Monday, November 14, 2016

The High Calling of Teaching


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 4, 2016

To Survive, Evolve


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Open letter to Clinton/Kaine

Dear Secretary Clinton and Senator Kaine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"13th"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








Friday, August 26, 2016

Objectivity


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 5, 2016

What's Best For Children?


The policy of nuclear deterrence is a raging failure masked as a roaring success. It is a failure because if it does break down—and it will, unless we change direction—we are all toast—we and our innocent, hopeful children.

The candidacy of Donald Trump, however disconcerting, has opened the door a crack to public discussion of deterrence.  Mr. Trump has, at least implicitly, raised the issue of the unfortunate effect of NATO having violated its word not to expand eastward, word given when Gorbachev was in the midst of dissolving the Soviet Union.

Agreed, deterrence has been a major factor in preventing a third world war from 1945 until the present. The problem is what the future holds. Deterrence masquerades as a stable system when in truth it is constantly subject to ongoing imbalances—advances in technology, the diversification of kinds of nuclear weapons available, enlargement of the number of nations possessing them, and successions of leadership.  All these factors in combination almost certainly will result in a deterrence breakdown sometime in the future.

We persist in the illusion that someone is “in charge” of these weapons. Here especially the emperor is walking around naked, clothed only in the transparent illusion of fail-safe mechanisms. There are indications that in some circumstances control has moved down the military chain of command, as in Pakistan, where it is said that the use of nuclear weapons has been left up to battlefield commanders in the Kashmir conflict. We may assume the nine nuclear nations have given some thought to what might happen if their head of state was unable, in the chaos of war, to maintain command and control, and so mechanisms no doubt have been developed that would allow others to make world-ending decisions. But that only intensifies the potential for confusion. Because of the complexity of the electronic systems connected to these thousands of weapons, there is a strong argument to be made that no one is really in charge—only the system—a system, as the record shows, capable of feeding false information to the fallible humans monitoring it.

The questions raised about Mr. Trump’s temperament, particularly where it comes to his potentially being in charge of the nuclear codes, underscore the bizarre nature of deterrence overall, where the head of a democracy—or for that matter a totalitarian state like North Korea—may have only minutes to make decisions that affect the lives of everyone on the planet.

The provocative notion of a “madman” somehow getting into the system and starting a war oversimplifies the reality of our situation, which is that any human being, not just a knowledge-averse demagogue like Mr. Trump, may have the capacity to go “mad” in the tensions leading up to the decision to launch. The historical record shows that past presidents of the U.S. have seriously considered using nuclear weapons, most distressingly Mr. Nixon when he realized we were losing in Vietnam. Even a “no-drama” Obama could be rendered almost psychotic with dread by evidence that missiles were apparently headed for our major cities.  This is a situation that is far beyond the psychological endurance of even the sanest and well-trained leader. Madness is relative in the nuclear world.  We would certainly label mad an extremist who set off a nuclear weapon in a city. We do not apply the same label to the whole field of leaders and diplomats who seem to be more or less satisfied, or pretend they are, with a status quo that is patently insane.

If leaders had the same nightmares that many citizens have, they would be far more aggressive in setting up ongoing international conferences hell-bent on raising the level of awareness that the deterrence system is obsolete and self-contradictory—a false god that fails to provide security and must be disavowed before it fails to provide survival. Nuclear weapons have been proliferating on the planet now for over seventy years. Their destructive power has far outgrown the most intense hatred any human could feel for adversaries.  Computer models hypothesize that it would take the detonation of only a fraction of the available weapons to bring about planet-wide changes in climate, rendering a nuclear “solution” to conflict self-negating.  (Discussion of this in our presidential election process so far seems off-limits.)

What would constitute a healthy response to this collusive madness? It ought to be shame. Shame because we know that we have invented a system intended to protect civilians, including children, which will make no distinction between civilian and military. We know shame is present if only because we do not talk with children about this curse we have laid on them. We are not honest about it, because it is unbearable and makes us feel helpless. If we did have the courage and skill to talk about it, it might be something like the situation in which black families are forced to have a poignant talk with their young male children about being extra-subservient in the presence of the police—except no degree of subservience to power will prevent nuclear apocalypse. It is up to grown-ups to begin now to make the necessary structural changes in these similarly intolerable situations. 

One of the bottlenecks that slows nuclear disarmament is that nations know that possessing nuclear arms deter powers like the U.S. from imposing regime change upon them.  We are not going to be able to use superior police-the-world military force to cut this particular Gordian Knot. Open dialogue that breaks down fears and stereotypes on the basis that we’re all in this together, leading to gradual, reciprocal agreements to disarm, is the only way to keep our children from becoming toast.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Beyond Drift


It is hard to say which is more mesmerizing about our present cultural moment, the blustering neo-fascism of Donald Trump, or the state of the body politic which seems to be so receptive to it, encouraging him ever closer to the presidency. Like Bernie Sanders, he has charged forward riding upon our collective longing for authenticity, our pervasive fatigue with political double-speak and government by corruption, cronyism, and gridlock. 

