Monday, October 12, 2015

The Only Way to Win is Not to Play

As the possibility grows that Russian and American, or NATO, forces will inadvertently clash over or in the Syrian chaos, it is hard not to be reminded of Eric Schlosser’s electrifying 2013 book Command and Control, a comprehensive account of the development and deployment of nuclear weapons over the last sixty years. It might be the most frightening book you will ever read.

Schlosser walks us through the bizarre ambiguities of deterrence, always in the context of the tension between the need for fail-safe mechanisms to prevent misuse and the even more pressing military need for split-second readiness. This tension has left an all too lengthy trail of close calls, misunderstandings, hair-raising false alarms, and one-micro step-away-from accidental thermonuclear detonations. Our planet’s having been spared apocalypse—so far—approaches the miraculous.

The threat of mutually assured destruction has almost certainly had a major role in preventing yet another world war—again, so far. Given the inability of the victorious powers at the end of World War II to trust one another enough to see where an all-out arms race would end up, they chose instead to slide down the slippery slope of adversarial proliferation .

Even as safety specialists focus upon protecting the weapons from the possibility of detonation by someone who has lost his mind, they deny the stark insanity of the deterrence system itself. Nuclear protocol remains so hair-trigger that it feels as if the weapons possess a kind of almost-independent eagerness to show what they can do.

Pick your poison: the knife-edge Cold War balance of terror, where at least elite forces like the Strategic Air Command took enormous pride in their professionalism, or the present era of bored, restless crews in missile silos smoking dope and cheating on readiness tests.

Only if we face such realities honestly can we hope to change them, beginning with foundational principles congruent with our actual condition:

In the pre-nuclear world, international relations emerged from the conflict of national interests. In a post-nuclear world, national self-interest is intimately connected with planetary self-interest. The possibility of even a small number of nuclear detonations anywhere on earth causing “nuclear winter” underlines this radical change.

In both the pre-nuclear and post–nuclear world it has been of primary strategic interest to try to psyche out the mentality of the “enemy”—almost always leading to projective distortions like “they support brutal regimes, we do not.” In the post-nuclear world, the desire not to appear weak common to all sides in a conflict has become a recipe for psychological war—credibility—sliding into real war. Diplomacy must found itself both upon the shared threat of nuclear winter and admitting the universal tendency toward macho posturing.  The only way anyone wins is if everyone wins.

In a pre-nuclear world, greater strength in arms made victory a strong likelihood; in a post-nuclear world, victory is a phantom. Schlosser’s book is full of military leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere, General Curtis Lemay of SAC first among them, who entertained the folly of believing that total victory was possible in a nuclear war. Only President Kennedy pushed back against Lemay’s relentless pressure to launch an air attack on Cuba during the Missile Crisis of 1962, which would almost certainly have started WW3.

A half century later, there is still no person on earth possessing sufficient wisdom to be able to make sensible decisions once a nuclear war begins, just as no military or civilian commander can say with assurance that the thousands of nuclear weapons around the globe will never be involved in an accident that tips us into a war that no one can win. Past time to convene an international conference that pushes the nine nuclear nations to accelerate a reciprocal, verifiable disarmament process. It is perfectly possible to do, and crazy not to.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A (Not So Hidden) Assumption

Another mass shooting in the U.S.; Russia attacking whomever it thinks most threatens Assad; the carnage across vast swaths of the Middle East, where a Hobbesian chaos reigns so complete that one can no longer tell the players apart enough to decide upon rational strategic policy—these disparate events are united by one primal cultural assumption: that humans murdering other humans represents an effective way to resolve conflicts.

Someday we will understand how the grotesque distortion of reality within the mind of an insane person spraying bullets randomly among his innocent fellow-citizens is not all that different from Assad dropping barrel bombs on his fellow citizens. Or Putin dropping bombs on whomever his planes are targeting today—or Obama firing extra-judicial missiles from drones.

Killing solves nothing. But the not-so-hidden pervasive assumption is that killing solves many things—based upon might makes right.

This is such a given in the media that “objective” reporting of the “facts” doesn’t even need to set violence in the context of values—except when the murderousness results in unavoidable tragic consequences like a mass exodus of refugees. Journalism proudly seeks the objective, the “real.” The “real” is a cold accounting of death and dismemberment without any possible blurring of the “facts” by human values like pity, compassion, and shame.

Whether motivated by fear, revenge, offense as best defense, or any of the major rationalizations for the insanity of war or the insanity of “private” murderousness, humans live, move and have their being within a vast sea of justification of killing.

