American fascism, in 1944 and today

Henry Scott Wallace
The New York Times, May 12, 2017

Seventy-three years ago, The New York Times asked the sitting vice president to write an article about whether there are fascists in America, and what they’re up to. It was an alarming question. And the vice president took it quite seriously.

His article, “The Danger of American Fascism,” described a breed of super-nationalist who pursues political power by deceiving Americans and playing to their fears, but is really interested only in protecting his own wealth and privilege.

That vice president was my grandfather, Henry A. Wallace. And in my view, he predicted President Trump.

To be clear, I don’t think the precise term “fascism” — as in Mussolini and Hitler — is fairly applied to Mr. Trump. Mussolini was a proponent of “corporatism,” defined by some as “a merger of state and corporate power.” And through that lens, using that term, my grandfather’s warning looks prescient.

My grandfather warned about hucksters spouting populist themes but manipulating people and institutions to achieve the opposite. They pretend to be on the side of ordinary working people — “paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare,” he wrote. But at the same time, they “distrust democracy because it stands for equal opportunity.”

They invariably put “money and power ahead of human beings,” he continued. “They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest.” They also “claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.”

They bloviate about putting America first, but it’s just a cover. “They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism.”

They need scapegoats and harbor “an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations.”

The 19th century saw the political rise of wealthy Prussian nobility, called Junkers, who were driven by “hatred for other races” and “allegiance to a military clique,” with a goal to place their “culture and race astride the world.”

My grandfather acknowledged the great difference between American fascists and other countries’ murderous authoritarians. The American breed doesn’t need violence. Lying to the people is so much easier.

They “poison the channels of public information,” he wrote. Their “problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public” into giving them more money or power.

In fact, they use lies strategically, to promote civic division, which then justifies authoritarian crackdowns. Through “deliberate perversion of truth and fact,” he said, “their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity.”

Thus might lying about unprecedented high crime rates legitimize a police state. Lying about immigrants being rapists and terrorists might justify a huge border wall, mass expulsions and religion-based immigration bans. Lying about millions of illegal votes might excuse suppression of voting by disfavored groups.

Here’s one of my favorites: Autocrats “give currency to snide suspicions without foundation in fact.” That sounds like birtherism. There are other examples. “Largest” inaugural crowd ever. “I won the popular vote” and “Obama had my ‘wires tapped.’ ” Climate change is “nonexistent” and “mythical.” “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax” and the F.B.I.’s investigation into it — now jeopardized by the firing of the F.B.I. director, James Comey — was a “taxpayer funded charade.”

And what is the ultimate goal? “Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

That sounds like Mussolini and his embrace of “corporatism” — the marriage of government and corporate power. And it also sounds like President Trump.

The antidote? For my grandfather, it lay in that phrase the “common man.” In 1942, he famously rebutted conservatives calling for an “American Century” after the war — America, the greatest country on earth, dominating the world.

Nonsense, my grandfather said in that speech: We Americans “are no more a master race than the Nazis.” He called for a “century of the common man” — ordinary people, standing up and fighting for their rights, with decent jobs, organized (into unions), demanding accountable government committed to the “general welfare” rather than the privilege of the few, and decent schools for their kids (teaching “truths of the real world”). Democracy, he said in his 1944 essay, must “put human beings first and dollars second.”

If there’s any comfort in his essay 73 years ago, it is that this struggle is not new. It wasn’t even new then. The main question today is how our democracy and our brash new generation of citizen activists deals with it.

Henry Scott Wallace is a lawyer and a co-chairman of the Wallace Global Fund, a foundation founded by his grandfather. His op-ed was reprinted in PeaceMeal, July/August 2017

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Build bridges with people who have differing views

Helga Jansons

We usually enjoy people who are more like ourselves. We connect with them easier and relate to their experiences. Conversations flow more freely when we share similar values.

So how do we “love our neighbor” or “love our enemies” and people who oppose our fundamental principles?

We are divided as a nation, but there are not just two sides: We are not simply Republican or Democrat. We are much more complex than that.

