Monday, June 29, 2020


With the horrific police lynching of George Floyd, militarism has been freshly perceived as a universal affliction, a planetary tragedy. In America, young whites and blacks march peacefully together, only to come face to face with nightsticks, pepper spray, and tear gas. In Delhi a Christian father and son are arrested by Hindu police for violating curfew and end up tortured and dead. In places like the Philippines and Brazil, mass extra-judicial police killings continue unabated.

Militarism—the use of overwhelming force as a first resort—rarely works, either as an instrument of domestic control or as an international system of security. It may help power and wealth succeed in temporarily pacifying the unruly poor, but it does nothing to strengthen the web of equal opportunity that lessens the need for control in the first place. It has not built democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan. Chinese militarism cannot contain the desire for freedom in the hearts of the citizens of Hong Kong or Taiwan. Russian militarists, Iranian militarists, Syrian militarists will not be able to control the democratic aspirations of their own citizens. Israeli militarism will never resolve the conflict with Palestine. And on the nuclear level, a militaristic arms race continues unabated, toward an apocalypse that no one wants, a conflagration that will burn millions of men, women and children to ash and leave no victors.

The militarism of international armed forces has much in common with domestic police militarism. Only the scale is different. The extent of America’s global military reach is impossible for the average civilian to comprehend. We have had almost zero debate about what size our military ought to be in a world of limited resources, including open discussion of the strategic usefulness—or uselessness—of nuclear weapons. This just doesn’t come up, even in entire Presidential campaigns, let alone debates. That very silence shouts the extent to which militarism’s infection may have weakened us. Pentagon accountants are apparently unable to plumb the mysterious depths of their own budgets. The juggernaut rolls on, unopposed except by a peace movement which, while robust, remains too small.

No one would argue that soldiers and the police do not sometimes exemplify duty, courage, and sacrifice. But in a more enlightened world, the police would be trained and equipped to put emphasis on tactics that de-escalate violence rather than to use violence to preserve an artificial and unjust “law and order” that only applies to certain people. If the armed forces of nations were motivated by the same spirit of de-escalation and not control or conquest, there would be all the more opportunity for heroic courage. There have been situations, like ending the Bosnian war, where diplomacy backed by military force was essential, just as there have been failures to intervene where loss of life could have been prevented, like the Rwandan genocide. Peacemaking is a high calling, blessed by the sages of the world’s religions.

Mr. Trump, though expressing it with his usual tone-deafness, was onto something when he said that the death of George Floyd was a great day. With that horrific video, something cracked open around the world. The curtain was drawn back upon the naked face of “law and order,” for all to see that it was often crude, selective, malign, corrupt with power for its own sake, systemically unfair. The violent militarism of police forces all across our country unleashed upon mostly peaceful protesters rubbed our noses in something usually more distant and abstract, especially for white people.

Militarism has always been rationalized by the ancient Roman bromide: if you want peace, prepare for war. With the deaths of George Floyd and too many others, this has become a deeply questionable notion. Are the trillions presently pouring into weapons systems like the Lockheed Joint Strike Fighter, or the renewal of our nuclear arsenal, really the best way to strengthen our nation and overcome the perpetuation of racist injustice? Doesn’t our renewed strength lie in diverting some of those bottomless resources into schools, hospitals, Medicare for all, free college for all, mass transit, putting people to work on infrastructure renewal, and conversion to sustainable energy sources? That kind of shift would encompass reparations that would benefit everyone, not just those whom our violent history has deprived of the blessings of liberty. Such movement toward an equal-opportunity society would ultimately make the demanding work of the police far less difficult, as well as making America stronger internationally.

