Sunday, December 16, 2012

Universal Responsibility

“O that there were some virtue in my tears . . .”—Shakespeare

One of the Dalai Lama’s first principles is something he calls “universal responsibility.” However quick we are to place His Holiness on a saintly pedestal, it is only because the threshold of our own responsibility sometimes seems so very low—especially at this moment of reflection upon the massacre of the innocents in Newtown.

From a tearful President on down through the powerful talk radio demagogues to ordinary citizens, we all bear a share of responsibility for the climate of violence that is the context for the tragedy in Newton. I’m as responsible as anyone because I took too long to write my representative concerning my strong feelings about gun control. Great Britain endured 58 firearm murders in 2011, while America had 8,775. Great Britain banned handguns altogether in 1997.  

The weapons industry and the anti-control lobbyists led by the NRA certainly ought to step up to their share. They managed to chill the speech of both presidential candidates, even though the previous mass murder in Aurora, CO. took place at the height of the campaign.

Talk radio and television, with its sneering contempt for opposing views and simplistic polarization of issues upon which people of good will may differ, clouds the atmosphere of our culture with potential violence. Don’t say words alone can’t be violent, and incite to violence. It happens all the time. The obscenity is to get paid millions to pander to our most primitive fears and impulses.

It is a cliché to say that our entertainment runs on the adrenalin of violence. But there are unconscious assumptions operating that make that violence even more pernicious. The movie “Argo,” a well-crafted thriller made by a liberal-leaning director about getting seven Americans out of harm’s way in Iran, still managed to reduce all the Iranians in the film to crude swarthy stereotypes. “Zero Dark Thirty” rationalizes our government’s use of torture to find Osama bin Laden.

Our President lives and works at the center of a storm of hyper-violence.  Mr. Obama has been the subject of more violent threats to his own life than any President in history. And surely the threats to Obama’s person would only increase if he took our international policies in a more dovish direction.

No worries there. It is the commander-in-chief’s daily duty to rain down a hell of violence that, while intended to eliminate terrorists, often kills innocent children as randomly as the angel of death that just descended upon a peaceful town in Connecticut. 

Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s steely Secretary of Defense, choked up with tears of pride when he left office and was awarded the Medal of Freedom.  Years later he was brought to the realization that the campaign he helped to lead against Vietnam was a mistake of criminal proportions.  And so at last he shed more universal tears, tears that included his sadness about the waste of war and the deaths of too many innocent Vietnamese. 

It is possible to imagine that, in private, Mr. Obama sheds some tears for the broken innocents of Afghanistan and Pakistan that are the “collateral damage” of his drones.  For the time being, our political culture continues to operate in a state of radical dissociation. When our leaders shed tears equally for the deaths of children anywhere in the world, I shall, as Michelle Obama said when her husband was elected, for the first time be truly proud to be an American.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Are We Dead?

A performative contradiction arises when the propositional content of a statement contradicts the presuppositions of asserting it. An example of a performative contradiction is the statement "I am dead" because the very act of proposing it presupposes the actor is alive. Performative contradictions cannot be rationally advanced in argument. (Wikipedia)

There are performative contradictions not only in statements, but also in policies. The mother of them all is found in current nuclear weapons policy on the planet. Nuclear weapons cannot be rationally advanced in argument as an instrument of policy.

Why? Simple: computer models suggests that the detonation of a very small number of the weapons in today’s arsenals—doesn’t matter whose—would raise enough soot and ash into the atmosphere to shut down world agriculture for a decade—in effect, a death sentence for us all.

No less a pitiless realist than Henry Kissinger has stated that he tried to make foreign policy with these weapons and found it impossible. Henry Kissinger now works for abolition. 

Even a “limited” nuclear war risks planetary annihilation. A one-sided nuclear attack risks a similar fate. If India and Pakistan get into a nuclear war, we are all dead. If Israel uses a few too many of its weapons, we are dead.

Deterrence is already obsolete, in the sense that it will do nothing to stop a determined extremist from smuggling a nuclear weapon to ground zero of a target. But deterrence is infinitely more obsolete on the basis that not only is military victory impossible using these weapons, they lead only to omnicide.

So: please explain, someone, why the United States is spending hundreds of millions to renew its nuclear weapons program? Why are we not leading the charge to abolish, reciprocally and gradually with other nations by negotiation if possible, unilaterally if necessary? Unilaterally to set an example—to build trust—because we realize it is in everyone’s best interest— because there is no other logical, sane alternative.

The same goes for nations like Iran. If you are a country looking to equalize your power against other nations you perceive as mighty adversaries, why are you trying to do it with nuclear weapons?  It leads nowhere.

Are we so dead in spirit that we are numbly, helplessly going to wait for the mass physical death that will come when somebody, somewhere—and eventually they will—makes a fatal mistake?  Or can we, by non-violent means (anything else is a performative contradiction), by educating, by running candidates, by petitioning, by demonstrating, can we citizens affirm life?

I want to hear clearly the justifications of the leaders, the arguments, the case for the relationship between nuclear weapons and increased security. No citizen, to my knowledge, asked either candidate why the U.S. and Russia still have ballistic missiles targeted at each other on high alert—25 years after the end of the cold war.

That did not seem like a neutral omission; it seems more like an active symptom of psychic dysfunction.  We look down upon North Korea with pity, a nation and people in the grip of mass psychosis. Time to take the beam out of our own eye before we judge the mote in another’s.

Can we awaken from our trance? Can we admit to ourselves the radical shift that has taken place in our environment on the basis not only of nuclear weapons, but also of global climate events, where the environmental policies in one country determine the air quality in another? What does that reality do to the concept of having an “enemy”? I depend for my survival upon my “enemy.”

Conflict will continue even if there were no nuclear weapons on earth. But think of how much international paranoia is connected to actual or potential nuclear weapons. It rationalized the U.S.’s misconceived invasion of Iraq. It intensifies the enmity between Iran and Israel. It keeps hundreds of secret agencies in Washington eavesdropping on us all for ominous signs.

