Blog

I Am Become Death (part 2)

If the damage that nuclear stockpiles, never fired, have done to domestic rule of law in the United States of America concerns you, rest assured that at the international level it's only more manifold. After all, many people around the world have noticed that the American president, and certain other Leaders of Nations, reserve for themselves the right to murder other people by the hundreds of millions and maybe put an end to complex life on planet Earth. And, by the way, they may decide to do this at any time and would probably only deliberate a couple of minutes before giving the order.

It is insanity of the highest degree, of course, the grimmest kind of absurdity. Yet somehow half a century's leaders, the serious men in authority, have wanted us to believe that they believed and everybody had to believe in all this Dr. Strangelove stuff, "deterrence" and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and 24/7 hair-trigger alert, and of course we all remember Richard Nixon's "madman theory"—yes, the idea that it was sane to make people think the president just might be insane enough to start a nuclear war. (It helped that the very Strangelovish and oh-so-serious Dr. Kissinger was always at his side.)

But sometime while they were all "thinking about the unthinkable," somebody had the good sense to ask, shouldn't there be a law about all this? Isn't there such a thing as international law, and if so, couldn't it just give one big hello? Say sorry, folks, you can't do this, this is all beyond the pale, weapons of war aren't supposed to wipe out entire populations or cause irreparable harm to the planet's environment? Well, in fact, while a whole body of international law had rather quietly been developed during the 20th century, including laws intended to govern what states could and couldn't legally do during armed conflict, apparently nobody had ever put nuclear weapons into the equation.

This was the impetus for the World Court Project, a diplomatic campaign to place the question before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The project succeeded, in one of the disarmament movement's few great successes of recent times. In 1994 the U.N. General Assembly requested an advisory opinion from the World Court on the question, "Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons permitted in any circumstance under international law?" The following fall inside the Peace Palace in The Hague, twenty-two nations presented oral arguments to the court in an operatic series of hearings. The majority of states urged the court to answer the question before it with a resounding no, but the nuclear-armed states and their allies argued that the question was out of bounds and the court should dismiss the case. If it must offer an opinion, France and the U.K. said, it must be mindful of the central role that nuclear deterrence policy has played in keeping the peace.

The court's pronouncement of July 8, 1996 offers a sharp insight into the gap between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be. The ICJ's fourteen justices searched international law but could find neither an authorization nor an express prohibition to use or threaten to use a nuke. They agreed unanimously that the requirements of international law, especially humanitarian law, must apply in this case. But on the basic question—is it permitted?—they split down the middle, seven to seven. Court president Mohammed Bedjaoui of Algeria used a casting vote to affirm, jointly, two virtually contradictory and highly obfuscatory propositions. On the one hand, threat or use "would generally be contrary" to international law—but no full stop. "However," added the court with a sigh, "in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake."

It's the big lacuna—or in Latin legalese, a "non-liquet." The nuclear weapon stood accused in the world's highest court, but not only did the defendant hang the jury and all the judges, it delivered mass destruction on the law. That's one bad dude.

Chief judge Bedjaoui allowed himself to say in a side statement:
The very nature of this blind weapon therefore has a destabilizing effect on humanitarian law which regulates discernment in the type of weapon used. Nuclear weapons, the ultimate evil, destabilize humanitarian law which is the law of the lesser evil. The existence of nuclear weapons is therefore a challenge to the very existence of humanitarian law....Atomic warfare and humanitarian law therefore appear to be mutually exclusive: the existence of the one automatically implies the non-existence of the other.
Bomb Power again. I am become Death, destroyer of laws.

