Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion

I am please to announce the publication of my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.

I was invited to write this book in 2019, with the goal of producing a short, readable introduction to nonviolence. Nonviolence is a perennial and important topic. But with the way things have unfolded in 2020, following protests against police brutality and the backlash against these protest by security forces, the topic has become even more important. The publisher agreed to speed up the publication process in light of the unfolding events of 2020. And with substantial effort, we were able to bring the book out in July of 2020.

The book provides an overview of nonviolence. It offers answers to the questions of what nonviolence is, how and why it ought to be used, and who ought to employ it. The book discusses examples of successful nonviolent social protest, from twentieth century movements for civil rights and colonial liberation to the Arab Spring and contemporary Black Lives Matter protests, and considers recent research that explains the power of nonviolence. It also explores philosophical and religious sources of nonviolence, while discussing key historical figures including Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Malala Yousafzai. This book offers insight into the link between nonviolence and democracy. It reminds us that nonviolence gives us the power to build a better —more just, truthful, and loving— world.

Progress is possible and hope sheds light

Fresno Bee, July 19, 2020

This may seem an odd time to accentuate the positive. The nation is struggling with a pandemic, protests against racism, political dysfunction, and economic woes. Things could get worse. But when things look dark, it is important to take stock of progress that has occurred.

Science, economics, and the law have created improvements. There are many reasons to believe that things are better today — not perfect, but better.

Our lives are easier today thanks to technologies such as the internal combustion engine, refrigeration, telecommunication, personal computers, and the internet. There are downsides. Fossil fuel use causes climate change. And the Internet is awash in porn and fake news. But life is easier, healthier, and smarter thanks to applied science.

The coronavirus is scary. But experts are learning how to prevent and treat this disease. We’ve already eliminated smallpox, polio, cholera, and other devastating diseases. Many countries have made progress controlling COVID-19. The U.S. needs to get things under control. But medical science is better now than it was 100 years ago when the Spanish flu killed millions.

Protests against police brutality and racism indicate there is more work to be done. Terrorism and mass shootings cause anxiety. The U.S. exceeds other countries in gun violence. The U.S. imprisons more people than other countries. But crime is down from a high point in the 1990s and Americans are safer today than we were just a few decades ago.

The pandemic has exposed a digital divide in virtual learning. But a hundred years ago, girls and nonwhite people were woefully undereducated. Today we understand the ethical demand to provide quality education for all children. We teach science, math, and history to more kids in more sophisticated ways than in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear.

Wage gaps and wealth gaps remain. Rich people live longer and have more political power. But progress has been made for racial minorities, disabled people, homosexuals, women, and religious minorities since the 1950s when the Supreme Court abolished the farce of “separate but equal.” Things are not perfect. But discrimination is illegal and voting rights have been secured for members of previously excluded groups.

Threats to the American constitutional system exist, along with corruption in the halls of power. The free press has been attacked. Unjustified force has been employed against peaceful protesters. But the five freedoms of the First Amendment remain as beacons. The courts continue to defend our rights. And there is more vigorous political debate today than in previous decades.

Much of this debate overlooks the good news. The loudest voices on both sides of the political spectrum dwell on a sense of crisis. The conservative motto “Make America great again” begins with the premise that things have gotten worse. In response, progressives focus on remaining racism, sexism, and homophobia as well as Trumpian malfunction.

I’m not saying things are perfect today. There is substantial room for improvement. But hope for improvement depends upon the sense that progress has been made and can be made.

It is easy to lose sight of this. The news focuses on crime, disease, and corruption. Movies feature murder, malice, and mayhem. We like stories about bad guys and action heroes. A story about decent people who love their families and go to work every day would be boring.

Good news is also a political dud. Political energy grows from the sense of crisis that rallies the base. Change-makers are elected to shake things up. A campaign focused on moderate and incremental improvement would be uninspiring.

Incremental change is tedious. It takes persistent effort. The good it produces is slow in arriving and unexciting once it gets here. But lasting improvement occurs through painstaking effort.

In a crisis, despair can set in quickly. When things appear to be falling apart, it is easy to throw in the towel. That’s why it is important to recall the progress we have made. When we understand that smart, creative effort improves the world, it is easier to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The world will never be perfect. But it won’t get better unless we believe that through our efforts it can be improved.

The Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, we want someone to blame.  But blame assumes a kind of agency that most of us lack.  Luck is as important as intention.  And culture and nature matter more than the choices of individuals.

Recent events show us how the blame game works.  The White House has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic on China.  White House trade adviser Peter Navarro recently claimed that China “spawned” the virus and deliberately spread the disease. Meanwhile, Trump’s critics blame him.  One recent article carried the headline, “It Really Is Trump’s Fault.”  Another said, “Covid 19: Blame Trump.” 