Protesters are not only pulling down statues of generals and statesmen because they abetted a racist political system. The statues are also the symbolic embodiment of militarism, in all its hollow mythic glory, a militarism which suffuses our civic culture, visible in the millions of guns we own. Militarism is found in the rhetoric of all those, from the president to Rush Limbaugh, who push a joyless, simplistic us-and-them worldview that tries to negate the existential reality that we are in this together, all challenged to acknowledge our interdependence and steward the life-support system that sustains us. For this great task, militarism is obsolete.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

White Supremacy and World Supremacy

Recently the Equity Leadership Steering Committee associated with an almost entirely white school district in Maine came out with a strong letter asking citizens to acknowledge not just the anodyne “white privilege,” but the actual “white supremacy” pervasive in our nation. Not unexpectedly, they received some kickback. Fortunately the Superintendent of Schools had the courage to back them up.  

Selective listeners heard “you’re accusing me of Klu-Klux-Klan-level racism.” But “white privilege,” compared to “white supremacy,” has the ring of a garden party to which I somehow deserved an invitation. “White supremacy,” enforced by the police and structures too long set in cultural concrete, is closer to the truth. The events of the past two weeks, especially so many young whites demonstrating alongside blacks in the streets, have made it easier for whites to acknowledge the depth of the injustice in which they play an integral part.

We humans are selective listeners. We hear what we want to hear, because it “fits” our mindset. When Donald Trump hears “defund the police,” he thinks “anarchy, chaos, abandonment of law and order.” When the millions of American protestors hear the same phrase, it means “the militarization of the police only brought out their worst tendencies. Reform is a failure. Time to reconceive the police, and put far more funds into social services that meet human needs directly.”

A pervasive paradigm never dies a painless death—in this moment the real deaths of far too many black people. While we’re on the subject of defunding an overmilitarized police corrupted, perhaps from the beginning, by invulnerable power, structural racism, a code of conspiratorial secrecy, and resistance to reform, let’s also remember just how big a paradigm shift we are undergoing in our historical moment—bigger even than racism. Because in this shift, everything is connected.

When Mr. Trump hears “Green New Deal,” he thinks “radical socialism,” where Ocasio-Cortez thinks “new job opportunities and a more sustainable living system; what’s not to like?” Pushed out of the headlines by the pandemic and the police lynching of Mr. Floyd, international challenges like climate change do not abate.

When Donald Trump hears “full spectrum dominance” or “we have more nukes than any other country,” he hears that the “strength” of supremacy enforces law and order internationally as well as domestically. A growing number of the rest of us hear foreboding elements of weakness, decay, misappropriation of limited resources, double standards, and possible nuclear catastrophe.

It isn’t just the police that are overmilitarized; it’s the military itself. Not just in the United States, but the United States is a case in point. The Lockheed F-35 Strike Fighter is expected to cost a trillion dollars over its sixty year lifespan. The plan to renew our nuclear arsenal over ten years will cost us taxpayers 1.6 trillion—leaving aside our futile and unnecessary wars, including the racist one in Vietnam and our indecisive long-running campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine the trillions expended upon bloated military programs and stupid wars that end up diminishing our security repurposed to give everyone in our nation authentic equality of opportunity, equal access to health care, equally well-funded schools.

We, and not just in the U.S. but also in other autocracies like Brazil or Hungary or Russia or China or Iran or Myanmar, are invited to rethink the age-old question of fundamental relationship between the state and the individual citizen. Is the purpose of the state to control, or is it to support human dignity and equal opportunity and clean air and water?

The U.S. Declaration of Independence says that citizens will create an ideal society and government by “laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The people in the streets yearning for something new and hopeful, not only in the U.S. but all around the world, including Hong Kong, don’t want to be controlled by an intrusive state; they want to be free from the state unless it is repurposed to more effectively champion their needs and rights.