If the planet can emerge from this period of change and turmoil, we will look back and begin to acknowledge just how much our unconscious dread had sucked away not only our collective economic resources, but also some essential piece of our psychic vitality. No wonder there is so much fascination with zombies and vampires, the walking dead. Does their half-deadness mirror something deep within us all?

But something new and vital is germinating from our long winter of death-induced fear. As Paul Hawken has said, millions of non-governmental organizations around the world are working for common values—non-violent political structures, environmental sanity, gender equality, and universal human rights. Someday soon this collective affirmation that we are one human family will further dissolve the need for nuclear weapons—may they rust in peace.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Words for a No-Bull Inaugural

My fellow citizens, I have just sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, but what does that mean? Our earth has become so small, national economies so interdependent, global ecological problems so transcendent of nationality, that it would be an abdication of my leadership responsibilities to pretend otherwise. A new world has dawned, and the United States must begin to honestly redefine its interests within it.

After sixty-plus years of maintaining the peace by means of our overwhelming nuclear strength, we are confronted with a series of paradoxes that cannot be resolved merely by increasing that strength—because the very meaning of “strength” has totally changed.  Even a small number of our nuclear weapons—or those of any other nation for that matter—cannot be detonated without raising enough dust and soot into the atmosphere to fatally affect world agriculture for a decade.

In addition, we must reluctantly admit that our own nuclear weapons no longer possess the deterrent effect that was intended by their triadic deployment on land, sea and air—let alone the fact that no leader can guarantee that command and control systems, either our own or those of other nuclear powers, can forever restrain their inadvertent or accidental misuse. It is past time to cooperate with our allies and as much as possible with our adversaries to create nuclear-free zones, to batten down nuclear materials so that they do not fall into the wrong hands, and to aggressively conclude new treaties for gradual reciprocal reductions of nuclear warheads around the world. We know from the Cuban Missile Crisis, now a half-century behind us, exactly where any nuclear confrontation inevitably leads, and how potential misunderstanding can push adversaries into a catastrophe that fails to resolve any conflict of interests, no matter how fundamental.

Nuclear weapons, useless for conducting rational foreign policy, must now take their place in the context of all our other ecological challenges.  I am convinced that not only have nuclear weapons forever changed our world, but also that the scientific evidence is overwhelming that the earth is undergoing serious climatic changes that we must plan for rather than further denying. While no one can state with certainty that any given weather event, any storm or tornado or hurricane, is attributable purely to human activity, trends are emerging that cannot be ignored. At least we know for certain that military superiority, nuclear or conventional, will not be able to address the unfolding economic and ecological crises that loom over us. The quality of air we breathe in our own country is dependent upon policies that the Chinese adopt to satisfy their energy demands, and vice-versa. Authentic security now means cooperating with the Chinese and others to transition toward sources of clean, sustainable energy. Competition for military or territorial advantage on land or sea has become irrelevant to this transcendent goal.

We cannot afford both to take the steps that mitigate climate instability and prevent future wars over scarce resources, and also continue to be resented, and often confronted, in our role as self-appointed world policeman. Therefore the moment has come to prudently but swiftly transition out of our strategic emphasis upon maintaining an American military presence around the world and into partnerships with other nations that address root causes. It is clear that it is infinitely less expensive to supply food, shelter, safe water drinking water, education, medicine, reproductive services and sustainable energy to the entire world than it is for the United States to try maintain global military superiority. Further, addressing human needs directly is the only long-term structural solution to terrorism.

Further, our Constitution, written with the best intentions two and a quarter centuries ago, needs, like that of Ecuador, to extend rights not only to people but to the living systems which support our own well-being. Ecuador’s citizens and leaders accept that their own health depends upon animals that have genuine rights to viable habitats and rivers that have rights to run clean within their banks. We humans cannot be any healthier than the oceans, the soil, the coral reefs, the fish and the plants that make up the common resource that sustains us. Our economic principles cannot avoid taking this reality into account as a fundamental working truth. The ecological wholeness of the earth is the only ultimate “corporation” and the final source of available capital. Any investment that fails to take into account mutual earth-human relations will inevitably become a net loss for everyone, no matter how much a privileged few seem to benefit in the short-term.

This recognition of interdependence represents an enormous shift in our conventional cultural assumptions about military strategy, economics, and international and domestic politics, but the necessity for this shift has been creeping up on us for a generation. I know full well that for many of my fellow citizens, the notion of military strength contradicting itself, or of non-human creatures having rights to life and health analogous to our own, will appear to be deeply uncomfortable, even threatening, concepts. But my task is not merely to reflect our existing state of mind, it is to help lead us all toward the light as far as we can discern it. This world, and therefore this nation, will be infinitely safer if no one has nuclear weapons than it would be if everyone had them—just as true security for all lies in an authentic ecological stewardship in which all nations participate. We can renew our own special strengths as Americans by realizing that our own self-interest is bound up in what is best for the whole. This will open up new opportunities for world leadership as we search together for creative solutions. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land

Our political culture becomes surreal when one views it like an alien from another galaxy homing in for an overview.  The third presidential debate was meant to examine differences in approach to foreign policy. Like everyone I have a genuine investment in the character of the person upon whose desk sits a telephone wired directly to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.  In the event, there were few differences between Governor Romney and President Obama, because polarization works like a vise upon creativity. No one can risk thinking aloud outside the box.

What neither candidate could say, because it would cost them the election, is that rational foreign policy cannot be conducted with nuclear weapons (Kissinger so stated in no uncertain terms once he was out of office). Nor could Romney and Obama admit that the meaning of security in the nuclear age has utterly changed. Nor could they admit that it may be impossible to keep nuclear weapons entirely in the hands of the “good guys,” and out of the hands of the “bad guys.” Nor that deterrence in the age of terrorism has become obsolete. Nor that the “nuclear winter” that would ensue from even a “regional” nuclear war, say between India and Pakistan, could shut down agriculture worldwide—in essence, omnicide. Nor that global climate change is a challenge that requires a level of cooperation between nations that renders all arms races, conventional or nuclear, irrelevant.

Instead, in order to acquire votes, our leaders mouth pieties about Israel or Iran and refrain from discussing human-caused global warming,. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize must ratify his cojones by extra-judicial killings of Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al-Quaeda—when proper criminal trials might have been a light to the world.

