Wednesday, August 1, 2018

What's Past is Prologue (?)


Dear Friends,

While we feel may feel vulnerable to Trump Derangement Syndrome for many reasons, it is important to keep our eyes upon the main event, a crucial chapter of which is laid out in this solidly written piece of historical reporting from the Times.

It is important because it is an accurate picture of who we are as a species in this era: short-sighted, deluded by a privileged sense of invulnerability, prone to denial and obstruction of truth, stubborn, indifferent if we are not directly affected, reluctant to consider the fate of fellow suffering humans, let alone our own progeny both in the near future and in the distant, almost unimaginable far future—and utterly dependent upon the special courage and heroism of a very small number of people, like the climate scientist James Hansen, who refused to be muffled or sidetracked. It is hard to look at ourselves in this picture, but necessary if we are going to act effectively, without giving in to the passivity of despair after decades of drifting in the passivity of indifference.

Though the article does not cover this, the issue of climate is inseparable from the issue of war, and the opportunity cost of expending vast funds on military equipment needed for the very mitigation of negative climate effects that will cause more wars.

The future foretold in this article has arrived. Along with fury at the criminal stupidity of pulling out of the Paris Accords, I also cannot help feeling uneasily complicit—can you?— in the fate of hundreds of millions of fellow humans who are drowning in the floods of Bangladesh, succumbing to heatstroke in the streets of Mumbai, or losing everything in the fires in California or Greece. The relationship between their fates and our own choices has become inescapable.

I recall a seminar, one which included climate in its themes, I attended some decades ago during the time of the events recounted in the article, where a participant, a man in his thirties, suddenly burst into tears. When asked by seminar leader Don Fitton what was troubling him, he sobbed, "The trees! What will happen to the trees!"  I remember thinking he was annoyingly over the top, a bit of a self-dramatist. Now I think his response was prophetic and deeply sane, at least in comparison to my own smug condescension. In fact, the trees are probably going to be fine, as they flourish on increased concentrations of carbon dioxide. Too many of our fellow humans, let alone our children and grandchildren, maybe not so much . . .

There is enormous solace and promise in the scientific story of the universe and distant past history of Earth, in which still-mysterious powers are guiding the direction of a further surprising unfolding. Life has come through so much, even if the changes were accompanied by cataclysmic destruction in such meta-events as the five major mass extinctions. We are in the midst of the sixth—20,000 species a year ghosting into nevermore. Industrial society has given us many boons, but we must now apply our immense mammalian creativity, our deep innate capacity to care, to figuring out what our role might be as humans in the total system, beyond consumerism—not only to stop degrading our only home but to bring forth the restorative powers that are already rooted in the gorgeous intelligence of the natural world, waiting to nourish us if we can work with and not against them. As Paul Hawken has pointed out, millions of committed people are participating in organizations whose mission aligns with those powers.

I urge you to send this link to the Times article to as many people as possible.

In hope,

Winslow

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Mind Reels


"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."
                                                                        —Winston Churchill

Equally enigmatic is how Mr. Trump went about representing the national interest of the United States at Helsinki. Until Mr. Mueller is ready to provide possible clarification, the fog around the president’s motivation persists: narcissistic ineptitude almost surely; perhaps also kompromat, collusion, and/or fear of money laundering becoming exposed.

All the confusion provides an object lesson in the plasticity of enemy-imaging. As someone old enough to remember the lame British-American interference in Iran in the fifties, the hysteria of McCarthyism, Hoover’s clandestine harassment of Martin Luther King Jr., and far greater debacles like the wanton destruction of Vietnam and Cambodia, I persist in my skepticism concerning the degree of competence we can expect from the bureaucrats and generals to whom we reluctantly entrust our safety.

But now, with the executive branch demonstrably willing to gallop bareback off the established foreign policy reservation, the knee-jerk adversary of progressives for decades, the so-called “deep state,” with its reflexive fear of Russian totalitarian infiltration and its perpetuation of military dominance in all earthly spheres, may at least be providing a sorely needed element of restraint and integrity.

The plot is further thickened by an interesting analysis in The Nation magazine by Stephen Cohen, a Princeton professor emeritus and lifetime Russia watcher. He asks us to take a deep breath in the midst of our anxiety about the president’s apparent capitulation to his authoritarian friend in power.

