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.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Weed



Fifty years ago I was speculating with a college friend of mine about what we might do with our lives. He asserted that he wanted to spend his life bringing about the legalization of marijuana. I kidded him at the time because such an ambition seemed an absurd waste of his considerable talent and brains. I believe he did spend a number of years working for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). And as we know the goal of comprehensive legalization may be coming within reach. More and more states have legalized marijuana, some states for recreational use, 23 others and counting for medical use. The medical benefits, including the amelioration of pain, or nausea during chemotherapy, are authentically remarkable.

Meanwhile it needs no repeating that the “war on drugs” has been an abysmal failure. We desperately need creative thinking, especially to respond appropriately to the opioid crisis in the U.S. Some enlightened police departments are leaning away from the criminalization of drug use and toward helping people obtain treatment. For adolescents, legalizing drugs may diminish their glamour as something forbidden. It has apparently worked that way in Holland.

But as a high school teacher in the U.S. for thirty years, I witnessed an almost total correlation in my students between chronic marijuana use and a falling off of the ability to come to class prepared to engage, ask questions, and grow intellectually. For the teens I worked with, marijuana was an insidious and consistent killer of ambition. After I retired, clinical studies emerged that seemed to confirm my subjective observations—heavy marijuana use has the potential to permanently damage the young adolescent brain.

Back when I was teaching high school, one of the most effective anti-cigarette propaganda tool was to remind students that nicotine narrows veins and therefore could hypothetically accelerate genital insensitivity in both sexes.  Fearmongering or not, that was an argument they listened to! And the case is beginning to be proven by correlation between smoking and impotence in older men. Further research may yield more clarity about the deleterious effects of marijuana upon young minds, or even minds of all ages, that will be as effective in convincing teens not to overindulge.

My personal experience with weed was consistent with my experience of my students, though at 76 I rarely smoke anymore. I have missed, with little regret, the much more concentrated forms of the drug that are apparently available nowadays. But when I smoked it in my twenties, marijuana did act as advertised, as a radical relaxant. It was amusing to get high in a group and find every offhand remark unaccountably hilarious. It was fun to play music with friends and experience the illusion that everyone was a far better guitarist and singer than we judged ourselves to be when sober. But I always felt logy and out of sorts for a few days after, not like an acute hangover from too much alcohol but still, a price paid in “lowness” for having gotten high that was more than just my puritan heritage at work. Nowadays a few puffs just put me to sleep. Who needs it?

When I began a family, the issue became infinitely more personal. My son Chase learned to play a mean electric guitar at a precociously young age. I have to assume marijuana was a constant in his life not long after he bought his first instrument and spent more and more hours with his bandmates in various neighborhood garages. He was arrested once for possession, though it did nothing to make him more prudent. His academic record remained dismal all the way through high school and he graduated by the skin of his teeth. In his early twenties, he pulled himself together and began to study sound engineering at the Berklee College of Music, even making the dean’s list. The shadow temptation of drugs still loomed over him though, and he departed this life at the age of 23 from an overdose of methadone, imbibed at the house of an addict acquaintance.  His mother, my wife of thirty years, died more or less of grief a year later.

My assent to the notion that marijuana can act as a gateway is not some retrograde right-wing cliché, but a haunting lifetime reminder of my inability to save either my son or my spouse. No doubt tragedy conditions my skepticism about casual and blanket legalization. Those who are working for it would view me as an unnecessarily alarmist special case.

Still, I must insist that I’ve known not a few adults, let alone adolescents, whose chronic marijuana use has clearly done something to diminish their engagement with the healthy challenges of life and work.  Any comprehensive dialogue about drugs in our country would have to include the quality of emptiness or helpless anxiety that permeates a shallow, over-monetized culture. We are paying a huge price for having defined success in narrowly materialistic terms (for proof we need look no further than the “I’m All Right Jack” culture of the White House). Is self-medication with drugs, legal or illegal, or with alcohol for that matter, a futile attempt to dull our fear of not measuring up to some inauthentic standard? When people argue that marijuana use has no consequences at all for mind or body, it makes me want to reconnect with my college friend from so long ago. I’d like to ask him if marijuana still stands up as his best answer to facing life’s “ordinary unhappiness.”