All of this oversimplifies the causal reality of the pandemic, which involves the complexities of microbiology, economics, and the daily choices of billions of people.  Policy and law can have some influence.  But there are more fundamental forces at play in the pandemic.

If we want to blame something for the explosion of the pandemic in the U.S., we might blame American individualism, libertarianism, and consumerism.  Trump did not invent these forces.  Nor did he (or China) cause the pandemic to blow up here. 

That explosion involved the choices of governors, mayors, businesses, and ordinary citizens.  Lots of people ignored the need for social distancing.  The virus did the rest, moving according to its own logic.

Trump cannot save us from the pandemic, by the way. That’s up to us.  To be critical of the blame game is also to be critical of hero-worship and the cult of leadership.  A leader can only take people in a direction they are willing to go.

When we understand the power of culture and nature, the blame game fades in importance.  For example, some blame the victims of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes for building their homes in danger zones.  But economic forces create conditions in which some people have no other viable places to live.  And destruction or survival in a storm or an earthquake is often a matter of luck.

A fuller account of causality offers a more convoluted picture of our choices.  Blame (or praise) assumes a myth about free choice in these matters that hearkens back to the myth of original sin. A more scientific account of causality makes that myth seem silly.

At the level of leadership, the blame game assumes that leaders are free to create policies independently of the parties, systems, and circumstances in which they operate.  In reality, human beings—including leaders—are buffeted by cultural and natural forces that are beyond our control.

And yet, when things feel out of control, we search for someone to blame.  This can lead to scapegoating.  In heaping blame upon a scapegoat, we seek a semblance of power in the face of powerlessness.  It feels good to blame bad things on some person, party, race, or nation.  In older times, the need to blame a malicious agent escalated into claims about witches, demons, and devils.  These days, it manifests as absurd conspiracy theories that imagine some secret cabal of evil geniuses pulling strings behind the scenes. 

A further problem is that blame is retrospective and retributive.  To focus on blame is to dwell in the past and to look for someone to punish.  But this can prevent us from moving forward.  We should learn from the past and avoid previous mistakes.  But the goal should be to study the past in order to build the future.  Rather than focusing on whom to blame, we ought to think about what we need to do next time.  John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” 

To avoid the blame game is not to give up on accountability.  Leadership matters.  Incompetent and malicious leaders should be replaced.  And indeed, a larger point of view makes it easier to move on.  If there are no evil geniuses, there are also no saviors or superheroes.  No leader is indispensable. 

Knowledge, expertise, and experience can help us ride through bad times.  But bad stuff is often a matter of bad luck and the larger forces of culture, institutions, and nature.  And often we really have no one to blame but ourselves.  Once we realize this, it is easier to leave the blame game behind and get to work on preparing for tomorrow. 

American Civilization and Its Discontents

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2020

Americans are dissatisfied, and that is good. Discontent is the lifeblood of democracy.

A recent poll from Politico concludes that 75% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.  Another recent poll from the Pew Center found that only 17% of Americans are “proud” of the country.  When asked how they feel about the state of the country, 71% said “angry,” 66% said “fearful.”  Only 46% are “hopeful.”  Pew reports that only 12% of Americans say they are satisfied with the country.

These numbers indicate a low point for the American spirit.  But they also show that Americans are not stupid.  It is smart to be dissatisfied when there is a pandemic, economic collapse, confused leadership, and racial injustice.  It is surprising that anyone is satisfied with the country today.

The United States is a land of dissatisfaction.  People come here because they don’t like the old country.  The early Americans were not satisfied with British colonial rule.  The Civil War and the civil rights movement were expressions of deep dissatisfaction.  Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of discontent. 

And the waves roll on.  This nation is a changing multitude.  We have too much liberty to remain united for long.  America is anti-abortion protesters and Black Lives Matter marchers.  It is the anarchists of Seattle and the law and order crowd in Washington, DC.  Our divisions and our discontent are signs of the vitality of our democracy.  In a dull and dying country, no one has the energy to be fed up and people lack the right to express their unhappiness.  But in a vibrant and free country, the yearning for change is loud and proud.

Some dream of bland homogeneity.  They want an America that looks like what they see in the mirror.  They dream perhaps of resting in peace.  But life is a bubbling, boiling confusion.  There never was homogeneity on this vast continent.  The native tribes of pre-Columbian times were diverse.  For five hundred years, new generations of immigrants have brought different cultures, religions, and ideas.

The thing that unites us is our freedom to criticize and our right to think for ourselves.  Liberty creates difference.  The more freedom, the more divergence.  From creative liberty and diversity of experience emerges energy and enthusiasm.  Let’s embrace the fact that to be an American means to be cranky and critical, argumentative and evolving. 

The idea of productive discontent is central to the American myth.  The Fourth of July commemorates this process.  This nation was born out of the destruction of the old.  We celebrate it by blowing things up!  We hope that from the fireworks, something better will emerge.

