Sunday, October 7, 2018

All Good Art is Protest Art

The original meaning of the word ‘protest’ in old French was: to make a solemn declaration, and even before that, going back to Latin, to witness, to declare publicly.

I like the idea of protest as a solemn declaration and witness, because that leaves us free to distinguish protest from anger. We can protest with a spirit of good will, even with love.

It’s also true that at the solitary end of the continuum of protest are single human cries of helpless outrage, the hotel maid being molested by Harvey Weinstein, the Muslim refugee assaulted by a mob of white nationalist thugs.

Expanding from individual to the group takes us into the controversial realm of identity politics, where each separate religious or ethnic or racial category asserts its justification for protesting threats to its essential dignity.

For example, Black Lives Matter. In the light of the deep structural racism in the United States, it’s impossible, for me at least, not to identify and sympathize deeply with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Whether we subscribe to identity politics or not, every time the police shoot a black man or boy under murky circumstances, it gives a new lease to the polarization between races that has been a fundamental theme of American history from slavery forward.

Meanwhile we remain in this awkward in-between state in race relations where Black Lives Matter is often countered with the obvious bromide that All Lives Matter—as if Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter were somehow in conflict.

What’s really in conflict seems to be various modes of identification. Am I an American citizen first and only then someone of a particular race? Of course it would be healthier if we got to the point where all of us could identify first of all as Americans. This was clearly the vision of Martin Luther King.

An even larger context of identification is available, and necessary at this moment in time—the indisputable fact that we are one humanity, living on one small planet—where, someday, racism will be seen as a tragic illusory social construct that obscured this deeper unity.

Going even beyond the human, we might ask, who will protest for natural phenomena, for rivers that have become polluted? In Ecuador and elsewhere, rivers are now given constitutional rights to flow freely and cleanly.
Our biggest international challenge has become climate. Even nuclear war has been redefined, by nuclear winter, as a way to effect climate change suddenly rather than gradually.

In the case of our own heavy use of resources in the advanced industrial countries, as Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is—us. Our own choices are intimately involved in solutions. How do I protest the size of my own ecological footprint? And how, or where, do we protest overpopulation in the advanced nations, where each person uses multiple times the resources of people in developing countries?

In any case it is becoming clearer every day that our materialist, consumerist values are not working for us. They are unsustainable.

In his watershed 1967 speech at Riverside Church shortly before he was assassinated, Dr. King took the considerable risk of connecting domestic conditions in the United States with the Vietnam war, which allowed him to show the interrelationship of racism, militarism and materialism—our nation’s continuing trefecta of original sin.

King dared to connect American racism toward blacks with racism against Asians. This continues in the racism of western cultural attitudes toward peoples in places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen.

50 people blown up by terrorists in western countries is front-page news for weeks. 50 people blown up in Afghanistan elicits a shrug and a yawn in the western press. Here might be a good place to apply the slogan “All Lives Matter.”

King was inspired by Gandhi, and Gandhi’s civil disobedience tactics in turn by Thoreau and so on back to Magna Carta-type moments when the absolute rights of kings and emperors were first called into question, all the way back to strikes of workmen building the pyramids.

The mansion of protest has many rooms, depending upon whether one grows up as male or female, or privileged white, or not so privileged black, poor or hungry or wheelchair-bound or transgender or Muslim.

So many contentious issues and questions arise. Should abortion be restricted? Who decides that? Are corporations people? Is money speech? Is the supreme court above politics? In each case one’s personal spectrum of indignation, or loving activism and witness, is going to be different.

There was a recent controversy over whether the white female artist Dana Schutz has the right to make a painting of the black civil rights martyr Emmett Till.  It is difficult to understand why people spend energy on such a seemingly artificial controversy.

In the Marlon Brando film about biker gangs, “The Wild Ones” someone asks him what he is rebelling against. He replies “Whaddaya got?”

My own primary issue for the past fifty years has been nuclear war prevention.

If one is going to protest something, I would assert this is just a touch more significant than whether a white artist has the right to paint a painful event in black civil rights history.

Brian Swimme’s “Journey of the Universe” addresses the great story that is the context for our human presence, the 13.85 billion year story of the evolution of stars and galaxies, planets, life, and self-conscious life that now has brought such dire peril upon itself.

From the perspective of this story, self-aware life arriving at a level of technological sophistication where they can utterly destroy themselves constitutes an event of cosmological significance.

I’d like to advance the notion of the Trident submarine as a quasi-cosmological event, which might seem an odd way to think about it.

The Russians were the first to combine a nuclear submarine with a nuclear ballistic missile. The American equivalent, the Ohio class Trident, is a 560 foot technological marvel. It contains 24 multiple warhead nuclear missiles with a greater combined firepower than all the weapons used in both world wars. In fact, it may be possible for one such submarine all by itself to cause a planetary nuclear winter. The British and the Russians and others have equivalent programs.

The theory behind such weapons is of course deterrence, which contains a built-in performative contradiction: so that they will never be used, they must be kept ready for instant use. This requires that we gloss over the reality that every weapon ever invented, including nuclear weapons, has ended up being used in war.

Not only global security, including our own, but all human existence, including our own, depends upon no one among the nine nuclear powers making a mistake, no one ever misinterpreting an incoming signal, no piece of electronic equipment malfunctioning or becoming vulnerable to cyber-attack.

Simple logic and basic probability theory tell us that such perpetual flawlessness is far too much to ask of complex systems and fallible humans. Nevertheless governments enthusiastically accept this devil’s bargain and we citizens passively put up with it.

My partner and I were showing our grandchildren around Washington D.C. the same week that Trump gave his bizarre speech to the boy scouts.

A congressional aide was giving us a tour of the Capital building. At one point he paused to confer with an aide to the president. I figured this was as close as I was ever going to get, and so I cast aside my inhibitions and risked asking the question that has been on a lot of minds: just how accessible are the nuclear codes to the President? 