It extends into the highest reaches of our technological prowess, and thus we have designed and deployed extraordinary instruments of death like the Trident submarine, 600 feet of pure potential destruction, a kind of holocaust in a can administered with an elite and proud professionalism that we would be happy to see emulated elsewhere in our institutions and activities. We justify the necessity of this deterrent bulwark, just as the others who possess these infernal machines, the Russians, the French, the British, the North Koreans, feel equally justified in keeping at the ready their own apparatus of mass murder.

This is our human paradigm on a small planet. But paradigms can shift. We once thought that drilling holes in peoples’ skulls was the most effective way to heal chronic headaches, or that werewolves were as “real” as present journalistic “objectivity,” or that the sun revolved around the earth, or that cholera germs were airborne and not waterborne.

We humans evolved from mammals who slowly learned compassion and care for their young over millions of years. Within the ecological systems into which these creatures fit, there is constant conflict, but also a level of cooperation in favor of the survival and health of the system as a whole. From this life support system we still have much to learn. And the capacity to learn is native within us, for we evolved from the same system.

It is difficult to gauge how much power for positive change is contained in the mere assertion that killing solves nothing. Surely the vast majority of people believe it to be true. An impractical thought experiment can be performed: imagine that every news story about war and murder simply began with the phrase “Killing solves nothing.” To have a wide-ranging dialogue about whether killing solves anything is to open the door to as yet unimagined or at least unchosen possibilities—and perhaps, someday, to close the door for good on humans killing each other.

Nuclear weapons are a perfect place to start, because it is so crystal clear that their use in conflict resolves nothing, and would inevitably make things a great deal worse, worse even to the extent of our very extinction. It is past time for an international conference, attended by those in the military and in high civilian positions in the nuclear nations who are the decision-makers, to address the perfectly feasible abolition of these obsolete weapons. Success in this regard, so much easier than the level of cooperation required to mitigate global climate instability, could become a model of non-violent conflict resolution replicable in regional and local domains, including addressing the NRA-driven gun-culture in the U.S. with common-sense laws. Killing solves nothing.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

An Alien Addresses the U.N. on Nuclear Deterrence

 “Representatives of the nations of earth, I greet you in the name of the Local Group Intergalactic Council. As your Hubble telescope has told you, the Local Group, 10 million light years across, comprises about 30 galaxies, your own Milky Way being the largest.

Perhaps it will not surprise you that around the hundreds of billions of stars in these galaxies spin many planets that support life. I hope it will be a wake-up call for you to know that just within the Local Group, a tiny fraction of the total universe, there have already been 87 planets which have annihilated themselves with weapons of mass destruction.

Try to take this in. An immense struggle of life, exactly like yours, evolving over millions of years out of inert matter on a small sphere in orbit around its own star, slowly developing into forms of mammalian care, self-conscious awareness, and love —but then unleashing complete self-destruction. Some of these worlds had their equivalent Shakespeares, their Mozarts, their Van Goghs, but their masterpieces are as extinct as they are.

We have watched with growing alarm since we received the signal of your first atomic explosion on earth in 1945—immediately followed by the use of nuclear bombs on two cities full of civilians.

Fifty two years beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis, my fellow-citizens of the Milky Way, you refuse to take in its foreboding lesson. You have not seen that all nations share a common problem, which is that the weapons systems you have developed as your bastions of security have become the gravest threat to that same security.

Yes, for many decades deterrence did indeed work, by a miracle of good fortune, to prevent a third world war. But if nine nuclear powers should turn to fifteen, to twenty one, to thirty five, all connected to complex electronic systems, and the systems are all connected to thousands upon thousands of fallible human beings, your chances of survival will diminish to zero. Will you passively assent to visiting this doom upon your children and grandchildren?

The unworkable paradox of deterrence is that the purpose of nuclear weapons is meant to ensure that they will never be used, but at the same time nuclear strategists require them to be on hair-trigger alert for deterrence to be credible.
This is a holocaust waiting to happen.

In the very midst of your democratic institutions you tolerate thermonuclear absolute monarchies, where one person has the power to decide whether to annihilate millions. And where that same person may have to decide within minutes whether to counterlaunch if attacked.

But even without a counterlaunch, computer models have warned you about nuclear winter, which posits that if less than 1% of your weapons are detonated, the soot and ash could spread around your planet and shut down agriculture for a decade—in effect, a death sentence for your species, exactly what happened in the case of three other planets in the local group. Therefore the shared problem of nuclear winter should be the foundational talking point of abolition.

