It is a new year, and so it comes with all sorts of human rituals -- promises, resolutions, fresh starts, beginnings. For at least a while, until 1985 becomes a familiar number to write on a check or read in a newspaper, we are supposed to feel a surge of new possibilities. We are even supposed to entertain hope.
Well, I am not so sure that we are ready for that. Hope was not the best guest of the 1984 social season. It was so meager, so parsimonious, such a downer. I'm not sure we want to entertain it again. Last week, last month, last year, Hope for Peace went party-hopping and raised a very odd set of toasts. The hard-line hopes for the future were pinned on Star Wars. The peacenik hopes were pinned on, of all things, nuclear winter.
We were all there when Caspar Weinberger said that the president would never abandon his vision of that video-game defense against the enemy, a plan to shoot nuclear missiles out of the air. "It offers too much hope," explained Weinberger deadpan. "It's the only thing that offers any real hope to the world. And he will not give that up."
At the same time, a legion of new scientists and advocates of arms reduction signed on as believers in the theory of nuclear winter. They agreed that just a fraction of our arsenal of nuclear weapons would produce the ultimate cloud of dust, the final frozen wasteland.
This knowledge, the nuclear winterites believe, will force governments to rewrite the suicide pact of war. As Thomas Powers wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, "To me, recognition of the nuclear-winter problem, awful as it is, seems a piece of immense good fortune at the eleventh hour and a sign that Providence hasn't given up on us yet."
This, I tell you, is what passed for hope in 1984. This is what people try to pass off as hopeful for 1985.
I have tried to wrap myself in the silver linings they offer us. I've tried to find the comfort in nuclear winter and instead found myself shivering. I have tried to imagine a defensive shield against airborne missiles and instead envisioned nuclear weapons delivered in suitcases.
It is hard to believe in a technological fix from above, too hard to believe that we can beat our fear of nuclear winter into hope. I find these a peculiar pair of miserly hopes to welcome the new year. "Hopes" that have this much in common: pessimism, a long negative view of history, of governments, perhaps even of human nature.
I have the sense that these two contenders for public attention agree that humans are "naturally" hostile. They envision governments so eager for a fight that they can only be either scared out of a lethal battle or technologically shielded from its effects.
These most sophisticated debates about national security inevitably come back to old arguments about human nature. What's unusual is to see how clearly pessimism dominates the argument right now.
Perhaps I am not the one to best counter this pessimism. At this turn of the digital calendar, I find it much harder than usual to make a case for a better, brighter, new, improved year. The change I see looks like more drifting.
But my own view of human nature is at least mixed. We are fundamentally, "naturally," neither aggressive nor passive nor anything except a mass of possibilities and decisions. And that is where the real hope comes in. Not the glamorous stuff of star warriors and nuclear winterites, but of human beings and fresh starts.
If I may contradict Caspar Weinberger, "the only thing that offers any real hope to the world" is a belief in the variety of human nature, a belief that peace has as much place and potential in our nature as aggression. If we are going to hope this year, and that's an open question, we'd better not look in the stars but in ourselves. That's where we'll find the signs that "Providence hasn't given up on us yet."