Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Climate: We All Need to Be Futurists Now

Image from New York Times interactive map showing flooding
(in light blue) projected from a 5 foot sea level rise - the area around
 Sacramento is vulnerable to very severe flooding from breached levees.

On a long drive from Berkeley to Los Angeles this past January, I tried to stretch my mind as broadly as possible about the future situation we face. As I left one coastal California metropolis to visit another coastal California metropolis, I spent about four hours traversing the state's Central Valley, and it was the perfect place to mediate on the interrelationships of climate, migration, economic development, political culture, and more. Those reflections jolted me to attention, and led me to write California and Climate Crisis: The End?

For the past six months or so, I have found my mind returning again and again to those issues. Each time I think I know the one most important thing that I want to share, I find that new questions overtake me.

Maybe the best thing to do is to start by sharing the questions . . . .

(1) Why aren't we talking about "retreat"?
A few months ago, I read the book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change by Ashley Dawson. It put facts around my sense that we're kidding ourselves when all we talk about is holding the rising sea back; we need to be talking about retreat.

This has been a growing concern of mine since at least 2013, when I wrote NYC + H2O = Uh-oh! Now that I live in the Bay Area, and I have friends who are scientists here, I am hearing in real time from them that there are significant areas near where I live that are at risk.

(2) Can investors possibly be blind to the coastal inundation threat? I have been particularly mystified by the "it's all a hoax" posture on the political right. Frankly, it doesn't matter what people say on Fox or in Twitter feeds; what really matters is where smart money is going. (See The Feel-Good Folly of Fossil-Fuel Valuation.) So how can it be possible that investors aren't fleeing anything that is associated with the risk of sea level rise? Why aren't they pulling back behind a safe margin?

(3) Will poor people be left holding the bag? A simple explanation is that society at large (and particularly the investor class) is taking sea level rise in stride because it's really just a small segment of the population that will be hurt -- the poor. ("The poor will have to be satisfied with whatever relief the rest of us deign to provide them.")

(4) Will the 99% be left holding the bag?  Another explanation is that, no matter what costs have to be born as coastal inundation happens, the 1% can count on the government to foot the bill. There will be a bail-out. It will be another "too big to fail" situation.

(5) Are we really that feckless? Places like New Orleans and Miami have a strange utility for people in the rest of the country, who are able to say, "Well, perhaps something bad is coming, but anyway Miami will have to deal with it long before we have to, here . . . . "

(6) Is higher ground the answer? Living in Berkeley, where I can glance up to all the elegant houses perched on the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, it's easy to think, "Well, certainly they are in a safe place!" But I wonder if we underestimate how devastating it will be to our overall community and economy when even just a few percent of the businesses, infrastructure, and housing close to the Bay is compromised. At what point does "their problem" become "our problem"?

(7) Do we underestimate the impact of concurrent disaster? I sense there is a tendency to say, "Sure, coastal inundation is terrifying -- but we do know how to respond. Look at all the instances of hurricane recovery that we've done!" I fear people have not begun to take seriously what it means to be trying to hold back the sea in many locations at once.

Take a look at the interactive page set up by the New York Times -- "What Could Disappear" -- that let's you simulate what's in store for cities/regions like Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Long Island, Miami, Mobile, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York City, Northern California, Philadelphia, Portland(both ME and OR), Providence, San Diego, Savannah, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Virginia Beach/Norfolk, Washington, Wilmington  . . . all at the same time . . . !

(8) Do we face unimaginable levels of human migration? If different parts of the US are at odds with each other over immigration today, what is it going to look like in years to come when many more millions are displaced in our immediate vicinity and worldwide due to sea level rise?

(9) Is it possible it's all going to come down on us faster than we expect? When I began reading the California reports I referenced in my January post, I noticed that much bigger, faster levels of sea level rise and inundation were projected than anything you typically hear about. I realized the full story is not reaching us. This was partly explained in Extreme Cities, which ways that scientists have become conditioned to behave "conservatively," i.e. not emphasize the direst possibilities, because if they do, people will stop listening to them.

What happens if we open our ears to the scientists' full story? A story in the East Bay Express this spring provided an epiphany for me:

Scientists predict that by 2100, global sea levels will rise 2 to 8 feet. And so far, the previous lower-end predictions of climate change have turned out to be too conservative. Some scientists also warn that a rapid disintegration of Antarctica's ice sheets could cause sea levels to jump 4 to 10 feet by century's end.

John Radke, a UC Berkeley associate professor of City and Regional Planning, has been examining models of likely impacts from sea-level rise on the Bay Area and California. He said the real threat from higher seas in the region will come from powerful storm surges during periods of heavy rain and high tides. "The storms are going to be more frequent," he said. "And the storms are going to be stronger."

Storm surge events will flood coastal areas, inflicting costly damage on shoreline homes and infrastructure. Radke said that, in the coming decades, Bay Area transportation officials will probably have to abandon Interstate 880 through Oakland, because it won't be worth repairing after it washes away repeatedly during floods. "If enough catastrophes happen, we might wake up," he said.

(See "The East Bay's Future Climate Will Be Both Dry and Wet" by Robert Gammon, East Bay Express, February 14, 2018.)

To imprint this reality on your brain, I recommend the documentary Chasing Ice. If you still think we've got all the time in the world, you'll change your mind after watching footage of a glacier edge the size of lower Manhattan disintegrate over the course of an hour.

(10) Will the US actually fall far behind the rest of the world in responding to sea level rise? The Trump Administration withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords woke people up to something they may not have thought about before: other countries may be doing it better. I'm particularly curious about what happens in more centrally-planned economies, that may be better accustomed to long-term thinking and national infrastructure management.

About five years ago I begin thinking about the parallel situations of the US and China in dealing with the climate crisis. (See #chinaEARTHusa - Radical Change? or Planetocide?) I now wonder if China may do a much better job than the US, when all is said and done.

More to come on each of these questions . . . .

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Trump Is Right: It's Time to Deprecate NATO and Denuclearize

NATO: Soooooo 1949!!

"Deprecate" is a fancy software word that means, "That's so last year. Don't use it any more. Everybody's doing this new thing . . . ."

I'm sure many in the defense establishment are having a conniption over Trump's deprecation of NATO. But maybe they just need to get with the times . . . ?

Ever since the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, I've been struggling with this problem: NATO isn't helping us, and is probably hurting us, but it's got loads of supporters in the establishment and the general public is puzzled about what it's all about. So how do we ever move on?

That's why the word "deprecate" seems appropriate. While admitting that it's going to take some time to work the remnants out of the system, let's set our sights on the next thing and start developing.

