Ariel Dorfman, an emeritus professor of literature at Duke University, is the author of the play Death and the Maiden, the book of essays Homeland Security Ate My Speech and the forthcoming novel Darwin’s Ghosts. (November 2017)
In October 1849, 140 Irish immigrants perished when the St. John, the ship upon which they had sailed to “the New World, as Columbus and the Pilgrims did,” crashed on the shores of Massachusetts during a huge storm. We would probably not even remember their fate were it not that their demise was registered, and then narrated, by none other than Henry David Thoreau. This year, which marks the bicentennial of his birth, has focused, rightly, on a life dedicated to nature in its multiple and luminous forms, and his ground-breaking call to civil disobedience. And yet, it is worth also turning our attention to the calamity he witnessed such a long time ago and that nevertheless feels so sadly contemporary, so vividly relevant.
There has always been a disturbing strand of anti-intellectualism in American life, but never has an occupant of the White House exhibited such a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity, such lack of intellectual curiosity and disregard for rigorous analysis. “The experts are terrible,” Donald Trump said during his campaign. “Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have.” It is hardly surprising, then, that his administration is over-stocked with know-nothing fundamentalists.
The most telling aspect of Trump’s UN speech was, after threatening to “totally destroy North Korea,” his calling the possibility of nuclear conflict “unthinkable.” On the contrary, we must think about it. And crucial to any understanding of the moral import of the possible use of nuclear weapons is to go back to the foundational moment of this nuclear age and ask again: Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes?