Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Against Some Enemies, Nonviolence Isn't Enough

These days, when my thoughts turn to the increasingly desperate need for steadfast and principled non-violent resistance in the face of war and brutality around the world, I think of an especially brave man, a 46-year-old school teacher in the Afghan city of Ghazni.

His name was Mohammed Halim. He persisted in teaching young girls, despite repeated threats from the Taliban. Late last year, in the middle of the night, Halim was dragged from his crying children and his pleading wife. His body was later found in bits and pieces, in a heap, as a warning to other teachers.

I also think of the struggle being waged by the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, a socialist and anti-war party the Pashtun people are increasingly turning to, in open defiance of the Taliban, right in the Taliban's Pashtun heartlands traversing the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The case of Mohammed Halim and of the heroic struggle of the Pakhtunkhwa serve as grim reminders that non-violent resistance to oppression is always right, proper and necessary, but sometimes it must also be accompanied by force of arms. Against certain kinds of enemies, non-violence just isn't enough.

However unpleasant this might be, it's the way the world is, and to pretend that it isn't is to harbour something the great British essayist and novelist George Orwell, writing in the Partisan Review in 1942, succinctly described as "a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security."

It's rare that a single text comes along that presents the persistence of that illusion in all its contemporary folly -- the "state" is bad, the "west" is always wrong -- but sadly, that's what's on offer in Mark Kurlansky's Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (Modern Library, 2006).

That's from my Dissent column in today's Tyee.

Oliver Kamm takes a slightly different tack, but reaches the same sort of conclusion, only much harsher. It's a "foul and stupid" book: "Mark Kurlansky, author of bestselling histories of Cod and of Salt, has thus written a book that I initially thought was shady and disgusting, but turns out mainly to be historically illiterate, morally vacuous and professionally incompetent."

There are some who disagree with that judgment. But Kurlansky does strain one's patience:

"Perhaps the book was written for personal reasons: It seems that young Kurlansky was big but wimpy. He says his size made him a moving target, and he was often challenged to schoolyard fights by plucky little classmates with something to prove. A born enthusiast of nonviolence, Kurlansky dealt with the attacks by "raising his arms to cover his head and weaving to avoid the blows." Maybe all those beating by midgets gave him a chip on the shoulder that needed exorcising in 184 quick and dirty pages of widely spaced type."


Blogger Nav said...

This book sounds so awful that I almost want to read it.

12:18 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

You should read it. It's a fascinating insight into certain, em, habits of mind.

12:28 PM  
Blogger IceClass said...

Crap. I wish I could have covered my head and dodged the blows.
We moved around a lot when I was a nipper.
I was forever getting the snot kicked out of me.
Running gauntlets on the way out of school really blows after a while.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I agree that there are exceptions, rare though they are, in which violence is necessary. They are certainly the exception rather than the rulethough , and I believe that for the human species to survive, we have to change our way of relating to each other. The weapons at our disposal now are just too powerful.

The may be some naivete, I agree, about nonviolence when it is presented as an all or nothing proposition. However, I think it is important that the idea is out there, and at least being discussed as it is in this forum.

10:43 PM  

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