The aide gave me a frozen stare and reminded me that Mr. Trump was the duly-elected head of state.

Later I happened to read Daniel Ellsberg’s great book about nuclear strategy, The Doomsday Machine.

It turns out it’s a myth that only the president can begin a nuclear war.  Deterrence could not possibly work if that were the case, so there have to be others down the chain of command who can retaliate if for any reason the president is unable to. This seems to be true with Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear weapons, which are under the autonomous command of field generals.

The fact is that no individual, no matter how sane and stable, and no matter where in the chain of command, should be put in the position of deciding to launch a nuclear war.

It is hard to believe the military in the various nations are not well acquainted with nuclear winter. On some level they must know the game is over—forever. Deterrence, with its endless dynamic of “we build—they build,” offers no way out of omnicide. The 122 nations that have signed the U.N. declaration against these weapons have accepted this.

In terms of the possibility of effecting change, it’s always helpful to remember that many nations have endured and continue to endure much worse than what we are facing now in our country.

At opportune moments small groups of trained non-violent activists obtain unexpected leverage as they merge with larger groups of protesters.

One of my mentors once told me that the actual translation from the Aramaic of “Blessed are the meek” from the Sermon on the Mount is: blessed are the trained.

Activists have won tremendous victories against oppression using some of the hundreds of non-violent strategies catalogued by the great contemporary tactician of non-violence, Gene Sharp. Very few Americans have heard of Gene Sharp, who was a professor of political science at U. Mass and lived in East Boston.

Sharp’s tactics have been a bible for many non-violent revolutions around the world, such as the People Power revolution in the Philippines against Marcos, or the mothers of the disappeared in Chile who helped to bring down Pinochet, or the womens’ movement that won non-violently in Liberia. The overall record of non-violent campaigns is as good or better as violent ones.

There’s another cosmologically-tinged event we can recall, complementary to the destructive capacity of a ballistic missile submarine.

On February 15, 2003, the largest protest march in the history of the world occurred in 600 cities around the globe.

Everyone knew that the United States had decided to invade Iraq, using the shaky rationale that there had to be weapons of mass destruction there somewhere.

Our government was about to choose a cynical,violent and confusing overreaction to the horrors of 9/11, the unintended consequences of which remain with us still. 

While that 2003 march failed to stop a misguided and unnecessary war, it demonstrated a fundamental impulse to unity and peace in people everywhere, a unity which may still be a dream, but is also a functional reality. This worldwide march was something new, not the German tribe or the French tribe or the American tribe, but the human tribe.

Mass marches can often be festive. Citizens discover to their delight and relief that many others share their views.My partner and I walked in Portland, Maine with her grandchildren in both the women’s march in January of 2017 and the march for sane gun regulation after the Parkland shootings.

Yes, after the marchers go home, the business of working for democratic change remains messy, slow, frustrating, and endless. But witnessing together can inspire us for the more mundane and necessary work.

Meanwhile many of our would-be kings and emperors around the world continue to be indifferent to or actively hostile toward the health of the earth and its billions of striving humans sharing universal hopes and fears. 

We are surrounded everywhere by the consequences of the violent misuse of power, in the callous slaughters in Syria, or Myanmar, or the Congo, or South Sudan.

Setting aside actual violence, when the President’s lawyer, Mr. Giuliani, asserts that white collar crime is victimless, something primal is revealed about the hypocrisy and rank injustice of established structures of power.

These structures mock the principle that all are created equal, with a perverse version of the Golden Rule: those with the gold make the rules.

Of course artists have always lent their gifts to clarifying such issues. Last year there was a large exhibition of protest art that went back centuries on display at the British museum.

Last year also we took in a retrospective at the Whitney of protest art in America in the sixties. It contained many provocative works documenting opposition to sexism in the art world, race prejudice, and our endless, futile wars. 

The exhibition also underlined the challenges of making art based upon a response to immediate events and discrete social issues.
Though sometimes amusing, it felt more like a thin documentation of an eventful time that artists were compelled to witness as best they could, rather than an expression of the whole personalities of gifted creative people.

Back in August, a group of British artists found out that a London museum exhibiting their works of protest art had held a reception for a defense company in order to raise cash. The artists protested by removing their work from the museum—a kind of self-cancelling protest . . .

Even after we have witnessed against the horrors of militarism, or racial injustice, immutable aspects of reality remain, including disease, absurd ill-fortune, and death. 

This goes all the way back to Job. How do we protest the absurdity that is woven into reality at a level even deeper than potentially avoidable injustice? In the old religious language, God’s stern response to Job’s protestations was, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

To say it another way, our protests take place in the context of a power greater than ourselves, whether we end up calling it God or the Universe or the Tao or Jung’s synchronicity or the unnamable, a mystery so profound and humbling that the purpose of many of our religious and cultural rituals is to try to reduce it to something comprehensible.

The arts are one of the ways to acknowledge the mystery in all its incommensurability.

Artists often begin in a state of unease or vague dissatisfaction, what Freud called ‘ordinary unhappiness.’ We label the ordinary unhappiness of certified artistic geniuses ‘divine discontent’—a sublimation of outrage or wonder into the clarity of aesthetic form—like Beethoven composing his late string quartets in a state of total job-like deafness, illness, and solitude. Still he called the slow movement of the 15th quartet “a holy song of thanks to the divinity.” In the greatest art protest and grateful affirmation become one.

Art emerges from the context of our strange birthright, the beauty and grace that suffuses the mystery along with absurdity and tragedy.

This beauty, most familiarly experienced in nature or in erotic or romantic or spiritual longing, can torment us as much as the worst injustice. At the very least beauty reminds us that the mystery of life is not defined only by death and ill-fortune.  