The human species is a couple of millennia beyond the so-called Axial Age, when the wisdom of religious geniuses like Jesus and the Buddha ripened and began to spread the notion of radical interdependence as expressed in the various forms of the Golden Rule. And still we do not see the all-too-practical point in the age of climate instability and world-destroying weapons of loving our enemies.

Fifty years beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis, seventy-three years beyond Auden’s writing “we must love one another or die,” we know that a nuclear arms race leads only to catastrophe. I may not feel love for Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu. But at least I can see with a compassionate eye the karmic causation of history that informs their complementary paranoia. Germany, crushed by vengeful terms of surrender after World War One, became vulnerable to Hitler’s demagoguery and attempts to wipe out the Jews, leading to the need to create a Jewish homeland, which in turn resulted in a state partially occupying the lands of others, eliciting the enmity of the Persian/Arab world (Auden, same poem: “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”). Ahmadinejad’s perspective is informed by the fact that the U.S., Israel’s knee-jerk ally, messed with Iranian politics in the 1950s, tilted toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and dispatched, perhaps with Israel’s help, a computer virus to sabotage Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges.

What nations have to do together, faced with no alternative but mass death, is collaborate on the basis of the common survival goals of the millions of citizens whose lives are at stake. “Collaborate” is a word with severe negative connotations—collaborators were shot after World War Two. French women who had fraternized with German soldiers were forcibly shorn of hair. But what is intended here by the word “collaborate” is the highest form of conflict resolution for the good of the whole, on the basis of Auden’s truth, the truth of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the truth that we can only solve our climate challenges together.

Were I president, far from saying as Governor Romney did that sitting down with the likes of Ahmadinejad showed weakness, I would be on a plane to Tehran so fast it would make Mitch McConnell’s head spin. I would acknowledge our past meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. I would try to be an honest broker across the Israeli-Palestinian divide—for Israeli’s sake as well as Palestine. I would admit that we’re deeply apprehensive about where the nuclear arms race could lead, that we know cyberwar can work both ways and probably already has, and that we have to break the cycle and find a way where everybody wins, whether that might be a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, or even better, Earth-wide.

Our presumed security sits shakily atop a house of nuclear cards, where one misinterpretation within the command-and-control systems of India or Pakistan or Israel or the U.S. or Russia or France or China, could lay waste all that we love. From the perspective of the stars, who is the “enemy”? Is it not the awesome destructive power of these weapons, our stubborn insistence on obsolete notions of national pride, war itself? If an alien were looking down upon us she would shake her head in perplexity, raise a delicate tentacle to her puckered brow, and blink her six eyes in astonishment. Her strangeness would be nothing next to our own.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Dance of "Enemies":Half a Century Beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis


Albert Einstein, the full measure of whose prophetic stature still has not been taken, wrote in a telegram in 1946: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Einstein was implying that we need a new mode of thinking where we see clearly that a security program based in the possession of nuclear weapons leads nowhere—exactly the conclusion to which foreign policy establishment heavyweights Kissinger, Schultz, Nunn and Perry came in their famous 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial.

An authentic paradigm shift always requires time to accomplish itself, but the hour is getting late. The family of nations goes on insisting in its various ways that rational security goals can still be achieved with nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, and each has made nuclear threats against the other as if one of the parties could “win.” Smaller nations assume that nuclear weapons will equalize their relations with their more powerful neighbors. Dictators hope to secure their political longevity with nukes. And non-state entities cling to the illusion that they could accomplish some redress of injustice if they could only get hold of one.

The reality that the murderous chaos in Syria has begun to spread over the border into Turkey reminds us not only that enemy-posing and vicious cycles of paranoia have always been with us independent of nuclear weapons, but also that small sparks have set off gigantic conflagrations in the past.

Nuclear weapons not only ratchet up the consequences of accident or misinterpretation; they distort and confuse our current “modes of thinking.” Mutual enemy-images become a dance of self-fulfilling paranoia that is stoked up to white heat by real or potential weapons. One nexus of distortion is the enemy dance between Iran, the U.S., and Israel.  The United States grossly interfered in Iran’s internal affairs in the 1950s to install the Shah, took sides with Iraq in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and more recently sabotaged Iranian computers attached to uranium enrichment centrifuges—and then it wonders why Iranian leaders remain hostile and suspicious. As Auden famously wrote, “those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” Meanwhile “enemy” is such a flexible thought-form. When the Iranian people went into the streets in massive numbers a few years ago to protest the corruption of their democratic process, were they our enemy?  Or an early, Persian manifestation of the Arab Spring?

No leader can remain in power by acting credulous, but nuclear paranoia has no limits. Fear, hate, and separation become the stock in trade of world leadership. The Iranian leaders, fearful of Israel’s presumed 300-odd nuclear weapons, mouth self-destructive anti-Semitic clichés on the international stage. Israel, possessing an overwhelming nuclear “advantage,” draws lines in the sand on the basis of Iran’s mere potential. The distinction between good guys who can be trusted with nuclear weapons and bad guys who cannot becomes futile when the combination of the weapons themselves, their fallible command and control systems, and the sleepy assumption that they will keep us safe are the real enemy. 

When the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. came within a hair’s breadth of destroying the planet in 1962, who was the enemy? Wasn’t it war itself? If a Muslim extremist detonated a nuclear weapon in any large city on the planet, how many of their co-religionists would they obliterate? It’s not enough to argue that “they” don’t care who or how many they kill. If the U.S. ever used even a small portion of its arsenal, no matter against whom, the holocaust would be equally indiscriminate.

We forget that the cold war ended when Russians and Americans realized that they had a mutual interest in survival, and that this mutual interest is performatively universal—meaning it applies in every future case of nuclear confrontation around the globe. There are only two possible outcomes: eventual catastrophe, or the goals to which Einstein calls us on the other side of a radical shift in our modes of thinking: a nuclear-free Middle East and a nuclear-free planet.

