Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Giants on the Earth: A Review of Waging Peace by David Hartsough

There were giants on the earth in those days . . . (Genesis 6:4)

The fear that we citizens of the United States have been seduced into since 9/11 spreads across our benighted nation like a fog, inhibiting all policy alternatives not based in blind vengefulness. Special are those who have the spiritual clear-sightedness and persistence to make people-oriented global connections that pierce the fog of fear with the light of visionary possibility.

One such giant is David Hartsough, whose vivid, even hair-raising, memoir of a lifetime of peace activism, Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist, has just been published by PM press.  It ought to be required reading for every U.S. citizen befogged by the crude polarization between Islamic extremism and the equally violent, ineffective, but seemingly endless Western military reaction it has elicited.

It hardly seems possible that Hartsough has been able to crowd into one lifetime all his deeds of creative nonviolence. He was there with Martin Luther King in the late fifties in the South. He was there when a train loaded with bullets and bombs on their way to arm right-wing death squads in Central America severed the leg of his friend Brian Willson in California. His initiatives of support for nonviolent resistance movements span both decades and continents, from efforts to get medical supplies to the North Vietnamese, to reconciliation among Israelis and Palestinians, to support for Russian dissidents as the Soviet Union was breaking up, to the resistance to Marcos in the Philippines, and on and on. Hartsough’s book thus becomes a remarkably comprehensive alternative history to set against “the official story” of America’s—and many other nations’—often brutal and misguided reliance upon military intervention.

David Hartsough gave himself a head start by getting born into the right family. As a boy he heard his minister father preach the gospel of loving your enemies and almost immediately got a chance to try it out when bullies pelted him with icy snowballs. It worked, and Hartsough never looked back. Having determined to do integration in reverse by attending the predominantly black Howard University, he soon found himself sitting in with courageous African-American students at segregated restaurants in Virginia. A white man crazed with hate threatened him with a knife. Hartsough spoke to him so gently that the man was “disarmed” by the unexpected shock of a loving response and retreated open-mouthed and speechless.

Sixty years of innumerable protests, witnesses, and organizing efforts later, Hartsough is still at it as he helps to begin a new global movement to end war on the planet, called “World Beyond War.” While his book is a genuinely personal memoir that records moments of doubt, despair, fear of getting shot, and occasional triumph, even more it is a testament to the worldwide nonviolent movement that still flies completely under the radar of American media. Living in a bubble of propaganda, we do not realize how intrusive the bases of our far-flung empire are felt to be. We do not feel how many millions worldwide regard the U.S. as an occupying force with negative overall effects upon their own security. Even more importantly, we remain insufficiently aware how often nonviolence has been used around the world to bring about positive change where it appeared unlikely to occur without major bloodshed. The U.S. turns to military force reflexively to ”solve” problems, and so it has been difficult indeed, as we are seeing in our ham-handed response to ISIS and the chaos in Syria, for us to learn lessons that go all the way back to the moral disaster of Vietnam. We have not registered how sick of the madness of war the world really is. Now academic studies are starting to back up with hard statistical evidence the proposition that nonviolent tactics are more effective than militarism for overthrowing dictators and reconciling opposing ethnic or religious groups.

Coincidentally, the book I read just before Waging Peace was its perfect complement: a biography of Allen Dulles, first director of the CIA, and his brother John Foster Dulles, longtime Secretary of State. The Dulles book goes a long way toward explaining the hidden motives of the military-industrial-corporate behemoth which Hartsough has spent his life lovingly but persistently confronting—truly a moral giant named David against a Goliath of clandestine militarism that props up narrow business interests at the expense of the human rights of millions. Always this David has kept in his heart one overarching principle, that we are one human family and no one nation’s children are worth more than any other’s.

Hartsough’s tales of persistence in the face of hopeless odds remind us not to yield to despair, cynicism, fear mongering or enemy posing, all temptations when political blame is the currency of the day. Hartsough is a living exemplar of the one force that is more powerful than extremist hate, reactive fear, and weapons, including nuclear bombs—the human capacity to be harmless, helpful and kind even to supposed adversaries.

If—let us say optimistically when—peace goes mainstream and deluded pretentions to empire are no longer seen as the royal road to security, when we wake up to the hollowness of our selfishness and exceptionalism, when we begin to relate to other nations as opportunities to share good will and resources rather than to bomb, it will be largely because of the tireless efforts of insufficiently heralded giants like David Hartsough.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Killing for Peace

Since 9-11-01, the United States, by any objective assessment a globe-girdling military empire, has been sucked into an ongoing global civil war between brutal extremists (often fighting among themselves) and those, including us, they perceive as their mortal enemies.  We are rightfully outraged by cruel beheadings videotaped for Internet distribution. The beheaders and suicide bombers are equally outraged by our extensive military presence in their ancestral homelands and drone attacks upon weddings.

