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Wendy Hamblet – Harvesting the Human: Force and Persuasion in Human Societies
Concerned Philosophers for Peace Newsletter Online
Excerpt: Cultures are nothing but epistemic communities, sites where a people’s experiences are assigned collective meanings, evolving worldviews where truths, inherited from the past (“traditions”), are endlessly reinterpreted and reconstructed to articulate and explain new realities, new collective experiences of new generations that demand new explanatory schemata.
The opening pages of Plato’s Republic introduce the question of justice in human societies by staging a mock battle between force and persuasion enacted between Socrates and a group of his friends as the latter attempt to bend the old philosopher to their will that he stay on for the evening festivities of the Piraeus festival for the underworld goddess, Bendis. The friends press Socrates with a playful threat of force: “You must either prove yourselves the better men or stay here,” which inspires Socrates to ask, “Why, is there not left the alternative of our persuading you that you ought to let us go?” (emphasis mine). The question is met with the ominous (if jesting) response that foreshadows Socrates’ fate: “But could you persuade us if we refused to listen?” (Ē kai dunaisth’ an, ē d’ hos, peisai mē akouontas;).
The mock battle between persuasion and force, played out by Socrates and his friends in the opening lines of the Republic, ends by confirming what the mock battle demonstrated: that persuasion is impotent against sheer force. Despite the initial failure of persuasion to win the opening battle, the contest between force and persuasion continues to rage in the background of this seminal work, the philosopher (Socrates) tirelessly enduring in his effort to persuade his interlocutors that their best interests lie with the life well lived, the life attuned to justice, and not with the life of taking others by power.
In the allegory of the cave (7.514 ff.) Socrates depicts how force and persuasion meet when state education shapes citizen minds to meet the needs of the political environment and in conformity to the will of powerful puppeteers of reality. We see in the imagery of this allegory that both force and persuasion have roles in producing desirable citizen-subjects: in an underground cave — cut off from alternative worldview options — citizen-prisoners are forced, their bodies and necks chained, to adopt a view of reality that is narrowly restricted to an ordered display of shadow-realities cast on a wall in front of them, while they are subtly persuaded by honors and prizes to give credence to the truths they are being fed. The conclusion of the allegory resonates unmistakably with Socrates’ own unhappy fate: the prisoners refuse to be set free from their chains and are prepared to take the life of any would-be savior who tries to free them from their fetters, because their chains provide the solid and comfortable reality that gives meaning to their restricted existences.
The cave allegory is a rich portrayal of the subtle and complex process whereby people come to be held enthralled by the schema of truth that reigns in their society. Plato appreciates a number of subtleties often missed in philosophical accounts of worldview construction. First, he sees that powerful elites use both political methods (force and persuasion) to stimulate citizen enthusiasm for the local system of truth: education works through bodily force and mental persuasion to gain the people’s allegiance to the “common mental world” that functions to keep them (the elites) in power and the society productive and orderly. Plato appreciates that education, far from the means to citizen freedom, is a subtle tool of citizen tyranny, its curricula always already politically determined, and though elites may jockey among themselves for private causes and projects, they actually compose a unified force in constructing the mythology that organizes the citizen-body for ordered productivity. Finally, Plato’s allegory reveals the troubling fact that the powerless victims of education’s propaganda are complicit in their own oppression, embracing the chains and the shadow realities that keep them in their restricted places.
Plato shows us a single model of education in Book VII of the Republic, and yet in the next book of the work, Book XIII, he describes many different forms of politeia—from meritocracy through tyranny. This single educational model for a spectrum of political forms suggests an analogous continuum of conceptual coercion that stretches on the one hand from the persuasions that leave the body unmarked to the far extreme of brute force, whose signs are etched in the body. Indeed, in the previous six books (II through VII), as Socrates constructs the kallipolis, we witness not the slightest sign of brute force employed in the beautiful meritocracy but, rather, the citizens are subtly persuaded — disciplined — by music, gymnastics, singular occupations determined by birth, and restricted interaction among the various classes and occupations, to embrace their roles in the state and become productive citizens.
The persuasions of the beautiful city are not accomplished with moral arguments. Socrates has already demonstrated in the opening mock battle that moral arguments are futile as persuasions. The kallipolis calls upon unabashed deception to win over citizen compliance; “noble lies” achieve the polis’ productive goals. A myth of origins (the myth of metals) explains the city’s rigid social organization and its vocational traditions (flexible borders notwithstanding), and the myth of a prophesied alien invasion maintains the status quo of power relations, keeping the philosophers in power, the guardians in the gymnasia, and the workers in their fields and workshops.
However, among all these lies, Plato does not deceive on the matter of the goal of the kallipolis: individual “goodness” (compliance to their productive roles) brings the general “happiness” of the state. Plato is clear: the objective of the polis is not individual happiness, an admission that haunts the reader with questions about what general happiness might mean, if it is unrelated to individual happiness. The answer may be found by filtering the paradox through the reigning values of the Greek world: the kallipolis sets aside individual happiness for the sake of the state’s ordered constancy, modeled by the heavenly bodies. The best city turns out to be precisely like the worst tyranny in this one single respect: its dedication to the ordered, stable endurance and productivity of the system.
The persuasive mythology of noble lies and the ordered, productive role-separation among the citizens are the keys to achieving ordered stability in the best politeia, the meritocracy. At the far opposite pole of the political spectrum (tyranny), the gently persuasive educational model gives way to the more force-driven educational methods, such as chains, tortures, whips, and an occasional execution. But what is rarely noticed is that the objective of the two models is identical: citizen “goodness” (compliance to their productive roles) for the sake of the general “happiness” of the system (its ordered longevity).
One glaring discrepancy comes into view in comparing the social control methods of the meritocracy with those of the tyranny — the degree of effectiveness of the methods. Ironically, persuasion is infinitely more efficacious than force in maintaining citizen “goodness.” The forceful methods that scar the skin and break the bone may alter the behavior of citizen-subjects, but the persuasions of political mythology and daily, disciplined practices seep down to the soul of the citizen-subjects. Physical submission to the will of the ruler is the order in the tyranny, but in the gentler state citizens do not simply concede to the wishes of their social masters; they embrace with their hearts the worldview of their masters; they cling ferociously to the policies and procedures that oppress them. Persuasion engages the will of the citizen to make her an active accomplice in her own degradation. In his essay, “Freedom and Command,” Emmanuel Levinas captures succinctly the subtle intercourse between the will of the powerful and the freedom of the victim, along the force/persuasion spectrum:
Free thought is not simply the consciousness of a tyranny exercised over our animality; it is not a mere spectator of this animality agitated by fear and love . . . [Tyranny] has unlimited resources at its disposal, those of love and wealth, torture and hunger, silence and rhetoric. It can exterminate in the tyrannized soul even the very capacity to be struck, that is, even the ability to obey on command. True heteronomy begins when obedience ceases to be obedient consciousness and becomes an inclination. The supreme violence is in that supreme gentleness. To have a servile soul is to be incapable of being jarred, incapable of being ordered. The love for the master fills the soul to such an extent that the soul no longer takes its distances. Fear fills the soul to such an extent that one no longer sees it, but sees from its perspective.
Levinas makes no distinction between persuasive and forceful methods of tyranny, though he does maintain the distinction between victims oppressed in body or in soul. He hollows out that distinction in terms of the subject‘s conceptual freedom: the victim of physical force remains conceptually free, her autonomy intact even when corporeally shackled, because she retains the capacity to recognize her own oppression. Up to the very moment that the tyrant’s brute force extinguishes the subject’s life, the tortured body is a dais which stages the sovereignty of the victim, whose very flesh, recoiling from the whip and chafing at the chains, protests the injustice of the blows it suffers. But the gentle persuasions that seduce the mind negate the very will of the victim, extinguishing her freedom at the inner core of her being. Persuasion, far more insidious and powerful a resource for educating, elicits compliance prior to thought, prior to awareness, colonizing the victim’s heart.
A Bunny Tale
The spectrum of politeia with their diverse educational methods for eliciting citizen “goodness” (compliance to their productive roles in the system) comes to fable in Richard Adams’ children’s story, Watership Down. The models of community presented in this tale clarify the methodological distinctions between political models. Watership Down tracks the epic journey of a group of rabbits on their way to a promised land, Watership Down, where legend has it they may live in freedom and peaceful security. When their warrens are poisoned by underground gassing, the survivors make their way through a variety of rabbit communities, the two extremes of which are Cowslip Warren and Efrafa. These two warrens have differing organizational structures, differing methodologies for managing their citizens, but they seek the common objective of eliciting the “goodness” of the individuals. In each case, a unique life experience is lived, passed down from peculiar histories, and in each, mythologies are called upon to explain inherited behaviors, to justify power relations, and to hold the community intact and productive over time. Each too has its private pains and sufferings, which mark the precise site where the social control methods take hold.
The gentlest community discovered along the journey is Cowslip’s Warren or Shining Wire Warren, a rabbit dwelling built by humans for the harvesting of rabbit meat, though humans rarely appear in the community and their influence is not readily apparent. From the rabbits’ perspective, this is an ideal community, because everything necessary to blissful existence magically appears as needed, giving this warren the ostensible atmosphere of a society dedicated to rabbit welfare. Thus no one thinks of running away and no chains or fences are needed. The rabbits of Shining Wire Warren are, in Levinas’ terms, servile souls, who no longer take their distance. They do not have an obedient consciousness; they simply live the truth of the master, assuming that the community serves their interests. The only telltale mark of their oppression is the general atmosphere of eerie melancholy, which hangs over this rabbit paradise, a melancholy that lingers in the background and colors the smallest detail of daily existence, though it only emerges into consciousness when one of the fold goes missing (caught in a snare), revealing the limits of their freedom and the deadly price they ultimately pay for their ready comforts.
Cowslip Warren is the polar opposite of the highly organized Efrafa Warren encountered later in the rabbit trek. Here life is tightly structured, much like a military fort, rigidly controlled by its government under the iron grip of General Woundwort, the dictatorial Chief Rabbit. The least detail of every day’s activities is monitored, rationalized, and controlled, right down to the organization of tribal units, by divisions or “marks” determined by scars etched into the rabbits’ bodies (i.e., “The Right Hind Mark”). The rules governing permissible behaviors are elaborate and pervasive, even to the number of allowable births per class. A council of hench-rabbits helps General Woundwort keep the rabbits under the strictest control. Persuasion is used to support the system. Legends of mythical enemies beyond the borders support the necessity of strictly military-style organization and fearsome leaders. Fear, physical pain, and threat of execution are the primary weapons of social control in this community.
Watership Down thus depicts, in these two radically different political models, how sheer force alone seldom staves off the revolution of the oppressed as effectively as well-devised functional mythologies, which engage the propagandees’ complicity in their own enthrallment. Cowslip Warren’s reigning mythology that the society is organized for the good of the rabbits is very different from Efrafa’s realpolitik mythology that blames external enemies for the unfortunate brutalities of the system; yet both worldviews function to an identical end — to quell dissent among an oppressed population that exists for the benefit of those who harvest them and their labor. Efrafa is the more openly oppressive, but the open brutality against resisters illuminates the greater effectiveness of the mythology of the free welfare state for keeping the consecrated order. There is no rebellion in Cowslip. The pains of Efrafa are readily visible in the scars etched across the citizen bodies that sort the population into its tribal divisions or “marks.” Cowslip’s pains are invisible, much deeper, etched into the souls of the rabbits, evidenced only in the profound melancholy that pervades the entire community.
Harvesting the Human
No state on earth is a true meritocracy; Plato unequivocally asserts this politeia’s impossibility at the close of Book IX of the Republic. But all the other regimes in Plato’s catalogue of devolving political forms detailed in Book XIII did exist in the ancient world and continue to hold sway in the modern era. All political forms lie somewhere along the spectrum from pure meritocracy to pure tyranny, but the farthest extremes are unlikely to be found in their pure forms in the real world. All politeia serve some societal members more and others less or not at all. All leaders serve their own desires and interests to greater or lesser degrees. No system overtly admits to the exploitation of its lower classes; each has its dominant ideology that explains the differences in freedoms and benefits in terms of the general “happiness” of the state; each reinterprets and justifies the injustices of the system as unfortunate collateral effects necessitated by a threatening world or serving the objective of the general happiness of the group.
