Saturday, February 15, 2014


There was a major story in Time magazine that military personnel were cheating on competency tests relating to the command and control of American nuclear missiles. This was one more confirmation of what we already know in our hearts but prefer not to examine too closely: humans are too human, too small, too fallible, to be in charge of the unfathomable destructive power of nuclear weapons.

Activists, frustrated by a Congress in the pocket of military-industrial corporations, have rightly shifted their focus to building local coalitions that emphasize bottom-up renewal. The peace movement is still hard at work, but overwhelmed by the size of the powers arrayed against it.

Maybe it’s the top military brass of the nuclear nations who ought to be leading the charge toward reciprocal disarmament, because their political masters have laid upon them an impossible task: to make zero mistakes when interpreting the behavior of other nations, to keep these weapons and the people who handle them in a state of hair-trigger readiness without tipping over the edge into accidents, and to avoid nuclear winter should, God forbid, the weapons be used.

A tall order indeed, because our experience with technologically complex systems designed not to fail is that sometimes they all fail — not a Rumsfeldian unknown unknown. Just as the occasional crash of a passenger plane or a space shuttle has proven inevitable, or a Chernobyl or Fukushima or Three Mile Island meltdown is unlikely but nevertheless has also proven inescapable, so too it is inevitable that, unless we change direction as a species, there will be a fatal incident involving nuclear weapons.

Some analysts claim that we are actually in a more risky time than during the Cold War. As we see in the cheating scandal, people in charge of the weapons, because their mission has been rendered obsolete by the change from the Cold War to the “war on terror,” are tempted by laziness and corner-cutting.

The United States, even while a signatory to international treaties that enjoin it to reduce its nuclear weapons and cooperate with other states to reduce theirs, is poised to spend untold billions, money needed desperately for, say, transitioning to clean, sustainable sources of energy, to renew its nuclear weapons systems. The tail of corporate profit wags the dog of nuclear policy, but neither the cost nor the danger of nuclear weapons appears to be a high priority for most Americans.

Terrorism naturally gets more focus today. Avoiding nuclear terrorism may actually be easier to accomplish than to guarantee in perpetuity those impossible conditions attached to “legitimate” state-controlled nuclear weapons.

In the case of terrorists, the objective is to secure and keep separate the parts and ingredients of weapons. The vast majority of nations are in agreement with this goal and willing to cooperate to reach it.  Meanwhile the far greater danger may be the relentless momentum engendered by the in-place weapons systems of the nuclear club, motivating more states to want to join, resulting in more command and control complexity, and more probability of misinterpretation.

In his famous poem “September 1, 1939,” W.H. Auden wrote, “We must love one another or die.” Auden came to dislike the poem for its preachiness. In 1955 he allowed it to be reprinted in an anthology with the line altered to “We must love one another and die.”  Though the two lines obviously have different meanings, both versions are true.

It is inevitable that we will all die, whether we learn to love each other or not. Is it also inevitable that we will die in nuclear fire or under gray skies of nuclear ash? Not if nuclear nations begin to have a conversation based in the common recognition that nuclear weapons are not useful to planetary security.

Creative acts of love, truth-telling, and inclusion are always open to us, as Nelson Mandela demonstrated. When the Nazis occupied Denmark in April, 1940, 17-year-old Danish schoolboy Arne Sejr wrote his “Ten Commandments” that were creative ways to nonviolently slow, sabotage, and stymie Nazi goals in his country.

In the dark days of 1943 the people of Denmark, at great risk, not only spirited 7,800 Jews into neutral Sweden to shield them from the invading Nazis, but also interceded on behalf of the 5 percent who were already on their way to Theresienstadt, with the result that 99 percent of Danish Jews were spared the Holocaust.

The nuclear Gordian knot is in equal need of heroes who can cut into it with the sharp blade of truth, and spirit our species into a new paradigm beyond our present false sense of security. Is it possible such heroes might emerge from within the military-industrial complex itself? We need more high-ranking Ellsbergs, Snowdens and Mannings, not only to reveal secret data or expose competency breakdown, but to also assert that security via nukes overall is a futile project — not only for the U.S. but for all nations who possess or want nuclear weapons.

