- Robert Jay Lifton
a leading American psychiatrist and author of more than 20 books about the effects of nuclear war, terrorism and genocide. His new book is titled The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival. His past books include Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, for which he received the National Book Award; The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide; and Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir. Lifton is also a distinguished professor emeritus of psychiatry and psychology at the City University of New York.
We spend the bulk of the hour with Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a leading American psychiatrist and author of more than 20 books about the effects of nuclear war, terrorism and genocide. As NBC News reports President Trump has called for a nearly tenfold increase in the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal, and as he threatens to attack North Korea and decertify the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Lifton examines what he calls the “apocalyptic twins: nuclear and climate threats.” His new book is titled “The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: This year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Do you see that as significant?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: I do see that as very significant, because there is a mindset that rejects nuclearism. Nuclearism is the embrace of weapons to, as I said before, to do all the things they can’t do and to utilize them instead of what should be utilized in the way of peacemaking. So, giving the Nobel Peace Prize to a group that seeks to outlaw all nuclear weapons recognizes that mindset, the critical mindset toward nuclear weapons.
And, you know, I was part of the anti-nuclear movement—still am—but particularly the doctor’s role in anti-nuclear work. And I think we have reason to believe that the whole anti-nuclear movement, from all directions, was a significant factor in preventing the use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki in 1945. It doesn’t mean that we’re on fine ground with nuclear weapons. It’s still extremely dangerous, as we’re discussing. But the prevention of their use was certainly influenced by anti-nuclear movements and a rejection of nuclearism.
AMY GOODMAN: Your work with bringing out the voices of the Hiroshima, Nagasaki victims. I wanted to turn to one of those victims. In fact, when we interviewed ICAN after they won the Nobel Peace Prize, they talked about the voices of the hibakusha being so critical. In 2016, we spoke to Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima August 6, 1945, now an anti-nuclear activist who works as a social worker in Toronto, Canada, serving Japanese-speaking immigrants. She described that day, August 6, 1945.
SETSUKO THURLOW: I was a 13-year-old, grade eight student at the girls’ school. And I was mobilized by the army, like together with a group of about 30 schoolmates. And we were trained to act as decoding assistants. And that very day, being Monday, we were to start the day’s work, the full-fledged decoding assistant. At 8:00, we had a morning assembly, and the Major Yanai gave us a pep talk. And we said, “We will do our best for emperor’s sake.” And at the moment, I saw the bluish white flash in the windows. I was on the second floor of the wooden building, which was one mile, or 1.8 kilometers, away from the ground zero. And after seeing the flash, I had a sensation of floating in the air. All the buildings were flattened by the blast and falling. And, obviously, the building I was in was falling, and my body was falling together with it. That’s the end of my recollection.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Setsuko Thurlow. She was a survivor of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima. And in your book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival, you talk about the “apocalyptic twins: nuclear and climate threats.” Talk about this voice. Most of the hibakusha have died out at this point.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Survivors have a special form of witness. And many of them, including particularly Hiroshima survivors, as you know, so-called hibakusha, have traveled around the world and told their stories. And that does us a service, and it does them a service, as well, because it gives meaning to an otherwise intolerable kind of experience. They sense that they know something that the rest of us don’t know. And what they know, what they’ve learned, is the capacity of our technology, our weaponry, to destroy our entire species and much of the planet. They know that in a visceral way, in a way that we don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton is a leading American psychiatrist, author of more than 20 books, his latest, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival. When we come back, I ask him about climate change, which he’s called the “apocalyptic twin” of nuclear war. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, leading American psychiatrist, author of more than 20 books. On Thursday, Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke with him about his new book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival. In the midst of the massive hurricanes and the wildfires in California, I asked him about climate change, what he's called the “apocalyptic twin” of nuclear war.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Climate change, yes, is the apocalyptic twin. And we saw in those images of the hurricanes just in the last couple of months—and still—a kind of apocalyptic damage, the destruction of cities, of islands, of most of Puerto Rico, a large area, and doubts about the capacity to recover and to really prevent the most long-standing damage to these places. There has to be a kind of perspective survivor, somebody who imagines this happening. But now we have visual evidence in these hurricanes, not caused by climate change, but rendered much more extreme, according to much scientific evidence. We have evidence, which the rest of us can take in as perspective survivors, of further climate damage that threatens our whole civilization. I call them apocalyptic twins because only these two threats, these two developments, can destroy the human species.
