Defining the Problem

The Challenge to Change

Norman Cousins, 1984

Norman Cousins is Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities in the UCLA School of Medicine. For over 35 years he was editor of theSaturday Review Magazine. One of the founders of public television in the United States, he served as chairman of the predecessor organization to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Mr. Cousins is recipient of numerous awards. Among them are the United Nations Peace Medal, and the Personal Medallion of Pope John XXIII. He holds honorary degrees in literature, science, and law from 49 colleges and universities.

Whiteley: You are basically an optimist when it comes to what people can create with their minds and put into effect. That it is possible, if people are willing to think about new solutions, to work toward them. So, how would you have us approach this creating a better order? There's no national anthems for the world; there are national anthems for each of us with our individual units.

Cousins: I think we begin with the fact that we can extend our pride in belonging to a nation, to our pride in belonging to a species. After all, it's the most privileged species in the universe. We can look around the solar system and recognize that no where else, in this solar system at least, do we have the millions of conditions in such precise and exquisite combination that make human life possible. And this is the highest prize - I think human life is the highest prize that the universe has to offer. I think a proper appreciation of the value of life, the uniqueness of life, the preciousness of life, should give us some sense, and can, of belonging to that particular species. Then the next step is to try to develop a survival instinct for the species to go along with the survival instinct of the individual, and the survival instinct of a nation.

I have hope that by making our identification with life, and the rarity of it, and the preciousness of it, that we'll begin to think about the conditions of life itself. Not just in a physical way, but in an historical, philosophical, psychological, even spiritual way. What is required to enable species to fulfill itself? How do we safeguard the conditions of life on this planet at a time when the predatory 'instincts' (and here I have to put "instincts" in quotes because I'm not sure they are that) where the predatory instincts of the species are pointed against species itself? I think, therefore, that once we begin thinking in larger terms, in terms of not just our pride as a species, but in terms of our need to make our planet safe and fit for human habitation, that we'll begin to think of the institutions that can make that possible. After all, we're living in a very primitive period in human history where we haven't yet emerged from the psychology of the tribe, we haven't yet learned how to protect the human nest; but as a species, I believe we can evolve. I think we can share our perceptions with one another, we can share our love of life with one another, I think we can begin to think in terms of creating something beyond the nation, without eliminating the nation.

Whiteley: Well, let's take that very hopeful and positive theme and try to relate it to how some of our institutions can help us in that quest. You've written about the fact that, in trying to make ourselves more safe, as in your earlier comment that in preserving the safety of the nest, we've succeeded in making everyone's nest no longer safe. In a sense, that's new in our history, a consequence of four decades of the development of nuclear weapons to the point that they're not weapons anymore, but devices that, if a few of them are used, really destroy the environment for all of us. Government is quite central to that. What does government need to do differently to try to shift from this approach that makes us all unsafe?

Cousins: Now, there's a rather simplistic, I think, notion that it ought to be possible for nations to resolve their disputes peaceably. And that assumes, of course, it's predicated on the assumption, which I believe to be fallacious, that the disputes among nations are rather logical, and that you want something and I want something, and that, therefore, the thing to do is to sit down and resolve that you get 50% and I get 50%. But the problem among nations is not just what you want and what I want; the problem tends to be a little more basic then at times. And it changes from time to time. At one time it may be represented by a nation which is out for conquest, so it's not just a matter of resolving a dispute. How do you resolve a dispute with someone who wants it all? It's no dispute at all. And so you have no choice. Germany, for example, was bent on conquest, and that left the rest of the world with a very narrow choice, which is to submit or to struggle. So we're not really addressing ourselves to the main issue when we say, well, let's resolve a dispute.

What we've got to do is to create the mechanisms which can protect human society. This is what the need is. Yes, we want to be able to resolve disputes where you have disputes that are capable of being resolved. But the way you have something a little more fundamental, you want to be able to protect the world's peoples by having specific instruments and institutions capable of doing the job, and that's what we don't have today. And that's why I say we live in a very primitive condition of human society. We think that we can get by with anarchy on the world level. We don't have government, we don't have law on the world level. Therefore, since we don't have government on the world level, we can't have justice, we can't have law.

Whiteley: Where would you begin to change that?

Cousins: You can only begin, it seems to me, with the desire to change. The uniqueness of human beings is represented by their ability to find what it is they want.

Whiteley: Okay. And you've said one of the greatest problems to achieving peace are those individuals who think they can do nothing with their own lives to help achieve it. How would you have individuals take you seriously about the power of what individual people can do, and begin to work?

Cousins: Well, ultimately, this world and everything in it belongs to the people who inhabit it. In the United States we like to think, or at least we've been told by the American founding fathers, and I believe they're right, that in a good society the ultimate power belongs to the people. We now have to recognize that governments by their very nature will not move in this direction. The government becomes concerned with its own survival, becomes fearful that anything else that exists may impinge on their power.

Whiteley: And right now we're more powerful than ever before, and less secure at the same time, by a quantum difference.