Cohen asserts that when the president states that "I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we've all been foolish. ... And I think we're all to blame," he is onto something:

Cohen continues: “For the past 15 years, the virtually unanimous American bipartisan establishment answer has been: Putin, or “Putin’s Russia,” is solely to blame. Washington’s decision to expand NATO to Russia’s border, bomb Russia’s traditional ally Serbia, withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, carry out military regime change in Iraq and Libya, provoke the Ukrainian crisis and back the coup against its legitimate president in 2014, and considerably more—none of these, only “Putin’s aggression,” led to the new Cold War. This explanation has long become a rigid bipartisan orthodoxy tolerating no dissent.”

Tragically, the president’s compulsive willingness to lie, his thin-skinned, possibly guilt-motivated defensiveness, his Kissingeresque lone-cowboy-riding-to-the-rescue style, along with the appallingly short-sighted withdrawal from the Paris Accords and the Iran nuclear deal, has pretty much destroyed his credibility as a heretical and possibly creative anti-establishment actor. When he assigns blame equally between America and Russia for the new Cold War, all most of us can see is an echo of the false equivalence of his assigning blame equally to the neo-Nazis and the civil rights protesters in Charlottesville.

Where does a citizen go in all this craziness for an authoritative sense of context? One useful perspective is the long-term history of the nuclear arms race, out of which came a bracing truth from another apparent adversary of progressive thinking, Ronald Reagan: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In spite of our finding ourselves, more than a half-century beyond the Cuban missile crisis, still building new nuclear weapons on all sides, we humans have not gotten the message: continuing the arms race on the basis of deterrence prophesies not greater security but only inevitable mass death through error, misinterpretation, or miscalculation.

The “establishment” is well aware of this. They are designing new nuclear weapons to be less powerful so that they become strategically more “flexible” and “useful,” and presumably can avoid fatal consequences like nuclear winter. But smaller weapons only make the nuclear threshold easier to cross, and once it is crossed, who will prevent escalation to the larger, world-ending weapons?

As Churchill said, the key to Russia is national self-interest. Planetary self-interest in the nuclear age provides a common-sense context for our contemporary circus. When Mr. Trump persuades Mr. Putin to join him in convening an international conference of the military leaders of the nine nuclear powers to discuss joining the 122 nations who have outlawed nuclear weapons as self-destructive and unusable, I will be among the first to commend him as an anti-establishment hero. Meanwhile—the mind reels.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

President Trump's Useful Idiocy


Though the president still has many supporters, there is a growing consensus, especially as the Trump-initiated trade war heats up, that he does not have their best interests in mind, never mind the best interests of the nation as a whole. While I think I understand why so many people voted for Trump, my sympathy does not extend to the man himself, whose emotional repertoire appears to be the narrow range between meanness and self-pity.

As his first summit with Vladimir Putin approaches, though we do not have certainty about the possibility of active collusion, one cannot help but recall Lenin’s phrase “useful idiot,” by which Lenin meant anyone who could be manipulated to serve the ends of the Soviet state.

To borrow another well-known phrase, this time from the late Senator Moynihan, Trump has “defined deviancy down.” Gradually we have come to tolerate behavior in a leader that was formerly enough to derail a candidacy, if not leading to outright trial by law.

Whether Mr. Trump will or will not be able to serve out his term, it is not too soon to learn some lessons about what we seek and what we want to avoid in candidates for the presidency. In no particular order, here follows a simple and obvious list, clarified by way of contrast with the person presently occupying the office:

• A president needs to be a national model for truth-telling, encouraging and validating the scientific method, and making policy based upon experimentally validated data.

•A president needs a secure, private, inner-directed self-sense that transcends their image in the media, a self-sense that includes a solid ethical compass.

•A president needs to ameliorate, not exacerbate, conservative-progressive polarization, and consistently emphasize what all of us have in common as Americans, like equality of opportunity and equality under the law. The president that follows Trump will need special skills to promote healing between pro- and anti-Trump factions.

•A president needs to understand the racism which is one of America’s original sins, so that they can actively encourage the principle that our diversity makes us stronger.

