Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Madness of Deterrence


At some point in the near or semi-distant future, one way or another, Mr. Trump will have departed public office. For many reasons, perhaps most of all because we managed (if we do manage) to avoid nuclear war during his tenure, we will feel relief. But we may also feel a kind of letdown. Instead of having our anxieties focused upon the shallowness, impulsivity, and macho vengefulness of one particular leader, we will be forced to go back to worrying about the craziness of deterrence itself, irrespective of who is leading us.

A conference at Harvard on November 4 on “Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” examined whether the law should be changed and the choice to initiate nuclear war ought to be placed in the hands of congress rather than the president’s hands alone.

It may be of academic interest where launch authority should reside, but the question fails to address that moment of maximum awfulness when someone in the military reports to civilian authorities—accurately or not—that incoming missiles have appeared on a screen, requiring that someone decide how to respond, with millions of lives in the balance, in the space of a few inadequate minutes.

To have drifted into the creation of a system that culminates in such a moment, to put any one person or team of people in that position, is to have participated in a form of collective psychosis. We are all complicit, for example in the way both citizens and the press tolerated the bizarre reality that the topic was never brought up in any of the presidential debates.

It is not surprising that people find it challenging to think clearly, or to think at all, about the issue of nuclear war. Its utter destructiveness is so impossible to wrap our heads around that we take refuge in the fantasy that it can’t happen, it won’t happen, or if it does happen it will occur somewhere else. Mr. Trump’s ascendency has sharpened our apprehension, which may be a good thing if it helps us reexamine the bigger machine in which he is only an eccentric cog.

Many argue, speciously, that the potential destructiveness is the very thing that makes the system work to prevent war, forgetting the awful paradox of deterrence: that in order to never be used, the weapons must be kept absolutely ready for use. The complexity of the electronic systems intended to control them keeps on increasing as they are deployed in ever greater variety—on missiles from ships, on tactical battlefield launchers, from bombers and submarines, from aging silos in the Midwest. Error is inevitable, and close calls are legion.

The planet as a whole has pronounced clearly its judgment on deterrence, in the form of a treaty banning all nuclear weapons signed by 122 nations. The United States, citing the erratic and aggressive nuclear behavior of North Korea, boycotted the conference that led to this majority condemnation.

16 years ago, Henry Kissinger joined William Perry, George Shultz and Sam Nunn to write a series of editorials in the Wall Street Journal arguing that deterrence is obsolete and abolition must be the ultimate policy goal, even if fiendishly difficult to realize. On October 28, 2017, Kissinger was quoted in the New York Times saying:

“If they [North Korea] continue to have nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons must spread in the rest of Asia. It cannot be that North Korea is the only Korean country in the world that has nuclear weapons, without the South Koreans trying to match it. Nor can it be that Japan will sit there,” he added. “So therefore we’re talking about nuclear proliferation.”

It is unclear from this statement whether Dr. Kissinger has changed his mind about the goal of abolition in favor of further proliferation.  If he has, it is a little like arguing that people should take guns to church to prevent mass murder. Which will result in a safer world, one where everyone has nuclear weapons, or the world envisioned by Kissinger and colleagues in the Wall Street Journal, a direction encouraged by the 122 nations who voted so unambiguously at the U.N.?

The answer to the North Korean crisis is not further nuclear proliferation, nor, God forbid, is it all-out war on the Korean peninsula that would leave millions dead and make the United States, were we to participate with or even without nuclear weapons, a pariah nation.  Instead we can start by reassuring North Korea in word and deed that we are not an existential threat to them, and wait patiently for internal changes in their governance that time will make inevitable.

