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Books on Nonviolence

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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo National Catholic Reporter Issue Date: November 5, 2004 AMERICAN NONVIOLENCE: THE
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 7, 2004
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      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      National Catholic Reporter
      Issue Date: November 5, 2004

      By Ira Chernus
      Orbis Books, 230 pages, $20

      By Jonathan Schell
      Metropolitan Books, 433 pages, $27.50

      By Lawrence Wittner
      Stanford University Press, 657 pages, $32.95

      Books on nonviolence offer a prescription for sanity
      Reviewed by COLMAN McCARTHY

      As the planet's leading warrior nation, one whose military
      has invaded more than 20 countries since 1945, has a
      Congress that allots half of the discretionary federal tax
      revenues to war, has routinely elected military men as its
      presidents, has military bases in all parts of the world, is
      the globe's largest maker and seller of weapons, and
      unfailingly prosecutes or jails those who conscientiously
      object a mite too strongly to it all, small wonder then that
      the nonviolent movement has been cast as a fringe movement.

      But the casting requires an avoidance of both the past and
      present. In American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea,
      Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the
      University of Colorado, Boulder, joins a long list of
      authors -- Staughton Lind, Michael Nagler, Anne Montgomery,
      among others -- who probe beyond the headlines and political
      debate that accept governmental violence as inevitable and
      just. For Chernus, "the nonviolence tradition runs quietly,
      like an underground stream, through U.S. history. Its
      effects have been less visible than the tradition of war and
      violence. But its effects may some day prove to be more
      lasting. A Chinese leader was once asked to assess the
      effects of the French Revolution. Though it was nearly 200
      years after the event, he wisely replied: 'It is too soon to
      tell.' The same may be true of the men and women who led
      America's nonviolence movements."

      Focusing on people who acted on the idea and ideals of
      nonviolence, not merely intellectually dabbled in them,
      Chernus includes the Anabaptists, Quakers, anarchists,
      Catholic Workers and activists such as Adin Ballou, Barbara
      Deming, Henry David Thoreau, A.J. Muste and Dorothy Day. The
      only misstep is the inclusion of Reinhold Niebuhr, a touter
      of Augustine and a man who believed that violence is
      necessary to obtain justice. That makes him a leader of the
      movement? Except for squandering 16 pages on Niebuhr -- OK,
      professors are entitled to an off day now and then --
      Chernus is a sound, nuanced and factual guide to the
      philosophy of nonviolence and the commitments of those who
      live by it. Like the idea he writes about, Chernus’s effort
      should be treasured.

      During the 1960s and through the '80s, William Shawn, editor
      of The New Yorker, reserved space in the country's best
      magazine for one of its finest writers, Jonathan Schell. In
      clearheaded prose and persuasive argument, Schell, then in
      his early 30s, shattered illusion after illusion about
      militarism, from the Vietnam War to the threat of nuclear
      annihilation. His books included The Village of Ben Suc, The
      Real War and, perhaps his best known, The Fate of the Earth.

      Few contemporary writers have produced so grounded a
      literature of peace. It continues with The Unconquerable
      World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People. A
      blend of history, politics and the philosophies of
      nonviolent conflict resolution, it exhibits Schell's belief
      that "forms of nonviolent action can serve effectively in
      the place of violence at every level of political affairs."
      Is that another dreamy fantasy from the antiwar left? Not if
      recent evidence counts. In only the past 20 years, seven
      brutal or corrupt regimes were overthrown by organized
      nonviolent campaigns: in Poland, Chile, the Philippines,
      Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, South Africa and Georgia. Two
      decades ago, who would have predicted that tyrants would be
      removed because risk-taking citizens with no guns, tanks,
      bombs or armies took action? Yet it happened.

      Schell is not a pacifist, which places him in the company of
      peace writers Thomas Merton and Howard Zinn, and not with
      all-the-way pacifists David McReynolds, Arthur Laffin, A.J.
      Muste, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan or David Dellinger. Schell
      points to "situations, both historical and imaginary, in
      which it was clear that I would support the use of force or
      myself use it." But isn't this the "violence as a last
      resort" argument we keep hearing from one war machine or

      That aside -- save for another day a debate on whether
      part-time pacifism is viable -- Jonathan Schell's voice is
      unique in explaining the failures of peace through strength
      and the successes of strength through peace.

      Lawrence Wittner, a professor of history at the State
      University of New York, Albany, has not had the access to
      the mass media that Schell enjoys. But his scholarship and
      patient digging has brought to the public an enduring body
      of work. Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World
      Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present is the
      final part of a trilogy that includes One World or None and
      Resisting the Bomb. Amid the thoroughness of Wittner's 18
      chapters, 1,751 footnotes, 108 interviews and 35 pages of
      bibliography is a deft and readable account of how a
      coalition of public and private citizens has kept the
      ever-itchy nuclear finger from being pulled.

      Refreshingly, Wittner has a talent for debunking, which
      isn't hard considering the mountains of governmental bunk
      piled high these past 30 years. Of the notion that the
      United States brought down the Soviet Union, Wittner writes:
      "Chalking up a great overseas victory for U.S. military
      power plays well among Americans, and especially among
      ardent nationalists -- people who like to wave flags, pledge
      allegiance, and sing 'God Bless America.' George H.W. Bush's
      claims during the 1992 campaign that he had 'won the Cold
      War' are perfectly understandable, even though, as Bill
      Clinton responded, Bush was behaving like 'the rooster who
      took credit for the dawn.' Asked about Bush's 1992 claims
      that the Soviet Union had simply crumpled before U.S.
      military might, Gorbachev responded: 'I suppose these are
      necessary things in a campaign. But if this is serious, then
      it is a very big delusion.'"

      Wittner himself appears to be delusion-free about the
      chances for nuclear disarmament. "Are the people of the
      world capable of altering their traditional institutions of
      governance to meet this challenge? . . . If one looked
      solely at their long record of war, plunder and other human
      folly, one might conclude they are not. But an examination
      of the history of the nuclear disarmament movement inspires
      a greater respect for human potential. Indeed, defying the
      national barriers and the murderous traditions of the past,
      millions of people have joined hands to build a safer, saner

      The building goes on, supported by authors who know of no
      worthier issue to write about.

      Colman McCarthy, who has written for NCR since 1966, directs
      the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C., and is
      currently teaching courses on nonviolence at eight schools.

      Dan Clore

      Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
      Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      "It's a political statement -- or, rather, an
      *anti*-political statement. The symbol for *anarchy*!"
      -- Batman, explaining the circle-A graffiti, in
      _Detective Comics_ #608
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