People of the same race voted differently, those who are economically poor did not all vote one way, and all Christians did not vote for one candidate. We differ in our political views even within the same family. We hold different perspectives about who belongs where, who should pay for what, who is causing what, who is responsible for fixing things, and which are the best solutions.

If we want to stay in a good relationship with people while having deeper conversations with them, it is challenging if they hold different views on things that matter to us.

How do we work together, knowing that beneath the surface we might fundamentally disagree about life’s most persistent questions? Do we just “act nice” and “be polite,” and what does that mean? Does it mean to avoid certain topics to prevent conflict; just listen, and don’t argue?

I don’t think keeping silent on issues is the best way to respect one another. Then we would keep things on a superficial level and never take action on serious social and political matters.

To a certain extent, everyone already crosses boundaries to get along and coexist in society.

We have laws to help guide us in how to treat people. One person is as important as another when it comes to justice and legal rights. We don't give way in traffic only to people we like. If a person is killed, it makes no difference if the person is 90 or 18.

No matter how we feel about people who are of different faiths, cultures, skin color or language, there are acceptable norms of behavior that most people try to follow.

These days I tread lightly when talking about sensitive topics with the people I care about and who matter to me. As I see it, I need to state my truth, but there is no point in trying to convince others to change their minds. I can try to understand where they are coming from, their values. I can ask thoughtful and real questions. What do I really want to know so that their views make more sense to me. I can be compassionate and seek those points of connection whenever we agree.

I know we will still disagree, but we have respected and learned from each other. We can stay in the tension and know that the relationship matters the most.

I think this is love in action.

Pastor Helga Jansons is director for Evangelical Mission, Eastern Washington - Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and lives in Kennewick. Her article is edited from the Tri-City Herald, March 5, 2017, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2017.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Once a great notion

Kathleen_Parker.GIF (9871 bytes)Kathleen Parker
The Washington Post, May 31, 2016

It was such a marvelous idea: the United States of America.

Obviously, we’ve never really pulled it all together under one hat, but it has always seemed that at least we were striving for a more perfect union.

No more. Something changed — and quickly, as history goes. Actually, everything did.

Massive immigration has changed the face of the nation in more than metaphorical ways. Globalization has made us seem or at least feel less unique among nations. Our hyperpartisanship, augmented by incessant media coverage tied to ratings and greed, has reduced politics to a parking-lot brawl.

Republican presidential contender Donald Trump said in December that he was in favor of a “total and complete” shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. (C-SPAN)

Demographic slicing and dicing is essential to elections, of course. Analysts and operatives are especially attached to the segmented sets of individuals, the better to objectify them into manageable parts and, thus, to predict or win elections.

This much is understood and has been so constantly discussed and written about that we’re nearly out of oxygen and ink.

Less well understood is how these ceaseless reductions affect the whole. How do we sustain our unitedness when our dividedness is relentlessly articulated and shrewdly used to turn one against the other? Uniting 50 states is hard enough without the many variables that combine to make up an individual, a group, a class, a community and, ultimately, a voting bloc.

One nation, indivisible, my eye.

Every now and then, the Ad Council, Benetton or some other group will remind us that we’re all one people. “I am an American,” says a gentleman sporting a sombrero. “I am an American,” says a woman wearing a nun’s habit. Or a rainbow row of children wearing adorable togs will make us want to adopt the world.

They make us smile. We feel good. America rolls along. Or do we? Such ads are propaganda by any other name, idealized versions of what we’re supposed to be. But there’s nothing multicultural about what Donald Trump is selling. And though he may have pots of gold, rainbows run away when The Donald’s dark scowl appears.

In fact, Trump and his minions don’t want a united nation. What they want is their country back, or, in the slicker slogan, to “make America great again.” Translation: They want their majority-white, Anglo-Saxon, Judeo-Christian country back.

This is never going to happen, and yet Trump never admits it. He isn’t going to round up 11 million people and send them back whence they came. He isn’t going to block Muslims from entering the United States. But it seems to please his base for him to say so, and it doesn’t seem to bother Trump that he’s fibbing. What anyone seeking to become president at these dicey times must answer is: How do we adapt to our changed world to become a united nation once again? With so much stridency and drama, it’s hard sometimes to remember what this election is about. Exhausted by the car alarm of politics, one wishes only for peace and quiet.