Adams’ children’s tale, like Plato’s political treatise, illuminates the fact that the gentler, less openly autocratic system is far more effective for gaining citizen compliance to the roles assigned them in the society. These works evidence that the form of citizen education that leaves the body intact and unscarred but disciplines the mind to accept as desirable certain ways of being-in-the-world “turns the soul” of the citizen, co-opting her very will. The victim so reoriented no longer freely sees the powerful forces that control her but sees through the will of the powerful. Thus the persuasive educational approach is the far more effective technique of social control, because it engages the complicity of victims in their own exploitation.
By not speaking about the disappearance of members of their fold, by refusing to dialogue their pain, by accepting their melancholy as the necessary price for their full bellies, the rabbits of Cowslip Warren become complicit in an industrial conspiracy that will ultimately harvest them all. These rabbits, far more than the cruelly oppressed rabbits of Efrafa, have willingly embraced the political terms of their oppression, clutched their social roles with their hearts so they can see no alternatives. Without fences or chains, they live the false freedom that Jacques Ellul ascribes to “mass society” in his seminal work, Propaganda: “all are tied together and constitute a kind of society in which all individuals are accomplices and influence each other without knowing it.” Citizens in mass society, like the rabbits in Cowslip warren, have ceased to be true individuals, thinking for themselves, and critically weighing up the merits and flaws in their life and their society, but have become “part of a current flowing in a certain direction.”
Western capitalist democracies place themselves on the spectrum of political forms at the gentle end of the spectrum; their citizens for the most part share the conformist features of mass society and they believe they are free and their societies exist to serve their interests. These contented citizens form a “current,” quickly mounting to a vast global tide, flowing to MacDonald’s and Wal-Mart to unthinkingly support a system that exploits them physically, fiscally, and psychologically. Citizens of modern capitalist societies, as the rabbits in Cowslip Warren, assume their productive and consumptive roles in their societies, mindlessly, without fences or chains. They have been “educated” to their consumptive/productive habits at a far deeper level than reason or will. Citizen compliance to system goals is no longer willingly offered, because will has been coopted by the omnipresent mythology that their societies are organized around their best interests, that their laws and internal policing practices, as much as their foreign policies, are dedicated to their well-being. People move about as they will, pursuing this or that vocation, having as many offspring as they wish, and speaking freely and openly with their neighbors.
The dictatorships of the Middle East and Asia, where well-armed regimes with powerful armies openly restrict citizen movement and break up communities of discourse that threaten revolution, perform an important service to Western mass societies, acting as extreme counter-examples to their “free and egalitarian” systems. However, if Plato and Adams, Ellul and Levinas, have their theories right, Western democratic systems are far less free than any dictatorship. Their social control methodology, which leaves the bodies unmarked, coopts the will of the citizen-subjects and enslaves them as “servile souls.” The only evidence of their pain is the epidemic levels of melancholia, as pervasive among the citizens of the “free” West as in the Shining Wire Warren.
Plato is correct: even the best state is organized for the general happiness of the state (its productive endurance) and is unconcerned with individual happiness. This explains why, in Western politeia, there exists a virtual epidemic of mental diseases, from depression to anxiety to drug and alcohol dependency. One in ten people in the United States, including millions of children, load up on antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs to make it through their day. Moreover, since drug and alcohol dependency is deemed a crime in the USA, the epidemic of depressive disorders coincides with another social disease, simultaneously spiraling out of control. The burgeoning prison population renders the tax-supported prison-industrial complex one of the most profitable big businesses of the modern world, if a travesty in terms of recidivism and human suffering.
How does the mythology that “the American way of life” is the paradigm of societal excellence maintain in the face of this overwhelming evidence of the general suffering of its people? The propaganda of the “American Dream” posits that anyone can be successful if one works hard. That allows the (socially and materially) unsuccessful to be blamed for their sorry condition. The myth of the American Dream, as pervasive as melancholia in the least socially mobile state of the free world, conceals the inequality in opportunity that plagues the lower classes and keeps them chained in their lowly condition of poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness.
Traditions in every society enlist members in certain behaviors; people do the things they habitually do because their forbears did those things before them. Behavioral customs are deeply implicated in the conceptual arrangements of any given society. Members embrace traditions before thought, before critical awareness, because they see their life choices through their traditions, rather than seeing traditions as a choice. But even where choice remains open, those most exploited by a system often willingly take up their roles in the system, embracing their own exploitation and assuming their degraded ranking, because accepting the system’s traditions purchases their sense of belonging to the group. And who, more than the system’s most alienated victims, so desperately craves belonging? Circumcisions, hazings, and other painful rites of passage, as much as religious confirmations, sacraments, Thanksgiving dinners, bar/bat mitzvahs, and secret handshakes and salutes commit members of an organization to a level of allegiance far more profound than rational arguments can persuade.
The importance of engagement in ritual acts is underscored by Ellul. This is why he names action the first critical task in securing commitment to propaganda. An action elicited from the propagandee is a concrete enactment of commitment, he argues, because an action compels the actor to adopt the desired worldview to justify the action after the fact. Confirming the futility of mere persuasion, Ellul asserts that one does not get to a “readily mobilizable human being,” engaged at a profound level of commitment, by engaging a person on the level of intelligence or by activating her critical thinking. Rather, the propagandee must be “penetrated” in a general climate of “sociological propaganda” that renders certain acts sheer common sense within the given context. Overwhelmed by “repetitions, explanations and proofs,” the propagandee is compelled by “common sense” to act in accord with the logic of the setting and in so doing, she becomes one with it, penetrated by it. Penetration begins with the body, with disciplines and fleshy commitments, rituals and traditions. Penetration begins with an act.
People conceptually embrace the master narratives of their societies because these help them to make sense of what they already do, what their people have always done. Anthropologists agree: rituals come first; then myths arise to articulate and explain those otherwise incomprehensible acts and give meaning to people’s lives and their worlds. Stories reinterpret a people’s collective sufferings and celebrate their collective triumphs. Cultures are nothing but epistemic communities, sites where a people’s experiences are assigned collective meanings, evolving worldviews where truths, inherited from the past (“traditions”), are endlessly reinterpreted and reconstructed to articulate and explain new realities, new collective experiences of new generations that demand new explanatory schemata.
Despite the vast levels of melancholia evident in modern mass societies, these politeia are generally deemed overwhelming successes, triumphs of freedom and egalitarianism. This is because mass societies are especially vulnerable to the spread of propaganda. Master narratives construct a discursive cage around the deviants — neurotics, hysterics, addicts, perverts, felons, delinquents, insurgents — a cage which contains their symptoms as aspects of their “natures,” while masking the causes of their disease in the environments that “nurture” their pain.
The causes of social disease are self-evident and pervasive in modern mass societies. These are dis-spiriting times. The destructive and dehumanizing values of industrial capitalism have been expounded at length by experts. According to Jacques Rancière, an all-encompassing consumer “sociality” enthralls the dwindling middle classes and blinds them to the spiraling disenfranchisement of the poor worker, which class they will shortly join. Technological society, ruled by experts and their carefully constructed edifices of knowledge, grants only the illusion of freedom and equality, while destining us for loneliness and isolation, Richard Stivers warns. Michel Foucault reveals, through his many genealogies, how modern systems painlessly “discipline” people into docile, productive, efficient workers, shaping their souls to the needs of the system. Yes, these are fatiguing, soul-gripping, spirit-stripping times, but few can see the reality, for the dancing shadows on the cave walls. The discursive cages constructed around the victims of mass societies blame the victims for their illnesses.
But the sickened human beings of mass societies are a predictable product of their environments. Their social diseases are predictable outgrowths of their modes of being-in-the-world, the lifestyles and modes of interaction to which their environments educate them. Being follows after doing, as surely it motivates future articulations of the entrenched behaviors. We become what our environments shape us to be. That is precisely why the most effective propaganda programs aim primarily at action. “The action-reflex,” Ellul asserts, is but “a beginning, a point of departure” that serves explicit ends. Action changes who the actor is; its ends are ontological: propaganda transforms the propagandee into a different sort of being. He becomes a “religious man,” a proselyte, under the thrall of an organization’s propaganda.
Belief on the order of religious faith follows swift on the heels of action, as the actor scurries to justify and give meaning to what he has done. An act undertaken under the spell of propaganda is more than a mere act; it represents a self-sacrifice, a self-crucifixion, a martyrdom of individuality to a sacred ideal. This is because an act, undertaken under the thrall of propaganda, is more than an individual’s act; it becomes infused with a sacred ideal, a transcendental signifier, that reigns across the community.
Transcendental signifiers short-circuit critical awareness and critical thinking because one does not, cannot, question the god. Action undertaken under the rubric of the shared ideal compels the proselyte to a level of commitment from which she can never rationally retreat. Ideals call forth acts of faith, and faith, by definition, can never be trumped by a rational challenge. Action creates faith, and faith compels further actions. This is why the proselyte hardly ever turns back once she has enacted the initiatory deed. “Action makes propaganda’s effect irreversible,” confirms Ellul. Mass societies, such as our Western capitalist democracies, are environments on the order of the melancholic Cowslip Warren, perfect organizational environments for the spread and maintenance of propaganda. For one reason: we are off our guard.
We imagine ourselves to be well-educated but we fail to understand the connection between education and propaganda, exposed in Plato’s cave allegory. Moreover, we imagine ourselves well-informed, with a steady stream of ready information from a plethora of media always at our fingertips. But that information is strictly limited to a very few sources, the media, plentiful as its forms are, carefully filter what reaches our minds. This permits simultaneous communications of a single vision of truth from a variety of sources, repeating, confirming, explaining and endlessly proving the excellence of the status quo, so that resistance can only ever be sporadic and fragmentary. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, citizens are subjected interminably to “continuous propaganda [that] exceeds the individual’s capacities for attention or adaptation and thus his capabilities for resistance.”
The media’s constant bombardment with an endless deluge of facts, too dense to be processed critically, breaks down people’s psychic defenses and freezes their critical abilities. Ellul brilliantly describes the dilemma:
A surfeit of data, far from permitting people to make judgments and form opinions, prevents them from doing so and actually paralyzes them. They are caught in a web of facts and must remain at the level of facts they have been given. They cannot even form a choice or a judgment in other areas or on other subjects. Thus the mechanisms of modern information induce a sort of hypnosis in the individual, who cannot get out of the field that has been laid out for him by the information.
The “field that has been laid out” by propaganda breaks down individuality and erodes alternative communities of truth, sources of alternative values, alternative ideals. This is all the more the case the more that mass societies are driven toward the economic extremes of the late capitalist era. The stark atmosphere of cut-throat competition for jobs and the latest techno-products increasingly fragments small sites of belonging that might serve as alternative centers of truth, alternative identity hubs and sources of healthier values.
“Mass society requires mass consumption [and] there cannot be mass consumption without widespread identical views as to what the necessities of life are,” Ellul states. Widespread conformity of viewpoint and action — mythology and ritual — combine to serve a common end—confirmation of the ideal. According to Ellul, the United States is a prime example of a thoroughly propagandized society, because here the psychological soil is well-tilled to a common self-consciousness. Its citizens, however individually diverse, share a fundamental psychological unity, a general “conscious, explicit, theoretical” understanding of who they are together — beneficiaries of a supreme excellence, the “American way of life.”
