Thursday, October 5, 2017

Mystery


 "The Second Amendment, as applied in the last 30 years or so, has become so perverted, twisted and misused that you have to see it now as the second original sin in the founding of this country, after slavery."
                                                                                          —Timothy Egan

Trillions of galaxies each contain billions of stars.  A unified field of gravitational waves, black holes, and dark matter ties the vast enterprise together. Out of this furnace of process churning through billions of years of evolutionary time our earth emerged, then biological life, then self-conscious human life. This universe we inhabit is shot through with utter mystery.

We are also mysteries to each other. For the moment at least, the motivation of Stephen Paddock’s massacre in Las Vegas is as mysterious as the workings of a black hole. So mysteriously meaningless is the slaughter that we have no recourse but to find a crutch of ersatz meaningfulness in the many acts of selfless heroism among the victims and first responders, as we reel helplessly toward the next incident of mass murder that inevitably lies ahead.

The motivation of Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association, is almost as mysterious as Stephen Paddock’s.  Is it money? He is paid very well indeed. Is it willingness to shamelessly serve the interests of the companies that manufacture guns and ammunition?

To demonstrate the sacred-cowness of LaPierre’s vaunted Second Amendment, one need only point out that out of 200 countries on earth, only 3 (the U.S., along with Mexico and Guatemala) constitutionally enshrine the right to bear arms. The idea of the deterrence of tyranny by constitutionally protected caches of privately stored weapons distracts from what truly inoculates against the bacillus of tyranny: not weaponry but more active civic participation, in the context of all we share beyond our illusory differences.

The motivations of our political leaders are also shrouded in mystery, from our narcissistic president on down to Mitch McConnell and friends, proud of the enormous political power they wield, and yet placidly content to remain the weak and willing pawns of Mr. LaPierre.

In fact I find the nation of which I am a citizen to be more than a little mysterious.  Who are we? We often mouth platitudes about the exceptional breadth of our freedom and prosperity, where in reality our exceptionalism seems to cluster around our unique level of bellicosity, our absurd tolerance for mass violence both domestic and international, and our willingness to countenance spending trillions for newer and better nuclear weapons when the far greater threat is human-caused climate change.

We have recently been presented with an elaborate 18 hour retrospective of the Vietnam War, outlining the historical ignorance, corruption and treachery of our leaders, the lies that resulted in years of unnecessary death on all sides, while we seem to have learned nothing from this historical experience that might apply to our present endless and futile wars.

There is a further mystery that provides one possible antidote to the mystery of all that our country refuses to admit about itself— the redemptive mystery of black spirituality. Whole peoples were forcibly brought across from Africa in chains to our young nation, which then built upon their backs our prosperous economy, a history which truncated the possibilities of African American citizens at every turn right to the present day. The mystery of the indiscriminate use of weaponry that is endemic to our culture is an all too terrible part of their story, too.

By all precedent blacks in America should have long since risen up in a paroxysm of destructive rage equal to Mr. Paddock’s, and of course at acute moments some have.  But, in a mystery complementary to the mystery of violence, this tyrannized people as a whole have not taken refuge in nonsense like the sacredness of an amendment written long ago by people who could not imagine our nation awash in automatic weapons, but instead in healthier particulars of our constitution that enshrined black rights to full inclusivity and to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  

Of course for whites Martin Luther King Jr. is the most renown representative of this black non-violent spirituality, but there are ranks upon ranks of others, dead and alive, whose spiritual depths, born of undeserved suffering(including the actual worst mass murders in American history), we Americans can draw upon as we gradually shape ourselves into a less violent culture.

The late Vincent Harding comes to mind, a gentle, loving giant who helped administer the freedom schools that initiated voter registration campaigns in the South. Harding also helped write Martin Luther King’s great 1967 speech at Riverside Church taking on our country for its intertwined addictions to racism, militarism and materialism.

Or the very much alive social activist Ruby Sales, whose vision of American life acknowledges race but reaches beyond it to a healing vision that includes all in our country who are hurting, the unemployed coal miner in West Virginia as well as the education-deprived black child living in a high-risk precinct of Baltimore. Perhaps her instinctive inclusivity comes from the fact that a white seminarian died blocking a bullet meant for her.

Or the eloquent polemicist Ta Nehisi-Coates, heir to James Baldwin, whose challenging essays and books demand that whites look in the mirror to find the ultimate source of deeply-set structural violence and prejudice in our country.

These leaders and teachers point us in a direction in which we really do have the potential to become an exceptional nation, less fearful, therefore less armed to the teeth at home and abroad, less bellicose, therefore more willing to choose diplomacy and humanitarian initiatives over war, more understanding of the “other,” and therefore more willing to reach out and see even our worst enemies as having a humanity equal to our own.

In spite of all that science allows us to understand, we live, move and have our being in a context of mystery, and it isn’t going away any time soon. We can approach it in isolated fear, or in collegial wonder, gratitude, and humility—humility in the spirit of Job the prophet of old, to whose undeserved pain a mysterious God replied “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Rise (and Fall?) of the Machines


When our children, one girl, one boy, were in their pre-teens, my wife instituted “ladies’ day” as a special occasion to hang out with our daughter. Periodically they would head out to the mall to shop for a bauble or a new dress and top off the expedition with an effetely gourmet lunch. It did not take long for our son to voice a wish for equivalent quality time with his father.