You can see how how ready NATO is to be retired by looking at how even its supporters talk about it. Yesterday's New York Times touted the importance of NATO by dragging out the tired old quip that got the whole thing started 70 years ago:

"keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down"

(Oh, yeah, and the Times cited NATO's role in those paragons of successful military adventure: "Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and elsewhere.")


For years, I've been writing about the need for the US president to get down to the real business at hand: finish the job of negotiating nuclear disarmament with Russia.

Obama wouldn't even sit down with Putin. By scheduling a meeting with Putin, Trump is already ahead of the game.

As for NATO, one glaring problem is its annual war games at the Russian border (e.g. "US Army Launches War Games on NATO's Eastern Flank"). I wonder if during the next 48 hours, Trump will say something similar to his remarks with respect to Korea:

"Holding back the 'war games' during the negotiations was my request because they are VERY EXPENSIVE and set a bad light during a good faith negotiation. Also, quite provocative. Can start up immediately if talks break down, which I hope will not happen!"

That would lead to more conniptions at the Pentagon, I'm sure.

On the other hand, the nations of Europe (including all those erstwhile NATO members) should be the first to see the urgency of denuclearizing.

The US and Russia control the vast majority of the world's nuclear weapons.
(Image: Global News)

(More on Europe and denuclearization.)

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Monday, July 9, 2018

The Multimedia Church: Movie Night

Poster for screening of The Interrupters
at St. Luke's Logan Square, Chicago.
A friend brought up the idea the other night of having movie night at church.

It reminded me that we did quite a few screenings at the church I attended in Chicago, St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square. It occurs to me that the list of St. Luke's film screenings is not yet assembled in a single place, so here it is:

(We also screened Gasland, Love Free or Die, Encounter Point, and 9500 Liberty.)

The recent conversation reminded me that there were a few things we learned from our "Social Justice Film Series" at St. Luke's:

* Purpose - It's important to know what you are trying to do. We thought of ourselves as trying to encourage conversation on issues of concern to people in the congregation, and in the larger community.

* Connection to congregational activities - Often we were able to make a direct connection to one or more of the missions or activities of the congregation.

* Spread the word! - As the links above suggest, we did a number of things to tell people about each screening -- before and after each event. 

* Guest panelists - We were fortunate to be able to find one or two (or sometimes more!) knowledgeable guests to help with discussion following each film. Chicago has a wealth of community organizers and social justice activists.

* Discussion time - We learned that we needed to plan in order for there to be adequate time for discussion. Often we used Sunday afternoons for the film screenings/discussions (because after an evening film screening many people don't have the energy for discussion), and we tried to select films that were not too long.

* Steering - We had quite a robust social justice committee, and the process of programming the "Social Justice Film Series" was itself quite rewarding to the participants.

* Food - Last but not least: we always had a more lively participation and discussion if we provided ample refreshments.

Of course, this is not to say that we had all the answers. But we did start to understand some of the questions!

Now . . . I'm curious to learn about what other churches are doing with their movie nights!

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

WHO IS SAFE? WHO IS WELCOME? Seeking a Prophetic Path Towards Liberation

Sanctuary: Caminando Hacia la Libertad
(Artist: Erkhembat Lasran, immigrant from Mongolia)

I wrote previously about the Sanctuary movement, and specific initiatives by University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley and neighboring congregations: IN BERKELEY: Declaring Sanctuary, Changing Hearts and Minds.

This past weekend I joined several hundred other people of faith at a convening in Oakland: Sanctuary: Caminando Hacia la Libertad. The focus was "to learn tools and best practices to create a more prophetic path towards liberation."

There were many faiths represented at the convening, organized by Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity and hosted at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. I noted a study of 42 sanctuary congregations in Northern California, including two belonging to the denomination with which I am associated (ELCA).

The convening was extremely thought-provoking and generative. In my opinion, this event (which I hope will be repeated and enlarged), together with the other initiatives of Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, deserves the strong support of the ELCA and its West Coast synods.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

FILM ABOUT HIROSHIMA: Kurosawa's "I Live in Fear" (Nuclear Danger: Three Ways of Talking About the Unmentionable)

Unable to get nuclear weapons out of his mind: unreasonable?
(from I Live in Fear by Akira Kurosawa)

How do we talk about something that has been branded "impossible to talk about"?

After profiling a list of films about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I've begun to think this is the fundamental problem of nuclear danger. Akira Kurosawa tackled the problem in his film, I Live in Fear (1955).

Courtroom drama

People love crime shows, police procedurals, and courtroom dramas. Wouldn't it be great if we could put nuclear weapons on trial?

Kurosawa does the next best thing in I Live in Fear: he sets up a court case pitting a family against a father, Nakajima, who is so terrified of the possibility of another nuclear blast that he is acting in ways they fear will tear the family apart. They bring a case in family court to have him declared incompetent so they can get control of the family finances.

The court is thus required to answer the question: Is the man's fear of nuclear weapons rational or irrational?

Nested within the court proceedings -- i.e. the activities of the three people acting as family court mediators and the family members who are parties to the suit -- we see several (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to talk about nuclear danger, the failure of diverse forms of discourse.

The first form of discourse to crumble before nuclear danger is family deliberation. After decades of looking to the ever-practical father -- factory owner, business man, always planning, always weighing the risks, literally wearing belt and suspenders -- the family members become unable to understand what he is thinking. They singly and collectively just can't wrap their heads around his concern about the risk stemming from nuclear weapons, fallout, and radiation.

Family council in I Live in Fear.

And so the matter goes to court. As the court mediators carry out their careful, logical deliberations, it's clear they all consider Nakajima's concerns valid . . . up to a point. But ultimately they conclude "he's grappling with a problem far too big for any individual," and rule against him.

One of the mediators, the dentist, remains troubled, and goes in search of facts. (He is, after all, a scientist.) He reads the book, Ashes of Death, about nuclear weapons and radioactive fallout, and is so stunned by what he learns that he tells his son, "If the birds and beasts could read it, they'd all flee Japan." And yet . . . he goes along with the decision to declare Nakajima incompetent.

Conflict escalates and Najakima collapses. Near the end of the film, a doctor in a psychiatric hospital reviews the records of the case and the condition of the patient and muses, "I feel anxious. Is he crazy? Or are we, who can remain unperturbed in an insane world, the crazy ones?" Significantly, it is Nakajima who ends up locked in a cell.

Religion ("Hell")

Kurosawa offers an alternate tool for communication in I Live in Fear. At many junctures he reminds us that we have in "hell" a ready metaphor for what nuclear weapons threaten.