The myth of the ideal state appeals to the subject’s sense of the sacred by providing “an all-encompassing activating image [that] pushes man to action precisely because it includes all that he feels is good, just and true.” Like “fish in water,” Americans are perfectly adapted to their environments, embracing it as ideal, and it predisposes them to certain faith-driven actions: they are easily provoked to reject anything that fails to dissolve into the “melting pot.” Whatever is different and stands out on its own runs the risk of provoking patriotic rage. “[A]nti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-Negro, and xenophobic currents of opinion” are easily aroused to lethal levels of fanatical outrage, though provocateurs, according to Ellul, are not necessarily attached to any certain political party, but only to certain, often unidentifiable, interest groups heavily invested in the status quo.
Ellul, a French philosopher of the last century, targets the United States as the primary example of a mass society under the thrall of propaganda. He paints Americans as uniformly committed to their ideal, “the American way of life.” I reject this monolithic view of Americans. I believe that such hyperbole undermine the credibility of Elul’s argument. In short, his theory of propaganda, taken to this extreme, begins to sound like so much propaganda — all-embracing, lacking nuance, and denying the relentless spontaneity of life and the resiliency of this rich tapestry of uncommon people.
A more accurate description of this, and indeed of any, mass society would recognize that any cultural site has its singularity in the unique ways that its infinitely diverse and constellated parts come together and pull apart from the norm, how the parts contest with the whole. Societies are fluid orders of forces, competing tensions of belonging and non-belonging. Though America may generally applaud the ideal of an “American way of life,” its diverse constituents hold infinite articulations of what that “way of life” comprises. Even as devotees continually surrender their individuality to the ideal, alternative voices from every sector raise new resistances and contestations to the entrenched traditions and shared cultural meanings that bombard them on all sides.
Histories grow bodies in explicit ways, the fleshy bodies of human beings, the cultural bodies of dominant myths and rituals, and the institutional bodies that encode those myths and rituals in state policies and procedures. Hundreds of years of the propaganda of “manifest destiny” have oriented many American propagandees to uncritically perform certain kinds of actions in the name of their ideal—the American way of life. Actions evidence the deep effects of propaganda and the religious fervor with which it is embraced, while cruel punishments suppress opponents of the ideal. America acts mercilessly against its internal defectors (criminals, civil disobedients, and assorted whistleblowers), just as against its opponents in the international community (“rogue states” and their “insurgent” populations that stand in the way of American big business interests).
Alternative lifestyles and values cannot help but come into view, not only as mistaken, but as corrupt and perverse — as “evil.” Thus deviance and opposition, at home or abroad, is bound to trigger in devotees a wild-eyed patriotism, which guarantees that deviants, wherever they are found, will be met with “shock and awe” retribution by armies of self-righteous defenders—extremes of sentencing for minor crimes and death for more despicable villains. However, the very acts that evidence the ideological fervor of the propagandee also evidence the irrepressible difference that exceeds propaganda’s reach. The zeal of the faithful is equally matched by the courage of the broad chorus of counter-voices that refuse to prostrate themselves before the god.
A host of American individuals (Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and many others) form alternative communities of truth (public media, fair trade NGOs, minority support groups, environmental activists, the “99%”) that daily witness their resistance to the pervasive propaganda. They stand in brave defiance of the ideal, despite the threat of brute force (police brutality and broad institutional suspensions of due process) and the ubiquitous bombardments of persuasion (corporate media monopolies and blockades of public media). These brave beacons of change form the ranks of a strong tradition of political and moral rebellion that, within the belly of the capitalist beast, challenges the wars of aggression, the internal oppressions, and the myth of the ideal state.
In every state, educational methods are applied to citizen bodies and souls to compel compliance and foster productivity. Of the two methodologies, persuasion or brute force, the gentle persuasions of propaganda are most effective. A servile body gives its labor until it expires or until the revolution arrives, but the servile soul gives her heart to the homeland and sends off her children to its wars. But neither method functions without remainder. An excess lingers to witness the violence of destructive ideas and dehumanizing lifestyles, as surely as scars mark the bodies of the physically tortured in tyrannical regimes.
The unhappiness of individual citizens, the pains induced by their alienated productivity, increases in direct proportion with the “happy” longevity of the system that serves the very few. But no system, however effective its educational techniques, remains forever constant and invulnerable to alternative truth. The irrepressible resilience of the human species against both force and persuasion is witnessed most purely in the fresh young faces of the peaceful demonstrators on college campuses and in city parks across the American continent, as they weather the elements, the night-stick blows and the painful tear-gassings to bring about a different ideal of justice than that which their system reveres.
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Presbey, Gail M. “Walking with Gandhi: 100 Years of Satyagraha,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)
On this 100th anniversary of Gandhi’s first satyagraha action of September 11, 1906 in South Africa, I find myself reflecting on Gandhi’s method of walking, or marching, to his goal. Gandhi would organize and orchestrate long marches which would swell with people and arrive at specific symbolic destinations. The marches wed physical endurance with mental toughness and tenacity, making visible to the eye struggles toward ideals. They were community builders, as people walked together, meeting each other, talking, and finding fulfillment in accomplishing something together.
Does the method still work 100 years later? Peace activists still pursue marches, sometimes hundreds of miles long, to different destinations symbolic of peace and justice. My friends from the Catholic Worker and Jonah House had such a walk last year. Calling themselves “Witnesses Against Torture,” they walked across Cuba to the gates of Guantanamo, the U.S. base that holds so many prisoners in legal limbo as part of the U.S.-led ‘war on terror.’ (Read the group’s statement as they set off for their walk: http://www.jonahhouse.org/WitnessAgainstTortureStatement.htm). While the whole world does not necessarily take note when a small group walks somewhere (depending on the level of mass media publicity, which might be small), certainly the people they encounter on the road have an unforgettable experience. And the marchers themselves are changed by their walking meditation on the road.
During the Spring of 2005, I walked for two weeks with a group of five hundred marchers who wanted to re-create Gandhi’s famous Salt Satyagraha march from Ahmedabad to Dandi, in Gujarat state, India. They picked the exact dates of his march to mark its 75th Anniversary–March 12 to April 7. Of about 500 marchers, 82 were from Pakistan and 36 from the US, Europe, Australia and China. There were no marchers from Latin America. The only marcher from Africa that I met was an Indian who lives in South Africa.
My account that follows points to ‘culture clashes’ that were experienced by myself and some of the other marchers from abroad. The account tells it ‘like it was’ and is not some idealized or romanticized version of the march. In fact, if you read Australian historian Thomas Weber’s book On the Salt March you will realize that even Gandhi’s march was filled with strife, disputes, and questions about which way to go. Gandhi made certain rules for the marchers that they found very hard. Acting in unison involved enforcing some discipline which was not always accepted gladly. This strife is not necessarily bad; such is the stuff of life. Peace activists know how to roll with these punches, to communicate with each other, and to work through such problems.
On March 11, I arrived at Sabarmati Ashram, which had been founded by Gandhi, and was the place where the original march started. It was now the gathering point for those who wanted to go on this Gandhi march. The ashram is on a picturesque waterfront with a huge museum and the original house of Gandhi the way it was when Gandhi was there, with his spinning wheel in a sparsely decorated room. You really have the sense of stepping back in time when you go there. Sometimes I felt like the Gandhians were like the Amish or Mennonites of India. Their simple, non-technological lifestyle is a contrast to the bustling cities of India, and their buildings had been temporarily converted to dorms for the people who were coming for the march.
There were two large contingents of marchers from the Congress Party. Roughly they’re like the U.S. ‘Democrats’ in India. They were generally progressive but still corrupt and power hungry in part. One group was the Congress Youth Group. There were two representatives from each province in India. The other was the Sevadar, the “Army of Service” that is organized like cadets.
It was controversial among the Gandhians when Tushar Gandhi (organizer of the march and Gandhi’s great grandson) got the Congress Party’s endorsement for the walk, but the party was the only contributor for the expenses of the walk. So a large majority of marchers were from the Congress Party, walking in straight lines, dressed completely in white, some carrying flags, others barking orders like military officers. I was a little surprised about this costuming and decorum, but I found out later it was a longstanding tradition which Gandhi himself insisted upon. The rest of us, the international marchers, did not like to dress so sharply and did not like lining up. We were more like a group you’d see in Seattle protesting the WTO, grabbing an old t-shirt stuffed into a backpack and wearing it for the day. So there was a real culture clash. A few late-night meetings were called to try to bridge the cultural gap. There was also a large contingent of senior citizens in our group.
Everywhere we went there were Congress politicians coming out to greet and be greeted and garlanded, and they would get up on stages and give their political speeches. Tushar said the famous Gandhians he hoped to get to come and give us educational talks about Gandhi all bowed out once the Congress Party sponsored the march. He said he had no choice, he had many expenses. It made me feel a bit awkward about marching when I hadn’t realized there was a controversy. But maybe the Congress Party is not so bad. As one old Gandhian told me, who else is there? The communists are on one side, the communalists (reactionaries) on the other side. The Congress is the only party for progressive social and secular democracy, he said. But, when I saw Tushar put a garland around a statue of Indira Gandhi I couldn’t believe my eyes. What would the famous Gandhian J.P. Narayan think? Indira was responsible for the repression he was fighting against, back in the 1970s.
These kinds of dilemmas are perennial. Back in the U.S., we wonder whether we should back Democratic candidates even if they aren’t clearly against war, because the Republicans seem worse. Gandhi spent many years within the Congress Party, and was even offered its Presidency in 1929 (although he declined). But at a certain point he left it in 1934, saying it was too much of a compromise with his ideals to stay within it. Despite this parting of the ways, Gandhi couldn’t stay away from the Congress Party, and he often took an active role in Congress Working Committee meetings, and addressed Congress gatherings. The Congress Party had the numbers, so if you really wanted to shape national politics, you had to work with them. And Gandhi couldn’t remain satisfied with his self-imposed marginalization on his idyllic but out-of-the-way ashrams for long. So, the Congress Party does have some legitimate claim to Gandhi being part of their heritage.
Before we marched, Tushar Gandhi gave us a talk on the details. The walk was supposed to be 240 miles and 24 days. I slept in an attic room with others, and I heard mice munching on something during the night. We woke at 4:00 a.m. on the 12th, because we had to pack our bags and have them ready for loading on a truck by 4:30. Then we had to pass through lots of security to get to the main launching event at 5:00 a.m. (a lot of Indians are early birds like this, and Gandhians are especially so). It was really quite amazing to see such a crowd so early. The Congress Party people were on stage, with Sonia Gandhi the main speaker and point of attraction for everyone. After that we all streamed out and filled the streets of Ahmedabad. Traffic had been blocked off. It was early morning and all shops were closed, but still the streets were lined with cheering crowds. Every time we got near a school, all the students in their uniforms would line the streets. There were even five elephants all painted and dressed up.
Whenever we passed a Gandhi statue in a main square, we found that someone had built steps and a platform up to it, and all these dignitaries went up there and put garlands on Gandhi. There were banners and billboards everywhere. Everyone was selling products using Gandhi’s face. We did all this marching until 10:00 a.m. with no breakfast or even tea! When we got to the Muslim part of town the housing got smaller and more makeshift, with corrugated metal roofs. People still came out to look at us, but not so much to cheer (I don’t know why). A fellow marcher speculated that, no matter how much Gandhi tried to reach out to the Muslim community, he was still considered a Hindu religious figure. Then we got to a resting spot for the hot afternoon hours and had lunch.
During lunch I met a 90-year-old man who met Gandhi in 1931 and was arrested in 1932. He is called a “Freedom Fighter” (a specific title given those who were imprisoned by the British for resisting colonial rule). He is from Uttar Pradesh, and his name is Mewalal Gupta Arya. He is a lively character who got into some verbal disputes (mostly tinged with humor) with the march organizers on occasion. In the afternoon, as we marched again from 4:00 to 6:30, I walked with Mewalal. He was leaning on me and carrying the flag of India. He was really going at a good clip for his age. After a while he got tired and took a ride (as did many of the more elderly marchers) on the camel wagon that was processing along with us. Around sunset we came into a beautiful small town with a big temple, where we stayed for the night. As with all our stops, the Congress Party had arranged for a cultural performance, with students dressed up and doing traditional dance.
