Tuesday, October 28, 2003

This is a slightly longer version of the piece that appears in the San Francisco Chronicle Insight of October 26, 2003. It can be found
The spectre of nuclear war dominated politics, culture and insinuated itself into daily life for decades after Hiroshima. But in recent years it seems to have lost its potency. Yet though the stories are tucked in back pages or hardly reported at all, the dangers continue to slowly grow. Israel modified American-made cruise missiles to carry nuclear warheads on submarines, to counter suspected advances in Iran's long range missiles and the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear arms. This new element of an atomic arms race in the highly volatile Middle East joins the continuing threat of North Korea to make and even export nuclear weapons, and the continuing danger of two known nuclear powers, Pakistan and India, facing off over disputed territory at their borders.

Few North American news outlets even noted the recently revealed Russian plans to consider using nuclear weapons to fight terrorism, though the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki noticed it, and sent protests to the Russian government. But the U.S. could hardly object, since the Bush administration just pushed through the Senate its plan to develop low-yield nuclear bombs for battlefield use.

A chief reason for today's indifference probably is the belief that the fall of the Soviet Union meant that thermonuclear holocaust is no longer possible. But a recent RAND study asserts that due to disorganization in Russia as well as other factors, the threat of a devastating nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia caused by accident or miscalculation has not lessened but increased.

Newer, more exotic Weapons of Mass Destruction may seem more alarming, while there hasn't been a visible nuclear bomb detonation in many years, and no atom bomb has been used against an enemy since World War II, resulting in a diminished appreciation for their power. But continued proliferation of weapons in a world where hostility is increasingly open, violent and unrestrained, may change that, to our certain horror.

It could also be because the size and power of conventional weapons has grown (and some are radioactive), while new nuclear weapons seem smaller and more precise, there doesn't seem to be as much difference. But California Senator Dianne Feinstein said recently of the Bush initiative, "The administration is saying we can make nuclear weapons less deadly, and acceptable to use. Neither is true." According to an article this August in New Scientist, the U.S. is exploring an entirely new class of gamma-ray nuclear weapons, which are thousands of times more powerful than chemical weapons and (the article stated) "could trigger the next arms race."

That is the greatest danger, as Senator Feinstein noted: a new nuclear arms race. Which is precisely why it is so important to remember the nuclear test ban treaty 40 years ago. It did more than ban the ever-larger nuclear explosions pouring radioactive poison into the atmosphere shared by the whole earth, though that alone is worthy of respectful celebration. The test ban broke the momentum of the arms race, which seemed to be out of human control, propelled by its own deadly logic of inexorably escalating force and counterforce.

The Cuban Missile Crisis sobered the U.S. and Soviet leaders into seriously negotiating a treaty. But what made the difference was President John F. Kennedy's eloquent and persistent attack on this irrational logic of the arms race, and his insistence that humanity begin preparing for peace with the same courage and diligence as it prepares for war.

He expressed the logic of peace most fully in his American University speech. To those who believed that peace is unrealistic in a world of conflict, Kennedy countered that to believe peace is impossible means "that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. " Then he used the phrase that more than any other sums up the Kennedy faith: "Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man."

He advocated an attainable peace "based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions...Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts...For peace is a process, a way of solving problems."

In its most quoted phrases ( spoken more recently, without attribution, by a fictional Russian president in Tom Clancy's film, "The Sum of All Fears") Kennedy said: "For in the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

How different these words are than any we have heard recently:

"What kind of peace do I mean?" Kennedy asked. "Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war..."

"I am talking about genuine peace," he continued. "Not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women; not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time."

"I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, he admitted. "But we have no more urgent task."

The test ban treaty was negotiated in the midst of the suspicions and fears of the Cold War, just as today's world is permeated with suspicions and fears of terrorism. The situations are not precisely comparable, but there are several important parallels. The first is the willingness to enter into international agreements. After the limited test ban, other nuclear proliferation and arms reduction treaties were signed in ensuing decades. But the momentum stopped when the United States failed to ratify a total test ban in the 90s that other major nations had signed, and has since refused several meaningful international agreements, notably on global heating and on international law. This sends a message--it's every nation, every group, for itself.