As you watch I Live in Fear, you can practically feel the heat as everyone in the film wipes the perspiration induced by the summer weather from their brows, and Nakajima frenetically rattles his fan. Nakajima's complexion is oddly dark, as if his skin has ashes rubbed into it. The family business is, it turns out, a foundry -- a scorching site of molten metal and noxious fumes -- and one that, in fact, finally goes up in flames near the end of the film. In a confrontation with the dentist in the street, Nakajima says, "I'm out of my mind with fear. I keep thinking about the H-bomb, but there's nothing I can do. It's a living hell." Nakajima describes the man who offers to provide land in Brazil as a safe haven for the family as "a Buddha come to save us from hell." In the film's penultimate scene, a now maniacal Nakajima cringes before a blazing summer sun and warns, "The Earth is burning!"

"The Earth is burning!"
(from I Live in Fear)

Suggestions of fire and heat aside, I wonder if the real hell Kurosawa wants us to remember from  I Live in Fear is Nakajima's inability to communicate with his family about nuclear danger. His frustration is palpable as he calls a family meeting and throws himself on the floor, begging that they join him in leaving Japan.

The film ends with the dentist descending a ramp towards indistinct lower levels of the psychiatric hospital . . . while Nakajima's mistress walks up the opposite ramp, cradling their infant child in her arms, toward the light-filled upper stories.

It is perhaps a sign of the authenticity of this film that it doesn't suggest the solution is easy. As reported by Donald Richie,

Kurosawa himself finds confusion in the film. "When we made it, the entire staff sensed our confusion. No one said very much and everyone worked hard and it was very hard work indeed." He kept remembering, he says, [collaborator Fumio Hayasaka's] words: "The world has come to such a state that we don't really know what is in store for us tomorrow. I wouldn't even know how to go on living -- I'm that uncertain. Uncertainties, nothing but uncertainties. Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all." (Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, p. 112)

Which brings us to Fumio Hayasaka . . . .


The part of the story of I Live in Fear that I find most interesting is the way it came to be made, and the interaction of the actual people involved.

The idea for the film came out of conversation between Kurosawa and his long-time collaborator, the composer Fumio Hayasaka. Kurosawa describes a visit to Hayasaka:

[Hayasaka] was quite ill . . . and just before we had had word of the Bikini [H-bomb] experiments. When he said to me that a dying person could not work, I thought he meant himself. But he didn't, it turned out. He meant everyone. All of us. The next time I went to see him, he suggested we do a film on just this subject. He was quite taken with the idea and that is how the film began. (Richie, p. 109)

In other words, I Live in Fear was the result of two close friends who asked the question, "How can we create something that really matters, considering the danger nuclear weapons pose to the world?"

Hayasaka and Kurosawa

The film's lead is the frequent star of Kurosawa films, Toshiro Mifune. When I see him in this film playing against type -- i.e. not playing a strutting samurai as in Yojimbo or Seven Samurai, but a stooped and scared old man -- I imagine him putting everything he has into the mission set forth by Hayasaka, and taken up by Kurosawa.

Similarly, every time I see the film's dentist character, played by Takashi Shimura, I can't help thinking of the role played by Shimura in Ikiru [To Live] -- an ordinary bureaucrat who learns he will soon die and so determines to do one small thing to make a difference.

And so, one by one, a wider and wider circle of friends and colleagues took up the problem. After production, another cast member said: "Well we worked hard, didn't we? But from now on living our parts will be the more difficult." (as reported by Kurosawa Richie, p. 112)

And so here, as in my previous post, I propose that "We need powerful stories . . . and conversations!"

Which way?
(from I Live in Fear)

See also: more films and resources about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

"Madam Secretary" and the Power of TV to Illuminate Nuclear Danger

I had chatted with almost everyone after the church service on Sunday when friends came up to me and said, "We thought of you when we watched the latest episode of Madam Secretary the other night. It's all about the US president ordering a nuclear strike!"

I'm not a regular watcher of Madam Secretary, but, by coincidence, the show had come up at dinner at the home of other friends a few days earlier. Now . . . it had my complete attention . . . .

Madam Secretary: What's your decision, Mr. President?

Sunday evening we sat watching Season 4, Episode 22, of Madam Secretary, "Night Watch": "Elizabeth and cabinet members brace for the fallout at home and abroad as President Dalton prepares for a retaliatory nuclear attack on a country that has reportedly just launched missiles bound for the U.S."

I was stunned to see the many ways in which this episode precisely conveyed the very real predicament we are in with the thousands of real nuclear weapons poised for quick use:

* the rush by the president to make a decision - a matter of seconds

* the role of dumb luck in averting disastrous use of nuclear weapons

* the fact that the government insiders know all about similar close calls in the past

* the fact that the government insiders know all about species-threatening nature of a nuclear exchange and subsequent nuclear winter

* overkill - the refusal of the defense establishment to reduce the most risky threats despite massive redundancy in the ability to kill with nuclear weapons (e.g. nuclear-weapon-armed submarines each capable of destroying an entire country)

* the fact that the current decision makers are all on a list to be whisked away to safe bunkers in the event of impending nuclear strike

* the importance of telling the truth to the public, and getting citizens demanding and supporting change

The show evidenced not just a command of detail. It represented a grasp of the overarching story -- and a talent in telling it -- that made me feel enormous respect and gratitude.

The Power of Story

Ever since I read a book about Harriet Beecher Stowe and the effect of her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, I have been on the lookout for the medium that will communicate the story we are trying to convey about the danger of nuclear weapons and related concerns. (See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin.)

That's why, for instance, I am so focused on the story of Hiroshima, and the efforts of many writers and artists and filmmakers to tell that story. (See On Tanabe's "Message from Hiroshima.")

That's why I am so grateful every time activists stand up to explain the threat these weapons pose right now, like the event at Harvard a few months ago and the people who worked to bring it to a wider public via all kinds of media. (See Virtual Roundtable on Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons.)

That's why I applauded the Senate Foreign Relations committee for focusing on this very issue in a public hearing in November. (See the November 14, 2017, Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on "Authority to Order the Use of Nuclear Weapons.")

And that's why I am especially excited about what has been accomplished by Madam Secretary.

To reiterate what I wrote about earlier in my post about Stowe, the lesson for me in Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, is that change can be catalyzed by popular entertainment, because it reaches a lot of people and engages their attention.

(For Madam Secretary, "a lot" means something like 6 million people.)

Having had a few years to digest that message, I would now also add: (a) the forms of popular entertainment are changing rapidly, so we need to be open to a wider and wider range of possible formats; and (b) we don't get to know in advance which version will succeed in really reaching people, so we need to try lots of them.