Former Secretary of Defense Perry has argued we can afford to entirely eliminate the land-based leg of our land-sea-air nuclear triad with no loss of security. What would happen to planetary balances of power if our country unilaterally joined those 122 nations in a treaty that categorizes nuclear weapons, like chemical weapons, as beyond the pale, and we began to stand some of our weapons down in confidence-building gestures of good will? Would the Chinese or the Russians, or for that matter the North Koreans, really risk the suicidal blowback of nuclear winter by launching unilateral attacks upon the U.S.?  Isn’t the risk of that happening a good deal less than the risk of slipping into war with North Korea merely because leaders in both countries assumed that credible deterrence required the madness of mutual threats?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Mystery


 "The Second Amendment, as applied in the last 30 years or so, has become so perverted, twisted and misused that you have to see it now as the second original sin in the founding of this country, after slavery."
                                                                                          —Timothy Egan

Trillions of galaxies each contain billions of stars.  A unified field of gravitational waves, black holes, and dark matter ties the vast enterprise together. Out of this furnace of process churning through billions of years of evolutionary time our earth emerged, then biological life, then self-conscious human life. This universe we inhabit is shot through with utter mystery.

We are also mysteries to each other. For the moment at least, the motivation of Stephen Paddock’s massacre in Las Vegas is as mysterious as the workings of a black hole. So mysteriously meaningless is the slaughter that we have no recourse but to find a crutch of ersatz meaningfulness in the many acts of selfless heroism among the victims and first responders, as we reel helplessly toward the next incident of mass murder that inevitably lies ahead.

The motivation of Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association, is almost as mysterious as Stephen Paddock’s.  Is it money? He is paid very well indeed. Is it willingness to shamelessly serve the interests of the companies that manufacture guns and ammunition?

To demonstrate the sacred-cowness of LaPierre’s vaunted Second Amendment, one need only point out that out of 200 countries on earth, only 3 (the U.S., along with Mexico and Guatemala) constitutionally enshrine the right to bear arms. The idea of the deterrence of tyranny by constitutionally protected caches of privately stored weapons distracts from what truly inoculates against the bacillus of tyranny: not weaponry but more active civic participation, in the context of all we share beyond our illusory differences.

The motivations of our political leaders are also shrouded in mystery, from our narcissistic president on down to Mitch McConnell and friends, proud of the enormous political power they wield, and yet placidly content to remain the weak and willing pawns of Mr. LaPierre.

In fact I find the nation of which I am a citizen to be more than a little mysterious.  Who are we? We often mouth platitudes about the exceptional breadth of our freedom and prosperity, where in reality our exceptionalism seems to cluster around our unique level of bellicosity, our absurd tolerance for mass violence both domestic and international, and our willingness to countenance spending trillions for newer and better nuclear weapons when the far greater threat is human-caused climate change.

We have recently been presented with an elaborate 18 hour retrospective of the Vietnam War, outlining the historical ignorance, corruption and treachery of our leaders, the lies that resulted in years of unnecessary death on all sides, while we seem to have learned nothing from this historical experience that might apply to our present endless and futile wars.

There is a further mystery that provides one possible antidote to the mystery of all that our country refuses to admit about itself— the redemptive mystery of black spirituality. Whole peoples were forcibly brought across from Africa in chains to our young nation, which then built upon their backs our prosperous economy, a history which truncated the possibilities of African American citizens at every turn right to the present day. The mystery of the indiscriminate use of weaponry that is endemic to our culture is an all too terrible part of their story, too.

By all precedent blacks in America should have long since risen up in a paroxysm of destructive rage equal to Mr. Paddock’s, and of course at acute moments some have.  But, in a mystery complementary to the mystery of violence, this tyrannized people as a whole have not taken refuge in nonsense like the sacredness of an amendment written long ago by people who could not imagine our nation awash in automatic weapons, but instead in healthier particulars of our constitution that enshrined black rights to full inclusivity and to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  

Of course for whites Martin Luther King Jr. is the most renown representative of this black non-violent spirituality, but there are ranks upon ranks of others, dead and alive, whose spiritual depths, born of undeserved suffering(including the actual worst mass murders in American history), we Americans can draw upon as we gradually shape ourselves into a less violent culture.

The late Vincent Harding comes to mind, a gentle, loving giant who helped administer the freedom schools that initiated voter registration campaigns in the South. Harding also helped write Martin Luther King’s great 1967 speech at Riverside Church taking on our country for its intertwined addictions to racism, militarism and materialism.