Thus began “men’s day.” Along with becoming a connoisseur of the subtle differences between the French fries at one or another of the fast food establishments nearest the Cineplex, we initiated ourselves into the philosophical conundrums of the Terminator films.  Their formula runs thus: malevolent machines have rebelled against their human masters and begun nuclear war all on their own. Was this possible, my son naturally enough wanted to know? And I naturally enough tried to calm a thirteen-year-old’s fears by dismissing the possibility.

The unpleasant truth is that the process is in fact well under way, though not exactly in the manner the films suggested.  Robots have not yet become conscious, autonomous, and capable of conquering humans in war, though the entrepreneur Elon Musk has been sounding the alarm against A.I., called it a greater threat than North Korea.

Nuclear weapons are not robots. But they are machines whose destructive power is so enormous that they have seriously warped the thinking of the humans who supposedly control them. The distortion has long passed the point where the tail of nuclear weapons began to wag the dog of common sense. The war of the machines is here, and we have become their pawns.

Watching Ken Burns’s documentary rehashing the Vietnam War makes this clearer even on the level of conventional war. War itself is a kind of system, a machine with a life of its own. Looking back (and setting aside that North Vietnam’s cause—national liberation from the colonial oppression of the French and the Americans—was more on the side of justice), both sides are able to reflect on how the system tempted them into stereotyping each other and rationalizing the indiscriminate cruelty of napalm or carpet-bombing or mass executions of suspected sympathizers to the opposing side.

Someday a film with similar conclusions will be made about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the relentless system of war is always the same: dehumanization, abandonment of truth to propaganda, escalating chaos and cruelty, futile bloodletting, and ultimate exhaustion. Even the decisive defeat of one side only plants the seeds for further war. As Robert Frost wrote, “Nature within her inmost self divides/ To trouble men with having to take sides.”

Deterrence as a way of preventing the senselessness of total war has always seemed sensible to establishment makers of policy, because it appears to have helped to prevent a third world war since 1945. Even the stalemates in Korea and Vietnam can be interpreted as conflicts in which leaders escalated almost to the point of using nuclear weapons as a last resort to win, but finally restrained themselves because they realized that victory was only the Pyrrhic victory of mass death on all sides.

But these weapons leave us all in a moral limbo. Unused, they are the righteous preservers of the peace. Used, whether by design or accident, they become the worst war crime in human history. We pretend our nuclear weapons are good and theirs are bad, when the weapons are a mindless, heartless system that cares neither who occupies the moral high ground nor who “wins.”

Our diminishment in the face of these machines has become especially clear in the threats and counter-threats of Kim-Jung Un and Donald Trump.  The reality that one side is a totalitarian dictatorship where the dictator answers only to himself and the other side is a democracy that freely elected its leader makes not a whit of difference when it comes to nuclear decisions. Our presidents, no matter how experienced and well-trained, are identical to Kim Jung-Un in that they find themselves in the absurd position of being able to begin a nuclear war without consulting anyone.

Ominously, both Kim and Trump show equivalent signs of instability and unpredictability. History tells us that leaders faced with domestic threats to their power often turn to foreign wars as a way of externalizing the enemy and distracting their constituency from their own shortcomings.  As Mr. Mueller looms over him, will the president’s finger be tempted to edge nearer to the button to create the ultimate distraction?

The machines are rising, asserting their autonomous powers and reducing us, citizens and leaders alike, to helpless cogs in a potential war without winners. But forces of common sense opposing the malevolent nuclear system are also rising.  122 nations just passed a U.N. agreement to outlaw the construction, deployment or use of these weapons. The nine nuclear powers are quickly finding themselves on the wrong side of history. It is long past time for us to recognize that the greater enemy is not someone in another country shouting threats, but the weapons themselves. On the basis of this shared truth, new relationships among adversaries can flourish that will allow reciprocal reduction and elimination. Nature within her inmost self divides, and science has unleashed this process on earth as the mighty power of fission, setting before us life or death choices. It is not too late to restrain the rise of the machines we ourselves have created, and choose life.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Common Sense and North Korea



The phrase “common sense” implies practical and prudent good judgment, with a further implication that the obviousness of common sense is “common” because it is shared by many or even all.  For example, 122 nations just signed a Treaty on Nuclear Prohibition, confirming a majority planetary common sense that these weapons have become obsolete as a foundation for international security.

North Korea and the United States do not appear to share much of a common sense about anything with each other. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has written a concise and intelligent summation of our mutual bewilderment and paranoia (“Letter from Pyongyang,” in the September 18 2017 issue) that should be required reading for the U.S. military-diplomatic-political leadership.

Given that the Korean War was never genuinely resolved so long ago, substantive reasons for conflict remain. But the destruction of both Koreas by further war would be all the more tragic and absurd if it happened less from misguided attempts at resolution by military means than from the present complete lack of communication, a lack that includes ignorance and puzzlement in North Korea about U.S. politics, historical amnesia in the U.S. (“the forgotten war”), and destabilizing bluster on both sides.

It is no harder to grasp the historical causes of North Korea’s paranoia than it is to understand our own fears: Korea was invaded and brutally colonized by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945. At the end of World War II, the victorious Americans and Soviets divided the country into two separate zones of occupation. No agreement ever ensued as to where the capital of a unified Korea should be. When the North attacked the South in 1950 in a forced attempt at reunification, the Americans came in one side and the Chinese on the other. Military stalemate followed three years of a war that included the deaths of a million Chinese soldiers, over 400,000 North Korean soldiers and 600,000 civilians, and almost 100,000 Americans.  Our air force bombed and napalmed the North until there was no intact target left, a shattering level of devastation not forgotten by North Koreans to this day. The aim of the North ever since has been to avoid a repeat of such helplessness, and the major means of avoidance became the acquisition of a credible nuclear deterrent—ironically ensuring that war in Korea today would be far worse than in 1950.