One of the judges in the Hague overseeing the trial of Slobodan Milosevic said that to recover his sanity after a day of listening to the catalog of atrocities he would go to the local museum and soak himself in the Vermeers.

W.H. Auden said—debatably— “poetry makes nothing happen,” but art in itself and by itself can protest aspects of reality that are intolerable.

Camus’s extraordinary polemic The Rebel includes a brief section on metaphysical rebellion and art, where he argues that great art protests the unsatisfactory elements of reality by correcting or completing them. He meant that art does that purely by means of art itself—by means of the closed system of the novel, the poem, the painting, where the artist can be totally responsible for the work.

So for Camus, every effective work of art is a kind of protest.

Perhaps the most complete response to the strange mix of the intolerable and the beautiful of life can be found in song.

The composers and songwriters are the most consoling companions when one needs art that does justice to life in all its paradox—in our own time songsters like that greatest of American protesters, Pete Seeger, or Leonard Cohen—or my contemporary Bob Dylan.

Even an early classic Dylan song like “With God on Our Side” remains timelessly universal and relevant, though Dylan quickly began to chafe under the limits of being labeled a mere commentator on the issues of the day. Dylan’s genius pushes restlessly to get beyond such a limited conception of his own possibilities.

You can see this happening at one of his early press conferences. A reporter asked the young Dylan how many other protest singers existed.

Dylan thought, then replied, "about 136." Dylan’s sardonic smile should have been a warning, but the reporter persisted. "You say about 136 -- or exactly 136?" "either 136 or 142," Dylan answers helpfully.

Dylan went on to write well over four hundred songs and counting over a lifetime. Dylan’s music and the poetry of his words consistently manage to integrate disparate realities, violence and peacefulness, politics and private life, innocence and corruption, loving kindness and rank hostility.

I thought the Nobel award to Dylan was inspired—though it was amusing to hear Philip Roth quip, with a nice edge of Rothian bitterness, shortly before he died: “Next year maybe it’ll be Peter, Paul and Mary.”

Fifty years later Dylan is still writing gorgeous pieces like “Mississippi,” “Not Dark Yet,” “Things Have Changed”— rueful musical protests of life’s inevitable outrages.

Simply presenting a new vision of what ought to be can be a powerful form of protest. We protest injustice and cruelty because we sense, by way of the truth, beauty and goodness in nature or the arts, or in the people we love and admire, that a more just world is possible.

The success this past summer of the documentaries about Fred Rogers and Ruth Bader Ginsburg testifies to this longing, which is especially strong right now.

No less than Jesus himself taught that we should “resist not evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In a similar vein, Buckminster Fuller thought it was as important to create an attractive new model than to tear down an obsolete or corrupt one. Don’t waste energy, he said, trying to destroy the dinosaur, but instead focus on creating the gazelle.

I volunteered for 30 years for Beyond War, an organization that believed that education and building relationships with adversaries was a better use of one’s time and energy than protest. Obviously protesting and building relationships with adversaries doesn’t have to be an either/or. It can be a both/and.

Beyond War used to get sniped at by both the left and the right. The left thought we weren’t angry enough, and the right thought we were a bunch of idealistic commie pinkos.

But I am proud of how, in the 1980s, Beyond War brought together teams of high-level scientists from both Russia and America to write a book about accidental nuclear war and how best to prevent it. The really important element of the book, called "Breakthrough," was that lasting relationships were formed between Russian and American scientists. The Russian team included Gorbachev’s science advisor, and so Gorbachev himself read it.

Wallace Stevens defined one of the subtlest forms of protest in art when he said in a poem called “Man Carrying Thing,” that “a poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully.”

What that might mean is that popular entertainment is full of formulaic manipulative tropes which confirm easy assumptions about violence, heroism, patriotism, and most of all love.

The world of authentic art challenges such assumptions with ambiguities, putting us back in touch with the depths of mystery by undermining our tendency to understand too quickly.

Here’s a quotation by Lewis Hyde I like which corraborates my assertion that all good art is protest art.

“Art does not organize parties, nor is it the servant or colleague of power.

Rather, the work of art becomes a political force simply through the faithful representation of the spirit. It is a political act to create an image of the self or of the collective . . .

So long as artists speak the truth, they will, whenever the government is lying, or has betrayed the people, become a political force whether they intend to or not.”

If I had to pick one novel that in my judgment paints an accurate picture of how things are in all their complexity, it might be Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel “Mr. Sammler’s Planet.” It satisfies both Lewis Hyde’s and Camus’s criteria for truthfulness.

As for the visual arts, the great flourishing of action painting and sculpture in the fifties and sixties in Manhattan—art which refused to be easy and accessible—was in part a response to the condition of potential atomic extinction with which most of us have been living since we were born.

The work of greats like Louise Nevelson and Jackson Pollock swept aside the leftist socially engaged art between the world wars in favor of all-out statements of artistic identity.

Mark Rothko asserted that only art on the level of a new myth could constitute an adequate response to the threat of nuclear annihilation.

This is where the heroic effort of a painter like Giorgio Morandi becomes interesting in its apparent unwillingness to become socially engaged. What could be more harmless, more utterly useless and irrelevant, than Morandi’s lifetime involvement with his pathetic cast-off bottles and bowls? And yet his work as a whole provides an immense spiritual reservoir—especially for his fellow artists.

A painter like the late Neil Welliver, one of the finest artists associated with the Maine landscape, was a protest artist in at least two senses. First, he endured a horrific series of personal tragedies that included loss of more than one of his children, and a fire that destroyed hundreds of his paintings.

After his son was apparently murdered in Thailand, Welliver did a series of eloquent late paintings of burnt-over woods—though he said he didn’t know whether the death of his son had influenced his choice of motif. The cogency and serenity of his work is an implicit protest against and creative response to his Job-like personal trials.

