In this interview, author Norman Cousins discusses the need for global governing institutions and more human-oriented approaches to education and health care.
In his long and productive career, Norman Cousins has been an author, diplomat, professor, and humanitarian advocate.
Photo by Steve Keull
Whether Norman Cousins' life has involved editing the pages of the Saturday Review (which he did for 30 years) ... writing 17 books ... going abroad on presidential missions ... negotiating for the release of two cardinals from Eastern Europe for Pope John XXIII ... meeting with such legendary public figures as Pablo Casals, Winston Churchill, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Mahatma Gandhi, Adlai Stevenson, Nikita Khrushchev, Buckminster Fuller, and John F. Kennedy ... heading surgical relief projects for victims of Nazi medical experimentation and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima ... providing food and medicine for thousands of starving Biafran children ... helping to establish public television in the United States ... heading a task force on an environmental program for New York City ... setting up U.S/US.S.R. cultural exchange programs ... serving on the Medical Advisory Board of the Veterans Administration hospital ... playing golf, tennis, or the piano ... exercising his considerable photographic skills... helping to cure himself, as he did in 1964, of a usually fatal collagen illness with the help of — among other things — massive doses of vitamin C and laughter (the experience he later chronicled in his bestselling book Anatomy of an Illness) ... using similar techniques to recover from a massive heart attack in 1980 (which he described in his most recent book, The Healing Heart) ... or serving, as he now does, on the faculty of the Medical School at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), he has always striven to get, in his words, "the most and the best out of whatever may be possible."
His strong belief in the often untapped potential of humanity and his confidence in the indomitable human spirit — as well as his ability to pass that belief and confidence on to others — have become known in medical circles as Norman's special "dose of medicine."
Associate editor Sara Pacher and photographer Steve Keull were privileged recently to spend two very pleasant hours with this compassionate and courageous man in his office in the Brain Research Center at UCLA.
"I came away, "Sara remarked later, "with a subtle feeling of excitement, and a degree of hope for the world that I haven't experienced in a long time. After all, as Mr. Cousins says, `We are not being called upon to rearrange the planets in the sky or to alter the composition of the sun. We are called upon to make decisions affecting our own welfare. The only price we have to pay for survival is decision."'
PLOWBOY: In your book Human Options you wrote: "Belonging to a nation, man has nations that can speak for him. Belonging to a religion, man has religions that can speak for him. Belonging to an economic and social order, man has economic and political orders that can speak for him. But belonging to the human race, man is without a spokesman."
If you were that spokesman — and I've long considered you one of our best — what would you say should be done to make the world a safer and happier place for both ourselves and those who'll come after us?
COUSINS: First, I would want to call attention to the fact that we are living in a very primitive age in human history. Despite all the apparent evidences of civilization, we are really bumping along at a very low level and dealing primarily with philosophies that point us away from survival. The primitive nature of human society is reflected most of all in the inadequacy of the nation as a form of human organization. The nation came into being for the purpose of protecting the lives, property, and values of its citizens, and there's no nation in the world that is able, today, to perform that basic function. Instead, the nation has become a point of incendiary confrontations with other nations in a world too small for such confrontations.
PLOWBOY: Or, as you once suggested, the world has become one before it has become whole.
COUSINS: That's right. And so we are left with the need to devise a collective mechanism for survival. We've tried in the past to evolve such mechanisms, but they haven't kept pace with certain other aspects of human development: our fascination with weaponry, for example, or our ability to devise means of destroying large numbers of people. We have, you see, no corresponding advance in terms of our philosophy or ideology. And the distance between our philosophy and our weaponry defines the problem rather sharply.
Therefore, if I could wave a magic wand over the planet, the first thing I would do is to take away from the nations their macho toys and relieve them of the absurdity that they are all clinging to, which is that security has something to do with the creation of weapons of cataclysmic destruction: And I would get people to recognize that security in today's world depends on the control of force and not the pursuit or accumulation of force.
