Neg Chernus



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Chernus

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Discursive constructions of nuclear weapons posit the Bomb as God, differing from gods past in its ability not to create but only destroy. We voluntarily become mere parts of this divine machine with the promise that it will protect “us” from “them,” while becoming psychically numb to its true implications. The only escape from this death in life is the intensity of risk at the highest of stakes – in this world annihilation becomes inevitable.


Chernus, 86journalist, author, and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder (Ira, Dr. Strangegod: On the Symbolic Meaning of Nuclear Weapons, pg. 134-139, 1986)//BI

These responses must therefore be seen as essentially religious responses. In talking about the Bomb we are talking about a God, and our speech is sacred speech or myth. In acting, in preparing for nuclear war and building up our nuclear arsenals, we are engaging in sacred behavior or ritual. And our speech itself is a form of ritual. Every society is loath to give up its God, its sacred symbols, its myths, and its rituals. We are no different. For in every respect, the symbolism of nuclear-weapons-as-God makes those weapons more appealing, more compelling, more desirable, more necessary to our lives. If we are to part with them, we must, as a first step, gain a dearer understanding of why we have not done so until now. But our study is not only a step on the path to averting catastrophe. For in a sense the catastrophe has already occurred. The very existence of thousands of nuclear warheads encircling the planet, even if they are never used, must have enormous impact upon the society and every individual in it. Even if an understanding of these weapons were to lead to total and permanent nuclear disarmament, we would still be compelled to live with the effects that they have had upon us psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. In order to deal with those effects responsibly and constructively, we must understand them. For as long as nuclear weapons exist, and even after they no longer exist, we shall still be in their power until we have penetrated as deeply as possible into their symbolic meanings and the ways in which those meanings have reshaped individual and societal life. The most comprehensive and significant approach to this problem so far has been Lifton’s theory of psychic numbing. Anyone who gives Lifton’s work a careful reading must admit that he has offered a compelling and illuminating concept, one that is able to explain a wide variety of contemporary phenomena and show clearly their links to the existence of nuclear weapons. Looking at the Bomb as a symbol has provided us with even further evidence to support his view. But at the same time, the Bomb has also appeared to symbolize realities that do not quite fit the theory of psychic numbing as the key to a total understanding of its effects. Therefore, we must look at a complex situation in which psychic numbing is related to other effects in a variety of ways. This should no be surprising, since it is clear that the Bomb, like all primary religious symbols, can represent differing, conflicting, even contradictory realities simultaneously. Thus, as Lifton stresses, the Bomb symbolizes death as total annihilation, utter extinction, an absolutely “broken connection” between death and the continuity of life. But in seeing the Bomb as a symbol, it is clear that it may also symbolize, in a wide variety of ways, renewed and eternal life, vitality, power, meaningful order. The Bomb as symbol promises to give precisely what it simultaneously takes away. The copious evidence to support the theory of psychic numbing and the equally copious evidence to support alternative views suggest that neither one can be absolutely the correct or incorrect view. Rather, each of us shares in both of these realities, in different ways and to different degrees. But no one is able to escape the effects of either aspect entirely. None of us can approach any honesty about ourselves, our society, or our world unless we probe as deeply and honestly as possible into the effects of nuclear weapons upon our lives. If there is any hope that as individuals and as a society we can escape the chaotic absurdity of the present, put the pieces of our world back together in a coherent and meaning fully unified worldview, we must take account of nuclear weapons. They form a “piece” of our woridview that is crucially important. although we have consistently trained ourselves to deny this. The similarities between the Bomb and other religious realities tell us part of what we need to know. But we must also ask how our new God differs from all previous gods, for only then can we see clearly how it affects us in unprecedented ways. One point, which has been implicit in our previous discussion, must now be brought out explicitly: this God is a machine, a technological device invented by human beings. Yet the machine, being infinitely more powerful than the humans who invented it, has become a Frankenstein’s Monster, independent of its creators and capable of turning violently upon them. And “them” is now, of course, all of us. We have the choice of either cooperating