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.