The second day we marched again. Mr. Mewalal walked the whole morning at a fast clip. When we reached the resting spot there was not much rest, because we were treated like celebrities. So many boy students were there; they asked my name and where I was from, over and over again. As they crowded around me, I looked at some film cameras and felt like I was on reality t.v.! Some girls in fancy outfits showed up carrying jars on their heads.
This scenario repeated itself over and over for the five days of marching: up at 5:00 a.m., pack, breakfast at 6:00, so-called “prayer” done military style in marching orders. I learned one nice song Gandhi wrote about Hindus and Muslims being one, “Ragupati Raghave.” It is a song that insists that the core tenets of Hinduism and Islam are compatible and so there should be no strife or discrimination between members of different religions. Then we would be marching in the morning from 6:45 a.m. to about 10:00 or 11:00 a.m., when we’d duck out of the sun, and either rest or be stuck in a public program with speeches in Gujarati. Then there was lunch, and a chance to rest, but often there was not enough space among marchers to all stretch out and nap. Only a few mattresses, rare green grass, usually mud, but sometimes beautiful temples and architecture. Then at 4:00 p.m. we’d venture out into the hot sun again, and march until 6:30 or 7:30 p.m. We’d march straight into a public gathering with audience, speeches, and music performance. We’d have dinner at 8:00 and meetings until 10:00 or 10:30. We’d shower in portable showers, a great balancing act. Then it was time to get a bit of sleep, watching out for mosquitoes.
The march was always for me a curious mix of heaven and hell. The walking I liked! The scenery was interesting. One never knows what will be in store. Were we going through towns? Rural areas? Would it be quiet and beautiful, or will we be battling traffic that wants to run us down, gagging on fumes all afternoon? There was some of both. Will crowds be cute and friendly, and throw rose petals at us? They did. Will the guys get rowdy when they spot their favorite or not favorite politician en route shaking hands? When things got pushy and too exuberant I kept my distance. Sometimes people lined up and stared at us as we walked by and I didn’t know if they liked us or not. Sometimes, rarely, there were no people for a stretch. Sometimes people waved from their balconies and rooftops. I got to see all kinds of houses and buildings, from mansions to hovels. We crossed a river with the camels and carts. And the many conversations while walking were impossible to sum up.
I interviewed three freedom fighters arrested during Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement in 1942. It is really complex. Almost all committed some acts of violence, even though they knew in some sense that Gandhi was for nonviolence. They each had a reason or rationale for what they did. Some noticed the tension between their acts and Gandhi’s philosophy, and others seemed oblivious to the contradiction. It is as if “Either A or not-A” just doesn’t apply for them. Maybe Joseph Campbell would say I am trapped by the rules of Western rationality! Of course Gandhi had plenty of contradictions himself. One woman I interviewed was Rukshmani Bhatia, who began getting arrested at age 14 for challenging the British and demanding India’s independence. Born in 1928, she was a real spunky youth and a joy to interview. Then there was “Shanti Dada,” who at the age of nine walked for two miles in the original march in 1930, accompanying his father. He was not marching the whole march this time, only one day. He told me that the march was a drama of dust and noise, with no ahimsa, no truth here. It was all a political stunt, he said. He had devoted his life to poverty and serving the poor.
There were others. Durabai Naik addressed a small group of us. He knew Gandhi since childhood. He is now 89 and insists on doing as much of the march as he can. He started to break down and cry when he remembered his meetings with Gandhi, how he nursed Gandhi when he was ill. Another woman also cried when talking about Gandhi, as if the beloved Mahatma had just got shot yesterday, her emotions were so raw. Other conversations with younger marchers in their 60s, like Kumar, or Venkatra Mayya, were very insightful. Then there were some other folks I couldn’t quite figure out, like the three Gandhis. There were three old men who dressed up just like Gandhi, had the round glasses, the dhoti and shawl. They carried walking sticks and liked to strike poses in front of cameras on stage. It was like the Indian version of the Elvis impersonators. I didn’t know what to think. These guys would get garlanded while we walked. I even saw people bowing and touching the Gandhis’ feet. Every so often they would group up just so people would really do a double-take. But mostly they were independent. And then there were times when people in the town would dress up some of their kids as miniature Gandhi’s. They were so cute.
One day we ended up at Sri Aurobindo’s ashram. It had very interesting architecture. All piled in, and the Congress folks did some om-ing, singing, and acclaiming of Gandhi, which I thought was interesting considering Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo had a lifelong debate about the use of violence in independence struggles. It’s another example of that great Hindu tolerance, just add another god and don’t worry. Gandhi’s right, Aurobindo’s right, what’s your problem?
On the 17th we had a so-called “rest day,” because Gandhi originally rested one day per week. But the day was filled with activities. We went first to a cooperatively run dairy that Sardar Patel helped to organize. We then went to the university and heard four speakers on Gandhi. Two spoke in English, two in Gujarati. One professor was interesting; he covered the context of the original salt march, why Gandhi chose salt, and why he went to that part of the country. But we were whisked into the Vice Chancellor’s office for tea and introductions, and then whisked off to the next venue, with no time for questions or discussion of the issues. The next venue was a beautiful temple where we heard women singing, got prasadam from a guru dressed in orange, and then went to a fancy auditorium with a beautiful garden named after Gandhi’s close associate, Sardar Patel. There several freedom fighters got awards from Tushar Gandhi, along with garlands and scarves.
I mentioned that there were a lot of press around. They all flocked around us internationals, wanting to know why we bothered to come to India to go on this march. A young man named Greg from Hawaii, tall and good looking (like he would win on “Survivor”) was chosen for a daily column in one of the newspapers. Several people interviewed me and filmed me with t.v. cameras. I have no idea if they ever printed or showed the material. At first I really wanted to avoid them. But others said this is part of our work of spreading Gandhi’s message and showing that the march is not only about the Congress party wanting to win elections. So I agreed to be interviewed.
Sometimes it is upsetting to get filmed or photographed in your daily life. Once they came into our tent and said they wanted to film us setting up our beds! Once Sheena from Australia wanted to teach us reflexology foot massage; several of us set up and were following her instructions when the t.v. cameras arrived. The next day we ended up on the front page of the paper, a big photo of us getting our feet massaged. I didn’t like all this special attention just because we were from abroad. But some have used it to our advantage. One U.S. activist said people all over the world were fasting from sunrise to sunset to protest genocide in Darfur, and he got over 20 of us to agree to do so. Basically this meant skipping lunch. I said I would try. By 5:30 pm after 11 hours of fasting, and walking in the sun, I felt shaky, so I had to break down and eat a protein bar. Oh well, 11 hours for Darfur. He got the Sudan issue in the papers.
I had no private life on the march. Even the tent had eight people. Two nights we were put up in big halls with thirty women. Two women got sick and were vomiting; imagine they had to vomit in front of 30 people. But then I guess there are plenty of hospitals in the world like that. Over the course of the march I saw seven of the international marchers taken to the hospital, mostly from the heat, stomach problems, or fever; some with foot or leg problems. I had to take a break. On March 18 two women were in the hospital and another three were too sick to walk. They were going to ride the camel wagons. So after 56 miles I decided to take the train back to Ahmedabad. The only train at that local stop was the unreserved train. That’s how Gandhi always preferred to travel. It was kind of like taking the subway from the Bronx. Half the people were neatly dressed on their way to work. The other half were street children and women from the rural areas. Lots of litter was strewn over the unclean cars. But in general it was fine, because people were polite, and I loved watching the scenery out the window.
In Ahmedabad, I attended a very good workshop on Conflict resolution held at the Gujarat Vidyapeeth, a university begun by Gandhi especially to help the Harijan (low-caste) and indigenous non-caste students. The workshop was run by Dr. Devavrat N. Pathak, an inspiring Gandhian academic. He is 84 years old, but still very sharp, animated, and up to date on all the latest issues in international politics. He was assisted by Dr. Sadhana Vora, an astute elder philosopher who has written a thesis on the ethics of the Bhagavad-Gita. Speakers talked a lot about India-Pakistan tensions. I also used this time to go to their library, which had about 5000 books on Gandhi, a most amazing collection. I highly recommend this center to those who wish to pursue a scholarly study of Gandhi. It was there that I had a chance to read Thomas Weber’s study of the Salt March, which gave me a new perspective on the march I was walking in 2005. He had walked the entire march in 1983 to find people who had remembered the first march of 1930. I found out that Shanti Dada, whom I had met on the march, had been Weber’s guide through most of the walk.
Gandhi was always emphasizing spinning thread the old fashioned way (on a “charka”) as a kind of prayer. At Gujarat Vidyapeeth the students and some of the teachers and administrators spin every day for half an hour. It is quite a sight for an American professor to see a room full of hundreds of university students spinning thread as a communal prayer. So I figured I would try it. I knew from watching the students that it’s not easy, that the thread breaks a lot. Either you pull it too fast, it gets weak and breaks, or you spin it too much, and it gets too tight. I figured I will not be very perfect in the beginning but why not try anyway. So I had a spinning lesson, and then I did the daily spinning. Not very well, but I did it! I tell you, prayer time whizzes by faster when all your attention is on a string breaking or not.
While in Ahmedabad I also stopped by the St. Xavier’s Social Service Society run by Fr. Moses, who is a Jesuit. They have been doing a lot of charity work with slum dwellers who camp out along the Sabarmati River. And they did a study which implicates the government in the Gujarat riots of 2002 (where Hindus killed about 2,000 Muslims). While the “official” version of the story is that some individuals got swept up in anger, the study alleges that the killings were planned. For example, there was a shortage of gasoline canisters for the two weeks prior to the riots, because someone was hoarding them. Then, these canisters were used to ignite shops owned by Muslims. Fr. Moses thinks that someone in the government may be implicated, because shops that had a Muslim business partner but seemed to the public to be owned by Hindus were also burned. This means that those who targeted the shops likely had access to property or tax lists (see the 2002 book, Racial Hegemony: Gujarat Genocide, by Paul Mike S.J. and Aloysius Irudayam S.J.).
Part of this serves as a background for why the Congress Party was sponsoring the Gandhi march. They used to win the elections in Gujarat, but a few years ago they lost and were replaced by BJP. Some Congress members will be frank and say that the Congress politicians had slipped up and become corrupt, and that’s why they lost. But, the BJP is very intolerant toward Muslims and is pushing a right-wing agenda. So Congress wants to win Gujarat State back. This march helped their party regain the limelight. Interestingly enough, during the days I was in Ahmedabad, an international “situation” flared up. Governor Modi had been invited to come to the United States to be keynote speaker at a conference for South Asian Hoteliers (many of whom are from Gujarat State). But the U.S. Government denied Governor Modi a visa, citing his role in the Gujarat riots in 2002. Modi was angry. Headlines one day said “Modi Declares War on America.” It was a little odd to be an American walking around the streets of Ahmedabad while the Governor was “declaring war” on your country. Reading some news articles, I found that it was my own Congressman from Detroit, John Conyers, who played a big role in having Modi denied a visa. I was proud that my own country, and my Congressman, were doing something right, to defend the human rights of others.
Then I rejoined the march in the city of Surat. When I got there at 9:00 p.m. on the 1st of April, everything was especially in disarray. I found Katie who told me that the march into Surat had been the hardest of the whole march, because there the crowds were thickest and very chaotic. The police escorts were not controlling the enthusiastic crowds who wanted to mob the marchers. One contingent got separated from the others and ended up getting lost. Marchers were in shock sharing stories of how crazy it was. All the food was already gobbled up, but Katie told me a group went off to an air conditioned hotel for dinner, to celebrate Archana’s birthday. So we tried to catch an autorickshaw to catch up to them. But crowds of curious teen boys gathered around us, so many that they became a traffic obstruction and we couldn’t even see the vehicles approaching on the road. I thought, what am I getting myself into? Sure it’s great that so many people want to turn out to greet the march, but do they have any conception that it’s about Gandhi, or what Gandhi stands for, or is it just a novelty?