Next, I would institutionalize effective world law to replace the present anarchy. Even when we do that, there will still be enough folly left to please anyone interested in folly.
PLOWBOY: You have noted that growing up as a species is not all that different from growing up as an individual. That being so, how old would say the human race is, at the present time?
PLOWBOY: Prenatal! Well, if we're that young, we obviously have a lot of potential for growth!
COUSINS: That's the happy prospect. It's always nice to think we can go somewhere other than where we've been.
PLOWBOY: And do you think our "birth," when and if it occurs, will be a traumatic event?
COUSINS: The interesting thing about birth is that, though it is a traumatic experience, the body compensates for it. The process of moving a child through an opening about four inches wide should be excruciating, but it's been discovered that during this event nature enriches the baby with large amounts of endorphins and enkephalins [ED — natural, mind-produced painkillers and pain inhibitors] to enable the newborn to tolerate that particular experience. So I think the process of being born into a collective, responsible organism is one that the human species can probably survive.
I can't think of anything more painful for humankind, as a matter of fact, than surviving a nuclear war and wondering how it was that we didn't see it coming — wondering why we allowed this great default to take place. That would be the most agonizing experience in the history of the human race ... far more painful than the war itself. Such a war could be rather brief, but the suffering would last a very long time.
PLOWBOY: But don't you think that most people recognize the insanity of nuclear war?
COUSINS: In the past two or three years, there's been an increasing awareness of the dangers. One can point to markers along the way — such as the nuclear freeze campaign, the awareness of a nuclear winter, and the film The Day After — that have helped to increase both concern and resolve. But I don't think that concern has been broad enough, or deep enough, or has yet reached the critical mass at which politicians are going to be punished and thrown out of their jobs unless they move in the direction of that concern. People haven't yet recognized this threat, as they did Watergate or Vietnam, as a problem that calls for a certain amount of dedication and blazing determination.
There's still the old idea, you see, that people in government can be trusted with foreign policy, since they supposedly have access to a great deal of information that's not generally available. This, of course, is a great fiction. The information at the top may be broader and deeper, but only on a level of plot and counterplot. (What can we do to an enemy, and what can they do to us, and who ought to do it. Or, let's do unto others before they do unto us—that sort of thing.) But as it concerns the broadest arc of the philosophical picture, we shouldn't consider the people on the top to be necessarily well informed.
Indeed, one of the dangers confronting our society is the assumption that as you go up the ladder in government, the philosophical information and sense of responsibility are commensurably greater. Quite the contrary. Instead of paths of responsibility, which have to do with the utilization of our resources and the ability to think of larger responsibility, the higher up you go, the more you get into the zones of manipulation, confrontation, and conspiracy.
An example of this is the attitude toward the development of new weaponry — that only by producing weapons of instantaneous devastation can we discourage an enemy from hitting us first. But from the moment we get into efforts designed to make someone else either think a certain way or reach decisions that we think would be compatible with our own welfare, we start dealing, not with military factors primarily, but with psychological factors.
The whole purpose of making these outrageous weapons, we are told, is to dissuade the other side from using theirs. If we accept that rationale, we also have to recognize that we are then dealing with basic laws of psychology, and we have to be willing to examine what we're doing according to those laws.
Psychologically, if we want to persuade the other side not to hit us first—or not to hit us under any circumstances—then the last thing in the world we want them to do is to become nervous about our intentions. We certainly don't want to push them closer to the central triggers. For example, if the other side refused to give us a pledge of no first strike, and if such an act pushed us closer to the trigger, then we have to assume that the same basic laws of psychology would apply if the situation were reversed.
But I don't think we are civilized or educated enough to recognize that what affects us would also affect other people. And so we are violating the fundamental laws of human psychology, even though we attempt to justify military policy on the grounds that it can have a psychological impact.
