If this election made you feel like you’re living in your own political “bubble”, this projects has an idea for reaching out

Photo: Tim Wright

Photo: Tim Wright

After the election, many have realized that their political opinions may have inadvertently placed them in an echo chamber in which they don’t ever get to hear a unique point of view. As a response, the website ”Hi From The Other Side” was created to help bridge the communication gap between citizens in the U.S. The website states:

“After the election, many of us have talked about getting out of our immediate circles to talk to someone who supported the other side. Not to convince, but to understand. If this sounds like you, sign up here. We’ll try to match you with someone who supported the other candidate and shoot you two an email introducing you to one another. From there, you can find a time to have a phone call, video chat, or even meet in person.”

You can sign-up from their website here: www.hifromtheotherside.com.

Kids just won the right to sue the U.S. government over climate change.

A U.S. District judge in Eugene Oregon just ruled that a lawsuit filed by 21 youth plaintiffs is valid. Their lawsuit sues the U.S. government for violating their constitutional rights to life and liberty by not taking sufficient action against climate change.

The plaintiffs range from ages nine to twenty, and include activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez who is featured in the video above. Read the full article on the case in Motherboard here.

Traveler’s guide to disagreement

I AM A TRAVELER, so I have spent a lot of time talking to people who believe very different things than me, and who I will probably never share worldviews with: The communist student in China who believed the Tiananmen Square Massacre was justified; the South African cabbie who loved George W. Bush because “he kills Muslims”; the Argentine barfly who insisted that the racist gringos would murder Barack Obama in the first year of his term.

I was never going to agree with these guys. But over time, I learned how to have conversations with them that were productive and illuminating for both sides — even though neither of us changed our minds in the end.

Last week got ugly. Trump’s election sparked a horrific flame war on social media, and in many cases, it looked as if a lot of hot air was being blown, but no progress was actually being made. Liberals were “elitist.” Conservatives were “stupid.” Everyone got to feel superior to one another, and nothing got done.

But this isn’t a particularly helpful or enriching way to engage with people who think differently than you. As someone who has had some (mild) success in engaging people who are fundamentally different to myself, I wanted to share a few pointers that I have learned as an argumentative wanderer.

1. Don’t rely too much on facts.

There’s a popular saying from the former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This is true! But saying to someone you’re arguing with is a very good way to get yourself punched in your stupid smug face.

Look: there are no “false” facts. Facts are either facts or they aren’t. So yes: there’s a good chance that someone you’re arguing with is factually wrong about one thing or the other. But the problem with facts is that there are a lot of them. There are 7 billion sentient human beings living on this planet, and what we don’t collectively know could (nearly) fill a universe.

A single person doesn’t have a chance at fully understanding anything. You are confronted with constant information, and have to develop some system for sifting through all of it, selecting the information that’s important, and organizing it in your mind in a meaningful way. We humans like to organize our facts using stories.

This is important: when talking to someone you disagree with, listen to their story, not their facts. Trying to fight someone on facts is like trying to destroy a beach one grain of sand at a time. Stories are also not easy to change, but they are where the real power is. Which brings us to step 2:

2. Trade stories.

Stories are like assholes: everyone knows a lot of them. The most fulfilling moments while you’re traveling are when someone tells you their story, and gives you a glimpse into their (very different) life. These stories are incredible reminders both of the diversity of human experience, and of the fundamental humanity that holds us all together.

They’re also a great way of explaining political or ideological differences. Last week, post-election, I got into an argument with a Trump supporter who was pretty furious with liberal America. I identified myself as a liberal, and he kinda hated on me for a second, but when I refused to get into the my facts vs. your facts war, he opened up about his family’s escape from Cuba a generation ago.

He told me how Castro had destroyed his country, and how communism had hurt his family. He saw Barack Obama’s form of government as creeping communism, and that’s why he was so opposed to “liberals” like myself.

I disagree with this interpretation of Barack Obama, but it’s hard to not sympathize with a family that was driven from its own country. I will not change this man’s mind — his history is too strong — but he got to tell his story, then I told mine. I told of my family’s experiences with right-wing El Salvador, which in some ways mirrored his family’s experiences.