The dinner was fun because I got to see a bunch of the marchers I hadn’t seen during the two weeks I was in Ahmedabad. On the way back from the restaurant the rickshaws got lost and took us up and down the streets of Surat, where so many people were lined up sleeping on the sidewalk and curbs. It was mind boggling.
Luckily, the next morning in Surat the crowds were still big and enthusiastic, but pleasant. As usual, people lined up to greet us, and others waved from their balconies. A really off tune band played songs that I identified (to the incredulity of my fellow marchers) as “We shall overcome” and “Jingle Bells.” We passed an ice factory, and some textile mills where workers came out to greet us. Later in the day, some great drummers accompanied us with a mobile amplifier that broadcast a singer’s voice. I enjoyed marching with them, although it was nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. We were showered with flower petals and handed roses as we walked. Mike, who had often commented on the irony of having armed police with rifles accompany our peace march, was able to stick a flower into the barrel of one policeman’s gun.
Some of the days blur into others, but this is what I remember from snippets of the march. At one stop we were shown the huge tree that Gandhi camped under, which is a kind of shrine now. At the same camp in the evening, the municipality decided to spray our camp to kill the mosquitoes. Other campers said this was the third or fourth time it was done. I never saw anything like it. Men carried machines that whirred like loud vacuums and shot out huge white clouds of foggy insecticide. The whole camp was covered in the dense fog. I didn’t know what to do. So I ran into the internet truck to escape from the fumes. Several other people did the same. We watched through the windows at the surreal landscape outside. It took about 20 minutes for the clouds to dissipate. We were all wondering what breathing in such clouds might do to our health. By the way, yes there was an internet truck! The connection (via mobile phones), however, was usually painfully slow, because we were not often camped near a big city with mobile phone towers. While I am on the topic of challenges to the environment, I remember that at one stop we were served lunch on paper plates. Then as we were marching in the afternoon, a truck filled with our paper plates pulled up to the side of a hill and emptied its contents, to join the other scattered pieces of who knows what blowing around in the area.
As we were marching, sometimes it would be in the peaceful rural areas, and then sometimes the traffic would heat up, and we marchers would be pushed everywhere on the road, sometimes by our own support vehicles, which would have Congress flags pasted all over them, but which would nevertheless honk and push us marchers off the road so they could pass. Whatever town we stopped in we would always be greeted by VIPs, so when the cars got really aggressive we figured, ‘there go the VIPS, running us over on their way to get to the town ahead of us to greet us so warmly and with a big smile.’ And the same on the way out of town.
Mealtime was always an amazement, because not only were we 500 marchers fed, but often times also members of the community. Huge vats of food were prepared and dished out to people sitting in rows on the ground. Often, colorful tents were set up to shade people from the sun’s scorching rays. I forgot to mention that temperatures often climbed to 42 degrees centigrade, which is somewhere around 110 degrees according to the chart in my travel book. If you were out in the sun it felt like your clothes were being freshly ironed on your body. That’s why we would stop marching somewhere between 10:00 to 11:30 a.m., and resume at 4:00 p.m. It was still hot at 4:00, but by 5:00 it was starting to be cooler. The high temps were no doubt behind the problem some marchers had with heat stroke and dehydration. On top of it, our bottled water supply was not as constant as one would like. Sometimes there were no bottles in sight. So when bottles finally showed up, I would want to stock up, which means carrying 2 or 3 bottles of water in my backpack while we’re walking five miles. But that’s better than dehydrating! The last two days I just had to buy bottles from grocers because the supply for marchers seemed not to be there. And the food! I was strict and would not eat uncooked vegetables or fruit salad that our cooks prepared. We had a special catering crew to cook non spicy food for our “international” contingent, but they had to cook on the move and did not have good facilities or clean water. Everyone uses their hands to serve food, and our caterer kept taking off his head scarf and scratching his head a lot. Not to mention the flies.
We started getting closer to the ocean. The air started getting damp and salty. Then finally came the day to walk the last stretch to Dandi. That was the day Sonia Gandhi (leader of the Congress Party) was supposed to walk the last four miles with us in the evening. We internationals decided to have a press conference to explain the reason why we were marching. Several felt the need to explain this because the march had been so dominated by the Congress Party. We wanted to say that we were there because we wanted World Peace. We were inspired by Gandhi’s message of nonviolence. Some from our group noted that while Congress was getting a lot of political mileage out of saying they were sponsoring the march, they were still purchasing F 16’s in an arms race with Pakistan. So we worked the day or two before on a common statement. We expected this common statement to be read at the press conference. To our surprise it was not read. Seems one member of the group still wanted one sentence changed the night before, and the guy who was typing it got fed up and said never mind, let everyone just give their personal statements. Well, such things happen when you have a lot of personalities and not much time to hash out an agreement. We had picked six spokespersons who now gave their personal statements, which were all great and covered a lot of the same ground as the common statement anyway. Several women from our group decided this was the day to wear saris. They had bought them along the road. So they all dressed up in their saris, which was a real photo opportunity for the journalists who gathered.
After all that, Tushar and the other Indian man overseeing the press conference started inviting others up. They brought up Alison who was 82 from Australia and who had marched the whole way. Tushar had the folks from Ireland stand up. And then there was a photographer from the U.S. who had joined the march (on his motorcycle) to take photos for the last few days. He took the opportunity to make a speech. He began by stating that he had won Oscars, Emmys, etc., for his photographs and that he had visited 100 countries. He then told Indians that everywhere in India were advertisements for American products. But he said that America is not the solution, it is the problem. And then he repeated it a few times for emphasis. I was a bit upset. Sure, there was some truth to what he said, but I thought he said it uncarefully. Yes, consumerism is a bad thing, but it doesn’t only come from the U.S., and not everyone in the U.S. is part of the problem. There were a lot of people working for peace and poverty eradication and against consumerism. Just a few minutes before that, one man from India had introduced Thea as an American who does not even have a t.v. set in her house. And, if we want world peace, don’t we have to work together to change America? What good does it do to demonize America, act as if since America is the problem, the rest of us were innocents or victims who must now gang up on the problem? It’s fine if the target is the “system” of exploitation, but a whole culture from A to Z and all their people? I told the photographer this later. He said I had a point. But he said he felt so strongly that he had to say what he said, because he thought Indians worshiped America in a sick way, so they had to be shocked out of it by saying an exaggeration in the other direction. (Hmm, kind of like Malcolm X saying whites were devils with no souls?)
Well, from my limited perspective, I don’t think Indians idolize America so much. Their country was adamant in pursuing nonalignment all during the Cold War. Their industry is based on self reliance, making in India the products that Indians consume. The streets are not filled with American cars; they’re all made by Tata motors, an Indian company. (Unless you say that the idea of the car is American, in which case I add, why not include the American idea of fuel emission controls?). The clothes are made in India according to Indian fashion style (except maybe for the teenagers and college students). The t.v. set is filled with Indian t.v. shows, and the theatres are filled with Indian films starring famous Indian actors. O.K., every so often there is an “Uncle Sam’s Pizzeria” but that is an exception, not the rule.
And I guess I should not neglect the fact that so many Indians want to go abroad and live where they can make money and send it back to India. (Even Gandhi did that, but he felt guilty about it: “We go abroad in order to make money, and in trying to get rich quick, we lose sight of morality and forget that God will judge all our acts. Self-interest absorbs our energies and paralyzes our power of discrimination between good and evil. The result is that instead of gaining anything, we lose a great deal by staying in foreign countries.” (Introduction to Ruskin’s “Unto this Last”). However we should note that he was talking about Indians in South Africa 100 years ago. Indians have gone to England, Kenya, Uganda, the Caribbean and South America in search of job opportunities. Well, perhaps more go to the U.S. than other countries, but is that evidence of a sick love of America? Perhaps I am being too defensive.
Just after the press conference, poor Alison, the 82-year-old marcher, collapsed. Turns out it was heat stroke. She had to be rushed to a hospital and hooked up to an i.v. She did not make it the last four miles to Dandi, imagine! Well she did make it to Dandi in a vehicle, so she was with us in the end.
Someone told me that sometimes when marathon runners see the finish line they collapse, just short of their goal. Interesting, because Alison had been a marathon runner! Sheena, her daughter, was horrified. She thought her Mom had just had a heart attack or something. But Alison revived later the same day.
So later that afternoon Sonia Gandhi showed up to lead the last stretch of the march, four miles. She was surrounded by large numbers of police, and a jubilant crowd that was running and pushing. We were told to wait five minutes before following. At the end of the day’s walk was a huge statue of Gandhi reaching down and picking up salt. Everyone was jubilant. We had been carrying our “World Peace” signs that we made for the press conference. Some people were adding their own slogans. Josh’s said “Salt the World with Peace.” Some of the Pakistanis changed their signs to say “Atoms for Peace.” I didn’t understand. They explained that they wanted nuclear power for peace, and they should be allowed to build their reactors. I wasn’t thrilled about this idea. One tricky group of Pakistanis got me to pose for a photo with them before I knew that was what their sign said – he had actually flipped his sign over the second before the photo was shot. For all I know, now there could be a photo of me advertising nuclear power in Pakistan.
Later the same evening we were supposed to have our photo taken with Sonia and Tushar Gandhi. We were arranged in groups of twenty. After waiting forever, Sonia came out, and she and Tushar quickly sat in the middle of each group for a quick snap. I don’t know how we were ever supposed to get a copy of these photos. Then it was time to have dinner with Sonia. All 500 marchers were invited, but the gate where people entered was small, and there were guards checking to make sure all who entered had their ID from the march. There were several crashers who wanted in anyway, either because they thought they were very important people who must meet Sonia, or because they were young men with nothing better to do but try to get a free meal, I guess. So there was a huge ruckus of pushing and shoving and shouting. Those who were denied entrance refused to vacate and tried to block the entrance for others. Several of us just hung back, reluctant to try to enter until things calmed down.
Finally Tushar personally took up the job of being at the gate and allowing people in or not. We got in and were served the most delicious meal of the whole trip! It went on and on with so many delicious foods. And there was a kind of “shrine” to Gandhi in the middle of the room, with lots of candles burning.
The next morning was the day, April 6, when Gandhi went to the beach, took a dip, then picked up a handful of salt and declared that he had broken the salt law. So at 6:30 a.m. a contingent of us went with Tushar for a dip in the ocean. It was hazy and warm. Myself, Katie and Catherine from England, and Sheena from Australia were the women from our group who went in. Otherwise it was only the men of the march swimming. Afterwards Katie was writing “Peace” and “Shanti” with a stick on the beach.
Now the 6th was the day of the huge rally where 300,000 people were expected to join Sonia at Dandi. Each town had been given four trucks to fill up. So most of us marchers were afraid to go to the rally.
The camp was surrounded with wall-to-wall people. Our evening destination was Karadi, the town where Gandhi went after Dandi and the place where he was arrested. Some people wanted to catch a vehicle, but I knew I wanted to walk. So I went walking with Nicole from Ireland and Aueriel from Spain. We waited for Sonia’s helicopter to land at 11 a.m., then took off walking. It was the most strenuous walk of the entire journey in some ways because we faced a never ending sea of pedestrians and vehicles flooding in the other direction, on their way to the huge rally. It was a nonstop row of trucks bursting to the brim with passengers as far as the eye could see. The good thing was, since we were near the ocean, there was a good breeze the whole way so I didn’t really have to smell any of that truck exhaust. When the vehicles were all in one row it was not so bad, but sometimes the VVIP’s would honk their horns and pass up all the trucks, meaning all us pedestrians had to get off the road, hanging onto a footpath in order not to end up in a ditch.
Right in front of my eyes I saw two people hit by vehicles badly enough to push them a few feet. I think they were mostly okay, but who knows what bruises or maybe broken bones they could have gotten? I really wonder what goes through the minds of VVIP’s when they’re willing to mow down members of their constituency on their way to commemorate the nonviolent Gandhi. But I am sure nothing has gone through their minds. Their drivers just drive as they have always been taught to drive, as ‘professionals’ who get there fast. As we were crossing a bridge, just about to enter the town of Karadi, a gust of wind came and blew my hat off and over the bridge, down into some tall reeds next to a river. There was no way I could see how I could get down there to rescue it. I was just grateful that it happened so close to the end of the march.