Cousins: Well, the reason that we're less secure is that our power is not being used in a way that will really increase our security. This of course is true of all countries. As we go up in power, and as the Russians go up in power, each believes that it's necessary to have power to protect itself against the other, but the net effect is to make everyone less secure. So, it's not going to be possible, with the United States and the Soviet Union, to arrive by themselves at the kind of agreement, even though I think that they can certainly reduce the temperature, but even as they do so they've got to point to something larger, which is that this world is not going to be made whole just by the United States and the Soviet Union working together if they can, in fact, agree. It's going to be made whole only in terms of something that addresses itself to the whole, which is to say, what form of organization does the world need in order to make sense of our time on Earth for our children?

Whiteley: How do you answer that question?

Cousins: I can't think of any way in which peoples can become secure, except on the basis of world law, which is to say to eliminate the present world anarchy, and to develop those institutions of world law which can define the relationships among nations, and make it unnecessary for nations to fend for power outside their own countries, or even to consume their own resources and vast armaments. I recognize I'm talking theoretically; it's true. And I can think of nothing more difficult than to create a responsible world order, one that will respect the rights of nations, and one that will enable, let's say the United States, to retain its own values and its own institutions. But at the same time, clearly defining and limiting what this nation or any nation can do outside its own borders.

Whiteley: So the answer for you to the way to a more viable world order, a more peaceful world for us all, is to put a stop to the anarchy that is the current way we do business across societies on this planet, and to put in it's place a viable rule-of-law and world government. You've written that the greatest failure of education today is that it is succeeding in making us all "tribe conscious", rather than "species conscious." What do you mean, and what would you have educators do differently?

Cousins: When you speak of government in the world, there's always the danger, of course, that people conceive of government in terms familiar to them, which is to say what our government is and what the government of the Soviet Union is. But by government, we're thinking not so much of a government where you would elect people to office as individuals necessarily, and that would replace the United States or the Soviet Union, so much as something that exists on that plane in which the Soviet Union, the United States, and other governments have to, in their own best interest, conform to statutory law, and where the actions of governments outside their own country will be severely limited, but again on the basis of clearly defined code or law where you would have, I would suppose, the ability to enact world law, but also the ability to enforce it and the ability to interpret it so that it's not abused. And I again, I see danger in that particular course, for example, that government should become totalitarian, because then you would really have a George Orwell situation where one government would have total power over the entire world, and that's not what we want. But the best way to prevent that from happening, I think, is to develop a federal structure in which the nations retain authority over their own institutions and preserve their own values. But where the differences among nations yield to clearly defined statutes in their own relationships. What is it the nations should do, or can do? What constitutes laws for nations themselves? This is a very big step in terms of human evolution.

But if we're really serious about wanting this country to continue, and if we're really serious about prizing our freedoms and prizing our history, if we're really serious about safeguarding, not just our future, but the human future, then surely we must recognize that we have to create those means by which it is possible. We've now come to a dead-end. We now have the means for destroying others, but at the same time destroying ourselves. I don't think that this represents a justification of our history.

The weapons that we are now building are not necessary for any military purpose because you can destroy an enemy with only a fraction of those weapons. What they do represent, therefore, is a psychological projection - a psychological projection of power, where we try to persuade someone about our power, just as they're trying to persuade us. But if the aim, therefore, is to persuade, then we are involved in a psychological enterprise, and not just a military one. And if we are involved in a psychological enterprise then perhaps we ought to bring in professional psychologists instead of committing the national future to those who think only in terms of, or have to think in terms of force; this is their training - it's natural. We shouldn't blame them for so doing, but at the same time we must recognize that we have to find some way of safeguarding our values, safeguarding our future, but also safeguarding the future of the species itself, and this calls for different institutions. And I think we're equal to it.

Whiteley: What roles do you see for religion in working toward a more peaceful world? You've written that the negative role for religion can be emphasizing narrow interests, and losing the common humanity. What's the positive side of that?

Cousins: Well, I believe that the Catholic Bishops in their Pastoral Letter, not long ago, were able to define, as they themselves were able to illustrate, the role of religion in the present crisis. Because in that Pastoral Letter it was made very clear that the present policy of the governments was not creating security, but was leading to a breakdown of human society. I believe that that Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops can be used as a rallying point for all religions. Many religious leaders outside Catholicism have praised that letter and have accepted it as a basis for common action and belief, but I do think that we ought to go beyond that, and I would hope that the other religions would either, in a very cohesive and dramatic way, identify themselves with the Pastoral Letter, or else develop similar statements of their own where the net effect of all of them can be, I think, highly useful in the human situation today.

But I don't think it's fair to expect religious leaders alone to carry the struggle; I think it's necessary for all those groups which are concerned with the welfare of their own constituents, as well as the welfare of the whole to create a moral imperative. The question always comes up, of course, well what about the Soviet Union? What point is there in making these declarations if they don't also speak to the Soviet Union. Here, I think it's important to make a reasonable analysis of what the situation is in the Soviet Union.

There is a notion that we are confronted with an implacable communism. And so the first thing we have to do is to say, well, what is communism and where are the communists? The Soviet society today is not yet a communist society. They like to tell you that well, yes, we don't have communism yet, but we're moving in that direction. But the fact of the matter is that they've discovered that those elements of communism that they have adopted have not worked. Marx didn't understand production; the five-year plans that the Russians have pursued have not worked; they've tried a number of ways to increase production because you can't be strong unless you can produce. And so they're actually moving away from communism, and they're actually introducing incentives in order to increase production.

