Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Dr. Strangelove in the war room Posted by Picasa
Nuclear Lessons: The Sanity Clause

There were many influential figures in the history of nuclear weapons, but perhaps the most important didn’t actually exist: his name was Doctor Strangelove.

Strangelove came to symbolize the essential madness of nuclear war. In a previous essay, I wrote about how nuclear war was averted through a common global sense that it was suicidal and immoral. But there was another element to the consensus: that nuclear war was evidence of insanity. Not just madness in the loose sense, but in the sense of mental derangement. The view that came to prevail was that only a species that had gone mad would engage in a war that would destroy itself.

This was one of the psychological aspects of the Cold War nuclear stand-off—probably the healthiest, in that it was a factor in preventing nuclear war. But there were other psychological aspects that were less amusing or healthy, like helpless fear and anxiety, and dangerous projections and denial that threatened to provoke rather than restrain nuclear war. Now, in facing the prospect of a different kind of nuclear war or even the other potential catastrophes of our time, we are still haunted by these psychological spectres.

text continues after photos

Dr. Strangekahn Posted by Picasa
Invented for a 1964 movie of that title, Dr. Strangelove was likely based on several men, including Nazi-turned-U.S. rocket scientist Werner von Braun and geopolitical strategist Henry Kissinger, but probably primarily on nuclear scientist Edward Teller and nuclear war futurist Herman Kahn. Teller zealously promoted the H-Bomb and the arms race, as well as grandiose schemes such as using atomic bomb explosions as excavation tools. Kahn…well, Kahn is another story.

Once it became likely that the next war could be an atomic one, the U.S. military wanted to know what to expect. A project within the Douglas Aircraft Company which soon spun off to become the Rand Corporation, and one of its guiding lights was Herman Kahn. Kahn and Rand made some lasting contributions to how we think about the future. Together with scientists at M.I.T. and elsewhere, they were among the pioneers of systems dynamics. Kahn developed and popularized the idea of developing “scenarios” to project a combination of chosen factors into a story of future happenings. Out of this emerged a technique common to all kinds of “futurists,” and computer “war games,” the basis for a lot of electronic gaming today. And we talk about “scenarios” all the time now, though before Kahn it was specialized theatrical term.

But in “Thinking the Unthinkable” and other works on nuclear war, Kahn was also the inventor or at least the popularizer of such terms as "deterrence" and "throw-weight" or the ghastly jargon of "megatons," and "megadeaths." Kahn insisted on the "rationality of irrationality" in studying nuclear war, and he advocated the Cold War situation which came to pass: two sides armed with the “overkill” capacity to destroy each other and humankind several times over, and with the technology to respond to an attack (or a presumed attack) with enough nuclear weapons to destroy its destroyers. This would be the basis of deterrence. He called this doctrine Mutually Assured Destruction. He used its acronym: MAD.

Doctor Strangelove was demonstrably mad in a characteristic nuclear age way. He spoke very rationally and intelligently about mass murder and global suicide. As played brilliantly by Peter Sellers, he was confused in his allegiances—was he serving democracy, or Hitler? Even his body was split, with a “paralyzed” arm that when he was about to commit the ultimate insanity, tried to choke him.

He was not the only crazy character. There was George C. Scott as a combination of several military leaders, who talked of millions of deaths as “getting our hair mussed,” and carried around a folder that said “the world in megadeaths.” But the moviemakers had trouble making the movie crazier than reality. General Jack D. Ripper (who started nuclear war to protect his “precious bodily fluids”) was based on a general whose real name was General Powers. He once said that if there are three people left alive after a nuclear war and two are American, it means we won.

In fact, the moviemakers had intended to make a serious drama, but the more they researched the subject the more they became convinced that it was all so crazy that the appropriate tone was as a “nightmare comedy.” The mood of the movie is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, particularly their satire on war, “Duck Soup.” In another movie, Groucho and Chico negotiate a contract. Chico rejects every clause including the last one, the sanity clause. He says he won’t be fooled, because “there is no sanity clause.” That pretty much is the message of “Doctor Strangelove.”