Then along comes a moment that feels real and good and true — Memorial Day in Oxford, a tiny town at the end of the road on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where about 125 friends, neighbors and strangers gathered in a tight circle around a small stone monument in the town park. Umbrellas aloft, all listened intently as a retired Navy captain, an Episcopal priest, and the town’s police chief took turns reading the names of those who have fallen since last Memorial Day.

As the bugler played taps, veterans in our small group saluted while others covered their hearts. It was a tender moment of reverence — all too rare and nothing like the cacophony of the public square.

As the priest said a final prayer and the color guard passed, I felt profoundly sad, not just for those who died and their families, but for the nation known as the United States of America.

I’m not alone. People write. Friends call to talk about what’s to come. Sitting on my stoop in Washington DC, a neighborhood gathering spot on any given afternoon, my fellow “stoopers” speak more seriously than they used to. Life is less fun as the future seems more ominous.

Democracy, freedom, civilization — it all hangs by a thread. America was always just an idea, a dream founded in the faith that men were capable of great good. It was a belief made real by an implausible convention of brilliant minds and the enduring courage of generations who fought and died. For what?

Surely, not this.

Kathleen Parker received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2010. Her op-ed was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2016.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

A parable for our times

Bill_Moyers.png (27284 bytes)Bill Moyers

The story is told of the devil and a companion walking along the streets. The companion saw a man reach down and pick up the truth from the sidewalk. “You’re finished,” the companion said to the devil. “I just saw that man pick up the truth from the street, and that means you are finished.” The devil smiled and answered, “Don’t worry. He’s a human, and in 15 minutes he will have turned the truth into a concept and no one will know what it is.”

From theories stubbornly followed in defiance of truth on the street comes ruin. Laissez-faire was never a good idea; in practice it is ruinous.

Walt Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas, around 1870: “The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort—a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth. As the human frame, or, indeed, any object in this manifold universe, is best kept together by the simple miracle of its own cohesion, and the necessity, exercise and profit thereof, so a great and varied nationality, occupying millions of square miles, were firmest held and knit by the principle of the safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling property owners.”

How prophetic to see anything like that in the aftermath of the Civil War, in which Whitman had volunteered as a nurse. But in a time of great upheaval, countered by popular mobilization after mobilization, the great poet’s words took hold in the people's imagination. Whitman’s liberalism had neither the cultural elitism of those identified with the term on the left, nor the laissez-faire extremism of the free-market “liberals” on the right. Liberalism meant “the safety and endurance of the aggregate of middling property owners.” Its consummation was the New Deal social compact we inherited from five presidents and from substantial voting majorities for a generation after the Great Depression, and the result was the prospect of a fair and just society — a cohesion — that truly made us a democratic people.

Equality is not an objective that can be achieved, but it is a goal worth fighting for. A more equal society would bring us closer to the “self-evident truth” of our common humanity. I remember the early 1960s, when for a season one could imagine progress among the races, a nation finally accepting immigrants for their value not only to the economy but to our collective identity, a people sniffing the prospect of progress. One could look at the person who is different in some particular way — skin color, language, religion — without feeling fear. America, so long the exploiter of the black, red, brown and yellow, was feeling its oats; we were on our way to becoming the land of opportunity, at last. Now inequality — especially between wealth and worker — has opened like an unbridgeable chasm.

Ronald Reagan once described a particular man he knew, who was a good steward of resources in the biblical sense. “This is a man,” Reagan said, “who in his own business, before he entered politics, instituted a profit-sharing plan, before unions had ever thought of it. He put in health and medical insurance for all his employees. He took 50 percent of the profits before taxes and set up a retirement program, a pension plan for all his employees. He sent checks for life to an employee who was ill and couldn’t work. He provided nursing care for the children of mothers who worked in the stores.”

