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A Martian View of the New Cold War

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Message Ernest Partridge
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Meet Xkqfbl. He is a Martian. He can pronounce his name, but we can't. So we'll call him "Marty."

Marty is very interested in us earthlings. Moreover, his interest is entirely benevolent. Because he cannot live on our planet -- our gravity and atmosphere forbid it -- and because he has no use for our natural resources, Marty has no economic motives regarding our planet or its inhabitants.

Nonetheless, Marty is very concerned for our welfare. He affirms, with the founders of our republic, that all humans are endowed with equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This includes Moslems and Russians as well as Americans. He would like all human beings to be as happy and prosperous as possible, and he grieves at our failure to achieve this utopia.

Marty understand us. Throughout a lifetime of thousands of our earth-years, he has studied human history and human psychology. He is fully aware that thrice in the past two centuries, armies from western Europe have marched across Russia's western border -- most recently, at the cost of twenty-five million Soviet citizens, or one sixth of the population. Accordingly, he understands (as apparently American leaders and journalists do not) why Russian citizens and the Russian government are alarmed when NATO, a military alliance, conducts military exercises alongside that western border.

Marty is also quite aware that Americans and Russians have radically different attitudes toward war. To most Russians, war is an unspeakable horror, fought on their native soil. To the Americans, war is a glorious adventure as depicted in movies and TV, fought somewhere "over there." The fortunate Americans have not suffered a war within their borders since the Civil War, a century and a half ago.

Marty, who loves all earthlings equally, is deeply saddened by the resumption of the cold war between the United States and NATO, on one side, and Russia on the other. He understands that in the United States, this new cold war is very beneficial to the profits of the defense industries, to the careers of politicians and military officers, and to the circulation of the corporate media. But for the ordinary American citizens, and for the future of the political economies of the opposing nations, the cold war is a disaster. In the name of "national defense:"

  • Domestic economies are starved. Physical infrastructure -- roads, bridges, water and power supplies -- crumble into disrepair. Public school budgets are cut, and higher education becomes unaffordable.

  • Civil liberties and constitutional rights are set aside. Among them, Fourth Amendment restrictions on search and seizure, Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial and against imprisonment without charge. International laws against torture and wars of aggression are violated.

  • With full media and legislative attention drawn to the threat from "foreign enemies," coordinated multi-national responses to genuine global emergencies such as climate change and terrorism become impossible.

  • Above all, as the hostility between the rivals intensifies, so too does the threat of nuclear war. Both sides are fully aware that a deliberate, full-scale nuclear attack -- a "nuclear Pearl Harbor" -- is highly unlikely, since the retaliation from such an attack would result in the total annihilation of the aggressor. Far more likely would be a nuclear war by uncontrolled escalation, derangement or accident -- for example the misinterpretation of a radar signal or a computer malfunction. There were many such "close calls" during the first cold war, as identified here and here.

  • In the language of game theory, from the point of view of the military-industrial-media complex, the new Cold War is a plus-sum contest -- inflated budgets, career advancement, advertising revenues. From the point of view of strategic planners, it is zero-sum: "if we win, they lose, and if we lose, they win." From the point of view of humanity in general -- and of Marty, the wise and benevolent Martian -- the Cold War is minus-sum, threatening infinite loss: total nuclear annihilation.


    And now, to the essential point of this fable: one need not be a Martian to assume Marty's point of view.

    The concept of the perspective of the unbiased, informed and benevolent observer has many names, and is prominent in the history of moral and political philosophy: "the impartial spectator" (Adam Smith), "the ideal observer" (John Stuart Mill), "the general will" (Rousseau), "the view from nowhere" (Thomas Nagel), "the original position" (John Rawls). My preferred term, in common usage among moral philosophers, is "the moral point of view."

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    Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. Partridge has taught philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The (more...)

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