Or the very much alive social activist Ruby Sales, whose vision of American life acknowledges race but reaches beyond it to a healing vision that includes all in our country who are hurting, the unemployed coal miner in West Virginia as well as the education-deprived black child living in a high-risk precinct of Baltimore. Perhaps her instinctive inclusivity comes from the fact that a white seminarian died blocking a bullet meant for her.

Or the eloquent polemicist Ta Nehisi-Coates, heir to James Baldwin, whose challenging essays and books demand that whites look in the mirror to find the ultimate source of deeply-set structural violence and prejudice in our country.

These leaders and teachers point us in a direction in which we really do have the potential to become an exceptional nation, less fearful, therefore less armed to the teeth at home and abroad, less bellicose, therefore more willing to choose diplomacy and humanitarian initiatives over war, more understanding of the “other,” and therefore more willing to reach out and see even our worst enemies as having a humanity equal to our own.

In spite of all that science allows us to understand, we live, move and have our being in a context of mystery, and it isn’t going away any time soon. We can approach it in isolated fear, or in collegial wonder, gratitude, and humility—humility in the spirit of Job the prophet of old, to whose undeserved pain a mysterious God replied “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Rise (and Fall?) of the Machines


When our children, one girl, one boy, were in their pre-teens, my wife instituted “ladies’ day” as a special occasion to hang out with our daughter. Periodically they would head out to the mall to shop for a bauble or a new dress and top off the expedition with an effetely gourmet lunch. It did not take long for our son to voice a wish for equivalent quality time with his father.

Thus began “men’s day.” Along with becoming a connoisseur of the subtle differences between the French fries at one or another of the fast food establishments nearest the Cineplex, we initiated ourselves into the philosophical conundrums of the Terminator films.  Their formula runs thus: malevolent machines have rebelled against their human masters and begun nuclear war all on their own. Was this possible, my son naturally enough wanted to know? And I naturally enough tried to calm a thirteen-year-old’s fears by dismissing the possibility.

The unpleasant truth is that the process is in fact well under way, though not exactly in the manner the films suggested.  Robots have not yet become conscious, autonomous, and capable of conquering humans in war, though the entrepreneur Elon Musk has been sounding the alarm against A.I., called it a greater threat than North Korea.

Nuclear weapons are not robots. But they are machines whose destructive power is so enormous that they have seriously warped the thinking of the humans who supposedly control them. The distortion has long passed the point where the tail of nuclear weapons began to wag the dog of common sense. The war of the machines is here, and we have become their pawns.

Watching Ken Burns’s documentary rehashing the Vietnam War makes this clearer even on the level of conventional war. War itself is a kind of system, a machine with a life of its own. Looking back (and setting aside that North Vietnam’s cause—national liberation from the colonial oppression of the French and the Americans—was more on the side of justice), both sides are able to reflect on how the system tempted them into stereotyping each other and rationalizing the indiscriminate cruelty of napalm or carpet-bombing or mass executions of suspected sympathizers to the opposing side.

Someday a film with similar conclusions will be made about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the relentless system of war is always the same: dehumanization, abandonment of truth to propaganda, escalating chaos and cruelty, futile bloodletting, and ultimate exhaustion. Even the decisive defeat of one side only plants the seeds for further war. As Robert Frost wrote, “Nature within her inmost self divides/ To trouble men with having to take sides.”

Deterrence as a way of preventing the senselessness of total war has always seemed sensible to establishment makers of policy, because it appears to have helped to prevent a third world war since 1945. Even the stalemates in Korea and Vietnam can be interpreted as conflicts in which leaders escalated almost to the point of using nuclear weapons as a last resort to win, but finally restrained themselves because they realized that victory was only the Pyrrhic victory of mass death on all sides.

But these weapons leave us all in a moral limbo. Unused, they are the righteous preservers of the peace. Used, whether by design or accident, they become the worst war crime in human history. We pretend our nuclear weapons are good and theirs are bad, when the weapons are a mindless, heartless system that cares neither who occupies the moral high ground nor who “wins.”