Meanwhile, in order to protect its ally below the 38th parallel from invasion, the United States surrounds North Korea with ships, flies along its airspace with bombers, and conducts military exercises that are seen by the North as highly provocative—just as the U.S. would see red if similar massive shows of force were conducted so close to our own coasts and up and down the edges of our own airspace.

The philosophy of nuclear deterrence pursued by both sides is all about credible threats, which drown common sense in an ocean of anxiety. The philosophers call this a performative contradiction: the weapons are there to prevent their use by anybody, but the threat of their being used must be seen by all as real, which means they must be instantly at the ready, which cuts the margin for error in crisis, which can lead to mistakes etc. etc. When will the experts see how there is no good way out of this death spiral waiting to happen? Additionally, credibility requires not only that threats be credible to one adversary, but intended as a warning to all. This was the catastrophe of Vietnam in a nutshell, where the U.S. could not afford to be perceived by the Soviets as weak, so it fought, and lost, a futile proxy war.

Therefore the ultimate resolution of the North Korean challenge must include a total shift in paradigm on the part of the U.S. away from the credibility of deterrence to the credibility of gestures of good will, such as a solemn pledge of no first use, in all potentially nuclear conflicts around the globe. The United States must cease to obstruct, and instead encourage, a grand plan of verifiable, reciprocal global denuclearization.

In the long term it is a virtuous circle of nuclear disarmament that will most effectively undercut North Korean motives for its own destabilizing nuclear gestures. Kim Jung Un’s regime will not last forever in its present form. If the U.S. could contain the Soviet Union through a half-century of cold war, we can cooperate with the world community to contain a small, impoverished nation and await its inevitable transformation. Meanwhile, we need to talk with them! The first “common” sense North Korea and the United States presumably share is a desire to survive. To strengthen the shared common sense that possession of nuclear weapons is a probable cause of the eventual use of nuclear weapons requires slowly nurtured relationships and a ratcheting down of the rhetoric of threat.

While there is international agreement that Kim Jung Un is worthy of collective sanction, it doesn’t hurt to remember how many countries feel that the United States itself is dangerously militaristic, and further that we have not lived up to our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 to make good-faith efforts to cut and finally eliminate our arsenal. Part of getting North Korea to change includes realizing that we have to change. Without weakening ourselves, we can initiate diplomatic feelers that could lead to threat reduction on both sides. We can build trust on the basis of a shared interest in survival—not capitulating to each other but capitulating, like those other 122 nations, to the common sense that nuclear weapons have no constructive use.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sixth Grade Recess


How close are we today to nuclear war between the United States and North Korea? As close as somebody in the military on either side making a mistake that looks to the other side like an escalation from mere words, however heated, to actual intent to kill.  As close as a group of military hawks egged on rather than restrained by civilian authority (See John and Robert Kennedy versus the chief of the Strategic Air Command, Curtis Lemay, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Lemay was hell-bent to attack Cuba, which we now know would almost certainly have resulted in holocaust.)

Hot words are all about credibility. But nuclear credibility contains a tragic paradox. Nuclear weapons are not intended for actual use, but to deter adversaries, while at the same time nuclear weapons, in order to deter adversaries credibly, must be ready for instant use—and so must conventional weapons for that matter. So everyone is rehearsing madly—madly in both senses of the word. Rehearsals take the form of joint military exercises on the part of South Korea and the U.S., and test firings of missiles and warheads on the part of the North, accompanied by fiery contests of macho rhetoric from leaders who really, really ought to know better.

When nuclear war gets this close, the situation begs examination beyond the level of right and wrong, of sides, of positions, of causes, of who was the first to violate agreements. It needs to be observed systemically as a planetary event, in terms of interests and probable results. What we find is that (setting aside momentary differences in tactics between the Presidents of the U.S. and South Korea) the U.S. is locked into its pledge to support its ally, and locked into credibility generally, just as North Korea is locked into its nuclear program as a reliable way to maintain the regime’s power in spite of being regarded as an international pariah.

Working backward from a war that went nuclear without anyone wanting it, what would have been resolved as a result of mass death on both sides of the 38th parallel? “The North Koreans begged for war; they brought it on themselves” would ring pretty hollow as a rationale. The United States would instantly join North Korea, what was left of it, in the pariah role. There would be a fission-level increase in the plotting of all those anywhere who wish America ill to make the United States suffer as they have made others suffer. The Korean peninsula would be united after fifty years of tension—united in a horrendous agony and chaos beyond description. The earth would endure yet more poisoning of the total life system by radioactive clouds of soot. This is resolution? 

The question is, as realists, are we trapped? Are all parties, not just the U.S., constrained by the pitiless demands of credibility to keep escalating their chest-thumping, as war-abetting pundits make what seem like reasonable arguments to justify each further step into the abyss?

As a system, nuclear chicken is completely nuts—and not less so because our representatives and their day-by-day pronouncements, lines in the sand, threats, ultimatums, sound so reasonable to the patriotic ear—that is until everything spirals out of control. 

One hundred and twenty nations recently signed a U.N. treaty outlawing nuclear weapons, but the nine nuclear nations still haven’t gotten the message.  If humans can acquire the immensely complex technological expertise to build these no-win weapons, we can also figure out how to make a gradual transition to a security system that does not rely upon them, knowing that security with them is a technological fantasy.