And he was totally cool about it. We could both acknowledge one another as human. He will no longer be able to say “All liberals are smug and elitist.” I will no longer be able to say, “All Trump supporters are idiots.” A very small amount of progress was made.

And then, of course, another liberal hopped on, started debating him on the facts of the matter, and the flame war restarted.

3. Be vulnerable.

If you want to really get to know someone, you have to let your guard down. This is actually a much easier thing to do when you’re traveling than when you’re at home. At home, you build up walls to protect yourself. You have routines, you have defenses, and you can spend a huge amount of time making sure that the people who you spend most of your time around know the least about you. Until I opened up about it, my closest family members didn’t know I’d been struggling with depression for years.

This was one of the most fundamental facts of my existence during my late 20s. But I successfully walled it off so that only one person — my wife — could see it.

But when you’re traveling, you’re in a new place, surrounded by people you will probably never see again. There is much less risk in making yourself vulnerable. So you have bizarre, deep, intense, intimate conversations with strangers under the stars, or in the backseats of busses, or in the corner of grimy pubs.

Vulnerability is scary, but it is, in part, what gives travelers such a high when they go out and see new people. Because often — not always, but often — you bare yourself to someone and they don’t blanch in horror. They smile and say, “me too.”

People will not always recognize your common humanity. But you will get nowhere if you don’t recognize theirs. And there’s no way to recognize theirs without also revealing yours. Show your true self to people. It’s scary, and yes, you may get hurt. But human frailty is one thing we all have in common.

4. Don’t give into anger, contempt, or hate.

Hate takes up a lot of energy, and it hurts you more than it hurts the people you’re aiming at. There is a philosophy among the Bantu people of South Africa known as “ubuntu.” This roughly translates to “I am because we are.” It is important to remember that by recognizing other people’s dignity and worth, you are affirming your own. This goes not only for friendly strangers you meet on the road, but for personal acquaintances you have intense disagreements with.

But hate doesn’t appear in a vacuum. It tends to, as Master Yoda says, come from fear and anger. It also comes from contempt. Relationship psychologists have found that the one factor that is most predictive of future trouble in a relationship is the presence of contempt. Contempt basically poisons the well — you can’t have a good relationship with someone if you think you’re better than them.

You can fight contempt with the other steps — usually, knowing someone’s story helps explain why they are the way they are. And by making yourself vulnerable, you are essentially humbling yourself — it’s hard to convince yourself that you’re better than someone when you’ve just shown them your weakness, your sadness, or your fear.

By being humble and by listening, you can begin to understand the lives of others. You may not be able to change their minds, or bend them according to your will, but you’ll both leave your encounter richer for the experience, and a little less alone.

The President and the bomb

I’m in the process of writing up something more substantial about nuclear weapons and the 2016 Presidential election, but I keep getting asked one thing repeatedly both in person, over e-mail, and online: “Are there any checks in place to keep the US President from starting a nuclear war?”  

What’s amazing about this question, really, is how seriously it misunderstands the logic of the US command and control system. It gets it exactly backwards.

Recent (November 17, 2016) Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: "Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs." Hat tip to Alexandra Levy (Atomic Heritage Foundation) for bringing this one to my attention.

A recent Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: “Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs.” (November 17, 2016) Hat tip to Alexandra Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation for bringing this one to my attention.

The entire point of the US command and control system is to guarantee that the President and only the President is capable of authorizing nuclear war whenever he needs to. It is about enabling the President’s power, not checking or restricting him. As former Vice President Dick Cheney put it in 2008:

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.
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This isn’t new; it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. This has been discussed since the 1940s. And yet, people today seem rather shocked to hear it, even very educated people.

To be sure, the official doctrine that I have seen on the Nuclear Command Authority implies that the President should be given as much advice as possible from the military, the Department of Defense, and so on. But nothing I have seen suggests that this is any more than advisory — and the entire system is set up so that once the President’s order is verified and authenticated, there are meant to be only minutes until launch.2

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

It isn’t entirely intuitive — why the President, and not someone else, or some combination of people? Why not have some kind of “two-man rule,” whereby two top political figures were required to sign off on the use before it happened? The two-man rule is required for commanders to authorize nuclear launches, so why not the Commander in Chief?

