There was a time, not too long ago, when the world had 70,000 nuclear warheads poised to launch at a moment’s notice.
They were aimed at various points on the globe, but roughly 60,000 of them were armed to explode on and incinerate and destroy most of the cities in the US and the USSR. This was an existential threat…. that threat still exists today, but it is arguably, in relative terms, much less… There are now 17,300 armed poised devices. You can imagine my relief. Yet this IS a welcome change. Still, many of them are more accurate and … if it were possible to be more deadly than 60,000, they may be more so upon impact, which may be irrelevant, since their use would most certainly be just as deadly anyway. This is because the far reaching effects will get just about everybody in the end. I mean, how many times can you destroy the planet anyway?
There are still too many. There are too many weapons… of all kinds.
It has been said that the world is awash in weapons and, of course, this alone is not the only threat, though these weapons magnify it and make the threat more likely by their very being.
The other threat that needs to be addressed to reduce the chances of their use is human beings willingness to use them. Even more important is our willingness to hurt others. This is part and parcel of their destructiveness and begs the larger question of how do we achieve safety and security? I will come back to this question in its more fundamental aspects later. For now, back to world annihilation.
Many of these bombs are no longer pointed at cities, and many are on hold. In storage if you will… only a few thousand still stand ready to be launched quickly… and the overall “threat level” or Def-Com as it is referred to by the military in the US, is set lower so the chance of a so called “hair trigger” response is less … somehow, I still feel unsafe when I think about all this.
When I contemplate their use… the effect these weapons would have on me, and those I truly love, who are close to my heart, especially if they do not live close by, it is deeply frightening. If these loved ones lie on their deathbed, I should be able to get to their side, but how can I even view their remains if we all go up in a conflagration such as that?
This is a numbing consideration. It is the kind of threat that is obliterating in all its manifestations. Disempowering to even think about. This is so big, bigger than each of us, how can we ever do anything about it? How can this change?
But as noted above, it already has. And this did not simply happen. And it was not at the whim of those who directly control and create this monstrosity.
It happened because of the countless efforts of people like me and you. It changed because enough people, not everyone, but enough people demanded it and, some, many, broke society’s rules to force the change. It was not easy and much work remains to be done….
The outcome is not certain which, in itself, demands that further action be taken or the unthinkable may yet happen. It took direct action. It took actions large and small. It took civil disobedience and the guts to face arrest and abuse both legal and physical.
However, UNTHINKABLE is what this cannot be! Because to be changed it requires us to think about it and face it head on to deal with it and bring about the change we wish for. There is no other way. Denial will get you in the end. So true of so much that holds us back and hurts us.
How to overcome the denial and the numbness and the inaction about this? Like an addict, or an abuse victim our world keeps functioning at this level of insecurity, wondering why life now seems depressing and simply not enough, wondering why it is all so bad out there, and often overcome with the strong desire to distract ourselves with all manner of inducements and intoxications… our fear and denial prevent us from facing these horrors that stalk our nightmares.
We may even convince ourselves it is all for our own good. That things can’t be that bad. We may even think that this is a good thing for us for fear of thinking of ourselves as somehow to blame when we find ourselves in an unhealthy situation such as this one. After all, we may have gone along with it for too long and do not want to feel stupid. But the stupidity lies in remaining in a bad situation. Even if we think it provides us some benefit. (After all, this makes us the strongest Nation on the planet, right? But at such a cost is it worth it?)
But like addicts and abuse victims everywhere, the first step is to admit we have a problem… the second is to face our fear, not an easy task, and then to take action. In essence, to become survivors!
Even small action counts. Small action can build up to big, more effective action and we gain strength and confidence in ourselves and our actions when we take them a bit at a time. We make progress, sometimes slowly, and there can be set backs… but if we look back along the road we can see that we have made progress so, after a much needed rest to recharge, we are required by our need and call to change that we get back up and continue onward. The promise of healthy joy-filled life demands it.
