Dare Obasanjo

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dankblog! 2022-12-05, 0946 EST, at the danktower

this is a bit different post than normal, as it's targeted largely at one person -- my friend Carnage4Life, the one and only Dare Obasanjo. we attended GT together, where Dare impressed me as a thinker and a person. in the twenty years afterwards, he proved himself a public intellectual and, however much i loathe the term, a "thought leader". he also proved himself a good buddy, and we kicked it several times in Seattle. there aren't many people i've thrown down with on opposite corners of the country.

a few months ago, i noticed he'd blocked me on twitter and facebook. i went to mail him and ask what was up, but don't seem to have his email anywhere.

this makes me sad. i'm sure i said something stupid and terrible and poorly considered, perhaps while inebriated, that struck a particular chord of offense and caused this. i tend to do such regrettable things--less than i did at one time, but i say a lot of stupid shit.

dare, i'm posting this in the hope you have alerts set up for your name, and you see this across your feed. you're a good man, and it upsets me that i made you unhappy with my stupidity. i apologize for it, unsure quite what it was, but certain that were i to read it, i'd be horrified that such a thing escaped my lips/fingers (or maybe i just meant it in a way entirely different from how it was received, and will be horrified at my lack of circumspection). i'm certain there was nothing i said that i stand behind to the point of losing a friend of twenty years. i hope you see this, and reach out. nickblack@linux.com; holla.

from Freeman Dyson's Disturbing the Universe (a book of great wisdom, style, and grace):

I used to talk a great deal with my father, especially during the early years of the war, about the morality of fighting and killing. At first I was a convinced pacifist and intended to become a conscientious objector. I agonized endlessly over the ethical line that had to be drawn between justifiable and unjustifiable participation in the war effort. My father listened patiently while I expounded my wavering principles and rationalized the latest shifts in my pacifist position. He said very little. My ethical doctrines grew more and more complicated as I was increasingly torn between my theoretical repudiation of national loyalties and my practical involvement in the life of a country fighting with considerable courage and good humor for its survival. For my father the issues were simple. He did not need to argue with me. He knew that actions speak louder than words. When things were going badly in 1940, he said, "All we have to do is to behave halfway decently, and we shall soon have the whole world on our side." When he spoke of the whole world, he was probably thinking especially of the United States of America and of his own son.

Many years later I was reminded of these discussions between me and my father when I read the transcript of Oppenheimer's security hearing. The dramatic climax of the three-week hearing came near the end, when the physicist Edward Teller appeared as a witness for the prosecution and confronted Oppenheimer face to face. Teller was asked directly whether he considered Oppenheimer to be a security risk. He answered with carefully chosen words:

"I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more."

These words describe rather accurately my father's attitude to my intellectual gyrations during the earlier part of the war. Oppenheimer, like me, was confused and complicated. He wanted to be on good terms with the Washington generals and to be a savior of humanity at the same time. Teller, like my father, was simple. He thought it was a dangerous illusion to imagine that we could save humanity by proclaiming high moral principles from a position of military weakness. He did his job as a scientist and bomb designer to keep America strong, and he left moral judgments concerning the use of our weapons to the American people and their elected representatives. Like my father, he believed that if we stayed strong and behaved decently the whole world would before long come to our side. His greatest mistake was his failure to foresee that a large section of the public would not consider his appearance at the Oppenheimer hearing to be decent behavior. Had Teller not appeared, the outcome of the hearing would almost certainly have been unaffected, and the moral force of Teller's position would not have been tainted.

The first time I met Teller was in March 1949, when I talked to the physicists at the University of Chicago about the radiation theories of Schwinger and Feynman. I diplomatically gave high praise to Schwinger and then explained why Feynman's methods were more useful and more illuminating. At the end of the lecture, the chairman called for questions from the audience. Teller asked the first question: "What would you think of a man who cried 'There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet' and then at once drank down a great tankard of wine?" Since I remained speechless, Teller answered the question himself: "I would consider the man a very sensible fellow." In 1949 the physics department at Chicago was second only to Cornell's in liveliness. Fermi and Teller in Chicago were like Bethe and Feynman at Cornell. Fermi the acknowledged leader, friendly and approachable but fundamentally serious. Teller bubbling over with ideas and jokes. Teller had done many interesting things in physics, but never the same thing for long. He seemed to do physics for fun rather than for glory. I took an instant liking to him.

I had been told in confidence by my friends at Cornell that Teller was deeply engaged in the American effort to build a hydrogen bomb. As a visiting foreigner I had no business to know about such things, but I was intensely curious to understand how a man with such a jovial and happy temperament could bring himself to work on the perfecting of engines of destruction even more fiendish than those we already possessed. In Chicago I found an opportunity to start an argument with him about politics . He revealed himself as an ardent supporter of the World Government movement, an organization which in those days promised salvation by means of a world government to be set up in the near future with or without the cooperation of the Soviet Union. Teller preached the gospel of world government with great charm and intelligence. I concluded my weekly report to my family with the words: "He is a good example of the saying that no man is so dangerous as an idealist." Two years after my visit to Chicago, Teller and Ulam at Los Alamos made the crucial invention that changed the hydrogen bomb from a theoretical to a practical possibility. In 1949, before the Ulam-Teller invention , Oppenheimer had written of the hydrogen bomb , "I am not sure the miserable thing will work, nor that it can be gotten to a target except by ox-cart." After the invention, as Oppenheimer said at his trial, "From a technical point of view it was a sweet and lovely and beautiful job." Once the invention was made, in March 1951, it took the Los Alamos laboratory only twenty months of concentrated effort to build and explode a full-scale experimental bomb with a yield of ten million tons of TNT. A few years later, Teller published a historical account of the development of the bomb with the title "The Work of Many People," pointing out that he had received an excessively large share of both credit and blame for the bomb's existence. It was true that the bomb was very far from being the work of one man. Nevertheless, Teller had been the chief instigator and driving force, pushing indefatigably toward the bomb's realization, refusing to be discouraged by delays and difficulties, ever since the distant days of 1942 before Los Alamos began, through the wartime years and the years of frustration after 1945 when almost nobody would listen to him. He had thought longer and harder about hydrogen bombs than anybody else. It was no accident that he was the first to see how the things had to be built.