The court made one final point, an important one. The only way to remedy this holocaust-sized gap in the law would be to "pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion" a negotiated abolition on the weapon, as biological and chemical weapons are banned by treaty. Such a ban is, in fact, already legally mandated, by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, in its Article VI. That's the good news, but getting there is the rub. A trio of prominent anti-nuclear lawyers recently wrote:
It is not hyperbole to say that the challenge to human civilization presented by nuclear weapons may be the consummate test of the human race's ability to survive. The very existence of nuclear weapons requires that human societies—both the most technologically efficient and affluent of societies and societies still struggling to establish their place in the world—overcome the historical and contemporary human burden of aggressiveness and tribalism.
Paul Goodman had arrived at the same conclusions by 1967. He even had the chance to state them, rather caustically, at a top-level symposium of the National Security Industrial Association in Washington, in a speech Goodman published under the title "A Causerie at the Military-Industrial":
The survival of the human species, at least in a civilized state, demands radical disarmament, and there are several feasible political means to achieve this if we willed it. By the same token, we must drastically de-energize the archaic system of nation-states....Instead, you—and your counterparts in Europe, Russia, and China—have rigidified and aggrandized the states with a Maginot-line kind of policy called Deterrence, which has continually escalated rather than stabilized...Past a certain point your operations have increased insecurity rather than diminished it. But this has been to your interest.

At the time, the way Goodman saw through the masters of war in the audience made them want to launch MIRVed tomatoes at him. Would any of them hear it today?

###

Roger K. Smith is a freelance writer and former disarmament movement organizer. The documentary film Paul Goodman Changed My Life is slated for a 2011 release. A panel entitled "Humanitarian Law Versus Nuclear Weapons" will take place at the United Nations on October 25. This essay appeared on the website Common Dreams on October 24.

I Am Become Death (part 1)

One of the most brilliant quips from the social critic Paul Goodman is that "technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science." Goodman was astute enough to recognize that technological "progress" was not a monolithic process but the consequence of many decisions made by individuals and institutions. Any specific technology will bring about changes, sometimes unexpected ones, for good or ill, often both. The challenge, which Goodman implored us to conceive as a moral one, is to make it likely, if not certain, that the technologies we choose to bring into the world, considering the full spectrum of their likely effects, will make the world a better place to live.

Of all the technological developments of the 20th century, perhaps the one that's been hardest for human beings to live with has been the atomic bomb. What moral values does its invention imply? It started amid the terror of total warfare, with Einstein's famous letter to Franklin Roosevelt, written weeks before the German invasion of Poland. The ethics implicit in this letter are clear—they are the ethics of the jungle, the ethics of warfare at its most brutal: do it to them before they do it to you; kill or be killed.

Inevitably, the government's utmost capacity was devoted to developing the bomb, and inevitably, once developed, it was used in warfare. There are many people who still accept the justification President Truman offered to a war-weary population—that the atomic bombings were necessary to secure the enemy's surrender. I don't mean to discuss why this argument was disingenuous; the late Howard Zinn did that admirably, among others. I would merely point out the moral philosophy upon which Truman was relying: the end justifies the means.

The existence of nuclear weapons has challenged and undermined human faith in ourselves, our works, and our future. Many writers, none more brilliant or persistent than Jonathan Schell, have dwelled upon how the dawn of the nuclear age transformed the human condition, making it impossible to assume an indefinite human future, making the survival of the species essentially up to us—that is, up to a small number of individuals with custody of this technology, above all the president of the United States.

In the book Bomb Power, published this year, the eminent historian Garry Wills gives us a dispassionate analysis of the way nuclear weapons have bent our republic out of shape. A few reviewers have quibbled with some of the scholarship in Wills' book and questioned the scope of his conclusions, but to me the basic case he makes is unassailable. Incorporating nuclear weapons into the U.S. military apparatus and making them the linchpin of American defense policy set the government on a path that cannot be reconciled with the intent of the founders or the instructions they provided in the Constitution. It wrecked their elaborate system of checks and balances by centering power in the executive branch and in the office of the president. Not only that, it gave the executive an invincible tool with which to accumulate ever more power, "bomb power," through secrecy, covert activity, the concealment of information not only from mere citizens but even from Congress, and the overarching climate of never-ending life-or-death emergency that made national security a trump card over all other functions of government.

All of these dynamics, Wills argues, were in place right from the beginning of the Manhattan Project. They only gained in importance as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings provided a seamless segue between World War II and the Cold War. The vague whiff of an opportunity to address some of these abnormalities may have become detectable with the end of the Cold War, but before we knew it, the window slammed shut on 9/11. To Wills, the tyrannical excesses of the Bush/Cheney "war on terror"—torture, rendition, warrantless surveillance, signing statements, trashing habeas corpus, the "unitary executive" theory—all followed logically from the arrogation of executive power during World War II and the immediate postwar years, all set into motion by the bomb, its equipment, the day-to-day doomsday routines of its deployment, and the apocalyptic fear in which it is all enshrouded.