Life itself demands it.
We cannot have what we really want, what we all really want, deep down, unless we overcome the fear and the denial that prevents us from taking action. Then we can sort things out.
It is important to realize that there are some things that cannot be avoided and some things we cannot affect… and many things we should not control… A compassionate young man I knew was recently lost to us due to what we think was a massive heart attack. Maybe he could have taken action to prevent it. But it is also true that there are heart problems in the family and it may have been a congenital issue. There is no way to control for that. Some things we simply cannot help.
But the question is not about control. That attraction has more to do with powerlessness and control is the flip side of denial, because to affect healthy change one must take account of the forces that one is trying to affect and deal with, or overcome if need be, and what keeps us from the changes that need to be made.
One must also be mindful of the other players and why they want control, because, like me or you, they too want the same things and are dealing with similar fear and denial and are obviously losing that struggle to the deleterious effect of us all… so instead of control, which in and of itself is at issue, we should instead, if we wish a healthy outcome, seek appropriate engagement, and when necessary compromise… nothing else will do.
That is not to say that we accept abuse or oppression, but our struggle with it will only succeed in the long run if we do not fall prey to the same afflictions as our oppressor, for if we do then our oppressor has already defeated us and positive, healthy change cannot come about. Our oppressor may have suffered, but we do not have to become like them and we cannot heal them unless they heal themselves.
We CAN be an example and show them the way. Then we all win. Though we cannot make them follow us, our example may be the best we can do.
Cooperation is better than control unless you are so afraid that you are too weak to accept others, and if so, and you embrace control, you are by your actions allowing a battle you may lose as you are giving the other the “right” to be an opponent, rather than a partner in the search for security and a healthy life.
To achieve a healthy life, if it be an engaged one or a separate one, for anyone to have security, we must accept the security of others.
Appropriate boundaries are the key when we live separately. But we must also remember that any separateness is in degree only, as all things, each of us, are connected to everything else and each other too… There is no getting away from this. This is an inevitable truth about the universe as vast as it is. I will show evidence later for this notion in future writings.
So considering all of this, how did such a large change in our existentially threatened, connected lives occur? How did we manage to take such large steps back from the brink of possible destruction in such a short time? Just 28 years.
By facing the disease head on and taking action.
I took an active part in this story and as such, I can share personal experience of my part in it.
I went door to door for the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy in the 80’s. But I started my activist career on Long Island as a professional canvasser for the Citizens Alliance, which was the community organizing project of the Public Interest Research Group, or NYPIRG. This was one of the original student run organizations that was part of the Ralph Nader family of groups working for progressive change through state legislation and public education and in the courts. This “movement” was reformist and left of center, non-partisan and targeted at the so called middle class.
The Citizens Alliance was a classic attempt at grass-roots organizing right out of the Saul Alinsky play-book so it was a bit more radical at its core than much of the rest of the Nader Network and was really about politicizing middle class suburbanites as a way to erode their electoral support for the Reagan agenda.
But the Alliance worked mainly in neighborhoods of color and poor white neighborhoods so their experience was different from the reformist crowd. In truth it was a good place to cut my political teeth. We canvassed on a variety of issues, many chosen not just for their importance as issues but because of their relation to the populations we were targeting. As such the issues we talked about were familiar and, though controversial to some degree, hardly the kind that would radically change the system in any fundamental way in terms of anything thing like capital and empire. Though in its defense it did foster democracy and politicized a large part of the population to help advance a healthy kind of populism.
In terms of the context of this article, I mention all of this to explain that by and large, though any kind of canvassing can be challenging and, in truth, so outside most people’s experience that it takes a rare individual to be good at it depending on which kind of canvasser one is. I digress here for a moment but this will give you a context to, hopefully, give you a better idea of the challenge we faced..