The same thing is true of China. Well, then they say well, communism represents the destruction of religion. I think the one thing the Russians have learned, or the Soviet leaders have discovered, is that you can't destroy religion. And it was interesting, according to one statistic that I've seen, that there were more baptisms in the Soviet Union last year than in the United States. So, they've been wrong about that, too. And yet we have not yet, it seems to me, assessed what that government really is, or how it really operates. It's a form of a municipal capitalism, which is to say the city owns and operates the businesses inside its own locality, and they do this almost on a corporate basis where the people work for their own stockholders. I visited a publishing firm in Moscow where they did countless bookkeeping, which is that they had a bottom-line. They sold things and they had expenses, and then they had to tally up the two to see whether they were making a profit or not. And when they didn't make a profit they had to shake up the plan, so they'd bring in new managers because the workers would share in the profits, and therefore, they had a stake in the profits.

Well, I don't think we really understand this, but we have that old stereotype, you see, of dealing with that, just as they have the stereotype of what capitalism is. They don't understand that Marx's analysis of capitalism no longer holds. They don't understand what has happened in terms of management, the managerial revolution in the United States. They still think in terms of a few families owning these large companies, and you have these predatory capitalists, and they don't understand the fluidity of our society, the fact that it is possible for anybody, and still is, to move up the ladder and have all these changes. So one of the great ironies of the modern world is that the main threat to American capitalism today is coming, not from a communist country; the main threat to American capitalism coming today is coming from another capitalist country: Japan, which has discovered ways of producing things superior to our own.

In short, they are using capitalism in a way that produces a higher form of capitalism. Our automobile industry has been injured, not because of competition from the Russians; our electronic industry is in danger, not because of the Russians. It's being threatened because of better ways of doing things by another capitalist country. And so what we ought to do is to look at the Japanese and ask ourselves, how is it possible that this capitalist country, with no resources of its own, has been able nonetheless to challenge the mighty United States, with all those resources, a vast population, greater wealth, even though Japan was destroyed at the end of the last war.

And the answer is that Japan's real wealth is in the human mind, and it has recognized it as such. And at a time when the United States has been cutting back on higher education, and support for higher education, the Japanese have been putting everything they possibly can into higher education, because they recognize that you don't need physical resources. If you can develop the resources of the human mind, you've tapped the greatest source of wealth on earth. And this then was the essence of capitalism, and that is why their form of capitalism so far has been superior to ours.

We have been using our resources, and devouring our resources, in large part in military spending. Japan doesn't put any money into military spending because what Japan has said to itself is that no one is going to win a nuclear war, and if nuclear war is going to be fought everyone is going to lose. Therefore, what they're going to do in the meantime, is to develop their sources of real strength and real wealth in order to upgrade their society, and no one talks about Japan involved with other countries. What we are talking about, it seems to me, is the fact - we should be talking about - is the fact that we're dealing with old stereotypes and old manners. Now it is true, I believe, that the main threat to our capitalism is coming from another capitalist society because of their realization of what production requires...

Whiteley: And the role of education...

Cousins: Especially the role of education. But at the same time, the main threat to Soviet communism is coming not from a capitalist society, but from another communist society: China. And so you have these twin paradoxes unrealized, but real.

Whiteley: You've written that time is no longer on the side of peace; that the time to achieve a viable world government as time passes, is getting harder and harder. How would you break into this cycle you've identified within capitalism, within communism, and between nations? We're not getting the job done. Where would you have us begin?

Cousins: Well, when I said that time is not working for us, I didn't mean to suggest that time has run out, or that we should act out of desperation because there is so little time. That's not what I had in mind. What I had in mind was that we can assume that we can be oblivious of what is happening and it is true that the longer we wait, the tougher it's going to get. I can see no better course for the United States than for its government to announce to the world that the unifying principle of its foreign policy is to make the world whole, and that we're going to use whatever strength we have, and I'm not thinking of physical strength, we'll use the strength of our history. And we will commit ourselves to the notion that this world can be governed. And that what we propose is not that individual nations or governments be abolished, or that individual systems be abolished, but rather that we try to create something to which each will make a contribution that can serve the parts.

It is difficult to think of any problem today of any dimension that is not global in nature, whether we're talking about the threat to the human environment, the physical environment, whether we're talking about the arms race, whether we're talking about population pressure, whether we're talking about food. These are world problems and we don't have adequate world instruments to deal with them. And I would hope the United States would say that the central purpose of our foreign policy will be to bring into being these instruments which can be effective on the world scale, not just to serve our needs, but to serve the needs of others. And to express our confidence in the fact that it is possible for human resources to be used for human good. Everything begins with an idea, and the idea begins as the Bible reminds us with The Word. I would like the word to go out that the United States is committing itself to the possibility that this world and everything in it can be made safe and fit for human habitation.

Whiteley: Mr. Cousins, thank you for sharing with us today, your insights into the ways to a more peaceful world.