Einstein also wrote that you cannot solve a problem on the same level of thinking that created the problem—another way of saying what he telegraphed so long ago. We have arrived at an astonishing place in the history of our planet where it has become a matter of life and death to initiate not further cyberwar with our adversaries, but dialogue in a spirit of good will on the basis of what is best for Jewish, American, Iranian, and everyone else’s grandchildren.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Two Cheers for the Two Party System

What Churchill said about democracy (“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”) might apply as well to our two-party system in the United States. It prevents the fragmentation we see in parliamentary systems that have to expend so much energy cobbling together coalitions. But at this moment of the first presidential debate, the Superbowl of American politics, it may be worth reminding ourselves about the potential distortions in our thinking that arise from the oversimplified twoness of Democrats versus Republicans.

First and most obvious, the twoness of politics replicates the twoness of our competitive athletics. The distortion here is to skew our thinking toward the primary goal of football or baseball, winning, and away from the ultimate and very different goal of democratic small-d politics, ideally a clarification of policy that might strengthen our nation as a whole. So carefully must candidates keep their distance from best practices that are not endorsed by their supporters, that we have the spectacle of Mr. Romney having to disavow the successful universal health care plan he himself instituted in Massachusetts.

Second, our Great Seal does not say “Out of Two, One.” It says “Out of Many, One.” This distinction affirms that our creative diversity allows for the likelihood that there are more than two valid points of view and more than two solutions for our many challenges. Twoness distills policy into contrasting alternatives, but oversimplifies in so doing. It creates an artificial middle, one that is stretched rightward and leftward—but not very far in either direction—as those seeking power search for the Great Middle in order to pander to it. Suppose, for example, that we find in another decade that global climate change has accelerated far more rapidly than we could have imagined today. At the moment, because the parties are still fighting about whether global warming even exists, the prevention/mitigation discussion cannot be found at all at the supposed “center” where the two parties might entertain some sort of agreement about something that will be crucial to their childrens’ well being.  Another artificial center has been created by our two-party class war between rich and poor. The notion of interdependence between corporate producers and a broad market to consume what they produce has apparently been lost. Long gone is the model of Henry Ford, who doubled his workers’ salaries with the understanding that they would have more money to buy his cars. Everyone wins!

Third, twoness encourages what is essentially a state of war between the two parties. True, people of different persuasions are not literally killing each other. But when someone like Senator McConnell remains so ruthlessly focused upon denying Mr. Obama a second term, the net effect is almost as destructive as war, because the nation’s important business is held hostage to a negative, self-limiting model of “victory.” As is so often the case in war, everyone loses.

Imagine a presidential debate built upon a set of premises and values opposite to competitive athletics, artificial centrism, or war. For example, one candidate could be asked to lay out a set of steps leading to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. The other candidate would be required to build on that idea in order to improve it, and prohibited from tearing the initial suggestion down. Then the first candidate would be required to build further on the improvements suggested by his opponent. Candidates would be judged on how skillfully they managed this creative process of actually dancing with each other toward potential agreement about what might constitute a workable policy—rather than trying to score debating points by mere opposition. If such a process—though it is really only a mild variation on the familiar ritual of brainstorming—sounds utterly bizarre, it is an indication of how far our politics have dissolved into gamesmanship, where the goal is not the articulation of creative ideas designed to benefit all, but the emptiness of exercising power for its own sake.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Conspiracies, Secret and Open

On this eleventh anniversary of 9/11, I’m noticing that I have a number of friends whose energies remain possessed by deceptions by which either the government itself, or corporate interests in league with government, are bamboozling us all.

Statecraft and deception have long gone hand in hand. Terrible chains of causation have sprung from government lies; in my own lifetime the Gulf of Tonkin Declaration stands out. Lyndon Johnson apparently felt he needed a solid casus belli to justify a declaration of war upon North Vietnam, so he apparently arranged to pretend that our navy had been fired upon, plunging us into an ocean of blood and napalm.

Three major conspiracy theories that preoccupy my honorable friends are built around the assassination of President Kennedy, the true cause of the destruction of the twin towers and adjacent buildings on 9/11, and the possibility that someone is spraying aluminum powder into the clouds above us to change weather patterns. In the last of these three, the implication is that Monsanto or other powerful corporate/government entities will come to exercise mega-control over agricultural processes and rake in scads of money.

I am no more able to know than any average citizen who killed JFK, how the towers were brought down, or whether global weather patterns are being deliberately altered by human agency. With horrified but also skeptical fascination, I have watched some of the documentaries and read some of the books and glanced at some of the websites. I certainly agree with my friends that it will be difficult to build a solid future for our republic on rotted structures of deception.

It is at least plausible that John Kennedy could have been killed by elements of the CIA that were unhappy with his supposedly dovish stance toward the Soviet Union. It is very far-fetched, but within the realm of remote possibility, that agents unknown carefully placed explosives within the World Trade Center buildings to doubly assure their fall. And it is possible that corporate/governmental agencies could be performing “geo-engineering” experiments in the atmosphere; the atomic tests in the West in the 1950s, done without the knowledge of ordinary people living downwind, suggest a familiar precedent. If Monsanto is indulging in the obscene hubris of seeding clouds, I’d certainly like to know about it.  Their genetic manipulation of seeds on earth seems unsettling enough. It’s my planet too.

The problem with conspiracy theories is that they can tempt our minds into a projective mechanism that leads ultimately to helplessness rather than healthy action. If we project into reality the existence of hidden forces that are so omniscient that they can act with impunity and completely hide their own tracks, our own motives and energy for positive change are subtly weakened. The more power we cede to the conspiracy, the greater can be our excuse to feel powerless and to do nothing other than stew.

Related to this willed helplessness is the wide-open conspiracy of our own complicity: today we live in a world where we can’t escape the fact that we ourselves are each responsible for the same changes that we might like to project onto dark uncontrollable forces: how each of us lives, in aggregate, is affecting the climate far more than any corporate great Satan. Because there are no international agreements—yet—for resolving many of our transnational challenges, we can become more vulnerable to anxiety and numbed paralysis.