Bottom line for me: legalize it, fine, but let’s also figure out together how to educate kids 10 and up to forego marijuana for at least the decade while their brains are still developing resilience—and wouldn’t we all prefer it if it were outright prohibited for surgeons, train engineers, passenger jet pilots, air traffic controllers, and other professionals who need every brain cell to deal with the unexpected?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Few Days in the Capital


 “He keeps touching my elbow and I asked him to stop three times!”
“That’s because she put her arm up so I can’t see out the window!”
Civil war in an Uber. 
We were shepherding two of our grandkids, mixed-race dual citizens of Belize and the U.S., well-behaved and delightful 99 percent of the time, around some of the many remarkable museums and monuments in Washington. 
But the background noise of capital politics (the President’s flabbergastingly inappropriate speech to the Boy Scout Jamboree, his passive-aggressive public bullying of his own chief law-enforcement officer, the mercifully brief appearance on the scene of the foul-mouthed Director of Communications for the White House) hovered like static over our attempts to explain to a nine and ten year old a few basics of American history.
We had begun at one end of the Mall, with the Lincoln Memorial. As one child enterprisingly began to recreate the building on his Ipad with a program called Minecraft, we took a moment to peruse Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech, engraved in its entirety upon the right wall of the Memorial opposite the Gettysburg Address.
The noble and concise Second Inaugural, orated as a blood-drenched civil war was finally winding down, goes to the heart of why our democratic experiment continues to be worth the effort. Lincoln, a true servant-leader, tried to explain honestly why he felt the war, however much the country might have wished to avoid it, had to go forward—to maintain the essential American ideal of equal opportunity. Either slavery or the Union had to go. While no Gandhi—and how much might have been different if there had been an American Gandhi to protest the tragic carnage (our own Gandhi, Martin Luther King, came later)—Lincoln seems far from a warmonger. Especially telling was his refusal of the easy chauvinistic trope that God was entirely on the side of the North.
A century and a half later, the difficult ongoing work of resolving the divergences in our origin stories—the histories of the North and the South, of the slaves and their descendants and the economic masters and theirs, of native Americans and raw immigrants, remains incomplete. But take it forward we must, all of us finding our place in a yet unachieved but more perfect union.

Only few hundred yards away from Lincoln’s magisterial presence in sculpture and in his words engraved on high walls of stone, a fresh educational challenge arose: to interpret for the children the abstract brilliance of Maya Lin’s low-lying Vietnam War Memorial, where, also engraved on stone, the names of thousands of dead soldiers commemorated a dreadful, purposeless war, a war we lost and deserved to lose, for we had fought, like the South in our own civil war, on the wrong side. The leader of North Vietnam had been a follower of Thomas Jefferson and an implacable foe of the Chinese communists. So much for the domino theory.

Martin Luther King Jr. in his trenchant 1967 speech at Riverside Church labeled our core sins: racism, materialism, militarism. Exactly one year later, this speaker of unvarnished truth to power, the equal of Lincoln in eloquence and moral depth, was silenced at the young age of 39, like Lincoln at 56, by an assassin’s cowardly bullet. With the death of King, America seemed to further lose its moral compass. The nation’s halting efforts to repent of King’s three sins have continued, one step forward, two steps back, as the blowback of ill-advised foreign wars continues, as prosperity is unfairly concentrated at the upper end of the economy, as too many black youths continue to languish in prison.

The proximity of the two memorials, the Lincoln and the Vietnam, reminded us that in our polarization we are in the midst of something resembling another civil war. The sides continue to shout past each other. Our legislative representatives are paralyzed by uncivil strife. Both our major parties are hopelessly beholden to big money interests.

On another day we took the children on a private tour of the Capitol Building, guided by a friendly aide to a congressman. At one point we were introduced to a White House functionary, and I asked if I might pose an impertinent question: was there a plan in place to restrain the president should he try to start a nuclear war in a moment of emotional impulsivity? The young man, unsurprisingly a Trump partisan, replied tersely, “He is the president.”