There's a moral philosophy for you. "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Under President Obama, these abuses continue, despite the president's proclaimed commitment to the "ultimate" objective of a nuclear-weapon-free world. His administration openly acknowledged, for example, that it has pre-authorized the assassination of several American citizens, including Anwar al-Awlaki, in the name of the ongoing war with terrorists.

Paul Goodman's awareness of the depths of this "chronic acute emergency" led him to participate in the "Worldwide General Strike for Peace" in early 1962. "When the institutions of society threaten the very foundation of the social contract, namely, biological safety," he said, "then the social contract is very near to being dissolved." He advocated "the rational-animal response of saying, No. We won't go along with it. Stop it." Easier said than done.

Win a bike with "Paul Goodman Changed My Life"

JSL Films, in partnership with the World Carfree Network, the Alliance for Biking and Walking, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, and Dissent Magazine, presents the Paul Goodman Changed My Life bicycle contest.

Enter the Paul Goodman bike contest

To honor Goodman’s legacy of taking a critical eye to our urban structure, we’re asking you to write your local government – your mayor, or city council – with five ideas that could be implemented in your area to promote forms of transportation that reduce global warming. We’ll randomly draw one person from North America to win a new bicycle donated courtesy of Breezer Bikes, and one person from Europe to win a new bicycle donated courtesy of Biomega. Enter today – the contest expires on November 30, 2010.

UPDATE: You can now enter the contest via Twitter. Tweet your single best idea for reducing global warming with the hashtag #pgbikecontest and you'll have a chance to win a new bicycle.

Facebook... A Continuing Disaster?

Guest Post by Michael Fisher

In 1963, Paul Goodman wrote a short column for The New Republic called “Television: The Continuing Disaster.”  While praising the new medium for its potential, Goodman spoke plainly about TV’s shortcomings in postwar America.  “By a miserable fatality,” he wrote, “TV has had the misfortune to develop among a confused and passive populace, starved for stimulation but out of touch with its needs and tastes.”

Corporate control of TV’s content was part of the problem.  Yet the root issue was the “peculiar kind of existence” it fostered.  TV was not set up to put people “into touch with the real,” Goodman argued.  Instead it was set up to addict people to a new form of ritual fantasy which television broadcasters advertised as reality.

Fifty years later, we face a similar situation in the Digital Age.  By the direst estimate, social networking sites like Facebook have introduced a new formal apparatus that threatens to change everything about the way we communicate.  Earlier, more organic forms of human interaction now take a backseat to electronic “messaging”.  And our own willingness to compartmentalize our lives into online and offline existence makes us oblivious to the radical set of changes this implies.

What no one seems to realize is that outfits like Facebook have a vested interest in keeping their subtle revisions as invisible as possible.  Like their predecessors during the fifties and sixties, the newest broadcasters urge us to accept their version of reality with no complaints.  And they have been largely successful.  Seduced by the ubiquitous icons their programmers have generated for us, people around the world have grown comfortable with new definitions of friendship and individual expression; so comfortable in fact that we don't even miss the many messy features of face-to-face communication we thought were non-negotiable in the past.

“This is too beautiful a medium to be thrown away like this,” Goodman wrote at the dawn of the TV Age.  Today, this message is even more urgent.  The new communication mediums of the early twenty-first century have enormous potential for good or ill, and it will be we who determine their future.  Against a shallow Luddism, the question is not whether we should accept or reject them outright.  As Goodman recognized nearly five decades ago, the first question we must ask in light of any new tool is what constitutes right use?

Michael Fisher, a graduate student in History at the University of Rochester, wrote the introduction to Paul Goodman's "New Reformation : Notes of a Neolithic Conservative, PM Press, 2010.

getting better

It's very sad that in the past few weeks, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, and several other gay teenagers have ended their lives so prematurely. However, the serious attention and media discussion their suicides have prompted are something of a silver lining. The writer and advice-to-the-sexlorn columnist Dan Savage has started the heartwarming "It Gets Better" video project. If you haven't seen it yet, watch the video post Savage made with his husband, Terry Miller, just talking to the camera about how hard it was during high school and how very worthwhile it was to stick around. "The worst time of your life, really, for many gay kids is high school," says Savage, "and if at that time of your life you choose to end your life, the bullies have really won then, and you have deprived yourself of so much potential happiness."