Though there exists in the world of political canvassing a wide range of flavors, most of it falls into two broad categories. They are what I would call politically oriented or financially oriented. While both consist of raising funds and setting quotas as an intrinsic element of the tactic, (And fundamentally, canvassing is a tactic) one category has its focus as politicizing populations and seeking a grass roots base of support for organizing through memberships and grass-roots pressure on policy makers and corporate targets. The other is much more concerned about building a financial base of donors as the main purpose (though both kinds do this).
But the fact remains that to most people, canvassing is hard to be good at, especially the more politically oriented kind. Because when your main concern is funding, you can get away with being a good salesperson. But when it is social change, you often have to break through suspicion and common misperceptions of fence sitters. (You don’t talk to true opponents if you are a good canvasser, They get changed, if ever, in other ways by their own experience.)
Now having stated this, my point in terms of this story is that I gravitated to and had the good fortune to be part of. the more political variety. As a matter of fact I was pretty good at it and as such became a leader and this gave me opportunity to be an early, and in my day, a somewhat influential one at that, doing all that I could to push the organizations I worked for toward more political kinds of outreach. You see, I wanted to be a real organizer in the worse way and helped develop the early canvass as a political outreach and organizing tool as much as I could.
So my experience was that canvassing on issues like rent control, or toxic dumping and other environmental hazards, even stopping nuclear power or working to get stronger regulation of utility companies and similar more reformist agenda’s over all, it was not too hard to gain significant support in most places I canvassed. My ratio of positive to negative interactions was somewhere around 50% or greater in most locations.
That changed significantly when I began to canvass for SANE. Not only was this long time organization more political than the Nader flavor, which was enough of a challenge, but it was a leader in the US Peace Movement. The US Peace Movement, as distinct from the “Anti-war” movement, dealt with issues that were fundamentally at the heart of the struggle for freedom and justice and empowerment of the public against the system. A system that has had vast inequality deep within it for at least as long as this nation has existed. And its roots, in truth, go back much farther.
But what really made it hard, as if that was not enough, was canvassing to end the nuclear arms race during its very height. With the exception of the struggle for voting rights and to resist racism and sexism, which I have also had occasion to canvass on, the nuclear arms race has been one of the hardest most polarizing issues I have ever brought to the average US citizen’s door because of two things.
The first is the deep divisions in those days regarding the whole US foreign policy strategy which for so many sprung directly from the sense of “American Exceptionalism”.
This notion that we are a chosen people has always been the tactic that those in power in this country have used to win over enough of the population to enable their militaristic, imperialist pro capitalist agenda. (If I may be so bold) Despite the growing change in attitudes by many more people these days about this, the idea of the US as being the good guys, still runs deep.
But in the 80’s during the Reagan years, at least half of the people we talked to, and in many places more than half, were so afraid of the Soviet Union that even though majorities favored a nuclear weapons freeze, there was still resistance to arms negotiations and great suspicion of our movement. We had to learn to achieve our goals with about a third of the support of people in most places we canvassed. Why such a small number when the majority in poll after poll supported our core position?
Because the other thing that we encountered that was very different from all of the other issues I have ever worked on, and this goes to the heart of my argument here, was simply an unwillingness to deal with the realities of a potential nuclear war. There was a deep “Psychic numbing” about the size and scope of the issue. And this was not only experienced by us as a characteristic of people who we canvassed, but many of us felt it ourselves… including me!
I was not entirely convinced that we would be successful in our goals. Though I knew the odds were long, and I reasoned that our only chance was to ignite a movement for change, one of the ideas that kept me going was that if they were going to kill us all anyway I was simply not prepared to go into the night without a fight and if I could send any of the people we considered war mongers to bed having had a bad day as a result of our actions then I would sleep a little bit easier.
