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How Empires Fall (Including the American One)

An interview with Jonathan Schell, author of "The Unconquerable World," on how non-violence can topple the greatest of empires.
 
 
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When Jonathan Schell’s  The Unconquerable World, a meditation on the history and power of nonviolent action, was published in 2003, the timing could not have been worse. Americans were at war -- and success was in the air. U.S. troops had invaded Iraq and taken Baghdad (“ mission accomplished”) only months earlier, and had already spent more than a year fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Schell's book earned a handful of glowing reviews, and then vanished from the public debate as the bombs scorched Iraq and the body count began to mount.

 

Now, The Unconquerable World's animating message -- that, in the age of nuclear weaponry, nonviolent action is the mightiest of forces, one capable of toppling even the greatest of empires -- has undergone a renaissance of sorts. In December 2010, the self-immolation of a  young Tunisian street vendortriggered a wave of popular and, in many cases, nonviolent uprisings across the Middle East, felling such autocrats as Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in mere weeks. Occupations, marches, and protests of all sorts spread like brushfire across Europe, from England to Spain to Greece, and later Moscow, and even as far as  Madison, Wisconsin. And then, of course, there were the artists, students, and activists who, last September, heard the call to "occupy Wall Street" and ignited a national movement with little more than tents, signs, and voices on a strip of stone and earth in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park.

You might say that Schell, a former  New Yorker staff writer renowned for  his work on nuclear weapons and disarmament (his 1981 book  The Fate of the Earth was a best-seller and instant classic),  prophesied Occupy and the Arab Spring -- without even knowing it. He admits to being as surprised as anyone about the wave of nonviolent action that swept the world in 2011, but those who had read  Unconquerable World would have found themselves uncannily well prepared for the birth of a planet of protest whenever it happened.

That book remains the ideal companion volume for the Occupiers and Egyptian revolutionaries, as well as their Spanish, Russian, Chilean, and other counterparts. Schell traces the birth of nonviolent action to Gandhi's sit-in at Johannesburg's Empire Theater in 1906, and continues through the twentieth century, all the while forcing you to rethink everything you thought you knew about what he calls “the war system” and its limits, as well as protests and rebellions of every sort, and the course of empire.

One afternoon in January, I met Schell, now the  Nation's peace and disarmament correspondent, in his office at the  Nation Institute, where he’s a fellow, a few blocks from Union Square in Manhattan. It was a bright space, and for a writer, surprisingly clean and uncluttered. A Mac laptop sat opened on his desk, as if I'd walked in mid-sentence. Various editions of Schell's books, including his Vietnam War reportage  The Village of Ben Suc, were nestled into the bookshelves among titles popular and obscure. I settled into an empty chair next to Schell, who wore a jacket and khakis, and started my recorder. Soft-spoken and articulate, he described the world as elegantly in person as he does in his writing.

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Andy Kroll: You've written a lot before on the nuclear problem, and one feels that throughout the book. But  The Unconquerable World also stands on its own as something completely original. How did you come to write this book?

 
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