Generals and weapons designers have hearts and love their grandchildren like all of us. If a few of them spoke out, the world would owe them a priceless debt of gratitude.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Universe Story As A Resource for Peacebuilders

An enrichment paper written for the Parkdale Conference, May 2011

The three basic laws of the universe at all levels of reality are differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. These laws identify the reality, the values, and the directions in which the universe is proceeding.
                                                 —Thomas Berry

As we begin a fresh phase in the great task of permanently ending war on the planet, it may be helpful to examine whether the scientific story of the unfolding universe itself gives us any encouragement.

Setting aside theological speculation and remaining only with what science can verify, the post-Descartian way of thinking about our human relationship to the universe posits that we are microscopic dust-motes in an inconceivably vast and heartlessly indifferent cosmos. Even if peace might be possible, the surrounding context provides no visible support for the endeavor. Its cold emptiness mocks the absurdity of our fragile hopes and dreams.

The cosmological work of Thomas Berry provides us with a very different way of looking at our relationship to the whole. Berry’s mentor Teilhard de Chardin conceived a universe which favors complexity and consciousness, our own presence being the primary evidence. For Berry, the laws that make this presence possible are the same laws that have governed the entire unfolding story of the whole at every level from the micro to the macro.
Differentiation is another way of stating Teilhard’s complexification. Differentiation took place in the furnaces of stars as new elements were created. We see differentiation most immediately in the direction toward greater diversity in the biological life forms on the planet— subject always to the creative, and also ruthlessly destructive, demands of the evolutionary process.

The tragic (and potentially ruthlessly destructive) side of differentiation arises in our human inability to handle cultural and religious diversity, a misunderstanding that comes from our tendency to limit our identification to specific places, tribes, nations, or beliefs. This tendency is dissolving as more and more of us take in where we really are—on a small planet that we have gridded with artificial geographical and mental borders.

By subjectivity, Berry does not mean that all things are self-aware like the human brain, but that all things are animated by a self-organizing principle that allows them to maintain their particular identity in full authenticity. A carbon atom declares its specific identity and creative potential as a carbon atom. An acorn becomes an oak reliably, not a tomato plant. A spiral galaxy obeys the laws of its own particular unfolding.

Communion, Berry’s third universal law, describes like the other two laws a condition to which the universe has been subject from the beginning. Via the curvature of space- time, all parts of the universe are intimately in communion with all other parts. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms commune to form water. On the level of biology we see this same law operant in complex ecosystems where organisms like coral reefs are functionally interdependent with the fish that surround them. Each helps to keep the other healthy.

In short, the universe is not a dead backdrop to forlorn and isolated human activity, but a differentiated community of subjects of which we are an integral part. This is a way of trying to say the nearly unsayable: that the three laws form one indivisible whole. 

All is one.

What are the implications for peacebuilding of these profound principles animating the dynamics of the universe?

First, the three laws form the outline a viable ethical system. What celebrates greater differentiation, encourages deeper reverence for subjectivity, and activates more profound communion among humans is good; what inhibits or cuts short these three indicates an absence of good. To state it even more categorically, what extends these three processes leads to more abundant life, and what diminishes them leads to death.

Second, the three laws provide a model for the direction in which humans are meant to grow, and therefore a model specifically for those of us who may decide, with each other’s indispensable help, to try to model the model:

Knowing that differentiation of viewpoint strengthens the creativity of the whole, peacebuilders delight in diversity of every kind, and reach to celebrate it across economic, racial, cultural, gender-based, political, national and religious barriers.
Peacebuilders contain and value depths of subjectivity, maintaining an openness to communing with the differentiated subjectivity of others. Peacebuilders are self- initiating (the Buddha: "Be a light unto yourself."), self- aware of the shadow within them, and self-forgiving of their human limitations. This enables them to be dispassionate in the face of powerful systems based upon limited, fragmented identifications, "us and them," or fight or flight thinking.

Peacebuilders actively initiate the formation of deeper communal ties across artificial barriers, not only between humans, but also among humans and the rest of the living system, exploring more effective ways of working consultatively within the whole.
This commitment to be present, authentic, inclusive and responsible invites humans to exercise their entire being in a gymnasium of discovery—discovery of a love grounded in the reality, the values and the directions‖ of the universe itself.

If the universe is with us, who can be against us?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Has the Idea of a Jewish State Become Obsolete?