One of my political hero’s was Alard Lowenstien. Now I am not normally inclined to find politicians of any stripe very heroic. They can be good allies, and often well meaning and righteous people, some with their heart and their beginnings in some social change movement or other. Indeed I have personally known of one or two who became involved after we canvassed them and got them to attend a grass-roots planning meeting. They became politicized after we brought them up against the system and they learned how corrupt it was. This was canvassing at its best. Mobilizing people for change. And there are other stories which I will share later of the potential effectiveness of this unique organizing tool. But that’s for later.
Now Alard holds a special place in my heart because before he ran for office he was the lead organizer for the Student Dump Johnson Movement which helped mobilize grass-roots voters for Eugene McCarthy’s campaign, whose early win as the Anti-War candidate in New Hampshire and elsewhere helped propel Bobby Kennedy into the Democratic Primary. This, in part, eventually convinced Johnson not to run for re-election. So this guy helped engineer the political defeat of one the most powerful men in the world at that time.
Alard used to say that nothing is for certain. The only thing that is for certain is that you either win or you lose, so you work hard as you can to win. This was the attitude that helped him succeed.
The point here was that what we were doing in those days, that in my mind, was more significant than all the money we collected or all the signatures that were signed was bringing hope to the doors of many and helping open their eyes to the danger all around them. And despite the sense of futility that we and so many people we talked to door to door struggled with when facing this issue, the issue of the existential threat discussed earlier, we made a difference.
We stepped into people’s homes across the country as we canvassed in a number of key cities in a strategic effort to effect congressional action by electoral district. We pulled them away from the TV and engaged them in a conversation about the state of the world and the fate of the earth and everyone on it.
In those days the Congress was a bit less bought off and we were indeed helping to mobilize the deep grass-roots feelings against the arms race that already existed. We did succeed in crafting our message in a way that got around the fear of the Soviet’s by addressing a balanced verifiable approach and using logic and touching on people’s concerns and being as life affirming as we could be. We got good at our craft and worked hard on our communication skills in professionally run workshops in briefings and by reading and training daily.
And we drew from the examples of great leadership figures such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Aung San Su Chi and others. We were a well educated seasoned group and our canvass had a higher percentage of long term, very serious minded and very often older staff than most canvasses of the day. Many of our leaders were woman and we were very well indoctrinated in larger issues of oppression and the connections between them. And we convinced many people that any action, no matter how small, could, be important if we wanted things to change.
As Ted Taylor, the Anti-War Nuclear Physicist told us, to paraphrase him just a little here, it would be better to strive with all our hearts to achieve a world that may seem too good to be true, than to drift toward one that is too dreadful to contemplate.
We did this not just with canvassing, but with a crack PR department and a well run publishing arm that was renowned in Washington DC for accurate and informative briefings and carefully researched literature that we got out to a mass audience on radio, at colleges and events that we held all over the country. We were a respected background source by the Washington DC and New York News Media. We worked hard! And SANE had a rich history. Not a perfect one to be sure, but one with a strong culture of resistance to oppression and militarism including early and strong opposition to the war in Viet Nam and a close association with organizers in the civil rights movement.
But a very concrete example of a small action making a big difference was the act of signing those petitions we carried around.
One of the historic occurrences which helped turn the tide on the escalation in the development and deployment of ever more dangerous nukes was Gorbechev’s rise to power and his eventual challenge to Reagan, who, to a significant degree, was forced to the bargaining table by grass roots pressure which was vey much stimulated by SANE and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.
Of course there were many others besides us as well, too numerous to list here, but we played an undeniably large part in this struggle by virtue of our resource base… much of which can be credited to our canvass. In our first year we more than doubled our membership base and it continued to grow not only giving us more grass roots power, but fundamentally altering the breadth of our base and making it more mainstream and much less establishment liberal as the traditional base of SANE largely was. This was already true of the FREEZE and as the two organizations grew closer together and eventually merged, it changed even more. Though our leadership and staff were more militant, our base was a good cross section of the country.