Our diminishment in the face of these machines has become especially clear in the threats and counter-threats of Kim-Jung Un and Donald Trump.  The reality that one side is a totalitarian dictatorship where the dictator answers only to himself and the other side is a democracy that freely elected its leader makes not a whit of difference when it comes to nuclear decisions. Our presidents, no matter how experienced and well-trained, are identical to Kim Jung-Un in that they find themselves in the absurd position of being able to begin a nuclear war without consulting anyone.

Ominously, both Kim and Trump show equivalent signs of instability and unpredictability. History tells us that leaders faced with domestic threats to their power often turn to foreign wars as a way of externalizing the enemy and distracting their constituency from their own shortcomings.  As Mr. Mueller looms over him, will the president’s finger be tempted to edge nearer to the button to create the ultimate distraction?

The machines are rising, asserting their autonomous powers and reducing us, citizens and leaders alike, to helpless cogs in a potential war without winners. But forces of common sense opposing the malevolent nuclear system are also rising.  122 nations just passed a U.N. agreement to outlaw the construction, deployment or use of these weapons. The nine nuclear powers are quickly finding themselves on the wrong side of history. It is long past time for us to recognize that the greater enemy is not someone in another country shouting threats, but the weapons themselves. On the basis of this shared truth, new relationships among adversaries can flourish that will allow reciprocal reduction and elimination. Nature within her inmost self divides, and science has unleashed this process on earth as the mighty power of fission, setting before us life or death choices. It is not too late to restrain the rise of the machines we ourselves have created, and choose life.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Common Sense and North Korea



The phrase “common sense” implies practical and prudent good judgment, with a further implication that the obviousness of common sense is “common” because it is shared by many or even all.  For example, 122 nations just signed a Treaty on Nuclear Prohibition, confirming a majority planetary common sense that these weapons have become obsolete as a foundation for international security.

North Korea and the United States do not appear to share much of a common sense about anything with each other. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has written a concise and intelligent summation of our mutual bewilderment and paranoia (“Letter from Pyongyang,” in the September 18 2017 issue) that should be required reading for the U.S. military-diplomatic-political leadership.

Given that the Korean War was never genuinely resolved so long ago, substantive reasons for conflict remain. But the destruction of both Koreas by further war would be all the more tragic and absurd if it happened less from misguided attempts at resolution by military means than from the present complete lack of communication, a lack that includes ignorance and puzzlement in North Korea about U.S. politics, historical amnesia in the U.S. (“the forgotten war”), and destabilizing bluster on both sides.

It is no harder to grasp the historical causes of North Korea’s paranoia than it is to understand our own fears: Korea was invaded and brutally colonized by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945. At the end of World War II, the victorious Americans and Soviets divided the country into two separate zones of occupation. No agreement ever ensued as to where the capital of a unified Korea should be. When the North attacked the South in 1950 in a forced attempt at reunification, the Americans came in one side and the Chinese on the other. Military stalemate followed three years of a war that included the deaths of a million Chinese soldiers, over 400,000 North Korean soldiers and 600,000 civilians, and almost 100,000 Americans.  Our air force bombed and napalmed the North until there was no intact target left, a shattering level of devastation not forgotten by North Koreans to this day. The aim of the North ever since has been to avoid a repeat of such helplessness, and the major means of avoidance became the acquisition of a credible nuclear deterrent—ironically ensuring that war in Korea today would be far worse than in 1950.

Meanwhile, in order to protect its ally below the 38th parallel from invasion, the United States surrounds North Korea with ships, flies along its airspace with bombers, and conducts military exercises that are seen by the North as highly provocative—just as the U.S. would see red if similar massive shows of force were conducted so close to our own coasts and up and down the edges of our own airspace.