A warning

What's not to like about 6 million people?

I think a very good thing happened with Season 4, Episode 22 of Madam Secretary. But it also contained within itself a warning. When the Secretary of State is informed that the nuclear exchange is imminent and that she should hasten to the bunker, she chooses instead to remain with her family. As it happens, they are at an entertainment arcade. Apparently she reasons that it is all over anyway; they may as well enjoy what pleasure remains to them in the moments available. And she surrenders to the blinking lights and artificial sounds of the video games . . . .

Madam Secretary: Take one last look.

We are in a race against time. Our proliferation of entertainments lulls us into anesthesia.

Which brings me back to that conversation after church. I wouldn't have known about this show unless my friends had told me. And they wouldn't have told me if it hadn't been for an earlier dinner conversation about my work on nuclear disarmament. And I wouldn't have told other people about the episode -- much less written this post -- if my friends hadn't shared it with me so enthusiastically. All of which leads me to think, "We need powerful stories . . . and conversations!"

So: who will tell the story? and where are the conversations happening?

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

FILM ABOUT HIROSHIMA: "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and the Horror of Forgetting

Have you ever noticed people have
a way of noticing what they want?
 - from Hiroshima Mon Amour

In the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, a Japanese man asks a French woman, "What did Hiroshima mean to you in France?" She sets out six propositions:

The end of the war. I mean completely.

Astonishment that they dared do it,

and astonishment that they succeeded.

And the beginning of an unknown fear for us as well.

And then indifference.

And fear of indifference as well.

No simple answers. And it just gets more complicated from there . . . .

Scene from Hiroshima Mon Amour

Hiroshima Mon Amour is a provocation. It challenges us to wrestle with the real possibility that we will only eliminate nuclear weapons when we invest our whole personalities -- our hearts and our souls -- in the project.

In recent days I have been profiling a list of films about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

So now we come to Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is a film jointly produced by French and Japanese studios, set in Hiroshima, with a French director, a Japanese leading actor (who himself starred in an earlier Japanese film about Hiroshima), a French leading actress (playing the role of an actress in a movie-within-the-movie set in Hiroshima), featuring a long opening sequence about the atomic bombing of Japan, and continuing with a tale of forbidden love set in Nazi-occupied France, all in the the context of an affair fated to lapse in a matter of a few hours . . . .

If you are an anti-nuclear activist, you might be forgiven for objecting to the way that the tragedy of Hiroshima may seem to be elbowed into the background by not one, but two, compelling love stories in this film. I know I certainly struggled with such feelings when as I first watched it.

Later as I listened to several interviews with the director, Alain Resnais, I began to warm to his approach. What I heard him saying was: providing the facts about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to people is necessary but not sufficient; to have an impact, we must deal with people as complex, feeling beings, beings in a perpetual whirl of sensing, forgetting, and remembering.

Put another way, people are, at every second, electing where to direct their gaze. That face? The tale of irrational love? (Yes? Never?) Do I like this? Abhor it? Don't ever want to let it go? Will I feel what I want to feel? Or what I should feel? Will I think what I don't want to think?

Real. Genuine. Sordid. Artificial. Forced. Noble.

I can forget it all if I want to.

Hotel room scene from Hiroshima Mon Amour

The film scholar François Thomas speaks of "interlaced combs" - the way past and present intertwine in Hiroshima Mon Amour, the way remembering and forgetting intertwine, and ultimately the way personal trauma and global trauma do, too.

In the opening sequence, we hear a woman's voice recount what she has learned about Hiroshima and the atomic bombing, telling about museum exhibitions, victim photographs, newsreels, and other evidence, testifying over and over, "I saw it" -- alternating with the a man's voice contradicting, "You didn't see."

Museum scene from Hiroshima Mon Amour

Having recently visited Hiroshima, including the exhibits at the Peace Museum which are explored in detail in the course of that opening sequence, I can begin to understand both the forcefulness of her testimony and the immediate assault of that voice challenging, "What? What have you seen?"

I will carry two statements from Hiroshima Mon Amour with me:

First, the simple plea of the Japanese man, in his elementary French, to the woman:

Reste á Hiroshima avec moi.

Second, the woman's avowal:

I tremble at forgetting such love.

See also: more films and resources about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

FILM ABOUT HIROSHIMA: Are We All "Children of Hiroshima"?

Return visit to the destroyed city in Children of Hiroshima

At a time when the momentum is growing for the elimination of nuclear weapons, it is worth asking what it is to be "children of Hiroshima."

In recent days I have been profiling a list of films about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Today I want to talk about Kaneto Shindo's film, Children of Hiroshima (1952).

I have been struggling with what to say about Children of Hiroshima. Certainly the film makes the point that nuclear weapons, and war, are bad. But it does a great deal more.


Children of Hiroshima tells of a visit back to the city by a young teacher, several years after the bombing of Hiroshima. The film contains extensive footage of the destroyed city, including of iconic locations such as the Industrial Exhibition Hall (with its distinctive dome) and the Peace Memorial (under construction at that time).

There is much in the film that is very painful to look at.

But there is also beauty -- people, landscapes, and the quality of the cinematography itself.

Children of Hiroshima is one of the films that made me a lover of filmmaker Kaneto Shindo's work, and part of that is the beauty that he shares with us.

Certainly Shindo does want us to work against nuclear weapons and war, and one of the ways he empowers us is by giving us the kind of beauty that helps us want to go on living.

Hope: "I love these shoes!"

There is a moment in Children of Hiroshima in which a little boy exclaims about a new pair of shoes he has been given, "I love these shoes!" -- and it is at once so ancillary and yet so authentic that I have thought about it over and over.

It occurs in the midst of an episode of enormous moral and emotional complexity. The visiting teacher has discovered a former employee of her father; the employee is now horribly scarred by the bomb and reduced to begging, and his entire family has been wiped out except for a grandson in an orphanage. The teacher proposes to take the boy back to the distant community in which she now settled, to live in a real home together with her and her aunt and uncle. She urges the grandfather to come, as well. The grandfather knows he cannot go, and for a long time cannot bear to part with his grandson, either. Ultimately, the shoes - pristine white sneakers -- are the grandfather's parting gift to his grandson.

Throughout this episode, I found myself arguing with the teacher: "Why are you making it so difficult for the old man? Who are you to interfere with the way things are?" 

And I found myself arguing with the filmmaker: "What do you accomplish by showing the relatively minor trials of individual people trying to make a new life -- a building being rebuilt, a marriage proposal to a woman with a damaged leg, one couple allowing their fifth child to be adopted by another couple? Shouldn't you be focusing on the big question of making sure nuclear war doesn't happen again?"

