Dear Phineas

Dear Phineas:

Your letter finally reached me here in Chicago.

Thank you for writing.

Sounds like your eighth-grade research project is generating a lot of important thinking and insights.

People often confuse pacifism with non-violent direct action or civil disobedience.

Pacifism is a philosophy and a guide to living, and there’s much to admire about it. It asks us to look deeply and reverently at all of life, to respect the humanity of each person we encounter, to love everyone including proximate strangers and folks we’ll never know, and to seek balance and peace in relation to one another and all living things and the earth itself. That’s a pretty good start, don’t you think? We look to pacifists like Mahatma Gandhi  with a bit of awe.

But it’s only a start for finding your way through a vast and complicated history, and as a total world view, pacifism has its limits, as does every other belief system (religious or secular) when carried to its orthodox extreme. Gandhi, for example, urged Britain in 1940 to lay down its arms, to stop fighting Hitler, arguing that British resistance would be morally superior if the British people allowed themselves to be overrun by Hitler and yet  maintained their refusal of allegiance to evil. And in 1946—after the Holocaust and the millions of innocent lives thrown into the furnaces of war—he answered a question few pacifists ever want to face: What about the Jews of Europe? Gandhi answered forthrightly: the Jews of Europe should have committed mass collective suicide, he said, thus arousing the world and becoming models of heroism.

Both of these responses strike me as monstrous. And yet also weirdly consistent.

Non-violent direct action or civil disobedience asks us not simply to resist using violence ourselves, but to act in the public sphere to expose the exploitation and oppression and systematic violence that is quite real and yet mostly mystified and hidden. The Black Freedom Movement used civil disobedience brilliantly in the 1950’s and 1960’s to expose the fact that segregation and racial hierarchies are inherently violent, and they proved it to the world when they demanded their basic rights, and the powerful deployed the dogs and the clubs and the fire hoses against them. The actions of the civil rights protestors were courageous and brilliant precisely because by being actively non-violent (but not passive) in the face of an unjust reality, the system of inequality was exposed as violent at its core.

Slavery was a violent system; when people ran away or rose up, they were accused of being violent. But the violence was structured into the reality, and the resistance was justified even if Harriet Tubman carried a pistol and Nat Turner a torch and John Brown a rifle.

Violence may be part of our nature, as you argue, but so is love and generosity; selfishness may also be human, but so is collective solidarity and fellow feeling. In your life and your activism, you want to nurture the love and solidarity aspects of those contradictions.

You point to ISIS, and that makes sense to me. Terrorism, random attacks on the innocent, is wrong. But don’t lose sight of the fact terrorism is terrorism whether in the hands of a sect, a cult, a political group, or a recognized government. In fact in the last 100 years terrorism has mainly been the work of states, France, Great Britain, Russia, Israel, and the US, which Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the greatest purveyor of violence on earth.” So while the world rightly mourns the victims of Manchester, let’s notice that each of the innocents killed by US drones and air attacks in Yemen, Iraq, Libya—hundreds last week alone—also had a mother and a father, a life, hopes and dreams, and a name. Who were they? Do they also count in our collective consciousness even if they don’t make their ways into our media or our consciousness.

A couple of things worth reading: King, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community; Mandela, Speech at the Rivonia Trial; Geras, The Contract of Mutual Indifference. Perhaps my book Fugitive Days.

Also read this:

And this:

Best wishes to you.

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