Actually, if we really thought about the situation, we would want to build on our mutual concerns — to get our own people and other peoples to understand that there is no security for us in building more sophisticated and destructive weapons. We're just drilling a larger hole in our end of the boat than the other side can drill in their end of the boat.
That's what I mean when I say that human society is very primitive. We are relying on notions which are absurd to create a foundation for the future, not just for this society but for the human species itself.
Frankly, I see no future for freedom under the present world condition of anarchy — a condition to which both the United States and the Soviet Union are making major contributions.
PLOWBOY: Yet war has long been recognized as an awful way to try to solve problems. Why, then, is it so hard for human beings to renounce such self-destructive behavior?
COUSINS: You can't expect to create institutions (which is what we are fundamentally talking about) to deal with problems just by dousing people with a sense of horror and distaste. We're not going to get rid of war just by recognizing that no purpose is served by it. Furthermore, sometimes you do have evil men in the world who use their force to conquer others. So you can't blame people for wanting to be able to resist.
But at the same time, we can blame ourselves for not creating circumstances under which we do a better job of preventing evil men from coming to power, or of ordering the affairs of nations so that they don't stumble into senseless conflicts they don't know how to handle.
Obtaining world peace is really a matter of combining our spiritual resources with our ability to comprehend problems and make rational decisions. As it is, we have a lot of loose cannons rolling around on the deck, and sooner or later one is going to go off.
Of course, it's true, historically, that being peaceable and well-intentioned doesn't constitute adequate protection for a society. It's also true that in the past there have been predatory nations and predatory leaders who have exploited human weakness. So disarmament by itself is not the answer. We can understand that. But what we haven't yet understood is that being heavily armed is not an answer either! Therefore, we have to develop new answers, and at this stage, we have to recognize the limitations of both an all-out arms race and unilateral disarmament.
PLOWBOY: What are some of our alternatives?
COUSINS: Well, obviously, one would be to define as a fundamental objective in American foreign policy the need to move toward the establishment of law in the world. We must dedicate our foreign policy to that end. We should make clear that we want to explore with all other nations what national commitments have to be made in a regulated world society, and that the ultimate objective of all nations has to be the creation of a functional world order that makes sense for our time on earth. We should give that at least equal emphasis with everything else in our foreign policy. If we did, I think we'd get a great response. What's more, I think moving toward such rational objectives is a fundamental form of security.
PLOWBOY: You mentioned the need for institutions to deal with world problems, and I know you've offered your support to such groups as Planetary Citizens. Despite their current lack of influence, you obviously feel that such organizations are of value.
COUSINS: Yes, I do. I've also worked for many years for the World Federalists, and that to me is as important an activity in this direction as one might conceive, because this group gives people something to do about world problems. It considers, for example, ways in which the United Nations can be transformed into a fully functional organization that will do the job that was originally set for it, which was to keep the peace. I would, in fact, urge everyone to join the World Federalists, which leans heavily on the historical American experience. [EDITOR'S NOTE: For information on local chapters, contact World Federalists Movement.]
PLOWBOY: You've often stressed the importance of history, yet that's not a very popular subject nowadays.
COUSINS: And we pay a terrible price for that! The importance of history is that it should keep us from repeating mistakes. But in order to understand the importance of history, we have to know what education is. It's not just a matter of knowing enough to get a job. There's a quaint notion that the main reason we go to school is to be able to earn a salary. The vocationalization of American education has been one of the unhappy developments in our society in the last 50 years. I don't think we yet realize the high price that has been paid for that error.
The main purpose of education should be to enable us, as John Dewey said, to come into the possession of all our powers, to help us grow as human beings, and to locate our potentialities so that we can better develop them.
If we don't do that, we are squandering our resources on a massive scale. Developing a sense of history is part of the process of social evolution. It's conscious evolution in the sense that we are able to have an understanding of where we've been, which shows the way we have to go. Education begins with that sense of history. But we are becoming detached from history, and it's hard to believe that such a failure has no consequences.