The minor trials of individual people trying to make a new life . . . making sure nuclear war doesn't happen again . . . . Is there really a choice to be made between the former and the latter? The more I thought about those sneakers -- a child's simple joy over new shoes -- the more I realized that you can't get the latter without the fierce hope involved in the former. They're all tied up together.

Remembering and forgetting

I also had an argument with the filmmaker about the number of places in the film in which people said, "I can't remember" or "I'm just trying to forget."  Shouldn't the point of the film be to say "Never forget!" . . . ?

It was only when I pondered this problem that I recalled that there are abundant examples of remembering in the film -- such as the improvised memorial that the teacher places on the ground at the site of her former home . . . or the pictures of parents that the bride reverences before departing to her new home . . . or the images of the son and daughter-in-law that the old grandfather informs, "Everything is done" . . . or the account that the little boy has recorded in his copy book at the orphanage -- or, in fact, the scars and semi-healed wounds and destruction that surrounds the people everywhere they look.

I guess I wanted it to be "either/or" but the truth is that it's "both/and."

Like beauty and like the topic of hope, the topic of remembering and forgetting is essential to the truth of the film, and to the experience of activists working to abolish nuclear weapons. We won't live if we can't manage to forget, and yet we won't live if we don't manage to remember.

The possibility for beauty and hope and remembering and forgetting to exist -- for all of us -- in the world after Hiroshima: this is, ultimately, the subject of Children of Hiroshima.

A year and a half ago, I returned from a visit to Hiroshima and began writing a series of posts by asking, What does it mean to say, "We are ALL 'hibakusha'?"

I would now add the question, What does it mean to say, "We are ALL 'children of Hiroshima'?"

See also: more films and resources about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Frankenstein" -- Did Mary Shelley Predict Nuclear Weapons?

Mary Shelley
There are many voices contributing, in many ways, to the effort to extract us from nuclear peril.

Some voices come from the past.

For the past several weeks, I have been reading the novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. It is marvelous and prescient. It was first published in 1818. I became interested in Frankenstein after it was singled out by Paul Johnson as a watershed cultural event in his book, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830.

For me, as for most people, Frankenstein means the "monster" portrayed by Boris Karloff in the movies. But of course "Frankenstein" is the scientist, the one who imparts life to an assemblage of inanimate parts; indeed, the novel's full title is Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and the story is really about this man.

Frankenstein is about a man who is so carried away with what he finds himself able to do that he is heedless of the consequences. It is, indeed, a fable for the modern era; as someone concerned particularly about nuclear weapons, I find over and over that the words of the novel bring to mind the dilemma that human civilization finds itself in because of the activities of some among us who are most brilliant and privileged.

This morning I read a portion in which Frankenstein sees in himself one

whose selfishness,
had not hesitated
to buy its own peace
at the price,
of the existence of the whole human race.
                 (Frankenstein, Chapter 20)

Can there be any more precise description of the nuclear weapons states?

Who is this Mary Shelley, who two hundred years ago could have so brilliantly summed up the predicament that we would face in 2018?

Just a few chapters of this wonderful book remain - I find myself rushing forward to the conclusion, while simultaneously jamming on the brakes so that I can relish every word.

How will I satisfy myself when I reach the end?

Two possibilities suggest themselves: The Last Man, another Shelley novel, about what happens when human society brings itself to the brink of extinction; and the great account of the Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer: American Prometheus.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

"Denuclearization" - A Graphic to Focus the Mind

ICAN logo
I've recommended an important article in the New York Review of Books.

I featured the logo of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in my post. The post (and the article it recommended) was not about ICAN and the nuclear ban treaty -- at least not directly. But I used the image for three reasons.

Ad hominem

First: I have a strong objection to the image that did accompany the NYRB article. Oh, I think the graphic is very artistic, with its portrait of a deathly pale Kim Jong-un flanked by skulls. But I object to the use of it in connection with this article -- which is, after all, about multiple nuclear weapons states. The suggestion of death is appropriate to any discussion of nuclear weapons, but it is false to focus on the deadliness of a person instead of the deadliness of the nuclear weapons, themselves, and the nuclear weapons architecture and the roles people play in it.

Kim Jong-un by Siegried Woldhek in the New York Review of Books

This is especially true at a moment when people in the US -- that is, many of the very people who make up the readership of NYRB -- are struggling to develop a fact-based understanding of Korea, its northern and southern parts, and the role of the US in negotiations about conflict and nuclear weapons there. That's why I wrote A Checklist for Critically Reading (and Writing) About North Korea and Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?

(By the way: you could fault me for the many times I have used pejorative images of Donald Trump to suggest the danger he poses as the commander of US nuclear weapons. More to come on this subject . . . . )


Second, one of the essential points of the NYRB article is that the term "denuclearization" is being used by both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, but the two mean different things when they use it.

Kim means, in essence, "we want a situation in which we're not threatened by your nuclear weapons and you're not threatened by ours."

Trump means "we want a situation in which you give up your nuclear weapons capability and we keep ours."

Anyone who is familiar with US nuclear doctrine to date understands why Trump thinks his version is the way things work.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of Korea understands why Kim is committed to his version.

And what results is a discourse. People get to dig into the issue, learn about it, try to understand it, and discuss it with others.

So: back to that graphic. I believe that the ICAN logo -- the image of a nuclear weapon being broken -- is an image that helps us focus on the core discourse: denuclearization.

A Proprietary Image?

It's debatable whether the logo of ICAN is fair game for the Korea Spring and denuclearization. ICAN is not a party to the talks, and the talks are not connected to the central project of ICAN, the nuclear ban treaty -- directly.

And yet . . . .

The discourse on denuclearization is impossible to separate from the discourse on the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which has now become impossible to separate from the discourse on the global nuclear ban treaty.

Just as "Nature abhors a vacuum," people innately sense and reject inequity. The longstanding de facto architecture of nuclear weapons -- "some've got 'em and others don't get to have 'em" -- withers a little more each time another person comes to see it and think about it and understand it and talk about it.

And right now the Trump-Kim Summit is shining a bright light on the discourse of denuclearization and that inequity.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"Denuclearization": Let's Get Serious

Symbol of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
(Why here?)

I commend to all the article by Jessica T. Matthews in the May 10, 2018, New York Review of Books, "Jaw-Jaw Better Than War-War."

