Hope and the Doomsday Clock

I began reading Barack Obama's current best-selling book mainly because of its cover - notably the wonderful phrase of its title: "the audacity of hope." Obama says he first heard the phrase in a sermon in his home church in Chicago , and now he uses it to advance his own political agenda and ambitions - and that is perfectly fine with me. He talks a lot about "the American spirit" and the need to transcend political discord and focus on a new and compelling common vision. The hope for this kind of renewed sense of common purpose, he says, is embedded in "the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary."

I haven't finished reading the book - but I will. I want to hear more from an American politician who seems to reject cynicism and instead nurtures a sense of what is or could be possible.

As I was getting caught up in Obama's mood of "can do" optimism, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that, on the advice of an impressive gathering of world-renowned analysts and scientists, the Bulletin's famous doomsday clock was to be moved two minutes closer to midnight. It was 7 minutes, and now is five - and the midnight hour is what you don't want to reach.[i]

These eminent contemporary prophets go beyond the nuclear peril to also include dramatic changes in the planet's environmental and climatic conditions. Here is what they say about the nuclear peril: "Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices. North Korea's recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran's nuclear ambitions, a renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth."

One could elaborate at length, but the message is clear. And then the scientists turn to climate change.

The effects of climate change, they say, may be less dramatic in the short term, but there is no denying that in the coming decades we will face environmental change that will lead to "drastic harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival." The concerns of the Atomic Scientists were, of course, subsequently validated by the report of the International Panel on Climate Change.

Obama seems to have it right - hope, that is our collective hope about our collective future, does seem rather audacious in the face of these doomsday scenarios.

And, of course, there are many facing much more immediate doomsday realities. They don't read the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and don't have the luxury of debating changes to a symbolic doomsday clock. In the lives of the world's marginalized, the hour of midnight has already struck and the bells of alarm ring out to a world that remains steadfastly deaf.

Darfur is the current public word for cries for help that go unheeded. But it is unfortunately a phenomenon that also has other place names. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in a small room in Nairobi with a Kenyan friend and colleague and three Somali Imams, including Sh. Sariff Ahmed, who had just arrived from Somalia. For a decade and a half, as is by now well-known, Somalia has been without a central government, seemingly a land of perennial despair. The Imams had come to Nairobi to report to diplomats and NGOs and anyone who would listen on conditions in the wake of the latest rounds of Somali fighting - at the end of last year there was the takeover of the capital, Mogadishu, by a national movement of local Islamic Courts, and then a few weeks ago the same Islamic Courts group was driven from the capital with the aid of the armed forces of Ethiopia.[ii]

These three religious men vividly recounted some of the ongoing suffering and perils of Somalis, but what caught me off guard was how quickly they moved to talking about what could and should be done for Somalis to finally turn the corner to greater stability.

They did talk about external assistance, emphasizing the need for international peacekeeping forces (to replace the withdrawing Ethiopians), and especially the importance of getting foreign interests to stop making things worse. They talked in particular about ongoing arms shipments to the various groups and factions enmeshed in conflict - the ubiquitous war lords, of course, as well as what they described as Islamist extremists.

But they also talked about the new opportunities: a new transitional government might gradually come into place; the clan rivalry that helped to fuel much of the decades long fighting was giving way to an impatience with the pervasive chaos; schools were opening to meet the thirst for education. Above all, their demeanor and conversation reflected energy and expectation about the future.

I can think of no better definition of audacity than their assertion of hope in the face of their reality. Their's was the kind of realism that distinguishes hope from fantasy.

A few weeks ago, there was another display of welcome realism when Henry Kissinger and several other similar luminaries, all of them now apparently lapsed Cold Warriors, issued a statement to insist that the United States must become a leader in the pursuit of a nuclear weapon free world.[iii]

It's not that Mr. Kissinger has gone soft, I assumer he's still a cold, hard realist, but I guess he's finally getting a handle on what reality actually is - notably, the fact that you can't dissuade, by argument or by bombs, others from pursuing nuclear weapons as long as you regard them as the foundation of your own security.

Obama makes a point of linking hope to compromise and accommodation - serious compromise, even of dearly held values. In a nice passage in the Epilogue of The Audacity of Hope, he recounts how a mentor and veteran civil rights worker had cautioned him about entering either law or politics.

"As a rule," Obama was told, "both law and politics require compromise not just on issues, but on more fundamental things - your values and ideals." Obama explains: "he wasn't saying that to dissuade me. It was just a fact. It was because of his unwillingness to compromise that he had always declined [to enter politics]. ‘It's not that compromise is inherently wrong,' he said to me. ‘I just don't find it satisfying.'"

I must say I was hugely relieved and pleased, however, when Obama admits that "I am perhaps more tolerant of compromise on the issues than my friend was." Sticking to your position through thick or thin may be more satisfying, but it's not a formula to fuel hope for peace and social harmony. The other day I heard an interview with Drew Gilpin Faust, the president-elect of Harvard, and she used the phrase "the polarization of unchallengeable certainties."[iv] Perhaps only a president of Harvard can get away with using a phrase like that in public, but she was making an effective case about public discourse that fails to genuinely engage differing views and perspectives with a view to finding common ground. Competition between "unchallengeable certainties" is not a good foundation for politics; rigid certainty does more to foreclose hope than to nurture it.

The Somalis I met in Nairobi know very well what happens when "unchallengeable certainties" clash. In fact, one of the fundamental conditions of peace, a fundamental requirement of a Community or of a State being at peace with itself, is the unsatisfying art of compromise. A successful State is one with a set of institutions that can successfully mediate - one that can manage compromise - among a broad range of conflicting interests, ambitions, and values. States need mediating institutions - formal ones like Parliaments and Courts, but also informal ones like NGOs, communities of worship, professional organizations, arts groups; institutions that help people focus less on their own very particular ambitions and interests and more on common objectives and shared values. States without those institutions are soon failed states, foundering in the grip of competing extremes.

I trust it is not simply a measure of the depth of one's despair to cling to the likes of Mr. Kissinger or the travails of Mogadishu for signs of hope. Actually, I think we can take them as reminders that hope emerges in the strangest of places - from the lapsed Cold Warriors of Washington, to Somali Imams, to the writings of unproven politicians.

In collectively contemplating the full message of a doomsday clock edging closer to midnight, audacious hope can and should shape our response - hope that is built on sober assessments of reality, on unswerving commitments to action, and on persistence in the search for common ground.

[i] The January/February 2007 issue explains the decision to move the clock and carries an impressive collection of articles and reflections on the implications.

[ii] See the Jan. 5/07 posting here: "Somalia: Is Iraq or Uganda the Model?" (somaliat).

[iii] See the Jan. 30/07 posting here: "When Kissinger promotes nuclear weapons abolition" (whenkiss).

[iv] The News Hour, WNED, Feb. 12/07 (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/jan-june07/harvard_02-12.html).

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