Sunday, September 25, 2016

The current crisis of racism and violence

Nonviolentists—I count myself as one— sit somewhere on a continuum from the "absolute pacifist" (violence can never be justified, and should never be resisted), to the "practical pacifists" (nonviolence is the norm, but violence can be used in extremity, only on rare occasions). Some are nonviolentists for religious or spiritual reasons (following a nonviolent Jesus, or the Hindu tradition of ahimsa, for example) and others for humanistic or philosophical reasons (there are justifiable reasons to conclude that violence is a moral problem, and that nonviolent solutions are on the whole better ones). Some nonviolentists see nonviolence as a political tool; others that nonviolence is a way of life, far bigger than politics. Common to all nonviolentists is the understanding that violence is humanity's deepest problem, and that the search for nonviolent solutions to disputes is a moral imperative. My own developed position is that a nonviolentist is someone who seeks to reduce the overall violence in the world. On the continuum of "absolute to practical," I tend toward the practical. While nonviolence is a useful political tool, for me, nonviolence is more a way of life—nonviolence is an end in itself, when conjoined with love is the highest and most noble human aspiration.
A reason we need nonviolentists is because of the human proclivity to reach for violence, not only as a last resort, but as a normal and usual method of problem solving and control. Even "violence as a last resort" contains a hidden assumption that if all else fails, violence will succeed. It's an easy step to ask that because violence succeeds, why reach for anything else? Nonviolentists will remind us that even the "successes" of violence are short term and limited; that violence always has unintended consequences; that violence invariably involves the innocent; and that violence means have a tendency quickly to spin out of control and produce more violence.
In the USA, we face a domestic crisis at the interface of racism and violence. (For the moment I leave aside the crises of violence overseas.) In 2016, so far 793 people have been killed by law enforcement (Guardian "The Counted"). In high profile cases in 2015 and 2016, it is clear that systemic racism is contributory to many of these deaths. I was haunted this week by the pleas of Rakeyia Scott, caught on video, with police officers not to shoot her husband, 43 year-old Keith Lamont Scott. Apparently, plain clothed officers, preparing to issue a warrant on someone else, parked their truck next to Scott's vehicle. They noticed he was rolling a marijuana "blunt." They also saw a gun (disputed by Scott's family.) They left the scene, returned with armored vests and confronted Scott. Within moments Scott was killed, his widow left grieving in unbelief. Confidence in the partiality of law enforcement is at a low ebb. Seemingly, doing anything "while black" can result is an execution. While the NRA continues its demand for Second Amendment rights to bear arms, even "open carry," to do so if you are black amounts to a death sentence, carried out not by due process, but by the instant decision of a police officer. So black citizens protest. And law enforcement responds in military style riot gear. Violence erupts, and city centers resemble war zones. Trust is broken. Fear increases. Violence escalates. Racism, barely below the surface, emerges to reveal the fault lines of US society. We are in crisis.
In 1970, philosopher Hannah Arendt published her extended essay On Violence. In part, her essay was a response to student violent protests in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, and the seeming failure of nonviolent protest. Why did the students turn to violence? In her answer she make distinctions between power, strength, force, authority and violence; parses out meanings, and so helps in our understanding. A failure to understand the nature of violence and power takes us into a cul-de-sac, with no way out.
In brief, Arendt suggests:
  • Power is the human ability to act in concert
  • Strength is the property inherent in an object or person in relation to other objects or people
  • Force is the energy released by physical or social movement
  • Authority is the recognition that obedience is called for without coercion or persuasion
  • Violence and power are not the same
  • Violence is instrumental in nature (no value in itself) and if used in support of power demonstrates the loss of power.
  • Violence is a crisis for power
  • Violence is a substitute for power 
If Arendt is correct, the implications for our current crisis are many. Here's a few. To equate violence with power is foolish. Increasing violence by law enforcement (even in the way police now dress for war) is a wrong strategy. Police violence demonstrates a crisis, a loss of power, and a reduction of its authority. Power belongs to the people in concert. Violence by protesters undermines the power they have in acting against injustice and systemic racism.
It's easy for me to say. I'm not in Charlotte. Members of my community have not been systematically profiled. I did not plea for my husband not be shot dead. I am not a police officer and do not face violence against me on a daily basis.
But I am a nonviolentist, and I can only think that for us to draw back from the brink will entail the difficult work of loving nonviolence to restore trust, to find justice, and to move incrementally closer to King's Beloved Community.

+Ab. Andy

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Everything changed ...

FEMA photographer Bri Rodriguez -
I have often found a strange congruity between an issue I'm thinking about and something I subsequently read. When it happens, my usual response is, "that's weird!" or something like it.
Today, September 11, is fifteen years since the terrorists attacks when, according to many commentators, "everything changed." As I teach war and terrorism and philosophies of nonviolence during alternative fall semesters, I am reminded each year as I study war, peace and terrorism to try to make sense of the issues, if sense can be made. Each year the students I teach have less memory of that terrible day than the students the year before.
Recently, I have been thinking more than usual of 9/11, perhaps because it is fifteen years, and that seems significant, or perhaps because Jane and I visited the World Trade Center Memorial during the summer, and the Pentagon memorial shortly before that.
Today's weird congruity for me was reading in the Jewish prophet Jeremiah:
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and the heavens they had no light ...
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and the birds of the air had fled ...
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins ...
I may have too vivid an imagination, but those ancient words played on my mind as I recalled images of the aftermath of terror in New York city. As I read Jeremiah, my response was "That's weird. It could be a description of Manhattan fifteen years ago." Perhaps the image of ruins and desolation is part of Carl Jung's "collective unconscious," and my strange congruity was because of a confluence of past events (9/11), recent events (my visit to the Memorials, commentary in the media, especially about Hillary Clinton's response to 9/11), and my dwelling on issues of terrorism at this time of the year. Did all that tap into a deep collective unconscious archetype of ruin and fearfulness? Who knows, really.
Regardless, according to the narrative, fifteen years ago "everything changed" and we were never to be the same again.
The narrative is only partly true. There is a sense in which everything changed on September 11, 2001, but then there is a sense in which everything is constantly changing. Every day, every hour, every moment, nothing remains the same. Some events seem to bring larger changes than others, to be sure. But, for me, the best policy for a decent life is not to dwell on the events that bring change, but rather to consider how sensibly to live with the changes that inevitably happen, large and small alike.
To live sensibly with change is, perhaps, the key to a life well lived, but is tantalizingly tricky. The earliest text (so far as we know) from ancient China was devoted to the subject—the Yijing, the Book of Change. Insights I have gleaned from the Yijing are along the lines of simply coming to terms with events (all events bring change),  not wrestling with past events as if we could change them, and understanding that change is inevitable. The ancients looked to nature to give us clues to flowing with change. The tree in winter appears as if dead. Yet spring brings the new life of bud. Summer's effulgence in leaf gives way to the reds, browns and golds of autumn, to change yet again to the death of winter. In the  "ruin and desolation" of winter, the sage knows that change will bring the buds of spring. The sage knows, too, (as do the squirrels, from observation)  that summer's bounty will inevitably change too. Nature flows with the changes.
Some events seem to bring insurmountable change, something we will never "get over." Deep loss is such. September 11 was such. But, the sage knows that the conditions of loss and  desolation, in time, too, will change.
+Ab. Andy