What if the very worst result of George W. Bush’s war lies is that people stop taking seriously the danger of actual nuclear weapons actually falling into the hands of actual lunatics? Arguably the very worst result of Woodrow Wilson’s lies about German atrocities in World War I was excessive skepticism about reports of Nazi atrocities leading up to and during World War II. The fact is that nuclear weapons are being recklessly maintained, built, developed, tested, and proliferated. The fact is that governments make mistakes, fail, collapse, and engage in evil actions.
By Dick Cheney’s calculation, if there was a 1% chance that a pile of ridiculous lies was true, it justified all out war on the world, destabilizing a region, killing and making homeless millions, and birthing radical new terrorist forces. By my calculation, there is a 100% chance that if we continue current nuclear policies, sooner or later, a huge number of people — quite possibly all people — will die, many of them with melted skin, eyes hanging out of their sockets, noses burnt off, and screams of bitter envy for those already dead. Surely this justifies some slight action of some sort, apart from more fracking or building internment camps for Muslims.
I say that’s my calculation, but the idea actually arises — one of many — from my reading of an excellent book called City, Save Thyself! Nuclear Terror and the Urban Ballot. It was written by David Wylie, a former Cambridge, Mass., city councilor who helped initiate the first municipal Commission on Peace and Disarmament, the twenty U.S.-Soviet Sister City alliances, and an urban referendum effort against nuclear weapons.
What if we were to confront real dangers of nuclear apocalypse and climate apocalypse without the fear that produces stupidity, but with smart strategic action aimed at substantive change? That brings me to a second favorite idea from Wylie’s book, and what I take to be his central proposal. Democratic people power is the force that can put a halt to the war profiteers and weapons proliferators. Democratic people power can best be created at the level of towns and cities. Towns and cities of the world can together form a federalist structure of global power of the sort that nations will never produce and which the United Nations has fervently resisted since its creation.
Do you live in a town or city in the United States? When you organize, are you able in some small way to influence your local government? Would people in your town be willing to communicate with people in a foreign town, perhaps a largely Muslim foreign town? Would people in your town be interested in a world that reduced and eliminated weapons of mass destruction? Would people in your town appreciate major new resources for education, infrastructure, green energy, and jobs — resources that would become available with reductions in military spending? Would the people of your city like to tell the people of a foreign nation that, despite many differences and mutual ignorance of each other, you’d prefer not to see the U.S. military bomb them, and you’d in fact like to get to know them better through cultural exchanges and joint action as members of a global security committee?
None of this is far fetched. Cities and towns are in fact where it is entirely possible to get things done. While activist groups focus their efforts on doomed bills in Congress, U.S. cities are taking huge strides on election reform, green energy, education, voting rights, etc. We need to shift our worldviews to properly pursue this course. We need to stop identifying ourselves by the name of a nation, and instead think of ourselves in terms of our towns and the world. There is overwhelming evidence that redirecting political engagement from national advocacy that almost always fails into local advocacy that often works would be less a redirection of a finite amount of civic action and more a generation of vast new quantities of popular democratic work.
Sister and twin cities, Mayors for Peace, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the League of Historical Cities, and other such organizations point to the potential for giving local political strength a broader grip on the world. Communication across distances and languages is growing easier by the minute. Agreement that our communities would be better off not burned to the ground by either bombs or climate chaos is among the easiest and least controversial notions available to be proposed to a diverse group of democratic-spirited representatives from planet earth.
Here in Charlottesville, Virginia, I, as a Charlottesvillian and World Citizen, am pleased to report that our local city council has in recent years passed resolutions against possible wars on various countries, including Iraq and Iran, in favor of conversion to peaceful industries, and against the use of drones. Our city council, like most, routinely informs its state general assembly of its wishes. And the influence of the city’s official voice does not end there. Cville’s past resolutions on Iraq, military spending, uranium, and other matters have inspired other localities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to raise their voices as well. Some of these resolutions have been directed to the federal government, to which the residents of Charlottesville pay taxes and whose laws the residents of Charlottesville are subject to.
This is how our federalist republic is supposed to work. City council members in Virginia take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Cities and towns routinely send petitions to Congress for all kinds of requests. This is allowed under Clause 3, Rule XII, Section 819, of the Rules of the House of Representatives. This clause is routinely used to accept petitions from cities, and memorials from states, all across the United States. The same is established in the Jefferson Manual, the rule book for the House originally written by Thomas Jefferson for the Senate.
In 1967 a court in California ruled (Farley v. Healey , 67 Cal.2d 325) that “one of the purposes of local government is to represent its citizens before the Congress, the Legislature, and administrative agencies in matters over which the local government has no power. Even in matters of foreign policy it is not uncommon for local legislative bodies to make their positions known.”
Abolitionists passed local resolutions against U.S. policies on slavery. The anti-apartheid movement did the same, as did the nuclear freeze movement, the movement against the PATRIOT Act, the movement in favor of the Kyoto Protocol, etc. We are not an island. If we become environmentally sustainable, others will ruin our climate. If we ban assault weapons, they’ll arrive at our borders. And if the skies of the United States are filled with drones, it will become ever more difficult for Charlottesville to keep them out.
Wylie’s proposal would further empower my city and thousands of other cities, each of which would appoint a representative to a global body. If nations won’t protect the climate, cities of the world can nonetheless agree to do so. If nations won’t resolve disputes by peaceful means, cities can nonetheless make that happen. If nations won’t invest in peaceful industries, cities and towns can nonetheless create programs of economic conversion to industries that provide greater economic benefit while also reducing the chances of violent death by nuclear hell fire.
Wylie’s proposal should be read in its entirety in his book, which outlines numerous ways for cities to advance this process, including ways to encourage and recognize world citizens, and to encourage and recognize world cities. Cities can also use referenda, rather than council votes, to give democratic weight and wisdom to their actions. And national politicians who denounce the broken system they are part of can take actions to strengthen the local-level system that still has life in it.
The proposal here is not to risk federal prosecution by secretly negotiating with foreign national governments. Rather the idea is to risk an outbreak of peace and mutual understanding by publicly interacting with local governments from one’s own and other parts of the world. This public diplomacy could be truly public in the sense of publishing full video of all of its interactions on the public internet. (An outline for such transparency can be found in the remnants of broken campaign promises from a certain national U.S. political candidate of 2008.)
Wylie’s book is a guide to action and includes in it a model letter to your local mayor or city council, a model resolution, a model agenda for a first meeting of a municipal security assembly, and a rich bibliography for deeper understanding of how to make this work. I highly recommend it.