Wars against communism, poverty -- and ourselves

ON one of those lovely mornings made for graduation ceremonies, a photograph of President Reagan at the Naval Academy commencement ran on the front page of the New York Times, just above a story announcing a sharp rise in poverty among American children. At Annapolis, as on other occasions, the President spoke of the imperative need for more military strength. Anticipating the argument of those who point to a swelling deficit, he declared, ``I say it is too costly for America not to be prepared.''

Meanwhile, the story on poverty reported that 13.8 million children, or 22.2 percent of all children under 18, were living in poverty as of 1983 -- an increase of 52 percent from 1973.

The juxtaposition seemed so neat that one could be tempted to balance it off perfectly with the tag line, ``I say it is too costly for America not to feed its children.''

But the contrasting symmetry -- guns vs. butter, garrison state vs. welfare state -- is a little too simple.

What the stories share in common may be more important -- a capacity to make the reader feel helpless.

In the first instance, who does not feel more and more helpless to control state-of-the-art weapons as they become more and more potent?

We fear that our fear will drive us to do the very thing we most fear.

It seems as if the nuclear push button is pushing us.

Our sense of impotence in the presence of hunger can be even more terrifying. We understand that the sophisticated technology -- the megapower -- which would enable us to blow up the whole world would also enable us to feed the whole world. But do we care enough to do the good we sort of weakly want -- or to keep from doing the evil we seem so magnetically drawn toward?

Accepting ourselves as Darwinian products of evolution, animals fighting for survival, we do not doubt we can get the adrenaline flowing, as we say. We are confident of the ``killer instinct.''

We are nowhere near so sure of the existence of what one biologist calls ``altruistic genes'' -- what people used to call love.

The Harvard biologist Melvin Konner has expressed the tormented irony we are likely to feel when we scrutinize, side by side, our two front-page attention-getters. He writes: ``When the war comes, to be sure, men will be men and women, women . . . we will rise to the occasion.

``But can we rise to the occasion of the call of human decency, when that call seems very faint and we hear it every day, when even to stop and cock an ear seems to risk a slip on whatever ladder we're mounting?''

Thus, every headline in the end brings us back to our definition of human nature -- hardly optimistic at the moment.

It is humiliating to see ourselves as heroes only in the deadly business of the battlefield, during the brief seconds required for a brave reflex.

Yet the more sophisticated our civilization, the more uncivilized we seem to look to ourselves even at peace -- primitives with our hairy claws on the keyboard of a computer.

``One adult in four uses chemical tranquilizers,'' the French neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux has noted. ``Must we put ourselves to sleep in order to endure the environment we have created?'' But surely we sedate ourselves also to endure our concept of ourselves as natural predators, unnatural nurturers -- good haters, bad lovers.

Biological man. Is this all that man is? A masterpiece of neural engineering, with nobody in charge of the circuits! -- with ``good'' and ``bad'' only the names other circuits give to what the primary circuits have been programmed to do in the first place. The prevailing view demoralizes us as it defames us.

Any war against communism, any war against poverty, must be joined by a war against this low opinion of ourselves. For if we see ourselves as self-centered creatures controlled by atavistic instincts that issue one dominating command, ``Survive!,'' it won't matter too much whether we put our money in guns, out of a reflex we call fear, or in butter, out of a reflex we call guilt.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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