Sunday, April 23, 2017

Our Nuclear Folly


The well-established assumption that North Korea is our most difficult and dangerous foreign policy challenge is worth a little dispassionate examination.

North Korea is not a fun place. If ever a nation had earned the right to be labeled collectively psychotic, it would be the Democratic Republic of North Korea under Kim Jung-un, who apparently just outsourced the bizarre assassination of his own brother. The country possesses neither a viable judiciary nor any kind of religious freedom. Famine has been a cyclical presence. Electrical power is intermittent. In 2015 North Korea ranked 115th in the world in the size of its GDP according to U.N. statistics.

Yet nothing the United States has tried to do, including decades of diplomatic negotiations and the application of severe sanctions, has stopped this isolated conundrum of a country from strutting proudly through the exclusive doors of the nuclear club.

But let’s get real.  As odd and alienated as North Korea may be, their leaders know perfectly well that even if the United States had not a single nuclear warhead at its disposal, if provoked we could bomb North Korea until there was nothing left but bouncing rubble. The idea that they would be so suicidally unwise as to use their nuclear weapons to launch an unprovoked first-strike attack upon the United States, or South Korea for that matter, seems utterly remote from reality.

Instead, they are pursuing a policy—the policy of deterrence—which is a mirror image of our own. But by a collective trick of the mind, our use of weapons of mass destruction to deter is rationalized and justified by the fact that our intentions are good, while from our perspective both their intentions and their weapons are perceived to be evil—as if there were such a thing as good nuclear weapons and bad nuclear weapons.  In this particular sense, there is not a whit of difference between our otherwise two very different countries. North Korea took careful note of what happened to Libya when they agreed unilaterally to give up their nuclear program. Their motive is self-protection, not aggression.

It is one thing to say that deterrence was a temporary (now nearly three-quarters of a century) strategy to prevent planet-destroying war. But can we go on this way forever, with all nine nuclear powers committed to never making a single error of interpretation, never having a single equipment failure, never succumbing to a single computer hack? If we think we can, we’re just as out of it as Kim Jung-un. Our bowing to the false idol of nuclear deterrence as the ultimate and permanent bedrock of international security is in its own way as delusional as the way the brainwashed citizens of North Korea give absolute obeisance to their dear leader.

If the United States, as a responsible world player, does not move beyond the obsolete paradigm of endless paranoid cycles of we-build-they build; if it does not begin to think in terms of setting an example; if it does not begin to participate authentically in international conferences to ban these weapons, there is going to be a nuclear war in our future.

We’re uneasy with Mr. Trump’s finger on the nuclear trigger, but this is a bigger problem than who specifically is commander in chief. When the moment comes and we begin to slide down the slippery slope of deterrence breakdown because of some completely unanticipated dissolution of “fail-safeness,” it won’t matter how experienced the human parties to the disaster might be.

Whoever is left on this small, no longer so beautiful planet, freezing under the ash clouds of nuclear winter, uselessly nursing their boils and pustules from radiation poisoning, will hate and despise us for what we didn’t do for decades, and they will be quite right.

Because we know. We know and yet we do not act on our solemn obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In fact the United States actively undermines legitimate efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons. We just boycotted a recent one.

North Korea is a pariah nation led by a greedy Stalinist family. No one can say with any certainty whether they could be brought to the table to discuss abolition.  Why can’t we admit that we ourselves harbor a similar reluctance? The process of building trust, agreement and verification among the nine nuclear powers would be the most difficult diplomatic challenge ever undertaken. The only thing more difficult is the unthinkable agony of the alternative.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Remembering Who We Are


Our young nation is enduring a period of farce, though it doesn’t feel so amusing for stranded immigrants or unemployed coal miners.

There is a more determinative context for immediate events that we fail to call upon because at first glance it doesn’t seem remotely relevant: in addition to being Americans, we are citizens of Earth. Even beyond that, we are integral with the stupendous unfolding story of the Universe.

O.K., so the elements that make up our bodies were formed in the atomic furnace of stars. Really, so what?

Here’s what. The scientific story of the Universe is not an alternative fact. We all share the story, Shia and Sunni, Israeli and Palestinian, Christian and Muslim, Trump supporter and Trump resister.

