the destructive power of our nuclear weapons has also exceeded the capacity of the planet to absorb the violence built into them.  The impulse to make profits on the renewal of these weapons, rationalized by the apparent success of deterrence theory, will almost certainly lead sooner or later to nuclear war by misunderstanding, computer malfunction or the perception that conventional war is not enough to ensure “victory.”  The designers of these weapons have made a devil’s bargain. If the nine nuclear nations could conference their way into gradual, reciprocal disarmament, it would become a precedent-setting example for non-violent solutions to many other challenges—including stabilizing the climate.

Third, not unexpectedly, the American military-industrial-media complex doesn’t foreground systemic alternatives to dominance. People who meet face to face and engage in dialogue about common challenges can build relationship and trust and get beyond fear-based stereotypes and futile hatreds. Even individual U.S. soldiers in places like Afghanistan, struggling to accomplish contradictory policy goals, have been known to do just that with courage and skill. But merely to sell planes, tanks and missiles to other nations is proving to be a bogus way to ensure either loyalty or security—especially when the war of all against all confuses who is friend or foe. What if it turned out that expanding the resources of the Peace Corps while closing some far-off military bases yielded more security in the long run? Imagine an international system based less on big sticks than on monetary incentives, carrots the prosperous nations could easily afford to dangle in front of countries that aspire to score high on an index of representative democracy, transition beyond weapons and armies, transparency, and accountability for corruption. Of course to avoid hypocrisy the prosperous nations dispensing these goodies would have to adhere to similar aspirations.

In our own country, proven devices like ranked-choice voting could help American politics evolve beyond settling for the least bad candidate. And there is no more important task for the United States than to continue to provide safe spaces for religious diversity and to be an example of that possibility to other countries. At their best the great religions show the commonality of worldwide hopes and aspirations. Surely neither God nor Allah smiles with benign approval at the nuclear balance of terror that we still tolerate a half-century after the Cuban crisis. There are objective truths about what will lead to the survival of the species that transcend the differences between Islam, Christianity, and other well-trodden spiritual paths. Most of our biggest challenges, climate change above all, are transnational in nature and require a transreligious level of cooperation never achieved before by our species.

It seems unlikely that the candidates will address such reality-based challenges in the next few months—unless they are prompted by citizens and journalists determined to hold their feet to the fire of the real. Hillary and Donald, what are your thoughts about “nuclear winter” in the context of the hundreds of billions of dollars the congress is planning to spend on renewed nuclear weapons? How might we use these funds more creatively to enhance our security? Why wouldn’t it help global stability and our own security to declare unequivocally that we will never use such weapons first? Given the urgency, shouldn’t we sponsor an ongoing international conference on the abolition of nukes? What is your vision for ending the endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya? How are changes in climate affecting the possibility of future conflicts over water and arable land, and what can we do to resolve such conflicts preventively by reallocating resources presently spent on military hardware toward meeting real human needs? Total objectivity may be out of reach, but we can lean in that direction by asking effective questions.