Meanwhile, though the government of our mighty empire can read our emails and tap our telephones, the worldwide nonviolent movement to bring about positive change somehow flies completely under its supposedly all-seeing radar screens. The peoples of the earth are overwhelmingly against war, and they want their fair share of the earth’s resources and the possibilities of democratic governance. Academic studies (e.g., Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict ) have proven that, overall, nonviolent movements are more effective for reaching such goals than violent military ones.

Our media narrows discourse and fans the flames by only allowing U.S. citizens to see through the narrow lens of exceptionalism, polarization and violence. Fear mongers, legion in our culture, insist that adherents of ISIS are hardly human. But we should keep their humanity in our hearts even as we abhor their acts, just as we ought to abhor our own descent into torture and extra-judicial killings. People do not do what those ISIS fighters do without having been rendered desperate and callous by some painful sense of injustice. As Auden wrote, “Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return.” The question for us is how we can best respond to evil without rationalizing our own evil behavior.

Setting aside the blurry distinction between the sadism of beheadings and the supposed good intentions of those who control the drones, our side and theirs share the conviction that the only solution to this great conflict is killing. If ISIS can kill enough of its enemies, a Caliphate can be established from Lebanon across to Afghanistan, obliterating the despised arbitrary borders created by the colonial powers after World War l. Conversely, if the West can only assassinate enough terrorist leaders in Afghanistan and Yemen and Syria, moderate elements will emerge from the slaughter to renounce the vain and presumptuous notion that Islam is destined to conquer a pluralistic world.

But the presumptions of both present American empire and possible Muslim empire are equally vain and closed-minded in their separate ways. Continued mass killing by either side will never resolve the underlying cultural disparities, and so unless we think in new ways, this planetary civil war will continue, multiplying recruits to terror faster than they can be exterminated—a perpetual motion meat-grinder of violence.

We can’t just leave the various extremist groups to fight it out among themselves. We have to lead, but why not lead in a new direction? Amid all the hand wringing about least bad options, there is a good option: change the game. Admit that the U.S. occupation of Iraq led to some unforeseen outcomes. Call an international conference that includes representatives from as many parties that are willing to consider how to contain and end the violence. Agree to embargo the arms pouring into the region.

The possibility that we are already fighting a third world war, having forgotten the lesson of how little anybody wanted or expected to get into the first one, suggests the need to call upon the spirit of figures like King and Dag Hammarskjold, that world ambassador for peace. As we look down the time stream, it becomes harder and harder to guarantee who will and who will not be able to possess nuclear weapons. Even now some disaffected Pakistani general might be transferring a warhead to some non-state actor with malign intentions. It is equally possible that someone in the U.S. military could go rogue with a nuke, initiating catastrophe.

Is a third world war leading to total destruction the intention of either the Christian God or the Muslim Allah? The opportunity is for all parties to accept this possibility and build agreements based in a common desire for human survival—listening at last to the pleas of millions around this small planet who desperately want the madness of endless war to cease.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Local and Global

I attended the Special Town Meeting in the town of Bristol on October 1, 2014. The purpose of the meeting was to vote on a non-binding resolution that would allow a cable from experimental wind turbines off Monhegan to cross prime fishing grounds and come ashore in New Harbor. Apparently the cable cannot be buried on the sea bottom and would pass across uneven rocky ground, making it all too easy for fishermen to entangle their equipment. Even though the resolution was overwhelmingly defeated, the meeting was packed and the energy in the room was genial and inclusive. Whatever the outcome, it always feels good in these cynical times to experience passionate citizen involvement, where the tension between opposing interests can almost always lead to a constructive outcome with which all parties can live.

The late Edward Myers, my father, lived for more than half a century with the tension between his lobster business and changes in the ocean system bearing on lobster health. While he did much to enlarge the international market for Maine seafood, at the same time, year after year, he carefully noted changes in salinity, acidity, temperature and mean tidal levels in the Damariscotta river.  The changes he witnessed were alarming enough for him to put together a book before he died in 2002, called Turnaround, a gentle prophecy of what is coming unless we change course in our relations with the natural world. This tradition of scientific analysis of environmental changes continued with his granddaughter, who spent three years studying shell disease in lobsters at the New England Aquarium. It is becoming clear that factors such as water temperature and water quality may be increasing stress upon lobster immune systems.

