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Globalizing Dignity

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This is the eleventh part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


It is excellent to have a giant's strength;
but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.
--William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

War's a game, which,
Were their subjects wise,
Kings would not play at.
--William Cowper

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought,
but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
--Albert Einstein

The "Evolutionary Blues"

Everyone has known the blues: you lose your job or your health, your partner leaves you or your dog dies. Sorrow is an inescapable part of the human condition. You don't need the wisdom of the Buddha to know that life is suffering.

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The evolutionary blues consist of sterner stuff, affecting not just an individual but our species as a whole. These are the growing pains that accompany the political, cultural, environmental, and existential crises that have beset humankind throughout its bloody history. They stem from man's inhumanity to man and are carved deeply into the human soul. This book argues that building a dignitarian world can mitigate the evolutionary blues. By confronting rankism in its fiercest guises we have a chance to unsaddle at least some of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and put their fearsome steeds to pasture.

We learn history as the history of wars. They stand out as terrible course corrections in our social evolution. As many are now warning, the advent and spread of weapons of mass destruction herald catastrophe for our species in this century if we don't find a peaceful way to complete the epochal transition from predation to cooperation.

Before suggesting a dignitarian alternative to war, I want to take a farewell look at it as it lives in our imagination. Only as we see through war's deceptive promise can we end our dependence on it and bid it adieu.

A World War in My Sandbox

Fighting Nazis and finding love--that's what my life is about.
--Scott Simon,Weekend Edition, National Public Radio

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For my friends and me,World War II was a game we played in the sandbox. The less popular kids had to be Nazis. Pearl Harbor was reenacted hundreds of times because it justified what followed--we fought back against our enemies and gradually turned the tide. Sandbox wars ended in massive bombing raids on "Berlin" and "Tokyo"--the Axis always lost because the Allies "controlled the skies."

In school there were air raid drills, but despite life-and-death exhortations from the principal, for us they were comical. No bombs ever fell. After all, didn't we control the skies? On Sunday evenings the family gathered around the radio--which stood on the floor and was a big as a bureau--to hear Walter Winchell's news bulletin "to all the ships at sea." I loved the hushed intensity in the room as we listened. Churchill's "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" speech still gives me chills.

The most powerful memories from those years are not events. Pearl Harbor, Hitler's death, and the dropping of the atomic bomb pale beside the patriotic feeling of everyone being united in a noble cause. Even kids had a part. Mine was to collect used tin cans and help my mother in our "victory garden," and I did so without complaint. The thought of dissenting from this war simply did not arise. In one voice, we vowed to force our enemies to "surrender unconditionally." World War II ended with a bang. I was only nine but I remember just where I was standing when I heard about The Bomb. My father told me that it harnessed a new kind of energy, the energy of the sun.

This scientific first interested me less than something unprecedented in his voice--awe, tinged with alarm. Throughout the war, he had always sounded confident that things were under control. Now his tone warned that things would never be the same.Not long afterward, newspapers proclaimed the advent of the "atomic age."

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Robert W. Fuller is a physicist, a former president of Oberlin College, and author of The Rowan Tree: A Novel. He has consulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president's Commission on World Hunger, worked in the (more...)

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