While John Kerry admirably shuttles around like the Energizer Bunny in search of Middle East peace, is there anything new to say about the intractable tension between Israelis on the one hand and predominantly Muslim peoples, especially the Palestinians, on the other?

One layer of the unspoken is Israel’s implicit status as a nuclear power.  Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama draw red lines in the sand concerning the threat of Iranian nukes, but say little about the only viable long-term solution: a negotiated and verified nuclear-free zone in the Eastern Mediterranean—even better, a planet-wide nuclear-free zone. Nuclear war anywhere on earth has become more unthinkable as it has become more possible.

Also rarely spoken—lest howls of anti-Semitism ensue—is an uncomfortable question:  why do we frown upon the lack of separation of church and state in many Muslim countries, while Israel gets a pass in privileging a particular constellation of religion and ethnicity?

The historical rationale for the birth of the Jewish state could not be more reasonable. In the context of Jewish history over thousands of years climaxing in the Holocaust, no one could argue with Jewish fears of extinction and their need for a secure homeland.

Though all parties in the region ought to know from long experience how futile war, terror, obstruction, and discriminatory harshness are as tools to suppress the universal impulse toward justice, each keeps trying one or another unworkable method, making the success of Mr. Kerry’s quixotic mission all the more crucial.  

The present Israeli government derives its identity in large measure from fear of what it is against, and so it has encouraged injustices like the settlements that it would never tolerate were it a victim of similar treatment.

Obviously this is not to say that the anti-Semites of the Arab world are innocent. And it is unfair to compare the civil rights Israel has afforded non-Jews with the civil rights much of the Muslim world affords women and non-believers.  Israel does not order the execution of those who abandon Judaism.  However much it may wish to be even-handed, it sees its own Muslim population growing. If this population enjoyed full citizenship Israeli could eventually become a de facto Muslim state.  So it waters down Muslim civil rights to preserve its identity.  

As we express our hope that Arab countries (and even the U.S. itself) evolve toward a more inclusive and tolerant politics, is it worth asking if the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state has become counter-productive to its own long-term security? It is not that Zionism is racism, in the crude Arab formulation, but that Zionism has been transcended by the notion of a state relatively untethered to any one religion.

If the identity of Israel were re-established on the basis of equal rights for all ethnicities, ancient fears might begin to dissolve from within. The corrosive “us-and-them” dynamic could be undermined in a way that left Jews safer—just as Jews, while a minority in the United States, are surely as safe there, if not more so, as they are in Israel.  

For Israel to become a fully secular state, the international community would have to guarantee the security of Jews, whether inside or outside Israel, a task that for understandable reasons Israel has always zealously reserved for itself. Abdication of self-determined security is, to say the least, unlikely. Tragically however, maintaining a Jewish state will increasingly tie its citizens in knots as they are forced to choose between Jewish identity and full democracy.

Jews and Palestinians for the most part do not know each other as people, and the predictable theatrics of their leaders do nothing to help reconciliation. The entry point into a shared future beyond war is the face-to-face engagement of ordinary citizens at the heart level. It is people moving one by one from unfamiliarity, ignorance, and fear, toward familiarity, empathy, and enough trust to allow the heart to message the brain that it's safe to get creative together.

The moral basis of the secular state, the tolerance and compassion that flows from the acknowledgement of universal rights, is ironically a major premise of the Jewish ethical tradition. An unbeliever once asked Rabbi Hillel if he could sum up the Torah while standing on one foot. The simple answer was “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the rest is but commentary.”

One of the many gifts world civilization owes the Jews is this confidence in an ethical universality that transcends specific sects and ethnicities. If I identify as a Jew but also as citizen of secular democracy, I am better able to interact with Palestinians according to our common identity as humans. Finding ourselves in this shared human context, we will stand a measurably better chance of resolving our differences. To the extent that Jews allow themselves that larger identification with the “other,” they may not only come closer to fulfilling the ethical promise of their heritage, but also may find the security that has eluded them since the founding of the Jewish state. How poignant that after thousands of years of their culture contributing so much to the world, this idea should still feel so risky. Godspeed, Mr. Kerry.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Nuclear Weapons and the Unfolding Universe

Through the work of the eco-philosopher Thomas Berry and his protégés, a new way of looking at the universe and our human place in it has been established. While still not “mainstream,” this new story has given hope not only to hundreds of thousands of environmental activists around the world, but as well to thoughtful people in many fields, including economics, theology, education, politics, and science.