The invention and building of the hydrogen bomb in 1951-52 were hidden from public view. I was at the time at Cornell University, and all I knew about these matters was that Hans Bethe disappeared to Los Alamos for eight months at a stretch. That year I had to teach Hans's course in nuclear physics. Soon after Hans returned to Cornell, a gentleman from Washington came to visit with a briefcase chained to his wrist. The gentleman looked very uncomfortable standing at the physics department urinal with this massive briefcase dangling. No doubt the briefcase contained the results of the first hydrogen bomb test. Hans was preoccupied with things he could not talk about and seemed to have lost his zest for doing physics. It was a bad year at Cornell. One of the minor consequences of Hans's involvement with the hydrogen bomb was that I decided for the second time to move from Cornell to Princeton. Two years later , when I was in Washington delivering the laundry to Oppenheimer's lawyer, I met Hans Bethe by chance in a hotel lobby. He was looking grimmer than I had ever seen him. I knew he had been testifying at Oppenheimer 's trial. "Are the hearings going badly?" I asked. "Yes," said Hans, "but that is not the worst. I have just now had the most unpleasant conversation of my whole life. With Edward Teller." He did not say more, but the implications were clear. Teller had decided to testify against Oppenheimer. Hans had tried to dissuade him and failed.

This was a moment of tragedy for both Bethe and Teller. They had been close friends for many years, since long before the war. Their temperaments and abilities complemented each other wonderfully, Teller with his high spirits and free-ranging imagination, Bethe with his seriousness and powerful common sense. Before Bethe married, he was so often a guest in the Teller home that he became almost one of the family. In April 1954 that was all over. There could be no real reconciliation. Bethe had lost one of his oldest friends. But Teller had lost more: Teller, by lending his voice to the cause of Oppenheimer's enemies, had lost not only the friendship but the respect of many of his colleagues. He was portrayed by newspaper writers and cartoonists as a Judas, a man who had betrayed his leader for the sake of personal gain. A careful reading of his testimony at the trial shows that he intended no personal betrayal. He wanted only to destroy Oppenheimer's political power, not to damage Oppenheimer personally. But the mood of that time made such fine distinctions meaningless. In the eyes of the majority of scientists and academic people, Oppenheimer's trial was simply a campaign led by a group of paranoid patriots who were trying to silence opposition to their policies by a personal attack on their most visible opponent. By joining the campaign, no matter what he said and no matter why he said it, Teller made himself an object of hatred and distrust to a whole generation of young people. He wounded himself more grievously than he wounded Oppenheimer. Like Oppenheimer before him, Teller, too, had been seduced by the Demon at the summit of F6. The abbot in the monastery had foretold their fate in his warning to M.F.:

"As long as the world endures, there must be order, there must be government: but woe to the governors, for, by the very operation of their duty, however excellent, they themselves are destroyed . For you can only rule men by appealing to their fear and their lust; government requires the exercise of the human will: and the human will is from the Demon."

Nuclear explosives have a glitter more seductive than gold to those who play with them. To command nature to release in a pint pot the energy that fuels the stars, to lift by pure thought a million tons of rock into the sky, these are exercises of the human will that produce an illusion of illimitable power. Oppenheimer and Teller each came to perform these exercises of the human will for good and honest reasons. Oppenheimer was driven to build this power by the fear that Hitler might otherwise seize it first. Teller was driven to build hydrogen bombs by the fear that Stalin would use this power to rule the world. Oppenheimer, being Jewish, had good reason to fear Hitler. Teller, being Hungarian, had good reason to fear Stalin. But each of them, having achieved his technical objective, wanted more. Each of them was led by his Demon to seek political as well as technical power. Each of them became convinced that he must have political power to ensure that the direction of the enterprise he had created should not fall into hands that he considered irresponsible. In the end, each of them was irrevocably committed to exercises of the human will in the political as well as the technical sphere. And so each of them in his own way came to grief.

In the summer of 1955 I rented a big house in Berkeley for my growing family. The house that we rented for the summer stood on the hill over looking the Berkeley campus. One Sunday morning we went for a walk up the hill, leaving the house open as usual. When we came back through the trees to the house, we heard a strange sound coming through the open door. The children stopped their chatter and we all stood outside the door and listened. It was my old friend from long ago, Bach's Prelude No. 8 in E♭ minor. Superbly played. Played just the way my father used to play it. For a moment I was completely disoriented. I thought: What the devil is my father doing here in California?

We stood in front of our Berkeley house and listened to that prelude. Whoever was playing it, he was putting into it his whole heart and soul.

We waited until the music came to an end and then walked in. There, sitting at the piano, was Edward Teller. We asked him to go on playing, but he excused himself. He said he had come to invite us to a party at his house and had happened to see that fine piano begging to be played. We accepted the invitation and he went on his way. That was the first time I had spoken with him since our encounter six years earlier in Chicago.

I decided that no matter what the judgment of history upon this man might be, I had no cause to consider him my enemy.

previously: "1985v2022" 2022-11-30