or resisting when the machine acts; because of its many appealing symbolic qualities, we generally cooperate. We become partners in the machines actions and thus, in a very real sense, parts of the machine. We are all soldiers in the front-line trenches, but the Bomb is our commander and we do its bidding. This is especially clear in the concept of MAD; the citizens of all superpowers become linked together in a single machine, which demands more and more sacrifices; the actions of one side must (according to this theory) necessarily evoke corresponding actions from the other side. The way in which we prepare for war reflects and foreshadows the way we shall wage war: “In a push-button war involving nuclear missiles, there will be no direct contact between adversaries. The techniques of war are fast becoming as impersonal and mechanized as pulling a lever to start a production chainbelt. In such a setting, the best soldier is not the ‘hero’ but the ‘automaton.’ “ We voluntarily become automatons, mere parts of a machine, in part because of our age-old mythic dream of being heroes and our mythic desire to embody in ourselves the power inherent in the divine machine. What Moss says of the Strategic Air Command bomber pilot may be true for all of us: “He is equally remote from the human will that makes a decision on using or not using the bomb, and the human suffering that its use would cause. He sees himself as part of a complex instrument, an agent between someone else’s will and its effect, a living button. His pride is to function in this role perfectly. He has a sense of importance.”2 Ultimately, though, in our symbolic perception, it may very well be the Bomb itself whose will we obey, for how can any human will dare to interfere with that of the divine? Even the greatest national leaders are merely parts of the machine. And, as we have seen, our importance becomes not merely social or political, but in fact sacred and cosmic in scope. At the same time, psychic numbing reinforces the pattern effected by symbolic meaning. For if we are in fact “dead in life,” already suffused with the death taint of the Bomb, then it is that much easier to see ourselves as machines and to take pride in being perfectly functioning machines. Of course, this sense of the mechanization of human life was hardly created by the nuclear age. Here, as in so many other instances, the Bomb is both a reflection and a shaper of our relationship with reality. But the elevation of a machine to a central place in our symbolic world—the deification of a machine—surely makes it much more likely that we shall see ourselves as automatons, Moreover, the technologically induced problem offers itself as a solution. As this machine God intensifies our psychic numbing, we seek to escape that numbing by finding meaning in a symbolic form of immortality that is itself technological, as Lifton suggests: “Everyone in this age participates in a sense of immortality derived from the interlocking human projects we call science and technology.” Thus, as technology absorbs those provinces of life that were previously considered spiritual, it may be lair to say that technology has become the soul of the body of humanity.4 Yet we cannot be totally content with being machines. In fact, as we saw previously, the existentialist movement may be said to have started with Dostoesski’s revolt against being a mere piano key, a part of a machine. The sense of dehumanization and the sheer boredom—the flatness of life —which afflicts automatons can be challenged only in situations of great intensity. Russian roulette may easily become, as in the film The Deer Hunter, a primary symbol for the modem world’s escape from the dehumanization of a technological God. The intensity of risk is combined with the joy of being entertained in a theater of life-and-death. But for the ultimate “kick,’ the stakes must be ultimately high. Thus the machine deity leads us to give ourselves over to it in a game of global Russian roulette in which we all hold the pistol, And apparently we do so willingly. Machines must inevitably see all the world as a machine: “The more a man acts on the basis of a self-image that assumes he is powerless, an impotent cog in a huge machine, the more likely he is to drift into a pattern of dehumanized thinking and action toward others.” “We have become masters of the impersonal and the inanimate. Our energy and even our emotions have gone into things; the things serve us but come between us, changing the relationship of man to man. And the things take on an authority that men accept without protest. The impersonality is epidemic. It is almost as though we feared direct contact, almost as though the soul of man had become septic.” Thus we find our identity not by relating to other individuals as individuals, but by seeing ourselves merely as a part of “the crowd” or “the nation,” whose emblem and savior is the Bomb, the ultimate machine. We lose the subtleties and nuances of human complexity and see the world in absolutes, “us versus them” we view human relationships in terms of the mythic, apocalyptic vision, a vision whose ultimate promise is the annihilation of “their” machine and unlimited license for “our” machine to do whatever it wants.

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