The new story of the universe goes something like this: we moderns, using tools like the Hubble Telescope, are the first generation that possesses the resource of the continuous 14 billion year story of the unfurling from the original flaring forth, through the establishment of the galaxies, stars, and planets, to the development of cellular life, to the expanding diversity of life here on earth, to the rise of a particular kind of self-reflective consciousness that is the hallmark of human beings. The cosmologist Brian Swimme offers one of the most concise and beautiful retellings of this story in his prize-winning one hour DVD, “Journey of the Universe” (‎). This life-changing account of our origins and creative potential ought to be seen by every student, every congressman, every pastor, rabbi, mullah, every businessman, in short, everyone.

What are the implications? First, this scientific story of the universe is the basis for all stories, all religions, all the mythic systems humans have devised to give meaning to our presence here—and further, this story is the basis not only for our religious myths and symbols, but also for our educational systems, our economics, and our political arrangements. We humans belong in this universe. We emerged from it. The elements in our bodies, carbon and oxygen and calcium, were forged in the furnace of the stars.

A second obvious implication is that our economic systems must be based in the reality of the economics of the earth itself. As Berry said over and over, you cannot have healthy humans on a sick planet. We cannot extract more resources than the planet can naturally replace, or pollute its systems to the point where it is unable to heal itself. At present our world economic system is based on doing exactly that.

A third clear implication is that all humans are intimately related and connected in their collective story and their collective fate, and connected to all the living systems of the earth without which our lives would be impossible. All our divisions, in the context of the universe story, are artificial abstractions based upon fears, labels, and projections: Arab and Jew, Shia and Sunni, Islam and “the West,” capitalist and socialist, Republican and Democrat.

The degree of this interdependence has taken on a fresh intensity of meaning in the light of our ecological awareness of global interdependence. We cannot save the earth in parts. If Brazil fails to preserve the rain forest, the very lungs of the earth, none of us will breathe oxygenated air. Among thoughtful citizens worldwide, such ideas are already well-worn clichés. But the cliché falls far behind the actions we need to undertake to actually address the problems.

It is astonishing to realize that as a part of this awesome unfolding story, our reflective self-consciousness has also managed to unlock the enormous destructive power at the heart of the atom—threatening everything on our small planet. In the same way our minds and hearts have not caught up with the need for radical concerted action to address our ecological challenges, we also experience a distance between the reality that humans cannot afford to use nuclear weapons, and concrete political efforts to abolish them, efforts which are still considered pie-in-the-sky by our leaders.

Nuclear weapons are a symptom of our security fears, but these very fears can become a motive for action toward disarmament if the shared system of mutual fears is made the basis of diplomacy. The fatal combination of our us-and-them thinking and weapons themselves, no matter who has them, is the threat. It is an illusion to think that just because we are American or French or Pakistani or Chinese, we are infallible and wouldn’t misuse them. There is no going back. They can’t be uninvented. They cannot provide security, because if they were detonated above a certain not-so-large number (some scientists speculate about 5% of existing weapons), a planet-ending nuclear winter would ensue.

Most of the media seems utterly wed to the apparently unchangeable truth of this fear system. But the normative political gesture of people who understand that they all emerged from one universe begins with reaching out beyond an automatic assumption of competitiveness toward the familiarity that establishes safe spaces for dialogue, friendship and gradually-built trust, in the context of challenges shared by all.

Were I a diplomat, I would base my confidence-building overtures with perceived adversaries on this new way of thinking—that this nation or that may be enemies on one level, but on a planetary level we all face this threat together. I would pledge no-first-use. I would push hard for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, especially difficult as that might be.

In the larger context of the universe story, may there soon come a time when the nations of the world, accepting the uselessness of nuclear weapons in war, might cooperate to create a reliable system of rockets and warheads for diverting asteroids on a collision path with our earth. People tend to cooperate more effectively if they can join forces toward a common goal. Then these destructive weapons will take their place in the creative context that we already know to be true: we’re all in this 14-billion-year-old adventure together.

Friday, September 27, 2013

What On Earth Are Nuclear Weapons For?

Eric Schlosser’s hair-raising new book about actual and potential accidents with nuclear weapons, “Command and Control,” sharpens the dialogue, such as it is, between the peace movement and nuclear strategists who maintain that these weapons still enhance the security of nations. 