The eloquent fisherman who spoke against the cable characterized it as a potential “environmental atrocity.”  But an environmental atrocity a trillion times larger than the proposed cable has already happened and continues to unfold as the oceans change in ways with which marine research can hardly keep pace. At the moment, lobsters in the Gulf of Maine seem to be plentiful, but south of Kittery the story looks more ominous. We ought to fear for the long-term health and livelihood of all fisheries off the coast, should we continue to deny locally what is looming over us globally. “The way life should be” becomes a meaningless slogan if it fails to take into account the way life actually is.

I volunteer for a non-profit called the Mid-coast Green Energy Cooperative. Our purpose is to help people, especially working people struggling with the rising costs of oil and gas, to insulate their houses and switch to energy-saving devices like solar panels and heat pumps—without spiraling into unsustainable debt.  A by-product of our work is the mitigation of human-caused global warming and climate instability.

We can debate where the best place might be for wind turbine experiments. But Initiatives like our Co-op and the University of Maine wind experiments, whether they are merely academic or eventually commercially viable, remain essential, given that local, national, and international political responses lag behind environmental warning signals that are affecting all of us and will overwhelm our children and grandchildren unless we become more proactive. Nations like Germany are years ahead of the U.S. in their commercially successful conversion to wind and solar

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Letter to my Senator

Dear Senator King,

I really do admire your ability to think for yourself and I have high hopes for what you can do, as an independent, to shift policy in sensible directions. But, having played the video of your ISIS remarks, I felt I was hearing the voice of the politician rather than the independent thinker—with the exception of when you asked at the end of your remarks, though without attempting an answer with the same conviction that you earlier went along with Obama's reactive "plans" to respond to ISIS militarily, for more examination of the root causes of extremism.

Other authoritative governmental voices have asserted that in fact ISIS does not pose a direct threat to the U.S., so I am confused when my senator argues so vehemently that they do. Who to believe?

But setting the threat level aside, what I really want from those who represent me is some moral imagination and creativity in this fiendishly complex situation, and I know you especially have the capacity for that. For the politician, perhaps moral imagination begins with some stringent interior reflection that begins to separate the political from a comprehensive sense of cause and effect. Our political culture going back decades is awash with insights that simply could not be uttered because it would be political suicide to do so. Such as articulating honestly what "our" (the colonial and neo-colonial powers from WW1 forward) role has been in what has unfolded—surely germane to the present fanaticism of ISIS and what we might do about it. I am not a "blame America firster." I just believe our culture has vastly oversimplified the karmic complexity of history into America-good/Islam-bad dichotomies.

What I deplore is how my country, especially since 9-11, has been speaking and acting before it understands. I simply do not believe it is possible for you, or even the military, to understand what the allegiances are of the parties on the ground in the region. It has become too Hobbesian, too atomized, too insane and contradictory to allow us to constructively ally ourselves with anyone. And therefore bombing, no matter who we try to bomb, can only add to the chaos. Perhaps we might be able to do some humanitarian military-policing to save certain groups of civilians, but that is different from our Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader mouthing bloodthirsty and empty cliches. Vengefulness is a stupid place from which to make rational policy. I believe we were suckered by those beheadings.

As you yourself said, whatever we do is going to be a least bad option. That being so, why not stand up for a least bad option that doesn't simply add to the destruction, such as a comprehensive arms embargo for the region. Yes, there would be holes in it, and yes the place is already awash in arms (many of them apparently American). But pursuing a policy that is based in the correct context (that context being that killing does not resolve and can never resolve political or religious conflict) would at least not motivate extremists to recruit more of themselves than we can kill.

The U.S. is about to spend 355 billion dollars over the next decade to renew our nuclear arsenal. When I think of the lack of moral imagination that such a policy represents it just dumbfounds me. All nations know that if a tiny percentage of such weapons are used, a global nuclear winter is possible. All nations know that nuclear weapons do not have the slightest effect upon what is unfolding in Syria and environs. But 355 billion dollars spent on a Middle East Marshall Plan to build hospitals and desalinization plants and solar electric generating stations—why is the nuclear arsenal "realistic" and the idea of a Marshall Plan "pie in the sky"? Only because fear constricts everyone, constricts the discourse of the media and politics to a narrow, familiar rut of tit-for-tat violence. But you are in a unique position to speak out, to propose policies that go beyond fear, outlining a positive vision for what our country might do to really help that torn-apart region, as one answer to the question you so rightly asked about the roots of fanaticism. . .