•Anyone who wins the presidency will inevitably possess a healthy ego, but presidents must sublimate their self-confidence into a humble awareness of their position as servant leader, which views citizens as ends rather than instruments.

•A president needs good listening skills. Most of America’s difficulties, domestic or international, have in common some kind of failure to listen. Crude bullying, such as opposition to a U.N. breast feeding resolution because it threatens the profits of baby formula corporations, is surely not what our country wants to be known for around the world.

•A president needs to separate from business interests clearly and absolutely while in office.

•Presidents need authentic life experience that has tested them. My friend Adam Cote ran for the governorship of Maine. While serving the National Guard, he was deployed to Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, where he began an orphanage and established an effective program that adopted Iraqi villages. Five minutes in Adam’s presence is sufficient to demonstrate that his motivation for running is public service, not power. The testing experience doesn’t have to be military; it could be any trial by fire that seasons a person. 

•Presidents need a sense of humor, especially about themselves.

•Presidents need to be scholars of the lessons of history, to avoid repeating past mistakes.

•A president needs to be strong enough to push back against establishment groupthink from whatever political direction, such as the momentum of American techno-colonialism and militarism. Presidents can be a bulwark against the tail of unlimited military spending wagging the dog of sensible policy.

•Irrespective of party, presidents need to understand the great global challenge of environmental stress, and the imperative for greater international cooperation to help the planet through to a place where humans have learned to sustain the commons that is the life-support-system for all.

•Presidents must understand that many of our contemporary challenges are trans-national, and that the delicate structures of international law must be gradually strengthened. This will unquestionably benefit America’s security in the long term.

•Presidents need discernment. As my father used to say, quoting Leo Rosten: “First rate people hire first rate people. Second rate people hire fourth rate people.”

Of course, every trait that makes a good president also makes a good civically engaged citizen. It would seem we get the presidents we deserve (though most of the Trump voters I know are much more interesting than either the liberal press stereotype of a Trump voter or than Trump himself).

Even if at a very high cost, President Trump may have done our country at least one valuable service. If we have learned the right lessons, we will tolerate a little less the political obfuscations of the mean-spirited, the petty, the mealy-mouthed, the smugly entitled (in both mainstream political parties), and still less the garrulous narcissism taking up all the air in the room at present. There is an opening, if we can encourage it, for a more disinterested, honest political conversation. I know I will be looking among the emerging candidates for at least some of the qualities listed above—and that, I’m afraid, means I need to exemplify those qualities myself.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Real Security




Whether the summit with North Korea is on or off, a triumph or a disaster or something in between, the leaders of nuclear nations are like fish making petty threats and counter-threats while swimming in an ocean of reality they ignore to everyone’s peril: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” (Ronald Reagan, 1984).

What an opportunity our planet is missing!

We all sense that the arms race has reached a fatal level of destructiveness. There is some debate about how many nuclear detonations might be required to bring on nuclear winter, but the number is clearly a small fraction of the total available to the 9 nuclear powers. The meaning of peace through military strength will never be the same again. In recognition, 122 nations signed an agreement outlawing the weapons.

Two doors face us, one leading to death and one to life. We don't see it, but both are equally easy to open and walk through. There are 82 million fellow humans in Iran, 25 million in North Korea, 1 and a third billion in China, 140-odd million in Russia, all of whom want the same things we want for our children. Are they all our sworn enemies? Only in the insane, launch-on-warning, "surviving"-a-first-strike world where the tail of nuclear strategy wags the dog of common sense.

Everything has changed, and diplomacy must change with it. Diplomacy based in reality rather than double standards and illusion would suggest meeting our adversaries on the common ground of a shared desire not only to survive by gradual, verifiable, reciprocal steps back from the brink, but also to flourish by becoming free to repurpose the money formerly spent upon weapons to life-affirming programs and devices. Imagine governments encouraging the development of decentralized, sustainable power sources such as batteries and solar panels, creating an economic abundance that would reduce the need for war—a virtuous circle.

On this the major powers must lead—especially the United States, the only nation to have actually used a nuclear weapon to kill people. There are so many small, confidence-building measures we could take unilaterally which would not only not compromise our security, but would increase it, beginning with a pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons.

