Pariah Nation 11/8/17

The Madness of Deterrence by Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

At some point in the near or semi-distant future, one way or another, Mr. Trump will have departed public office. For many reasons, perhaps most of all because we managed (if we do manage) to avoid nuclear war during his tenure, we will feel relief. But we may also feel a kind of letdown. Instead of having our anxieties focused upon the shallowness, impulsivity, and macho vengefulness of one particular leader, we will be forced to go back to worrying about the craziness of deterrence itself, irrespective of who is leading us.

A conference at Harvard on November 4 on “Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” examined whether the law should be changed and the choice to initiate nuclear war ought to be placed in the hands of congress rather than the president’s hands alone.

It may be of academic interest where launch authority should reside, but the question fails to address that moment of maximum awfulness when someone in the military reports to civilian authorities—accurately or not—that incoming missiles have appeared on a screen, requiring that someone decide how to respond, with millions of lives in the balance, in the space of a few inadequate minutes.

To have drifted into the creation of a system that culminates in such a moment, to put any one person or team of people in that position, is to have participated in a form of collective psychosis. We are all complicit, for example in the way both citizens and the press tolerated the bizarre reality that the topic was never brought up in any of the presidential debates.

It is not surprising that people find it challenging to think clearly, or to think at all, about the issue of nuclear war. Its utter destructiveness is so impossible to wrap our heads around that we take refuge in the fantasy that it can’t happen, it won’t happen, or if it does happen it will occur somewhere else. Mr. Trump’s ascendency has sharpened our apprehension, which may be a good thing if it helps us reexamine the bigger machine in which he is only an eccentric cog.

Many argue, speciously, that the potential destructiveness is the very thing that makes the system work to prevent war, forgetting the awful paradox of deterrence: that in order to never be used, the weapons must be kept absolutely ready for use. The complexity of the electronic systems intended to control them keeps on increasing as they are deployed in ever greater variety—on missiles from ships, on tactical battlefield launchers, from bombers and submarines, from aging silos in the Midwest. Error is inevitable, and close calls are legion.

The planet as a whole has pronounced clearly its judgment on deterrence, in the form of a treaty banning all nuclear weapons signed by 122 nations. The United States, citing the erratic and aggressive nuclear behavior of North Korea, boycotted the conference that led to this majority condemnation.

Sixteen years ago, Henry Kissinger joined William Perry, George Shultz and Sam Nunn to write a series of editorials in the Wall Street Journal arguing that deterrence is obsolete and abolition must be the ultimate policy goal, even if fiendishly difficult to achieve. On October 28, 2017, Kissinger was quoted in the New York Times saying:

“If they [North Korea] continue to have nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons must spread in the rest of Asia. It cannot be that North Korea is the only Korean country in the world that has nuclear weapons, without the South Koreans trying to match it. Nor can it be that Japan will sit there,” he added. “So therefore we’re talking about nuclear proliferation.”

No sane person wants nuclear proliferation. The only other choice, then, is the new treaty banning the most heinous class of WMD altogether.

The answer to the North Korean crisis is not further nuclear proliferation, nor, God forbid, is it all-out war on the Korean peninsula that would leave millions dead and make the United States, were we to participate with or even without nuclear weapons, a pariah nation. Instead we can start by reassuring North Korea in word and deed that we are not an existential threat to them, and wait patiently for internal changes in their governance that time will make inevitable.

Former Secretary of Defense Perry has argued we can afford to entirely eliminate the land-based leg of our land-sea-air nuclear triad with no loss of security. What would happen to planetary balances of power if our country unilaterally joined those 122 nations in a treaty that categorizes nuclear weapons, like chemical weapons, as beyond the pale, and we began to stand some of our weapons down in confidence-building gestures of good will? Would the Chinese or the Russians, or for that matter the North Koreans, really risk the omnicidal blowback of nuclear winter by launching unilateral attacks upon the U.S.? Isn’t the risk of that happening a good deal less than the risk of slipping into war with North Korea merely because leaders in both countries assumed that credible deterrence required the madness of mutually deliverable threats?

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.

Foundation of Mystery 10/18/17

Mystery  –  by Winslow Myers

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

Winslow Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Board of the War Prevention Initiative.

Mindless, Heartless System 10/4/17

The Rise (and Fall?) of the Machines by Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

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

Thus began “men’s day.” Along with becoming a connoisseur of the subtle differences between the French fries at one or another of the fast food establishments nearest the Cineplex, we initiated ourselves into the philosophical conundrums of the Terminator films. Their formula runs thus: malevolent machines have rebelled against their human masters and begun nuclear war all on their own. Was this possible, my son naturally enough wanted to know? And I naturally enough tried to calm a 13-year-old’s fears by dismissing the possibility.