Welliver’s depiction of the power and beauty of untouched nature is also one long solemn declaration as to what’s at stake in the assault on the biological world, our environmental support system.

The art of visionaries like Morandi or Rothko or Nevelson or Welliver becomes valuable insofar as it speaks of worlds and possibilities that may be uncapturable by the headline news. The serenity of a Morandi painting protests the tiresome, banal drumbeat of historical catastrophe with a human wholeness.

To return to the political, there is one other form of solemn declaration, of protest, that fortunately is available to us, and that is to vote.

I’ll end with the last stanza of the great Auden poem of protest against fascism, “September 1, 1939.” Unfortunately, it remains all too relevant to our situation today:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the just
Exchange their messages:
May i, composed like them
Of eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

What's Past is Prologue (?)

Dear Friends,

While we feel may feel vulnerable to Trump Derangement Syndrome for many reasons, it is important to keep our eyes upon the main event, a crucial chapter of which is laid out in this solidly written piece of historical reporting from the Times.

It is important because it is an accurate picture of who we are as a species in this era: short-sighted, deluded by a privileged sense of invulnerability, prone to denial and obstruction of truth, stubborn, indifferent if we are not directly affected, reluctant to consider the fate of fellow suffering humans, let alone our own progeny both in the near future and in the distant, almost unimaginable far future—and utterly dependent upon the special courage and heroism of a very small number of people, like the climate scientist James Hansen, who refused to be muffled or sidetracked. It is hard to look at ourselves in this picture, but necessary if we are going to act effectively, without giving in to the passivity of despair after decades of drifting in the passivity of indifference.

Though the article does not cover this, the issue of climate is inseparable from the issue of war, and the opportunity cost of expending vast funds on military equipment needed for the very mitigation of negative climate effects that will cause more wars.

The future foretold in this article has arrived. Along with fury at the criminal stupidity of pulling out of the Paris Accords, I also cannot help feeling uneasily complicit—can you?— in the fate of hundreds of millions of fellow humans who are drowning in the floods of Bangladesh, succumbing to heatstroke in the streets of Mumbai, or losing everything in the fires in California or Greece. The relationship between their fates and our own choices has become inescapable.

I recall a seminar, one which included climate in its themes, I attended some decades ago during the time of the events recounted in the article, where a participant, a man in his thirties, suddenly burst into tears. When asked by seminar leader Don Fitton what was troubling him, he sobbed, "The trees! What will happen to the trees!"  I remember thinking he was annoyingly over the top, a bit of a self-dramatist. Now I think his response was prophetic and deeply sane, at least in comparison to my own smug condescension. In fact, the trees are probably going to be fine, as they flourish on increased concentrations of carbon dioxide. Too many of our fellow humans, let alone our children and grandchildren, maybe not so much . . .

There is enormous solace and promise in the scientific story of the universe and distant past history of Earth, in which still-mysterious powers are guiding the direction of a further surprising unfolding. Life has come through so much, even if the changes were accompanied by cataclysmic destruction in such meta-events as the five major mass extinctions. We are in the midst of the sixth—20,000 species a year ghosting into nevermore. Industrial society has given us many boons, but we must now apply our immense mammalian creativity, our deep innate capacity to care, to figuring out what our role might be as humans in the total system, beyond consumerism—not only to stop degrading our only home but to bring forth the restorative powers that are already rooted in the gorgeous intelligence of the natural world, waiting to nourish us if we can work with and not against them. As Paul Hawken has pointed out, millions of committed people are participating in organizations whose mission aligns with those powers.

I urge you to send this link to the Times article to as many people as possible.

In hope,


Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Mind Reels

"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."
                                                                        —Winston Churchill

Equally enigmatic is how Mr. Trump went about representing the national interest of the United States at Helsinki. Until Mr. Mueller is ready to provide possible clarification, the fog around the president’s motivation persists: narcissistic ineptitude almost surely; perhaps also kompromat, collusion, and/or fear of money laundering becoming exposed.

All the confusion provides an object lesson in the plasticity of enemy-imaging. As someone old enough to remember the lame British-American interference in Iran in the fifties, the hysteria of McCarthyism, Hoover’s clandestine harassment of Martin Luther King Jr., and far greater debacles like the wanton destruction of Vietnam and Cambodia, I persist in my skepticism concerning the degree of competence we can expect from the bureaucrats and generals to whom we reluctantly entrust our safety.

But now, with the executive branch demonstrably willing to gallop bareback off the established foreign policy reservation, the knee-jerk adversary of progressives for decades, the so-called “deep state,” with its reflexive fear of Russian totalitarian infiltration and its perpetuation of military dominance in all earthly spheres, may at least be providing a sorely needed element of restraint and integrity.

The plot is further thickened by an interesting analysis in The Nation magazine by Stephen Cohen, a Princeton professor emeritus and lifetime Russia watcher. He asks us to take a deep breath in the midst of our anxiety about the president’s apparent capitulation to his authoritarian friend in power.

Cohen asserts that when the president states that "I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we've all been foolish. ... And I think we're all to blame," he is onto something:

Cohen continues: “For the past 15 years, the virtually unanimous American bipartisan establishment answer has been: Putin, or “Putin’s Russia,” is solely to blame. Washington’s decision to expand NATO to Russia’s border, bomb Russia’s traditional ally Serbia, withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, carry out military regime change in Iraq and Libya, provoke the Ukrainian crisis and back the coup against its legitimate president in 2014, and considerably more—none of these, only “Putin’s aggression,” led to the new Cold War. This explanation has long become a rigid bipartisan orthodoxy tolerating no dissent.”