Before we let secret conspiracies leach away our initiative, we ought to examine our complacent tolerance of fully daylit conspiracies that allow, for example, thousands of children to die each day unnecessarily of malnutrition and disease. Not a single child less would die if we knew for certain who killed JFK.

Calculations have been done to show that with a small fraction of the yearly defense budget of the United States, we could fund solutions to global problems that we clearly know will be the cause of future wars. We could get population growth under control, feed the hungry, transition out of the era of fossil fuels, mitigate C02’s effect upon our atmosphere, and supply clean water, basic health care, and education to everyone on earth. How much longer will we conspire with ourselves to maintain the illusion that military dominance alone can address these issues? It is our condition to be awash both in what we may never know—and what we know all too well.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Trouble with Twoness

Nature within her inmost self divides
       To trouble men with having to take sides.
                                           Robert Frost

The single most powerful idea that needs to be seeded into world culture as rapidly as possible is that we are one interdependent whole on this planet. Difficult as the implications may be for us to grasp, it will have only a salutary effect upon world politics, economics, cultural diversity, and religious practice.

Going further, it could be asserted that the internalization in the human mind and heart of this idea is the way evolution itself will manifest itself at this unfolding moment of history.

For relief from such headache-inducing abstractions, I often walk a path that takes me along a tidal river to a midden, a cliff-high mound of oyster shells left from the summer gatherings of indigenous Americans over millennia. The midden slopes to a beach where horseshoe crabs forage along the sandy shallows—a species so resilient that it has sustained itself unchanged for 445 million years.

The process that has allowed horseshoe crabs to flourish for so long has operated instinctually, on “automatic,” in a roller coaster ride up into breathtaking diversity and down into five vertiginous moments of mass extinction, as life-forms jostled for their place in the ecosystem. Those forms that adapted survived. Those that did not disappeared, leaving only their fossil remains. Scientists tell us we are into a sixth dizzying plunge as thousands of species go extinct around us. Natural selection continues to operate at full throttle.

Meanwhile an “unnatural” factor, human consciousness, entered the scene. In what has been only an instant of evolutionary time, it became dominant—rather, it has assumed dominance over the system while in reality remaining totally subject to the system’s every law and principle. The “other” in the twoness of self and other is not only the perceived enemy or opposing viewpoint. The other is also the natural world that until now we have perceived as an infinite resource subject to our command and exploitation, rather than as the ground of our own sustained vitality. We can be no healthier than it.

If the Chinese continue to operate their coal-fired power plants, the largest single source of carbon emissions in the world, the military-economic competition between China and the United States will become at best irrelevant and at worst a potential disaster. If the United States continues to use up a third of all global resources, it will matter little whether Iran produces a nuclear weapon or not.

These ecological realities behind our conflicts rarely surface in political campaigns because we are entranced by obsolete competitive metaphors: our politics are not the civil contribution of workable ideas based in interdependency. Instead they are a Superbowl contest.

Superbowl twoness is the obsolete thought-paradigm that informs everything we do. We compete from birth to death. We compare ourselves endlessly with others.  We envy those who are wealthier or better looking or apparently happier, and look down upon those less fortunate than ourselves with a distancing pity or contempt. In a thousand daily ways, we take sides. Especially in the United States our politics, our legislatures and courts, executive leaders, and mass-media discourse are dominated by polarized allegiance to conservative or progressive opinion.

A Republican president and vice-president administer a torture program of global reach, a program that would subject them to potential criminal trial by Nuremburg standards, but they have enough support among both Republicans and Democrats—given our fear of the terrorist “other”—to receive a pass. A Democratic president supervises a drone program that violates the sovereignty of other nations and kills innocents at his personal command, also a program that could arguably subject him to potential criminal trial by Nuremburg standards. But he too enjoys enough support to receive a pass. We citizens whose collective will our leaders are sworn to enact continue in our moral ambivalence—our troubled twoness. Instead of the practical imperative of the Golden Rule, that bow toward the truth of interdependence found in all the major world religions, we live by the half-truth of “you’re either with us or against us.”

At the fateful moment in October 1962 when superpower competition, in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis, brought the planet as close as it has been to thermonuclear annihilation, who was the enemy? Who was the “other”? Was it not war itself? Was it not ignorance itself? Why is this not equally true in every competitive confrontation from the international to the intimately personal?

We humans emerged from a uni-verse. This is the single context out of which came all our religions, all our cultural and ethnic diversity, our constantly calibrated sense of twoness. The great next step of the evolutionary process is from twoness to oneness, not as a New Age bromide but as an evolutionary necessity. This step can only take place in the way individual humans feel and think, as we, we upon whose decisions rests the fate of all life-forms on the planet, mature into willingness to look into how we can contribute to the health of the whole system.

Frost’s couplet distills the depth to which competition is structured into evolution. But we are awakening to the fundamental unity behind our twoness. As a Peace Corps volunteer once said, “The earth is a sphere, and a sphere has only one side. We are all on the same side.” Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Sunnis, Iranians, Jews, fans of Limbaugh, fans of Maddow, horseshoe crabs—we’re all in this together.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Life Beyond War

The vision and possible shape of a world beyond war has modified since the lessening of superpower tensions between the United States and the now long-departed U.S.S.R. In the late 1980s, hopes for a peaceful world primarily involved the successful abolition of nuclear weapons. As Jonathan Schell has written, while inadvertent nuclear war is more probable than ever before, nuclear abolition begins to look relatively easy in the context of emerging global environmental challenges. Nuclear weapons themselves have become one more of our many ecological problems: even a small regional nuclear exchange could fatally affect agricultural production worldwide over decades, cancelling out the security benefits for any nation of possessing these weapons.

Glaciers melt and mean temperatures rise year by year. At what point do officials distracted by mutual nuclear threats start to take in the bigger picture—that the real “existential threat” to their security might be, say, the unleashing of an irreversible cycle in the thawing of methane gas presently frozen within the Arctic tundra, gas that could dangerously accelerate global warming trends? The issues that the planet faces in the second decade of the 21st century, a population that has overshot available resources, fast-rising CO2 levels, the exhaustion of marine life or the pollution of oceans, can be resolved neither by war nor by the deterrent effect of massive arsenals of weaponry—though failure to address such challenges proactively could well lead to unimaginable violence. Time and again experts have testified how much more efficient it would be to prevent wars by directly addressing human needs. Vastly less money is required to preventatively solve worldwide population growth and medical care and equitable distribution of food than the present unsustainable cost of extended wars of uncertain outcome.

