Monday, March 5, 2018

The Best of Times, or the Worst of Times?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .” So began Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the historical novel set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. That was then, but what about now?
Pinker’s Rosy Picture
Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard University. His latest book was released last month under the title “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
Pinker, born in Canada in 1954, is also the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). In that book as well as in his new one, Pinker writes how in spite of all the “doom and gloom” talk that surrounds us, the world is getting better in almost every way.
“A perfect future,” a review of Pinker’s new book, was published in the Feb. 24 issue of The Economist. It concluded, “Mr Pinker’s broad point is surely right. Things are not falling apart. And barring a cataclysmic asteroid strike or nuclear war, it is likely that they will continue to get better.”
The chances of an asteroid strike are completely unknown, but nuclear warfare is seemingly a distinct possibility in the near future—and that certainly would obliterate Pinker’s rosy picture of the present state of the world.
Picturing a Nuclear Arms Race
“Making America Nuclear Again” was the title of the cover story of the Feb. 12 issue of Time magazine. The lead article, posted online on Feb. 1, is “Donald Trump Is Playing a Dangerous Game of Nuclear Poker.”  
Author W.J. Hennigan contends that the Trump Administration “is convinced that the best way to limit the spreading nuclear danger is to expand and advertise its ability to annihilate its enemies.” In addition, DJT “has signed off on a $1.2 trillion plan to overhaul the entire nuclear-weapons complex.”
Citing the Trump Administration’s “Nuclear Posture Review” as one of its reasons, in January the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced movement of the Doomsday Clock hands 30 seconds closer to midnight—the closest to ”doomsday” it has been since 1953. (See this article.)
Since then, just last Thursday President Putin of Russia claimed that Russia was developing new nuclear weapons that could overcome any U.S. missile defenses. This Washington Post article pictures what clearly seems to be a new nuclear arms race.
Picturing a Nuclear Free World
Do you remember ICAN? It seems not to be widely known, but it is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons—and it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2017.
Perhaps it can be said that ICAN is seeking to use “reason, science, humanism, and progress,” which Pinker emphasizes in his new book, to picture a world much different than the one now developing because of the belligerence—and fear—of the political leaders of North Korea, Russia, and the United States.

Partly as a result of ICAN’s advocacy, in July 2016 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was approved by the United Nations with affirmative votes by 122 (out of 193) member nations (with 71 not voting). (Here is a link to the treaty’s full text.)

When, or if, the TPNW is ratified by fifty UN members, it will become international law—with nuclear weapons being outlawed just as chemical and biological weapons have been in the past.

To date, only five nations (Cuba, Guyana, the Holy See, Mexico, and Thailand) have ratified the TPNW, but 56 have signed it.

So which is it? Is this the best of times or the worst of times? With ratification of the TPNW perhaps it could be the former.


  1. It is surely the best of times -- so far. Will it remain so? Nobody knows. But the current challenges and dangers would seem to require the best of conservative and liberal thinking in collaborative negotiation. Too bad that the U.S., with a few exceptions, no longer has a robust conservatism.

    1. Thanks, Anton, for reading and responding to my new blog article. I was impressed with your call for the best in conservative as well as liberal thinking, since you seem clearly to be in the latter arena. And I agree that there don't seem to be many good examples of good/true conservative thinking in the U.S. at the present time--but the country certainly needs the best thinking possible on both sides of the political spectrum.

  2. Thanks, Leroy. I have read Pinker's 2011 book (The Better Angels of our Nature), but will look forward to this new one--I think. What I wanted to remark in your post, though, is not anything that diminishes the importance of, or your concern for, the return of nuclear proliferation in the U.S. It does concern me, too-- like gun violence, economic inequality, growing anger, and then there's warming oceanic waters and James Lovelock's warning (from 2013) that by 2050 we'd better be seeking higher, cooler ground.

    What strikes me, though, is the rhetorical position of dichotomous extremes you have taken (or that you've borrowed from Pinker, or Dickens), "best or worst." I wish even the situation with nuclear weapons were so dichotomously clear cut (the threat of proliferation around the world has been ongoing, and further, it has been happening since mid 1990s--remember India and Pakistan?). Isn't there a way to discuss even something as singularly destructive as nuclear weapons, and climate change/global warming etc. as more complicated than good or bad?

    Richard Thaler, recent Nobel Prize winner in Behavioral Economics, reminds us that people are not rational. They have the capability to be, but, in fact, most of us get through our days and lives without having to draw on much of it. We get by on heuristics: rules of thumb, aphorisms that encapsulate reality or abbreviate larger, more complex realities. Don't our policy makers exploit this? And, aren't they themselves guilty of it? But shouldn't we challenge that approach? I'll be looking to see how Pinker addresses this.