Auriel, Nicole, and their friend Swamy and I stopped to get cold sodas at a little shop, and they played with a cute little girl. Then we ran into others who had just hitched a ride with a truck and ended up at the same spot. Here we turned left and went the last mile or so to the place in Karadi where Gandhi spent his last night before arrest, a place that is now a museum. It was so peaceful, next to a small lake. The ‘museum’ was a display of old photos. The floor in the big room sagged in the middle. There was the little thatch building, just as it had been when Gandhi stayed there. We rested up as stragglers came in over the next few hours, all with their tales of how they coped with the crowds. By now our group was small, only about 100. The Congress marchers were going home after the rally, and the Pakistanis also took off. So there were us internationals and about fifty Indian marchers who had not been associated with Congress.
The evening program included the presentation of a play on the life of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s close friend and personal secretary. It was a good play, over two hours long! One got the impression that, for better or worse, devotion to Gandhi took over Mahadev Desai’s life. He ignored his family members and his own need for rest in the non-stop struggle for freedom through nonviolence. His example is encouraging in some ways, but disturbing for its workaholic excess. I am always struggling with what to take from Gandhism as a healthy model, and what to reject as unhealthy for myself.
The next morning we were very unceremoniously given our souvenirs of the march – a gaudy, large and clunky trophy of Gandhi’s hand holding salt. It reminded me of ‘Thing’ – the hand that used to come out of a box on ‘The Addams Family’ t.v. show. Someone else said it reminded her of the last scene of the film ‘Carrie’ where the hand reaches out from the grave. In any case it was not designed by people who thought about the fact that marchers were travelers who had to manage this heavy, breakable trophy in their luggage. All jokes aside, it was wonderful to receive such a souvenir. Tushar and others praised it as a beautiful work of art.
There was a program in the morning, attended by students from the elementary school nearby. I noticed up front was Shanti Dada, who I hadn’t seen since I interviewed him earlier in Boriavi. I got to give him the photos I developed of him and to accompany him the rest of the day. It is funny because, in the meantime, since having met him, I was able to read Thomas Weber’s book on the Salt March. In that book Weber says that Shantilal was driving him crazy in a hundred different ways, because Shanti Dada was always trying to do it his own way instead of the way Weber wanted it done. So I knew of the background of the strife between them, but I didn’t mention any of this to Shanti Dada when I met him. Of course he didn’t bring it up either but acted as if he and Weber were best of friends!
At this point, marchers got into two buses and headed for the Dharasana Salt Works, where the big satyagraha action took place in May 1930 (just after Gandhi’s arrest) in which so many people were hit by police with steel tipped lathi sticks. They had a memorial there, which we visited. Many people had died in that confrontation, where protestors remained nonviolent in the face of police brutality. There was a public program and we marchers were put on stage with Tushar. The music was great, a singer with a beautiful voice. Then we were fed. We got back on the bus. The landscape changed and was very barren. They said this is where the soil is full of salt. It reminded me of Utah. Then we went to a train station. This was a new station constructed on the historic site where Gandhi was put on a train by the British during his arrest. The story was explained to us, and we were given plaques commemorating our participation in the march. Then we got onto a train, one car was reserved for us, and we went to Mumbai. The march was finished!
After going back to Pune, where I was living, it dawned on me that it would be fitting if I went to visit Yerwada Jail in Pune, where Gandhi was taken after he was arrested at Karadi and put on the train to Mumbai. I figured the only reason Tushar didn’t bring the whole group here was because people’s international flights were from Mumbai. So the next morning, I found it. The jail was made of that usual British grey brick, but with brightly painted blue and yellow trim. I asked the police if I could take a photo. I realized it was a long shot, and they said no photos allowed, but they asked me if I wanted to see the cell that Gandhi was kept in. I said yes! I explained I had just been on the Dandi march. The guy said another marcher had just been there – and he pointed over a ways and I saw Robert, one of the marchers from the Netherlands. I was really surprised. I was not the only one who had that idea that morning. So we were both let in to the prison, where first we had to meet the head warder for permission. Above his large desk was a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. (On each side was Indira and Rajiv Gandhi). There were also portraits of Sardar Patel, Nehru, and others imprisoned in the jail. It is not every day you see a prison where the former prisoners are displayed as famous heroes.
Another jailer took us to the yard for political prisoners. There was a big mango tree that Gandhi used to sit under. There was a statue of Gandhi in the courtyard. The trees and plants were well kept and beautiful. Along one side were the prison cells. In each cell was a big portrait of which prisoner used to be kept there. Then there was a book for visitors to sign. So obviously they had preserved this whole wing especially for visitors. As they explained, this yard of the prison only held political prisoners. I thought it was interesting that the guards with us were so proud of the fact that they worked in a place that had imprisoned these great leaders of India (or maybe I have somehow misunderstood). I guess it’s a sign that Gandhi and Nehru and others were imprisoned to free India from the British, and now the jail is run by Indians, not the British. But as I remarked to Robert, there seems not to be a critique of the idea of prisons themselves. Prisons go on, imprisoning the criminals, and I know Gandhi had a critique of treating criminals that way. He thought that so-called ‘criminals’ were marginalized by society, and that they needed more acceptance and trust from others, rather than ostracization.
It was a nice coincidence that Robert was there at the same time. He is an anthropologist who studies a matrilineal community in Sumatra. He’s been to India twice before. He wanted to see Mahatma Gandhi Road, even though I warned him that it was just a shopping street. He was going back to Mumbai, and then the Netherlands the next day. All of us marchers have been dispersed, back to our homes. But several of us have had our paths cross again, or have kept in touch. In Mumbai, Louise’s flat served as a meeting place for several of us marchers, from India, Netherlands, and the U.S. But the most remarkable paths-crossing story happened to me in Mexico a few months later. I was attending a conference on Women and development in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and met an Indian participant there. She told me that she recently met an American who said she had gone on the Gandhi march. That woman, Joyce, had shown her the newspaper that had our pictures on it (the famous “foot massage” photo), and she recognized me as one of the persons in the picture. That’s how I found out Joyce lived in San Miguel. We had a very happy reunion.
Since then several of us marchers have met up at the annual Gandhi conference at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. Each one of us is still active in peace projects in our home communities. Our work continues, but of course we are forever changed, and strengthened, by the many miles we traveled on Gandhi’s road.
Articles by Gail M. Presbey also appear in Constellations, International Studies in Philosophy, International Philosophical Quarterly, Journal of Value Inquiry, Human Studies, International Journal of Applied Philosophy, and Philosophy and Social Criticism, among others. She also has a longstanding involvement in Peace and Justice Studies and is Executive Director of CPP.
Harris, Ian. “Peace Studies between the Two Infinities,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)
Between the terror of war and the promise of justice we struggle. On the one hand, the study of violence leads us to contemplate the horror of World Wars, omnicide through weapons of mass destruction, and the dreadfulness of human cruelty. Gazing at Goya’s etchings, “The Disasters of War,” we witness the horror of humans torturing others. On the other hand, the study of peace allows us to appreciate how just and considerate humans can be to each other. A careful look at the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Rigoberta Menchu, Mother Teresa, Bertha von Suttner, or other peace activists, provides glimpses into the best of human nature. Reading about the work of Desmond Tutu to reconcile the sufferings caused by the apartheid regime in South Africa illustrates the power of forgiveness to heal deep wounds.
There exists a dynamic tension in the struggle for peace. Peace studies presents an ideal of peace as a goal that we can subscribe to, not necessarily something we can achieve. On our best days we may resolve conflicts with family members, friends, and fellow workers, but still in the cities we inhabit, there are murders, rapes, and other acts of aggression and psychological manipulation. We may momentarily experience calm, but as we look around us we are assaulted with the images of violence. We live in countries that commit acts of war and use the so-called legitimacy of government to help the rich amass huge fortunes at the expense of the vast majority of people suffering in poverty. We slaughter animals for food. And so we wake up one morning and, to our horror, find ourselves thinking that it is impossible to live nonviolently. Don’t we all have blood on our hands?
Indeed, conflict is omnipresent. We can never really be ‘at peace.’ Anybody who thinks she is at peace is wearing blinders. Events may evolve to the point that an individual feels at peace, but around that person is a sea of conflict. The neighbors next door are fighting. People are suffering, and animals are dying. The whole universe is in a constant state of entropy. ‘Peace’ implies a constant struggle to manage conflicts in ways that aren’t destructive. Although ‘peace’ connotes passivity, it must become an active notion.
Imagine you are swimming in a large body of water. The wind dies down and you are swimming calmly. You feel at peace, but then winds of whip up waves and you struggle to stay afloat. Suspended between hope and despair, harmony and chaos, order and disorder we will never truly be at peace. Like the Charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus, we all drive the twin horses of passion and reason as we charge through daily life. As Sartre pointed out, we are suspended between being and nothingness, our desires for peace blown astray by hurricanes of violence.
Still we have the will to choose our existence and how to resolve our conflicts. We are free to be violent or peaceful. We do not have to strike back at those who dominate us forcefully. We can turn the other cheek. Nor do we have to accept our oppression. As we learned from the Civil Rights Struggle in the United States, we can organize nonviolently to fight the violence of injustice. We can also leave spouses who physically and psychologically abuse us.
The challenge is to act peacefully in a world where ‘peace through strength’ is used to resolve conflicts, and where ‘strength’ is mistaken for the threat of violence. Most of us–raised on corporal punishment, aggressive entertainment, violent media, and police force–believe that striking out is the best way to subdue evil. Kept ignorant about the ways of peace, we are not taught about nonviolent alternatives. Thus, humans who are attracted to violence as a path to security fail to see its long-term damaging effects. They despair of peace. They do not appreciate the power of speech, law, agreement, and compromise to build bridges between different cultures. Therefore, the dream of peace remains a chimera.
Ian Harris is Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he conducts research in peace education and male identity. Prof. Harris is the author of “Peace Education, Messages Men Hear: Constructing Masculinities, Experiential Education for Community Development” (with Paul Denise), and “Peace Building for Adolescents” (with Linda Forcey). He is director of the International Peace Research Association Foundation, and a founding board member of the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. In 2004, he helped to launch a new publication, Journal of Peace Education.
Swazo, Norman K. “Renouncing the Territorial Impulse of Zionism: An ‘Unorthodox’ Commentary,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)
Students of Middle East policy who are observers of the scene of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute have long had a tendency to see the State of Israel as the proper vanguard of a post-Holocaust Jewry intent on ‘Never more!’ being faced with the prospect of genocide.1 To sustain ‘Jewish powerlessness’ (of the sort European Jews experienced prior to WWII and during the Nazi genocide), the contemporary Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim argues, is to indulge “in a moral luxury.”2 Fackenheim, an avid supporter of Zionist ideology, recommends to all post-Holocaust Jews a “614th Commandment:” “they are forbidden to give Hitler posthumous victories”—Jewish survival being paramount, even if Jews are “unable to believe in a ‘higher purpose.’” Hence, for him, the survival of the State of Israel is a sine qua non to the future of Jewish existence.
For Fackenheim, whatever is to be said of “the state’s Jewish essence” is to be “democratically decided,” like the 1950 Law of Return, the insistent sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem consequent to victory in the 1967 war, or the exclusion of Palestinians in their claim of a right of return and rehabilitation. Fackenheim shall not speak of “the Messianic dream,” long cherished in Jewish faith: “The Messianic Jerusalem is beyond the sphere of the political. It is therefore also beyond the scope of political philosophy.”