Giving up war at this moment in history resembles an addict giving up his addiction, only to find he must face not only life without the crutch of drink or drugs, but also address the underlying life-challenges the drink or drugs allowed him to avoid. It involves a painful awakening from a trance, a giving up of resistance to reality as we come to see where and who we really are.

How bizarre that the most powerful nation on earth applies roughly 1800 different bureaucratic organizations to the admittedly serious problem of terrorism, yet it is not politically viable for the presumptive nominee of one of the two major parties to entertain the possibility that global climate change may be affected by human behavior. Even the incumbent is not leading aggressively on the issue. Meanwhile the United States military itself remains the single greatest source of environmental pollution on the planet, let alone the single greatest drain of monetary resources.

Simplistic, deeply distracting “either/or” thinking renders much our political discourse silly and unreal:  to be Christian or Jewish is to be closed to possible good ideas coming out of Islam; to be Democratic is to be closed to possible good ideas coming from Republicans, to be culturally liberal is to be closed to possible good ideas coming from cultural conservatives. The reality of our interdependence suggests instead that people on both sides of any supposed polarity, Arab or Jew, atheist or believer, gay or straight, conservative or progressive, needs to accept that the “other” may have something invaluable to offer as we all try to prevent our collapse as a species. In the energy we expend defining what we are against, we resemble all too closely the extremists we revile.

But even if we think of ourselves as progressive and open, we are mired involuntarily in an against paradigm. Those in the “developed” world who assume we live quite modestly still find ourselves among a 1% who are fortunate to have access to resources much less available to the other 99%. If everyone on earth used the same amount of energy and resources I use, it would take X number of planets to sustain us all, and we only have one.  Because there are too many of me, the way I live, in spite of my good intentions, my token gestures, my recycling, my refusal to use weed-killer, the sheer size of my ecological footprint keeps me stubbornly against the health and sustainability of the whole. I need help and maybe I can help you.

The so-called “advanced” countries can no longer function as “technocratic colonialists” who assume that “our” oil is under the sand of peoples undergoing development in their own unique way—especially if we want terrorism to end.
Life beyond war, so far from looking like a peaceable kingdom, will require the strengthening of global institutions based upon the reality of interdependence and the potential intensification of conflict over limited resources. This challenge will stretch our creativity and good will to the same limit that war has stretched our destructive powers and capacity to dehumanize adversaries.

In so many ways and places, the needful work has already begun, taking form in the millions of bottom-up organizations that are trying sustainable ways of farming, banking, or manufacturing processes that enhance rather than degrade the finite commons. But it is hard to avoid the sense that both leaders and citizens are still in denial about the kinds of transnational institutions and enforcements we will have to create in the next few decades in order to survive.

As long as we continue to participate by default in a Hobbesian war of each against all, as long as we, not only we in the U.S. but we in China and Russia and France and elsewhere refuse to surrender some of our national sovereignty, exceptionalism and entitlement, the total system will continue to degrade. What international body could possibly enforce mandates to mitigate global warming until we have massively internalized a new kind of consent to work together across cultural and economic boundaries for the good of the whole? Trying first to do no harm, we will have to assess our effect upon global systems of incommensurable complexity.

The vast majority of people on the planet are just trying to get through each day in one piece. But for anyone who is in a position of leadership, anyone who has the luxury of time and resources to be an agent of change, one of the most valuable things we can do is to encourage a searching dialogue, especially with people who hold views different from our own, about the utterly changed meaning of self-interest. Such initiatives as the Arab push for reform or the Occupy movement will ultimately fall short unless they are able to address structural change in the light of the new paradigm of interdependence. Perhaps some of the solutions will come from the worldwide military-industrial complex itself, as it begins to apprehend the many dimensions of security that lie beyond war.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From Israel, a Declaration of Interdependence

The fond foolishness—or was it?—of the Israeli graphic designer’s recent Youtube video ( declaring his love for the Iranian people and his pledge not to bomb Iran brought back the almost forgotten Christmas moment in the trenches of World War I, when soldiers on both the French and German sides put down their weapons and sang “Silent Night” together. Peace threatened to break out all up and down the lines until those pitiless realists on both sides, the generals, forced their minions to restart the interminable slaughter.

The Israeli’s video also brought back the memory of a powerful event thousands of us attended in 1984. To celebrate the achievements of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, my organization, Beyond War, had set up a live televised satellite “spacebridge” between Moscow and San Francisco. Large audiences in both places listened to the pleas of the two leaders of the IPPNW, Leonid Brezhnev’s personal physician Evgeny Chazov and the distinguished Boston cardiologist Bernard Lown, for reconciliation between the Soviet and American nations. Chazov played a recording of a healthily pulsating heart to underscore the reality that human hearts beat identically everywhere. The Moscow Boy’s Choir and the San Francisco Boy’s Choir sang together.

But the most extraordinary moment stole upon us unscripted. It came at the very end of the ceremony when the production credits were already rolling on giant screens in the two venues. Tentatively at first, people in the audience in Moscow began waving to people in the audience in San Francisco. Soon all of us at both ends of the “spacebridge” were standing and enthusiastically waving to each other.

Many on both sides began to weep at that moment, as if an emotional dam had burst. Was this merely a delusion, a facile collectivist sentimentality? Not in the context of the 1980s, when, twenty years after the near-apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the placement of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe and the U.S.S.R. had shortened to a few minutes the reaction-time military decision makers were permitted before they had to make a decision to retaliate.

The understanding that thousands of peace activists, diplomats and leaders of non-aligned nations had worked to seed into the global culture, that we will survive together or die together on this planet, had borne fruit in a moment of human contact that leapfrogged over the pessimistic realism of the foreign policy establishment. One of these pessimists wrote a scathing analysis of the spacebridge in the Wall Street Journal, asserting that Beyond War had been duped by the Soviet government in a propaganda coup. But it was only a few years later that the optimistic realism of the spacebridge prevailed, and the Berlin Wall came down.

