Mark Kurlansky's 25 Lessons from the History of Nonviolence

I recently finished reading Mark Kurlansky's Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. The first question that pops to mind is Dangerous to whom? To the people in power, or to the people who get a fascist boot to the face during a peaceful protest? The book is lite (~200 pages) on the theory and tactics of nonviolence, but it seems worthwhile to share and comment on the 25 lessons Kurlansky gleans from his research, despite their occasional drift into fortune cookie territory, conflating historical examples with aphorism:

  1. There is no proactive word for nonviolence. On the individual level, I think this linguistic gap is probably a result of our default state as humans: Most of the time we're not hurting each other. But on the political level, there is mental censorship at stake. Expressibility and possibility are bedfellows. The essence is that nonviolence is an active practice, a political tactic, and there is no word to capture this participatory sense.

  2. Nations that build military forces as deterrents will eventually use them. Resist the urge to trot the cannon out on stage lest ye intend to fire it. This is mostly a matter of perceptions of power and self-fulfilling prophecy. The creation of new weapons also creates the logic for their use. Something to watch on this front is the development and deployment of nonlethal weaponry, both in the war theatre as a tool of hearts-and-minds nation-building, and domestically for crowd dispersal to quell protest. But obviously the big example here is nuclear weapons, which have never been used since their deterrent effect was established. Kurlansky indicates that their use is inevitable, but such a faith would also erode the whole goal of practicing nonviolence. Indeed, it's the possibility of military catastrophe on the order of nuclear war that makes the push for a global nonviolent worldview so relevant. I also recently read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a post-apocalyptic morality play in which most civilization and biological life has been destroyed by some unspecified but presumably human disaster. The survivors turn to scavenging and cannibalism. Not pretty.

  3. Practitioners of nonviolence are seen as enemies of the state. Ooooh, scary. I don't think the regular marches we conduct these days count as nonviolence. They're too passive. Like-minded people milling down empty streets without audience or effect. True nonviolence means also civil disobedience, well beyond a properly filled out parade permitting application. Boycotts, obstructed streets, occupied buildings, unpaid taxes, etc.

  4. Once a states takes over a religion, the religion loses its nonviolent teachings. This would be better expressed in past tense. Are there any religions left to be co-opted? America certainly still feels the shockwaves of religion sans nonviolence, in the absence of religious voices from the forefront of the peace movement, and in the voting patterns of the "guns and religion" crowd. In all the marches I've attended I haven't noticed the church groups shoulder to shoulder with the unions, environmentalists, and other social justice advocates. Perhaps they are there, but they are not vocal.

  5. A rebel can be defanged and co-opted by making him a saint after he is dead. Think Che t-shirts. Baby-eating barbarians.

  6. Somewhere behind every war there are always a few founding lies. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

  7. A propaganda machine promoting hatred always has a war waiting in the wings. Does hatred have any other outlet than violence or subjugation?

  8. People who go to war start to resemble their enemy. The logic of conflict and survival takes over. An eye for an eye.

  9. A conflict between a violent and a nonviolent force is a moral argument. If the violent side can provoke the nonviolent side into violence, the violent side has won. Ay, there's the rub. Don't panic.

  10. The problem lies not in the nature of man but in the nature of power. What is power but an unbalanced man?

  11. The longer a war lasts, the less popular it becomes. I'd say so. Hence the waning attractiveness of drawn-out insurgencies or terrorist campaigns. Ditto armed conflicts without end like Vietnam and Iraq.

  12. The state imagines it is impotent without a military because it cannot conceive of power without force. This sounds like an invitation to the dance. Can we make the right steps? Is Kurlansky implying that without power there is no state? Or is the state simply structural, the tool of power? Even soft power, or cultural attractiveness, is discussed in terms of winning and losing, cultural domination dressed up in the lamb's wool of inevitability and trends.

  13. It is often not the largest but the best organized and most articulate group that prevails. Organized, yes. Articulate is debatable following the presidency of GWB. Unless, of course, articulated means not literate but expressed, brought about. In that sense, the Republicans have done a great job articulating their strategy, while the Democrats still stumble incoherently through eloquence.

  14. All debate momentarily ends with an "enforced silence" once the first shots are fired. The trick, then, is to keep talking so as to never start shooting.

  15. A shooting war is not necessary to overthrow an established power but is used to consolidate the revolution itself. This lesson comes from historical examples that Kurlansky cites, including the American Revolution and its frustration of the colonial economic model. I wonder, though, if this doesn't relate to lesson 2. There has to be historical inertia behind the forming and training of militias, despite contemporaneous successes in nonviolent civil disobedience. I guess the point here is that there needs to be unified coordination among the revolutionaries so as to avoid the internecine bloodshed of revolutionary consolidation.

  16. Violence does not resolve. It always leads to more violence. See Shakespeare, William.

  17. Warfare produces peace activists. A group of veterans is a likely place to find peace activists. Action reaction.

  18. People motivated by fear do not act well. While there may be wisdom in crowds, the mob rarely exhibits restraint or good judgment. Fear erases thought, masses erase accountability.

  19. While it is perfectly feasible to convince a people faced with brutal repression to rise up in a suicidal attack on their oppressor, it is almost impossible to convince them to meet deadly violence with nonviolent resistance. Political nonviolence is thus not instinctual and will require disciplined mind training.

  20. Wars do not have to be sold to the general public if they can be carried out by an all-volunteer professional military. That's a good argument for mandatory military service actually reducing militarism, but has it played out in practice?

  21. Once you start the business of killing, you just get "deeper and deeper," without limits. Fog of War? Once ethical argumentation is abandoned is it a slippery slope toward using mathematical precision to optimize warfare?

  22. Violence always comes with a supposedly rational explanation—which is only dismissed as irrational if the violence fails. ("Comes with" is bad verb.) Rationalizing is a natural habit, I guess, before and after war. I would ask: Is killing anti-rational?

  23. Violence is a virus that infects and takes over. This is pretty true. In fact, the contagion model of memetic transmission has been documented for physical characteristics such as obesity.

  24. The miracle is that despite all of society's promotion of warfare, most soldiers find warfare to be a wrenching departure from their own moral values. Hallelujah. Not wrenching enough in most cases, however, to incur the jail time that would accompany disobeying orders. Think Catch-22 and Yossarian always in the hospital.

  25. The hard work of beginning a movement to end war has already been done. The idea here is that just as it only takes one shot to end debate and start a war, it only takes courageous people to spurn violence and practice nonviolence. That such people have existed, continue to exist, and will hopefully exist in the future is the spark that illuminates this book.

On a related note, I saw the film Battle in Seattle this past weekend, a fictionalized account of the 1999 WTO protests. It's a pretty bad B movie, but I'd rather watch a B movie about a worthwhile subject than an A movie about a bunch of dysfunctional people finding ways to torment and maim each other, which seems like the usual Hollywood and indie fare these days. Check it out, because that's the level of civil disobedience I think we need to be prepared for on the climate issue, and soon if the Palin-McCain ticket prevails.

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