"I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness"--Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Posted by Picasa
Excavating the Madness

The madness of nuclear war was not always apparent to the public as a whole, or at least not articulated in that way. The first reactions to Hiroshima were of horror, and the need to control nuclear weapons. But once the arms race began, there was considerable pressure to support the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. government worried about how the public was dealing psychologically with the atomic age. They waited for psychological studies, but none emerged, because the public didn’t seem to be feeling anything. Eventually, the government quietly sponsored research into why the public wasn't reacting. The theories ranged from "cognitive dissonance" to a kind of apathy later identified as "learned helplessness," to the simple but powerful psychological defense mechanism known as denial.

Denial was undeniably the national pastime of the 1950s, encouraged by the surface sunniness of suburbia and the patriotic repression of McCarthyism. But what ordinary people faced was that their ordinary life could be transformed in a split second into hellfire. No one could ever know how much the Bomb contributed to neuroses and psychoses, alcoholism and drug addiction, infidelity, domestic violence, and divorce, or to depressions that could be a crippling sense of pointlessness, or a lower-intensity, underlying sense of futility. But eventually there was public evidence of how the Bomb changed the psychological state of the times.

The pressure of MADness fueled an age of black humor and absurdism. Satire blossomed in the 1960s, with “Beyond the Fringe,” “That Was the Week That Was,” Firesign Theatre and edgier standup comedy by Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and others.

There were also serious explorations of just how insane this society might be, by Eric Fromm (The Sane Society), Lewis Mumford (In the Name of Sanity) and others. Beat poets, absurdist playwrights and novelists explored similar themes.

George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove Posted by Picasa
By the early 60s, the madness of nuclear war was being expressed and reinforced in popular culture by jokes and cartoons which emphasized the absurdity, and by novels, movies and television dramas which emphasized the horror. Though the horror and absurdity blended even in daily life (ask a Boomer about “Duck & Cover”), the two weren’t brought together and expressed until Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.”

Though it was controversial at the time, “Dr. Strangelove” became at least as important as John Hershey’s book, “Hiroshima,” the Stanley Kramer film, “On the Beach,” and much later, Nicholas Meyer’s TV film, “The Day After,” in both forming and expressing common responses and beliefs about nuclear war. “Dr. Strangelove” expressed the sane view that nuclear war was insane. That deep psychological consensus, in my view, was a major factor in preventing anyone from starting a nuclear war.

Since the Berlin Wall fell, the constant psychological as well as moral presence of nuclear war has faded. New generations didn’t live through that time, even though the threat of accidental nuclear war is as real today as it was then, and we have plenty of evidence that the potential for that kind of madness exists in our government and military.

My previous essays on nuclear war, especially relating to the possible nuclear attack on Iraq, sought to bring into light some of the lessons of those years: that nuclear weapons are not just bigger bombs, but unleash destruction that is different in kind as well as scale, especially through the long-term and potentially widespread effects of radiation. That because of the Bomb’s history, and the sense of immorality attached to their use, nuclear weapons are considered in a special category around the world, and the next use of them in war will likely bring immense geopolitical consequences.

To these I add the assertion that nuclear war was averted without either a coercive or cooperative world government or authority, largely because of a shared sense that however rational scientists, political and military leaders pretend it is, nuclear war is insane. We know they are all Dr. Strangelove. We need to remind ourselves of that.

There is another pertinent psychological implication—the danger that, from the power-mad leaders to the fear and despair of ordinary people, the use of nuclear weapons can itself drive a society or perhaps all of humankind insane.

Some of the responses to my previous essays expressed fears and anxieties that are very similar to those experienced earlier in the atomic age. The sense of helplessness feeds these fears. So in the remainder of this essay, I want to suggest two strategies for dealing with the psychological impact of nuclear weapons.

Carl Jung Posted by Picasa
Two Strategies

In 1957, an aged Carl Jung was interviewed extensively for an educational film made by a Texas scholar. Probably the most quoted lines from those interviews are these:

“Nowadays particularly, the world hangs on a thin thread. Assume that certain fellow in Moscow lose their nerve or their common sense for a bit; then the whole world is in violent flames.” After pointing out that there is no such thing in nature as an H-bomb, he continues: “…that is all man’s doing. We are the great danger. The psyche is the great danger. What if something goes wrong with the psyche?”