Such alternatives as renewing and miniaturizing our nuclear arsenal or taking the arms race out into space, as military planners in a number of nations are apparently racing to do, are the height of folly. The level of destruction available to nations is far larger than all our political and economic conflicts, and so the destructiveness has become irrelevant to the resolution of such conflicts. Because this is a Gordian knot we all share, we can cut through it on the basis of a common awareness that the arms race offers no way to reach the common security we all desire.


 



Thursday, February 22, 2018

Duck and Cover



Once those articulate Florida high school students, God love them, are finished exposing the craven emptiness of politicians like Marco Rubio and others subverted by the NRA, they might want to turn to nuclear weapons as another sacred cow ripe for the “we call B.S.” treatment.

The acute dangers of gun violence and nuclear weapons offer ominous parallels. Both are deadly serious issues that provoke absurd levels of avoidance and paralysis.

For 22 years, pressure from the NRA upon the Center for Disease Control caused Congress to defund research into gun fatalities. Opportunists like Rubio duck and take cover from the obvious root cause of our endless mass shootings, the glut of unregulated guns, turning to any other explanation no matter how implausible, in order to avoid shutting off the spigot of blood-soaked NRA cash.

The solutions to keeping children in schools safe from mass shootings have never been hidden. There is a slam-dunk correlation between the numbers of guns in any country and the number of mass shootings, and the United States wins the booby prize for having by far the most guns and the most shootings.

Avoidance continues rampant on the nuclear issue as well. Last fall Senator Corker, acknowledging bipartisan concerns about the unstable temperament of the president, opened a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee examining some of the legal issues of nuclear command and control, by remarking that this was the first hearing on the subject since 1976! Senator Rubio was there, tut-tutting that even talking about whether military personnel had the option to refuse to carry out illegal orders (they do) might undermine our credibility with North Korea.

While the president’s unhinged bellicosity may indeed keep us up at night, the overall structure of executive authority over nuclear weapons is an even greater cause for sweaty insomnia than any particular person in office. No human being, however well-trained in sober decision-making, should ever be put in the position of having five minutes to decide whether to launch a fleet of nuclear-winter-causing missiles because someone else’s nuclear-winter-causing missiles were already on their way—or not, as in the case of the Hawaiian false alarm.

Those who call for arming teachers, who buy into deterrence theory on either the gun level or the nuclear level, must justify the improbable notion that the more we are armed, the more we can move into the future without errors, misinterpretations, and accidents. Nuclear deterrence, designed to ensure stability, is undercut by the inherently unstable momentum of “we build-they build.” In order to be certain that the weapons, whether a loaded pistol in the drawer or a ballistic missile in a silo, are never used, they must be kept ready for instant use—accidents waiting to happen.


Fortunately, the insane levels of destructiveness built up during the Cold War were reduced by the hard work of skilled diplomats—reminding us that sensible further reductions in nuclear arms remain within the realm of possibility even if political will is presently lacking.

Reductions in the equally grotesque numbers of guns in the possession of American citizens are equally possible with well-structured buyback programs and common-sense regulations based upon the model of licensing citizens to drive cars.

Duck and cover stopgaps only fuel vain illusions of survivability—crouching in closets or hiding under desks as a viable protection from either a shooter with an AR-15 or the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Prevention is not nine-tenths but ten-tenths of the cure.

The rhythmic repetition of shootings tempts us to assume that the probability of nuclear war is much less likely than further gun slaughter. The reality is that without a fundamental change of direction, both more mass shootings and more nuclear weapons used against people are tragically inevitable. Too many assault rifles in the hands of too many angry, alienated young men will yield more incidents. The authority to launch nuclear weapons from North Korea is itself in the hands of an alienated young man, leaving aside that our president is himself a far cry from being a grown-up.

Powerful lobbying efforts thwart reasonable plans for reducing either guns or nuclear weapons. In the case of the latter, a vast program of renewal costing trillions is getting under way, in clear violation of the spirit of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to which the U.S. is a signatory.

The argument that the more we are armed to the teeth the safer we will be simply does not hold up under statistical examination. Where gun regulations are stricter, violent incidents drop, and where they are looser, incidents rise. Period. There is no logical reason to assume matters are any different with nuclear weapons. The more there are, and the more people who are handling them, the greater the chance of their being used. Period.

