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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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Occupy and Freedom

I used to say that, before the Occupy movement here, we Americans were suffering from our own energy crisis, which was so much more important than not being able to drill for crude oil.  We didn’t know how to drop a bucket into our own hearts and come up with the necessary will to do the things that needed to be done. The real “drill, baby, drill” that we needed was to delve into our own consciousness and come up with the will.

AK: How do you see the history of nonviolent action since  Unconquerable World was published? What were you thinking about the Tunisian uprising, the Egyptian uprising, the Occupy movement, the general global protest movement of the present moment that arose remarkably nonviolently?

JS: I was astonished. Even now, I don’t feel that I understand what the causes were. I'm not even sure it makes sense to speak of the causes.  If you point to a cause -- oppression, food prices rising, cronyism, corruption, torture -- these things go on for decades and nothing happens. Nobody does anything. Then in a twinkling everything changes. Twenty-three days in Egypt and Mubarak is gone.

How and why a people suddenly develops a will to change the conditions under which it's living is, to me, one of the deep mysteries of all politics. That’s why I don't blame myself or anyone else for not expecting or predicting the Arab Spring. How that happens may, in the end, be undiscoverable. And I think the reason for that is connected to freedom.  Such changes in opinion and will are somewhere near the root of what we mean when we talk about the exercise of freedom. Almost by definition, freedom refers to something not visibly or obviously caused by anything else. Otherwise it would be compelled, not free.

And yet there is nothing obscure -- in the sense of clouded or dark -- about freedom. Its exercise is perhaps the most public of all things, as well as the most powerful, as recent history shows. It’s a daylight mystery.

Andy Kroll is an  associate editor at TomDispatch and a  staff reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones  magazine. He writes about politics, business, and campaign finance. He can be reached at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com.

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Copyright 2012 Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll, an associate editor at TomDispatch, is a reporter for Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Washington, D.C.  To listen to him discuss the geometry of delusion in the Ponzi Era on the latest TomCast audio interview, click here, or download it as a podcast by clicking here.

Jonathan Schell is the Nation Institute's Harold Willens Peace Fellow. The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.

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