Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A statement of conscience

A blog I read regularly - but apparently not regularly enough, since I didn't see this until a few days after it was posted - recently quoted Ward Churchill and Malcom X each saying in a different way that they surely didn't advocate violence and how they would prefer to be able to use nonviolence. After mentioning Frantz Fanon and Subcomandante Marcos, the poster said that
[n]one of these cats glorify violence. Rather, they are keenly and painfully aware of the violence - interpersonal, organizational, structural, and intrapersonal - afflicting themselves and their people on an ongoing basis. In each of these activists' words is a preference for using nonviolent means of action ... but also in each of these activists' words is an admonition against a doctrinaire knee-jerk pacifism.
With all respect to my colleague, that's bullshit. Of course they are glorifying violence. They are glorifying violence as a - indeed, as the only reliable - means of self-defense and achieving justice. (Indeed, Fanon went beyond the others to openly glorify violence itself, declaring not only that it was the only way for the colonized people of the world to be liberated but that it was itself liberating.) The argument, stripped to its essence, is that nonviolence, well, yeah, it might work sometimes - but violence always does. Nonviolence can fail, but violence never does; it just hasn't succeeded yet. The argument allows for no option under which violence fails, even less for one where violence fails but nonviolence succeeds - even though that is a much better description of the experience of the Zapatistas than the reverse. Even when the conflict goes on, as some in the world have, for decades, in some - too many - minds, including if not especially among those not directly affected, the thought "violence has failed" never seems to arise.

And just what the hell constitutes "doctrinaire knee-jerk pacifism" in this (or most any other) context? In fact, when do those looking to excuse the bloodshed for which they're responsible (or of which they tacitly or expressly approve) describe pacifism in terms other than "doctrinaire" or "knee-jerk" or other equally dismissive adjectives? When is the refusal to commit murder not brushed off as "hopelessly idealistic," always with the required sighs of regret, by those who imagine that revolution is marked by how many you kill rather than by how many you change - except, that is, for the times it is denounced as a tool of the ruling class, as Fanon essentially does?

And no, I need no lectures on the destructiveness of institutional violence, nor do I need to be reminded that it's easy for those of us not suffering under the yoke of an oppressor to urge the oppressed to foreswear murderous violence, especially when it is equally easy for us to embrace such violence as "necessary" when we do not have to live with the blood and gore and shredded limbs and the screams of the wounded and the wails of the widows and orphans sitting among the smoking ruins of what had been their homes and fields.

That is the painful reality hidden behind that "necessity," a reality of tens - hundreds - of millions around the world, past and present, abused by military power of one sort or another, almost if not always in the name of some supposed “higher purpose.” A reality of the real effect of real violence on real people.

Wars of one sort or another are now going on in the Philippines, Iraq, DR Congo, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Indonesia, the Occupied Territories, and probably a dozen more places, and in every one of them you can be damn sure that no one on any side has picked up a gun or dropped a bomb or fired a rocket or laid a mine or set a booby-trap without claiming to be on the side of the angels; no one has blown someone’s head off or burned a village to the ground or tortured a prisoner without claiming it’s in pursuit of “justice” or “freedom” or “self-defense” or the “glory of God” (or "Jesus" or “Allah”). That’s the reality. Not musings about how you'd "prefer" nonviolence or about "self-defense" or the "creative" aspects of violence. The reality, rather, of death, destruction, and despair in which everyone claims that they are the wounded innocents.

“Those who organized this provocation deliberately desired a further aggravation of the international situation by striving to smear us, sow hostility towards us, and cast aspersions on our peace-loving policies.” Something said by, who, I don't know, maybe China? Or about China? Neither. It’s from a TASS wire service dispatch, September 3, 1983. It’s about the US.

“...to save the freedom of the world, to save liberty, to save the honor of women and children, everyone who loves freedom and honor, everyone who puts principle before ease and life itself before mere living, is banded in a great crusade - we cannot deny it - to kill Muslims, to kill them not for the sake of killing but to save the world...to kill them lest the civilization of the world itself be killed.” Other than being blunter than most, is this truly different from many sentiments expressed during our War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.)? But in the original version, “Muslims” was “Germans,” and the quote is from a sermon preached by the Bishop of London during World War I.

“We concur in considering [them] ...as totally without morality, insolent beyond bearing, inflated with vanity and ambition aiming at the exclusive domination of the world, lost in corruption, of deep-rooted hatred toward us, hostile to liberty wherever it endeavors to show its head, and the eternal disturber of the peace of the world.” The style may be stilted, but I’d defy anyone to tell me any fundamental difference between these sentiments and those directed against Hamas to justify the attack on Gaza - or, for that matter, different from those directed against Jews by any number of anti-Semites across the ages. But the year was 1815, the speaker was President Thomas Jefferson, and the "them" in question was Great Britain.