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

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

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

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

Even the stalemates in Korea and Vietnam can be interpreted as conflicts in which leaders escalated almost to the point of using nuclear weapons as a last resort to win, but finally restrained themselves because they realized that victory was only the Pyrrhic victory of mass death on all sides.

We pretend our nuclear weapons are good and theirs are bad, when the weapons are a mindless, heartless system that cares neither who occupies the moral high ground nor who “wins.”

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.

Dangerously Obsolete 9/13/17

Common Sense and North Korea- by Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

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

North Korea and the United States do not appear to share much of a common sense about anything with each other. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has written a concise and intelligent summation of our mutual bewilderment and paranoia that should be required reading for the U.S. military-diplomatic-political leadership.

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

It is no harder to grasp the historical causes of North Korea’s paranoia than it is to understand our own fears: Korea was invaded and brutally colonized by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945.

At the end of World War II, the victorious Americans and Soviets divided the country into two separate zones of occupation. No agreement ever ensued as to where the capital of a unified Korea should be. When the North attacked the South in 1950 in a forced attempt at reunification, the Americans came in one side and the Chinese on the other.

Military stalemate followed three years of a war that included the deaths of a million Chinese soldiers, more than 400,000 North Korean soldiers and 600,000 civilians, and almost 100,000 Americans. Our air force bombed and napalmed the North until there was no intact target left, a shattering level of devastation not forgotten by North Koreans to this day. The aim of the North ever since has been to avoid a repeat of such helplessness, and the major means of avoidance became the acquisition of a credible nuclear deterrent—ironically ensuring that war in Korea today would be far worse than in 1950.

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

The philosophy of nuclear deterrence pursued by both sides is all about credible threats, which drown common sense in an ocean of anxiety. The philosophers call this a performative contradiction: the weapons are there to prevent their use by anybody, but the threat of their being used must be seen by all as real, which means they must be instantly at the ready, which cuts the margin for error in crisis, which can lead to mistakes etc. etc. When will the experts see how there is no good way out of this death spiral waiting to happen?

Additionally, credibility requires not only that threats be credible to one adversary, but intended as a warning to all. This was the catastrophe of Vietnam in a nutshell, where the U.S. could not afford to be perceived by the Soviets as weak, so it fought, and lost, a futile proxy war.

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

In the long term it is a virtuous circle of nuclear disarmament that will most effectively undercut North Korean motives for its own destabilizing nuclear gestures. Kim Jung Un’s regime will not last forever in its present form. If the U.S. could contain the Soviet Union through a half-century of Cold War, we can cooperate with the world community to contain a small, impoverished nation and await its inevitable transformation.

Meanwhile, we need to talk with them! The first “common” sense North Korea and the United States presumably share is a desire to survive. To strengthen the shared common sense that possession of nuclear weapons is a probable cause of the eventual use of nuclear weapons requires slowly nurtured relationships and a ratcheting down of the rhetoric of threat.

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Board of the War Prevention Initiative.

 

Fears That Push 9/6/17

Credibility Equals Annihilation – by Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

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

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

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

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

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

The paradigm shift that is required to prevent the looming end of the world is just as large and difficult as the 16th Century realization that the sun and not the earth is the center of our solar system. But the majority of the world’s nations have already made the shift from regarding nuclear weapons as the best guarantor of security to seeing them as the biggest potential agent of their destruction—we saw this when 122 nations signed a U.N. treaty calling for the outlawing of all nuclear weapons. The United States boycotted the conference leading to this treaty even while it has a crucial interest (and for that matter an ongoing obligation as a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) in leading the charge away from security by nuclear credibility.

Our leaders must take the risk, a risk that will require enormous moral courage, of saying we cannot afford to continue in our present drift. Instead, we need to respond to the posturing of North Korea not only with sanctions, but also with measured gestures of good will that could include such initiatives as committing firmly and explicitly to no first use, unilaterally reducing the number of warheads in one leg of the nuclear triad (land-based missiles is what former Secretary of Defense Perry recommends as ripe for reduction or even elimination with no loss of security), elimination of provocative war game exercises around North Korea, and, best of all, calling an ongoing international conference on abolition and supporting, rather than boycotting, that recent historic agreement to prohibit and abolish nukes signed by the majority of the 193 nations in the UN.