The Declaration of Independence can be read as the expression of the complaints of a youthful spirit.  It’s timeless words about self-evident truths give way to an extended diatribe against old King George, who is described as a mean and tyrannical father figure.   

Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old when he worked on the Declaration.  And while the Declaration described the King as an absolute tyrant seeking to impose an absolute despotism over the colonies, not everyone on the committee agreed.  John Adams was an older man.  He thought the accusation of tyranny was too personal and sounded like “scolding.” 

A decade later, Jefferson said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”  This physical analogy is enlightening.  Storm clouds build as the atmosphere heats up.  There is thunder and lightning, rain and hail.  But this clears the air and waters the crops. 

This idea, that a little rebellion is a good thing, seems uniquely American.  This is the spirit of youth and rock and roll.  It is the creative destruction of the capitalist economy.  It spurs innovation in technology and scientific revolutions. 

The simmering dissatisfaction of the present will boil over and give shape to something new.  Of course, there are dangers.  Lightning can kill and flash floods can wash away things we love.  But that’s life.  We never really rest in peace until the day is done or freedom is extinguished.  Liberty creates discontent.  But from dissatisfaction, creative innovation develops, as today’s storms nurture tomorrow’s fruit.

On Loneliness and Solitude

Solitude

An article in Time describes a “plague of loneliness” exacerbated by social distancing during the pandemic.  But being alone does not mean being lonely.  Some dread solitude.  Others use it to create, think, and dream. 

Loneliness can be caused by social conditions.  The isolation of the pandemic provides an obvious example.  An isolating culture can reinforce psychological pathologies such as agoraphobia and social anxiety. 

But solitude can be inspiring.  Poets and philosophers have often affirmed it.  Emerson said, “people are to be taken in very small doses. If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar.”  By “vulgar” Emerson means “ordinary.”  Emersonian solitude seeks to transcend the ordinary.  Schopenhauer and Nietzsche agreed.  They imagined the great soul rising above the vulgar masses, alone on a mountaintop.   

This is a typically masculine idea, patronizing and condescending.  Men have traditionally been free to indulge heroic individualism.  Women were not permitted the luxury of what Virginia Woolf called “a room of her own”—a refuge for creative individuality.

Freedom and creativity are essential for avoiding the dread of loneliness.  Solitude is not dreadful when freely chosen.  To be forced into solitary confinement is a terrible punishment.  But the mystic chooses silent meditation and the poet retreats to her private room. 

The dread of loneliness is connected to boredom.  Lonely people are isolated with nothing to do.  But solitude can be replete with activity.  Indeed, some activities require us to be alone.

Hannah Arendt explained the difference between the productive solitude of the life of the mind and a more dreadful kind of loneliness.  In loneliness, you exist as a mere object and not as an active thinking being.  But in productive solitude, you keep good company with yourself. 

The novelist Thomas Wolfe once claimed that he was the loneliest person he knew.  He understood that loneliness gives rise to the desire for self-expression.  But he also knew that loneliness lingers as the after-effect of the creative act, an emptiness that remains after your song has been sung.

Wolfe saw loneliness as “the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”  Loneliness, he said, sucks the joy from life, leaving us empty, impotent, ruined, and lost.  Time seems to flow on without us, while we sit “drugged and fettered in the prison of loneliness.” 

One solution is found in religion.  Religious thinkers have plumbed the depths of solitude, retreating to monasteries and sitting in silence.  Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, explained that solitude opens an abyss within that points toward the infinite.  A different religious idea is offered by Dorothy Day who said that we overcome loneliness through service, community, and love.  She explained, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love.”   

This is a common refrain: to transform loneliness into love.  A poem from Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“Finding”) provides a poignant example:

Out of the great darkness and wide wastes of silence,
Long loneliness, and slow untasted years,
Came a slow filling of the empty places,
A slow, sweet lighting of forgotten faces,
A smiling under tears.

Gilman reminds us that loneliness is what allows memory to unfold.  When alone we can enjoy the memory of those we’ve lost.  Later in the same poem, she explores how lost love opens onto a broader love:

Love like the rain that falls on just and unjust,
Love like the sunshine, measureless and free,
From each to all, from all to each, to live in;
And, in the world's glad love so gladly given,
Came heart's true love to me!

Here we get a sense of the strange productive power of solitude.  From out of loneliness grows the urge to communicate and to love. 

The highest human goods—art, religion, and philosophy—require solitude: a quiet and empty space in which the spirit can unfold.  Instead of allowing solitude to devolve into dreadful loneliness and succumbing to boredom, we must find ways to fill the emptiness with meaning, whether in exploring our memories or writing poetry.  This is also what scientists, entrepreneurs, bakers, and gardeners do: they create, build, and explore.  The aloneness of the creative soul is a pregnant at-one-ness, waiting to give birth to beauty, knowledge, and love.