It occurs to me that two related points Paul Goodman was known to make are relevant here. One is his claim that high schools are worthless institutions that should be abandoned or at least radically reformed—for many reasons, one prominent one being how much they magnify the intensity and potential danger of peer influence and peer pressure among teens. The related point—and this is one of the most controversial of all Goodman's ideas—is that teenage boys, especially the queer and questioning ones, really do need to have relationships with adults. Not meaning sexual relationships, but just to have some grownups in their lives they can talk to who aren't their parents. Someone who will understand their troubles, who will not judge them, and who might be able to make a persuasive case that it does indeed get better. YouTube clips, however well-intentioned, seem less likely to provide the kind of support that can save a troubled teen's life.

So for those of us who have survived into adulthood, you might want to consider volunteering back at your HS alma mater, to be a mentor or give a talk to today's teens about your experiences. Or you can connect with an organization like GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), which sponsors an annual Ally Week—that's October 18-22 this year. Tell 'em Paul Goodman sent you.

Improve your home—and win a bike!

The bicycle: what an exquisite piece of technology! Such a joyful means of locomotion. So aesthetically pleasing in its sleek narrowness. The essence of sustainability: it burns no carbon, but does burn calories, as it gets you from place to place. Human powered, human scale. A work of mechanical genius to invent, but requiring only modest knowhow to repair. The bike illustrates the principles of humanistic, non-ecocidal technology.

Unfortunately, in most American cities the bicycle fits awkwardly into a transportation system designed around the automobile. Cyclists have to traverse a sprawling, congested urban layout, jockeying for space with motorists not always eager to share the road.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has tried to stir up change on transportation issues and especially on curbing the automobile. He fought unsuccessfully to impose a "congestion pricing" scheme on cars driving through the Manhattan streets. He closed off Times Square and Herald Square to cars, creating the Big Apple's strangest beaches. These were some of the most provocative experiments in reforming Manhattan's urban environment since the anarchist writer Paul Goodman, and his brother Percival, a noted architect and urban planner, proposed the banning of private cars from Manhattan in 1961.

The Goodmans' idea, published in the magazine Dissent, was outlandish but founded on some thought-provoking arguments. Phasing out cars while improving subways, buses, and taxis could actually make getting around town easier for a majority of New Yorkers. It would certainly encourage a blossoming of bicycle use and make a sizable dent in pollution. Furthermore, a ban on private cars would eliminate the need for many low-traffic streets, which could be converted to bike paths, pedestrian malls, new housing, or other innovative community uses. The Goodmans envisioned the ban being enacted through a "prohibitive entry fee" on automobiles—the same idea Bloomberg calls congestion pricing.

So in this spirit, dear reader, you are hereby invited to dream big. What could your hometown do to make its streets a better home for bikers, drivers, and pedestrians alike? More bike lanes? Better public transportation? Changing your city's streets is up to you. Here is your challenge: Dream up five proposals for improving your city's streets, submit them to your local government, and enter the contest here, and you will be entered to win a brand-new Breezer Uptown 8 bicycle (in the US) or a Biomega CPH (in Europe). The giveaway contest is sponsored by the producers of the upcoming documentary film Paul Goodman Changed My Life. Spread the word, and the deed.

P.S.: Here's an article from Yes! magazine with some thoughtful suggestions taken from the bike-friendly Netherlands.

funschooling

My 8-year-old daughter has begun her fall session of classes. Her curriculum includes the following: Mask Improvisation and Theatre Production; Backyard Astronomy; Crochet Circle; Movement, Music and Math; Art in the Woods; a series of tours of local institutions (the water treatment plant, the bus depot, a chocolatier, etc.); an American history class taught through historical fiction (with girl heroines); another class called Strong Female Characters Book Club; and Dragon Book Club.