PLOWBOY: Just as Americans have forgotten, or never learned, the lessons of the past, many of our politicians have come to seldom think farther into the future than the next election. How can we get them, and humanity in general, to think in larger and longer terms — to attempt to base decisions concerning war, pollution, or conservation on the impact that those courses of action will have seven generations into the future, as some Native Americans did?
Norman Cousin's Human Options: An Excerpt
What is the eternal and ultimate problem of a free society?
It is the problem of the individual who thinks that one man cannot possibly make a difference in the destiny of that society.
It is the problem of the individual who doesn't really understand the nature of a free society or what is required to make it work.
It is the problem of the individual who has no comprehension of the multiplying power of single but sovereign units.
It is the problem of the individual who regards the act of pulling a single lever in a voting booth in numerical terms rather than historical terms.
It is the problem of the individual who has no real awareness of the millions of bricks that had to be put into place, one by one, over many centuries, in order for him to dwell in the penthouse of freedom. Nor does he see any special obligation to those who continue building the structure or to those who will have to live in it after him....
It is the problem of the individual who recognizes no direct relationship between himself and the decisions made by government in his name. Therefore, he feels no special obligation to dig hard for the information necessary to an understanding of the issues leading to those decisions.
In short, freedom's main problem is the problem of the individual who takes himself lightly historically.
Who is the enemy? The enemy is not solely an atomic-muscled totalitarian power with a world ideology.
The enemy is many people. He is a man whose only concern about the world is that it stay in one piece during his own lifetime. He is invariably up to his hips in success and regards his good fortune not as a challenge to get close to the real problems of the age but as proof of the correctness of everything he does. Nothing to him is less important than the shape of things to come or the needs of the next generation. Talk of the legacy of the past or of human destiny leaves him cold. Historically, he is the disconnected man. Hence, when he thinks about the world at all, it is usually in terms of his hope that the atomic fireworks can be postponed for fifteen or twenty years. He is an enemy because nothing less than a passionate concern for the rights of unborn legions will enable the world itself to become connected and whole.
The enemy is a man who not only believes in his own helplessness but actually worships it. His main article of faith is that there are mammoth forces at work which the individual cannot possibly comprehend, much less alter or direct. And so he expends vast energies in attempting to convince other people that there is nothing they can do. He is an enemy because of the proximity of helplessness to hopelessness.
The enemy is a man who has a total willingness to delegate his worries about the world to officialdom. He assumes that only the people in authority are in a position to know and act. He believes that if vital information essential to the making of public decisions is withheld, it can only be for a good reason. If a problem is wholly or partially scientific in nature, he will ask no questions even though the consequences of the problem are political or social.
The enemy is any man in government, high or low, who keeps waiting for a public mandate before he can develop big ideas of his own, but who does little or nothing to bring about such a mandate. Along with this goes an obsessive fear of criticism. To such a man, the worst thing in the world that can happen is to be accused of not being toughminded in the nation's dealing with other governments. He takes in his stride, however, the accusation that he is doing something that may result in grave injury to the human race.
The enemy is a scientist who makes his calling seem more mysterious than it is, and who allows this mystery to interfere with public participation in decisions involving science or the products of science. His own specialized training may have shielded him from the give-and-take so essential to the democratic process in government.
The enemy is any man in the pulpit who by his words and acts encourages his congregation to believe that the main purpose of the church or the synagogue is to provide social respectability for its members: He talks about the sacredness of life, but he never relates that concept to the real and specific threats that exist today to such sacredness. He identifies himself as a man of God but feels no urge to speak out against a situation in which the nature of man is likely to be altered and cheapened, the genetic integrity of man violated, and distant generations condemned to a lower species. He is a dispenser of balm rather than an awakener of conscience. He is an enemy because the crisis today is as much a spiritual crisis as it is a political one.
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