That is why 122 nations signed an agreement at the U.N. last year banning nuclear weapons. In a similar spirit the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School quickly sublimated their grief and rage into a growing political movement to change gun laws. When they become adults and begin to run for office, it’s hopeful to imagine they will also call B.S. on the notion that more nuclear weapons make us safer.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Nuclear Deterrence, North Korea,and Dr.King


In my judgment as an interested citizen, there is a breathtaking degree of denial and illusion in the world of nuclear strategy, on all sides. Kim Jong Un deludes his people with crude propaganda about annihilating the United States. But Americans also underestimate American military strength, along with the strength of the other nuclear powers—a level of potential destruction that could be world-ending. Denial, unquestioned assumptions, and drift masquerade as rational policy. Putting war prevention first is overshadowed by a paradigm of casual bellicosity.

Granting that North Korea initiated the Korean war, 80% of North Korea was destroyed before it was over. The head of the Strategic Air Command, Curtis Lemay, dropped more bombs on North Korea than were detonated in the entire Asia-Pacific theater during World War II. The North Korean economy was decimated and has only partly recovered. There was famine in the 1990s. There’s no closure, no formal treaty of peace.  The North Korean mind-set is that we are still at war—a convenient excuse for their leaders to scapegoat the U.S., distracting the minds of their citizens with an external enemy—a classic totalitarian trope. Our country continues to play right into this scenario.

Kim Jong Un’s family is complicit in illicit arms and heroin sales, currency counterfeiting, ransom ware that cruelly disrupted the work of hospitals around the world, assassination of relatives, arbitrary detention, and torture of dissidents in secret forced labor camps.

But our present crisis with North Korea is only a particular instance of a general planetary condition, one that is equally acute in the Kashmir conflict, for example, which pits nuclear India against nuclear Pakistan. As Einstein wrote in 1946, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Unless we find a new mode of thinking, we’re going to be dealing with more North Koreas down the time-stream.

All the complexity of nuclear strategy, can be boiled down to two inescapable potentialities: We have long surpassed an absolute limit of destructive power and no technological system invented by humans has been forever error-free.

A thermonuclear bomb exploded above any major city would in a millesecond raise the temperature to 4 or 5 times the surface of the sun. Everything for a hundred square miles around the epicenter would be instantly aflame. The firestorm would generate 500 mile-an-hour winds, capable of sucking in forests, buildings, and people. The soot rising into the troposphere from detonation of as few as 1% to 5% of the world’s arsenals could have the effect of cooling the entire planet and diminishing for a decade our capability to grow what we need to feed ourselves. Billions would starve. I have not heard of any congressional hearings addressing this interesting possibility—even though it is hardly new information.  33 years ago, my organization, Beyond War, sponsored a presentation on nuclear winter given by Carl Sagan to 80 united nations ambassadors. Nuclear winter may be old news, but its subversion of the meaning of military strength remains unprecedented and game-changing. Updated models suggest that in order to avoid nuclear winter, all nuclear–armed countries must reduce their arsenals to about 200 warheads.

But even such radical reductions do not resolve the problem of error or miscalculation, which—confirmed by the Hawaii false alarm—is the most likely way nuclear war with north Korea would begin. The public relations cliché is that the president always has with him the codes, the permissive action links, that are the only way nuclear war can be initiated. While this is hair-raising enough, the truth may be even more disheartening. Neither U.S. nor Russian deterrence, nor North Korean for that matter, would have credibility if adversaries believed that a nuclear war could be won simply by taking out the enemy’s capital city or head of state. These systems are therefore designed to ensure retaliation from other locations, and also down the chain of command.

