THE SEARCH FOR A NONVIOLENT FUTURE December 20, 2008Posted by wmmbb in Peace.
Let me start by warning you, I am not great shakes as a book reviewer or critic. These are just my personal reflections, which just might be off beam. I have been reading Michael Nagler’s, The Search for a Nonviolent Future.
A skillful reader might both be immersed in the journey that the book represents travelling an unfamiliar landscape of the everyday world, even if the name among the landmarks, such as Gandhi are recognized. Such a reader might then stand back and see the scale of the territory and not just the road. For all sorts of reasons I seem incapable to doing either, partly because the book though complete in itself represents a work still in progress. New parts of the picture keep emerging. Nonviolence is like a goldmine, and its potential and dimensions are in the process of discovery. Who would have thought that the adoption of nonviolence was a means for giving people a purpose they had lacked? This was recognized in the First Intifada, and since can be seen elsewhere.
The thesis I settle on is the notion that violence can most profitably be removed from our personal lives and our social existence, even as it as it seems deeply embedded in the frame of meaning and context, which might be described as our minds and culture. It is easier from familiarity to be aware of violence than nonviolence. Violence is pervasive as it blights many peoples lives. The contrast between violence and nonviolence is plain enough. One force field breaks human relationships and the other has fundamental faith in human nature. However violence so often, if not always in the media, seems to be both the frame and the scenery.
Life projects itself on the terrain in which either violence or nonviolence is possible. The tragedy of violence almost engulfs our days, and we do not need to look at war, or the after effects of systematic violence, simply perceive the unthinking recourse to “threat power” in personal relationships, expressed as words and actions. The fundamental rule seems to be that violence brings forth violence – a principle we should take seriously. The place to stop it to use Homer’s metaphor, as Michael Nagler notes, is before it reaches the gates of the teeth, so that we might be closer to “ahimsa”. I find that the treatment of the language in the thought, word, action transition chain useful, otherwise the insight might be formulaic incomprehension.
It undoubtedly useful to have descriptions of where nonviolence has worked, because it can be taken for granted that the media will fail to report the inside story, and sometimes those who are working successfully inside the story do not appreciate why things are working so surprisingly well. Then there are those occasions when nothing happens in the immediate sense, but everything has changed. The spontaneous rising in Berlin during the Nazi Regime was one example, and the Salt March was example of the second. Nonviolence in contradistinction to violence is subtle, and so the achievement that the book represents. The stories on the personal level are extraordinary, but perhaps more frequent than we are lead to believe. The Emergency Room (Casualty Ward) nurse who successfully comforts the violent person,or the person engaged in peculiar, and strangely effective, act of nonviolent accompaniment in dangerous and deadly situations. Loyalty to a friend, companero or mate has a strong human resonance.
We can talk about what works, as Theodore Rozak did, and compare it to what merely appears to. And we might consider for whom violence is working, as the quick fix for the our immediate needs and the world’s long term problems. More often than not the cure is worst than the ailment, or apparent peace is achieved at the costs that exponents of violence, as distinct from justice, do not readily acknowledge. So we see violence working everywhere, and being evoked everywhere, even by the informed, educated people who write newspaper editorials, who both prescribe the cure along with the classifications. Nothing could be more surgical, and more inhuman, than the injunction, “. . . then we should kill them ( the terrorists)”. Following long practice, the premise implicit in the words is the ground on which we mostly it seems continuously build our world, as if there was no working alternative.
Lenin’s question was: What is to be done? Gandhi had a set of specific action programs. Now I know this is not a Berkeley thing but here is a mnemonic that seems to work setting out the right order: Peace CORPS. In this book peace does not go undefined. Peace is like the climate, a function of network of processes and interrelationships.
Michael Nagler starts, as Gandhi did, with Constructive Program. You start where you are at. Where you stand is where you begin.There is a potential of a progressive amplification beginning with the person, the community and ultimately the planet. The mantra and meditation (or what passes) represent start up tools for getting a fix on the mind, and for Michael Nagler a mind is part of the person, both instrumental in, and informing, behavior.Gandhi’s Constructive Program took on its immanent form in the spinning wheel and his religious communities, first described as farms, and then ashrams.There is something about weaving and weavers, that lends itself to reflective enlightenment and nonviolence. It was the family background, for example, of George Fox. Michael Nagler suggests we find the off switch on commercial television with its ritualized violence and rampant materialist dissatisfaction, as if all our need are for physical stuff.
The next emergent part of the program opposes violence with nonviolence which to many is counter intuitive even when it can be shown to have worked. The rhetoric of violence seems so pervasive that we almost forget that we fight fire with water. Gandhi described himself in court as a “resister”. It is easy to see that Obstructive Program requires courage, especially in the face of violence, but it is not as obvious for me why it is necessary to “hang onto truth”. Hanging onto truth was for Gandhi a deep expression of faith. As they say, “If you do not eat, you die”. Fasting could kill you.
There is a final phase suggested in the lectures of reconstruction and reconciliation, and I suppose that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions provides the recent example. In the South, reconstruction was simply undid what the Civil War was supposed to have achieved, and it had a long shadow, until Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King challenged its assumptions and legal enactments.