Trump’s “authenticity” is a two-sided coin: his “solutions” will only lead to further division of race and class domestically and further war internationally—and they invite careful listening as a manifestation of our country’s unadmitted shadow, as Kern Beare writes in his brilliantly concise piece, “Listening to Trump.”

Some—I hope there will be enough who will back up their conviction with a vote—might say that Trump’s authenticity is consummately fake, the ultimate manifestation of reality TV, shallow celebrity culture, being famous for being famous.  But he would never have gotten this far without having given authentic voice to a strain of darkness in our past and present that will do us harm unless we keep bringing it into the light of self-reflection and repentance.

Shadow is a simple word that encompasses all that we refuse to consciously address, preferring to drift in a haze of convenient simplifications and half-truths. It is easy, especially in the midst of an intensely polarized political contest, to assert that it is my party alone that will restore the U.S.A. to unalloyed greatness. It is much harder to acknowledge our shadow side as manifested in the three great interrelated whirlpools of darkness charted by Martin Luther King Jr. back in 1967: materialism, racism, and militarism.

If these remain unconscious, we drift. As our black president finishes out two terms, those in congress who have opposed his every initiative drift in a sleep of latent racism. Our materialism has led to an uneven playing field and a drift of wealth and power toward the top. Mr. Trump is a prime example, even while he pretends to be a pal of the working class. As Nick Kristof wrote in the Times, materialist excess and racism are woven into his business history: “A former building superintendent working for the Trumps explained that he was told to code any application by a black person with the letter C, for colored, apparently so the office would know to reject it. A Trump rental agent said the Trumps wanted to rent only to “Jews and executives,” and discouraged renting to blacks.”

But the greatest whirlpool of all in which we drift in semi-conscious unease is our unchecked militarism. Racism and militarism are interwoven whirlpools, as we saw recently in the tragedies in Dallas and in Baton Rouge—African American veterans targeted the police with a military assault rifles and tactics—one of whom was in turn killed by police equipped with a military-style explosive robot.

And in all the presidential debates so far, there has been zero mention of the trillion-dollar proposal to renew all our nuclear weapons systems over the next 30 years—as if nuclear weapons were an authentic answer to the challenges of poverty, food insecurity, disease, climate change, or terrorism. What real human needs could we meet by the reallocation of just a few of those thousand billions poured into all our foreign bases and weapons?

The international community and the U.S. especially lack a vision for concluding both the war on terror and the nuclear balance of terror, relying instead entirely on overwhelming, world-deployed, fight-fire-with-fire military force.  If brute strength is not complemented by non-violent processes of reaching out and reconciliation, by adherence to international law, and by generous humanitarian aid, a violent backlash, as we have seen with ISIS, becomes inevitable.

There are people everywhere, not enough, but perhaps more than we may think, who have ceased to drift passively in these whirlpools of our times. People like peace activist David Hartsough, who recently led a group of citizens to Russia to establish friendly connections and overcome hardening stereotypes recalling the obsolete cold war of the last century. People like Len and Libby Traubman, who for 20 years have brought together small groups of American Jews and Palestinians to share a meal, trade stories, and put a human face on a seemingly intractable conflict. People like David Swanson, a one-man dervish who has put together a mega-sized peace conference to take place in Washington in September. Or Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is difficult to understand how anyone can argue that “black lives matter” is a racist statement when unarmed black people are being profiled and then shot by police at much higher rates than whites. Or Al Jubitz, an Oregon philanthropist who works tirelessly on citizen initiatives to prevent war. Or the police in Aarhus, Denmark, who fight terrorism by welcoming back young people who have been sucked into the whirlpool of ISIS. Or Paul Kando, a retired engineer in my small town in Maine who has come up with a comprehensive plan to gradually end our local and state over-reliance on fossil fuels in favor of a citizen-initiated transition to renewable energy sources.

The triple threat of racism, militarism and materialism always divide the world into “us” and “them,” the well-heeled and the needy, the Caucasian and the swarthy, the fully human Western European and the Muslim in whose distant cities death by suicide bombings does not merit the same media coverage as identical carnage in Paris or Orlando.

Michelle Obama’s moving speech at the Democratic Convention was so effective because it focused upon an issue that potentially unites us all, both conservative and liberal: what is best for our children? Children will not flourish without adults in their lives who have come to terms with their own shadow, with the deep truth that we are all human and imperfect. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn provided the precise antidote to Trumpian bromides that perpetuate division and encourage our continued drift: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”