Nuclear weapons, like our over-armed police, are also the expression of a brutal, dysfunctional, obsolete attempt at supremacy and control. Defund and reconceive the police. Defund subsidies for fossil fuels and support alternative energy systems. Defund and reconceive international security by forging new arms agreements which lift the anxiety of being annihilated off our necks. “I can’t breathe” has more than one meaning.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The End of “Othering”: Another Kind of Global Climate Change

There is another kind of climate change, a mental one, we are undergoing, catalyzed by the combination of the pandemic and the gruesome lynching of George Floyd. Mr. Trump’s non-leadership is a classic example of the mental climate that is dying. His way is division—into the Us of his base, and the Other: the left, minorities, protestors.

But the world of “Othering” is dying to make way for the world of “We Are All in this Together.”

As one who benefits from white privilege yet still believes in the power of loving, trained non-violence, I revere the example of Martin Luther King Jr.—not the cleaned-up King of the holiday, but the “radical” King who not long before he was assassinated, spoke truth to the triple evils of American militarism, racism, and materialism, the King who made uncomfortable connections between the war in Vietnam and poverty at home.

I wish all the protest was disciplined in the Gandhian tradition, because that would be a further expression of the new world in the making. Such creative protest, exemplified by the Chief of Police of Flint, Michigan who put down his baton and walked with protestors, heading off mayhem in his city that night, makes it harder for Trump to sustain his tired Us-and-Them schtick.

But that is too much to ask at this further moment of pain for African-American citizens, one more link in an endless chain of injustice and deprivation going back to the slavery that was written into the Constitution. Obedience to law is liberty, but if the law is perceived to be structurally unjust, then, as President Kennedy said in 1962, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

I have the honor to be the grandfather of five mixed-race grandchildren ages 15 to 2. In my country, if it does not fundamentally and quickly change, these children are going to undergo a transformation in the eyes of our systemically racist culture. As they enter puberty, their adorable qualities will mysteriously evaporate, replaced by the reality that too many white people will see them as a threat, especially too many of the police. They will require “the talk,” about how to respect police officers as a matter of survival. To have to explain to the innocent why they are an “Other” is a kind of madness, one that fuels the rage that is pouring into the streets of our cities.

My grandchildren also have the opportunity to be citizens of a possible new world of which we see faint signs, a world in which whites will finally accept that their coming status as a racial and political minority in America need not be threatening—that whites will no longer need an Other to help us define ourselves as superior. That challenge must be met entirely by us whites—a change of mental climate indeed.

But this cultural tendency toward “Othering” encompasses so much more than the present racial divide in the United States. It explains and connects so much of what is wrong and false and dying in our world, and what is right and true and being born, a birth upon which depends the very survival of us all.

In the world I hope is possible for my coffee-colored grandchildren, citizens will have made the intimate connection between all of the big challenges facing the planet: ecological degradation, nuclear weapons, world-encompassing pandemics, the polarizing divide in our politics made worse by sneering demagogues like Rush Limbaugh. All of these huge challenges emerge from the human tendency to “Other,” a fire upon which Limbaugh and Trump happily pour gasoline.

Out of our fears and desires to maintain an illusory control, we humans have created world-ending weapons to keep the Other at bay.

Out of their fears and desires to maintain an illusory control, the super-wealthy, enabled by the president and his legislation-burying Senate toadies, enjoy far too much influence over our government. Often they pay no taxes at all (surely a kind of welfare, if not outright looting), and have “Othered” ordinary citizens, forgetting that these ordinary citizens are the interdependent source of their wealth.

Big Pharma and Big Insurance have “Othered” Americans into health care haves and have-nots, when for the cost of a few less aircraft carriers and F-35 fighters, we could all afford preventive and curative care.

Out of our desire to control and monetize our industrial food-supply, we have “Othered” nature itself, when nature is telling via pandemics and many other signs and portents that we ourselves are an integral, interdependent part of the living system.