The crux is found in these three sentences:

Former defense secretary William J. Perry, who has years of experience with arms control, including a failed effort in Pyongyang twenty years ago, believes that the very modest goal of a ban on further nuclear and missile tests and on the export of nuclear technology is all that can be hoped for. He argues that it would be impossible to verify even a freeze in the number of existing warheads, much less cuts. There is a stunning contrast between the modest goals that might be realistically achievable in North Korea and the stringent cuts and verification measures already in place and working under the Iran deal.

(The article is dated April 10 - before Trump de-certified the Iran Deal.)

Three thoughts on getting serious about denuclearization:

Serious analysis: It's important to advocate for broad goals; it's also important to participate in thinking about the details. How we as a species are going to "unlearn" nuclear weapons technology is a problem filled with devilish details.  (More to come on this subject . . . . )

Serious conversations: It's important to participate in conversations with all kinds of people. I'm particularly interested in the role of people like Matthews and Perry right now -- the kind of people who hold many views on security and international affairs that I don't agree with, but who do carry tremendous influence with respect to the task in front of us.

By the way, the expression "jaw jaw better than war war" -- a Harold Macmillan/Winston Churchill mashup -- expresses a kind of crude, patronizing attitude, the condescension of the warrior-reluctantly-turned-diplomat (there's an unspoken "I suppose" there . . . ) and perfectly encapsulates the idea that it's worth putting up with some attitude in order to get some dialog.

(More to come on this subject, too.)

Serious citizenship: Predictably, the daily ups and downs connected to the Korean Spring continue. There's an important role for ordinary citizens like you and me: to help the wide array of people we interact with day-to-day understand the larger arc of what's happening -- between the two parts of Korea, between the US and Korea, and with denuclearization broadly.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Marukis' Antiwar Paintings: A Lesson in Collaboration

Toshi and Iri Maruki

Yesterday I began profiling a list of films about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Today I'm continuing with thoughts on one of those films: Hellfire - Journey from Hiroshima (Michael Camerini, 1986).

Hellfire - Journey from Hiroshima is a beautiful portrait, above all, of collaboration. In it, we meet the husband-and-wife team, Iri Maruki (1901-1995) and Toshi Maruki (1912-2000). I have long been an admirer of their Hiroshima panels, and of Toshi Maruki's book for children, Hiroshima no Pika (The Flash of Hiroshima). But I wasn't expecting to be as moved as I was by the story of how these two artists work together.

One of the reasons I loved Hellfire - Journey from Hiroshima is that it features long sequences of Iri and Toshi Maruki sharing a studio, working to complete their wall-sized artworks. Iri works standing, tracing figures onto the paper spread across the floor, using a brush with a long extension handle. Iri kneels, adding ink washes with a broad sweep.

The Marukis were trained in different styles -- traditional, expressionist, water-based ink vs. modern, realist, oil -- and in the film we get to see some of the ways they learned to synthesize their gifts and complement each other, and to do so without working at cross-purposes. We learn in the film that their shared vision sustained the Marukis, and that they concluded that, "If two people are alike, even oil and water will mix." What makes the film particularly interesting, however, is that in it the Marukis also tell us, very candidly, that they had to do a lot of hard experimentation, painting and re-painting over each other's work, before they found the right blend. Their successful collaboration came about despite a fair dose of "selfishness . . . stubbornness . . . dissatisfaction . . . ."

The film also describes another aspect of the Marukis' collaboration that I found instructive: their annual rhythm of devoting three seasons of the year to their respective art, and one season of the year (e.g. winter) to work together on a collaborative project.

from the Marukis' Hiroshima panels

The Marukis spent decades creating and promoting their panels documenting the terrors of war - Hiroshima, the Rape of Nanking, the Holocaust, and the atrocities on Okinawa. They did a lot of thinking about war and other types of violence, like the violence we do to our environment. "At a deep level, the violence we do in war and the violence we do in peace are the same," they say in the film.

Near the end of the film, speaking about their series of Hell panels, Toshi says that she and Iri came to understand that hell is not just a place for the great evildoers of history, like Hitler, but includes a very wide circle of people indeed. Ultimately, she concludes:

We are in hell
because we have been unable
to prevent war.

If all life on earth perishes
in a nuclear war,
no one will be saved;
we will all be responsible.

This brief film and the example of the Marukis is a powerful tool for all of us seeking inspiration for our collaboration with like-minded people to become able to prevent war, and to make sure life on earth doesn't perish in a nuclear war.

The story of the Marukis is also told in a book by one of the film's producers, the scholar John Dower: Hiroshima Murals: The Art of Iri Maruki and Toshi Maruki.

An animated video version of Hiroshima no Pika is available for viewing on Kanopy.

See also: more films and resources about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

FILM ABOUT HIROSHIMA: On Tanabe's "Message from Hiroshima"

Film series on Hiroshima on Filmstruck

There are five films related to Hiroshima featured on Filmstruck right now:

Children of Hiroshima (Kaneto Shindo, 1952)

Hiroshima (Hideo Sekigawa, 1953)

Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)

Hellfire - Journey from Hiroshima (Michael Camerini, 1986)

Message from Hiroshima (Masaaki Tanabe, 2015)

I've raised the importance of lifting up the experience of Hiroshima (see list of links below) and it's worth emphasizing it again. I've decided to post some brief notes on each of these films (plus one additional film, I Live in Fear (Akira Kurosawa, 1955), also available on Filmstruck) to my blog. Today I'm starting with Message from Hiroshima.

Filmmaker Masaaki Tanabe as a little boy.
(Image from "Remembering Hiroshima Through Cinema".)

Message from Hiroshima

Having recently visited Hiroshima, and walked around the exact ground featured in Masaaki Tanabe's Message from Hiroshima, I was deeply impressed by his film concept and how Tanabe carried it out.

Tanabe's concept is to encourage the viewer to connect to the people living in the neighborhood around the epicenter of the bomb -- as people. To do this, he combines testimony of survivors, old family photographs, footage of the places as they appear today, and computer simulations of the neighborhoods before the bomb struck.

What Tanabe has done here is so important -- getting beyond the well-known photographs of the destroyed buildings of Hiroshima, and the statistics, and enabling us to think of the individual victims as they lived their lives.

A shoe store . . . a temple . . . people playing and fishing in the river . . . games of hide-and-seek around the big ginkgo tree . . . women shopping for kimonos . . . and wigs . . .

I thought of having a meal with people in Hiroshima at an oyster boat restaurant on the river . . .

I imagined myself weaving through alleys full of children playing marbles and menko cards . . .