We can imagine a hypothetical moment somewhere in time. No one can say when exactly, but for my money it is definitely far in the past. Before that moment—perhaps it was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, or perhaps one of the terrifying incidents Schlosser describes, when computer glitches caused the Soviets or the Americans to misperceive that nuclear missiles had been launched—realists could argue that the deterrent effect of the balance of terror was preventing world war. After that moment, the more nuclear weapons, the more risk and insecurity for the planet as a whole and therefore for all nations whether they have the weapons or not.

One of the important points that Schlosser makes, one which former Secretary of Defense William Perry has also emphasized, is that our present moment is not less dangerous because the cold war has passed and treaties have reduced the overall numbers of warheads, but much more dangerous—because military service in the nuclear weapons sector is considered a career dead-end, and the very lack of post-cold-war tension increases potential carelessness. At least General Curtis Lemay, whom John Kennedy had to restrain from attacking Cuba in 1962 (which would have begun World War III) pushed the Strategic Air Command to adhere to strict protocols for the safe handling of the weapons—though even his rigor was insufficient to prevent some of the near-disasters that Schlosser chronicles in such vivid detail.

The ultimate absurdity of the whole system of security-by-nukes is the potentiality of nuclear winter, which posits that it would only take the detonation of a small percentage of the total warheads on the planet to loft enough soot into the atmosphere to shut down world agriculture for a decade—in effect a death-sentence for all peoples and nations.  Wherever the hypothetical line is before which nuclear weapons enhanced international security, the possibility of nuclear winter demonstrates irrefutably that we are on the other side of that line.

If some superior intelligence equipped with an interstellar version of the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders looked closely at the accepted order of things on our planet, they would have serious misgivings about our mental health. As such a visit from aliens seems unlikely to happen, we come to the question of authority here on earth. Ever since Oppenheimer and other scientists gave us nuclear weapons, other deep thinkers like Herman Kahn in his book “Thinking about the Unthinkable” and Henry Kissinger have tried to make rational the permanently irrational subject of mass death. In retirement, Kissinger has thrown up his hands and works now for total abolition. He does this because he knows from experience that nuclear weapons put us in the realm of Rumsfeld’s unknown knowns—no matter what experts may assert, we do know that no one knows how a nuclear war might begin. We have a somewhat clearer idea of how it would end, and “victory” is not one of the words that we associate with such an end.

No one defined more exactly the reasons why we have been so slow to acknowledge our own madness than Dag Hammarskjold:

“It is one of the surprising experiences of one in the position of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to find in talks with leaders of many nations, both political leaders and leaders in spiritual life, that the view expressed, the hopes nourished, and the trust reflected, in the direction of reconciliation, go far beyond what is usually heard in public. What is it that makes it so difficult to bring this basic attitude more effectively to bear upon the determination of policies? The reasons are well known to us all. It might not be understood by the constituency, or it might be abused by competing groups, or it might be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness by the other part. And so the game goes on—toward an unforeseeable conclusion.”

On Thursday, September 26th the UN hosted the first ever High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament. Russia and the United States boycotted the meeting.

The urgent and primary task is educational, and that is where you and I can do our small but necessary part, with letters to our newspapers and our legislators. The task is to seed into worldwide discourse the complete dysfunctionality of “realist” nuclear rhetoric—an act of love on behalf of our beautiful and deeply threatened planet. If we succeed in changing the paradigm, a moment in time will come, again a hypothetical, indefinable moment, when the majority of the world’s people and leaders, Obama and Putin and Netanyahu and Hasan Rouhani, the new head of Iran, the thinkers and the generals of the nine nuclear powers, the corporations who make money off these weapons, all will come to realize the futility of the course we are on. And together we will begin to change. God help us, may no fatal accident or misinterpretation happen before that moment arrives.

Friday, August 30, 2013

"Credibility" is Obsolete

Lord have mercy, a half-century beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis and almost as many years beyond Vietnam, our erstwhile leaders are still mouthing stale clichés about “credibility.” Remember Dean Rusk saying we went eyeball to eyeball with the Soviets and they blinked? Of course the world almost ended, but never mind.