The United States, with its clear superiority in conventional forces, becomes the indispensable nuclear nation to lead the other eight beyond nukes. Without any loss of security we can pledge no first use. We can promise not to pursue regime change in North Korea as long as South Korea is not threatened. We can take measured diplomatic de-escalating and confidence-building steps. We can acknowledge, as President Reagan inevitably had to, that a nuclear war cannot be won and thus must never be fought. We can rely upon our experience of containing the Soviet Union for fifty years to contain North Korea, while an international conference implementing mutual, reciprocal, verifiable reduction and final elimination of all nuclear weapons goes forward, prodded and encouraged by those one hundred and twenty nations who have already decided against deterrence by mutual assured destruction in favor of mutually assured survival.

Meanwhile we in the United States could use a good long look at ourselves—at a political system that allows a person of this level of inexperience, poor judgment, and impulsive temperament to get so close to nuclear decision-making that could affect the fate of millions.

If we get past the present acute crisis unscathed, someday North Koreans, South Koreans and Americans are going to meet and build relationship on post-nuclear ground, the common ground of a shared desire to survive and flourish.  They will look back and see just how deeply irrational and silly this moment was, when humans possessing and possessed by immense, world-destroying powers threatened each other like sixth graders challenging each other to a recess brawl.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Credibility Equals Annihilation


There is no more sacred cow in American foreign policy, and none more in need of examination, than the notion of credibility. It lies behind Mr. Trump’s vague rationale for continuing endless war in Afghanistan—his military advisors presumably believe that too precipitous abandonment of the failures of our campaign there would punch a hole in our international credibility, let alone rendering empty and absurd our past sacrifices. Nixon and Johnson got caught in the same credibility trap in Vietnam.

Turning to North Korea, where the credibility stakes appear to be even higher, perhaps world-endingly higher, Kim Jung Un and Mr. Trump are engaged in a risky game of nuclear brinksmanship, even though it seems unlikely that North Korea would risk attacking the U.S., either with conventional or with nuclear weapons.

But even if someone more sophisticated and seasoned occupied the White House, the provocations of North Korea cry out for redefinition. With nuclear weapons, we humans have created a monster that rhetorical escalation cannot control: a game of chicken with nukes is a game without winners.

Nuclear conflicts between rivals intent upon maintaining their credibility will not potentially, but inevitably, lead to apocalypse.  Since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 the tail of credibility has wagged the dog of security policy. The weapons themselves, proxies for our anger, fear, and desire to dominate or at least survive, have themselves become the drivers of the process and we humans have become their subservient agents. Within this paradigm, the leaders of nuclear nations are helpless to choose any other alternative even if they realize the relationship between credibility and self-destruction. This explains the inconsistency between the way government officials talk about the issue while in office and the entirely different way they often talk after they retire. Only after stepping down as Secretary of State was Henry Kissinger able to advocate openly for the abolition of nuclear weapons.  On his way out the door, Steve Bannon admitted there was no military option on the Korean peninsula.

Unless we completely rethink what all nine nuclear powers are asking these weapons to do, namely deter by terror and thus provide an illusion of security, the planet will be in this place over and over, perhaps with other nuclear powers in other looming situations of international tension like the Ukraine or Crimea, or the border tensions between India and Pakistan, or in situations still unforeseen—as the futile game of "we build/they build" continues with no good outcome.

The paradigm shift that is required to prevent the looming end of the world is just as large and difficult as the 16th Century realization that the sun and not the earth is the center of our solar system.  But the majority of the world’s nations have already made the shift from regarding nuclear weapons as the best guarantor of security to seeing them as the biggest potential agent of their destruction—we saw this when 120 nations signed a U.N. treaty calling for the outlawing of all nuclear weapons. The United States boycotted the conference leading to this treaty even while it has a crucial interest (and for that matter an ongoing obligation as a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) in leading the charge away from security by nuclear credibility.

Our leaders must take the risk, a risk that will require enormous moral courage, of saying we cannot afford to continue in our present drift. Instead, we need to respond to the posturing of North Korea not only with sanctions, but also with measured gestures of good will that could include such initiatives as committing firmly and explicitly to no first use, unilaterally reducing the number of warheads in one leg of the nuclear triad (land-based missiles is what former Secretary of Defense Perry recommends as ripe for reduction or even elimination with no loss of security), and, best of all, calling an ongoing international conference on abolition and supporting, rather than boycotting, that recent historic agreement to prohibit and abolish nukes signed by 120 nations.

The choice is stark. In the credibility paradigm, no word coming out of an official’s mouth can be inconsistent with one nation’s total willingness to annihilate millions of people just as human as themselves. The challenge is educational: to change from a mind set that worries about capitulation to other countries to a mind set that capitulates to reality: unless we all begin to wake up and paddle together toward the shore, our small planet could go over the waterfall that awaits us somewhere downstream. The U.S. must admit that credibility is obsolete, rather than propping it up with threats that raise tensions and could lead to fatal misinterpretations.

Wouldn't it be wonderful of the United States became credible in its adherence to treaties and international law, for its generosity in humanitarian aid, for its willingness to try non-violent processes of conflict resolution, and for building relationships with adversaries on a personal, human level instead of demonizing them.