But getting back to the lowly act of signing petitions. In many cases petitions are not taken seriously by policy makers. This is a widely accepted notion and very often true. The success of petitions is usually more in their use to build lists of supporters, but when one knows how to use them correctly they can actually make a difference in swaying the politically powerful and public opinion which in turn can have the same effect.
You see, one does not have to perform acts of civil disobedience, or risk their lives to make change. Some will have to, and maybe in growing numbers, and they will need our support, but even very small acts can have an impact. EVERYONE does have to do their piece of the work. There is a line in the Koran that speaks to this. It says something like that. That everyone has to do their piece of the work. It may be a big piece. It may be a small piece, but everyone has a piece to do.
In this case millions of names played a key role in an important public relations event that was picked up by major media and helped propel both the US and the USSR to end all nuclear explosions in the testing and development of new weapons. A ban that has held to this day. Though a test ban treaty remains elusive, both the US and Russia still maintain a voluntary cessation of live explosions and this is a good thing. This ban helped warm the cold war and made the eventual reductions in these weapons that I began this article with possible.
And the petitions helped to create that atmosphere when our delegation to Moscow, led by Jesse Jackson, attempted to present them to the Reagan delegation at the summit talks.
When Reagan refused to accept them, this played into Grobey’s hands giving him a distinct political PR advantage when he not only accepted them, but had a field day with the press touting them as representing the peaceful aspirations of the people of the World. This put even more pressure for Reagan to meet the Soviet Ban on testing, which Gorbechev had already initiated.
I personally collected hundreds of those names and the day before our delegation left for the Summit I helped box thousands of them with my staff on the floor of our New York City office blocks from where Norman Thomas had done community organizing years earlier in Soho. Those names played a role in a historic event. Each person who signed helped make a difference and from this I have learned that no action is too small. One never knows what effect a positive action may have down the road.
This has been my experience on many occasions and the point here is that even in the face of a strong attraction to, and in a pervasive environment for, the aforementioned psychic numbing that kept many from acting, we were able to demonstrate that action can work. Indeed, without it we will be doomed to failure. Action, of course never guarantees success, and I cannot tell you that action will promise victory, but I can tell you that in the face of threats and hurts and abuse of all kind, non-action will ensure defeat.
And we must remember all of this as we work to rid the World of ALL weapons of war, the rest of the Nukes, and everything else too… As we work to eliminate poverty, and end racism, sexism and cruel behavior of all kinds.
We live in a world where there is so much unnecessary hurt and pain and so much less love than there needs to be. We live on a planet that can provide for us all…. There IS enough to go around and there are solutions to climate change and most all of the ills that we suffer. The rich and powerful have to learn to share and play well in the sandbox that is the Earth. A better world is possible, but we first have to believe in it. Then we have to get to work.
But all of this will require us to get past our fear. It will take courage and we will all have to help each other.
So things may seem hopeless, odds may appear insurmountable and depression may sometimes consume us but if we allow ourselves to wallow in it, if we accept our lot and fall prey to the weight of our own disempowerment, if we allow ourselves to remain victims and shrink from a struggle for our own lives then we will not become survivors but we will be defeated, at least in part, by our own hand.
In the end it is up to us to take action. In the end there are only two choices.
Action or inaction.
We may need to reach out for help and support and we may not be able to turn the tide alone, but we cannot permit ourselves the distraction of complacency and immobilization. We have to overcome our fear and have the courage get past what terrifies us to live the healthy lives we wish to live and that we all deserve to live.
Life demands it.
2 replies on “Action in the face of fear”
It would be interesting to examine why door-to-door canvassing has given way to street corner canvassing. My guess is that its pure economics and if there’s any fall-off in the political pay-off from canvassing, its due to a conscious choice to emphasize canvassing as a fundraising tool..
I would agree… purely profit vs. break-even.. Unfortunately, it is too often viewed in terms of funding instead of prospecting and organizing. I think it is also in response to drying up of other sources of large amounts of funds, like foundations. Glad you read it. Would be interested in any other comments you might have.