We know from the sad experience of Nazi Germany or Khmer Rouge Cambodia that it is possible for whole nations to become mentally ill, with horrendous consequences. At the time, however, the Nazis or the Khmers had no idea that they were deeply out of touch with the reality that all people are equally worthy of respect and care.
The population of the earth recently surpassed 7 billion. As we move further into the condition of global village-hood, it becomes more important than ever to assess our shared mental health. Collectively we can less and less afford the distortions that afflict the psyches of individual persons, such as denial, regression into infantile rage, fantasy ideation, or blind projection outward onto “enemies” of our unresolved inner tensions. Everyone is aware of the potential horror, for example, of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of someone not in the clearest of minds.
The social psychosis of denial is one of the greatest of our temptations. As I write I’m sitting outdoors on my back porch in Boston. It is November 8. The “expected” temperature for an average day at this time of year might be around 40. Today it is 70. News stories in the last week have once again sounded the alarm of the amounts of CO2 going into the atmosphere being much greater than previously estimated. The displacement of millions of people by climate instability has the potential to be the primary cause of future conflict.
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No upstanding citizen from whatever country will find it congenial to be lumped together with the coldly murderous Nazis or the ruthless Khmer Rouge — or even with the notion of the “good German” who professed not to know what was happening to the Jews around him. It is painful enough merely to think of ourselves as people who, because we did not do enough, accelerated untenable conditions with which our children and grandchildren will have to cope down the time-stream. No previous generation has had to make prospective judgments about what they needed to change or sacrifice to ensure the distant future for the entire human species.
Few of our national figures are leading on such issues. Instead, the value-ideal of consumerist economic prosperity built upon models of endless growth continues to dominate the marketplace of ideas and determine the criteria for political success.
This growth model has a momentum of its own, not necessarily connected to our best interests. Take nuclear weapons. Almost 50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States is still planning to spend 700 billion dollars on new and upgraded nuclear arms, including building 12 new ballistic missile submarines. But the U.S. is not alone. Russia, China, India, Israel, France and Pakistan are all setting aside vast sums for nuclear missile delivery systems of various sizes. Each nation rationalizes its actions on the basis of what its supposed rivals are doing. The net result will not be the intended increase in security, but a gross diminishment of collective security potentially ending in disaster.
If this is not a form of social madness, of collective insanity, what is? If the weapons are ever used there will be no victory, and the money spent on these useless weapons becomes unavailable for meeting challenges like global climate change. Perhaps most importantly of all, there are new models and processes that humans can use to diminish the original tensions that motivate the proliferation of such weapons. We know more than ever about how to overcome the fear within our own psyches that drives the engine of international hostility. At the same time there are enormous new opportunities for people to meet either virtually or face-to-face and learn how much they have in common — in short, to change from imaging others as enemies to interacting as friends, because survival and the greater good demands it.
The hope of reconciliation has its roots deep in a past that we tend to forget. Few among us recall the Kellogg-Briand pact outlawing war. Written by the great diplomat and poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960, St. John Perse, enthusiastically endorsed by hundreds of thousands of citizen-activists around the world, the pact was signed in 1928 by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Weimar Germany, and many other nations. It is still the law of the land in the U.S. today — clearly honored more in the breach than the observance. It may be, as Keats asserted, that poets really are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
The fate of peace lies more now with ordinary people than with the Gandhis and Nobel Prize winners. Carol Daniel Kasbari is an activist-citizen in the Middle East — a Palestinian scholar, writer, wife, and mother. This accomplished facilitator of change suggests a number of actions to help end potential or actual war: cross borders to successfully engage perceived adversaries in authentic, face-to-face, ongoing dialogue; tell your story to the world; invite news professionals to document what you experience and what progress you create with others; expand the circle to include vastly more interested citizens and, yes, also the skeptics and the unconvinced — all the voices; strengthen your own support system at home by involving people who matter most to you, so they also experience how easily the ice of alienation can be broken.
Both the Arab Spring and the global Occupy movement are at least potentially geared in the direction of this understanding of interdependence and relationship. There are thousands of non-governmental organizations that are working to build friendships and break down barriers of alienation and misunderstanding. These too could benefit from an infusion of funds presently delegated to the insanely wasteful upgrading of nuclear weapons systems. If we are going to have a growth model, let it be growth in breaking down artificial barriers of tribe, race, and religion — growth in the deep realization that all seven billion of us are in this together. That way lies collective sanity.