It is not for nothing that the great religious sages often evoked a different way of thinking beyond drawing lines in the sand—a way of thinking that asserts we all are subject at times to fears that push us into hardened positions. Many of us allege, rightly or wrongly, that we live in a Christian nation. But how much service do we give to these foundational critiques of rigid side-taking: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.”  “Forgive 70 times 7.” These ancient teachings contain a startling new relevance: on a spherical planet vulnerable to nuclear disaster, we are all on the same side.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Why I Joined Rotary—and Why You Should Too



In 2014 the Damariscotta-Newcastle Rotary Club set a 10-year goal of becoming a significant player in helping to eliminate hunger in Lincoln County. On Sunday June 5, a dedicated team of fifty volunteers, led by a core group of Rotarians, boxed 30,000 meals for food banks in Lincoln County. At the same time, the club was able to host four Rotarian psychologists on a cultural/professional exchange trip from Argentina. They found it meaningful and gratifying to spend a few hours helping us pack meals.

This was the second time in the past year that Rotary has restocked food pantries with vitamin-fortified meals. Having won a competitive Rotary grant, we also funded tuitions for the FARMS program, which helps elementary school students learn how to cook tasty and nourishing vegetarian food.

Rotary recognizes that employment is part of the fabric that holds families and communities together, and we work to support employment through academic and vocational scholarships. We support high school seniors looking to attend college, and have a particular interest in helping people pursue a career in the trades and in health care. Our local Rotary has an active program, called Interact, at Lincoln Academy, where high school students can participate in their own community projects and learn to put “service above self” in their formative years.

The effectiveness of service projects undertaken by local Rotary clubs (and happily, Rotary is only one of a number of service clubs in our area), demonstrates that what works locally can be scaled up even to the global level. There are six areas where Rotary presses forward both locally and internationally: promoting peace, preventing diseases, providing access to clean water and sanitation (one of our members personally financed and oversaw the building of a number of such projects in Africa), enhancing maternal and child health, improving basic education and literacy (Rotary supports the Ready to Read Program at the Skidompha Library), and helping communities develop.

Rotary International, an organization with global reach, takes on great big, hairy, audacious goals—and succeeds. Perhaps the most striking one is its Polio Plus campaign, begun in earnest in 1985, to help completely rid the world of the scourge of polio. To date 2.5 billion children have been vaccinated. Polio is still extant only in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When I retired to Maine, I knew nothing about Rotary, except I thought I did. I imagined a bunch of mostly male working stiffs who practically slept in their three-piece suits and assembled to network with each other in a slightly forced spirit of conviviality.

At Rotary’s outset in 1905, its primary purpose was indeed self-interested business networking. But the founder, Paul Harris, had the vision to change Rotary’s central purpose into something much larger—community improvement.  This sparked a century of growth, evolutionary change, and greater inclusiveness that have resulted in a powerful organization that links local and international service efforts.

In the course of volunteering as a peace activist, I had the privilege of working with Al Jubitz, a prominent Rotarian from Oregon. Al has given his life to two ideas. The first made him a millionaire many times over, and the second just might save the world. His extended family owned a truck stop, and Al developed a computer program that allowed truckers to unload their cargo at a destination but then find a fresh load rather than returning empty—in effect, the complete obsolescence of “dead-heading,” the period during which a for-hire vehicle is not generating revenue.

Al prospered to the extent that he was able to turn his philanthropic attention to the challenges of the world, and for him challenge number one was war. Al sees the potential of Rotary, with well over a million members in clubs in 161 countries, to help our small, fraught planet grow beyond its tragic fixation with violence as the first resort for humans in conflict. Rotary’s strong network of international relationships and its vibrant conflict-resolution programs reinforce trends toward the peaceful settling of disputes.

Inspired by Al’s example, when I retired to Maine, I asked if I could speak to the local Rotary club on the need for greater international efforts to abolish nuclear weapons. While I understood that everyone in the audience might not agree with my views, the respectful hearing I received impressed me, and I decided to join the club.

So far I haven’t come across anyone who sleeps in a three-piece suit. What I did find was an accomplished, generous, and friendly group of judges, dentists, bankers, clergy, engineers, lawyers, artists, teachers and entrepreneurs, all of whom are willing to submerge their egos or need for approval in larger cooperative tasks, people who would give you the shirt off their backs if they saw the need—including larger-than-life characters like Boyce Martin, who, sadly, has just passed away. Boyce, a summer member based in Kentucky, was a retired Federal Appeals Court Justice who wrote significant opinions on complex issues like affirmative action and capital punishment. Everyone looked forward to the annual talks Boyce delivered that plumbed the thinking of the Supreme Court.

The conviviality in weekly Rotary meetings is hardly forced; it is as authentic as it gets. We genuinely enjoy each other in all our diversity, male and female, younger and older, still actively employed and retired, Republican and Democrat. Part of being a real community-within-the-community is our support and care for one another. Someone who falls ill will at the very least receive a card or a visit. We share our joys as well, the births of grandchildren, the athletic or scholastic accomplishments of our children, our personal or professional successes small or large.

Is Rotary a conservative or a liberal organization? The answer is both—and neither. In a sometimes contentious political climate, Rotary is a space where people of good will come together in fellowship and service irrespective of their motivation or political orientation. If a primary conservative value is creative, self-reliant grit and a primary liberal value is compassion, Rotary has both in abundant supply.

In a time when economic, political and environmental change is accelerating, the mere existence of a powerful local/global institution like Rotary is consoling.  In the battle between the light of creative cooperation on the one hand, and the darkness of alienation, chaos and sectarian violence on the other, Rotary is one of those organizations that would have to be invented if it did not exist.

