Nonviolence Works, Violence Doesn’t

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A 21st-century peace protest
Photo by Michael Jarecki / via

Clearly I’m warped, having grown up in the antiwar movement during the long years of Vietnam. I thought it was normal to believe in peace. I thought the believers outnumbered the killers and could, eventually, defeat them. It took me a long time to realize that America’s reflexive reaction to problems is to kill a whole bunch of people, preferably people who aren’t quite white. What’s worse, a large-scale, grassroots movement to change that response is a historical anomaly.

A 21st-century peace protestPhoto by Michael Jarecki / via
A 21st-century peace protest
Photo by Michael Jarecki / via

What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?” laments Nick Lowe. Well, really, what is so funny about it? Why, when you suggest nonviolent responses to tyranny and cruelty, or suggest we could spend more on feeding people and less on killing them, are you immediately mocked and derided as a naïve, starry-eyed dreamer?

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Here’s what I find ridiculous enough to be funny: spending a trillion dollars apiece on two wars that won’t end, and at least that much on spying on everyone, including our own citizens, only to produce more enemies than we started with. I think – really, I do – that if you gave me a few trillion dollars, I could find ways to start to heal the animosities, make people happier and, in the longer run, make Americans much safer than we are. I think I could do it without murdering anybody.

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Maybe I’m wrong. Often I am. But I damn well know the warmongers are wrong, and that the United States has become an increasingly empty empire in decline, offering little to the world and with little left to defend itself beyond “the greatest military in the history of the world,” as every politician seems obliged to call it. It is, too, if “greatest” means the ability to wipe out whole populations by pushing buttons. Not so much, if it means a force disciplined and cultured enough not to rape its own in staggering numbers.

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Those are strong and bitter words, and I write them not in anger, but in sadness. I believe them to be true. We’re not an empire? Ask anybody in Latin America, whose labor revolts and democratic movements have been put down by U.S. troops or U.S. threats dozens of times so that Americans can enjoy cheap coffee and bananas, and – more to the point – American multinational corporations can enslave whole countries for obscene profits. Read the history of the U.S. in Latin America here. Not in decline?  U.S. News and World Report is not exactly The Daily Worker. Here is its assessment of the state of the American empire.

We’re building walls, for goodness’ sake – a ridiculously big one to keep people out of the country who are trying to recover a few dollars denied them by American policy, thousands more to keep our own least fortunate citizens behind bars, rather than give them education, opportunity, dignity and respect.

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We treat crimes as acts of war. That goes for 9/11 and it goes for the SWAT outfits in places like Ferguson.

We drug-test people who can’t afford to eat while we bail out the Wall Streeters who crashed the world economy. We treat the mortgage bankers and bond daddies as heroes and treat the victims of their fraudulent schemes as losers. We keep an increasing proportion of our own population in penury and misery while fighting wars with no warrant and no end on fronts from Ukraine to Syria to Colombia.

We think of ourselves as the richest country in the world, and at the same time, we think homelessness in this country is a matter of course: that it is normal, and that poverty is caused by its victims.

This is the behavior of Rome in the period of empire.  I’m sorry, so very sorry, but it just is.

Mahatma Gandhi

What we’re doing clearly isn’t working, and yet no one, it seems, even brings up the idea of nonviolent mass movements. This reluctance persists in spite of compelling evidence that nonviolence is by far the most effective means of long-term, positive change.

Nonviolence: Ghandian mass movements, can solve a lot of problems, including everything in the hodgepodge list above. Yes, I’m aware that I’ve mixed domestic problems and foreign ones, but history will show they are of a piece. We can’t fix our domestic problems until we stop obsessing on the foreign ones, and we can’t fix the foreign ones while we are weak at home. That’s a fact.  Rear some children. Train some dogs. Manage some workers. Teach some students. You will learn, eventually, that the harsh way is cheap, easy, relatively ineffective and cowardly. The gentle way works.

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Here’s another fact: It is possible, though unusual, for nations  — governments — to behave in a moral fashion. This is provably true because it is possible, and normal, for them to behave immorally. I’m going to suggest that the answer to most of our problems is simple. It’s not easily carried out, but the policy is simple.

Allow me a personal story: Three years ago, I attended the memorial service for Linnea Raine, one of the circle of extraordinary, brilliant women who, for 50 years, have surrounded my wife. Linnea was a Penn graduate with academic ties to Georgetown and other elite institutions; an anti-terrorism expert, and the author of scholarly books on international relations. She was not unsophisticated. One of the speakers at the service said he’d once asked Linnea when and how we could look forward to more peace and security in the world. “When people and countries start following the Golden Rule,” she said.

Simple.  Difficult.  Necessary.

Sorry if all this seems a rant. I suppose it is, because I’m really exasperated by our stubborn brutishness.  Peace, my brothers.

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