Sunday, May 29, 2016

We Can Choose

Today is the 99th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's birth.   There are people among us older than that.  Yet he has been dead for more than 50 years. Fifty years of our recent history. The tragedy of the assassination never ends.

 President Obama's speech at Hiroshima on Friday (see below) inevitably reminded me of President Kennedy's American University speech, for the visionary aspect of both.

 Kennedy's speech was met with some outrage, as it directly countered the Cold War orthodoxy of the day. Yet it broke the ice that led within a year to the first nuclear weapons treaty in history.  Without specific political proposals, Obama's speech was met with indifference, though it also countered the apocalyptic, mechanistic orthodoxies of today.

It did not deal with the latest nuclear threats, which are very worrying.  It's not just the pathetic but dangerous braggadocio of North Korea--there's a much more threatening new emphasis on bigger and more powerful nuclear weapons in Putin's Russia, coupled with the conviction among some in eastern Europe that Russia might even use them there.  The obvious weapons testing aspect of Russia's operations in Syria are also worrying.

Obama also did not make the point I believe needs to be made often, as awareness is slipping of what nuclear weapons really are.  They are not just somewhat bigger bombs, as portrayed in recent video games and movies.  But I fear that's what many people consider them.  (As for the indifference and ignorance to nuclear weapons expansions in the news, that's not a new pattern.  I noted it in my San Francisco Chronicle piece on the 40th anniversary of  JFK's American University speech in 2003.)

But what Obama did say comports with JFK's speech in describing the real consequences of nuclear war, though Obama kept it in the context of modern warfare as a whole.

The main point made by JFK was given a contemporary resonance by Obama.  JFK put it this way: "First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many of us think it is unreal. But that is dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable - - that mankind is doomed - - that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.

We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade - - therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable - - and we believe they can do it again."

In the intervening decades we learned some necessary humility and appreciation for limits, that in some respects at least humanity can't be as big as it wants.  But the central point Obama expressed for our day, when in particular our savants of psychology etc. are insisting that people are basically computers that must obey their genetic programming, which moreover is as simple as it is inescapable.

 Here is Obama's key statement that I believe is the most important in this speech: "We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story –- one that describes a common humanity; one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted."

President Obama does not have the counsel of an elder JFK but he has his speeches and example.  In that sense he lives on in the White House.

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