A few years back I found myself sifting through books at the Powell’s satellite store in the Portland International Airport. In search of some good in-flight reading, I stumbled upon Gina Berriault’s The Descent. Its yellowed and frayed pages called out to me from the pile of books on the cart. This copy had obviously seen better days, with its pages beginning to pull away from the binding. This, for me, was a sign it was sure to be a good book. Turning it over, I read in the description on the back cover, “the President of the United States devises a new post in his Cabinet: a Secretary of Humanity.” I knew at that moment I had no choice but to buy this book immediately.
What I came to find in this faded 1964 novel was the story of the newly appointed Secretary of Humanity Arnold T. Elkins, as he attempts to move from his career as a history professor into a conveyor of peace and humanity around the world. While he is initially humbled and honored by the appointment, excited about his potential to effect change amidst the Cold War-era nuclear arms race, he soon finds his position to be merely a political move by the president who expects nothing more from Elkins than for him to pose for pictures and shake hands.
As I re-read this book last week, I began to wonder what a Secretary of Humanity could accomplish today. What if this were not merely a fictional, but a real cabinet position with actual influence in the international community? How could such an appointment change the way violent conflict and civilian protection are handled by the world’s governments? Stepping outside of the nuclear arms focus of Berriault’s book and into a civilian protection and human rights focus, it would seem there is actually great need for countries around the world to have such a cabinet position. In light of the growing number of conflicts where civilians have become the target of violence, the need for a focus on humanity has never been more essential.
In the book, the purpose the Secretary of Humanity is explained to Elkins as such:
“You will devote yourself to the task of preserving the peace, assuring humanity that the first missile may never be fired, that the bombs may never fall, and that in the distant future all nations will sit down together and partake of the wondrous fruits that this nuclear age has yet to offer.”
In an ideal world, I imagine this job description could be translated for today as:
You will devote yourself to the task of preserving the peace, assuring humanity that it does come before politics and power, that the international community absolutely will not allow for crimes against humanity to occur on their watch, and that in the not-so-distant future all nations will sit down together and partake of the wondrous fruits that this interconnected age has to offer.
In the same spirit as this hypothetical cabinet position, the United Nations currently appoints Messengers of Peace. These appointees, such as George Clooney and Elie Wiesel, serve to promote peace and the ideals of the United Nations. Clooney has been the most prominent lately, with his impassioned fight to protect the people of Darfur, and to prevent Sudan from erupting into civil war after the upcoming referendum. The work of these appointees is important and a great step, but I believe we can do even more.
I am going to continue to explore this idea in future posts here on The Mantle. There are many current, past and present situations where such a cabinet position could or would have changed the dynamic of discussions and perhaps the outcome of the conflict. There is much to be said for stepping back from the ongoing debates and remembering what ought to be at the center.