In this month’s installment of The Mixed-up Files of Inkstick Media, where we link pop culture to national security and foreign policy, our columnist Molly Hurley reflects on her experiences at Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Conference, aka Nuke Con.
On Oct. 27, 2022, I had an epiphany. And naturally, like many people my age and younger, I immediately took to social media to share my news. I tweeted, “My revelation of the day after spending time at my third major nukes conference of the year is that nuke space is so insular it feels like what I imagine Free Masons gatherings are like but way less glamorous tbh.”
And even though it didn’t get a high level of engagement at the time, I fall back on the same excuse every non-viral account uses when faced with repeated low-performance posts: I’ve been shadow banned (not that I’m not funny or that I have next to no following). Despite the lack of online appreciation though, Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Conference, also called Nuke Con, was indeed a reunion — especially for those of the “in crowd” — for the books! As a participant of the Young Professional Track, however, I’d be remiss to portray the nuclear weapons policy space as entirely closed off to new members. In fact, President of the 10th NPT Review Conference Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen tweeted at me himself: “We need passionate young professionals like you to take over from my generation of disarmament diplomats in pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons.” (And it’s irrelevant that in the tweet he got a little confused about whose name is who).
Which brings me to the most interesting of observations I noticed while flitting around the conference hall spaces tossing my pink hair behind my back and forcing the likes of John Carl Baker from Ploughshares Fund into conversations about “The Try Guys” or persuading Dr. Jeffrey Lewis from Middlebury Institute for International Studies to start a TikTok (this is what I have in mind). Never did the old heads of nukes space question my unique approach to nuclear weapons topics by writing this culture column or attending art school, but a handful of my fellow Young Professional Track members did.
While I’m not going to name anyone or the organizations they come from in particular to put them on blast, I was just struck by how quickly other young people seemed to lose faith in my basic competency and knowledge of nuclear weapons whereas older individuals quite readily accepted (and were even excited by) my focus on pop culture and its connections to national security. Initial hypothesis behind why I got such reactions is that people who have spent more time working on nuclear issues have personally witnessed the space’s dire need for better youth engagement and higher diversity levels in the field. Young Professional Track members, who must be either graduate students or have worked less than 5 years professionally in the nuclear policy space to qualify for the programming, perhaps have yet to realize how the overvaluation for traditional tracks into nuclear weapons work places a self-inflicted stranglehold on the pipeline.
Never did the old heads of nukes space question my unique approach to nuclear weapons topics by writing this culture column or attending art school, but a handful of my fellow Young Professional Track members did.
Alternatively, Young Professional Track members who most questioned the validity of my work to utilize Internet brain worms toward the cause of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament may have done so out of their own perceived limitations on how to break into our less flashy Free Masons-style club. Older club members, conversely, have the luxury and flexibility to humor and encourage my work because they’ve already secured their credibility.
Regardless of the reasoning behind it all, ample other Young Professional Track members were immediately on board with my work and expressed similar desires to see more creative content pushed out about nuclear issues should we ever have hopes for engagement with Gen Z the way K-Pop-stans turned out en masse to buy tickets to a rally for former President Donald Trump only to all no-show and leave him with a near empty stadium. Two such individuals — and my newly anointed besties in nuke space — include Lenai Johnson of ReThink Media and Dr. Chanese Forté (she has TWO PhDs!!) of Union of Concerned Scientists. “As a relatively new voice and young woman of color in the nuclear space, I’ll admit to being a little bit intimidated going into Nuke Con,” Lenai told me. “The nuclear space certainly isn’t well-known for its diversity, so I was heartened to see sessions at both the Young Professionals Track day and on the second day at NukeCon on DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] in the nuclear space.”
With just barely over three years in this space under my belt, however, I can personally attest to the widespread tendencies for lots of open conversations about a need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (or DEI) yet followed by very little effective action — if any. A little over a year ago, I pitched an article to a major nuclear weapons publication arguing for restorative justice practices in the hiring processes throughout our organizations only to be met with feedback along the lines of: “Do white men really offer nothing of benefit?” and a healthy dash of white saviorism about how much this editor put on the line and fought for four spaces a year to publish young voices like mine. I pulled the piece.
REFUSING TO SILO MYSELF
To be fair, neither art school nor STEM research institutions are immune from faulty or performative DEI rhetoric with little action to back up their claims for justice and equity. I only managed to afford the $290 student discount price for attending Nuke Con because I wrote a proposal for a microgrant from my art school arguing what on Earth an art student would have to gain by going to a conference like Nuke Con. “Why is the initial response a compulsion to silo ourselves?” I had asked in my application. Forté’s background is originally in public health with her first PhD in environmental health sciences and her second in scientific computing. “I think it is so important to incorporate as much human health research as possible into the discussion on nuclear weapons policy,” she told me. “We need a way to create more actionable change focused on researchers and experts to inform policymakers and communities.”
She went on to remark that the tendency of conferences to schedule separate meeting times for people of different specializations is a disservice to the broader movement and goal, whatever that may be on any given issue area. (Note that there were no artist panels at Nuke Con). Many I spoke to also remarked that the lack of organization descriptions on name badges made networking a bit more difficult as no one could immediately know who might be most worth their time to engage in conversation and begin an exchange of ideas. Personally, I’ll know when a nuclear weapons conference is truly one of the 21st century, when the agenda lists the Twitter handles of an event’s speakers — though between you and me the fact that nuke space is so all over Twitter, a dying platform even before Elon Musk bought it, is very on brand for the space.
(Side note: In my youthful opinion Twitter has been on the decline for at least a few years now, but to be fair Facebook is even closer to death. To quantify it:
Facebook is on its absolute last leg.
Twitter is on its last leg and a half.
Instagram is on its last two legs.
Shocker: the common denominator is rich white men thinking they know what users want and how to run things.)
Speaking of Twitter, this year Carnegie pushed participants to change their nickname for the conference through use of the hashtag #NukeCon2022 in lieu of the previously beloved “Nuke Fest” to which some expressed pleasure as “nuclear weapons aren’t a joke.” But honestly? Life is a joke, so just let me have this one.
I wasn’t interviewed by both The Guardian and VICE News for no reason. “Eloquent” and “well spoken” though I may sometimes be (if we believe these reporters’ assessments of me), I also cracked so many jokes with the VICE News reporter that the interviewer needed a second to himself at one point to regain his composure. But if my future in the nukes space is only meant to be a repeat of Hasan Minaj on celebrity Jeopardy, then so be it. That’s a future I’d proudly accept. “Everything you hate about me is who I truly am,” Minaj said. And I felt that in my bones.
Now help un-shadow ban my Twitter account. Sample tweet is below, ripe for your likes and retweets:
Molly Hurley is a Master of Fine Arts in Community Arts candidate at Maryland Institute College of Art and a graduate with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Rice University. She currently co-runs this column alongside Lovely Umayam and works full-time for WombWork Productions, Inc.