Lem's law: the civil right of peace

The Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem has composed a little fable, ''Golem XIV,'' which he describes for American readers as follows: ''It's a story about the construction of a supercomputer and how it didn't want to solve the military task it was given, the purpose it had been constructed for in the first place.''

Lem's computer is certainly our contemporary.

A lot of Americans feel reluctant to concentrate their country's best resources, including themselves, on military uses, thus becoming, for the moment , disciples of Lem's law.

According to Lem's law, one is not a pacifist - one is hardly a communist. But one believes that to live a life obsessed by fear and hate is the next worst devastation to war itself. And so - never mind the excuses - one claims peace almost as a civil right; and this is something new.

For 35 years, according to the dialectic of the ''cold war,'' we have been squeezed between two great opposing absolutes - and both these absolutes have been negative. On the one hand, there has been the absolute evil imputed to communist Russia - the ''focus of evil,'' as President Reagan put it. On the other hand, there has been the absolute evil of a projected nuclear war - World War III.

The debate, at its most simplistic, has boiled down to two slogans: ''Better dead than Red'' vs. ''Better Red than dead.''

It is as if both sides have been competing for the horror-movie version of The Unthinkable: a ''1984'' world ruled by communist dictators; or an earth in the scorched condition of Hiroshima.

Lem's law constitutes a refusal to be terrorized by this either-or of Armageddons, as if the neatly dismal melodramas of extinction or the police state were our only choices.

Insisting upon the possibility of a third way, a lot of Lem's-law Americans, for example, told a Harris poll they favored (by a 79-to-16 margin) a resolution that ''would call upon the United States to negotiate a nuclear freeze with the Soviet Union.''

Is this a sign of wide-eyed naivete, as the administration is inclined to argue? There are too many tough-minded individuals on board - former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, to name just one. No longer glibly classifiable as Hawks or Doves - and tired of both extremes - Lem's-law Americans seem to be saying in effect: ''If we're going to deal in scenarios, let's think of something we might want to happen - a solution - instead of these unmitigated disasters.''

We citizens of the '80s are hardly ''soft'' on communism - or anything else. We have been politically toughened by Vietnam and Watergate, and by the ambiguous revolutions and counterrevolutions of Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

In our everyday lives we have learned the sobering wisdom of the trade-off: so much gain in clean environment, so much loss in technological efficiency; so much cut in taxes, so much reduction in services.

Nothing appears black-and-white any more. We are no longer the innocent stuff Henry James made novels from. In the early '70s, in perhaps our last stage of innocence, we coined the phrase ''rising expectations,'' and in doing so, expressed our new irony on the subject of progress.

And yet, amid the defeated hopes of the '60s and '70s, we also have this new hope - that the worst does not have to be. We may lack the courage, or innocence , to dream the old American Dream of the Totally Happy Ending. But like Lem's computer, we are resisting being programmed for destruction. And that is a beginning of redeclaring sovereignty.

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