Tragically, the president’s compulsive willingness to lie, his thin-skinned, possibly guilt-motivated defensiveness, his Kissingeresque lone-cowboy-riding-to-the-rescue style, along with the appallingly short-sighted withdrawal from the Paris Accords and the Iran nuclear deal, has pretty much destroyed his credibility as a heretical and possibly creative anti-establishment actor. When he assigns blame equally between America and Russia for the new Cold War, all most of us can see is an echo of the false equivalence of his assigning blame equally to the neo-Nazis and the civil rights protesters in Charlottesville.

Where does a citizen go in all this craziness for an authoritative sense of context? One useful perspective is the long-term history of the nuclear arms race, out of which came a bracing truth from another apparent adversary of progressive thinking, Ronald Reagan: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In spite of our finding ourselves, more than a half-century beyond the Cuban missile crisis, still building new nuclear weapons on all sides, we humans have not gotten the message: continuing the arms race on the basis of deterrence prophesies not greater security but only inevitable mass death through error, misinterpretation, or miscalculation.

The “establishment” is well aware of this. They are designing new nuclear weapons to be less powerful so that they become strategically more “flexible” and “useful,” and presumably can avoid fatal consequences like nuclear winter. But smaller weapons only make the nuclear threshold easier to cross, and once it is crossed, who will prevent escalation to the larger, world-ending weapons?

As Churchill said, the key to Russia is national self-interest. Planetary self-interest in the nuclear age provides a common-sense context for our contemporary circus. When Mr. Trump persuades Mr. Putin to join him in convening an international conference of the military leaders of the nine nuclear powers to discuss joining the 122 nations who have outlawed nuclear weapons as self-destructive and unusable, I will be among the first to commend him as an anti-establishment hero. Meanwhile—the mind reels.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

President Trump's Useful Idiocy

Though the president still has many supporters, there is a growing consensus, especially as the Trump-initiated trade war heats up, that he does not have their best interests in mind, never mind the best interests of the nation as a whole. While I think I understand why so many people voted for Trump, my sympathy does not extend to the man himself, whose emotional repertoire appears to be the narrow range between meanness and self-pity.

As his first summit with Vladimir Putin approaches, though we do not have certainty about the possibility of active collusion, one cannot help but recall Lenin’s phrase “useful idiot,” by which Lenin meant anyone who could be manipulated to serve the ends of the Soviet state.

To borrow another well-known phrase, this time from the late Senator Moynihan, Trump has “defined deviancy down.” Gradually we have come to tolerate behavior in a leader that was formerly enough to derail a candidacy, if not leading to outright trial by law.

Whether Mr. Trump will or will not be able to serve out his term, it is not too soon to learn some lessons about what we seek and what we want to avoid in candidates for the presidency. In no particular order, here follows a simple and obvious list, clarified by way of contrast with the person presently occupying the office:

• A president needs to be a national model for truth-telling, encouraging and validating the scientific method, and making policy based upon experimentally validated data.

•A president needs a secure, private, inner-directed self-sense that transcends their image in the media, a self-sense that includes a solid ethical compass.

•A president needs to ameliorate, not exacerbate, conservative-progressive polarization, and consistently emphasize what all of us have in common as Americans, like equality of opportunity and equality under the law. The president that follows Trump will need special skills to promote healing between pro- and anti-Trump factions.

•A president needs to understand the racism which is one of America’s original sins, so that they can actively encourage the principle that our diversity makes us stronger.

•Anyone who wins the presidency will inevitably possess a healthy ego, but presidents must sublimate their self-confidence into a humble awareness of their position as servant leader, which views citizens as ends rather than instruments.

•A president needs good listening skills. Most of America’s difficulties, domestic or international, have in common some kind of failure to listen. Crude bullying, such as opposition to a U.N. breast feeding resolution because it threatens the profits of baby formula corporations, is surely not what our country wants to be known for around the world.

•A president needs to separate from business interests clearly and absolutely while in office.

•Presidents need authentic life experience that has tested them. My friend Adam Cote ran for the governorship of Maine. While serving the National Guard, he was deployed to Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, where he began an orphanage and established an effective program that adopted Iraqi villages. Five minutes in Adam’s presence is sufficient to demonstrate that his motivation for running is public service, not power. The testing experience doesn’t have to be military; it could be any trial by fire that seasons a person. 

•Presidents need a sense of humor, especially about themselves.

•Presidents need to be scholars of the lessons of history, to avoid repeating past mistakes.

•A president needs to be strong enough to push back against establishment groupthink from whatever political direction, such as the momentum of American techno-colonialism and militarism. Presidents can be a bulwark against the tail of unlimited military spending wagging the dog of sensible policy.

•Irrespective of party, presidents need to understand the great global challenge of environmental stress, and the imperative for greater international cooperation to help the planet through to a place where humans have learned to sustain the commons that is the life-support-system for all.

•Presidents must understand that many of our contemporary challenges are trans-national, and that the delicate structures of international law must be gradually strengthened. This will unquestionably benefit America’s security in the long term.

•Presidents need discernment. As my father used to say, quoting Leo Rosten: “First rate people hire first rate people. Second rate people hire fourth rate people.”

Of course, every trait that makes a good president also makes a good civically engaged citizen. It would seem we get the presidents we deserve (though most of the Trump voters I know are much more interesting than either the liberal press stereotype of a Trump voter or than Trump himself).

Even if at a very high cost, President Trump may have done our country at least one valuable service. If we have learned the right lessons, we will tolerate a little less the political obfuscations of the mean-spirited, the petty, the mealy-mouthed, the smugly entitled (in both mainstream political parties), and still less the garrulous narcissism taking up all the air in the room at present. There is an opening, if we can encourage it, for a more disinterested, honest political conversation. I know I will be looking among the emerging candidates for at least some of the qualities listed above—and that, I’m afraid, means I need to exemplify those qualities myself.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Real Security

Whether the summit with North Korea is on or off, a triumph or a disaster or something in between, the leaders of nuclear nations are like fish making petty threats and counter-threats while swimming in an ocean of reality they ignore to everyone’s peril: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” (Ronald Reagan, 1984).