To understand why this is, you have to go back and look at the history of how this doctrine came about. Today we tend to discuss this in terms of the speed in which a retaliation would be necessary in the event of a crisis, but the debate wasn’t originally about expediency at all, but about an understanding of Constitutional power and the inherently political nature of the bomb. I see the debate about the (un-)targeting of Kyoto, in mid-1945, as the first place where some of these questions started to get worked out. Presidents generally do not pick targets in war. That’s a general’s job. (Like all things in history, there have, of course, been exceptions.) But when it came to the atomic bomb, the civilian branch of the executive government (personified here by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson), demanded veto power over the targets. The military (here, General Leslie Groves) pushed back, asserting that this was a military matter. Stimson insisted, and eventually got the President’s personal ear on the matter, and that was that. Truman, for his part, while he did not authorize the actual bombing in any explicit way (he was shown the bombing order, but he did not issue it nor was his approval required, though he could have vetoed it), did, on August 10th, re-assert nuclear authority by prohibiting future bombing activity without his explicit permission.

General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) share a moment. Photo by Ed Westcott.

One can tell that the relationship between General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) was not exactly the smoothest. Photo by Ed Westcott.

From that point forward, the President made very explicit that his office was in charge of the atomic bomb and its uses, not the military. It was not a “military weapon,” which is to say, it was an inherently political weapon, one that needed to be handled by that most inherently political office, the Presidency. This became the framework for talking about domestic control over nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the civilian vs. military split. It was believed that only an elected civilian could make the call for this of all weapons. Truman himself put it to David Lilienthal in 1948:

I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that, that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.3

In the early days, this civilian-military split was actually enforced at a physical level, with the non-nuclear parts of the weapons kept by the military, and the nuclear parts (the pits) kept by the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, changes in doctrine, technology (sealed-pit weapons), and fears (e.g., a Soviet “sneak attack”) had led to 90% of the nuclear weapons transferred into the hands of the military, making the civilian-military distinction a somewhat theoretical one. Eisenhower also “pre-delegated” the authority to start nuclear war to several military commanders on the front lines, on the idea that they would not have time to call back to Washington should Soviet tanks start pouring into Western Europe. (So while the President is the only person who can authorize a nuclear attack, he can also extend that authority to others if he deems it necessary.)

The Kennedy administration, looking to assert more positive control over the beginning of a nuclear conflict (especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which raised the real possibility of a low-level misunderstanding “escalating” in times of uncertainty), requiring the weapons themselves to have sophisticated electronic controls (Permissive Action Links) that would prevent anyone without a coded authorization to use them. There is more to these stories,4 but I just want to illustrate a bit of what the “control” debate was really about: making sure the President, and only the President, was ultimately the one making decisions about the bomb.

A retired "nuclear football" suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

A retired “nuclear football” suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been asked: would the officer carrying the “football” actually go forward with a nuclear attack, especially if it seems heedless or uncalled for? (The “nuclear football” is the special computer that, once the nuclear “codes” are inputted into it, somehow electronically starts the sequence of events that leads to the weapons being used.) Which I find lovably optimistic. The entire job of the person carrying the football is to enable the President to launch a nuclear attack. They would not presume to know the “big picture” of why the President was doing it — they are not a high-level military or policymaker. They are going to do their job; it is what they were chosen to do.

Would the military second-guess the President, and override the order? I mean, anything is possible — this has just never happened before, so who knows. But I am dubious. In 1973, Major Harold Hering was fired for asking, “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?” Not because it is a fireable offensive to imply that the President might not, at all times, be entirely capable of making such an order, but because to start to question that order would mean to put the entire credibility of the nuclear deterrent at risk. The entire logic of the system is that the President’s will on this point must be authoritative. If people start second-guessing orders, the entire strategic artifice breaks down.5

So is there any check on the President’s power to use nuclear weapons? Well, technically the US election process is meant to be that check — don’t elect people you don’t trust with the unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons. And this, indeed, has been a theme in numerous US elections, including the most recent one. It is one issue among many, of course.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

There is, of course, no big red button. There are lots of other, smaller buttons, though. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

Do I personally worry about an unhinged, unthoughtful President using nuclear weapons heedlessly? Sure, to some degree. But not as much as I worry about other damage that such a President will do to the country and the world (the environment, economy, social fabric, international order, and human rights are higher on my list of concerns at the moment). Which is to say, it’s on the list of things one might worry about (for any President, but certainly the next one), but it’s not my top worry. Ultimately I do have some faith, perhaps unearned, that even someone who is woefully under-educated about world affairs, strategic logic, and so on, will come to understand rather rapidly that it is in the United States’ best interests not to break the nuclear taboo.