Needless to say, we are homeschoolers; unschoolers; funschoolers. It continues to amaze me that our family has been able to make the logistical and financial arrangements that make it possible for us to take responsibility for our daughter's education. We have the enormous advantage of living in a community with many like-minded homeschooling families, enough to establish the parent-run Northern Light Learning Center cooperative. The learning center gives our daughter access to a wide pool of talented teacher-parents and a great cohort of friends.

In a way, the choice was easy. When Magda was kindergarten age, we put her in a public school we felt good about. We liked the teachers and staff a lot; we liked that the school served a neighborhood of great ethnic and economic diversity; we knew our town had good schools. But they were implementing a program—a perfectly decent execution of the regular school program—that made us uncomfortable from her first days. One quick illustration: she asked us, "Why do they keep moving us around?" When I observed one morning, I knew what bothered her. So much of each period was spent getting the kids out of one room, into another, quieted down and on task that as soon as she started to focus on a task it was time to stop. Magda has a long attention span, and I feared she could lose it—and the accompanying habit of working deeply and joyfully on everything she does—if she stayed in the school environment.

Funschooling is decidedly not for every family; it requires genuine sacrifices, ample available time and energy, and strong community support. But I feel we are living out a version of Paul Goodman's vision of a viable alternative to what he called "compulsory mis-education." We supplement her learning center classes by working at home on math, language arts, foreign language, history, and lots of other stuff. All of this education is driven by her inner motivation to learn, not coerced by any institution (except by us, a little, on occasional sluggish mornings). We use the community as a core resource and our learning helps build the community. It seems to me this all embodies a Goodmanesque anarchic cast of mind.
For green grass and clean rivers, children with bright eyes and good color whatever the color, and people safe from being pushed around so they can be themselves—for a few things like these, I find I am pretty ready to think away all other political, economic, and technological advantages.

(from New Reformation, 1970)

cele-bi-rate

Yesterday was Celebrate Bisexuality Day, I learned a day late as I walked around town, and a happy belated one to you! Do not all people of all nameable and claimable identities deserve a day to celebrate themselves and be celebrated? And how hard have bisexuals had to struggle to achieve what limited societal tolerance is represented by the proclamation of such a day.

Going both ways, bis have gotten it both ways—gotten hell, that is, from monomaniacal monosexuals of both the het and homo varieties. The bad blood between gay liberation activists and out bis is arguably the saddest part of this history.

Example: New York and San Francisco held the nation's first gay pride parades in 1970, in the wake of the Stonewall riots, and as the swinging seventies went on, greater were the number, size, and volubility of these annual carnivals of identity affirmation. It took skilled activists to organize them every year, but only in 1986 did the first out bi serve as a key organizer of any city's parade—Autumn Courtney of San Francisco, co-chair of that city's Gay Lesbian Freedom Day Pride Parade Committee. Courtney, who in 1983 had helped establish the first Bay Area bi political group, BiPOL, faced intense and often impolite opposition from within the Castro's gay community all the way to the day of the event.

Does anyone doubt that this stubbornly slow recognition of the moral and social legitimacy of bisexuality would have come even more slowly but for the courage of a very few prominent public personalities from earlier generations who chose to live openly as bi? And among that very few, were any more prominent or open than Paul Goodman, whose poems alternate between explicit depictions of gay erotic encounters and relationships and tender disquisitions on the romantic love and family life he shared with his wife? Goodman, an admired figure to many young people in the sixties, was constitutionally incapable of hiding, denying, or temporizing any side of his complex personality—even when it cost him the recognition he so deeply craved for his writing career. By the way he lived his private life in public, he showed one way it could be done.

So folks, what do you fancy Goodman would have made of Celebrate Bisexuality Day?

Mother fracker

In the Finger Lakes region of New York state, where I live, hydro-fracking has hit the top of the list of contentious, momentous political issues. If you haven't heard the term, hydro-fracking might sound like some kinky water sports. It's actually shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, an extremely invasive method for extracting natural gas from very great depths. The gas companies are especially covetous of the "Marcellus Shale," an ancient geological formation in central New York and Pennsylvania. We, for our part, are justifiably jealous of our water sources.