During the Cuban missile crisis, Vasili Archipov was an officer on a Soviet submarine on which our navy was dropping what were called practice grenades, in order to get them to surface.  The Soviets assumed the grenades were real depth charges. Two officers wanted to fire a nuclear torpedo at a nearby American aircraft carrier. According to Soviet navy protocol, three officers had to agree. No one aboard the submarine required a coded go-ahead from Mr. Khrushchev to take a fatal step toward the end of the world. Fortunately, Archipov was unwilling to assent. With similar heroic prudence, the Kennedy brothers restrained the above-mentioned General Curtis Lemay from bombing Cuba during the missile crisis. Had Lemay’s impulsiveness prevailed in October 1962, we would have been attacking both tactical nuclear weapons and intermediate range missiles in Cuba with nuclear warheads already mounted on them. Robert McNamara: "In a nuclear age, such mistakes could be disastrous. It is not possible to predict with confidence the consequences of military action by the great powers. Therefore, we must achieve crisis avoidance. That requires that we put ourselves in each other's shoes."

In the moment of relief after the Cuban crisis, the sane conclusion was “neither side won; the world won, let’s make sure we never come this close again.” Nevertheless—we persisted. Secretary of State Rusk blithely drew the wrong lesson: “We went eyeball to eyeball and the other side blinked.” The military-industrial juggernaut in the superpowers and elsewhere rolled on. Einstein’s wisdom was ignored.

Nuclear deterrence contains what philosophers call a performative contradiction: In order to never be used, everyone’s weapons must be kept ready for instant use, but if they are used, we face planetary suicide. The only way to win is not to play.

The mutually assured destruction argument is that global war has been prevented for 73 years. Churchill rationalized it with his usual eloquence, in this case in support of a cockeyed assumption: “Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”

But nuclear deterrence is unstable. It locks nations into an endless cycle of we build/they build, and we drift into what psychologists call learned helplessness.

In spite of our professed assumption that our nuclear weapons exist only to deter, only as defense, many U.S. presidents have used them to threaten adversaries. General MacArthur apparently considered using them during the Korean war, just as Nixon wondered if nuclear weapons could change imminent defeat into victory in Vietnam. Our present leader says what’s the point of having them if we can’t use them? That is not deterrence talk. That is the talk of someone who has zero understanding that nuclear weapons are fundamentally different.

By 1984, intermediate-range missiles were deployed in Europe by both the us and the U.S.S.R. decision-making time for both Nato and the Soviets was shortened to minutes. The world was on edge, as it is today. Anyone who lived through the reds-under-the-bed hysteria of the McCarthy era will recall that mass assumptions about the Soviet Union as criminal, evil and godless were a thousand times more intense than what we feel today about Kim and his small benighted country.

In 1984, to honor the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, my organization, Beyond War, set up a live televised “spacebridge” between Moscow and San Francisco. Large audiences in both cities, separated not only by a dozen time zones but also by decades of cold war, listened to the pleas of the co-presidents of the I.P.P.N.W., for reconciliation between the U.S. and the Soviets. The most extraordinary moment came at the very end when all of us in both audiences spontaneously began to wave to each other.

A cynic wrote a scathing analysis of our event in the Wall Street Journal, asserting that the U.S., aided by beyond war’s useful idiocy, had been exploited in a communist propaganda coup. But the spacebridge turned out to be more than just a kumbaya moment. Developing our contacts, we brought together two teams of high-level nuclear scientists from the United States and the Soviet Union to write a book about accidental nuclear war, called “Breakthrough.”  Gorbachev read it. The work of millions of demonstrators, NGOs like Beyond War, and professional foreign service officials began to bear fruit in the second half of the 1980s. In 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev signed an important nuclear disarmament treaty. The Berlin wall came down in 1989. Gorbachev and Reagan, in a poignant moment of sanity, met in 1986 at Reykjavik and even considered mutually eliminating all the nuclear weapons of the two superpowers.
Such initiatives from the 1980s remain deeply relevant to the North Korean challenge.
If we want North Korea to change, we need to examine our own role in the creation of the echo chamber of threat and counter-threat.

Dr. King’s death was a mortal blow to our greatness as a nation. He connected the dots between our racism and our militarism. Significantly, General Curtis Lemay, firebomber of Tokyo in World War II, scourge of Korea, near-trigger of superpower thermonuclear war during the Cuban crisis, reappears in history one more time, in 1968, the same year King was assassinated—as George Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate. Contemplating doing to Pyongyang in 2018 what we did to Hiroshima in 1945 requires a grotesque dehumanization of the 25 million people of North Korea. Lemay’s justification of mass death comes from the same mental space as George Wallace’s (and President Trump’s) racism.