Your planet continues to drift downriver on a raft toward an immense waterfall. You have oars, but you have not learned how to row together toward shore. You foolishly believe that you won’t go over the falls, that you will be the exception.
You have not learned to row together because you have locked yourselves into obsolete identifications. You think of yourselves as Jews or Muslims or Persians or Republicans or Palestinians or Africans, each with their separate, tribal story of origin or inviolate holy texts.  Such tribalism served your survival instincts for thousands of years. But having seen photographs of your blue planet from space, you know now you are one human tribe facing challenges that no single nation can solve alone.

Many planets in the local group made it through the stage in which you find yourselves by realizing that “enemy” is not a productive concept—especially when it became clear that hurting the enemy only means hurting oneself. When you fear and preoccupy with those who hate you, you do harm to them that makes them hate you more, and you fear them more, perpetuating an endless, futile cycle. You have built your security systems upon this cycle.

No one will be secure until all are secure. Conflict on your planet will not cease. The task is to resolve conflict without fear, hate, and killing, knowing that my survival depends upon yours, and yours upon mine.

I am not here to force dominion upon you, but only to set before you a free choice between further maturation or suicide: evolve your thinking or die. We have the technical means to destroy every one of your warheads, but without your own species-wide change of hearts and minds, you would only build them again.  Change must come from you. You must learn to love your children, including the children of your adversaries, more than you fear those adversaries.  Ask yourselves what benefits all children, and that will point the way.

Whatever happens, you can’t say that you haven’t been told.

Winslow Myers, the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” writes on global issues and serves on the Advisory Board of the War Prevention Initiative.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Living in Truth

“The human capacity to ‘live in truth,’  . . . is the nuclear weapon that gives power to the powerless.”
                         —Michael Zantowsky, writing about Vaclav Havel

Something genuinely bothers me about the U.S. negotiations with Iran, whether they are ultimately successful or not.

There is a huge distance between what can be realistically accomplished politically and some rarely acknowledged truths that might allow the U.S. to go much further toward creating a safer world. I admire the way President Obama acknowledged candidly that Iran has had legitimate issues with the U.S., like the U.S. meddling in Iran’s elections in 1953 and the American support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war even as Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran. It’s a step toward truth, and not a mere giving in to facile moral relativism, to acknowledge that there are multiple frames of reference that are useful to take into account in international relations.

In no way should Iran be let off the hook for its virulent anti-Semitism and its own destructive meddling by proxy.  But, as Obama rightly points out, Nixon negotiated successfully with China, just as Reagan did with Soviet Russia, the erstwhile evil empire.

The true and almost entirely unspoken context for negotiation between two or more sides in the nuclear age who each see the other as untrustworthy, flawed, or devious is epitomized by the sentence Albert Einstein wrote in a telegram to world leaders way back in 1946: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

It is a huge assertion to say that everything has changed. Is it true?

Even taking into account U.S.-Russian arms reductions, there are still 17,500 nuclear weapons extant on this small planet, distributed among nine nations. What Einstein prophesied has come to pass in spades: the nuclear powers maintain an elaborate fiction that their security interests are furthered by possessing a robust nuclear arsenal and that deterrence will protect us all forever into the future. This is the “Big Lie” that undergirds America’s anxious search for security.

The truth—the new mode of thinking that Einstein implied is desperately needed—is that the existence of nuclear weapons, no matter who has them, is a common, shared, transnational challenge that, far from making anyone safer, moves everyone day by day toward the abyss. Ordinary people seem to have a clearer grasp of this than “experts” and politicians determined to maintain the status quo. A status quo which is actually a gradual drift, as Einstein stated, toward catastrophe.

The assumption that America is so technically advanced that our nuclear weapons are fail-safe must be set against accounts in the news of the bored servicemen in the missile silos of the Midwest cheating on readiness tests. Should a fatal error occur and a nuclear war begin by accident, it would be an ultimate evil that far transcends the putative good or evil of any existing national regime—including the United States, which refuses to see itself as anything but an exceptional force for good in the world.

A further danger of this illusion of exceptionalism is our propensity to define ourselves by who our enemies are (Iran tortures routinely; we do not—wait—oops!) without examining our own government's role in the mix. Politicians who wish to distract their constituency from domestic difficulties can find the notion of a fearsome “other,” whether African at home or Persian abroad, all too convenient—setting aside that it keeps the weapons industry humming. The truth is, there is no “other.” We’re all in this together.