    James Kwak's recent book, Economism (2017), condemns the simplistic economic models, the heuristics, that are used to justify current economic policy making. He does a thorough job, not of overturning economic modeling altogether but of challenging the damaging conclusions that come from trying to simplify really complicated economic issues which, he argues, comprise the strategies of current policy makers.

    I wonder if more nuanced rhetoric, which allows for greater complexity in understanding why nations want to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, might not also apply to your query. It's not that this time is merely the best or the worst. It's more complicated than that, isn't it?

    1. Milton, thanks so much for reading this morning's blog article and for taking the time to write such substantial comments.

      Your comments point out a weakness in my article: in the second part of it I conflated the build up of nuclear weapons with the possible (probable?) use of such weapons.

      Certainly there are rational arguments for seeing having/upgrading nuclear weapons as an important means for keeping one's nation safe from attack--which is exactly, I think, why North Korea is trying to develop such weapons. While I fully support ICAN and the UN's TPNW, I can also see the logic of those who are on the other side. And, as you say, real-life situations are always more complicated, more nuanced, than can be dealt with by a simple dichotomy of extremes.

      What I really wanted to say about "the worst of times," though, is that the use of nuclear weapons (not just their production) would make this the worst of times. I think a new arms race makes the possibility of the use of such weapons more likely. But my main concern/fear is not what will happen in the future with the development of new weapons but what might soon happen with the weapons the U.S. already has given the erratic nature of the current Commander in Chief.

  3. Here are comments received early this afternoon from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "I like to think of myself as an optimist but I am also a realist.

    "First, since the time of Adam, man has made poor choices about critical, moral issues. We have seen a slow and subtle decline in the moral character of civilization from that time.

    "Secondly, the Bible is clear about the world ending in a cataclysmic disaster after which there will be 'a new heaven and new earth.'

    "Thirdly, since the harnessing of nuclear power, we know how to destroy this planet ourselves. I'm sure your 'Thinking Friends,' will come up with other evidences of this sad trend.

    "Thanks for making us think about things we don't want to think about."

  4. And then about 15 minutes ago I received these comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "We need to mobilize peacemakers again as we did in the Reagan era. If churches have any concern for the future of humanity, they should speak."

  5. With the spread of nuclear armed nations, it is probably good that we have THAAD coming online, and that Pres Obama set us on the road to nuclear modernization. It is the rogue nations who worry me, not the Russians. Small tactical bombs are probably good for eliminating their nuclear facilities. Those can actually be amazingly small but capable of packing a very localized and focused punch.

  6. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is probably a good thing, but Putin is (perhaps erroneously) claiming new weapons that such defense will not stop. And, yes, North Korea is more likely to be a greater threat to the U.S. than Russia. But even the preemptive use of "small tactical bombs" in North Korea would likely lead to retaliation upon South Korea (with likely fallout very seriously affecting Japan) and escalation to military (nuclear?) conflict with Russia.

    I think any talk of preemptive strikes, even with conventional weapons, should be opposed in the strongest possible terms.

  7. Speaking of your final line, I find it sad that there is not much availability to international news and happenings. One can find BBC on NPR at certain times, and I have access to friends around the world, but most Americans have a very limited perspective on the world.

    1. Yes, I'm afraid most Americans know little--and care little--about what people in other parts of the world think and how they understand world events.

  8. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago sent the following comments for posting here:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your observations about nuclear weapons.

    "The U.S.and its allies should be firmly committed to eliminating nuclear weapons, but until all nations with such weapons agree to do so, it will not happen.

    "As a possible tactic toward this end, the U.S.could begin by reducing its nuclear stockpile by ten percent and then challenging the other nuclear powers to do so. That would still leave the U S with more than enough weapons to obliterate the planet. If, however, the reductions occur, then we could push for another ten percent reduction and so on.

    "Although the odds of an intentional nuclear war are not very great, there is considerable concern about starting one accidentally. Do all nuclear nations have sufficient safeguards to insure this does not happen? Who knows?"

  9. Thinking Friend Graham Hales in Mississippi shared these comments yesterday:

    "It is hard to say if better or worse. My own situation is very good so I tend to say things are better. But the refugee problem really bothers me and it is increasing in tragedy. So for many millions things are much worse. One does what he can with what he has to make things better and ultimately one trusts in God to keep thing in some type of order."