What an opportunity our planet is missing!

We all sense that the arms race has reached a fatal level of destructiveness. There is some debate about how many nuclear detonations might be required to bring on nuclear winter, but the number is clearly a small fraction of the total available to the 9 nuclear powers. The meaning of peace through military strength will never be the same again. In recognition, 122 nations signed an agreement outlawing the weapons.

Two doors face us, one leading to death and one to life. We don't see it, but both are equally easy to open and walk through. There are 82 million fellow humans in Iran, 25 million in North Korea, 1 and a third billion in China, 140-odd million in Russia, all of whom want the same things we want for our children. Are they all our sworn enemies? Only in the insane, launch-on-warning, "surviving"-a-first-strike world where the tail of nuclear strategy wags the dog of common sense.

Everything has changed, and diplomacy must change with it. Diplomacy based in reality rather than double standards and illusion would suggest meeting our adversaries on the common ground of a shared desire not only to survive by gradual, verifiable, reciprocal steps back from the brink, but also to flourish by becoming free to repurpose the money formerly spent upon weapons to life-affirming programs and devices. Imagine governments encouraging the development of decentralized, sustainable power sources such as batteries and solar panels, creating an economic abundance that would reduce the need for war—a virtuous circle.

On this the major powers must lead—especially the United States, the only nation to have actually used a nuclear weapon to kill people. There are so many small, confidence-building measures we could take unilaterally which would not only not compromise our security, but would increase it, beginning with a pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons.

Such alternatives as renewing and miniaturizing our nuclear arsenal or taking the arms race out into space, as military planners in a number of nations are apparently racing to do, are the height of folly. The level of destruction available to nations is far larger than all our political and economic conflicts, and so the destructiveness has become irrelevant to the resolution of such conflicts. Because this is a Gordian knot we all share, we can cut through it on the basis of a common awareness that the arms race offers no way to reach the common security we all desire.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Duck and Cover

Once those articulate Florida high school students, God love them, are finished exposing the craven emptiness of politicians like Marco Rubio and others subverted by the NRA, they might want to turn to nuclear weapons as another sacred cow ripe for the “we call B.S.” treatment.

The acute dangers of gun violence and nuclear weapons offer ominous parallels. Both are deadly serious issues that provoke absurd levels of avoidance and paralysis.

For 22 years, pressure from the NRA upon the Center for Disease Control caused Congress to defund research into gun fatalities. Opportunists like Rubio duck and take cover from the obvious root cause of our endless mass shootings, the glut of unregulated guns, turning to any other explanation no matter how implausible, in order to avoid shutting off the spigot of blood-soaked NRA cash.

The solutions to keeping children in schools safe from mass shootings have never been hidden. There is a slam-dunk correlation between the numbers of guns in any country and the number of mass shootings, and the United States wins the booby prize for having by far the most guns and the most shootings.

Avoidance continues rampant on the nuclear issue as well. Last fall Senator Corker, acknowledging bipartisan concerns about the unstable temperament of the president, opened a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee examining some of the legal issues of nuclear command and control, by remarking that this was the first hearing on the subject since 1976! Senator Rubio was there, tut-tutting that even talking about whether military personnel had the option to refuse to carry out illegal orders (they do) might undermine our credibility with North Korea.

While the president’s unhinged bellicosity may indeed keep us up at night, the overall structure of executive authority over nuclear weapons is an even greater cause for sweaty insomnia than any particular person in office. No human being, however well-trained in sober decision-making, should ever be put in the position of having five minutes to decide whether to launch a fleet of nuclear-winter-causing missiles because someone else’s nuclear-winter-causing missiles were already on their way—or not, as in the case of the Hawaiian false alarm.

Those who call for arming teachers, who buy into deterrence theory on either the gun level or the nuclear level, must justify the improbable notion that the more we are armed, the more we can move into the future without errors, misinterpretations, and accidents. Nuclear deterrence, designed to ensure stability, is undercut by the inherently unstable momentum of “we build-they build.” In order to be certain that the weapons, whether a loaded pistol in the drawer or a ballistic missile in a silo, are never used, they must be kept ready for instant use—accidents waiting to happen.

Fortunately, the insane levels of destructiveness built up during the Cold War were reduced by the hard work of skilled diplomats—reminding us that sensible further reductions in nuclear arms remain within the realm of possibility even if political will is presently lacking.

Reductions in the equally grotesque numbers of guns in the possession of American citizens are equally possible with well-structured buyback programs and common-sense regulations based upon the model of licensing citizens to drive cars.

Duck and cover stopgaps only fuel vain illusions of survivability—crouching in closets or hiding under desks as a viable protection from either a shooter with an AR-15 or the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Prevention is not nine-tenths but ten-tenths of the cure.

The rhythmic repetition of shootings tempts us to assume that the probability of nuclear war is much less likely than further gun slaughter. The reality is that without a fundamental change of direction, both more mass shootings and more nuclear weapons used against people are tragically inevitable. Too many assault rifles in the hands of too many angry, alienated young men will yield more incidents. The authority to launch nuclear weapons from North Korea is itself in the hands of an alienated young man, leaving aside that our president is himself a far cry from being a grown-up.

Powerful lobbying efforts thwart reasonable plans for reducing either guns or nuclear weapons. In the case of the latter, a vast program of renewal costing trillions is getting under way, in clear violation of the spirit of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to which the U.S. is a signatory.

The argument that the more we are armed to the teeth the safer we will be simply does not hold up under statistical examination. Where gun regulations are stricter, violent incidents drop, and where they are looser, incidents rise. Period. There is no logical reason to assume matters are any different with nuclear weapons. The more there are, and the more people who are handling them, the greater the chance of their being used. Period.

