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.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Whiteness and the Other


“…  if you want to be part of the solution, the road ahead is clear: Recognize you’re the enemy they need; show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; by all means be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.”
 —Andrés Miguel Rondón
                                                     
America cannot become great without embracing and working through the tragedy of slavery—all that has unfolded from the way that almost unimaginable suffering and injustice is entwined with our origin story and continues to the present day.

America cannot become great without embracing and working through the genocidal suffering undergone by native Americans and the way that suffering and injustice is entwined with our origin story and continues to the present day.

America cannot become great without acknowledging and embracing the ordeals of the immigrants who have flowed in from so many countries and still try to come in until the present day.

America cannot become great without continuing to push for gender equality and overcoming gaps of worth that continue to the present day.

What makes us special as a nation? Even beyond our freedoms, isn’t it the soul power of the African-American experience, the steel of dignity that has been hardened upon the anvil of unmerited suffering? Isn’t it the deep connection of the Native Americans to the sacredness of our landscapes, showing us that if we degrade what surrounds us, we degrade ourselves? Isn’t it the manifold contributions of all the different streams of immigrants (including Mr. Trump’s grandfather) who have made the effort to assimilate and contribute to the dynamism of our unity-in-diversity? Isn’t it because we remain a beacon of possibility, in spite of setbacks, to women worldwide?

Our public airways and our politics have been polluted by an insidious fog of polarization, based implicitly in white male privilege, which denies the full human reality of the other-than-white. Events like 9-11 didn’t help, but the continuous sneer of commentator-entertainers like Rush Limbaugh has further frayed the delicate web of civil discourse, where listening is equal in value to speaking. A habit of continuous rant has overtaken the easy camaraderie of shared citizenship that is still possible. Our media culture has gone from the already sensational “if it bleeds, it leads,” to the far more deeply sensational “if it divides, it abides.”

This perversion of our precious freedom of speech is far more dangerous than crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater—because it is based in the materialism, racism and militarism against which Martin Luther King warned us not long before he was assassinated.

It is materialist because media figures make piles of money by using polarizing frames and because politicians use these frames to rise to power. It is racist because it makes the non-white Other into a faceless mass of complaining, angry, helpless, lawbreaking victims—or, in the case of Obama, into an uppity executive who overstepped his bounds and had to be checked by an obdurate legislative “No!” It is militaristic because it responds to the threat of the Other with overwhelming force (check out the kinds of equipment our police have come to possess since 9-11).

And so at this moment a huge gap has been manufactured in our country, a gap that has the odd quality of being very real and at the same time the grandest of illusions.  The manipulators of political and media power would have us believe that there is an unbridgeable distance between the pain of the pro-Trump unemployed coal miner and the pain of the anti-Trump black woman who experiences housing discrimination, or the pain of a pro-Trump Christian evangelist who feels overwhelmed by the pace of change and the pain of an anti-Trump transgender student being bullied at school.

That is the most effective way that the Powers That Be try to maintain a high wall that blocks our progress toward the inclusive equal-opportunity society we think we are and can still become.

Obama urged us to overcome our divisions. He was right to try and time will vindicate him. The wall between us and them (fill in the us; fill in the them), reinforced by the way we sort ourselves into homogenous groups of adherents on the Internet, is the Big Lie in an interdependent world. This wall will inevitably crumble and fall. There are many reasons why citizens did or did not vote for Donald Trump, but are the differences between those who did and those who did not all that great? They can still be overcome—by keeping in mind how much we have in common, and how illusory is the power of the forces that seek to artificially divide us.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Light of the World


There are two things that too many of us seem to be reluctant to take in about present conditions on our planet—the first is the threat of mass death, either suddenly by nuclear war, or gradually by changes in climate. The second is the possibility of reconciliation among enemies on the basis of common goals.  Our brains are not particularly well wired by evolution to see either of these both as an immediate threat and as an equally immediate, available opportunity. Perhaps for the first time in history, we are gradually becoming aware that the two shed significant light on each other. In fact, in our historical moment they have become an inseparable duality. As the poet W.S. Auden wrote, “We must love one another or die.”