The children of North Korea are as worthy of life as our own. That is not kumbaya. That is a message North Korea needs to hear from us. Were King still with us, he would be thundering that our taxes fund potential mass murder on a level that would make the Jewish holocaust look like a picnic. He would argue that it is moral evasion to assume that our nukes are good because they are democratic, and Kim’s are bad because they are totalitarian. Our country needs to at least surface the subject of double standards, where we prohibit nuclear weapons for Iran and North Korea but not for ourselves. North Korea and Iran should be prohibited membership in the nuclear club, but then so should the rest of us.

New thinking demands that we ask even unsavory characters like Kim Jong Un, “how can I help you survive, so that we can all survive?” Every contact, including the Seoul Olympics, offers opportunities for connection. If we are strategically patient, North Korea will evolve without another Korean war. This is already happening as market forces and information technology gradually work their way into their closed culture.

The ultimate prevention of nuclear war, with North Korea or with anyone else, requires the complete, reciprocal, verified reduction of everyone’s nuclear weapons, first down below the nuclear winter threshold and then, long term, down to zero.  Our own country must lead. Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin could put their odd affinity to good use by initiating a permanent nuclear disarmament conference, gradually enlisting the participation of the other 7 nuclear powers. The whole world would be rooting for success, instead of being terrified of us as it is at present. Confidence-building unilateral moves are possible. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has argued that the United States would be more, not less, secure if we unilaterally eliminated our 450 ICBMs in silos, the land-based leg of our nuclear triad.

Writers like Steven Pinker and Nick Kristof have identified a host of trends that suggest the planet is moving gradually away from war. I want my country to help accelerate those trends, not slow them, or god help us, reverse them. We ought to have supported, rather than boycotted, the recent U.N. treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. 122 countries out of 195 have signed that treaty.  Such an accord may at first seem to have no teeth, but history works in strange ways. In 1928, 15 nations signed the Kellogg-Briand pact, which outlawed all war. It was ratified, if you can believe it, by the United States senate in a vote of 85 to 1. It’s still in force, though it goes without saying that it has been honored more in the breach than in the observance. But that supposedly pie-in-the-sky document supplied the legal foundation for convicting the Nazis of crimes against peace during the Nuremberg trials.

The same engines which power our missiles have also propelled us into space, allowing us to see the earth as a single organism—a sane, powerful, complete picture of our interdependence. What we do to our adversaries we do to ourselves. It is the work of our time to seed this new thinking into even our most Machiavellian survival calculations—to put ourselves in each other’s shoes as Secretary McNamara said. The universe did not bring our planet through a 13.8 billion-year process for us to end it in a self-administered omnicide.  The dysfunctionality of our present leader only serves to make clearer the dysfunctionality of the nuclear deterrence system as a whole.

Our representatives need to hear a lot of us ask for open hearings on nuclear policy, especially nuclear winter, the self-defeating madness of “strategies” like launch-on-warning, and the prevention of nuclear war by error.

The established worldview is that people of good will are trying to build King’s beloved community, and that nuclear deterrence protects that fragile community from a dangerous world. King would have said that nuclear deterrence itself is a huge part of the danger. If we here in the United States came to terms with the original sin of our racism and violence, we would look at the North Korean challenge with different eyes, and they might even see us differently too. We are either drifting toward unparalleled catastrophe or doing our best to build King’s beloved community—worldwide.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Brainwashed


Everyone should watch Nick Kristof and his team’s riveting 26 minute documentary, on the New York Times website, “From North Korea, with Dread.” Unlike the oft-asked post-9/11 question, there’s no ambiguity about why the North Koreans hate us. They are not allowed to forget that General Curtis LeMay’s U.S. Strategic Air Command bombed them almost to oblivion back in the mid-20th century. And now they have our juvenile president’s intemperate threats, let alone the fate of Saddam and Qaddafi, to remind them just how worthy of their ill will we remain so many years later.