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.

 

Need Every Brain Cell 8/16/17

Weed     –  by Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

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

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

But as a high school teacher in the U.S. for 30 years, I witnessed an almost total correlation in my students between chronic marijuana use and a falling off of the ability to come to class prepared to engage, ask questions, and grow intellectually. For the teens I worked with, marijuana was an insidious and consistent killer of ambition. After I retired, clinical studies emerged that seemed to confirm my subjective observations—heavy marijuana use has the potential to permanently damage the young adolescent brain.

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

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

When I began a family, the issue became infinitely more personal. My son Chase learned to play a mean electric guitar at a precociously young age. I have to assume marijuana was a constant in his life not long after he bought his first instrument and spent more and more hours with his bandmates in various neighborhood garages. He was arrested once for possession, though it did nothing to make him more prudent. His academic record remained dismal all the way through high school and he graduated by the skin of his teeth. In his early twenties, he pulled himself together and began to study sound engineering at the Berklee College of Music, even making the dean’s list. The shadow temptation of drugs still loomed over him though, and he departed this life at the age of 23 from an overdose of methadone, imbibed at the house of an addict acquaintance. His mother, my wife of 30 years, died more or less of grief a year later.

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.

 

Let’s Change Course 8/2/17

There Is Still Time, Brother – by Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.

 

Decent Respect 6/28/17

“A Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind” – by Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiativ

Accept the Reality 6/7/17

Evil and the Paris Accords  – by Winslow Myer

Winslow Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.

Nuclear Club Strut 4/12/17

Our Nuclear Folly  by Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He also serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.

Remember Who We Are 2/15/17

Winslow Myers

Remembering Who We Are – by Winslow Myers

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

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

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

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

It is an astounding story of emergence, creativity and survival on every level, from the formation of galaxies, to cells learning how to replicate themselves using DNA, to the development of mammalian care for offspring over millions of years. And, though it is 13.75 billion years old, for us it’s a new story, about which we have learned more in the last 50 years than in eons of gazing up at the mystery of the stars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He also serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.

Beacon of Possibility 1/25/17

Whiteness and the “Other” – by Winslow Myers

“… if you want to be part of the solution, the road ahead is clear: Recognize you’re the enemy they need; show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; by all means be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.”                  —Andrés Miguel Rondón

Winslow Myers

America cannot become great without embracing and working through the tragedy of slavery—all that has unfolded from the way that almost unimaginable suffering and injustice is entwined with our origin story and continues to the present day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is materialist because media figures make piles of money by using polarizing frames and because politicians use these frames to rise to power. It is racist because it makes the non-white Other into a faceless mass of complaining, angry, helpless, lawbreaking victims—or, in the case of Obama, into an uppity executive who overstepped his bounds and had to be checked by an obdurate legislative “No!” It is militaristic because it responds to the threat of the Other with overwhelming force (check out the kinds of equipment our police have come to possess since 9-11-01).

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.

Light of the World 1/18/17

Winslow Myers

The Light of the World – by Winslow Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He also serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.

No Final Arrival 11/16/16

Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

The High Calling of Teaching – by Winslow Myers

Post-election shock has invited many of us to look within. What might have been our own role in this extraordinary outcome? I hope having been a teacher for 40 years gives me sufficient credibility to address my own profession. Many teachers are underpaid and asked to do too much, but that’s not where my concerns lie at this anxious moment.

Whatever else it means, this election surely denotes a landmark failure to help our citizenry learn to think independently—the difficult job of our benighted teachers. Voting did not break along class lines that would indicate that those with fewer educational opportunities were more susceptible to demagoguery and lies. Forty-two percent of all women—all women!—voted for a serial sexual assaulter, an over-promiser in an empty suit, upon whom we now must project our best wishes, for his successes and failures will be ours, up to and including the prevention of nuclear war.

I was privileged to graduate from a top-ranked private high school and university. These two “elitist” institutions had one thing in common: they put together the best teachers with small groups of students in a circle, encouraging the dialogue to become, at its best, student-led.

Educational research demonstrates the counterintuitive fact that we learn to think autonomously, expand our worldviews, and temper our judgments by speaking. And thus the counterpart to speaking, listening, also becomes a sacred act in the classroom. So much teaching is debased simply by teachers slipping into a lifetime of being in love with their own voice, with student cynicism the awful consequence—cynicism that leads ultimately to making debased choices in the voting booth.