That man was Barry Goldwater, a businessman before he entered politics. It’s incredible how far we have deviated from even the most conservative understanding of social responsibility. For a generation now Goldwater’s children have done everything they could to destroy the social compact between workers and employers, and to discredit, defame and even destroy anyone who said their course was wrong. Principled conservatism was turned into an ideological caricature whose cardinal tenet was of taxation as a form of theft, or, as the libertarian icon Robert Nozick called it, “force labor.” What has happened to us that such anti-democratic ideas could become a governing theory?

Of course it’s hard to grasp what really motivated this movement. Many of the new conservative elites profess devotion to the needs of ordinary people, in contrast with some of their counterparts a hundred years ago who were often Social Darwinists, and couldn’t have been more convinced that a vast chasm between the rich and poor is the natural state of things. But after 30 years of conservative revival and a dramatic return of the discredited “voodoo economics” of the 1980s under George W. Bush, it’s reasonable to follow the old biblical proverb that says “by their fruits you shall know them.” By that realistic standard, I think the Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow’s analysis sums it up well: What it’s all about, he simply said, is “the redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful.”

I grew up in East Texas, in a county that once had more slaves than any other in Texas. It is impossible to forget that as the slave power grew in the South and King Cotton catapulted the new nation into the global marketplace, the whole politics of the country was infected with a rule of property that did not — indeed could not — distinguish the ownership of things from the ownership of human beings. Drawing from the Hebrew prophets and the Book of Revelation, the abolitionists simply said this: the rule of law has become moral anarchy. God’s light clarified that the rule of law had become moral anarchy.

Something was wrong in the very foundation of things, and so the foundation had to be rebuilt on sounder principles. But no mere parchment of words divulged the principles that ultimately preserved the union. They were written in blood — thousands upon thousands upon thousands of dead Americans. And so, by untold sacrifice the rule of law was righted to exclude human property. Then, of course, the slave power simply rejected the rule of law and established rule by terror. The feudal south became the fascist south.

What is finally at the root of these reactionary forces that have so disturbed the social fabric and threatened to undo the republic? If a $4-billion-dollar investment in chattel labor was worth the price of civil war and 600,000 dead in 1860, is it really any wonder that the richest Americans would not suffer for too long a political consensus that pushed their share of national income down by a third, and held it there — about at the level of their counterparts in “socialist” Europe — for a generation? Make no mistake about it, from the days of the American Liberty League in 1936 (the group Franklin Roosevelt had in mind with his crowd-pleasing battle cry, “I welcome their hatred!”) they never gave up on returning to their former glory. They just failed to do it. Ordinary people had powerful institutions and laws on their side that thwarted them — unions, churches, and, yes, government programs that were ratified by large majorities decade after decade.

The scale of the disorder in our national priorities right now is truly staggering; it approaches moral anarchy. Alexander Hamilton, the conservative genius of the financial class, warned this could happen. Speaking to the New York State legislature in 1788, he said: “As riches increase and accumulate in few hands; as luxury prevails in society; virtue will be in a greater degree considered as only a graceful appendage of wealth, and the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard. This is the real disposition of human nature: It is what neither the honorable member nor myself can correct. It is common misfortune, that awaits our state constitution, as well as others.”

Conservatives who revere the founding fathers tend to stress the last point — that there is nothing to be done about this “common misfortune.” It is up to the rest of us, who see the founding fathers not as gods but as inspired although flawed human beings — the hand that scribbled “All men are created equal” also stroked the breasts and thighs of a slave woman, whom he considered his property — to take on “the tendency of things” to “depart from the republican standard,” and hold our country to its highest, and most humane, ideals.

As stewards of democracy, we, too, have a covenant — with one another.

Bill Moyers is an American journalist and political commentator, who served as White House Press Secretary in the Lyndon Johnson administration and has been extensively involved with public broadcasting. He has been president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy since 1990. The center's senior fellow, Lew Daly, was his accomplice in this essay, written in 2006 exclusively for and reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2015.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Laws are unnecessary when morality is sufficient

Allen Johnson.jpg (2676 bytes)Allen Johnson

In the wake of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre in Charleston, the South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in Columbia. Although controversy remains, the national tide seems to favor Haley’s position. Walmart, Sears, Target, EBay, and have announced that they will remove all Confederate flags from their product lines. In Mississippi, Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn has stated that the Confederate battle emblem is offensive and needs to be removed from the state flag. “We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said.