Fracking proponents assert that we need the energy, need the jobs, need the money. And the industry has gone around handing money to property owners to lure them to sign leases permitting exploration and drilling. The upstate economy was already stagnant before the current depression began, so it's hard to argue with cash in your pocket. But a lot of people are having second thoughts as they see their neighbors' land torn up and their groundwater threatened with contamination.

Fracking on one single site involves the high-velocity injection of millions of gallons of water—which then becomes toxic wastewater and needs to be stored—and hundreds of tons of chemicals. What kind of chemicals? Well, we don't exactly know, because the whole process was exempted from federal regulations under Dubya, but it's a sure bet that carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and other nasties are part of the cocktail. (This month, Obama's EPA finally demanded that Halliburton and its competitors disclose the chemicals in their fracking fluids.)

"We can't drink natural gas" is a bumper-sticker slogan but it captures the heart of the conflict. Fracking, like Deepwater Horizon, embodies the stage we're at in terms of energy technology; the brilliant Michael Klare has called this "the age of tough oil." Fossil fuels are getting harder to find and extract, which means increasingly aggressive methods to get at them and more severe environmental consequences.

Back in the early 1970s, as the environmental movement got underway, Paul Goodman was one of those who warned about this kind of techno-hubris. Here's the nails-it quote from New Reformation:
The complement to prudent technology is the ecological approach in science. To simplify the technical system and modestly pinpoint our artificial intervention in the environment is to make it possible for the environment to survive in its complexity, evolved for a billion years, whereas the overwhelming instant intervention of tightly interlocked and bulldozing technology has already disrupted many of the delicate sequences and balances.
Indeed, the Marcellus Shale dates back to the Devonian era: that's 400 million years ago, folks. Don't frack with my pachamama!

[Two upstate groups in the fight are Shaleshock and Catskill Mountain Keeper; the documentary Gasland takes on the issue quite dramatically—including the now-famous shot of the Colorado family with the flammable tap water!]

Facing facts

Climate change, dude. I find it difficult to think about it in a sustained way because I get emotionally overwhelmed. Yet it's on my mind all the time in little fleeting ways. That's the kind of bedeviling crisis it is. On a beautiful late-summer day, beneath a crisp blue sky and a canopy of leaves—sure, it's a little warmer than you'd think for this time of year; sure, the hot weather came early this year, and all the fruit crops came in weeks early too—but right here, right now, to my senses, things don't look too bad. Life looks as beautiful and orderly as ever. And yet the evidence is pouring in and mounting like a blizzard. The Northwest Passage through the Arctic is ice free this summer: two intrepid expeditions are attempting to circumnavigate an ocean that's supposed to be impassable. Beluga whales, walruses, polar bears, penguins, plankton: all may be headed toward extinction, says a new report, at a speed that is, by evolutionary standards, breathtakingly fast. And then the feedback loops, the vicious cycles, the methane in the permafrost—oy! It really is about too much to take in.

By now we know a fair amount of the truth, and the inconvenience, of the fix we're in as a species. We even know, in a sketchy way, what we need to do about it. What we don't know is whether, and how, we're going to be able to do what it takes to survive.

What is it that can change people's minds enough to change how they live, and change organized systems enough to catalyze radical reforms? The philosopher Paul Goodman addressed this question in his last public speech, weeks before he died in 1972. His answer: "facts"—that is, visceral experience.
What I mean by fact is when a thousand people, maybe more, died of the smog one day in London. [This happened in December 1952, the deadliest fog Britain ever experienced.] They cut down the smog by enormous amounts, something like 90%, but only because a lot of people died.... I'm afraid that's how it is, and that isn't because people are stupid. I'm not saying people are stupid. It's just that if you want a big change which really changes your whole way of life and your sources of income and so forth, it has really got to hit you as a fact.
Well, the facts are rolling in, from Pakistan, from Russia, from New Orleans, from Haiti, from the Arctic—and coming soon to an ecosystem near you.

Fortunately, there is a movement of people and groups rolling up their sleeves and working on the problem. One manifestation of this movement is the global organization 350.org, which is sponsoring a "global work party" on October 10. Mark your calendar for 10/10/10 and "let's get to work"!