Indeed he is—and thus he is unavoidably our mirror—a reflection of our own shadow. Our response as citizens, and the response of our representatives in congress and the courts to the monkeyshines of a shallow, petty, unhinged chief executive represent a new test for the Union and for all of us.

Lincoln’s calm rhetoric at the end of a terrible war and the low-lying gash of the Vietnam memorial suggest how our nation might mature into a new humility, somewhere beyond racism, militarism, and materialism. We need leaders who can navigate the new/old reality that on this small planet all war is civil war. That, as President Reagan correctly said, a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. That we all must participate together in meeting international crises like global climate change and in strengthening the delicate system of international law. “America First” is a foolish fantasy, but remaking America into a more cooperative player alongside the 200 nations (one hundred and twenty of which just signed a U.N. resolution outlawing nuclear weapons) with whom we share this planet always remains a possibility. We will survive together or we will die together—grandchildren and all.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

There Is Still Time, Brother






Like many citizens for whom the daily headlines are an invitation to ponder the mental health of our political leaders, it is hard not to wonder from time to time about the risk of slipping into yet another war to end all wars—especially when the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki roll around, on August 6th and 9th, year after passing year. 

In this context Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film, “On the Beach” is still worth a look. The screenplay was adapted from a novel of the same name by the English writer, Nevil Shute, who spent his later years in Australia, where both novel and film are set.

The plot provides a coolly understated take on the end of the world. Radioactivity from all-out nuclear war, both between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. and the Soviets and the Chinese, has done in anyone in the Northern Hemisphere who might have survived the initial blasts and fires.  Australia is still in one piece, but it is only a matter of months before the great cycles of upper atmosphere winds bring a fatal plague of radiation southward, making it game over for our species. A laconic Gregory Peck, stoically repressing his knowledge that his wife and children had been long since annihilated in the initial nuclear exchange, plays a submarine captain whose vessel survived by being underwater. He takes his loyal crew on a futile exploratory voyage from Melbourne across to the California coast, both to test the intensity of atmospheric radiation and to confirm that no one has survived beyond the Australian continent. 

In both novel and film, nobody knows who initiated the planet-ending wars and it hardly matters after the fact, just as it would not today. The only difference is we realize almost seventy years later that not only wind-born radioactive dust but also nuclear winter could hasten our planetary end. The wintry chaos of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel “The Road” may take a more authentically grim tone, just as the film “Dr. Strangelove,” released not long after “On the Beach,” suggests that only satire could do justice to the absurdity of the “policy” of Mutually Assured Destruction.

And yet in 1959, with the Cold War intensifying and only five years beyond the red-baiting Army-McCarthy hearings, it must have taken a certain courage for Stanley Kramer to make a Hollywood film of Shute’s novel, devoid of the least sign of a happy ending to lighten the quietly enveloping darkness.

The almost antique understatement of “On the Beach,” book and film both, somehow ends up working in favor of the subject. They illustrate our frustrated awareness that we imperfect humans continue to behave stupidly and sleepily in our inability to do something about our suicidally destructive weapons. Just as it sometimes seems as if we are appendages of our smartphones and computers, we appear to be appendages of our vain approach to security by deterrence. The leaders of the nuclear powers do not dare to do anything to stop the juggernaut of technological “advance,” the “we build—they build” momentum that is taking us ever faster downriver toward the waterfall.  

“On the Beach” ends with a shot of a Salvation Army banner flapping emptily in the wind with the slogan “There is still time, brother.” In fact not everyone on the planet is sticking head where the sun don’t shine. More than 120 nations recently signed a United Nations pact agreeing to outlaw the manufacture, deployment and use of nuclear weapons. None of the nine nuclear nations signed, and the U.S. refused to even attend.  The historic occasion didn’t come close to making the front pages of major U.S. media outlets, saturated as they have been with the Russian attempts at subversion of our electoral processes with the willing connivance of the Trump family.

In our pig-headed refusal to face reality, the nuclear powers appear to have learned nothing in all the many years since the first halting attempts, including “On the Beach,” to use the arts to dramatize the risks with which we heedlessly flirt, and how we need to change course or die. 120 nations have changed course—why not the U.S.?