Last Friday, a launch event was held for The Secular Monastery. My remarks at the event were as follows:
Thanks to the civil conflict course I am teaching this semester, I have been conveniently reminded that several historical insurgencies now considered to have been successful began with a smaller number of far less distinguished people that are in this room at the moment. Since I see The Secular Monastery as an insurgent project, I take heart in that thought.
I have taken a bit of ridicule and also a bit of flack for the insurgent idea, but so far those comments have only served to remind me of what I suspect is everyone’s favorite quip from Mahatma Gandhi: first they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they attack you; then you win. Admittedly that can take a long time and ultimate victory is never assured, but I do like the comment.
I would like to let the novel speak for itself as best it can, but I realize it is impractical simply to read it to you. So in initiating our discussion this evening I will make a few comments about what I think it is about.
There are some cosmic thoughts in the background. I cannot help feeling that our society and all others as well are being impelled into historic transformation against the fierce resistance of traditional attitudes. The driving force is the process we have come to term globalization. The principal imperative will be managing the consequences of global warming. The principal danger arises from the interaction of belligerent politics and the extremely consequential technology embedded in the globalization process.
I am among many who have written on these broad subjects. Our collective voices do not yet register in the daily consciousness of most people, but to complain about that is to misconstrue the problem. Fundamental redirection is a lengthy and difficult task. It is the work of generations, and those who initiate it should not count on being remembered when the process is completed.
The Secular Monastery is an attempt to bring these cosmic issues down to the scale of individual lives. It depicts people who see the forces of circumstance to the extent that it is currently feasible to see them and who attempt to promote constructive response. It introduces a hypothetical organization that is an embryo of the yet more capable organizations that will have to be created if transformation is to occur.
The plot of the novel revolves around the issue of jurisdiction over an inherently dangerous line of biological research. The experiment in question was hypothetical at the time the novel was published, but only a few weeks later the H5N1 experiments were revealed. They are what was imagined and in fact anticipated. In the immediate aftermath of those experiments, official reaction has featured the laudable efforts of researchers and public health professions to defend transparency and the primacy of public health interest. Nonetheless they have not yet faced the ultimate necessity of devising oversight procedures that make judgments about social consequence in advance, control access to the resulting information to those qualified to have it, and hold them accountable for how they use it. Without those provisions, the scientific and public health community is vulnerable to security bureaucrats who are reportedly contemplating the imposition of their authority. The surface battle in the novel is waged over public health and national security jurisdiction, and we are in for some public discussion along those lines.
But there is deeper resonance to the story engaging the American security relationships with Iran and China. In both cases the central issue is whether the relationship is to remain confrontational indefinitely, and that is a central question of transformation. The primary dangers of biotechnology arise from potential entanglement in antagonistic security relationships.
Since Iran is the most immediately active instance of this question, let me confine my remarks to that situation and summarize underlying thoughts reflected in the story but not directly discussed. I will do so by listing a set of summary assertions about the current situation. And lest any of you be inclined to think that the insurgency idea is a bit grandiose, let me note that Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by nailing ninety-five assertions – he called them theses – to the door of the Wittenberg church. I offer a paltry seven. We now have much more expansive means of communication, but even so I am not imaging anything like the same effect.
So, seven dissident theses about the Iran situation:
1. Iran does not have and cannot acquire the capacity to present an existential threat to Israel or to any other country.
2. Mastery of enrichment technology does not present an existential threat to anyone and will not be understood as such in most of the world. An attack justified on that basis will not be considered legitimate self-defense.
3. The entire concept of an existential threat is morally and strategically irresponsible.
4. The military actions that might realistically be undertaken against Iran are far more likely to generate an Iranian nuclear weapons program that they are to prevent it.
5. Iran does have reason to fear military assault from the United States, and because of that fact credible reassurance will be a necessary feature of any diplomatic resolution.
6. The evident formula for diplomatic resolution has been accepted in principle by Iran but so far not by the United States. It involves restraint on enrichment activity below the threshold of weapons capability in exchange for normalization of relations and credible reassurance.
7. Imposing severe sanctions without opening serious negotiations on the compromise formula conveys the impression that regime change is the operative American policy and that in turn virtually compels Iranian resistance.
The net of the situation is that a morally unjustified and strategically disastrous war appears to be far more likely than it ought to be. There is evident pathology in the American political process reminiscent of what we saw in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. I do not imagine that The Secular Monastery could turn that tide, but it is a small effort to issue pertinent warning.