I no longer speak so much of climate change denial, but rather climate change rejection. It’s impossible not to, in at least one part of one’s mind, recognize that there is something called global warming and that it’s very dangerous to us and that we’re contributing to it. It doesn’t mean that one accepts it. One recognizes it partially. The human mind can be very contradictory. One can both recognize it and reject it—reject it because it’s contrary to one’s anti-government stance—you need governments to cooperate to do anything about it—and because it’s antithetical to one’s identity and to one’s worldview, and also to one’s financial sponsors—all that feeding climate rejection. But even as they try to make adaptation—how you’re going to restore these coastal areas—the issue of climate change arises more readily. So, although we are not satisfied with the amount of emphasis on global warming, it’s making its way into what I call a species awareness or a climate swerve. One wishes it would happen faster, but it is happening.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But it’s interesting that you say that this climate swerve or change in climate mindset is happening at the same moment that the Trump administration is perhaps the most vocal in renouncing—
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Absolutely.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —climate science, or in climate rejection, as you call it. I want to go back to President Trump last month, when he traveled to Mandan, North Dakota, and celebrated his decision to pull out of the landmark 2015 climate deal, while speaking outside an oil refinery.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In order to protect American industry and workers, we withdrew the United States from the job-killing Paris climate accord. Job killer. People have no idea. Many people have no idea how bad that was. And right here in North Dakota, the Dakota Access pipeline is finally open for business. … I also did Keystone. You know about Keystone, another one, big one. Big. First couple of days in office, those two. Forty-eight thousand jobs. Tremendous, tremendous thing. I think environmentally better. I really believe that. Environmentally better.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was President Trump speaking on September 6th in Mandan, North Dakota. It was just about a year after the Dakota Access pipeline guards unleashed dogs on protesters, Native American protesters, water protectors, who were trying to protect the planet and not have that DAPL pipeline built. It was after—just after Hurricane Harvey had inundated the greater Houston area and Hurricane Irma was just making landfall. He chose this moment to come to this controversial spot, where hundreds of Native Americans, just down the road from the oil refinery, had been jailed for their fight for water protection, to announce, once again, “Look at what I’ve done, pull out of the Paris accord and greenlight these pipelines.”
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: But that story isn’t over, and the story continues. It has proven very difficult for Trump to pull out of the Paris accord. As soon as it was announced, there was a heartening response on the part of governors and mayors all over the country saying that their states or their cities would follow the Paris accord. And there was an even more intense international response, a joint statement by Germany, France and Italy, that the Paris accord was irreversible, and by China, that they would continue their involvement in the Paris accord. And then the Trump administration issued a series of so-called clarifications: “Well, we’ll go to the meetings. Well, we don’t exactly have to pull out. We’ll renegotiate.” In other words, obfuscating the whole issue, which is very Trumpian and not so surprising.
The reason why it’s difficult for him to pull out of the Paris accord is that there’s a worldwide consensus about it that’s more powerful than any person, even the most dangerous person in the world, Donald Trump. And in that sense, again, we’d like more. It’s outrageous that Trump would try to pull out of a world-saving accord, or at least something in the direction of that. It should really be criminal for a president to do that. But at least we can say that the climate swerve or the species awareness, the idea that we’re all members of a single species in deep trouble, as I put it, all that prevents him from pulling out absolutely and leaves the whole matter unclear.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Is it your sense that there are sufficient restraints on Donald Trump acting unilaterally on either of these fronts, climate or nuclear?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Of course there are not. You would have to have total restraints for them to be sufficient with a man like Donald Trump. Of course there aren’t sufficient restraints. And who ever depended upon generals to restrain a civilian in so many different areas? And we don’t know the outcome.