The United States benefits from the taboo disproportionately: should the threshold for nuclear use be lowered, we would be the ones who would suffer the most for it, because we tend to put our cities and military forces and everything else in centralized, easy-to-take-out-with-a-nuke sorts of arrangements, and because we enjoy a powerful conventional military power as well. We have the luxury of a nuclear taboo, in other words: we don’t have to use nukes to get what we want, and indeed in many situations nukes are just not as useful as they might at first appear.

So only a true idiot would think that using nukes foolishly would actually be a useful thing, aside from the collateral damage, moral issues, and so on. Take from that what you will.

I am not interested in having political arguments (one way or the other) in the comments of this blog post — I am burned out on online political debates for the moment. If you want to have a political debate, have it elsewhere. I will only approve constructive, interesting, non-obvious comments. Trolls will be banned and blocked. We will be coming back to this topic again, don’t worry. (Or do.)

Notes
  1. “Transcript: Vice President Cheney on ‘FOX News Sunday’,” FoxNews.com (22 December 2008).
  2. Actual doctrine is understandably hard to get one’s hands on. The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, created by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, is an extremely useful resource in this respect. Chapter 6 is about the Nuclear Command and Control System, and describes the many procedures, organizations, and technologies used to provide “the President with the means to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis and to prevent unauthorized or accidental use.”
  3. The context of this snippet, recorded in Lilienthal’s journals, is a meeting between the President, Lilienthal (Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission), and several military men and his cabinet. Lilienthal noted parenthetically that in the gap between the two “thats” in the second sentence, Truman looked “down at his desk, rather reflectively,” and that he (Lilienthal) “shall never forget this particular expression” when Truman said was not a “military weapon.” The military men, in Lilienthal’s account, then immediately began to talk about how important it was to get used to handling the bombs. General Kenneth Royall asked, “We have been spending 98% of all money for atomic energy for weapons. Now if we aren’t going to use them, that doesn’t make any sense.” Lilienthal’s commentary: “If what worried the President, in part, was whether he could trust these terrible forces in the hands of the military establishment, the performance these men gave certainly could not have been reassuring on that score.” Account of a conversation with Harry Truman and others on July 21, 1948, in David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. 2: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 391.
  4. I gave a talk at the History of Science Society’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta a few weeks ago, on the topic of Command and Control systems and the ways they encode different visions of Constitutional authority and responsibility, and I am working to turn that into some kind of publishable paper.
  5. There is an anecdote that is often repeated that states that Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger supposedly altered, on some level, the nuclear command authority during Watergate — telling his staff that he had veto power over any nuclear commands by Nixon. It is not something that has been historically substantiated, and, even if true, would technically have been un-Constitutional. It doesn’t mean it isn’t possible — but I find the whole thing, again, fairly dubious, and it certainly was not in line with the official regulations. There are instances (Stanislav Petrov, for example) of officers in nuclear situations not following regulations in an effort to avoid escalation. But they are by definition ad hoc, not to be relied upon.

LP Pathfinders Instagram round-up: Best in Travel 2017

In celebration of Best in Travel 2017 we asked our Pathfinders to show us some of the amazing images they have made on recent travels to our top picks for the year ahead. Here are the most eye-catching captures.

Namibia: our #2 best value destination for 2017

Namibia is Africa’s hidden gem and a great family destination. Our kids loved hiking and sand surfing in the dunes and the numerous safari rides we took almost daily. Etosha National Park might be the best place for wildlife, but we loved the vast and empty landscapes near Palmwag even more. It was just us and the wild animals. Incredible experience!’ – JurgaR, @fullsuitcase.