Despite these signs of appeasement, lowering the Confederate flag for good may be a long struggle. The flag was first raised on the South Carolina capitol grounds in 1962 as a recalcitrant reaction to advances in civil rights. In 2001 Mississippi voters insisted by a two-to-one margin that the Confederate battle emblem remain flying. In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, a CNN poll reported that 75% of Southern whites described the flag as a symbol of pride, while only 18% identified it as a symbol of racism. Not surprisingly, those numbers were reversed for black Southerners.

The South needs to be awakened.

Of course such controversies are not limited to Dixie.

In 1968, I graduated from Northwest Nazarene College (now University) in Nampa, Idaho. We called ourselves “The Crusaders.” When that name was chosen, I’m sure the board of trustees was thinking about devotion to God. They probably did not consider that the Crusades ended in the slaughter of Muslims, Jews, and even Eastern Orthodox Christians. Despite such blasphemy, the Crusader mascot still stands to this day.

Northwest Nazarene University needs to be awakened.

A society becomes mindful of prejudices through spiritual evolution — when it realizes that we are all connected, that when one suffers we all suffer.

In 1965, the atomic mushroom cloud was depicted on the coat of arms for Richland’s Columbia High School. In the 1970s, the cloud was adopted as a logo on the school’s football uniforms. Then, on June 14, 1988, a Japanese delegation arrived at the renamed Richland High School to speak with students, teachers and the World War II veteran principal Gus Nash. Two of the delegation members — Sakae Itoh and Hiroshi Hara — were survivors of the atomic bomb. They wanted to express their horror of nuclear warfare and, by extension, their angst over the mushroom cloud logo that was so proudly emblazoned on, among other regalia, Richland High School lettermen jackets.

The discussion did not end well. “We can go back to history and recall a lot of things about the war,” Nash said late in the meeting. “I could say some things here that would be very disruptive to you people, but I’m not about to do this. I’m going to say one thing, and you should remember this. We did not start that war, and I think that should end it.” With that, Nash walked out of the room to the applause of local attendees. Later, 1,300 students overwhelmingly approved the mushroom cloud as the school’s logo.

In all these cases — in Charleston, Nampa and Richland — I am persuaded that the most powerful determinant of behavior is mores, the unspoken moral standards of the community. The French philosopher, Emile Durkheim, once said, “When mores are sufficient, laws are unnecessary; when mores are insufficient, laws are unenforceable.”

What does that mean? It means that our moral standards are more powerful than any law, any mandate, any declaration. In other words, our actions are the natural fruit of our mores.

Regarding Richland, forget the fact that 550,000 Japanese civilians were killed during World War II. That makes no difference if — and only if — the mores of the day hold ancient grudges or devalue other races. Forget that the high school logo of the atomic cloud would be tantamount to a Japanese school touting a logo of the capsized U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Can you image Americans tolerating that? Still, that logic makes no difference if the community’s mores are marinated in rebellious and chauvinistic bravado.

When mores are deficient, we are driven not by moral standards, but by the survival instinct of fight or flight. We are driven not by forgiveness, but by fear, arrogance and revenge.

Every individual who has clawed his or her way out of moral decay has endured a daunting journey of spiritual evolution. They are like the noble families of the historic Charleston church — like Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance, who tearfully said to the 21-year-old shooter, “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Nadine Collier is one whose mores incorporate forgiveness and redemption. I am inspired by such a model of compassion. She teaches me that in a crowd of booming, arrogant voices, of lethal belligerence, of youthful swagger and self-importance, there are still those who, in the words of Martin Luther King, “Look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

During the First World War, an anonymous Peace Prayer (erroneously attributed to St. Francis) passed from soldier to soldier in the mud trenches of France. That beautiful prayer captures what it means to be committed to a higher calling, where mores are sufficient and laws are unnecessary — where a society is awakened not by ego, but by spirit.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


Now that’s an awesome “coat of arms” — worthy of our highest aspirations.