And to go back a little further into the too-soon-forgotten past, some historians surmise that Truman dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not to force an already forthcoming Japanese surrender, but to make ourselves more threateningly credible to the expansionist Soviets as World War II wound down.

Credibility was the main motif of Secretary of State Kerry’s statement ( rationalizing possible military action against Syria. If we’re going to kill a few thousand non-combatants in the next few days or weeks, and it looks increasingly as if we are, could we not do it for some better reason than maintaining to the world, as if the world cared, that we are not a pitiful helpless giant?

I love my country, but by what divine right do we become judge, jury and executioner in international affairs? It is particularly painful to hear valorous-sounding, but actually exhausted, toothless locutions from John Kerry, who began his political career with electrifyingly refreshing congressional testimony opposing the Vietnam War, a war pursued on the basis that if we did not maintain a credible presence in Southeast Asia, country after country would fall to the Commies, ultimately the Chinese Commies. Meanwhile the historical record of a thousand years showed that China had been Vietnam’s mortal enemy. Never mind.

Only a day before Secretary Kerry’s rationalizations, we listened to our first black president commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The truth-force of Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to hover above Barack Obama like a tired and angry ghost, because any person with half a brain could feel the cognitive dissonance between the president’s mealy-mouthed obeisance to the mythology of King’s non-violence, and the hellish violence soon to be visited upon Damascus from our cruise missiles. Mr. Obama, Mr. Kerry, surely you cannot have forgotten how steadfastly Reverend King stood against militarism, how he made the connection between inequality at home and the waste of foreign adventurism.

Our missiles will unleash stupid violence. Unnecessary violence. Hypocritical violence.

Stupid violence because it extends yet further the hatred that so many in the Middle East must feel for our crudely righteous meddling.

Unnecessary violence, because the resolution of the civil war in Syria will not come one wit closer on account of our missiles—even if we kill Assad. There are now too many conflicts folded into the Syrian tangle, the Shia-Sunni conflict, the Iran-Israeli conflict, even the proxy Russian-American conflict.

Hypocritical violence, in view of the U.S. military’s own indiscriminate use of depleted uranium in the Iraq war—and our government’s eagerness to look the other way when Saddam, back when he was our ally, gassed Kurds and Iranians.

Hypocritical violence also because we Americans rationalize our looking to violence as the “solution” to conflict by hiding behind the fig-leaf that gas is so much worse than our other well-trod paths of war-making.  It is not gas that is uniquely horrific. It is war itself.

When will my country begin to enhance its credibility for “living out the true meaning of its creed”? The worldwide equality of humans, their equal right to life and liberty and happiness, is fundamentally threatened by Orwellian political shibboleths like “credibility,” especially coming from a nation that possesses vast piles of weapons of mass destruction that could make death by Sarin gas look like a family picnic. This kind of credibility is incredible.

All this being so, there is zero loss of credibility in admitting that there is no military solution to the civil war in Syria, because the world already knows. The Syrian impasse is horribly difficult, but at least we don’t have to ham-fistedly make it worse. There are so many creative things we could do besides throwing around our power. First of all, restraint itself can be a creative act, when lack of restraint such as what we are contemplating leads nowhere but further into chaos. Don’t just do something, stand there. Or at least stand for credible, consistent values.

Stand against reflexive unilateral military posturing. Stand for the encouragement—and funding—of U.N. Peacekeeping troops going into Syria in large numbers to create buffer zones between adversaries. Stand for supporting the creation of a parallel Syrian government-in-exile that could make halting steps toward processes of truth and reconciliation when the violence finally exhausts itself.  Stand for giving ten times more resources to career diplomats in our State Department, in order that a larger number of people get trained not only in foreign languages and cultures, but also in the arts of diplomatic conflict resolution.

We have forgotten the kind of credibility slowly but steadily built up by Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the U.N., the first person to undertake endless, patient shuttle diplomacy as a better solution than war.  Hammarskjold lived a consistent, impartial ethic bent upon steadfastly reconciling the interests of nations with the interests of the human family. Oh that my country could be led by stout hearts like King and Hammarskjold. They were giants of credibility.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Anna Gunn and the Underside of the American Psyche

Anna Gunn is the female lead in the riveting AMC series “Breaking Bad.” In an August 23 editorial piece in the New York Times, she writes:

“My character, to judge from the popularity of Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women. As the hatred of Skyler blurred into loathing for me as a person, I saw glimpses of an anger that, at first, simply bewildered me.