There is no Other. As someone once wrote, “the earth is a sphere, and a sphere has only one side. We are all on the same side.” True self-interest has become what is in the best interest of all, not the nations, but this small planet. At this moment of pain and destruction in America, obviously we’re far from being all on the same side. Still, the sentiment of seeing the earth as a one-sided sphere means a lot more than some easy Kumbaya bromide. It is a reality that grounds us in interdependence, and points toward a mental climate change where “Othering” of all kinds is obsolete.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Nuclear Clouds on the Horizon

Nuclear Clouds on the Horizon

A series of ominous signs point to the reality that President Reagan’s warning—“a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”—has not sunk into the thinking of the military establishments of the nine nuclear powers. The U.S. is signaling its abandonment of arms control left and right, most recently the Open Skies Treaty, a stabilizing agreement that allowed Russian and American planes to do flyovers of each other’s territories. The U.S. and others continue research on both hypersonic missiles that will reduce the time for sensible decision-making in a crisis.  We are also developing smaller-yield warheads that make the transition from conventional to nuclear war more likely. Mr. Trump and friends are thinking again about more nuclear tests and the weaponization of space.

We knew very well a worldwide plague could occur but we didn’t think it would. We were taken by surprise and unprepared. The pandemic struck impersonally at obsolete conceptions of nationalist autonomy, reminding the international community of all the other challenges we can only solve together.

Nuclear weapons remain one of those challenges. There is only one way out of the corner we have painted ourselves into: mutual, verifiable agreements to get rid of the weapons and control the materials that go into them. So what do we need to know that will have the momentum to carry the world through to this end, the momentum of truth? A few fundamental realities:

The first is the unreliability of deterrence.  Deterrence works—until it doesn’t. It didn’t deter 9/11. It didn’t deter Russia’s stealth invasion of Crimea. Realists embrace deterrence, Mutual Assured Destruction, as a tragic necessity. The reality is that it purports to prevent a third World War when in fact it only postpones one. Why? Because the mother of all paradoxes is built into the system: in order to never be used, the weapons must be kept ready for instant use. With no mistakes. Forever.

Which brings us to a related reality—the inevitability of error. I participated back in the 1980s in a citizen initiative to bring together Russian and American scientists to write papers on the technical background of accidental nuclear war. The papers became a book, Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking, the first book published simultaneously in the U.S. and the then rapidly changing Soviet Union. Gorbachev read it. Even today more than thirty years later, the book retains the capacity to make one’s hair stand on end. All the problems that the scientists agreed in 1986 were dire are even more dire today.

The layered systems of computers and missiles, some of the equipment modern and some frighteningly worn and obsolete, are coupled with the familiar human error that we have seen unfold in technical failures like the Challenger, Chernobyl, and the Max-8s. There are too many stories of early warning systems mistaking the rising moon or a flock of geese for incoming missiles, nearly initiating a retaliatory launch. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the equivalent of our playing pistol roulette with the world. There was a bullet in the chamber and we pulled the trigger, but miraculously the gun misfired. As Robert McNamara said, only luck, not expertise, has saved us. How far can we afford to push our luck?

Another piece is what we have learned about the possibility of nuclear winter. Scientists have modelled more and more precisely how few nuclear detonations on cities would be required to raise enough dust and ash into the upper atmosphere to change the planetary climate, making fatal changes in agriculture and our ability to feed ourselves. Thus even a so-called “limited” nuclear war contains no possible victory, and very possibly would lead to the suicide of the nation that initiated it. It is startling to admit that, much as we reserve our deepest fear and disgust for suicide bombers, our taxes and investments subsidize just such a system on a world-ending scale.

We cannot fool ourselves that our weapons are good because we are good and North Korea’s weapons are evil because they are evil. A Hindu bomb or a Muslim bomb or a democratic bomb or a totalitarian bomb are all equally adequate to cause nuclear winter.

Unless we change direction, the ultimate tragedy of nuclear war will emerge from the status quo. Experts know this, and yet the drift toward the waterfall continues. Not one of the nine nuclear powers has signed the 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which so far 81 nations have already signed and 37 ratified—an international expression of the democratic spirit we value in our own country.