Allen Johnson has a PhD in Counseling Psychology from Washington State University. He is a motivational speaker and monthly columnist for the Tri-City Herald. His article was reprinted from the Herald, July 4, 2015, in PeaceMeal, July/August, 2015.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Seahawks coach teaches peace

Jerry_Brewer.jpg (4157 bytes)Jerry Brewer, staff columnist

The Seattle Times, October 21, 2014

A quick story about Pete Carroll, who has never met a man he deems incapable of change: I’m sitting in the Seahawks coach’s office about a year and a half ago, interviewing him about his work with A Better Seattle and A Better LA. Carroll launches into a passionate speech about bringing out the best in people.

“OK, let me give you an illustration,” Carroll says. “Let’s say, after all the stuff that we heard about what was going on in Iraq, we sent 10,000 people to Iraq as peacefully as we could go. And we walked wherever they would let us go, and we just talked to people and listened to what their issues were. And then we tried to figure out the best way we could support them and change things, as opposed to bombing (expletive) thousands of people with shock and awe. It might’ve taken us longer to influence change, but nobody would’ve died. And the power that we could’ve generated by just being willing to listen and see if there was a way we could answer their call and help them, whatever they wanted.

“Not tell them what to do. Not change them. Just help them go where they wanted to go. What if we had done that? How much money would that have cost us? Give me a thousand peace workers that would go over and do that. Just listen and talk. Think of what we could’ve done, as opposed to killing hundreds of thousands of people or whatever we did. And leave the wrath of what we did.”

Carroll is trembling with intensity. His eye contact is so powerful that you can’t look away from him.

“It’s the truth,” Carroll says. “People can change through vision, just by altering their vision of what can come about. As long as you stay with it. “What could we do? Yeah, we could change the world.”

That’s Carroll at his idealistic best. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with his thinking. You still should respect his audacity to believe in people.

– PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Reagan’s legacy of theatrics persists in politics today

Hugh_Gusterson.gif (8403 bytes)Hugh Gusterson

At their extraordinary 1986 summit in Iceland, the two superpower leaders, President Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, came close to eliminating all their nuclear weapons. But the search for an arms control agreement at their previous summit in Geneva mattered less than a coatless Reagan’s visual domination of a bundled-up Gorbachev when they shook hands in the Swiss winter.

The Reagan Administration’s nuclear weapons policy was always less about nuclear strategy and the balance of forces than about making Reagan look good. Their actual nuclear initiatives lurched in an alarmingly improvisational and almost hallucinatory fashion from one extreme to the other—from plans for winnable nuclear wars to talk of abolition—precisely because strategic thinking was not the orienting force.

The administration that advanced the “zero option” on intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe because it would look good but be difficult for the Soviets to accept was always more concerned with the optics of negotiation than the practicalities.

Negotiation was not a painstaking process aiming to find a resolution that would advance the interests of both nations, but a way of performing the subordination of others, an arena in which the United States could ... get something for nothing. The point of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy was not to create a less dangerous configuration of nuclear weapons in the world but to perform American dominance, using foreign leaders as human props and Cold War flashpoints as compelling backdrops.

If only this approach to foreign policy had gone to the grave with Ronald Reagan. Instead, it has metastasized. We see it in everything from George W. Bush’s 2003 “mission accomplished” photo-op speech, substituting Iraq War wish for reality aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier, to conservative columnists’ taunting of President Obama for not being manly enough to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from annexing Crimea.

And we see it in congressional hearings on Benghazi, which treat a minor event in which four Americans sadly died as if it were a scandal on the scale of Watergate or the Iran-Contra Affair.

As anyone who has recently attended a congressional hearing or a White House press conference knows, U.S. politics are dominated by manufactured sound bites and visual posing. Substance matters less than appearance. Meanwhile we remain stuck in neutral on global warming and nuclear weapons, the great threats of our age.

