Friday, August 26, 2016


Donald Trump’s wobbliness with facts underlines our crying need for objectivity as a value ripe for renewal. Despite differences of perception across the spectrum of class and race, solid data can push against the tsunami of bull that threatens to sweep us off our collective feet. Trump’s immigration rants underscore the statistically verified fact that illegal immigration has been declining for years.  His fear mongering about crime fails to account for the extended descent of crime rates in all categories. His exaggerations of international threats belie the fact that there has been a steady worldwide diminishment in the number of wars—even taking into account the ongoing horrors in the Middle East.

Politicians do debate approaches to difficult challenges like terrorism, drugs, poverty or racism. But the context for dialogue is often not an accurate overview, because it is blurred by the need of candidates to win and hold power by pandering. Browbeaten by oversimplified messages, citizens go along with conventional definitions of what constitutes significance. Millions of dollars were wasted by members of congress trying to use the Benghazi issue for political advantage.

Trump’s “colorful” demagoguery has provided an endless supply of juicy headlines. The drive for ratings has weakened the immune system of our media to such an extent that the oversimplified, the sensational and the rankly untrue have metastasized, squeezing aside cool appraisal. Here are three interrelated realities that provide a context for political debate grounded in the real:

First, we have arrived at a super-challenging moment in history where our human presence on the planet is exceeding its carrying capacity. Aside from a few odd ducks in our Congress bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry, no one can deny this. Free-market capitalists are compelled to change their definition of growth from money manipulation, sheer quantity and planned obsolescence to meeting real human needs, quality and sustainability. In the 19th century, corporations had to justify their usefulness to society to receive their lawful charters. Entrepreneurs need only look for potential models of real prosperity to the creativity of natural systems that reuse everything and waste nothing. Without a vibrant, healthy ecosystem, there will be less and less vibrant, healthy people to ensure the success of markets.

Second, it is a relief that war is on the decline, because the destructive power of our nuclear weapons has also exceeded the capacity of the planet to absorb the violence built into them.  The impulse to make profits on the renewal of these weapons, rationalized by the apparent success of deterrence theory, will almost certainly lead sooner or later to nuclear war by misunderstanding, computer malfunction or the perception that conventional war is not enough to ensure “victory.”  The designers of these weapons have made a devil’s bargain. If the nine nuclear nations could conference their way into gradual, reciprocal disarmament, it would become a precedent-setting example for non-violent solutions to many other challenges—including stabilizing the climate.

Third, not unexpectedly, the American military-industrial-media complex doesn’t foreground systemic alternatives to dominance. People who meet face to face and engage in dialogue about common challenges can build relationship and trust and get beyond fear-based stereotypes and futile hatreds. Even individual U.S. soldiers in places like Afghanistan, struggling to accomplish contradictory policy goals, have been known to do just that with courage and skill. But merely to sell planes, tanks and missiles to other nations is proving to be a bogus way to ensure either loyalty or security—especially when the war of all against all confuses who is friend or foe. What if it turned out that expanding the resources of the Peace Corps while closing some far-off military bases yielded more security in the long run? Imagine an international system based less on big sticks than on monetary incentives, carrots the prosperous nations could easily afford to dangle in front of countries that aspire to score high on an index of representative democracy, transition beyond weapons and armies, transparency, and accountability for corruption. Of course to avoid hypocrisy the prosperous nations dispensing these goodies would have to adhere to similar aspirations.

In our own country, proven devices like ranked-choice voting could help American politics evolve beyond settling for the least bad candidate. And there is no more important task for the United States than to continue to provide safe spaces for religious diversity and to be an example of that possibility to other countries. At their best the great religions show the commonality of worldwide hopes and aspirations. Surely neither God nor Allah smiles with benign approval at the nuclear balance of terror that we still tolerate a half-century after the Cuban crisis. There are objective truths about what will lead to the survival of the species that transcend the differences between Islam, Christianity, and other well-trodden spiritual paths. Most of our biggest challenges, climate change above all, are transnational in nature and require a transreligious level of cooperation never achieved before by our species.

It seems unlikely that the candidates will address such reality-based challenges in the next few months—unless they are prompted by citizens and journalists determined to hold their feet to the fire of the real. Hillary and Donald, what are your thoughts about “nuclear winter” in the context of the hundreds of billions of dollars the congress is planning to spend on renewed nuclear weapons? How might we use these funds more creatively to enhance our security? Why wouldn’t it help global stability and our own security to declare unequivocally that we will never use such weapons first? Given the urgency, shouldn’t we sponsor an ongoing international conference on the abolition of nukes? What is your vision for ending the endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya? How are changes in climate affecting the possibility of future conflicts over water and arable land, and what can we do to resolve such conflicts preventively by reallocating resources presently spent on military hardware toward meeting real human needs? Total objectivity may be out of reach, but we can lean in that direction by asking effective questions.

