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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