I’m not, in my book or in my work, promising that we’ve accomplished enough to prevent climate damage and real disaster from happening. It’s happening already. What I’m saying is that there has been a shift in mindset that makes possible the actions, the sensible actions, necessary to curb global warming. We still haven’t taken those actions fully.
And, you know, at the beginning of my book, I speak of the ultimate absurdity, the ultimate absurdity that if we do nothing but what we’re doing now—and it’s what I mean by malignant normality—just go on using fossil fuels, we will do ourselves in as a civilization, pretty much by the end of this century. Nothing could be more absurd than that. But at least we have a beginning shift in mindset that allows us to take reasonable action. And that’s what Paris was all about.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the quote you begin your book with. You quote the American poet Theodore Roethke, saying, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes, that’s a beautiful line from a very great poet. I’ve used that throughout my career, because it’s, in a way, what my work is about. I’ve studied a lot of descents into darkness: Hiroshima, the Vietnam War, Nazi doctors, and others, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan. And I always feel there’s something to be learned from what happened. And it doesn’t mean that we’re guaranteed to make good use of our history and never do it again. It does mean that some kind of knowledge can come from it. And I see myself, in that way, as what I call a witnessing professional, trying to use my professional knowledge to bear witness to and, in some way, reveal more about this kind of darkness.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about the Nazi doctors? I mean, you devote a chapter to them here. But, I mean, your work spans—well, you are 91 years old now.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You have so much wisdom, in both experience and all you have brought to this. Tell us what we should learn from what you learned from these men.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: With the Nazi doctors, when a German doctor who would be a member of the Nazi Party was assigned to Auschwitz, he was expected to do so-called selections and send most arriving Jews to the gas chamber. That was considered normal behavior for a doctor in Auschwitz. Some of them had difficulty with it, but, ultimately, they adapted to it. This is rendering professionals a hired gun for a malignant version of normality. And I learned that, in extreme ways, professionals can be put to use for killing rather than healing. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany. But we also saw expressions of that, not quite as fully expressed, but with American psychologists, and for a while, psychiatrists, engaging in torture, and that being an expected norm, normal behavior, for—
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the American Psychological Association—
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yeah, I’m talking about—
AMY GOODMAN: —cooperating with President Bush.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: That’s right. And I’m talking about both individual psychologists and psychiatrists, and then the American Psychological Association, collaborating with the torturers. I call that a scandal within a scandal. It’s a scandal that professionals are doing that, but it really shows that we have to, as professionals or as anything, recognize what our work is being used for and where it’s being put in connection with despotic behavior. The scandal within a scandal is an association, that’s supposed to watch over the ethics of a profession, joins in torture or at least protects those who join in torture.
But all that was exposed by a movement from within psychologists, from within the American Psychological Association, with the help of reasonably good leadership on the part of the American Psychiatric Association, who said it was wrong for any psychiatrist to be in the room during an interrogation that could spill over into torture.
Yes, those were examples of malignant normality, not in Nazi Germany, but in relation to democratic United States of America. And with Trump, of course, malignant normality becomes the rule, because he’s president, and what a president does tends to normalize potentially bad, evil or destructive behavior.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, leading American psychiatrist. His latest book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival.
That does it for our show. We want to wish Robby Karran a very happy 10th anniversary with Democracy Now!
And our speaking schedule this weekend, Juan González speaks at noon today at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I’ll be speaking tonight at 8 p.m. in Albany at the SUNY Albany Symposium on “Telling the Truth in a Post-truth World,” along with Bob Schieffer, historian Douglas Brinkley and New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush. Then, on Saturday, Juan González will be speaking at that same Albany symposium at 11:30. Check our website for details.