It is an astounding story of emergence, creativity and survival on every level, from the formation of galaxies, to cells learning how to replicate themselves using DNA, to the development of mammalian care for offspring over millions of years. And, though it is 13.75 billion years old, for us it’s a new story, about which we have learned more in the last fifty years than in eons of gazing up at the mystery of the stars.

This story is not only what every human shares; it is the deepest resource for our own creativity as we address our looming challenges. It is a story, from the cooperative ecology of coral reefs to nations in complex trade agreements, that verifies the golden principle of interdependence. It is a story whose cycles, because nature leaves no waste, provide the best design models for human-manufactured materials and processes—even for the design of our institutions.

And it is a demonstration of why we can feel optimistic about our species and the Earth system even at difficult moments: we’ve come through so much. Not one of our ancestors going back to the absolute beginnings of cellular life made a fatal mistake before it was able to reproduce. We are the near-miraculous result of that unbroken chain of reproduction linking us to the entire emergent process.

Our shared scientific story is a great unifier. There is not a Muslim and a Christian science, or a Capitalist and a Socialist science; there is only an endless patient positing and testing of hypotheses. Tentative, seemingly impossible hypotheses gradually become generally accepted truths. The world goes from flat to round. The sun replaces the Earth as the center of the solar system. Cholera, once thought to be airborne, turns up in water, becoming easier to control or even conquer.

What is really important about this moment in the history of the Earth? It is the boiling up of race-based nationalism we have been seeing in the U.S. and Western Europe? Surely the scientific fact that the human species has exceeded the carrying capacity of its life-support system transcends in significance nationalist responses to events like the tragic movement of refugees around the globe. The strains of global climate instability have been one of the very causes of the great migrations of people away not only from murderous social chaos but also from disease-infested water and untillable soil. Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of the victims of terror are Muslim.

Is this not also the moment we have arrived at the realization, even if it is not yet universally shared, that the collective destructive power of the weapons deployed upon the Earth has become so great that war as a solution for our conflicts has become obsolete? All war is civil war. “We build/they build” weapon cycles are a poor substitute for meeting human and ecological needs directly and strengthening real global security.

Our most difficult challenges cannot be met except on a whole new level of international cooperation built upon shared insight, listening to other frames of reference, collaboration more than confrontation, and sacrifice for the common planetary good.

This can feel frightening, making “America First” a tempting illusion. Instead a fragile system of international law is emerging as an appropriate response to the unavoidable fact that all nations share one ocean and atmosphere, and no one will be secure unless all are secure—ecologically, militarily, politically, educationally, medically, economically. We cannot maintain a healthy market system upon an ailing Earth.

How does our own nation take its place among the rest? Our constitutional guarantees have unleashed a tremendous prosperity, and a technological creativity which will be essential to meeting the ecological challenges the world faces together.

But, to use the 1967 terminology of Martin Luther King Jr., there are materialist, militarist and racist forces at work in our country that resist, in favor of their narrow self-interests, our evolution toward new sources of sustainable energy, greater participatory democracy, and healthier manifestations of King’s vision of a beloved community.

Astronomically wealthy individuals and their agents seem unable to see that their own well-being depends ultimately upon the health of the Earth out of which they are attempting to extract fossil fuels as if more Earth-friendly technologies did not exist. They control much of the major media, which coin money off the dark energy of political polarization and a clickable sea of distracting trivialities.

It is not trivial when so many young black men languish in corporate prisons for minor drug offenses, when we are falling behind in the strength of our public education and medical insurance systems, when student debt has become unsustainable, when so many other nations are further up the curve of conversion to solar and wind.

One antidote is remembering who we are in the context of the true story of the Universe and Earth. What follows from that is ownership of America’s own real story, a story that includes the unearned suffering of the native peoples, who have everything to teach about sustaining our resources into the future.

Central also to the American story is slavery and the unearned suffering of African-Americans. A spiritual resilience that wears the faces of Douglass and King and Baldwin and so many others could be a core resource for an American identity and strength available to all the races. But it isn’t yet, because whites still haven’t come to terms with the original sin of our origins. Black lives matter for so many reasons, not least that until they do we cannot authentically celebrate national diversity in equal liberty. Only then will our light illuminate an Earth struggling with the tension between heartfelt democratic longing and heart-shriveling fears of the “other.”