Hugh Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. His expertise is in nuclear culture, international security and the anthropology of science. A recent book of his is People of the Bomb: Portraits of America's Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004). This is an edited excerpt from a longer article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 13, 2014, reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2014.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Can the crazies be kept under control?

jim_s_04_b&w.jpg (3376 bytes)Jim Stoffels

The crazies are at it again! They are beating the war drums for a military attack on Iran on the basis of a suspicion that Iran has begun to develop a nuclear weapon.

We have just wound down 8-years of a disastrous war in Iraq that was sold on the basis of falsified information that Iraq had nuclear weapons. That war has taken the lives of some 4,500 U.S. troops and 650,000 Iraqis, plus hundreds of thousands of people maimed and traumatized, and a monetary cost of more than $1 trillion.

We are also trying to extricate ourselves from 10 years of another disastrous war in Afghanistan, which turns uglier by the week. And what are we leaving behind as the legacy of our misbegotten wars? Two ruined countries still afflicted with bloody religious and ethnic violence that have two of the world’s most corrupt governments.

The current bone of contention is Iran’s enrichment of uranium, which is permitted by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for peaceful production of electricity. Iran claims its nuclear program is geared only to that purpose, but it is suspected of also pursuing development of a nuclear weapon. However, there is no hard evidence to support that suspicion, according to the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.

To put pressure on Iran to halt its enrichment activities, the U.S. and allies have laid siege to the country with economic sanctions. The sanctions are preventing the import of food by Iran. As a result, the food supply has gone down, prices of basic staple foods have doubled, and the county’s 74 million people have inadequate food. Some Israeli officials have advocated starving Iran into submission.

Forcing a country to bend to our will by imposing harsh sanctions didn’t work in Iraq, where sanctions were imposed during the Persian Gulf war with the expectation that making life miserable for the people would get them to rise up against Saddam Hussein. By 1996, those sanctions were responsible for the deaths of one million people in Iraq, according to the United Nations, and more than half of them were children. When then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was faced with those appalling statistics on 60 Minutes, she did not deny them. She said, “We think the price is worth it.”

An even worse failure of the sanctions policy is Cuba, where fifty years of a U.S. embargo has failed to topple Fidel Castro.

It all reminds me of Einstein’s definition of insanity: we keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Now, here we go again. Engrossed in playing our games of power politics, we don’t give a damn about the people!

In reality, Iran is more threatened by nuclear weapons than is Israel or the United States. Israel has an undeclared arsenal of hundreds of nuclear weapons it has never acknowledged. They hold to a double standard, as we do. Both of us may have nuclear weapons for our “national security,” but Iran and others may not.

As a country that is not even a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Israel is chafing at the bit to attack Iran. Hardline Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said time is running out for them to launch air strikes to destroy Iran’s uranium enrichment program, if the harsh sanctions don’t persuade Iran to give it up.

To his credit, President Obama has opposed an Israeli attack and tried to cool Netanyahu down. But some members of Congress are pushing him to support Israel’s move, even though an attack is expected only to delay an Iranian weapons program — if one exists, because Iran’s nuclear facilities are in hardened underground sites.

And if a weapons program does not presently exist, an attack is expected to provoke Iran to pursue one aggressively. It is also likely to trigger all hell breaking loose in the region.

– PeaceMeal, March/April 2012

Getting beyond the impossibly perfect standard

Paul Rogat Loeb

Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, tells the story of how his grandfather's family mortgaged everything they had--their land, their jewelry, everything of value--to send Gandhi to law school. Gandhi graduated and passed the bar but was so shy that, when he stood up in court, all he could do was stammer. He couldn't get a sentence out in defense of his clients. As a result, he lost every one of his cases and was a total failure as a lawyer. His family didn't know what do to. Finally, they sent him off to South Africa, where he found his voice by challenging that country's racial segregation.

I like viewing Gandhi not as the master strategist of social change that he became later, but as someone who at first was tongue-tied and intimidated. His story is a caution against the impulse to try to achieve perfection before we even begin our journey of working for social change. "I think it does us all a disservice," says Atlanta activist Sonya Vetra Tinsley, "when people who work for social change are presented as saints--so much more noble than the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light. But I'm much more inspired learning how people succeeded despite their failings and uncertainties. It's a much less intimidating image. It makes me feel like I have a shot at changing things too."