I had a colleague who could not have cared more deeply for his charges—except that he pretty much undermined his own authenticity by asking a question, waiting two beats, three beats—but not long enough for the students to believe he really wanted to know their thoughts. After silence hung in the air for a few seconds, he would inevitably answer his own question. It was just easier. Soon enough students were content to remain silent if that was what he wanted, and his classes, year after year, became permanently univocal.

Early in my career I myself believed I was a mediocre teacher, precisely because I had had such remarkable models at the institutions from which I had graduated. But that forced me back upon myself. What did it mean to teach well, and what was worth knowing? What gradually helped me improve were two things: first, appreciating at the heart level the fundamental interaction through which a teacher awakens the mind of a student, deepening the teacher’s readiness for further, ever-richer relationships with students and with the infinite body of collective wisdom and hard-won truth. This led me to set up my physical teaching space in the same kind of circle, as opposed to a lectern and desks in rows, I had experienced in my own education. Second was my encounter with what is now being called “deep history,” the scientific story of the 13.8 billion year development of the universe—the story we all share.

From the natural coherence of that story I began to sense that however much the departmentalization of knowledge had given the world by way of dissection into chewable bits, there was a crying need for students to see the vast spectrum of knowledge in a larger context of a single great unfolding, a new way to apprehend all knowledge, the whole of history, scientific endeavor, the arts. From that perspective the widest artificial gap of all had become the divide between the scientific and the humanistic, what Stephen Jay Gould mistakenly called “non-overlapping magisteria.”

In the classroom or in the great world beyond it, is the search for truth exemplified by the scientific method so different from Socratic dialogue as practiced in the humanities? Are such questions as “how does the chemical process of photosynthesis work?” and “what is Robert Frost trying to say in his poems about spring?” entirely “non-overlapping ”? Pregnant, endlessly searchable mystery hangs equally over these “separate” realms of knowledge.

Teachers provide the initial role-models, after parents, for what it feels like to be a sensitive, independent, fair, thinking and feeling citizen engaged in a sincere search for truth. Teachers can lead students into skepticism about bunkum, but only by authentic, not instrumental, encounters between themselves and their constituents. The needed skills are endlessly perfectible and challenging; there is no final arrival.

Take for example the essential skill of leading a discussion about any aspect of our current national political scene—our original sin of slavery, the uses and misuses of great power, if or how America is an exceptional nation, bias in the news. To bring it off without betraying one’s private preferences while encouraging the civil engagement of diverse points of view can never be easy. But not to have the discussion at all out of fear of what might go awry is a tragic reinforcement of the ignorance that oozed out not just on Election Day but overflows from our whole gridlocked, venal and science-averse political culture.

How different might our recent history have been if Henry Kissinger had had a history professor who taught him to see the truth of the thousand-year enmity between Vietnam and China, dispelling the simplistic nature of the “domino theory” in favor of the Jefferson-admiring nationalism of Ho Chi Minh? If the ethical context of Nixon’s Quaker background had sunk in more deeply? If George Bush or Dick Cheney had taken in something in college about the Middle East and the fraught record of the colonial powers in that region since World War 1? If the Fox News folks had been educated to the ever-unreachable but always worthy ideal of objectivity over ratings-based partisanship? And yes, if someone at Wellesley had touched Hillary Clinton’s heart deeply enough to give her from the outset an instinctive sense of what ethical short-cuts to avoid?

The sacred encounter of teacher and student, where teachers hope they can set students on their way toward both self- and teacher-surpassing , replicates the interdependence of all growing, evolving, blossoming life, and even points toward the ideal of ideals, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community.” That the United States produced a teacher, for he was that as much as preacher, on King’s level is one exceptionalism we can claim with pride. King taught us well by making connections across race in the basis of constitutional rights, and, not long before he was martyred, by dispelling the illusion that grinding poverty at home and racist wars abroad were “non-overlapping magisteria.” Teaching at its best is true servant leadership. Servant leadership on behalf of an inclusive beloved community is what we admired in King—servant leadership into which we can only hope our new president will grow.

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He also serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.

Evolve to Survive 11/9/16

Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

To Survive, Evolve – by Winslow Myers

The concept of evolution should not be limited to the scientific assertions around Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but ought to include the more general idea that people and processes constantly evolve in response to the forces that surround them. We evolve from childhood into adulthood, and, ideally, from self-centeredness toward the good of larger entities like our community or nation (and now, faced with climate change, the good of our planet). Political arrangements have evolved from the divine right of kings into still–evolving democratic systems.

