IDEAS

The bright side of the nuclear bomb

Barrie Hale August 27 1984
IDEAS

The bright side of the nuclear bomb

Barrie Hale August 27 1984

The bright side of the nuclear bomb

IDEAS

Barrie Hale

Avoiding nuclear war has become a subject of constant political debate, but until recently the antinuclear movement has shared at least one common assumption: the bomb is bad. Now a new and apparently contradictory theory argues against nuclear war but holds that the bomb itself is a force for good because it unites people against the use of its explosive power. Prof. Derrick de Kerckhove, 40, co-director of the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail that the atomic bomb is “the crowning glory of the Industrial Age.” In The New York Times in February, he declared: “I am absolutely delighted that the bomb is here. It is about time we had something to bring us together.” De Kerckhove’s controversial views have earned him notoriety among antinuclear activists and attracted the interest of three U.S. publishers in his forthcoming book, Nuclear Man. In it, de Kerckhove will elaborate on his provocative belief that the bomb will act as the impetus for man’s next step up the evolutionary ladder. A disciple of the late Marshall McLuhan, de Kerckhove has expressed his thoughts most fully in On Nuclear Communication, a paper he read to the Conference on Nuclear Criticism at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in April. In it, de Kerckhove said that “There is nothing unthinkable about the nuclear threat. There is nothing inevitable about it, either. Our job is precisely to stop cowering in apocalyptic clichés and go to the end of our thinking.” That thinking, de Kerckhove pointed out, is still characterized by the 1945 reaction to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of “shock, numbing, denial, fear, helplessness and aggression.” Instead, he argued, mankind should use the continuing reality of the bomb to educate itself “to a new level of social maturity.”

De Kerckhove contends that the bomb’s use as global educator rests in its power to force all human beings, including the strategic planners of both superpowers, to think alike. De Kerckhove told Maclean ’s that “the idea of a bomb that could eliminate us all tomorrow is inspiring a great sense of unity and togetherness.” As examples of growing “planetary consciousness,” he cited examples of peaceful behavior such as the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, where 80,000 people

joined together in a dance. He added that the new thinking is creating a groundswell of antinuclear opinion that will force politicians throughout the world to abandon outmoded political agendas in favor of “new priorities,” including superpower collaboration to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. And as the new, bomb-inspired unity of thought takes hold, he said, the bomb itself will become increasingly less important until ultimately “the arsenals obsolesce.”

De Kerckhove’s novel views on global politics have found little support in the antinuclear movement. James Stark, for

one, director of the 6,000-member, Ottawa-based peace group Operation Dismantle, described de Kerckhove’s theories as “intellectual gymnastics of an unhelpful variety.” Added Stark: “I would like him to be right, but I think his message discourages the kind of action that is the only possible engine for change, and that is massive and persistent public pressure.” De Kerckhove’s view that the nuclear bomb is its own worst enemy and will eventually destroy itself is, according to Stark, “ magical and fanciful.”

De Kerckhove has succeeded in gaining more attention than understanding for his views. Born in Belgium, de Kerckhove has lived in Toronto since 1965 and has taught in the University’s French department since 1967, a job that he still holds in conjunction with

the directorship of the McLuhan program. His own thinking mirrors McLuhan’s conviction that “every technology changes us.” But instead of studying the effects of mass media on society, de Kerckhove has concentrated on studying the effects of living in the shadow of imminent nuclear holocaust.

The next step in de Kerckhove’s research will be a study of the bomb’s effect on the human nervous system and its potential role as a factor in evolution. He acknowledges that there is currently “absolutely no evidence” to support such speculation, but he claims that there has been a positive reaction to his

inquiries within the scientific community. Jonas Salk, discoverer of the first effective polio vaccine and a prominent antinuclear critic, declared that there is some merit in de Kerckhove’s views. Said Salk: “Certainly the presence of the bomb has a unifying effect. It brings together and unifies the protective forces for life, and it can be a stimulus to the next step in human evolution.”Added Dr. William Tatton, director of the U of T’s prestigious Playfair Neuroscience Unit: “He is proposing a very interesting, plausible theory, which we do not now have the evidence to support.” He also cautioned against dismissing radical views because they are unpopular. Said Tatton: “If we discourage the de Kerckhoves, whose thinking is way out there in the beyond, we really disadvantage our society.”