International relations today continue to run along a narrow track of competitive gloom: the “realistic” assumption, since it cannot be known for certain, of the adversary’s malign motivation. A prominent University of Chicago intellectual, Professor John Mearsheimer, a believer in “offensive realism,” warns us that just as the U.S. enjoys hegemonic control of the Western Hemisphere, the Chinese surely wish to achieve a similar hegemony in their sphere, and will need to be checked by U.S. power.

Leaving aside our questionable right to limit in another hemisphere the degree of domination we reserve for our own, what the distinguished professor’s probing analysis leaves out makes his “realism” offensive in the other sense. If the great powers continue to compete on the basis of the unknowability of each other’s intentions, they will have completely ignored the largest, and perfectly knowable, threats to their mutual security: the possibility of sudden catastrophe by a nuclear war that no nation can possibly win, or gradual catastrophe by environmental degradation.

Neither of these challenges require more submarines and aircraft carriers checking power with power, but rather a spirit of cooperation based in common survival goals—the very spirit we saw when Soviets and Americans spontaneously waved to each other and wiped out the distance between them, the same spirit demonstrated by a lone Israeli citizen, now joined apparently by thousands of others, shouting “enough!” to the folly of mutual nuclear paranoia between Iran and Israel. Out of such apparently quixotic gestures may come a better world.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Living Beyond War

“The great work of our times is moving the human community from its present situation as a destructive presence on the planet to a benign or mutually enhancing presence. It’s that simple.”

—Thomas Berry

Our Moment in Time

Because of the global nature of the challenges facing the human species, this is an extraordinary time to be a citizen of the earth. Ancient religious traditions and modern science agree: we are one planet, one living system, and one human family. The perils of our situation are both forcing and inviting us to wake up to the practical implications of this deep truth of our oneness.

Everywhere in the diversity of world cultures, from our most intimately personal relationships outward to the local, the national and the global, we find self-assumed, yet obsolete, barriers of separation. Humans have been deeply conditioned to divide into competitive groups: Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, young and old, Shia and Sunni, Arab and Jew, Muslim and Christian, Chinese and American, environmentalists and advocates of unrestricted economic growth. This tendency toward “tribalism” has functioned as a normative way to experience identity and belonging. Our industrial way of life has raised a further obsolete barrier of separation between us and the natural world that sustains us. We assumed that our world was an inexhaustible supply of inert “stuff” over which we had been given dominion. But one glance at the daily news confirms that these various illusions of separateness prevent us from achieving sustainability, social justice, and fulfillment.

War is the illusion of separation carried to its furthest extreme. In war we define ourselves more in terms of whom we are against than in terms of those with whom we have so much in common. We even deny aspects of ourselves that we find it hard to accept, and project those same denied attributes onto the “other,” the adversary. ”Their” nuclear weapons are evidence of malevolent intent, but our own are benign, purely for defense. In a world that desperately needs to redirect resources away from militarism and toward meeting environmental challenges, failure to understand projection and enemy-imaging will be fatal.

A contemporary example of enemy-imaging is the volatile relationship between the United States and Iran, which got off to a poor start in the 1950s when the CIA overthrew an elected leader in favor of the Shah. In 2012 the American government made plans to bomb Iran, a country of 80 million people. But back in 2009 American media carried admiring stories of the brave citizens of Iran as they protested a corrupt national election. The aspirations of the Iranian people neither to be bombed nor ruled unjustly did not change. The only change was the temporary realization on the part of U.S. citizens that the Iranian people were not enemies worthy of annihilation, but lovers of democracy like ourselves.

International relations are too often based in competition rather than cooperation. Americans preoccupy with how to compete with the growing economic might of China, forgetting that if China and America do not cooperate to find sustainable sources of energy and continue to rely on diminishing supplies of fossil fuels, the effects of climate instability may become irreversible. Preoccupied with “winning,” all parties are blindsided by the gradual melting of the polar ice caps or the massive buildup of ocean garbage. Because there are so many people on the planet and so much competition for short-term gain, there will be more conflict, and more difficult decisions to make together about how to foster the natural systems that sustain us.

Our children and grandchildren will not flourish if we empty our oceans of fish and coral reefs, exhaust the soil that nourishes plant life, lay waste the great forests that form the “lungs” of the planet, or infuse with toxic chemicals the very DNA that replicates the structures of life. Nor would there be a meaningful future should we unleash the destructive power of the weapons that humans have invented. Even a “regional” nuclear war would be a worldwide environmental catastrophe.

A New Resource

At the very moment when we need authoritative guidance to address what seems like an overwhelming set of crises, science has given us a new map of reality that provides an inexhaustible resource: the 14-billion-year unfolding story out of which we came. Matter emerged from apparent nothingness; life emerged from the apparent inertness of matter; human self-awareness, wonder, compassion, and capacity for choice emerged from apparently instinctual life.

Because everything that is or could possibly be originated from the universe, it is the ultimate source of the wisdom we require in order to go forward. Within its overarching story nest all the religious, cultural, racial, economic, and political stories by which diverse human “tribes” achieve solace and meaning. As we look back at the phases in the formation of stars, galaxies, our own sun, and the earth, the universe story confirms we are part of a process of evolutionary becoming through all time. It reminds us that even in our individual lives we are always evolving, from child to adult, from ignorance to knowledge, from isolation into community. Our collective political life continues to evolve beyond the absolute rule of kings and dictators toward participatory democracy. And we are evolving beyond ignoring the fragility of our life-support system and toward awareness of our interdependence with it.

Our “perfect storm” of challenges is, paradoxically, the outcome of a success story based upon a simple evolutionary principle that cannot be ignored if we wish to survive. Four billion years ago, somehow, life emerged. Literally the descendants of stardust, primitive life forms grew in complexity and diversity. As they spread over the seas, the land, and the air, one overriding principle remained silently at work:

The future belongs to species that adapt to a constantly changing ecological landscape, and that landscape dictates the nature of the change required. Species that can respond to changes in the environment survive. Those that cannot adapt do not survive. The dinosaur perfectly exemplifies this principle of survival. Dinosaurs ruled the earth for millions of years. But when the environment changed in some fundamental way, probably the result of the impact of a huge meteor in the Yucatan, most dinosaur species died out. This gave other creatures with the ability to adapt the opportunity to flourish, and we, the builders of malls and highways, are their descendents.