The only way out—the only way—is a permanent conference, sponsored by the U.N., where the stakeholders pledge no-first-use, take their weapons off hair-trigger, and work out protocols of mutual, verifiable reductions of all weapons. Even if it takes a decade or more, positive incremental steps along the way will build confidence that the job can be completed.

An extraordinarily hopeful precedent was provided by the Nunn-Lugar Threat Reduction Initiative in the 1980s and 90s— a bipartisan achievement. The project resulted in the disassembly of 7000 nuclear warheads in the territories of the now former Soviet Union. That is nearly half of all the nuclear weapons deployed worldwide today. In one crucial sense these weapons are not like a virus: we built them, and if we can truly see their surreal dysfunction, we can, and we will, unbuild them.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Nuclear Weapons—One Rotarian's Take

Nuclear weapons brought me to Rotary. Some years ago I was invited to give a talk, a rough version of this very article. I had all the usual stereotypes in my head—Rotarians were stiff, mostly male, prone to empty ritual. I was nervous about how a controversial subject might go over. To my surprise, the audience was friendly, respectful and curious. Within a few weeks I had joined Rotary and began to know some of the most generous-spirited, creative and fun-loving men and woman I have encountered in a long lifetime.

I am a child of the atomic age, born in 1941. As the bombs annihilated two Japanese cities, my father was training to become a translator as part of the anticipated final invasion, which, in the standard historical interpretation, suddenly became unnecessary.

People in my demographic have been living all their conscious lives with the threat of nuclear war as a kind of low-level background noise—a noise which rose to a roar at key moments, like the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Especially disconcerting over the decades has been the distance between ordinary citizens and the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the arms race.

In 1984, I was moved to join a group that was determined to make a real difference. We arranged for a group of Soviet and American scientists to meet at a retreat center in California and work together on a set of papers on accidental nuclear war. The result was not only the first book published simultaneously in the Soviet Union and the United States, but enduring friendships among the participating scientists. Gorbachev read the book. Perhaps our initiative even played a minor role in ending a fifty-year era of tension.

Sadly, former Secretary of Defense William Perry asserts that, given the complexity of defense systems and the possibility of error, nuclear war is more likely today than at the height of the Cold War. In the midst of all our other planetary challenges, that is an especially harsh reality to get our minds around.

Equally hard to comprehend is how bizarre a system we have evolved to keep ourselves safe. Imagine we are an alien from another planet checking in on Earth’s progress. Leaders of our most powerful nations are accompanied everywhere by an attendant with a suitcase full of codes capable of unleashing sufficient power to destroy everything.

In the mother of all paradoxes, in order to be sure they are never used, everyone’s weapons must be kept ready for instant use. No misinterpretations or mistakes are allowed—forever. The message of inevitable breakdown, even if rare, in technologically complex systems—Challenger, Chernobyl, 737-Max 8s—must be uneasily ignored. Meanwhile this deterrence system prevented neither the horror of 9-11, nor the Russian invasion of Crimea, just to name two salient examples.

But the oddity of the deterrence system doesn’t end there. We have known for decades that the detonation of even a small number of the weapons could cause nuclear winter. Which means that in even a limited nuclear war without any retaliatory response, victory would dissolve into suicide. This is our security system. It is meant, with the best of intentions, to prevent a third global war. But close examination yields the reality that it is only postponing such a war, as we go about our business and try not to think about the sword hanging over our collective heads.

With the Coronus pandemic, the planet has received a further incentive to think freshly about our systems and values. The analogy with nuclear catastrophe is inescapable. We knew it could happen but we just didn’t believe it really would. We were unprepared. Medical systems worldwide were overwhelmed, as they would be in a nuclear war—if medical systems still existed at all.

In the early 19th century, chattel slavery in the U.S. seemed psychologically, economically and politically immovable. While change necessitated a tragically bloody civil war, equally essential were men and women committed to bringing about a paradigm shift in what it meant to be a moral person subject to the constitutional right of equality.