Join Rotary, and you will inevitably be changed. You will be stretched by doing things you were only able to do because colleagues were supporting you. You will learn about how people with diverse ideas and opinions, instead of polarizing with each other, submerge their differences for the sake of doing good together. You will experience community close-up and personal, and at the same time have the opportunity to connect and contribute to visionary initiatives of global scope. You will laugh often. And you will make lifelong friends.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Weed



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Few Days in the Capital


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

There Is Still Time, Brother






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

"A Decent respect for the Opinions of Mankind"


The distractions of the Trump presidency, even including Russian attempts to hack our democracy, have swamped events that may in the long run be of far greater historical significance. A primary example is the historic ongoing U.N. conference concerning the prohibition and eventual abolition of nuclear weapons— and our own nation’s unwise boycott of same.

From the New York Times: “’There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons, Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters outside the General Assembly as the talks began. ‘But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?’”

For the 130 nations who voted to support just such a ban and put nuclear weapons in the same category as chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster munitions, realism clearly means something very different from what it means to Ambassador Haley.

 Thomas Jefferson wrote in private correspondence back in 1823 that the Declaration of Independence was intended to "place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."

For the vast majority of the global community who are “taking an independent stand,” “the common sense of the subject” is that nuclear weapons have become an unworkable response to the great challenge of world security.

Even if one grants reluctantly that for decades in the past nuclear weapons have played an important role in preventing a third World War, the historical lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 does not bode at all well for a future in which deterrence continues to work perfectly. 

The stakes are simply too high. The technological complexity not only of the weapons possessed by the nine existing nuclear powers, but of the electronics of command and control and communication connected to the weapons, are so complex as to dwarf utterly the complexity of the safety systems that failed in such disasters as the reactor failures at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Controlling these fallible, perhaps hackable, systems are hundreds of thousands of humans with a tendency to misinterpret incoming data according to their own prejudices and fears.

Ambassador Haley’s tragic realism is presumably based in the necessity of maintaining deterrent credibility. In other words, if the United States participated in the talks, it would allow adversaries like North Korea’s leaders to question the credibility of our willingness to destroy them utterly either if they make unwise aggressive moves, or even if they merely continue to pursue the goal of deterrent parity out of concern that we are an existential threat to them—a mutually paranoid echo chamber that leaves out the desire of both sides to survive.

130 nations have moved beyond the obsolete logic of nuclear deterrence, and this must be counted a moment of enormous import for the history of the nuclear age—an age that has only two possible endings: planetary annihilation, or the complete, reciprocal, verifiable abolition of all nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia and other nations who boycotted the conference or voted against its laudable aims will have to answer to the billions of citizens in the supportive nations who will exert an ever greater moral force upon the nuclear holdouts.

A further performative contradiction of nuclear deterrence as a foundation of international security is the possibility of nuclear winter. Scientists have devised sophisticated computer models that show how small a number of nuclear detonations it would take to upload enough soot and ash into the upper atmosphere to transform global agriculture for a decade—effecting inherent defeat upon the nation that initiated the attack, upon all the other nuclear powers, and upon the 130 nations who have already realized that nuclear deterrence is a labyrinth with no exit.

The last dimension of these weapons that cries out for more discussion is their cost. The United States is planning to spend over a trillion dollars over the next three decades to modernize our weapons systems. 130 nations already understand full well that resources on that level redirected to meeting genuine human and environmental challenges could provide a far more stable security foundation than the deterrence system. Speaking only of meeting needs in the United States, with that kind of money we could easily supply free health care from cradle to grave
for every American.

Our founders felt the need to explain clearly in the Declaration, out of a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” exactly why we broke away from Great Britain more than two centuries ago. The vote against nuclear weapons by 130 nations represents a new declaration of interdependence, equally an affirmation of common sense. If our country still respects the opinions of such a majority, it should be a good deal more forthright than Ambassador Haley has been so far as to why we are not ourselves joining efforts to end the abomination of nuclear weapons.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Evil and the Paris Accords


Much ink was spilled in the year leading up to the election of the president on the subject of incipient fascism. We turned to prophets to discern the shape of our future as it loomed out of the unknowable. People went back to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and even more to Orwell’s 1984. We examined the conditions surrounding the rise of figures like Hitler and Mussolini, searching for parallels. Though we found mostly differences, there remained the unavoidable lesson of how much absolute evil a sociopathic and insecure strongman could cause.

But historians such as Daniel Goldhagen, the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, also underlined the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Jewish catastrophe. Uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, this suggests an all-too-valid parallel with our own moment.

As we, the second-biggest polluter in the world, blithely began the process of withdrawing from an accord that had taken countless hours of dialogue on the part of thousands of officials trying to build a delicate global consensus, frustration and cringing embarrassment has naturally focused upon the Decider, a man who demonstrates few convictions and who thereby seems submissive to ignorant and greedy forces that are making use of him as a pawn for short-term gain.

Too many Americans, stuck in an obsolete conception of economic self-interest, far from thinking of Trump’s move as evil, applauded his abandonment of a hard-won global agreement. We seem to be masters at working against our authentic self-interest, which is the possibility of both new jobs and clean air if we could lead the world in the production of solar panels, storage batteries, wind generators, and other innovations yet to emerge from robustly supported research programs.

When it comes to climate, we cannot avoid the reality that we as individuals play just as determinative a role in shaping our future as the supposed leader of the free world. And this can become what Emerson called “the good of evil born.”