The universe story reminds us that we are only one of many life forms in a great community of beings that share the earth together, all dependent upon each other for the vibrancy of their collective existence. At the same time, by virtue of brain-power and sheer numbers, humans have become the dominant species on earth—and so we cannot avoid the awesome realization that human understanding, intention, and decision will determine the continued health of our planet.

The human family, seven billion and growing, can no longer afford war, either with each other or with the living system that sustains us. Moving beyond war has become a practical issue of survival, and no longer an idealistic dream. We already know a lot about how to build a world that is environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just. Now we must reach deep within ourselves for the courage and will to realize these goals.

The Great Work

International institutions with the authority to enforce the changes that we know we must impose upon ourselves are presently fragile and subject to the competitive interests of hundreds of separate nation-states. Therefore the greatest lever of positive change will be the realization, individual by individual, institution by institution, of the reality of interdependence. This change of paradigm will have to occur bottom up, by building agreements among large groups of ordinary citizens.

How can I, one person among seven billion, play a positive role? There is no way not to make a difference. I am here, like everyone else, using resources, experiencing concern and conflict, and longing for survival, fulfillment and meaning. What kind of difference do I want to make?

The most powerful way to make a difference is to acknowledge and practice the profound personal implications that follow from thinking of myself not as apart, but as interdependent with everyone and everything. These implications can be stated as core practices for building the skills that will help us toward meaningful survival:

•I resolve conflict. I do not use violence.

•I reach out to adversaries in a spirit of good will.

•I work together with others to build an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just world—a world beyond war.

Resolution of conflict becomes easier if we train ourselves to acknowledge the “shadow” of our projections, and thus to perceive that all other humans are fundamentally like us. From the perspective of the earth seen from space and through eons of time, there are no “we” and “they.” All war is civil war. Blame and preoccupation with what seems to separate your interests from mine are obsolete. There is only “us,” facing our common sustainability challenges. The means we choose to meet these challenges will determine the ends.

Allowing these implications to work in our own lives, not in terms of instant perfection but as a process, requires both an immediate commitment and a lifetime journey. The power for positive change always has its source in individuals who are connected to universal principles and who work with others to build agreements that form the glue of a viable world culture.

How Change Happens

Social scientists have explored how new ideas, first seen as too radical for acceptance by large numbers of people, move gradually through society and finally become the norm. Whether we look back at the ending of slavery, the achievement of the vote for women, the acceptance of hybrid cars, or any other innovation, the process is consistent. At first only a few heroic visionaries see the value of the innovation. The power of the idea attracts a larger group sociologists call “opinion leaders,” people who are respected in a given community. Once opinion leaders take on the innovation, it has a greater chance of spreading further into the mainstream.

There are two enormously encouraging moments in this process. The first is when a mere 5% of a population has accepted an innovation. The idea begins to have staying power. It becomes a permanent part of the cultural conversation. The second moment is when the idea has gained acceptance with 20%, only one-fifth of the population. At that point the innovation becomes unstoppable and will inevitably gain mainstream acceptance. Only 20% of American colonists took on the risky task of birthing a new country autonomously beyond the reach of European institutions. But that one-fifth was enough. The numbers of people who began to demonstrate for change in the Middle East over the past few years was far less even than 5%, but they succeeded in changing expectations in that part of the world forever.

Understanding this push toward 5% and eventually 20% tells us not only that change is possible, but also where we can work for change most effectively. Looking around us, we can assess who in our natural affinity groups might be open for dialogue. Whether we are students, teachers, business people, clergy, or service workers, we operate within a circle of opportunity. We can then begin to reach out beyond those familiar boundaries, just as hundreds of thousands of groups concerned with intercultural reconciliation are doing, to build agreement about our fundamental interdependence.

The human capacity to self-destruct, either suddenly by nuclear war or more gradually by the degradation of living systems, constitutes a change in our situation that requires an evolutionary leap in the way we think. Never before have we been handed an ultimatum of this magnitude. On the positive side, never before have we been handed an opportunity of this magnitude. At almost the same time that scientists and engineers have given us nuclear weapons or energy systems that cause unacceptable increases in carbon dioxide, they also provided us with the means to eliminate hunger and overpopulation, or to derive clean energy from the wind and the sun. They gave us inexpensive mass communication like the Internet that can reach into every corner of the globe to share diverse insights into our common fate. They gave us satellites and seismic detectors that can verify compliance with test-ban treaties; they gave us insights into the mischievous workings of our own psyches; and they gave us the ability to travel around the world and meet with one another on a person-to-person basis.

What would an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just world look like? A strengthened United Nations would rapidly deploy peacekeeping troops before a conflict turned violent. The grotesque amount of resources presently spent on weapons would be redirected to feed the hungry, overcome disease, and restore the ailing biosystems of the planet. The love and compassion that the major religions have urged upon us for thousands of years , distilled in the variations of the Golden Rule, would become prevailing values. Conflict resolution would be taught in schools as a matter of course. Our religious, educational, commercial, and political institutions would reflect our identification with the whole planet and all humanity rather than a limited identification with a national or religious or economic “us.” This would not mean that we would have to give up our existing religious or political or cultural convictions, only that we place them within the context of what is best for the global community.

The United States has a crucial role to play in this change of paradigm. Our identity and national purpose has emphasized military dominance. We have become enmeshed in wars of uncertain purpose that have not served our security interests well. Instead, we need to lead by example: becoming a society that is environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just. Such a society would not be a target for terrorism.

The hope lies with you and me—and the meaningful work we all must share. We will not all respond in the same way, but if each of us, consistent with our talents and our energy, does something, together we can build a sustainable, fulfilling, and just world—a world where all can live beyond war.

“We stand here confronted by insurmountable opportunities.”