The philosophy of nuclear deterrence pursued by both sides is all about credible threats, which drown common sense in an ocean of anxiety. The philosophers call this a performative contradiction: the weapons are there to prevent their use by anybody, but the threat of their being used must be seen by all as real, which means they must be instantly at the ready, which cuts the margin for error in crisis, which can lead to mistakes etc. etc. When will the experts see how there is no good way out of this death spiral waiting to happen? Additionally, credibility requires not only that threats be credible to one adversary, but intended as a warning to all. This was the catastrophe of Vietnam in a nutshell, where the U.S. could not afford to be perceived by the Soviets as weak, so it fought, and lost, a futile proxy war.

Therefore the ultimate resolution of the North Korean challenge must include a total shift in paradigm on the part of the U.S. away from the credibility of deterrence to the credibility of gestures of good will, such as a solemn pledge of no first use, in all potentially nuclear conflicts around the globe. The United States must cease to obstruct, and instead encourage, a grand plan of verifiable, reciprocal global denuclearization.

In the long term it is a virtuous circle of nuclear disarmament that will most effectively undercut North Korean motives for its own destabilizing nuclear gestures. Kim Jung Un’s regime will not last forever in its present form. If the U.S. could contain the Soviet Union through a half-century of cold war, we can cooperate with the world community to contain a small, impoverished nation and await its inevitable transformation. Meanwhile, we need to talk with them! The first “common” sense North Korea and the United States presumably share is a desire to survive. To strengthen the shared common sense that possession of nuclear weapons is a probable cause of the eventual use of nuclear weapons requires slowly nurtured relationships and a ratcheting down of the rhetoric of threat.

While there is international agreement that Kim Jung Un is worthy of collective sanction, it doesn’t hurt to remember how many countries feel that the United States itself is dangerously militaristic, and further that we have not lived up to our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 to make good-faith efforts to cut and finally eliminate our arsenal. Part of getting North Korea to change includes realizing that we have to change. Without weakening ourselves, we can initiate diplomatic feelers that could lead to threat reduction on both sides. We can build trust on the basis of a shared interest in survival—not capitulating to each other but capitulating, like those other 122 nations, to the common sense that nuclear weapons have no constructive use.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sixth Grade Recess


How close are we today to nuclear war between the United States and North Korea? As close as somebody in the military on either side making a mistake that looks to the other side like an escalation from mere words, however heated, to actual intent to kill.  As close as a group of military hawks egged on rather than restrained by civilian authority (See John and Robert Kennedy versus the chief of the Strategic Air Command, Curtis Lemay, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Lemay was hell-bent to attack Cuba, which we now know would almost certainly have resulted in holocaust.)

Hot words are all about credibility. But nuclear credibility contains a tragic paradox. Nuclear weapons are not intended for actual use, but to deter adversaries, while at the same time nuclear weapons, in order to deter adversaries credibly, must be ready for instant use—and so must conventional weapons for that matter. So everyone is rehearsing madly—madly in both senses of the word. Rehearsals take the form of joint military exercises on the part of South Korea and the U.S., and test firings of missiles and warheads on the part of the North, accompanied by fiery contests of macho rhetoric from leaders who really, really ought to know better.

When nuclear war gets this close, the situation begs examination beyond the level of right and wrong, of sides, of positions, of causes, of who was the first to violate agreements. It needs to be observed systemically as a planetary event, in terms of interests and probable results. What we find is that (setting aside momentary differences in tactics between the Presidents of the U.S. and South Korea) the U.S. is locked into its pledge to support its ally, and locked into credibility generally, just as North Korea is locked into its nuclear program as a reliable way to maintain the regime’s power in spite of being regarded as an international pariah.

Working backward from a war that went nuclear without anyone wanting it, what would have been resolved as a result of mass death on both sides of the 38th parallel? “The North Koreans begged for war; they brought it on themselves” would ring pretty hollow as a rationale. The United States would instantly join North Korea, what was left of it, in the pariah role. There would be a fission-level increase in the plotting of all those anywhere who wish America ill to make the United States suffer as they have made others suffer. The Korean peninsula would be united after fifty years of tension—united in a horrendous agony and chaos beyond description. The earth would endure yet more poisoning of the total life system by radioactive clouds of soot. This is resolution? 