In a world where nuclear weapons are so destructive that it would only take the detonation of a few hundred of them to fatally affect agricultural production around the globe, perhaps we can now begin to see the absurdity of our hatreds in a new light—almost as if we were growing a new kind of mind more evolutionarily suited to the realities that loom around us. The destructiveness of our weapons is so enormous in scale, that even the most intractable loathing and fear we may feel weighs like a feather measured against a ton of lead. It is really the same, in only a slightly less urgent way, for global climate instability: the imperative has become a level of cooperation on the basis of a shared desire to survive that our evolution has not prepared us for as well as it might, but which is nonetheless essential.

It’s as if a malign alien presence had landed on the earth and all the parties to international and civil conflict, Sunnis and Shia, Arab and Jew, the U.S. and the Taliban, suddenly realized that we had so much more in common with each other as members of the human species than with the aliens, that it would become obvious that we needed to cooperate against the common threat. But we do face  common threats: climate issues, and war itself, with the potential of any war anywhere going nuclear by accident, misunderstanding or passive drift. The “alien” we ought to fear and unite to overcome is found in two places, one physically real, the other psychologically real: the weapons themselves, and the way we have been programmed by evolution to think about the “other,” the different, the fearsome stranger, the enemy.

Our collective fears, hates and desires for security have led us to unlock the secrets of the atom and evolve out of those secrets a bizarre system: deterrence by mutually assured destruction. If we again imagined aliens coming to our planet, this time benign ones, how amazed they would be by the utter ridiculousness of the trap we have willingly set for ourselves. Would they be able to distinguish between the hapless terrorism of the suicide bomber and the strategic deliberation of the nuclear  “balance of terror”? Are these two so completely different? Certainly not either in their threat to the innocent or in their futility.

The trap in full is not just deterrence,  but the way we think about the usefulness of any kind of violence, on any level, to solve problems—the assumptions humans make that flying a plane into a building or setting off a bomb in a marketplace will make a positive difference. The extraordinary freedom of the human condition includes the tragic built-in freedom to kill. This freedom is so very easy to indulge even within the web of a quasi-organized civil society, as we see in the president of the Philippines’ murderous extra-judicial war against drugs.

Many of us are distressed that one duly elected, but apparently very thin-skinned, leader will soon be given the authority to cause mass death on a planetary level.  We pray that his obsession with business success will preoccupy him with making deals rather than making wars. At least we can be somewhat consoled by the fact that the international markets he seeks to dominate will not benefit from nuclear annihilation.

But our apparent programming, our collective thin skin, is not biologically inevitable. History confirms the absurdity of enemy-imaging by recording how arbitrary our animosities are as seen over time—Americans who once incinerated Japanese soldiers with flame throwers or Viet Cong with napalm are now welcome in Japan or Vietnam as tourists or business people.

There is only one way out of our self-devised trap, and that is relationship. The opportunity for relationship is immediate, instant, all around us at every moment, even if we seem to be wired instinctively to hide within our skin, be it thin or thick. I recently entered my first board meeting of a non-profit and made a casually insensitive comment about Mr. Trump’s press conference circus. Next to me sat a woman who unapologetically made it clear that she had voted for the man—but kept her genuine welcoming smile in place.

I felt so grateful that her friendliness and willingness to work with me did not diminish in spite of my off-hand sarcasm, and so we were able to begin a fruitful dialogue—the topic of which became—surprise!—the need for more fruitful dialogue.

Her sort of friendliness may be the light of the world.  It is a ton of gold weighed against the feather of our momentary and potentially superficial political opposition to each other. Sometimes initiating and maintaining a culture of connection may not come easy, but it is constantly there as a possibility. The hoary cliché has never been more relevant and important: a stranger is just a friend we haven’t met yet.  And if that is true, why isn’t it just as true that an enemy is just someone we haven’t tried hard enough to be friends with yet?