Today, it is hard for me to see how Rotary, with its power of numbers, resources and good will, can stand entirely aside from the nuclear challenge. Yes, there are complex questions about why we might want to stay out of the fray—unless we imagine what we might have done if we had been 1.2 million people worldwide confronting the ethical contradictions of slavery in 1850.

I am deeply convinced that there is an answer to the nuclear conundrum. It is contained in the model supplied by the scientists from two adversarial nations coming to a common understanding of the dangers of accidental nuclear war—a very Rotary-like initiative.

The world needs to get behind a U.N.-sponsored permanent international conference of stakeholders to work on reciprocal, verifiable reductions in nuclear arsenals. The bi-partisan Nunn-Lugar Nuclear Threat Reduction Initiative provides an instructive model: as the Soviet Union dissolved, this astonishing program was able to reduce the number of deployed warheads in places like the Ukraine by 7000—almost half the number of nuclear weapons deployed today!

The paradigm of how the world thinks about security is changing. Kissinger, Nunn, Shultz and Perry have sensibly asserted the strategic uselessness of nuclear weapons and called for their abolition. And so have the ever-increasing number of nations that have signed the 2017 United Nations Treaty Outlawing Nuclear Weapons. As people committed to peacebuilding and all the issues crucial to peacebuilding in our areas of focus, it is time for us Rotarians to start “living the questions,” as the poet Rilke put it, around Rotary’s potential involvement, whatever form it might take, in the issue of nuclear abolition. The eradication of polio once seemed impossible. But as Nelson Mandela said, “it always seems impossible, until it’s done.”

Saturday, February 1, 2020

"Where's My Roy Cohn?"

At one point when he felt under siege by possible indictments and impeachable offenses, the president whined petulantly, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” The question became the title of a documentary on Cohn’s life and career that made one feel after viewing like taking a long hot shower. Cohn blithely represented a number of high-ranking organized crime capos.  His reputation for ruthlessness was surpassed only by his reputation for hypocrisy as a closeted gay man who, when he worked for Senator McCarthy, had no problem trashing the reputation of other gay men.

Now the president has found his Roy Cohn—in Lamar Alexander, Lisa Murkowski, and all the other Republicans in the Senate who voted to end the first ever impeachment trial that subpoenaed no witnesses and requested no documents. As e.e.cummings once wrote:

“A politician is an ass upon
Which everyone has sat—except a man.”

Women, too—here’s looking at you, Lisa.

But politicians do not have to be sat-upon asses devoid of principles. I don’t know about you, but in the heroic eloquence and poise of Adam Schiff, I saw something presidential. Maybe not this cycle, but down the road.

It was hard to choose the most outrageous aspect of this Moscow-like show trial—McConnell’s brazen partisanship even though he swore himself to impartiality; Dershowitz’s cockamamie “arguments” that came right back down to Nixon’s “if the president does it, it’s not illegal”; the general weakness of the defense’s rationalizations of the president’s behavior; the abject, feckless refusal to interview Bolton;  or the fact that the president’s lawyer Mr. Cipollone continued to defend the president even as it emerged that Cipollone was in at least one meeting that made him a direct witness of the president’s perfidy.

Polls suggest that 75% of Americans wanted witnesses. That statistic, given myriad other evidence that the polarization around Trump is more like 50-50, is arresting. It suggests something hopeful about the body politic—that, unlike the Republic senators, even for Trump supporters, basic fairness trumps mindless cultism.

Jill Lepore, in an excellent article in this week’s New Yorker, writes “Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy as bearing witness to its demolition.” The empty spectacle of the impeachment trial has the potential to activate a lot of citizens to go to work and show cynics like McConnell the door.

OK—on to the ballot box. At least they can’t take that away from us  . . .  can they?????