That is why 122 nations signed an agreement at the U.N. last year banning nuclear weapons. In a similar spirit the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School quickly sublimated their grief and rage into a growing political movement to change gun laws. When they become adults and begin to run for office, it’s hopeful to imagine they will also call B.S. on the notion that more nuclear weapons make us safer.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Nuclear Deterrence, North Korea,and Dr.King

In my judgment as an interested citizen, there is a breathtaking degree of denial and illusion in the world of nuclear strategy, on all sides. Kim Jong Un deludes his people with crude propaganda about annihilating the United States. But Americans also underestimate American military strength, along with the strength of the other nuclear powers—a level of potential destruction that could be world-ending. Denial, unquestioned assumptions, and drift masquerade as rational policy. Putting war prevention first is overshadowed by a paradigm of casual bellicosity.

Granting that North Korea initiated the Korean war, 80% of North Korea was destroyed before it was over. The head of the Strategic Air Command, Curtis Lemay, dropped more bombs on North Korea than were detonated in the entire Asia-Pacific theater during World War II. The North Korean economy was decimated and has only partly recovered. There was famine in the 1990s. There’s no closure, no formal treaty of peace.  The North Korean mind-set is that we are still at war—a convenient excuse for their leaders to scapegoat the U.S., distracting the minds of their citizens with an external enemy—a classic totalitarian trope. Our country continues to play right into this scenario.

Kim Jong Un’s family is complicit in illicit arms and heroin sales, currency counterfeiting, ransom ware that cruelly disrupted the work of hospitals around the world, assassination of relatives, arbitrary detention, and torture of dissidents in secret forced labor camps.

But our present crisis with North Korea is only a particular instance of a general planetary condition, one that is equally acute in the Kashmir conflict, for example, which pits nuclear India against nuclear Pakistan. As Einstein wrote in 1946, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Unless we find a new mode of thinking, we’re going to be dealing with more North Koreas down the time-stream.

All the complexity of nuclear strategy, can be boiled down to two inescapable potentialities: We have long surpassed an absolute limit of destructive power and no technological system invented by humans has been forever error-free.

A thermonuclear bomb exploded above any major city would in a millesecond raise the temperature to 4 or 5 times the surface of the sun. Everything for a hundred square miles around the epicenter would be instantly aflame. The firestorm would generate 500 mile-an-hour winds, capable of sucking in forests, buildings, and people. The soot rising into the troposphere from detonation of as few as 1% to 5% of the world’s arsenals could have the effect of cooling the entire planet and diminishing for a decade our capability to grow what we need to feed ourselves. Billions would starve. I have not heard of any congressional hearings addressing this interesting possibility—even though it is hardly new information.  33 years ago, my organization, Beyond War, sponsored a presentation on nuclear winter given by Carl Sagan to 80 united nations ambassadors. Nuclear winter may be old news, but its subversion of the meaning of military strength remains unprecedented and game-changing. Updated models suggest that in order to avoid nuclear winter, all nuclear–armed countries must reduce their arsenals to about 200 warheads.

But even such radical reductions do not resolve the problem of error or miscalculation, which—confirmed by the Hawaii false alarm—is the most likely way nuclear war with north Korea would begin. The public relations cliché is that the president always has with him the codes, the permissive action links, that are the only way nuclear war can be initiated. While this is hair-raising enough, the truth may be even more disheartening. Neither U.S. nor Russian deterrence, nor North Korean for that matter, would have credibility if adversaries believed that a nuclear war could be won simply by taking out the enemy’s capital city or head of state. These systems are therefore designed to ensure retaliation from other locations, and also down the chain of command.

During the Cuban missile crisis, Vasili Archipov was an officer on a Soviet submarine on which our navy was dropping what were called practice grenades, in order to get them to surface.  The Soviets assumed the grenades were real depth charges. Two officers wanted to fire a nuclear torpedo at a nearby American aircraft carrier. According to Soviet navy protocol, three officers had to agree. No one aboard the submarine required a coded go-ahead from Mr. Khrushchev to take a fatal step toward the end of the world. Fortunately, Archipov was unwilling to assent. With similar heroic prudence, the Kennedy brothers restrained the above-mentioned General Curtis Lemay from bombing Cuba during the missile crisis. Had Lemay’s impulsiveness prevailed in October 1962, we would have been attacking both tactical nuclear weapons and intermediate range missiles in Cuba with nuclear warheads already mounted on them. Robert McNamara: "In a nuclear age, such mistakes could be disastrous. It is not possible to predict with confidence the consequences of military action by the great powers. Therefore, we must achieve crisis avoidance. That requires that we put ourselves in each other's shoes."

In the moment of relief after the Cuban crisis, the sane conclusion was “neither side won; the world won, let’s make sure we never come this close again.” Nevertheless—we persisted. Secretary of State Rusk blithely drew the wrong lesson: “We went eyeball to eyeball and the other side blinked.” The military-industrial juggernaut in the superpowers and elsewhere rolled on. Einstein’s wisdom was ignored.

Nuclear deterrence contains what philosophers call a performative contradiction: In order to never be used, everyone’s weapons must be kept ready for instant use, but if they are used, we face planetary suicide. The only way to win is not to play.

The mutually assured destruction argument is that global war has been prevented for 73 years. Churchill rationalized it with his usual eloquence, in this case in support of a cockeyed assumption: “Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”

But nuclear deterrence is unstable. It locks nations into an endless cycle of we build/they build, and we drift into what psychologists call learned helplessness.

In spite of our professed assumption that our nuclear weapons exist only to deter, only as defense, many U.S. presidents have used them to threaten adversaries. General MacArthur apparently considered using them during the Korean war, just as Nixon wondered if nuclear weapons could change imminent defeat into victory in Vietnam. Our present leader says what’s the point of having them if we can’t use them? That is not deterrence talk. That is the talk of someone who has zero understanding that nuclear weapons are fundamentally different.

