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Nonviolence as a strategy to end social injustice—or bring about the resolution of armed conflict—doesn’t get much play in our media or political discourse; most of us seem to stand by what we like to call Realpolitik, although its most recent application has led our country into a war without victory or apparent end.
While some of us may express our support of nonviolence in theory, we find it difficult to imagine a world without military conflict. Aside from passing and affectionate schoolroom references to the Quakers or Mennonites, we actually learn very little of their more serious efforts, and the practical application of nonviolent resistance and its proponents; Gandhi and King may have been inspiring examples but their legacy is usually relegated to discussions of spirituality and humanism, not discussions of political options.
With Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea, Mark Kurlansky gives us something to work with. Nonviolence follows the pattern of his earlier bestselling books, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, and Salt: A World History. But this time, instead of taking fish or a tabletop condiment to illustrate sweeping movements in human history (both great reads), he takes an idea—nonviolence as political and social strategy—and traces its history from early religious movements up to the present day.
I’d recommend the book not to those who support radical nonviolence as a viable option—although they will certainly enjoy it—but to those who don’t. It may not change any minds, but it will contextualize a movement as misunderstood as it has been marginalized. Whether you agree with Kurlansky or not, you’ll find yourself considering whether what worked for Gandhi and King would work for the military powers themselves. Problem is, as Kurlansky and others have pointed out, we use what we’ve got—and in our case, we’ve got plenty of arrows in our quiver and a history of militarism to draw from.
George Orwell reasoned that Gandhi’s movement succeeded because the British were civilized (although, Kurlansky points out, they had no compunction about firing into crowds of women and children at the time). No such strategy, he argued, could work with Soviet-style communism. The Velvet Revolution—and even the Solidarity movement in Poland--put the lie to this idea, but once again, it’s much more comfortable—although far less defensible—to argue that Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet empire. Any thoughtful person knows that it collapsed from within—as most military giants eventually do.
Kulansky’s Nonviolence is a wonderful read whether you’re typically interested in the idea or not. I could never have imagined wanting to read books about salt or cod but upon a friend’s recommendation I read Kurlansky’s books on both—like Nonviolence, I couldn’t put them down. But what this book may do—along with Kurlansky’s insightful introduction to a reissue of Thomas Merton’s Gandhi on Nonviolence—is reintroduce nonviolence as a discussable—and viable—option.
- James Shaheen, Editor & Publisher