The question is, as realists, are we trapped? Are all parties, not just the U.S., constrained by the pitiless demands of credibility to keep escalating their chest-thumping, as war-abetting pundits make what seem like reasonable arguments to justify each further step into the abyss?

As a system, nuclear chicken is completely nuts—and not less so because our representatives and their day-by-day pronouncements, lines in the sand, threats, ultimatums, sound so reasonable to the patriotic ear—that is until everything spirals out of control. 

One hundred and twenty nations recently signed a U.N. treaty outlawing nuclear weapons, but the nine nuclear nations still haven’t gotten the message.  If humans can acquire the immensely complex technological expertise to build these no-win weapons, we can also figure out how to make a gradual transition to a security system that does not rely upon them, knowing that security with them is a technological fantasy.

The United States, with its clear superiority in conventional forces, becomes the indispensable nuclear nation to lead the other eight beyond nukes. Without any loss of security we can pledge no first use. We can promise not to pursue regime change in North Korea as long as South Korea is not threatened. We can take measured diplomatic de-escalating and confidence-building steps. We can acknowledge, as President Reagan inevitably had to, that a nuclear war cannot be won and thus must never be fought. We can rely upon our experience of containing the Soviet Union for fifty years to contain North Korea, while an international conference implementing mutual, reciprocal, verifiable reduction and final elimination of all nuclear weapons goes forward, prodded and encouraged by those one hundred and twenty nations who have already decided against deterrence by mutual assured destruction in favor of mutually assured survival.

Meanwhile we in the United States could use a good long look at ourselves—at a political system that allows a person of this level of inexperience, poor judgment, and impulsive temperament to get so close to nuclear decision-making that could affect the fate of millions.

If we get past the present acute crisis unscathed, someday North Koreans, South Koreans and Americans are going to meet and build relationship on post-nuclear ground, the common ground of a shared desire to survive and flourish.  They will look back and see just how deeply irrational and silly this moment was, when humans possessing and possessed by immense, world-destroying powers threatened each other like sixth graders challenging each other to a recess brawl.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Credibility Equals Annihilation


There is no more sacred cow in American foreign policy, and none more in need of examination, than the notion of credibility. It lies behind Mr. Trump’s vague rationale for continuing endless war in Afghanistan—his military advisors presumably believe that too precipitous abandonment of the failures of our campaign there would punch a hole in our international credibility, let alone rendering empty and absurd our past sacrifices. Nixon and Johnson got caught in the same credibility trap in Vietnam.

Turning to North Korea, where the credibility stakes appear to be even higher, perhaps world-endingly higher, Kim Jung Un and Mr. Trump are engaged in a risky game of nuclear brinksmanship, even though it seems unlikely that North Korea would risk attacking the U.S., either with conventional or with nuclear weapons.

But even if someone more sophisticated and seasoned occupied the White House, the provocations of North Korea cry out for redefinition. With nuclear weapons, we humans have created a monster that rhetorical escalation cannot control: a game of chicken with nukes is a game without winners.

Nuclear conflicts between rivals intent upon maintaining their credibility will not potentially, but inevitably, lead to apocalypse.  Since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 the tail of credibility has wagged the dog of security policy. The weapons themselves, proxies for our anger, fear, and desire to dominate or at least survive, have themselves become the drivers of the process and we humans have become their subservient agents. Within this paradigm, the leaders of nuclear nations are helpless to choose any other alternative even if they realize the relationship between credibility and self-destruction. This explains the inconsistency between the way government officials talk about the issue while in office and the entirely different way they often talk after they retire. Only after stepping down as Secretary of State was Henry Kissinger able to advocate openly for the abolition of nuclear weapons.  On his way out the door, Steve Bannon admitted there was no military option on the Korean peninsula.

Unless we completely rethink what all nine nuclear powers are asking these weapons to do, namely deter by terror and thus provide an illusion of security, the planet will be in this place over and over, perhaps with other nuclear powers in other looming situations of international tension like the Ukraine or Crimea, or the border tensions between India and Pakistan, or in situations still unforeseen—as the futile game of "we build/they build" continues with no good outcome.