Mr. Trump fits perfectly into the script of Kim Jung Un’s hatemongering propaganda. Kim distracts his Stepford-citizens from realizing that they have either completely lost the ability to think for themselves or they are terrified to say what they really think—at least the ones captured by Kristof’s cameras. Trump’s threats allow Kim to distract his people from his own venality and murderousness.  The North Koreans, the privileged ones in Pyongyang and not in concentration camps, live in a dream world where the repeated motif of a ballistic missile is used as a bizarre decorative motif in amusement parks, at concerts, at museums of technology, even in kindergartens. Almost their entire national identity seems to be bound up in their presumed capacity to destroy the United States. 

Kristof asserts that we are far closer to actual war than most of us realize. That is horrifying because so many on the Korean peninsula, North and South both, would die—for nothing other than a 3rd grade pissing contest between two unpredictable leaders lost in an echo chamber of threat. Fear of the weapons themselves enlarges the mutual paranoia and willful ignorance that is a major cause of conflict. Kim assumes that he can avoid the fate of other dictators if only he can deploy enough missiles and warheads; Trump wonders how long he can afford to wait before Kim becomes too much of a threat and he himself looks like an appeaser. The result is, to use the title of an excellent new book on 21st century nuclear weapons edited by Dr. Helen Caldecott, we are “Sleepwalking to Armageddon.”

Brainwashing is not confined to North Korea. Our media culture in the U.S. has become a free-for-all, a polarized babble that is the obverse side of the coin of North Korean repression.  Free (and much too quick) to speak our minds, we are losing the capacity to find common ground in proven scientific, moral and political truths. The president and Fox News form a closed feedback loop, where bloviators like Sean Hannity revel in their influence over Trump and cater to his worst instincts. The press toadies to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ bullying in ways that recall abject subservience to Kim Jung Un.

Without sinking into false equivalence, both countries are brainwashed in their separate ways. If the North Koreans are brainwashed by a complex system of almost complete internet censorship, blanket propaganda, and “minders” listening day and night for hints of sedition, we in the U.S. are brainwashed by our splitting off into separate camps that forget we are all in this together. We live in the illusion that our nuclear “superiority” will save us—a convenience for the faceless weapons corporations who are all too happy that we are distracted by our oppositional social media posts as they vacuum more and more taxes out of our pockets and into theirs.

Skirting this close to the edge of the abyss concentrates the mind wonderfully. It reminds us that all life on this tiny blue planet came from the same stupendous process of emergence—from pure energy, matter; from matter, life in all its diversity; and from life, mammalian care for offspring and a conscious capacity to wonder, question and explore. Will we allow the end point of this great evolutionary story to become the vaporization of millions? With what dreams is our childish behavior as “adults” haunting the sleep of the world’s children, many of them already traumatized by war?

The religious sages all come up with variations on the same theme of what our fulfillment as humans is meant to be: we are here to discover how to love.  Just as we care for our children, we are meant to care for each other.  This began as a tribal lesson—we care for the children of our tribe and protect them at all costs from yours. Now the lesson has become transnational, universal, inescapable: there is only one tribe, the human tribe, tasked with the challenge of sustaining the living system around us that makes our own lives possible. In an interdependent world, all war has become civil war. To remain stuck in brittle North Korean tribalism or decadent American tribalism is to court mass death. We can find ways to connect, even with our worst enemies, on the basis of our shared desire to survive.

Given that, in Reagan’s words “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought,” the first task of American presidents and their generals in the nuclear age is war prevention. Toward that end, out of the 195 nations of the world, the vast majority, 122, have agreed at the United Nations that nuclear weapons must be completely outlawed. Worldwide verifiable mutual nuclear disarmament is ultimately the only way out of our present impasse with North Korea.

Meanwhile, as Kristof and others have pointed out, a reasonable first step could be that we back the bleep off of our incessant military patrols up and down the borders of North Korea, lessening the threat to an impoverished, proud little country in exchange for a possible nuclear freeze. And would it not be a prudent investment on the part of our eviscerated State Department to bring some North Koreans into our country to begin to break down some dangerous stereotypes and misunderstandings?

Somewhere in a North Korean concentration camp we should have faith that more than one truth-telling Solzhenitsyn keeps difficult watch. With time and patience, change can come to North Korea without war.  Auden ended his great poem about brainwashing, “September 1, 1939” on a tentatively optimistic note:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.