Why we like it: The colours pop and the use of the rule of thirds rule is spot on! The little boy’s red and blue clothing stands out against the yellow grassy background. He is perfectly placed on the left side of the frame and looks inward, which leads our eye through the image to what he sees. Balanced on another line in the rule of thirds is a magnificent giraffe.  

Myanmar: our #9 Best in Travel country for 2017

‘The iconic image of a fisherman on Inle Lake, Myanmar’ – Oksana & Max, @drinkteatravel.

Why we like it: This image truly is iconic. The muted colour palette of his clothing and the gentle reflection in the water create a timeless moment. Our eye is immediately drawn to the wondrous fisherman balancing his raised basket on one foot while standing on the edge of a narrow boat, using just a pole and his own dexterity to keep steady.

Bordeaux: our #1 Best in Travel city for 2017

‘I always photograph Bordeaux’s Miroir d’Eau from the centre and only in the three minutes where the water is drained and it creates the mirror-like effect. But I loved how the mist and tonight’s slight breeze made a cloud.’ – Luxe Adventure Traveler, @luxeadventuretrvlr.

Why we like it: The juxtaposition of movement and stillness in the purple twilight gives this Bordeaux vista a compelling edge. We see the powerful and established building taking up what seems to be an endless city block and in front of it we have the wispy movement of delicate mist and the momentum of the modern public transportation zooming out of the image. Soon all will disappear as the night sky continues to reduce the colours into darkness.  

Finland: our #3 Best in Travel country for 2017

A photo posted by Dave Williams (@hybriddave) on

‘When the lakes coating the landscape of Finnish Lapland freeze over the sled dogs are in their element, running for miles on open tundra, frozen water and through forests that wouldn’t be out of place on a Christmas card.’ – Dave Williams, @hybriddave.

Why we like it: The shallow depth of field in this image is perfect. It brings attention to the sled dog and those powerful blue eyes. The snow that has landed on the dog and the snow that is blurred in the background is just beautiful.

The Azores: our #3 Best in Travel region for 2017

A photo posted by BRUN🌎 (@bruno_mb) on

‘Miradouro da Boca do Inferno is a dream viewpoint on the island of São Miguel, Azores. From up there, you have a 360° view of the whole 22,000-year-old volcanic crater of Sete Cidades. It’s nature all around you!’ – BRUN🌎, @bruno_mb.

Why we like it: Let’s all just hop on that path and start walking towards the horizon and the beautiful blue ocean. This perspective invites us to imagine being on that smooth dirt trail immersed in the beauty all around us.

For your chance to be featured in our next round-up, sign up to Lonely Planet Pathfinders – our programme for travel-loving bloggers and social content creators. In the meantime, you can get more Instagram inspiration by following @lonelyplanet.

LP Pathfinders video round-up: Best in Travel 2017

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Every month, we curate the best blog posts and Instagrams from our Lonely Planet Pathfinders and this round-up comes with a twist. Rather than asking our Pathfinders to submit the best video they’ve produced in October, we wanted to see the best videos they had taken of the destinations which made our Best in Travel 2017 lists. Here are our favourites.

This month’s feature comes from Macca and Brianna, A Brit and a Broad, who have created a great video which encapsulates their time in Portland – a city that caught our attention for its forward-thinking attitude, inventive foodie scene and the array of accessible parks, trails and gardens.

Their blog, A Brit and A Broad, is focused on bringing exciting places to their fans through inspiring videos, and we think this video will awaken the curiosity in any traveller – give it a watch below.

TRAVEL IN PORTLAND, USA – A BRIT AND A BROAD

We visited one of the hippest cities in the United States, Portland. With an amazing craft beer scene and an awesome nightlife, there’s some incredibly weird and wonderful things to do in the city. And when we say weird, we mean really really weird.’

Hat tip to Brianna and Macca for creating this well shot account of their adventure, documenting both the travel wins and fails in a light-hearted manner.

There was also a great submission from TravAgSta which followed their two-week road trip through Cape Town in South Africa – we particularly enjoyed the penguin footage!

Find out what else our Lonely Planet Pathfinders are up to (or sign up yourself!) by checking out the Pathfinders video playlist and subscribing to our YouTube channel.