So perhaps what bothers this ordinary citizen about the frenetic negotiations with Iran and the equally frenetic opposition to them on the part of hard-liners in both countries is the elephant in the room of a grossly hypocritical double standard. Our thousands of nukes, Israel’s hundreds, Pakistan’s hundred or so are OK. Iran coming anywhere near building even one—not OK.

Einstein would see this double standard, almost 70 years beyond his pronunciation of naked truth, as deeply illusory—a kind of planetary psychosis rooted in a now obsolete mode of thinking, which pits nation against nation as if we were back in the time before the world wars, when the most destructive weapon was a cannonball.

While we ought to applaud Obama and Kerry for their tenacious perseverance as we fervently hope the newly minted arrangements with Iran overcome the doubts, both in our Congress and among Iranian hard-liners, the deeper issue of seeking the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons, no exceptions, continues to be painfully ignored in favor of obsolete power politics based on the “Big Lie.” Only if we live in truth can this be changed.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Hundreds of people recently paid big bucks to hear Monica Lewinsky give a carefully crafted but also quite touching TED talk announcing her survival of a public shaming of planetary proportions.

Brené Brown, a leading researcher who teaches resilience to shame, asserts that a major root cause of our collective shame originates in a paradigm of scarcity: the main message of our culture is that our ordinary lives are not special enough. We are not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, interesting enough, accomplished enough. Adding to the mix are pervasive early experiences of humiliation. An art teacher once told my father there was no hope that he could ever learn to draw. This casual comment stayed with him all his life. School experiences of this sort are legion.

Notwithstanding Brown’s essential research, the roots of shame are even more existential than the superficial criteria of our materialist and appearance-obsessed culture; for proof we need only look to the primordial mythology of Adam and Eve covering their privates after eating the forbidden fruit. The meaning of the myth is still debated; in one interpretation, their shame represented not a disobedient fall into original sin, but a fall upward into consciousness and conscience—into the healthy vulnerability indicated by our capacity for shame.

Having earned my undergraduate degree, I was troubled for decades by a repetitive dream in which I needed to go back to my college as an adult and take one more year of courses in order to authenticate my diploma. It was only in middle age, as I began to fulfill my professional potential, by which time I had acquired enough experience to forgive myself for some serious mistakes of work and love, that the dream ceased to recur. The dream was a manifestation of shame, a deep sense of not living up to the birthright of what it was possible for me to be. Shame and its complement, empathy, are built-in software that helps weave people together in the web of interdependence we call culture—the culture that is and the culture that might be.

Our present culture shames selectively. Monica Lewinsky, whose moment of youthful complicity with a powerful man threatened only herself and one family, albeit a very public family, must carefully eat crow in order to move on. Richard Bruce Cheney, the proximate cause not only of the lies that engendered the ongoing deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq and surroundings but also of the environmental catastrophe of fracking, remains comfortably unashamed of the agony he has brought to whole peoples and landscapes.  Let’s not hold our breath waiting for him to do a repentant TED talk any time soon.

The shame of our planetary condition is even deeper than an oligarchic culture where those insulated by power get to pick who gets a pass and who does not.  After millennia of wars, the human family still accepts the shameless notion that killing each other will resolve our many conflicts.  Not a day goes by that we don’t hear from denizens of this or that prestigious Washington think-tank, often not speaking truth to power but beating the drums of power, lending a veneer of legitimacy to activities for which we should be thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed—secret arms sales to all sides in a conflict, hypocrisy around nuclear weapons, drones decimating wedding parties, military cost overruns in the billions that take food from the mouths of the poor.

When pundits encourage violent alternatives as logically inevitable, violence is rationalized, brought into civilized discourse, made credible and fit for daily consumption. At a delicate moment in complex diplomatic negotiations, the bullying and simplistic John Bolton was irresponsibly given a forum in the New York Times to argue that we have no other option but to bomb Iran, a country where ordinary people by the thousands went into the streets in sympathy with the U.S. after 9-11.

A piece of video footage available last year on the net reminds us of the shameful reality of the horror Bolton would plunge Iran into so casually. Much too raw for network TV, it showed a wide-eyed six-year-old child lying on rags somewhere in Syria awaiting medical attention with her intestines exposed in a tangled mound. The editors of this tape had partially blurred this slick protruding pile of guts, but it was still not an easy image to erase from one’s mind. It shouldn’t have been, because it exemplified something truly shameful, the civilian cost of war.