But Jung didn’t mean just about the psyche of leaders (talking to a U.S. interviewer, he was gracious enough not to mention certain fellows in Washington as well as Moscow.) He meant everyone.

“And so it is demonstrated to us in our days what the power of psyche is, how important it is to know something about it. But we know nothing about it. Nobody would give credit to the idea that the psychical processes of the ordinary man have any importance whatever.”

This is just as true today. We know relatively nothing about the human psyche, and we talk on the level of politics, policy, government, business, society as if the human psyche doesn’t exist or is of no importance—as if the field of politics is governed by its own rules only, and is entirely rational and conscious.

But when something like the prospect of nuclear war or the Climate Crisis awakens fears and anxieties in us that are hard to consciously control, or when we plunge into depression because Karl Rove is getting away with it, the psyche asserts itself in a way that we can see.

But even the simplest conceptual tools developed by Jung and others would be immensely useful in both analyzing our situation and in dealing with our own responses. Simply admitting that a phenomenon called the unconscious exists, and learning how powerful it is, how its manifestations mask themselves as rational products of consciousness, would be a tremendous start.

The concept of denial has entered the lexicon. But of at least equal importance is the concept of projection, of seeing in others the qualities and behavior you fear in yourself.

We know nothing about it, was Jung’s cry of pain at the end of a long career. Basic psychological concepts are essential tools of peace, globally and personally. Some of the understanding that eludes us when we don’t use them is possible when we do.

We can learn something about the psyche as a strategy—about our own and perhaps the psychological concepts that applied to the public discourse could help to change things for the better.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Posted by Picasa
This is a general strategy. There is a more specific one that applies to many other issues and our general situation. It has to do with dealing with fear, despair and the sense of futility.

One reason we feel so vulnerable is inherent in our “either/or” way of thinking, an essential element in the 5,000 year history of what we call civilization. It may come as quite a shock to us that so-called primitive humans as far back as the Pleistocene had a more complex response to their reality.

For example, as they felt very close to animals, consciously learned from them, and considered them the embodiment of essential spirits. Yet they hunted and killed them. Scholars of the period such as Paul Shepard believe this deeply troubled them, but they developed a more complex way of seeing reality, which to our thinking would be paradoxical, though to theirs was a kind of natural spirituality.

Dealing with contradictions in our own lives has been a challenge for a long time, and going on living when great catastrophe can strike at any time is a challenge of our time.

In his novel, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells created a time Traveller who sees humanity as we know it end in the future, and he sees the earth eventually become lifeless. How can anyone avoid despair with such knowledge?

“I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been," the Traveller recalled. " It had committed suicide." In an epilogue, the Traveller’s best friend acknowledges that the Traveller "thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end."

The friend’s conclusion is a single sentence that also sums up Wells’ lifelong faith: “If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so."

This is not acceptance of evil in our time, or complacency or denial, but acceptance of the rightness of our struggles and our lives regardless of the ultimate outcome. It’s summarized also in a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who mentions Wells several time in his first novel.

"…the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

That’s the part of his statement most often quoted, usually with reference to Keats’ theory of ‘negative capability.” But Fitzgerald went on, in a more Wellsian vein, and in a way that speaks most directly to us today:

“One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Monday, June 12, 2006

Jerome Kagan Posted by Picasa


To Make A Better World

This spring , Yale University Press has published summary works by two distinguished Americans in different fields that address attitudes and actions forming our common world : the famed psychologist and writer Jerome Kagan, and the veteran expert on public opinion and social values research, Daniel Yankelovich. Both books are of special interest to their disciplines but in this era of boundlessly bounded expertise, both are of immense value to a wider readership. This relevance reflects the careers and lifelong concerns of both authors to relate their work to the general welfare, and to the major public dialogues of their times.

continued here at Books In Heat.