Yet, the reality of more than fifty years of armed conflict in the region raises serious questions about the validity of the Zionist impulse that originated and sustains political commitment to the State of Israel today. We in America tend to forget that the supposed ‘vanguard’ of post-Holocaust Jewry had and yet has its detractors among Jews themselves who envision an ‘other Israel’ in the interest of Judaism and legitimate civil society and out of concern for the true spirit of a people charged to be a light to the world and to see in contemporary humanity the children of Avraham.3 To question the existence of the State of Israel, especially in light of high crimes committed under the Sharon administration (not to mention the most recent decisions of the Olmert administration), is no ‘anti-Semitic’ thought. It is, instead, a fundamental recognition of the fact that Zionism and Judaism are twain, and that the State of Israel is itself a manifest primary cause of anti-Semitism in the post-WWII world. Fackenheim has it wrong: So long as we sustain the atrocities of the Israeli government, as it (like the USA) insists on exception to a host of UN Security Council resolutions and applicable international law, we sustain a significant injustice to that portion of the world’s Jewry who would all too quickly surrender the State of Israel in the interest of a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli and broader Israeli-Pan Arabic dispute. In contrast to Fackenheim, Albert Einstein had it right even as he rejected the invitation to lead the State of Israel. His foresight speaks to a timely anticipatory assessment of tragic consequences to the Zionist impulse, when he said:
I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state. Apart from the practical considerations, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain—especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight without a Jewish state.4
For all those who, themselves Jewish, see the history of the Middle East for what it has been (even as they condemn terrorism on both sides, thereby including in this condemnation state terrorism, for which the State of Israel is unquestionably guilty), it is high time to rethink the question of what it means to give Hitler ‘posthumous victories’ in the face of ‘State of Chutzpah.’ Let us not acquiesce in the modern myth that the modern state is a benign and beneficent entity, thereby essential to the life of a people.
It is the continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people that is essential, not some long-ingrained but mistaken commitment to ‘the imaginary geography’ according to which a land is somehow the dominion of a sovereign people. Ahad Ha-Am (pen name for Asher Ginzberg) said it precisely:
Apart from the political danger, I can’t put up with the idea that our brethren are morally capable of behaving in such a way to men of another people; and unwittingly the thought comes to my mind: if it is so now, what will be our relation to the others if in truth we shall achieve “at the end of time” power in Eretz Israel? If this be the “Messiah,” I do not wish to see his coming.5
But, surely, one must remind again and again when memory fails or events blur the truth: Zionism is not Judaism, and Judaism—not Zionism—will rightly say: Ani ma’amin beviat ha mashiach—I believe in the coming of the Messiah—for here, wholly, centrally, and invincibly, is the spirit of the Jewish people sustained, no matter the vicissitudes of human power. Farewell to sovereignty, in deed …
Norm Swazo specializes in ethics in international affairs and has published on themes of world order and global policy. He is currently editing a volume on culture and human rights as well as publishing articles on ethical issues in international health research. He is professor of philosophy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
1. In case one reading this commentary should object to my remarks as a position taken by one not Jewish, the fact is that I myself am Sephardic Jewish in heritage, descendent of Jews (then having the surname “Suasso” and “Suaso/Suazo”) exiled from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition.
2. Emil Fackenheim, “A Political Philosophy for the State of Israel,” in his Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Philosophers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).
3. See Edward C. Corrigan, “Jewish Criticism of Zionism,” Middle East Policy Journal, Winter 1990-1991, Number 35. Also see Norman K. Swazo, “The Neturei Karta’s Ethical Challenge to ‘The Metaphysics of False Redemption’ in the State of Israel,” Disputatio Philosophica: International Journal on Philosophy and Religion, No. 1, 2003, pp. 103-145. For more recent yet historically continuous dissent on Israeli security policy, see public pronouncements by Gush Shalom (“The Peace Bloc”), which has long taken a stand opposed to a “‘national consensus’ on misinformation” within the State of Israel [website: http://gush-shalom.org/english/intro.html]. See, for example, the Gush Shalom commentary by Uri Avnery, “State of Chutzpah,” in English translation at http://zope.gush-shalom.org/home/en/channels/avnery/1157833797 and in Hebrew at http://zope.gush-shalom.org/home/he/channels/avnery/1157833739 (dated 09 September 2006; accessed on this date). The recent armed conflict between the Israeli military and Hezbollah in Lebanon in particular manifests Israel’s (and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s) chutzpah, says Avnery, as he reminds of the aptness of a statement by Winston Churchill with reference in this case to Olmert: “The right honorable gentleman sometimes stumbles on the truth, but he always hurries on as if nothing has happened.”
4. Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), p. 263.
5. Corrigan, note 2.
Presbey, Gail. ” ‘Fruit of a Poisoned Tree’: Review of Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin, 2006),” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)
This book, found in the Military History section of many bookstores, is an excellent account of the strategic mistakes of the Bush Administration and U.S. military forces in Iraq. Ricks had special access to top military officials, due to his being a longtime war correspondent for the Washington Post. In contrast to muckraker Seymour Hersch, Ricks names all of his informants, who share their descriptions and analyses of what happened in Iraq, what went wrong and why. Many of those he quotes have high positions of responsibility in the military and were directly involved in the Iraq plans and implementation. He is talking to those most ‘in the know,’ which is what makes his book such a valuable source of information. Also, the carefulness of his argument means it cannot easily be struck down by those who want to defend the war and occupation as a ‘success.’
Ricks begins his book by charging that the Bush Administration’s decision to wage war in Iraq, and its mishandling of the occupation, will probably go down in history books as “one of the most profligate actions” of U.S. foreign policy. Ricks minces no words. He is a dire critic of the Bush Administration. But he is no radical. His book criticizes Bush not from the point of view of a leftist, but as one who has confidence in the longer tradition of U.S. military professionalism, which was ignored in this case. For Ricks, the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, which share many tactical errors, are exceptions to a rule of basically sensible military policy. And his critique of the Iraq war is not limited to Bush himself. Ricks explains that it takes more than one person to create a mess as big as Iraq. He points out systemic problems within the military and between the various branches and offices of government, which all played roles in this ‘fiasco.’
From his moderate perspective, Ricks doesn’t raise big questions, such as what should be the goals of U.S. foreign policy, or what American values are most important. He doesn’t explore better alternatives to war. Ricks’ treatment, therefore, is an invaluable ‘piece of the puzzle,’ but his book does not explain everything that needs to be known or discussed about the war. For example, Ricks does not discuss the larger context of U.S. intervention in Iran and Iraq: the U.S. propping-up the Shah of Iran, the U.S. promotion of Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, or the role that the U.S. played in arming Hussein in the first place (even with W.M.D.) The book does not mention the U.S. motivation for the first Gulf War, that is, why the first Bush administration came to the aid of a rich monarch in rescuing Kuwait, but ignored other concurrent foreign occupations of land in the Middle East such as Turkey’s occupation of half of Cyprus, and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. It does not mention that U.S. Forces targeted the water supply of Iraq’s cities during the first Gulf War, a supposedly ‘military’ maneuver that had dire consequences for civilians, or that U.S. use of depleted uranium in that war has led to high cancer rates in Iraq. In other words, an overall critique of U.S. neo-colonialism is missing.
Instead, the book begins with the aftermath of the war. Yet within the narrow focus of Ricks’ book, he does an excellent job. In 1991, U.S. forces repelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but they did not move further to topple Saddam Hussein. The U.S. government did not see its role as engaging in ‘regime change.’ But the U.S. had thought that checking Hussein’s expansionist project and ejecting Iraqi forces from Kuwait would weaken the Hussein regime and hopefully lead to its downfall. But Ricks thinks that the U.S. made three tactical errors. First, it allowed Hussein’s hated Republican Guard, about 80,000 units, to leave Kuwait and take with them hundreds of tanks, ‘mostly untouched’ back to Iraq. These guards would later attack those trying to rise up against Hussein. Allowing them to leave Kuwait therefore made it more difficult to oust Hussein. But Ricks does not elaborate on what should have been done with these troops instead. He also does not mention the infamous “massacre at Mutla Ridge” where U.S. planes devastated columns of retreating Iraqis (see Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).
Another mistake made after the first Gulf War, according to Ricks, is that U.S. planes dropped flyers encouraging Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Hussein. Shiites and Kurds emboldened by this seeming promise of aid did what the flyers said, but U.S. troops stood by and did not help. In addition, the U.S. had been enforcing the no-fly zone rules, but General Norman Schwarzkopf allowed Hussein an exception to fly his helicopters. These helicopters shot at Shiites and Kurds in their villages and cities. Failing to support Iraqis in their attempts to rid themselves of Hussein led Paul Wolfowitz, then on the scene, to have a feeling of incompletion. Wolfowitz became involved in the supposedly humanitarian effort to help Kurdish refugees fleeing Hussein in the north. To the dismay of Marine Brigadier General Anthony Zinni, operation “Provide Comfort” was, under Wolfowitz’s direction, changed from refugee relief into carving out a section of Iraq not under Hussein’s control,. With this small foothold in Iraq, the U.S. became committed to ensuring Kurdish safety. As we know, Wolfowitz later became a key player in the push to return to Iraq — to finish what had been started.
Then followed the years of containment, with costs of enforcing the ‘no fly’ zone being about one billion U.S. dollars per year. Hussein’s ‘bark’ continued to be defiant, but in fact he did not interfere with the no fly zone, leading some military personnel like Zinni to say that containment was working. Nevertheless, the U.S. did decide to bomb Iraq, first in 1998 with operation “Desert Fox,” in which 415 cruise missiles were fired in four days; then again in February 2001, with air strikes aimed at five Iraqi anti-aircraft sites. Ricks does not mention the economic sanctions, or the argument popular with Kathy Kelly and her group Voices in the Wilderness that U.S. economic sanctions and the restrictive United Nations oil-for-food programs were leading to a shortage of medical supplies, resulting in the deaths of about 500,000 children in Iraq. Secretary of State Madeline Albright commented in 1996 that the deaths of these children were a price that had to be paid to contain Hussein. Critics suggest that the sanctions violated rules of war, which should not target civilians.
Due to frustrations with containment, the Clinton Administration and the subsequent Bush Administration found themselves pressured to invade Iraq. U.S. Troops, stationed in Saudi Arabia to maintain the Iraqi no fly zone, were targeted. The Khobar towers bombing led to the deaths of 19 U.S. service men and wounded 372 others. Bin Ladin’s 1998 “Fatwah” against the U.S. demanded that U.S. troops leave Saudi Arabia, and stop bombing Iraq.
Some thought that ousting Hussein once and for all would be better than the never-ending work of containment. The Project for a New American Century asked Clinton in 1998 to consider invading Iraq. Wolfowitz and exiles led by Ahmed Chalabi were some of the key instigators. In 2001, Judith Miller’s articles for the New York Times, which involved interviews with Iraqi defectors, influenced many to believe that Hussein could be hiding W.M.D. But the urge to invade Iraq pre-dated September 11, 2001, and pre-dated any real concern about W.M.D.
Ricks argues that the decision to go to war with Iraq and oust Hussein was done without any careful planning for the aftermath of the war. Dismantling Hussein’s army after the ‘successful’ U.S.-led invasion created unemployment for tens of thousands of troops and was interpreted as revenge against them for their loyalty to Hussein. This partisanship did not help to build a new, united Iraq. When U.S. forces could not effectively guard weapons caches, the displaced soldiers joined others in arming themselves to take part in the insurgency.
Ricks cites military officers who say that U.S. forces did not understand Iraqi mentality. In the Balkans, U.S. forces were able to quell insurgencies by constant patrolling of the streets. Their mere presence during the patrols would deter insurgents from fighting. But in Iraq, the constant patrols were experienced as humiliating. Americans did not understand Iraqi pride. Americans also hurt Iraqi pride and honor by engaging in house raids in the middle of the night. They rounded up many detainees, but made more enemies. One military officer suspected that many of the roadside bombs aimed at U.S. convoys were actually attacks by Iraqis who felt honor bound to retaliate against U.S. forces that had violated the sanctity of their homes. The fact that so many roadside bombs were able to be placed meant that locals supported them. The attempt to win Iraqi ‘hearts and minds’ was losing.