A Supreme Court justice’s orientation toward evolution in this basic sense determines whether he or she is a strict originalist (a nicer word for fundamentalist), or sees the Constitution as a living document that must be responsive to changing conditions. No founding father composing the second amendment could have foreseen the surfeit of guns decimating our country today.

Such evolutionary processes are alive, dynamic, an unstoppable juggernaut pervading every aspect of reality. Against them, even the determination not to evolve has evolutionary effects, as we have seen in the bizarre presidential process of the past year. A Neanderthal candidate has helped awaken a generation of young women, and ideally young men also, to evolve beyond being victims of crude chauvinist stereotypes.

The whole cosmos has been evolving for 13.8 billion years, from energy to matter to, here on earth, life and self-conscious life. Evolution is the context of our reality, the story all humans share. This story is beginning to seep into collective consciousness in a way that may yet render obsolete divisions such as those between Shia and Sunni, let alone between “radical Islamic fundamentalism” and the “post-Enlightenment West.” We all evolved from the same mysterious source. Every differentiation in that largest context, by race, tribe, religion, ethnicity, feels arbitrary and abstract.

It is not surprising that fundamentalism in whatever form has often found the evolutionary paradigm threatening, because it implies a challenging dynamic of change that feels insecure. For many believers, to generalize unfairly, religion provides behavioral rules that can be a source of security and comfort even as they are used as excuses to remain exclusive and resist evolving.

Within each world religion, there are minority enclaves (the Sufis in Islam, Zen practitioners of Buddhism, Catholic mystics like Teilhard de Chardin) who understand that their spiritual discipline is an opportunity to evolve toward inclusivity, toward looking within at fears and projections rather than looking outward for enemies, and toward expanding our identifications and responsibilities beyond the national to the planetary.

Far from being a benign, feel-good process, evolution is often painful, one step forward, two back. Take the tortured but necessary demise of the American coal industry. No one wants to see the debilitating effects of unemployment on real people with real families, but so far the technology of coal burning hasn’t evolved a way not to accelerate global warming.

We humans are supposedly not built to respond effectively to long-term threats like changes in climate, but, late in the game as it is, we do seem to be collectively learning what is at stake and evolving locally and globally. Entrepreneurs are rapidly bringing to market solar, wind, and other cleaner and more sustainable energy sources.

Unfortunately, negative and harmful processes can also become subject to an evolutionary juggernaut. Since 1945 weapons systems have evolved (more accurately, we have evolved them) to a level of complexity and destructive power that we are already powerless to control. The Pentagon is reported to be spending its usual vast sums on research into computer-controlled robotic drones capable of making their own autonomous decisions about who is an enemy. The defense establishments of other great nations are presumably up to the same mischief, or soon will be, because the arms race never stops evolving. Or won’t until we embrace a new way of thinking: that we must evolve to survive.

We, we the nations, are hopelessly complacent in our present reliance upon deterrence as a workable security system. As the fellow falling from the hundredth floor said as he passed the sixtieth: so far so good. The system, an emperor with no clothes solemnly worshipped by legions of self-confident experts, is too complex not to be subject to breakdown at any moment, perhaps by accident, perhaps where NATO and Russia push up against each other in Eastern Europe, perhaps in Kashmir.

The threat of nuclear extinction provides a new context for the obsolete parochialism of the world’s major religions. If this threat isn’t enough to accelerate the ecumenical impulse, what is? As people of diverse spiritual worldviews acknowledge that they have in common the possibility of annihilation, our shared anxiety can energize evolution toward inclusivity and nonviolent solutions to conflict. The world is in a race between fundamentalists and arms manufacturers on the one hand, and evolutionaries who see clearly both the futile dead-end of the arms race and the possibility of a security built upon the truth of interdependence, which appears in similar form in all the religions as the Golden Rule. We will live together or die together. As we treat others, so we will be treated. Whether they each understand this or not, this is the hidden-in-plain-sight background behind the Trump-Clinton mud-wrestle.

Will the arms manufacturers and the politicians in league with them evolve in the face of the nuclear threat in a way similar to our positive responses to the challenge of climate instability? I live in Maine, where the state’s largest private employer is the Bath Iron Works. They are building three of a new kind of guided missile destroyer that is contoured to hide from radar. Each one costs 4 billion dollars. Recently I had a conversation with an Iron Works employee. I made the assumption that, given his job, he would be hawkishly supportive of a robust military. Not at all. His exact parting words were “I’d be much happier building solar panels.”

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.

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