By 1984, intermediate-range missiles were deployed in Europe by both the us and the U.S.S.R. decision-making time for both Nato and the Soviets was shortened to minutes. The world was on edge, as it is today. Anyone who lived through the reds-under-the-bed hysteria of the McCarthy era will recall that mass assumptions about the Soviet Union as criminal, evil and godless were a thousand times more intense than what we feel today about Kim and his small benighted country.

In 1984, to honor the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, my organization, Beyond War, set up a live televised “spacebridge” between Moscow and San Francisco. Large audiences in both cities, separated not only by a dozen time zones but also by decades of cold war, listened to the pleas of the co-presidents of the I.P.P.N.W., for reconciliation between the U.S. and the Soviets. The most extraordinary moment came at the very end when all of us in both audiences spontaneously began to wave to each other.

A cynic wrote a scathing analysis of our event in the Wall Street Journal, asserting that the U.S., aided by beyond war’s useful idiocy, had been exploited in a communist propaganda coup. But the spacebridge turned out to be more than just a kumbaya moment. Developing our contacts, we brought together two teams of high-level nuclear scientists from the United States and the Soviet Union to write a book about accidental nuclear war, called “Breakthrough.”  Gorbachev read it. The work of millions of demonstrators, NGOs like Beyond War, and professional foreign service officials began to bear fruit in the second half of the 1980s. In 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev signed an important nuclear disarmament treaty. The Berlin wall came down in 1989. Gorbachev and Reagan, in a poignant moment of sanity, met in 1986 at Reykjavik and even considered mutually eliminating all the nuclear weapons of the two superpowers.
Such initiatives from the 1980s remain deeply relevant to the North Korean challenge.
If we want North Korea to change, we need to examine our own role in the creation of the echo chamber of threat and counter-threat.

Dr. King’s death was a mortal blow to our greatness as a nation. He connected the dots between our racism and our militarism. Significantly, General Curtis Lemay, firebomber of Tokyo in World War II, scourge of Korea, near-trigger of superpower thermonuclear war during the Cuban crisis, reappears in history one more time, in 1968, the same year King was assassinated—as George Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate. Contemplating doing to Pyongyang in 2018 what we did to Hiroshima in 1945 requires a grotesque dehumanization of the 25 million people of North Korea. Lemay’s justification of mass death comes from the same mental space as George Wallace’s (and President Trump’s) racism.

The children of North Korea are as worthy of life as our own. That is not kumbaya. That is a message North Korea needs to hear from us. Were King still with us, he would be thundering that our taxes fund potential mass murder on a level that would make the Jewish holocaust look like a picnic. He would argue that it is moral evasion to assume that our nukes are good because they are democratic, and Kim’s are bad because they are totalitarian. Our country needs to at least surface the subject of double standards, where we prohibit nuclear weapons for Iran and North Korea but not for ourselves. North Korea and Iran should be prohibited membership in the nuclear club, but then so should the rest of us.

New thinking demands that we ask even unsavory characters like Kim Jong Un, “how can I help you survive, so that we can all survive?” Every contact, including the Seoul Olympics, offers opportunities for connection. If we are strategically patient, North Korea will evolve without another Korean war. This is already happening as market forces and information technology gradually work their way into their closed culture.

The ultimate prevention of nuclear war, with North Korea or with anyone else, requires the complete, reciprocal, verified reduction of everyone’s nuclear weapons, first down below the nuclear winter threshold and then, long term, down to zero.  Our own country must lead. Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin could put their odd affinity to good use by initiating a permanent nuclear disarmament conference, gradually enlisting the participation of the other 7 nuclear powers. The whole world would be rooting for success, instead of being terrified of us as it is at present. Confidence-building unilateral moves are possible. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has argued that the United States would be more, not less, secure if we unilaterally eliminated our 450 ICBMs in silos, the land-based leg of our nuclear triad.

Writers like Steven Pinker and Nick Kristof have identified a host of trends that suggest the planet is moving gradually away from war. I want my country to help accelerate those trends, not slow them, or god help us, reverse them. We ought to have supported, rather than boycotted, the recent U.N. treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. 122 countries out of 195 have signed that treaty.  Such an accord may at first seem to have no teeth, but history works in strange ways. In 1928, 15 nations signed the Kellogg-Briand pact, which outlawed all war. It was ratified, if you can believe it, by the United States senate in a vote of 85 to 1. It’s still in force, though it goes without saying that it has been honored more in the breach than in the observance. But that supposedly pie-in-the-sky document supplied the legal foundation for convicting the Nazis of crimes against peace during the Nuremberg trials.

The same engines which power our missiles have also propelled us into space, allowing us to see the earth as a single organism—a sane, powerful, complete picture of our interdependence. What we do to our adversaries we do to ourselves. It is the work of our time to seed this new thinking into even our most Machiavellian survival calculations—to put ourselves in each other’s shoes as Secretary McNamara said. The universe did not bring our planet through a 13.8 billion-year process for us to end it in a self-administered omnicide.  The dysfunctionality of our present leader only serves to make clearer the dysfunctionality of the nuclear deterrence system as a whole.

Our representatives need to hear a lot of us ask for open hearings on nuclear policy, especially nuclear winter, the self-defeating madness of “strategies” like launch-on-warning, and the prevention of nuclear war by error.

The established worldview is that people of good will are trying to build King’s beloved community, and that nuclear deterrence protects that fragile community from a dangerous world. King would have said that nuclear deterrence itself is a huge part of the danger. If we here in the United States came to terms with the original sin of our racism and violence, we would look at the North Korean challenge with different eyes, and they might even see us differently too. We are either drifting toward unparalleled catastrophe or doing our best to build King’s beloved community—worldwide.