What makes us human? In the Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, this 17th-century philosopher ponders the human condition and explains that outside of the social construction of society, what sets humanity apart from other species is our propensity to take what is best for ourselves, and overall this translates to our selfishness. Inherently, we, as humans, have spent most of our history taking what is best for us, often from each other. Arguably the most destructive weaponry in history is our nuclear arsenal, which we have utilized in inherently selfish ways, with little regard for other life (human and otherwise), for the environmental impact, and for future generations.

For Hobbes, we can counter this overwhelming selfishness through the efforts of having a social contract, or an agreed upon set of rules that we as a society must abide. In this way, we as individuals give up some of our freedom to do whatever is best for the individual, and instead, we focus on doing what is best for us as a whole. When Hobbes was talking about this he particularly focused his analysis of who ‘us’ is, by thinking about nation-states, but in the modern area with increased globalization, it seems more prudent to think of the ‘us’ in the social contract as all of humanity. One way to work on protecting humanity is through the abolishment of nuclear weapons.

As a part of the ongoing conversation on nonproliferation, nuclear disarmament, and peaceful activism, on February 1st, sponsored by OSU School of History, Philosophy, and Religion as well as OSU History Students Association, filmmaker James Seamus Knight came to Oregon State University to show a screening of two of his newest films, Making Waves: Rebirth of the Golden Rule and Holy Week: Story of the 2016 Sacred Peace Walk. Both of these films focus on the need for the abolishment of nuclear weapons through different types of peaceful protests.

Making Waves focuses on the story of the Golden Rule, a ship bought and sailed by Albert Bigelow in the 1950s. Bigelow was a Quaker who was working to stop nuclear testing in the  Marshall Islands and the Pacific Ocean and was planning to sail his ship into waters that were scheduled for nuclear testing by the United States government. The Golden Rule never got that far though, as they were boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard at Hawaii, and the crew of the ship was arrested, tried, and eventually jailed in Honolulu.

Though they were not successful in their original mission the Golden Rule sparked a cry of worldwide public outrage against nuclear weapons that led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. After this, the Golden Rule actually sunk for a period of time and it was not until 2010 that the Veterans for Peace were able to rescue the boat and restore it to its original glory preparing it for relaunch in 2018. Now the Golden Rule has relaunched and sails up and down the west coast of the United States educating folks about the abolishment of nuclear weapons. They are also getting ready to make a Pacific voyage hoping to bring attention to the effects of nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific starting in Southern California sailing to Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Okinawa, South Korea, and Japan. 

Holy Week focuses on the sacred Nevada peace walk as an interfaith pilgrimage against the use and testing of nuclear weapons. As of 2016, there were 928 nuclear tests in Nevada alone. The film focuses on the journey of this interfaith group walking during the week of Good Friday, following the act of walking as an inherently holy act. When describing the pilgrimage they were on one participant described the week saying, “It is putting your body where your mouth is.” These participants focus on the abolishment of nuclear weapons and drone strikes while supporting an overall pacifistic approach. These activists take on a number of human rights concerns as well. As they passed by a prison the walkers talked about the unjust imprisonment of African-Americans at a 500 percent increase in arrests and institutionalizations.

They also tell the story of the lost and stolen land of the indigenous people in the U.S., focusing on the Shoshone permits being ignored during this peace walk and the people who have gone on this pilgrimage being detained for ‘trespassing’ on government land. This was not the only time peace walkers have been detained; for the past 30 years these arrests have left folks detained for a couple of hours, usually cited, and then released. Though this documentary only covers the 2016 peace walk, Knight spoke after the showing to share that as of 2018 those folks arrested after the peace walk has begun to be prosecuted.

In addition to both of these films Dr. Linda Marie Richards, historian of science and activist at OSU discussed her research on nuclear disarmament. Many may see nuclear disarmament as an issue for environmental activists to tackle but Dr. Richards explained that this narrow perspective misses the larger human-rights issues that are involved in nuclear disarmament. One such concern is that 80 percent of nuclear creation and testing in the United States takes place on remaining indigenous land. Though some might agree with Hobbes’s prognosis that humanity is inherently selfish, it seems that in the case of working to create a better world within and beyond the bounds of the social contract, there are many people working tirelessly to enact change against nuclear weapons for the better of all, through peaceful activism.

Photo credit:  https://www.vfpgoldenruleproject.org/history/

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