It is possible to imagine a world where violence and killing are universally agreed to be the most shameful, unmanly ways to resolve conflicts—because in fact they never really resolve anything, as tragically demonstrated by the chaos of today’s Middle East and the U.S. role in it. While unhealthy shame can feel almost as bad to children as getting their guts blown apart—“forget it, you’ll never be an artist”—we live in a world where healthy shame is still in very short supply.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bob Dylan: Bird on the Horizon

Bird on the horizon
Sittin’ on a fence
He’s singin’ his song for me
At his own expense . . .

—”You’re a Big Girl Now”

Bob Dylan and I happen to be the same age. I have seen him live in concert only three times, once in 1960 at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, when he was just starting out, then 44 years later, in 2004, at a minor league baseball field in Brockton, MA., playing the second half on a bill with Willy Nelson, then, a few years after that, once more, at a rather rote excessively amplified concert in Essex, Vermont.

Before a reading in Manhattan, Wallace Stevens remarked to John Malcolm Brinnin, “on occasions like this, the voice is the actor.” (Stevens went on to “perform” his poetry that evening in an almost inaudible monotone.) Robbie Robertson of the Band said that Bob Dylan’s voice was an actor capable of playing many parts. Dylan, the improbable heir not only of Whitman and Hart Crane, but of Eliot and Frost as well, lives up to the billing. His voice has been an actor of Homeric scope.

A typical put-down of Dylan is that he never could sing (it is undeniable that his voice has lost much of its plangency in old age), but this is an abject failure to connect with his achievement. Frank Sinatra, a great singer whom Dylan admired, is nonetheless always Frank Sinatra through all his singing, more or less as Jack Nicholson is always Jack Nicholson no matter whom he is playing.

Dylan on the other hand, as Robertson said, has invented a diverse series of personae, characters whose unique styles match up with whatever he happens to be singing. Robert Frost evolved a theory and practice of poetry he called “the sound of sense,” where he played off tones of voice, the way people actually sound as they speak in ordinary conversation, against the strictures of traditional verse forms and beats, to create something fresh (“Some have relied on what they knew/Others on being simply true/What worked for them might work for you”). This is exactly what Dylan has done through hundreds of songs, from the caustic “What Was It You Wanted?” to the sensual “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” to the prophetic “You got to Serve Somebody,” to the poignant “You’re a Big Girl Now” or “Stayed in Mississippi a Day Too Long.” Individual performances of songs provide further elaboration and change. There is the Warholian “Visions of Joanna” on “Blonde on Blonde,” and the “Visions of Joanna” sung and played with tremendous joy (though Dylan has on his usual deadpan face as he tosses off this utter masterpiece of a performance) in Portsmouth England in a 2000 concert available on YouTube.

Dylan has achieved an infinitely more versatile set of performances than Sinatra.  Dylan’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable because it consists of a unique mix of the poetry of his own words, the poetry of melody, the poetry of instrumentation, and the poetry of the voice in individual performance. These cannot be separated. In vocal/instrumental music the combinations of melodic, rhythmic and spoken cadences breaking across each other are almost infinitely variable.  

That’s the biggest problem with any academic approach to Dylan: his poetry isn’t the half of it, or maybe even a third of it. The three halves together—that fateful congruence of poetry, specific voicing and the way verse and voice play off against their instrumental and rhythmic context—will always partly elude the scholars, even the most brilliant, like Christopher Ricks or Sean Wilentz. Dylan is irreducible and incommensurable. Dylan and the academy have always been oil and water. I happened to be in the audience when Princeton University presented him with an honorary doctorate, an occasion that inspired his song “Day of the Locust.” He couldn’t have looked more uncomfortable sitting onstage in his black cap and gown in the 90-degree heat, sweating along with the Secretary General of the U.N. and other more conventional notables. Decades later, appearing in the film “Masked and Anonymous,” he still looks uncomfortable—except when playing and singing.