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Turning Point: The new documentary “Coup 53”

A historical turning point is a moment, perhaps small, perhaps larger, that becomes uniquely causative of events that follow. Obvious examples might include the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand that set off World War One, the U.S. Supreme Court handing the election to George W. Bush instead of Al Gore, or 9-11.  

The enthralling new documentary directed by Iranian film maker Taghi Amirani and edited and co-written by the renowned film editor Walter Murch (“Apocalypse Now”; “English Patient”) is a meticulous backward look at an event that still determines much of the resentment Iran feels toward the government of the United States—and Britain: the 1953 coup which overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran.

At least the U.S. has admitted its complicity; the British intelligence service, MI6, never has, and thereby arises the thriller aspect of this astonishing film. Combing through reams of old documents, film archives, audio- and videotapes, Amirani and Murch come upon a shocking find that explodes a long and careful cover-up.

Meanwhile, multiple interviews with Iranians and Brits who were present at the time of the coup, some of whom are so old that they have died since the film was finished, illuminate the context and the actual tragic events as they unfolded.

We begin to know Mossadegh himself, a dignified, intellectual, and incorruptible official whose laudable goal was to transform Iran into a modern secular state. For him, that required that Iran nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had for decades been screwing Iran out of its fair share of oil profits.

Suddenly Mossadegh beat out Eisenhower or Churchill for the choice of Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, not as a hero of reformist government but as a sower of chaos. The U.S. and British powers that be, via their intelligence services, provided the cash—amazingly, it did not take all that much—to buy off Iranian journalists and hire mercenary provocateurs who took to the streets and inspired mobs to rise up against Mossadegh.

We know the rest of the story—or we certainly ought to. The Shah of Iran was installed, with the US. training his notorious secret police, SAVAK, in rituals of torture and surveillance. Eventually there was the inevitable reaction, and the Shah had to go into exile, leaving the ayatollahs to take over, which led to the 1979 taking of 52 American hostages as well as deep Iranian-American mutual resentment and suspicion that has lasted to this day. And the hostage-taking was surely a crucial factor in Reagan’s defeat of Carter.

The American secret establishment drew precisely the wrong lesson from the “success” of the overthrow of Mossadegh, and from thence came a rolling series of perversities such as the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, leader of the Congolese independence movement, the overthrow of Arbenz, another democratically elected leader in Guatemala, the attempt to overthrow Ho Chih Minh in Vietnam,
and the Bay of Pigs debacle.

Of course it is impossible to say exactly what might have happened if Mossadegh had been allowed to stay in power, but one possibility, crushingly unrealized today, is that there would be one more modern, thriving democracy in the middle of the Middle East.

One thing is certain: given the low state of American-Iranian relations at the moment, this film, riveting on its own merits, now carries the weight of a profoundly greater relevance than the filmmakers could have possibly expected when they began the project over a decade ago.

The film - which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2019 - has received audience awards from the Vancouver International Film Festival and has been nominated for the Grierson and BIFA awards.  It will be theatrically distributed later in 2020. Here is a link to a preview.

Perhaps “Coup 53” itself will become a turning point—toward a warmer relationship between the “West” and Iran.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

How Long O Lord?

Some years ago my daughter and I had the privilege of visiting the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. Not far from the millions of wildebeests and zebras migrating across the Serengeti Plain, the Olduvai Gorge museum was occupied that day by a single gentle African supervisor. There were no other tourists. We had this place of origins to ourselves.

The museum celebrated Louis Leakey and colleagues' discoveries of the fossil remains of our most distant bipedal ancestors. The most striking exhibition was a replica of 3.7 million-year-old footprints in fossilized mud, clearly those of a male, a female, and two children. These fragile indentations were poignantly immortalized by volcanic ash that rained down from a sudden eruption, preserved until Leakey’s team unearthed them.