There is something bracing and activating about having to accept the reality, preached through millennia by spiritual leaders, that we are all in this together. As the new president of France said, let’s make the planet great again.

Two core values, one often associated with conservative political philosophy and another with progressive, will help us rise to this challenge of change, through which we can bypass Mr. Trump’s abdication of moral and economic leadership.

The conservative value is self-reliance. We are free to examine the minutiae of our individual lives and make creative initiatives, the small, and sometimes not so small, incremental changes that will ensure a climatically stable world for those who come after us. Mindfully switching off lights that don’t need to be on. Consolidating errands to cut trips into town. Choosing to purchase a car that gets high mileage, even if gas prices are, for now, falling. Looking into solar, either panels on our own roofs or enrolling with a power company that supplies electricity from renewable sources—not only because it is good for the planet but because it is rapidly becoming less expensive than forms of energy that raise aggregate global temperature. It is rich with irony that the fossil fuel interests that have many of our representatives in their pockets could be left in the dust by the same free market self-reliance to which they pay lip service.

The progressive value is compassion, a “feeling with” that applies on all levels. My choices affect sea level in Bangladesh, just as the number of coal plants in any nation anywhere affects the capacity of my own lungs. Cynicism and fatal resignation is not an option. We are all so interconnected that there is no way not to make a difference. Inevitably we take up space and use up limited resources while we’re here. Can we do this more mindfully, “feeling with” all the billions with whom we share a common fate?

Does Trump’s gesture of withdrawal rise to the level of genuine evil? I’m not sure. I’m more certain that the extent to which the fates of everyone in the world have become intertwined is going to change the way we define evil, and equally change how we resist evil. As always there will be many ways to resist, but maybe the best way going forward will be to build new models that are more alluring—to be the change, as Gandhi said, we want to see in the world.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Our Nuclear Folly


The well-established assumption that North Korea is our most difficult and dangerous foreign policy challenge is worth a little dispassionate examination.

North Korea is not a fun place. If ever a nation had earned the right to be labeled collectively psychotic, it would be the Democratic Republic of North Korea under Kim Jung-un, who apparently just outsourced the bizarre assassination of his own brother. The country possesses neither a viable judiciary nor any kind of religious freedom. Famine has been a cyclical presence. Electrical power is intermittent. In 2015 North Korea ranked 115th in the world in the size of its GDP according to U.N. statistics.

Yet nothing the United States has tried to do, including decades of diplomatic negotiations and the application of severe sanctions, has stopped this isolated conundrum of a country from strutting proudly through the exclusive doors of the nuclear club.

But let’s get real.  As odd and alienated as North Korea may be, their leaders know perfectly well that even if the United States had not a single nuclear warhead at its disposal, if provoked we could bomb North Korea until there was nothing left but bouncing rubble. The idea that they would be so suicidally unwise as to use their nuclear weapons to launch an unprovoked first-strike attack upon the United States, or South Korea for that matter, seems utterly remote from reality.

Instead, they are pursuing a policy—the policy of deterrence—which is a mirror image of our own. But by a collective trick of the mind, our use of weapons of mass destruction to deter is rationalized and justified by the fact that our intentions are good, while from our perspective both their intentions and their weapons are perceived to be evil—as if there were such a thing as good nuclear weapons and bad nuclear weapons.  In this particular sense, there is not a whit of difference between our otherwise two very different countries. North Korea took careful note of what happened to Libya when they agreed unilaterally to give up their nuclear program. Their motive is self-protection, not aggression.

It is one thing to say that deterrence was a temporary (now nearly three-quarters of a century) strategy to prevent planet-destroying war. But can we go on this way forever, with all nine nuclear powers committed to never making a single error of interpretation, never having a single equipment failure, never succumbing to a single computer hack? If we think we can, we’re just as out of it as Kim Jung-un. Our bowing to the false idol of nuclear deterrence as the ultimate and permanent bedrock of international security is in its own way as delusional as the way the brainwashed citizens of North Korea give absolute obeisance to their dear leader.

If the United States, as a responsible world player, does not move beyond the obsolete paradigm of endless paranoid cycles of we-build-they build; if it does not begin to think in terms of setting an example; if it does not begin to participate authentically in international conferences to ban these weapons, there is going to be a nuclear war in our future.

We’re uneasy with Mr. Trump’s finger on the nuclear trigger, but this is a bigger problem than who specifically is commander in chief. When the moment comes and we begin to slide down the slippery slope of deterrence breakdown because of some completely unanticipated dissolution of “fail-safeness,” it won’t matter how experienced the human parties to the disaster might be.

Whoever is left on this small, no longer so beautiful planet, freezing under the ash clouds of nuclear winter, uselessly nursing their boils and pustules from radiation poisoning, will hate and despise us for what we didn’t do for decades, and they will be quite right.

Because we know. We know and yet we do not act on our solemn obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In fact the United States actively undermines legitimate efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons. We just boycotted a recent one.

North Korea is a pariah nation led by a greedy Stalinist family. No one can say with any certainty whether they could be brought to the table to discuss abolition.  Why can’t we admit that we ourselves harbor a similar reluctance? The process of building trust, agreement and verification among the nine nuclear powers would be the most difficult diplomatic challenge ever undertaken. The only thing more difficult is the unthinkable agony of the alternative.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Remembering Who We Are


Our young nation is enduring a period of farce, though it doesn’t feel so amusing for stranded immigrants or unemployed coal miners.