Sonya had attended a talk by one of Martin Luther King's Morehouse professors, in which he mentioned how much King had struggled when he first came to college, getting only a C, for example, in his first philosophy course. "I found that very inspiring, when I heard it," Sonya says, "given all that King achieved."

I was similarly inspired to learn that, when union organizer and Montgomery NAACP head E.D. Nixon bailed Rosa Parks out of jail and then called Martin Luther King to help lead the bus boycott, King initially resisted. He was new in town. People were just getting to know him. Since he was only twenty-six, he was reluctant to take the lead. He had all sorts of understandable reasons to demur. But Nixon persisted and when he called him back, King responded, "Brother Nixon, I can go along with you on this." Had Nixon not approached him, King might never have taken his own first steps toward deeper involvement on a stage that ended up making him a national figure.

King's hesitation matters because, once we enshrine our heroes on impossibly high pedestals, it becomes hard for mere mortals to measure up in our eyes. Then, however individuals speak out and for whatever cause, we can always find some reason to dismiss their motives, knowledge and tactics. We fault them for not being in command of every fact and figure, for not being able to answer every question put to them, or for the smallest inconsistencies in how they act or live. We can't imagine how an ordinary human being with ordinary flaws might make a critical difference in a worthy cause.

Others will also apply the perfect standard to us when we act. The approach is the same: Identify a perceived flaw, large or small, then use it to write off us and our entire effort.

It's hard enough to be the recipients of perfect standard dismissals. It's worse to subject ourselves to it. Whatever the issue, we never think we have enough knowledge or standing. Then if we learn more or gain more experience, we raise the bar higher, ensuring that it's always out of reach. We decide that, to take an effective public stand, we must first become a larger-than-life figure--someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, knowledge or certainty than an ordinary person like us could ever possess.

No one is immune to the crippling effects of the perfect standard. In this time of massive technological and economic change, many of us who have been active in social causes before feel daunted by both the size and array of contemporary problems. Even when we know better, we sometimes think we have to tackle everything at once. If our efforts don't instantly achieve results, we are quick to criticize ourselves and doubt that our efforts can make a difference. And we can apply the same impatience toward national leaders, like Obama.

We face a parallel trap in seeking endless information before acting. As the body of knowledge continues to grow, the effort to know everything grows increasingly doomed. We can spend our lives trying to gather facts and arguments from every conceivable source, but the perfect standard leaves us with a permanent insufficiency of knowledge--and a convenient way to abdicate responsibility for taking a public stand.

The perfect standard can also limit our time horizon. In this view, we tell ourselves we shouldn't begin working for change until the time is ideal--when we are out of school, say, when our job is more secure, when our kids are grown or when we retire. We wait for the time when the issues will be clearest, our supporters and allies most steadfast, and our wisdom and courage greatest. But public participation will always require a shift from our familiar and comfortable way of life. What's more, the issues that most need our attention will probably always be complex, difficult and forbidding. As Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us, "Being brave does not mean being unafraid. It often means being afraid and doing it anyway."

Social change always proceeds in the absence of absolute knowledge or certainty. In the 1960s, psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott developed the now-accepted concept of "the good-enough mother." Winnicott argued that the goal of errorless child-rearing is a destructive and impossible standard that produces guilt and recrimination. As Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn explain in their book about parenting, Everyday Blessings, "There is no question about doing a perfect job, or always 'getting it right.' 'Perfect' is simply not relevant, whatever that would mean."

In this vein, maybe we should all aspire to become "good-enough activists," remembering that, though some of our actions will be flawed and some will fail, our contributions matter all the more because we've proceeded despite our uncertainties and doubts in a way that can then inspire others to also take the risk of acting despite theirs.

The above excerpt is adapted from the updated new edition of Paul Rogat Loeb's book, Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times (2010, St Martin's Press). Reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2010.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)