The second parallel is the logic of force that again rules the world. Kennedy’s example is pertinent not because of the treaty itself but because of his efforts to break the logic of war. The treaty was, as Kennedy said, "an important first step---a step toward peace---a step toward reason-a step away from war." After the Soviet Union signed, and substantial opposition to U.S. Senate ratification was overcome, the treaty went into effect on October 10, 1963. It was of course that November 22 that President Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy campaigning on behalf of the test ban was one of the last images many people would have of him, and a prime reason that his memory was so revered around the world.

The U.S. refuses international agreements, and its recent actions and policies encourage other nations and factions to escalate their capacity for violence and their willingness to use it. We desperately need to remember this first step towards peace, how it happened and why it was necessary. We need to remember than an American President once spoke these words. The threat of nuclear weapons, of becoming captives of an arms race and a psychology of war, belong not just to history.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Fool’s notes

“The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”

William Blake

“Oh, yeah. Like when?”
William Kowinski

Pulling into a parking lot, I found myself screaming to myself, “what you’re doing is not working! Do something else!”

Later at home checked the email to find that a piece I’d almost forgotten about was going to be published on p. 1 of the following Sunday’s Insight section in the SF Chronicle. I’d rewritten this piece at least six times since June, submitted versions of it to a dozen newspapers and magazines over that time, including three separate versions to the Chronicle.

I rewrote it the last time, knowing it would be the last attempt, trying to find what button to push, and why? Because I wanted these words—not my words, but JFK’s words---to be heard again. I didn’t feel the piece was really right, really finished, but I was tired and there was no sense in working on it any more, since it had a track record of rejection. So I sent it. My editor there was moving to another section, so I didn’t know who would see and judge it. Usually I got enough time after a piece was accepted to make some changes, but not this time. The piece was edited, tightened, but still incomplete, to my mind. But there it is.

So it appeared, page 1, left column, no graphic. The page was dominated by two articles on another story entirely. As usual when I have a piece appear in the Sunday Chronicle, not a thing about the day changes. No one I know reads the Sunday Chronicle, and the phone never rings. In times and places past, I used to sometimes get calls when a piece appeared, from friends or fairly often from a radio or TV show wanting to do an interview or segment. Not much of that kind of TV left, or even that kind of radio, not in the Bay Area, and not where I live.

In the evening I did get a call about the piece, as I have gotten on two or three pieces (usually in Insight) over the past year or two. The caller is always a stranger and older---older even than me. This time the caller was an 88 year old man, a retired doctor from Eureka, who read the article, and took the time and trouble to get my phone number and call me up, just to say he liked it. It was a two or three minute conversation.

In a week or ten days, or maybe three weeks, I’ll get a check for the article. It won’t be much. It won’t be in itself a justification for the time and effort put into it. Not even by WalMart standards.

It is hard to know how to think about any of this—the articles that get published, that don’t get published, that appear only in blogs. The ones that exist somewhere in the world, the world of paper, the world of cyberspace, the world of strangers, of unforeseen and unforeseeable possibilities, including the quite reasonable and foreseeable possibility of phantomhood, of inconsequence.

What I do know: I am in awe of knowing that something I wrote entered the world of a stranger, an 88 year old man, with a life I can’t imagine. I would be content to write for no other response, if it were possible to keep doing so.

What I also know: a piece of writing that does not pay for the sustenance it draws is a gamble. The gamble is that other pieces will, or that one of these pieces will lead to something—some more financially sustaining opportunity. It used to happen. It has not happened in a long time. As someone in the writing biz said to me in San Francisco, it takes just one good thing---one BIG good thing--- to happen every ten years to get you through. Failing that, and failing any other means of sustenance (requiring skills and opportunities I alas have not), it will eventually stop.

What’s the point? There is no point. There is just life as it is. What’s the point of writing about this? There is no point. Writing is my life.