The paradigm shift that is required to prevent the looming end of the world is just as large and difficult as the 16th Century realization that the sun and not the earth is the center of our solar system.  But the majority of the world’s nations have already made the shift from regarding nuclear weapons as the best guarantor of security to seeing them as the biggest potential agent of their destruction—we saw this when 120 nations signed a U.N. treaty calling for the outlawing of all nuclear weapons. The United States boycotted the conference leading to this treaty even while it has a crucial interest (and for that matter an ongoing obligation as a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) in leading the charge away from security by nuclear credibility.

Our leaders must take the risk, a risk that will require enormous moral courage, of saying we cannot afford to continue in our present drift. Instead, we need to respond to the posturing of North Korea not only with sanctions, but also with measured gestures of good will that could include such initiatives as committing firmly and explicitly to no first use, unilaterally reducing the number of warheads in one leg of the nuclear triad (land-based missiles is what former Secretary of Defense Perry recommends as ripe for reduction or even elimination with no loss of security), and, best of all, calling an ongoing international conference on abolition and supporting, rather than boycotting, that recent historic agreement to prohibit and abolish nukes signed by 120 nations.

The choice is stark. In the credibility paradigm, no word coming out of an official’s mouth can be inconsistent with one nation’s total willingness to annihilate millions of people just as human as themselves. The challenge is educational: to change from a mind set that worries about capitulation to other countries to a mind set that capitulates to reality: unless we all begin to wake up and paddle together toward the shore, our small planet could go over the waterfall that awaits us somewhere downstream. The U.S. must admit that credibility is obsolete, rather than propping it up with threats that raise tensions and could lead to fatal misinterpretations.

Wouldn't it be wonderful of the United States became credible in its adherence to treaties and international law, for its generosity in humanitarian aid, for its willingness to try non-violent processes of conflict resolution, and for building relationships with adversaries on a personal, human level instead of demonizing them.

It is not for nothing that the great religious sages often evoked a different way of thinking beyond drawing lines in the sand—a way of thinking that asserts we all are subject at times to fears that push us into hardened positions. Many of us allege, rightly or wrongly, that we live in a Christian nation. But how much service do we give to these foundational critiques of rigid side-taking: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.”  “Forgive 70 times 7.” These ancient teachings contain a startling new relevance: on a spherical planet vulnerable to nuclear disaster, we are all on the same side.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Why I Joined Rotary—and Why You Should Too



In 2014 the Damariscotta-Newcastle Rotary Club set a 10-year goal of becoming a significant player in helping to eliminate hunger in Lincoln County. On Sunday June 5, a dedicated team of fifty volunteers, led by a core group of Rotarians, boxed 30,000 meals for food banks in Lincoln County. At the same time, the club was able to host four Rotarian psychologists on a cultural/professional exchange trip from Argentina. They found it meaningful and gratifying to spend a few hours helping us pack meals.

This was the second time in the past year that Rotary has restocked food pantries with vitamin-fortified meals. Having won a competitive Rotary grant, we also funded tuitions for the FARMS program, which helps elementary school students learn how to cook tasty and nourishing vegetarian food.

Rotary recognizes that employment is part of the fabric that holds families and communities together, and we work to support employment through academic and vocational scholarships. We support high school seniors looking to attend college, and have a particular interest in helping people pursue a career in the trades and in health care. Our local Rotary has an active program, called Interact, at Lincoln Academy, where high school students can participate in their own community projects and learn to put “service above self” in their formative years.

The effectiveness of service projects undertaken by local Rotary clubs (and happily, Rotary is only one of a number of service clubs in our area), demonstrates that what works locally can be scaled up even to the global level. There are six areas where Rotary presses forward both locally and internationally: promoting peace, preventing diseases, providing access to clean water and sanitation (one of our members personally financed and oversaw the building of a number of such projects in Africa), enhancing maternal and child health, improving basic education and literacy (Rotary supports the Ready to Read Program at the Skidompha Library), and helping communities develop.

