The Heart of the Future

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Last week’s announcement from Moscow, of a new treaty between the U.S. and Russia to begin cutting their nuclear stockpiles by a quarter to a third, is indeed “modest” and perhaps downright “disappointing” in its tentativeness, as critics have pointed out.

Even so, the heart of the future beats here.

To cobble such an accord together, the Eagle and the Bear have to dance an awkward, uncomfortable dance. They have to go against their natures, vacate, you might say, their souls and begin letting go, for the sake of a vague higher good, what they cherish most deeply: their claws, their fangs, their ferocity.

This is nuclear ferocity, of course, and it’s absurd, but I think I’m beginning to understand at last a lifetime of intense disappointment in the realm of disarmament, nuclear and otherwise.

A nation, in concept and reality, is something more than a mega-bureaucracy of taxes, services and armed self-defense. It is, rather, everything the most ardent patriots say it is: ordinary people fused into a sacred whole through struggle and sacrifice, an ideal woven out of blood and glory, larger than the sum of its parts, crowned by a flag, symbolized in spirit by a predatory animal. And therein lies the problem.

“From the very beginning, the principle of nationalism was almost indissolubly linked, both in theory and practice, with the idea of war,” writes Michael Howard in The Lessons of History, quoted by Barbara Ehrenreich in her excellent study of the roots of war, Blood Rites.

“Citizens who brawl on the streets are punished,” writes Ehrenreich. “Nations that go to war are feared and often respected. . . . At a more archaic level of the imagination, the nation-as-organism becomes something more, or less, than human. Here is a ‘creature’ that, according to Hegel, requires blood in order to sustain its life — the blood of actual human beings. We recognize, in this view of a nation, another version of humanity’s primordial enemy and original deity: the predator beast.”

We naked apes, in the millennia since consciousness evolved into thought, have forged in our fear and defenselessness great clumsy creatures called nations, which have a momentum seemingly beyond human ability to control, and which are both modeled after and behave like the predators who terrorized us for most of our time here on this planet, according to Ehrenreich. And whether or not these creations have lives of their own, we speak of them as though they do.

Consider, for example, these fragments of typical reportage, from an AP account of the post-summit set-to this week between the Eagle and the Bear, when the warship USS Stout anchored belligerently off the coast of Georgia and Russian jets later bombed pretend targets in a show of counter-force near the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Notice the lack of individual volition and responsibility. Think, instead, “rawwkk” and “grrrrr” writ very large:

“Georgia is still seething over what it views as Russia’s occupation of South Ossetia after the August conflict.

“Georgia’s military cooperation with the United States irritates Moscow.

“. . . both countries expressed hope for repairing relations that in recent years have sunk to a post-Cold War low.”

Such language purports to make human behavior comprehensible, even logical, by abstracting organized murder on a global scale, and the flaunting and strutting that accompanies it, into the actions of sacred entities — superhuman, predatory — to which we puny individuals owe total allegiance. We even call this reality, or at least realpolitik, but it’s madness. To put it more charitably, it’s an abstraction that has outlived its usefulness.

Thus author Jonathan Schell, interviewed recently on “Democracy Now!” about the new U.S.-Russian commitment to reduce nuclear stockpiles, noted incredulously: “When the Cold War ended . . . we wound up with a situation that has no political foundation, in which these two countries are still threatening to annihilate one another on hair trigger alert. . . . We like to think that something as important as a nuclear arsenal would have a reason behind it, but none really has been articulated for the last 20 years.”

Instead, he explained, the nations’ ongoing nuclear buildup has “drifted into a kind of policy-free zone, just to a kind of a stupid momentum.”

If we envision a nuclear-free world, the agreement reached by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama to reduce their nations’ nuclear arsenals to 1,500 warheads can easily seem minimalist in the extreme.

It’s up to us to demand that it be, rather, a new beginning, a cessation of the momentum of sheer belligerence, and that more far-reaching agreements follow. This becomes possible as we pledge, in ever-mounting numbers, our highest allegiance to peace and the future, and stop giving that allegiance to beasts of prey.