Finally, it comes down from Universe to Earth to America to me, who, in Ta-Nehisi’s provocative phrase, happens to be white—already a minority on Earth and soon to be one in my country, but as yet a privileged one. As such I bear a special responsibility to resist the polarization that erupted in this last Presidential election cycle. I may be white and progressive, but I pledge to a flag that stands for one nation, indivisible. I bear a special responsibility to work for not only racial, but also political and economic, inclusiveness, reaching across artificial divides to understand those who chose to vote for an inexperienced leader. If we remember who we are as children of the Universe, of Earth, and of the American ideal of diversity in community, a new world is still possible. It begins with me.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Whiteness and the Other


“…  if you want to be part of the solution, the road ahead is clear: Recognize you’re the enemy they need; show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; by all means be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.”
 —Andrés Miguel Rondón
                                                     
America cannot become great without embracing and working through the tragedy of slavery—all that has unfolded from the way that almost unimaginable suffering and injustice is entwined with our origin story and continues to the present day.

America cannot become great without embracing and working through the genocidal suffering undergone by native Americans and the way that suffering and injustice is entwined with our origin story and continues to the present day.

America cannot become great without acknowledging and embracing the ordeals of the immigrants who have flowed in from so many countries and still try to come in until the present day.

America cannot become great without continuing to push for gender equality and overcoming gaps of worth that continue to the present day.

What makes us special as a nation? Even beyond our freedoms, isn’t it the soul power of the African-American experience, the steel of dignity that has been hardened upon the anvil of unmerited suffering? Isn’t it the deep connection of the Native Americans to the sacredness of our landscapes, showing us that if we degrade what surrounds us, we degrade ourselves? Isn’t it the manifold contributions of all the different streams of immigrants (including Mr. Trump’s grandfather) who have made the effort to assimilate and contribute to the dynamism of our unity-in-diversity? Isn’t it because we remain a beacon of possibility, in spite of setbacks, to women worldwide?

Our public airways and our politics have been polluted by an insidious fog of polarization, based implicitly in white male privilege, which denies the full human reality of the other-than-white. Events like 9-11 didn’t help, but the continuous sneer of commentator-entertainers like Rush Limbaugh has further frayed the delicate web of civil discourse, where listening is equal in value to speaking. A habit of continuous rant has overtaken the easy camaraderie of shared citizenship that is still possible. Our media culture has gone from the already sensational “if it bleeds, it leads,” to the far more deeply sensational “if it divides, it abides.”

This perversion of our precious freedom of speech is far more dangerous than crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater—because it is based in the materialism, racism and militarism against which Martin Luther King warned us not long before he was assassinated.

It is materialist because media figures make piles of money by using polarizing frames and because politicians use these frames to rise to power. It is racist because it makes the non-white Other into a faceless mass of complaining, angry, helpless, lawbreaking victims—or, in the case of Obama, into an uppity executive who overstepped his bounds and had to be checked by an obdurate legislative “No!” It is militaristic because it responds to the threat of the Other with overwhelming force (check out the kinds of equipment our police have come to possess since 9-11).

And so at this moment a huge gap has been manufactured in our country, a gap that has the odd quality of being very real and at the same time the grandest of illusions.  The manipulators of political and media power would have us believe that there is an unbridgeable distance between the pain of the pro-Trump unemployed coal miner and the pain of the anti-Trump black woman who experiences housing discrimination, or the pain of a pro-Trump Christian evangelist who feels overwhelmed by the pace of change and the pain of an anti-Trump transgender student being bullied at school.

That is the most effective way that the Powers That Be try to maintain a high wall that blocks our progress toward the inclusive equal-opportunity society we think we are and can still become.

Obama urged us to overcome our divisions. He was right to try and time will vindicate him. The wall between us and them (fill in the us; fill in the them), reinforced by the way we sort ourselves into homogenous groups of adherents on the Internet, is the Big Lie in an interdependent world. This wall will inevitably crumble and fall. There are many reasons why citizens did or did not vote for Donald Trump, but are the differences between those who did and those who did not all that great? They can still be overcome—by keeping in mind how much we have in common, and how illusory is the power of the forces that seek to artificially divide us.

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.”