For those unfamiliar with the show: Skyler is the wife of Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher who, after learning he has lung cancer, begins cooking and selling methamphetamine to leave a nest egg for Skyler, their teenage son and their unborn daughter. After his prognosis improves, however, Walter continues in the drug trade — with considerable success — descending deeper and deeper into a life of crime.”

Apparently the hate even began to transfer from her character to Ms. Gunn herself, reaching the point where she has had to hire protection.

Ms. Gunn’s troubles suggest a deeper look at the series as an American cultural phenomenon. To some extent people far more qualified than me have already done this. For example, the book “Difficult Men,” by Brett Martin, explores the creative process of the producers, writers, directors and actors behind such excellent programs as “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” and “Breaking Bad” itself.

After decades of crassly intelligence-insulting sitcoms (perhaps it was P.T. Barnum who said “nobody ever got poor underestimating the intelligence of the American public”), “Breaking Bad” and friends have presented us with something more akin to a serial novel by Dickens, a form of popular entertainment published in 19th century newspapers that enabled people who could not afford to buy a book all at once to pay for it over time. 

In their efforts to surprise and move us, the creators of “Breaking Bad” have learned from such forms, including repeated use of cliffhangers as each season has ended. They have made something that not only surpasses most feature films in quality, but also allows the characters to inhabit our heads and hearts at a new level of intensity, because we have had time to get to know them. “Breaking Bad” has become a potent cultural “meme,” as Richard Dawkins would call it, a meme that does what art ought to do and what “high art” and “high culture” today often fail to do: connect with something deep in us, challenge us, stimulate us to want more complexity not less.

Beyond the superb writing and plotting of the show, the ensemble acting is a huge part of its success. All the major characters are well projected by the various actors, working off each other and the crackling scripts they are given. But for me Skyler White, the Anna Gunn character, anchors the whole ensemble.  Imagine the challenge of having to gradually modulate your character’s responses—literally across years of acting—to the reality that someone you loved, perhaps on some level still love, has turned into an unfathomably manipulative monster.

Skyler especially stands in for us in our reaction to Walt’s descent into evil. She displays about the widest range of human response as I’ve ever seen in a character—toughness, obduracy, courage, ambivalence, rationalization, confusion, helplessness, panic, and on and on. Bryan Cranston is equally wonderful of course as Walter White, but through playing off Gunn’s amazing emotional range he gets handed greater depth and interest on a plate.

Ironically, it is a testament to Anna Gunn’s acting chops that her character has elicited such a Neanderthal (sorry, this insults Neanderthals) reaction from people. That such hateful comments on Facebook have bled across from Skyler White to Gunn herself suggests that what threatens the threatened men out there is not ultimately the power of the character but the power of the actor herself.

It may not be pretty to consider what Gunn’s experience indicates about the American male psyche as it tries to wrestle with the need to grow up and accept the equality of the sexes, but what a great testament to the power of art, the writer’s art and the actor’s art, that this program has gotten as deeply under our skin as it has, even under the skin of the hate-filled.

As the final program of the “Breaking Bad” series nears, very few in the audience will still think highly of Walter White, but we remain fascinated, because we identify, if only a little, with the Shakespearean temptation to evil that Bryan Cranston has embodied so effectively.

It is a psychological commonplace that a discrete culture like ours, insofar as we are still a homogenous culture (and if we are, it is now our entertainment that tells us we are), tends to project evil outward, onto some distant “other,” quickly losing the necessary subtle admissions by which we can keep ourselves grounded and humane—such as that we are all, without exception, capable of good and evil.

These shows remind us in a healthy way that America is not all dewy, self-righteous innocence. “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” have at least one theme in common: the fascination of raw evil rearing up out of the midst of the ordinary suburbs where many of us live. Both Tony Soprano and Walter White touch and often devastate the lives of decent people around them.

When we do project evil outward, distinctions necessary to a sensible grip on reality tend to get blurred, such as:


In the larger picture, might this same capacity for blurred thinking have anything to do with the fact that the United States was attacked on 9-11 by nineteen extremists, fifteen from Saudi Arabia, one from Egypt, two from the United Arab Emirates, and one from Lebanon—and then we declared war on Iraq?