As we exited the museum into the windswept parking area, I experienced my own inner eruption from some foundational depth. Tears began to pour. I had no clear idea why. The gentle curator came out and put his arm around my shoulder. From his kind gesture I sensed that others besides me had had a similar response to the museum’s displays, as I tried to put into words whatever had me in its grip. “All the wars. . !” I sobbed, and he nodded.

That was part of it—the sad waste of human-on-human violence through the passage of millions of years—but not all of it. We had experienced a visceral connection with that far-off little family not only as tragedy but as hope. Their footprints had erased the immense chasm of time between us and them. They and others like them had managed to reproduce and carry the human experiment forward, in a delicate unbroken chain stretching across millennia to the present. Their meeting of their survival challenges had made our own lives possible.

The experience in Olduvai Gorge rushed back as I read of President Trump’s assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. My moment in the Gorge twenty years ago, the experience of a connection across time deep enough to cause tears, of feeling overwhelmed by all that our species has gone through, begged the question: when will we ever learn?

Secretary Pompeo’s and President Trump’s rationalizations for the killing of Soleimani were typically Orwellian: “We did this not to start a war but to stop one.” It’s the same kind of absurd calculation that motivated bin Salman when he had Jamal Khashoggi strangled and dismembered—and went on to sentence to death half the team that did the deed under his own orders.

We feel weariness and exasperation at the banality of our tit-for-tat violence against each other. After endless tribal clashes, crusades, Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s or Saddam’s or Assad’s exterminations, the Turkish or Nazi or Rwandan genocides, have we learned nothing about the ultimate futility of an eye for an eye, which, as Gandhi said, only makes the whole world blind?

A plague on both their houses, the American and the Iranian “leaders”—a plague on all their houses—the murderous, up-to-no-good Soleimani, the Russians who support the Iranian militias and Assad as he decimates his own people, the grotesque excesses of ISIS, Putin’s own thuggish assassinations of dissidents, the Chinese forced ”re-education” of the Uighurs, the cowardly Saudis trembling at the independence of the mild-mannered Khashoggi.

So much militarism and murder and cruelty and torture around the world so that dictators can keep ordinary human beings in line by intimidation and violence and gross violations of privacy—by “facial recognition” technology without real recognition— of mutuality.

So many refugees, so many children mentally or physically damaged. Where is the Greta Thunberg who will hurl indignation at the shameful failure of grown-ups to keep children safe from war’s ravages?

To say we are children is an insult to heroic children like Greta. We are not children, we are infantile—I mean we the human species. Not to have learned from 1914 assassination of the archduke which began WW1, or the treachery of Pearl Harbor and the first use of the atom bomb in war, or the partition of India and Pakistan that still reverberates in Kashmir, or the British-American overthrow of the elected government of Iran in 1953, or the Cuban Missile crisis, or the failures of Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not to have learned how futile it is to hate our enemies more than we love our children.
Not even to have begun to see we are not Shia and Sunni, Arab and Jew, Iranian and American, Hindu and Muslim, dark or light-skinned, but one species, all facing the climate emergency together, all wanting security, nourishing food, clean water, a better life for our kids, all equally in search of meaning, dignity, fulfillment. Which means that the two words “diplomatic solution” go together far better than “military solution.”

Meanwhile the juggernaut of the arms race rushes headlong toward apocalypse, enriching the few as the threat to all increases. The Russians boast of a new hypersonic missile that can glide to an exact target anywhere on earth in half an hour or less, and we Americans mindlessly vow to equal or surpass this latest destabilizing innovation. We are hell-bent toward the next global war, but even the most war-loving generals won’t like it when it actually happens. And it will, it will, unless we start to picture ourselves in each other’s shoes and work out our differences. As Auden wrote, “we must love one another or die.”

Isn’t the 3.7 million years between the footprints of our forebears at Olduvai and 2020 time enough for us to have learned that violence and war are perfect vehicles for the perpetuation of conflict, but completely obsolete when it comes to the genuine resolution of conflict? How much more time do we need? How much more time do we have?