Rotary International, an organization with global reach, takes on great big, hairy, audacious goals—and succeeds. Perhaps the most striking one is its Polio Plus campaign, begun in earnest in 1985, to help completely rid the world of the scourge of polio. To date 2.5 billion children have been vaccinated. Polio is still extant only in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When I retired to Maine, I knew nothing about Rotary, except I thought I did. I imagined a bunch of mostly male working stiffs who practically slept in their three-piece suits and assembled to network with each other in a slightly forced spirit of conviviality.

At Rotary’s outset in 1905, its primary purpose was indeed self-interested business networking. But the founder, Paul Harris, had the vision to change Rotary’s central purpose into something much larger—community improvement.  This sparked a century of growth, evolutionary change, and greater inclusiveness that have resulted in a powerful organization that links local and international service efforts.

In the course of volunteering as a peace activist, I had the privilege of working with Al Jubitz, a prominent Rotarian from Oregon. Al has given his life to two ideas. The first made him a millionaire many times over, and the second just might save the world. His extended family owned a truck stop, and Al developed a computer program that allowed truckers to unload their cargo at a destination but then find a fresh load rather than returning empty—in effect, the complete obsolescence of “dead-heading,” the period during which a for-hire vehicle is not generating revenue.

Al prospered to the extent that he was able to turn his philanthropic attention to the challenges of the world, and for him challenge number one was war. Al sees the potential of Rotary, with well over a million members in clubs in 161 countries, to help our small, fraught planet grow beyond its tragic fixation with violence as the first resort for humans in conflict. Rotary’s strong network of international relationships and its vibrant conflict-resolution programs reinforce trends toward the peaceful settling of disputes.

Inspired by Al’s example, when I retired to Maine, I asked if I could speak to the local Rotary club on the need for greater international efforts to abolish nuclear weapons. While I understood that everyone in the audience might not agree with my views, the respectful hearing I received impressed me, and I decided to join the club.

So far I haven’t come across anyone who sleeps in a three-piece suit. What I did find was an accomplished, generous, and friendly group of judges, dentists, bankers, clergy, engineers, lawyers, artists, teachers and entrepreneurs, all of whom are willing to submerge their egos or need for approval in larger cooperative tasks, people who would give you the shirt off their backs if they saw the need—including larger-than-life characters like Boyce Martin, who, sadly, has just passed away. Boyce, a summer member based in Kentucky, was a retired Federal Appeals Court Justice who wrote significant opinions on complex issues like affirmative action and capital punishment. Everyone looked forward to the annual talks Boyce delivered that plumbed the thinking of the Supreme Court.

The conviviality in weekly Rotary meetings is hardly forced; it is as authentic as it gets. We genuinely enjoy each other in all our diversity, male and female, younger and older, still actively employed and retired, Republican and Democrat. Part of being a real community-within-the-community is our support and care for one another. Someone who falls ill will at the very least receive a card or a visit. We share our joys as well, the births of grandchildren, the athletic or scholastic accomplishments of our children, our personal or professional successes small or large.

Is Rotary a conservative or a liberal organization? The answer is both—and neither. In a sometimes contentious political climate, Rotary is a space where people of good will come together in fellowship and service irrespective of their motivation or political orientation. If a primary conservative value is creative, self-reliant grit and a primary liberal value is compassion, Rotary has both in abundant supply.

In a time when economic, political and environmental change is accelerating, the mere existence of a powerful local/global institution like Rotary is consoling.  In the battle between the light of creative cooperation on the one hand, and the darkness of alienation, chaos and sectarian violence on the other, Rotary is one of those organizations that would have to be invented if it did not exist.

Join Rotary, and you will inevitably be changed. You will be stretched by doing things you were only able to do because colleagues were supporting you. You will learn about how people with diverse ideas and opinions, instead of polarizing with each other, submerge their differences for the sake of doing good together. You will experience community close-up and personal, and at the same time have the opportunity to connect and contribute to visionary initiatives of global scope. You will laugh often. And you will make lifelong friends.