 . . . past the barber shop . . . the movie theater . . . the seafood store selling clams and seaweed and dried bonito . . . the public bath that stayed open until midnight so the shop owners could visit after they closed for the night . . . the mom-and-pop candy store (the one that sold the model airplanes).

After an hour watching the film and listening to George Takei's narration, I have a much more powerful sense of what one of the speakers means when he says, "Many souls of the dead call out, "I'm here!'"

(Watch trailer for Message from Hiroshima.)

(Read more about Message from Hiroshima: "Remembering Hiroshima Through Cinema" on the Golden Globes website.)

Additional posts in this series

The Marukis' Antiwar Paintings: A Lesson in Collaboration

Are We All "Children of Hiroshima"?

"Hiroshima Mon Amour" and the Horror of Forgetting

Nuclear Danger: Three Ways of Talking About the Unmentionable

Additional links to related posts

The Fire and Blast of Hiroshima: Why Are We Still Hiding It?

Can We Confront the Fire and Blast of Nuclear War and Still Remain Human? (Watching "Grave of the Fireflies")

"People Will Find the Way to Eliminate Nuclear Injury"

An extensive list of resources on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on this AFSC event page.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: "Korea's Place in the Sun" by Bruce Cumings

US President Donald Trump and North Korea President Kim Jong-un have set their summit for June 12 in Singapore.

Some people think this event will be all about North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Others realize it is much bigger -- it includes the resolution of the war that has left Korea divided, and about the US nuclear weapons program, too.

On the nuclear weapons topic -- those of both North Korea and long-standing "nuclear weapons states" like the US -- I've previously told readers here about a vital resource: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: ElBaradei's "Age of Deception."

For the important facts about Korea -- facts that most of us in the US seldom really hear about -- the book to read is "Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History," by Bruce Cumings.

If, like me, you like to start the story in the middle and then spread out in both directions, you might want to dive right into the section describing "The Division of Korea," which starts like this:

In the days just before Koreans heard the voice of Emperor Hirohito for the first time, broadcasting Japan's surrender and Korea's liberation [from four decades of being Japan's colony] on August 15, 1945, John J. McCloy of the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (SWNCC) directed two young colonels, Dean Rusk and Charles H. Bonesteel, to withdraw to an adjoining room and find a place to divide Korea. It was around midnight on August 10-11, the atomic bombs had been dropped, the Soviet Red Army had entered the Pacific War, and American planners were rushing to arrange the Japanese surrender throughout the region. Given thirty minutes to do so, Rusk and Bonesteel looked at a map and chose the thirty-eigth parallel because it "would place the capital city in the American zone"; although the line was "further north than could be realistically reached . . . in the event of Soviet disagreement," the Soviets made no objections -- which "somewhat surprised" Rusk. General Douglas MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific campaigns, issued General Order Number One for the Japanese surrender on August 15, including in it (and thus making public) the thirty-eighth parallel decision. The Russians accepted in silence this division into spheres, while demanding a Russian occupation of the northern part of Hokkaido in Japan (which MacArthur refused). (p. 186, 2005 edition)

This is just a taste. We who live in the US need to take much, much, much more responsibility for understanding how things got to be the way they are.

PS - I have previously referred to "Korea's Place in the Sun" - see Korea: A History of Living Under Nuclear Terror.

PPS - Bruce Cumings is one of a handful of scholars in the US who have, for decades, been urging a much more thoughtful approach by US people to the affairs of the countries of Asia - see A Checklist for Critically Reading (and Writing) About North Korea.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Seven Days in May (2018)

Movie poster for Seven Days in May
I have been quietly thinking about and awaiting the events of "Korea Spring" - particularly the meeting between the leaders of South Korea and North Korea, and the meeting between the leaders of the US and North Korea.

"Korea Spring" has the potential to contribute substantially to global peace and denuclearization . . .

 . . . but only if sovereignty, diplomacy, and constitutionality are respected.

The news today that the Trump Administration has renounced the Iran Deal throws those values very much into question.

A few nights ago I watched a movie from the '60s: Seven Days in May.  It's about a US government effort to implement a peace treaty, and to eliminate nuclear weapons . . . and about an attempt to seize power by those who oppose those goals.

It is a worthy complement to the other film I recently mentioned here: Dr. Strangelove. (See Doomsday Machine: Same As It Ever Was . . . .)

Could something like this really ever happen? Well, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was concerned enough about who's taking orders from whom, and how our leaders interpret the US Constitution, that it held a hearing on these issues at the end of 2017:  "Authority to Order the Use of Nuclear Weapons," November 14, 2017.

Do you ever wonder who's running the show?

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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Doomsday Machine: Same As It Ever Was . . . .

Dr. Strangelove . . . Strangelove . . . Strangelove . . .

We've got to try a thousand different ways of getting people to wake up to the danger posed by nuclear weapons, and to do something about it.

I was reminded of the fact that no one is in possession of the one solution today while reading Joan Didion's essays in the collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I come across a long riff on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

Didion is loaded for bear on the perceived presumptuousness of auteurs ("Ask what [filmmakers] plan to do with their absolute freedom, with their chance to make a personal statement, and they will pick an 'issue,' a 'problem.' The 'issues' they pick are generally no longer real issues . . . . ") and films that failed to hold her attention ("Dr. Strangelove was essentially a one-line gag, having to do with the difference between all other wars and nuclear war"), and in this essay dated 1964 I can't help suspecting that she wrote it fresh from a screening of Kubrick's film, which was released that year.

By the time George Scott had said "I think I'll mosey on over to the War Room" and Sterling Hayden had said "Looks like we got ourselves a shootin' war" and the SAC bomber had begun heading for its Soviet targets to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," Kubrick had already developed a full fugue upon the theme, and should have started counting the minutes until it would begin to pall. (Picador edition, p. 226-7)

The essay in which this review appears is called, "I Can't Get That Monster out of My Mind," and it is notable that the "monster" Didion is referring to is the Hollywood establishment, the alleged-by-some-to-be-inhibiting studio system. In other words: maybe she's not giving Kubrick's art a chance because she's not really focused on how challenging the issue of nuclear weapons really is.

And maybe I'm just touchy because I watched Dr. Strangelove again a few weeks ago, and thought, "My God, what more could we have asked for? Why, in 2018, do we still need to have a "Virtual Roundtable on Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons," why does the Senate Foreign Relations Committee still need to hold hearings on the nuclear weapon command structure? Kubrick laid it all out for us in 1964!"

