What Does It Mean to be "Great" Amidst Global Climate ChangeRoundup
tags: Foreign Affairs, climate change, war, global politics
David Bromwich, a TomDispatch regular, teaches literature at Yale University. His new book, American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (Verso Books), will be published later this month.
When, in his essay “Perpetual Peace,” Immanuel Kant spoke for an enlightened understanding of justice and called the apologists for war and empire “sorry comforters,” he meant that they took the patterns of individual pride and fear as a collective rule for nations, and by doing so propagated a false idea of what action and suffering on a global scale could mean. Inseparably mixed with the cult of national self-love is the yearning to join the big boys who have made history. But where the fate of the world is at stake, the idea of “making history” through a struggle of great powers has been exposed as a cheat and a swindle.
Greatness in modern politics, in fact, has usually meant decisions that bring death to a great many unsuspecting people, most of whom have no connection to any problem the decisions were meant to solve. And yet this idea of greatness -- or indispensability or exceptionalism -- has so rooted itself in American electoral politics that a refusal to speak the comforting words may cause astonishment.
Senator Bernie Sanders was recently asked, “Do you feel you would be capable of using nuclear weapons in defense of the country?” He answered with bitter sarcasm, “Oh, yeah, anytime!” -- and to make the meaning of “greatness” clear, he added: “Am I capable of blowing up the world?” The interviewer responded that he believed whether or not a politician would order a nuclear strike was “a great moral question.” To this Sanders responded, “It’s a great immoral question.”
There are questions that should never be answered, because they degrade anyone involved in answering or even listening to them. The overriding legitimate question for governments today is this: Will the world end in fire or in flood -- in nuclear catastrophe or climate catastrophe? With the exception of scientists, a few politicians, and increasing numbers of school-age children, most citizens and most of our leaders are looking away from the flood while greeting the fire with clichés as familiar as lullabies.
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