Nonviolence I suspect is always alive in the catacombs of any society because it is unperceived human nature. Individuals are take nonviolent actions characterized such is the dominant paradigm as eccentricities. Terra Australis Incognita may represent a bold analogy as a hidden attractor sufficient to send voyages of discovery. Compassion and the mirror neurons I suspect are part of our environmental awareness generally. As I understand this code in our brains represents the key to our survival and that of our world. So there is a basis for hope. Human nature has a subtle effect undermining dominant regimes that are contrary to it, although the costs can be considerable, although the risk of not changing course, as now, is probably catastrophic.
The genesis and the state of the knowledge and practice of nonviolence is of interest on its own. The river civilizations of India and China seem to be among the oldest and most continuous cultures in which at various times the otherwise invisible social technology of nonviolence was given form and expression. The mysterious Maoriori in the Chatham Islands off the coast of New Zealand, set in the Pacific Ocean, are reported as being nonviolent, susceptible to the range of sailing ships and the inducements of rum, and thus to contrived violence before its modes of functioning could be appreciated. There were doubtless other examples. The moving frontier of European settlement and imperial ambition, the economic and social diaspora to the outremer lands, was combined with trails of violence and simultaneously claims of justice. They came upon the land with a axe in one hand, a sometimes a bible in the other, and guns always ready to settle disputes, and those that followed had the path cleared for them, even as the memory of method receded in time.
Could invasions be ever stopped with the method of nonviolence? Well there is the intriguing case, within living memory, of the invasion of the recalcitrant Czechoslovakia by the Soviet and Eastern Block neighbours. A civilian population can mobilize, not as is made clear to defend a symbolic border boundary, but by engaging the invaders. We are left simultaneously with the success of the force of arms, despite the missteps and misdirections, in short term, but the longer term collapse of the empire, for which others have different explanations.
Gandhi provided constant examples of the working of nonviolence. It methods he seems to have refined in practice, as he drew on ancient wisdom tradition. I really do think that the chucking off the train in Pietermaritzburg was deeply imbued with with class as well as race politics, but it is interesting to me that Gandhi who had been admitted to practice at the High Court in London, fundamentally rejected the class distinction, although his accent is a dead give away, and maybe a implication in Churchill’s jibe about his being a “fakir”. I note that the Indian Cricket Team, as they did in 2003, when touring South Africa took time out to visit Pietermaritzburg, and while Gandhi was signing himself at the 17th man on the England team (then known as MCC), the Indians were big fans of the Australian Donald Bradman who was scoring massively against the English team. The language of violence associated with the game of cricket is quite amazing.
Gandhi campaign for Indian Independence left the Raj ungovernable. So how did he do it? It took time, leadership, a strategic practical program symbolized by the spinning wheel and the cloth produced, and the failure of violent methods of control, whose results were reprehensible to the British as much as anyone else. A civilian population mobilized could not be subdued. In this case, given time, nonviolence worked. Equally, violence worked with brutal finality, not just to kill Gandhi, but to allow the brutal imperial separation between Muslim and Hindu, whose after effects still radiate, not just on the Sub Continent, and now with ramifications for the whole world.
But it was the Americans who received the demonstration of nonviolence, and I suspect in part it is a legacy of Martin Luther King, that Berkeley could have a course of nonviolence. In its own way, this is an example of how nonviolence works, beyond the eventual conclusion of Jim Crow. I was a distant observer of these strange events in sometime places with sometimes strange place names. And so I came to see these lectures on the internet, and then brought the book. And so now, from time to time, I mention these matters on this blog, which I like to imagine nobody reads, but one person might, and they might glum on to something. The course at Berkeley, from which this book emerged, might be thought on way in which nonviolence worked, and just possibly go on working.
We live to learn so as to inform our lives, most probably incompletely, and we travel by day and by night. The metaphysics of compassion accompany us, a resource whose potential we may not appreciate. Then we die. Before you do, read A Search for a Nonviolent Future. We should make sense of what we are about, and this book may help. Think of this book as a manual and a resource, and then your experience and practice may provide added insight.
Violence always seems to remain a problem. Nonviolence works, but violence tends to re-emerges. Patience is said to be the requirement. The nonviolent campaigns in Tibet and Burma have not so far been successful, and both are currently unnewsworthy. The Taranaki Maori engaged in nonviolence campaign of resistance which was something that I had not known about. Indian Independence was marked by communal violence. The Intifada has reverted to violence. The “holy experiment” in Pennsylvania seems to have passed away after two or three generations, as perhaps other settlers diluted the Quaker influence.
Nonviolence is an affirmation of life that requires constant work. Violence by its nature does harm, as much to its perpetrators as to its victims. We have got to stop harming others and our planet. The constructive program has to be our primary principled and strategic focus. And time is a luxury we do not have.
The Search for a Nonviolent Future has the advantage of other books. It provides a framework for understanding, and stepping back and seeing what the bigger picture si and the deeper issues are. Once some of the peices of the picture are realized, understanding can be developed. It is very useful that this book emerges from a university laboratory in which academic standards are implicit and the requirement, for example, for clear and accurate definition is assumed. Thus it becomes a tool for our thinking, to develope and confirm our insights, and more importantly broaden our undeerstanding.
The purpose of critical thinking, which is implicitly self referential as well, is not to destroy what others have proposed, as in the adversary legal process, but to take understanding to the next step – which may be a different one for each of us. As Michael Nagler observes, that is part of a genine education (drawing out), a change, an improvement, a growth. The fact that we perhaps are now in a different space does not mean that our minds might meet, or even undertake a journey we had not envisaged.