There is a more determinative context for immediate events that we fail to call upon because at first glance it doesn’t seem remotely relevant: in addition to being Americans, we are citizens of Earth. Even beyond that, we are integral with the stupendous unfolding story of the Universe.

O.K., so the elements that make up our bodies were formed in the atomic furnace of stars. Really, so what?

Here’s what. The scientific story of the Universe is not an alternative fact. We all share the story, Shia and Sunni, Israeli and Palestinian, Christian and Muslim, Trump supporter and Trump resister.

It is an astounding story of emergence, creativity and survival on every level, from the formation of galaxies, to cells learning how to replicate themselves using DNA, to the development of mammalian care for offspring over millions of years. And, though it is 13.75 billion years old, for us it’s a new story, about which we have learned more in the last fifty years than in eons of gazing up at the mystery of the stars.

This story is not only what every human shares; it is the deepest resource for our own creativity as we address our looming challenges. It is a story, from the cooperative ecology of coral reefs to nations in complex trade agreements, that verifies the golden principle of interdependence. It is a story whose cycles, because nature leaves no waste, provide the best design models for human-manufactured materials and processes—even for the design of our institutions.

And it is a demonstration of why we can feel optimistic about our species and the Earth system even at difficult moments: we’ve come through so much. Not one of our ancestors going back to the absolute beginnings of cellular life made a fatal mistake before it was able to reproduce. We are the near-miraculous result of that unbroken chain of reproduction linking us to the entire emergent process.

Our shared scientific story is a great unifier. There is not a Muslim and a Christian science, or a Capitalist and a Socialist science; there is only an endless patient positing and testing of hypotheses. Tentative, seemingly impossible hypotheses gradually become generally accepted truths. The world goes from flat to round. The sun replaces the Earth as the center of the solar system. Cholera, once thought to be airborne, turns up in water, becoming easier to control or even conquer.

What is really important about this moment in the history of the Earth? It is the boiling up of race-based nationalism we have been seeing in the U.S. and Western Europe? Surely the scientific fact that the human species has exceeded the carrying capacity of its life-support system transcends in significance nationalist responses to events like the tragic movement of refugees around the globe. The strains of global climate instability have been one of the very causes of the great migrations of people away not only from murderous social chaos but also from disease-infested water and untillable soil. Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of the victims of terror are Muslim.

Is this not also the moment we have arrived at the realization, even if it is not yet universally shared, that the collective destructive power of the weapons deployed upon the Earth has become so great that war as a solution for our conflicts has become obsolete? All war is civil war. “We build/they build” weapon cycles are a poor substitute for meeting human and ecological needs directly and strengthening real global security.

Our most difficult challenges cannot be met except on a whole new level of international cooperation built upon shared insight, listening to other frames of reference, collaboration more than confrontation, and sacrifice for the common planetary good.

This can feel frightening, making “America First” a tempting illusion. Instead a fragile system of international law is emerging as an appropriate response to the unavoidable fact that all nations share one ocean and atmosphere, and no one will be secure unless all are secure—ecologically, militarily, politically, educationally, medically, economically. We cannot maintain a healthy market system upon an ailing Earth.

How does our own nation take its place among the rest? Our constitutional guarantees have unleashed a tremendous prosperity, and a technological creativity which will be essential to meeting the ecological challenges the world faces together.

But, to use the 1967 terminology of Martin Luther King Jr., there are materialist, militarist and racist forces at work in our country that resist, in favor of their narrow self-interests, our evolution toward new sources of sustainable energy, greater participatory democracy, and healthier manifestations of King’s vision of a beloved community.

Astronomically wealthy individuals and their agents seem unable to see that their own well-being depends ultimately upon the health of the Earth out of which they are attempting to extract fossil fuels as if more Earth-friendly technologies did not exist. They control much of the major media, which coin money off the dark energy of political polarization and a clickable sea of distracting trivialities.

It is not trivial when so many young black men languish in corporate prisons for minor drug offenses, when we are falling behind in the strength of our public education and medical insurance systems, when student debt has become unsustainable, when so many other nations are further up the curve of conversion to solar and wind.

One antidote is remembering who we are in the context of the true story of the Universe and Earth. What follows from that is ownership of America’s own real story, a story that includes the unearned suffering of the native peoples, who have everything to teach about sustaining our resources into the future.

Central also to the American story is slavery and the unearned suffering of African-Americans. A spiritual resilience that wears the faces of Douglass and King and Baldwin and so many others could be a core resource for an American identity and strength available to all the races. But it isn’t yet, because whites still haven’t come to terms with the original sin of our origins. Black lives matter for so many reasons, not least that until they do we cannot authentically celebrate national diversity in equal liberty. Only then will our light illuminate an Earth struggling with the tension between heartfelt democratic longing and heart-shriveling fears of the “other.”

Finally, it comes down from Universe to Earth to America to me, who, in Ta-Nehisi’s provocative phrase, happens to be white—already a minority on Earth and soon to be one in my country, but as yet a privileged one. As such I bear a special responsibility to resist the polarization that erupted in this last Presidential election cycle. I may be white and progressive, but I pledge to a flag that stands for one nation, indivisible. I bear a special responsibility to work for not only racial, but also political and economic, inclusiveness, reaching across artificial divides to understand those who chose to vote for an inexperienced leader. If we remember who we are as children of the Universe, of Earth, and of the American ideal of diversity in community, a new world is still possible. It begins with me.