Unlike someone like Marlon Brando, who made acting more authentic in the same way Dylan renews stale musical conventions, Dylan has not fallen into the temptation of holding his chosen medium in contempt. Instead, even though it hasn’t always been jolly to have to inhabit his own myth, he has expanded and reinvented song as endlessly and prolifically as Picasso reinvented painting. He takes risks exploring human depths that other artists wouldn’t even contemplate.  A song like “Disease of Conceit,” (Oh Mercy) with its seemingly lame idea and lamer rhymes, shouldn’t even get off the ground, but it ends up flying more than gracefully. And for every near pratfall there are literally hundreds of songs that are works of genius—“What Good Am I?,” “Most of the Time,” (both on Oh Mercy), “Sugar Babe.” (Love and Theft)

Further versatility and depth is provided by the way Dylan is one of the few who has continued to write songs in the authentic voice of a man in his teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. It is silly to assert that Dylan let down 1960’s radicalism by abdicating themes of protest—because he never abdicated. He has gone on writing trenchant critiques of various kinds, “We Live in a Political World,” “Workingman’s Blues,” “Its All Good,” and on and on. The adolescent outrage and wry cynicism by which he first became known makes up only a small section of his Protean range of voices and poetic stances, including the poetry of the householder, the poetry of the despairing and alienated loner, of the sly indirect commentator on crime, corruption, violence and world catastrophe, and the poetry too of love and affirmation of human and divine goodness.

At one point Dylan was even nominated for the Nobel, and why not?  As a poet Dylan deserves and would himself give added prestige to the Nobel, except that the prize is not given for the ancient bardic enhancement of poetry by music. Neither Frost nor Stevens ever did get the Nobel, but should have. So should Dylan, though it may be the last thing he wants—or needs.

At Campanelli Stadium in Brockton, we were able to stand right in front of the stage, about fifty feet away from Dylan and his band. An announcer broadcast a hyped commercial-sounding message about how Dylan was thought of as a has-been but kept bouncing back—as if this mythological character needed the slightest justification.

Dylan played only keyboard throughout his entire set, standing with bent legs in his black suit and white cowboy hat. You could see the sweat flying off his face. He ran through “High Water Rising,” “Poor Boy,” the rollicking “Summer Nights,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and other classics. After every number the lights went down and he wandered off into the back of the stage—to tipple? At the end, he faced the crowd, swaying back and forth, an unexpectedly slight medium for so much song over so much time. Slowly he raised his left thumb and smiled slightly. Still standing.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Great Speech in Selma, Mr. President!

Very stirring and eloquent words at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Mr. President, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march.

“What they did here will reverberate through the ages.  Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate.”

Not only that nonviolent change is possible, Mr. President, but that nonviolence is by far the most effective route to change both at home and abroad. So stop sending those drones to kill innocent children in faraway desert lands, murders that create more terrorists than they eliminate!

“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”  

Yes! So rather than forcing him into exile for fear of not getting a fair trial, let’s honor the heroism of Edward Snowden for exposing the lies of high officials and their trashing of our inalienable right to freedom and autonomy. You promised the most transparent government in the history of our country, but there is more secrecy and persecution of whistleblowers than ever.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.” 

Indeed it is. And that is why it is a tragedy that no one has been held accountable under the law for the web of deceit that led us into the tragic, budget-busting military campaigns that have only planted the seeds for further violence in the Mideast. These wars went forward in the face of the largest peaceful citizen protest marches in the history of the world.

“What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say.  And what a solemn debt we owe.  Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?”

One way we can repay that debt and we ourselves can shine in the light of Dr. King’s glory is not to forget Dr. King’s truth-telling connection of ill-considered, futile wars abroad with eradicable poverty and racism at home.

 “’We are capable of bearing a great burden,’ James Baldwin once wrote, ‘once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.’

There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem . . . If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination.  All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now.  All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children.  And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.” 

Right on. These rousing words remind us of your past speeches advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Instead, our government plans to spend untold dollars desperately needed for meeting real human needs on the renewal of our nuclear arsenal, arrogantly disregarding our solemn obligation as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to ramp down and finally eliminate these expensive, useless world-destroying weapons.

Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or even the President alone.  If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we would still have, here in America, one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. . .

What’s our excuse today for not voting?  How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?  How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?”

Could it have anything to do with cynicism and disillusion with a political game that is rigged against authentic democracy from the get-go, the corruption at the heart of our politics and economics encouraged by our own highest court, corruption that equates money with speech, rotting our electoral system from within, corruption that allows ethically challenged bankers not only to walk free but also to be bailed out by the hard-earned tax dollars of ordinary citizens?

“That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.”

Sadly, America is also exceptional in its grinding contradictions, as your speech itself demonstrates despite its obvious good intentions and unifying rhetoric. America is indeed exceptional in the incarcerated percentage of its population, in infant mortality, in the number of people who may be uncertain from where their next meal is coming. The exceptional promise of our country will truly be realized when principles applied in one compartment of our national life become relevant to all compartments.