Friday, August 5, 2016

What's Best For Children?

The policy of nuclear deterrence is a raging failure masked as a roaring success. It is a failure because if it does break down—and it will, unless we change direction—we are all toast—we and our innocent, hopeful children.

The candidacy of Donald Trump, however disconcerting, has opened the door a crack to public discussion of deterrence.  Mr. Trump has, at least implicitly, raised the issue of the unfortunate effect of NATO having violated its word not to expand eastward, word given when Gorbachev was in the midst of dissolving the Soviet Union.

Agreed, deterrence has been a major factor in preventing a third world war from 1945 until the present. The problem is what the future holds. Deterrence masquerades as a stable system when in truth it is constantly subject to ongoing imbalances—advances in technology, the diversification of kinds of nuclear weapons available, enlargement of the number of nations possessing them, and successions of leadership.  All these factors in combination almost certainly will result in a deterrence breakdown sometime in the future.

We persist in the illusion that someone is “in charge” of these weapons. Here especially the emperor is walking around naked, clothed only in the transparent illusion of fail-safe mechanisms. There are indications that in some circumstances control has moved down the military chain of command, as in Pakistan, where it is said that the use of nuclear weapons has been left up to battlefield commanders in the Kashmir conflict. We may assume the nine nuclear nations have given some thought to what might happen if their head of state was unable, in the chaos of war, to maintain command and control, and so mechanisms no doubt have been developed that would allow others to make world-ending decisions. But that only intensifies the potential for confusion. Because of the complexity of the electronic systems connected to these thousands of weapons, there is a strong argument to be made that no one is really in charge—only the system—a system, as the record shows, capable of feeding false information to the fallible humans monitoring it.

The questions raised about Mr. Trump’s temperament, particularly where it comes to his potentially being in charge of the nuclear codes, underscore the bizarre nature of deterrence overall, where the head of a democracy—or for that matter a totalitarian state like North Korea—may have only minutes to make decisions that affect the lives of everyone on the planet.

The provocative notion of a “madman” somehow getting into the system and starting a war oversimplifies the reality of our situation, which is that any human being, not just a knowledge-averse demagogue like Mr. Trump, may have the capacity to go “mad” in the tensions leading up to the decision to launch. The historical record shows that past presidents of the U.S. have seriously considered using nuclear weapons, most distressingly Mr. Nixon when he realized we were losing in Vietnam. Even a “no-drama” Obama could be rendered almost psychotic with dread by evidence that missiles were apparently headed for our major cities.  This is a situation that is far beyond the psychological endurance of even the sanest and well-trained leader. Madness is relative in the nuclear world.  We would certainly label mad an extremist who set off a nuclear weapon in a city. We do not apply the same label to the whole field of leaders and diplomats who seem to be more or less satisfied, or pretend they are, with a status quo that is patently insane.

If leaders had the same nightmares that many citizens have, they would be far more aggressive in setting up ongoing international conferences hell-bent on raising the level of awareness that the deterrence system is obsolete and self-contradictory—a false god that fails to provide security and must be disavowed before it fails to provide survival. Nuclear weapons have been proliferating on the planet now for over seventy years. Their destructive power has far outgrown the most intense hatred any human could feel for adversaries.  Computer models hypothesize that it would take the detonation of only a fraction of the available weapons to bring about planet-wide changes in climate, rendering a nuclear “solution” to conflict self-negating.  (Discussion of this in our presidential election process so far seems off-limits.)

What would constitute a healthy response to this collusive madness? It ought to be shame. Shame because we know that we have invented a system intended to protect civilians, including children, which will make no distinction between civilian and military. We know shame is present if only because we do not talk with children about this curse we have laid on them. We are not honest about it, because it is unbearable and makes us feel helpless. If we did have the courage and skill to talk about it, it might be something like the situation in which black families are forced to have a poignant talk with their young male children about being extra-subservient in the presence of the police—except no degree of subservience to power will prevent nuclear apocalypse. It is up to grown-ups to begin now to make the necessary structural changes in these similarly intolerable situations. 

One of the bottlenecks that slows nuclear disarmament is that nations know that possessing nuclear arms deter powers like the U.S. from imposing regime change upon them.  We are not going to be able to use superior police-the-world military force to cut this particular Gordian Knot. Open dialogue that breaks down fears and stereotypes on the basis that we’re all in this together, leading to gradual, reciprocal agreements to disarm, is the only way to keep our children from becoming toast.