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Randall Forsberg, a nuclear disarmament advocate and an important player in debates about U.S. defense policy during the Cold War, passed away on October 19, 2007, at age sixty-four. As founder of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, she was widely credited with originating the idea of a “nuclear freeze,” an immediate moratorium on nuclear weapons production beginning in 1980. Here, Boston Review editor Josh Cohen remembers Forsberg, a frequent BR contributor. Reprinted with permission from the most recent issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Read the essays she wrote for Boston Review here.
At a dinner at my house years ago, Randy Forsberg said she imagined a world eventually emerging—a world very different from our own—in which people would regard war as we now regard cannibalism and human sacrifice. Not as a way to achieve national glory and economic treasure, not as the continuation of politics by other means, but as palpably disgusting, too awful even to contemplate. Randy Forsberg’s moral vocation—her unyielding devotion to the common human good—grew out of this straightforward and compelling vision.
Randy called me one night after a visit to the national laboratories in New Mexico, where she had been talking to people who were trying to find better ways to keep nuclear weapons safe. She described their intelligence and seriousness and their brilliant and well-crafted presentations. And then she explained, in the most plaintive tone, how sad it was. Sad, she told me, because so much money and such great talent were devoted to treating symptoms rather than to curing the underlying disease. There was no rancor and no hostility in her voice, but there was a sense of moral shock and outrage.
This sense of outrage was a second essential element of her moral vocation.
Without outrage, a moral vision can easily become disconnected from practical life and degrade into a source of smugness and moral superiority. But Randy had more. We all know people who combine vision and outrage but never become effective agents because they are unable to connect with people. I experienced first-hand her ability to connect with others through her writing. Randy contributed several major articles to Boston Review, and I can’t think of another writer who was so uncompromisingly devoted to perspicuous argument, accuracy, and clear and unambiguous prose. Randy had a keen awareness that she was asking people—other rational adults—to change their ideas and their conduct. Although sometimes unsuccessful, her work was always forceful because she respected the reason she shared with readers.
But that was not all. When you stand outside the political mainstream, as Randy did, and try to shift it rather than simply condemn it (particularly when you are a woman writing about war), you have to put up with raised eyebrows, rolling eyes, the advice of the smart insiders who know what it takes to be a player, and—the worst—the people who think that growing up means giving up. You need to persist through periods in which everything you have built seems about to fall apart. Such a moral vocation also requires great personal courage.
A compelling moral vision of what ought to be, an animated sense of outrage at what is, an articulated respect for humankind’s common reason, and a deep personal courage: Randy Forsberg had all of this. She was truly remarkable, and we will miss her.
Joshua Cohen is co-editor of Boston Review, member of the faculty of Apple University, and Distinguished Senior Fellow in law, philosophy, and political science at University of California, Berkeley.
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