It’s always the same. Every time, the same arguments are trotted out. “They” are evil, immoral, corrupt, cruel; “they” can’t be trusted; “they” understand only force; “they” don’t respect human life the way we do; it’s sad, but “they” have given us no choice; blah, blah, and more blah, as we go about convincing ourselves that "they" are "other," are fundamentally different, and when we kill them - except we don't, do we, instead we "secure targets" and "achieve objectives" and "deny the enemy resources" - and when we kill them there are none left behind to mourn, for the "other" has no wife or husband, no sons or daughters, no sisters or brothers, no parents, no aunts or uncles or grandparents or cousins or friends or neighbors or colleagues or co-workers, they are merely an instrumentality of the enemy, denied their humanity so they may be denied their life, because they are not really "alive," not like "we" are.

It has been charged that nonviolence gives “fear and hatred an opportunity to triumph.” Well, I say that with murderous violence, fear and hatred always triumph. I say that might does not make right. I say that the ends do not justify the means - which, no matter how many colors are cast on it, is still the primer under the entire argument - but they are affected by them. That humanity cannot be conveniently divided into our friends, the victimized innocents, and our foes, the venal infidels. That mass murder does not bring any peace except that of the graveyard, that hatreds do not produce love, that a river of blood, no matter how thick, deep, wide, or red, does not, cannot, will not mark the path to justice. Because justice must be justice for “them” as well as for “us,” for “enemy” the same as for friend, or it’s not justice at all but mere favoritism.

Ultimately, I agree with Gandhi's statement that
the only thing worse than violence is cowardly refusal to act in the face of injustice. But nonviolent action is always superior to violent action.
Contrary to the underlying, unspoken conviction of those such as Ward Churchill, Malcolm X, and Franz Fanon, pacifism does not mean passivity and nonviolence does not mean non-action; they do not involve, as I was once accused of advocating, allowing ourselves to “get butchered” in order to “be morally superior.” (I did not include Subcomandante Marcos in that list because I believe this is a lesson he has learned.)

Let me be clear: I believe we are responsible for that which we approve, and that applies to me as much as to others; perhaps more so because I make the choice so consciously. I know the course I’ve chosen carries risks, that nonviolent action isn’t “safe,” that it may (and for some in some circumstances surely would) involve risking one’s life, and that the greatest risk is that of failure, of seeing injustice ascendant. But every one of those risks applies equally strongly to violent action, which carries the added risks, risks so often realized they’re less risks than a process, of destroying that which you say you’d save and of becoming that which you say you oppose.

Nonviolent action is not without risk, not without pain, not without suffering, and aggressive nonviolent techniques - such as economic sanctions - can put such pain and suffering on others, including innocents. No, there are no ironclad guarantees of success, and yes, there would be losses as well as victories. All of that - all of that, despite any romanticized notions to the contrary - is equally true of violence.

I can understand the lure of violence. I can. With violence, more than with nonviolence, you can feel that you're doing something. You can see a result of an action. For an example, we need look no further than the big news of late: Israel and the Palestinians. I'm quite sure that every time Hamas or Islamic Jihad or one of the other, smaller, militant groups fires a rocket into southern Israel, it feels like they are striking a blow against the oppressor - even though after decades of violence against Israelis they are no closer to justice. Israelis, for their part, no doubt feel that the incursions in the West Bank and the slaughter in Gaza are landing telling blows against the "threat" - even though after decades of violence against Palestinians they are no closer to security. Violence has clearly failed for both antagonists, yet neither seems willing or even able to realize it.

So it’s simply not true that there’s “no choice,” even less that the only choice is between murderous violence and passivity. There is a choice: the choice of seeking to preserve life rather than destroy it, to think in terms of “we” rather than “us versus them,” to control conflict rather than to “cry havoc,” to, in short, struggle to achieve just ends while minimizing the suffering of opponents rather than maximizing the suffering of “enemies.” That is the choice of nonviolence and nonviolent action. It is nonviolence, not violence, which eschews hate and fear and thereby offers our best - ultimately, our only - hope for long-term peace and justice.

Most, I fully realize, find that hopelessly romantic. I find it eminently practical. Not only because, as Edmund Burke said, “a conscientious man should be cautious in how he deals in blood,” but because, as a “Life” magazine editorial put it (August 20, 1945), “our sole safeguard against the very real danger of a reversion to barbarism is the kind of morality which compels the individual conscience, be the group right or wrong...There is no other way.”

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