U.S. reticence to release thousands of suspects led to grave overcrowding of prisons. We all know the Abu Ghraib scandals, involving torture and humiliation of detainees. Ricks argues, conservatively, that while torture tactics were not ordered from above, they were tolerated. Ricks does not get involved in allegations that trace responsibility for mistreatment of prisoners all the way to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (see Charlie Savage, “Documents Link Rumsfeld to Prisoner’s Interrogation,” Boston Globe, 15 April 2006).
Ricks argues that from a military point of view, effective counter-insurgency tactics call for treating prisoners well so as to wean them from the insurgency. U.S. tactics of abuse further alienated Iraqis from the occupation and strengthened the insurgency. Likewise, retaliatory tactics such as those used in Fallujah, after four foreign contract workers were killed there, did not have the hoped-for effect of quelling the insurgency. While the city lay in ruins, the insurgents grew more determined.
In an effective counter-insurgency effort, troops must live with the people and win their trust. Instead, U.S. troops lived apart from the people in bases intended to duplicate U.S. luxuries back home. The continuous need for supplies meant that convoys were targeted by the insurgents. Ricks concludes that the counter-insurgency efforts of the U.S. duplicated many errors of the Vietnam war. In both wars, U.S. forces over-relied on their technological superiority and firepower, and downplayed the need to win popular support.
Near the end of his book, Ricks finally entertains the possibility that the Iraq occupation has been going so badly because it was “fruit of a poisoned tree.” In other words, since the U.S. went to war for the wrong reasons in the first place, the occupation was bound to be difficult. Here the problems of tactics are briefly put into the larger context of wrong goals. But when Ricks looks toward the future, he does not think that withdrawal of U.S. troops is an option. To do so would let Iraq fall to U.S. enemies. His ‘best case’ scenario does not sound very easy. If military advisers take to heart the lessons learned by military strategists regarding defeating an insurgency, and based on those insights, completely change their tactics, then the U.S. could finally win over the insurgency. His ‘cheery’ comparison for the best case is the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war. There, after a few initial years of brutal repression, and several more years of careful counter-insurgency work, the U.S. occupation finally led, in about ten years, to a stable government with which the U.S. could work. Following this ‘best case’ scenario, U.S. troops would stay in Iraq another ten years.
Ricks presents two other options, the ‘middling’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios. The middling scenario is that the U.S. role in Iraq could end up like the French in Algeria, their presence resented, fought, and finally ousted as a neo-colonial power. The ‘nightmare’ scenario, according to him, is that in response to U.S. incursions there, a new dynamic leader and strongman — a Saladin — would arise to unify the Arab world. A united Pan-Arab country or empire could use oil money to arm itself with nuclear weapons and be a serious problem to the U.S. In order to avoid this scenario, Ricks advocates his option number one above.
I think that Ricks shows his limitations in his conclusion. His dependence on current military strategies prevents him from seeing other options. While he admits that the U.S. entered Iraq for the wrong reasons, he does not advocate a U.S. public apology. Bush continues to defend the decision to enter Iraq, while shifting the rationale from pursuit of W.M.D. to that of promoting ‘freedom and democracy.’ Any continued U.S. presence that does not admit past mistakes is bound to encourage further resentment. Also, the U.S. has to separate issues of private gain from its continued presence in Iraq. Due to U.S. influence on privatization laws adopted by the Iraqi Governing Council under the stern leadership of L. Paul Bremer, III U.S. motivations cannot easily be interpreted as altruistic. If U.S. forces are to stay, the U.S. government should forswear all claims to oil and reconstruction profits.
Ricks’ ranking of endgame scenarios shows that his own position seeks to continue a position of U.S. Domination in the Middle East. To say that every country and region in the world must be on friendly terms with the U.S. and its current economic agenda, or else the country will be called an enemy of the U.S. and will be undermined diplomatically, economically, or militarily, is certainly an Americo-centric perspective. To say that the U.S. is justified in the continued occupation of a country which it should not have invaded in the first place, merely because to leave would mean that it would then be ruled by U.S. enemies, presumes that the U.S. has the right to do whatever it wants wherever it wants if it thinks it is in the U.S. interest. What gives the U.S. that right? On the other hand, a graceful exit after a profound apology, and a commitment to help in reconstruction by funding Iraqi firms rather than Halliburton or other U.S. corporations, would go a long way to ensuring that a future Iraq government would not become an enemy of the U.S.
Also, those who fear a future powerful Middle Eastern country in possession of nuclear weapons have other ways to avoid that grave scenario. If the existing nuclear non-proliferation treaty were strengthened by existing nuclear nations such as the U.S. taking seriously their obligation to work toward disarmament, as the treaty states, the U.S. could by its example reverse this arms race. The U.S. should also stop engaging in blatant double standards such as turning a blind eye to, or supporting, Israel’s nuclear arsenal; providing expertise to India, while its nuclear arsenal violates the treaty; while working to penalize Iran on the mere suspicion that it would want a weapon in the future. If the U.S. consistently worked for a non-nuclear future, the goal in the Middle East could be achieved, and the ‘nightmare’ scenario Ricks fears could be averted.
I realize that the alternative scenario I propose is not one that is popular in the circles that Ricks frequents. I myself am not a military expert. I have learned a lot about the Iraq war and the debate regarding military strategy and tactics from reading Ricks’ book. As I said at the beginning, Ricks’ book is a crucial piece in the puzzle for understanding the current crisis in Iraq. Those of us looking for an alternative to endless U.S. occupation of Iraq can use Ricks’ careful military analysis to show Bush supporters that Bush’s handling of the Iraq war has been deeply flawed. Then, I think, we have to go beyond Ricks’ proposals to find a solution that is more acceptable than reproducing, a hundred years later, the U.S. occupation of the Philippines. A fuller understanding of our errors should lead to a fuller sense of our possible alternatives.
Gail M. Presbey is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Detroit Mercy. Her areas of expertise are social and political philosophy as well as philosophy of nonviolence and cross-cultural philosophy. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Kenya and India. She has co-edited a textbook, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, now in its second edition with McGraw-Hill; and an anthology, Thought and Practice in African Philosophy (Nairobi: Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 2002).
Murphy, Patricia. “Tripoli: 9th Provisional World Parliament,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)
I was glad to encounter two other Concerned Philosophers for Peace when I arrived at the World Parliament in Tripoli, Libya on April 11th. Drs. Nikolay Biryukov and Alexander Chumakov, both of Russia, contributed important ideas and questions to our legislative sessions during the Parliament, which passed Bills banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, ordering the US to quit the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba military base, and creating the Office of the World Ombudsman. We also received a delegation from the African Children’s Congress who presented an appeal (unanimously accepted) to introduce legislation for the prevention, control and eradication of malaria in Africa.
A final and general statement entitled “The Tripoli Declaration of the Ninth Session of the Provisional World Parliament” includes the following:
We condemn the militarism, war-mongering and global chaos caused by both the large and small nation-states of the world. This world-wide violence by nation-states, and its inevitable response in horrific acts of terrorism, are intrinsic consequences of a world where nations recognize no enforceable law above themselves…. At this concluding session of the Provisional World Parliament, we call out urgently to our brothers and sisters in every country of the earth: stop the madness, stop the slaughter, stop the destruction of human beings and our planetary environment. Join with us in ratifying the non-military, democratic Constitution for the Federation of Earth.
Dr. Balouki of Togo graciously agreed to host the next World Parliament, June 21-25 2007 in Togo, Africa. For a more comprehensive report, go to http://www.wcpa.biz, or the homepage of Dr. Glen Martin, email@example.com. The African Office of the Provisional World Parliament is: B.P. 680, Kara, Togo, West Africa. Fax: 228-660-1812 and 228-660-1104
Patricia Murphy teaches at St. Joseph’s University, holds a Ph.D. from Temple University, and has long-standing connections with CPP and IPPNO, for which she serves as Chair of the International Advisory Board. On September 26 she joined an action at the US Senate Building, sponsored by the National Campaign for Non-Violent Resistance and the Declaration of Peace. At the action, Prof. Murphy reiterated her belief that the war in Iraq was a mistake and that we must work for a swift and peaceful solution. She also voiced her opposition to violations of the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners. When she joined in a procession carrying a coffin, she was one of 71 people arrested that day. The photo on the cover of this newsletter shows Prof. Murphy’s cuffed hands with Gandhi doll and flag. The photo by Nikki Kahn originally appeared in the Washington Post on Sept. 27 (PH2006092601779.html).
Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)
June 7, 2006
by Lt. Ehren Watada
Family, friends, members of the religious community, members of the press, and my fellow Americans—thank you for coming today.
My name is Ehren Watada. I am a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and I have served for 3 years. It is my duty as a commissioned officer of the United States Army to speak out against grave injustices. My moral and legal obligation is to the Constitution and not those who would issue unlawful orders. I stand before you today because it is my job to serve and protect those soldiers, the American people, and innocent Iraqis with no voice.
It is my conclusion as an officer of the Armed Forces that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law. Although I have tried to resign out of protest, I am forced to participate in a war that is manifestly illegal. As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse that order.
The war in Iraq violates our democratic system of checks and balances. It usurps international treaties and conventions that by virtue of the Constitution become American law. The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of the Iraqi people with only limited accountability is not only a terrible moral injustice, but a contradiction to the Army’s own Law of Land Warfare. My participation would make me party to war crimes.
Normally, those in the military have allowed others to speak for them and act on their behalf. That time has come to an end. I have appealed to my commanders to see the larger issues of our actions. But justice has not been forthcoming. My oath of office is to protect and defend America’s laws and its people. By refusing unlawful orders for an illegal war, I fulfill that oath today. Thank you.
On June 22, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Ehren K. Watada became the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse deployment to the unlawful Iraq War and occupation. Lt. Watada has been formally charged with contempt towards President Bush, conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, and missing movement. Reprinted from thankyoult.live.radicaldesigns.org
Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)
BOERSEMA, David and GRAY BROWN, Katy, Eds. Value Inquiry Book Series 182: Philosophy of Peace (Amsterdam, New York: 2006) VII, 266 pp. Pb: 978-90-420-2061-0; 90-420-2061-X; € 55 / US$ 69.
This book is a collection of philosophical papers that explores theoretical and practical aspects and implications of nonviolence as a means of establishing peace. The papers range from spiritual and political dimensions of nonviolence to issues of justice and values and proposals for action and change.
Katy GRAY BROWN: Introduction: Beyond Safe Ground
Part One: Spiritual Dimensions
Jerald RICHARDS: Spirituality, Religion, Violence, and Nonviolence
Joseph KUNKEL: The Spiritual Side of Peacemaking
William C. GAY: Apocalyptic Thinking versus Nonviolent Action
Part Two: Political Dimensions
Anas KARZAI, Marianne VARDALOS: Understanding “Operation Enduring Freedom ” through the Persistence of Sacrifice, Revenge, and the Gift of Cruel Economies
Gail PRESBEY: Strategic Nonviolence in Africa: Reasons for its Embrace and Later Abandonment by Nkrumah, Nyerere, and Kaunda
Charles Martin OVERBY: The Treasure of Japan ’s Article 9: The World ’s Foremost Law for Peace, Justice, and Nonviolent Conflict Resolution
JOHN KULTGEN: “Faceless Coward ”: Bush’s Anti-Terrorism Rhetoric
Part Three: Justice and Values
Maria H. MORALES: No Justice, No Peace
Michael Patterson BROWN: Sharing a Sense of Justice: The Role of Conscience in Political Protest
David BOERSEMA: Taking Compromise Seriously
Andrew KELLEY: Kant on Freedom, Happiness, and Peace
Part Four: Action and Change
William C. GAY: A Normative Framework for Addressing Peace and Related Global Issues
Beth J.SINGER: On Language and Social Change
John KULTGEN: Making a Man of Her: Women in the Military
Ian M. HARRIS: Assumptions behind Different Types of Peace Education