And don't just take my word for it: Daniel Ellsberg describes seeing Dr. Strangelove with a colleague when it first came out in 1964:

We came out into the afternoon sunlight, dazed by the light and the film, both agreeing that what we had just seen was, essentially, a documentary. (We didn't yet know -- nor did SAC -- that existing strategic operational plans, whether for first strike or retaliation, constituted a literal Doomsday Machine, as in the film.) (The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, p. 65))

This was written at a time when Ellsberg was investigating in minute detail exactly the kind of command issues for nuclear bomb delivery that are the material of Dr. Strangelove.

We couldn't ask for it to be much more explicit or obvious.

So: what's it gonna take? What next? What is to be done?

Obviously, we need to try the thousand-and-first way of getting people to wake up to the danger posed by nuclear weapons, and to do something about it.

For my part, I'm working on a screenplay about a guy working on a screenplay about the dangers of nuclear weapons and he goes to see a retired nuclear planner and is told that the story has already been told with perfect precision by Dr. Strangelove and then . . . .

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Friday, March 23, 2018

The US and North Korea: Suspense, Discomfort, Regret

The New Yorker, September 18, 2017
In light of the sobering news that John Bolton will become National Security Advisor to Donald Trump, I'm continuing with my analysis of an article about North Korea by zeroing in on some points that I hope people take away from that article.

Now more than ever we need lots and lots of people to participate in the process of reading, thinking, and speaking critically.

As in previous posts, I'll continue to use the up/down/level scoring approach as I discuss how this information was presented in "Letter from Pyongyang: On the Brink," by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker, September 18, 2017 (online: "The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea").

Suspense: Will the US go to war?

I'm particularly interested in war powers, and whether "we, the People," have the ability to constrain the president. I mentioned in my post two days ago that I sat up and took notice when I read the part of "Letter from Pyongyang" about the North Korean official asking "who decides?" (article paragraph 25). I was also struck by the following paragraph, which appeared a few pages later:

Occasionally Pak misread something that was hard to discern from far away. He told me, "The United States is a divided country. It has no appetite for war." On some level, that was true -- the United States is a divided country, and it is tired of fighting wars in the Middle East, in South Asia -- but he would be wrong to assume that these facts would, with absolute assurance, prevent the Trump Administration from launching a strike on North Korea. (article paragraph 64)

That, my friends, is called "burying the lede." In my opinion, it is the most important paragraph in the entire article, and trumps (no pun intended) anything else written there, even (or especially) the most lurid anecdotes or rumors about North Korea.

Evan Osnos is confronting us with the fact that the US has lost control of war-making authority.

Not coincidentally, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on this very subject in November.

Nonetheless, I rated this paragraph "level," i.e. because it was focused on the US, I couldn't feel it impacting the notion that North Korea is "bad" one way or the other.

By the way, paragraph 5 of the article describes Osnos' plan for his reporting trip: "Before my arrival in North Korea, I spent time in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing; many people in those places, it turned out, are asking the same things about the United States." In this paragraph, "the same things" means "the kind of violence that their country so often threatens" and "[w]ere the threats serious, or mere posturing?" . . . and would those threats result in war. Unfortunately, the structure of the paragraph is so front-loaded with focus on North Korea doing "those things" that the reader is unlikely to give equal weight to the role of the US in all this, much less the heavy weight it (in my opinion) deserves. As a result, I rated that paragraph a "down," i.e. it tended to reinforce the impression that North Korea is "bad."

In paragraph 48, a school child asks Osnos, "Why is America trying to provoke a war with us? And what right do they have to block us from building our own nuclear weapon?" Osnos writes that "[t]his did not seem the occasion for rigorous analysis or debate. I mumbled some bromides about hoping that things would get better. The boy seemed unimpressed." I rated this paragraph a "down," because I think the main impression that the average reader gets is, "What is a ten-year-old doing thinking about this? They've been brainwashed! War-crazed North Koreans . . . . " (Personally, I think the paragraph is brilliantly . . . really "meta." To those who have ears to hear, Osnos is asking, "Well, what is the time and place to start analyzing this whole thing rigorously? Hello? Readers? Anyone awake out there?")

Discomfort: when war and weaponry are visible

One reason I rated many elements of the Osnos article a "down" is because they involved described talk of war and weaponry in North Korea. The irony, of course, is that this is liable to strike the average US reader as "war-obsessed." US people are in the curious situation of living in a state that is has the world's highest level of military spending, and is the world's largest weapons export, and is involved in armed conflicts all over the world . . .  and/but does a phenomenal job of keeping all of that out of sight, and out of the minds of the populace.

Paragraphs 65-78 of the article (down, down, down, down, level, level, level, down, down, down, down, down, down) describe frequent mentions of war and weaponry, and the apparent belief on the part of the North Koreans that they can endure the suffering of war. On this last point, Osnos challenges his host:

     But, to state the obvious, I said, risking a premature end to a friendly meal, a nuclear exchange would not be comparable.
    "A few thousand would survive," Pak said. "And the military would say, 'Who cares? As long as the United States is destroyed, then we are all starting from the same line again.'" He added, "A lot of people would die. But not everyone would die."
(article paragraphs 77-78)

"A lot of people would die. But not everyone would die." I think that sounds to the average reader like, "The North Koreans are crazy. They've been brainwashed into thinking they can survive a nuclear war."

This might be an opportune moment to pause and look at a graphic of global nuclear weapons holdings:

So many exist, ready to be used . . . .
The world's nuclear weapon count (August, 2014):

So: who's crazy? The people thinking about how many people will survive nuclear war? Or the people living in the country with 7,000+ nuclear warheads (2014 total) who never even think about it?

Regret: things could've been different

Osnos does a good job of providing the recent diplomatic history. I just wish it weren't buried so deep in the article.

Paragraph 82 gives an account of Kim Jong Un's Father, Kim Jong Il, as someone who came close to "forging peace with the United States" c. 2000. (Four "ups" in a single paragraph.)

Paragraph 83 describes how the US dropped the ball as the Clinton Administration ended and the Bush Administration began. (I bet US readers gloss over the significance of this: level.)

Paragraph 84 reminds us of Bush's inclusion of North Korea in an "axis of evil." (Level, at best. The word "evil" tends to poison the well of this particular paragraph.)

Which brings us back to John Bolton. (See the "Beyond the Axis of Evil" speech. Given the sudden turn Bolton's appointment represents, it is now more than ever incumbent on every US citizen to take personal responsibility for a truth-based approach to understanding the US, understanding North Korea, and understanding the US-North Korea situation.

Your own close reading of the Osnos article is a good place to start.

(To be continued.)

Additional posts in this series:

A Checklist for Critically Reading (and Writing) About North Korea.

North Korea: Who Am I To Look At You?

When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer"

Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?

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