News & Politics

Summer Reading for the Activist in You

Jonathan Schell on nonviolent people power, Chris Hedges on war addiction and a collection documenting the American prison gulag would be welcome additions to any book bag.
While you've been out protesting the Bush Administration's abominable, unprovoked invasion of Iraq, a number of new books have come out that deserve consideration by the literate (or simply new) activist. This weekend, here are three of the better ones -- and one really bad one.

Having done the same for nuclear weapons in 1982's "Fate of the Earth", Jonathan Schell sets out to write the definitive narrative of the past and potential of nonviolent people power in "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People". As any cursory reading of this feature's daily history notes might guess, it's an enormous task -- analogous to writing the history of warfare. But while any attempt to take a Howard Zinn "People's History of the United States" approach to the history of the world is by definition spotty, Schell's greatest contribution is in also examining where such approaches could lead us.

For Schell, the utility of drawing lessons from non-military solutions to conflict, from the Greeks to (especially) Gandhi and MLK, is in contrasting them with civilization's development of increasingly deadly military strategies -- and their inherent drawbacks in the 21st Century. Schell believes Americans have shortchanged the power demonstrated in the nearly bloodless fall of dozens of despotic regimes, from communist to military to fascist, since 1985 -- including several installed by the United States and, most spectacularly, the entire Soviet bloc. In the dangers of brute force, he very much has American Empire in mind: "The danger, now as in other times, is that democracy's basic nonviolent principles, so promising for the peace of the world, can be undermined by the very power the system generates, bringing itself as well as its neighbors to ruin."

Schell emerged, with Fate, as a global leader of the nuclear abolitionist movement, and he continues to have weapons of mass destruction very much on his mind. He credits Bush, in casting about for post-9/11 rationales, for correctly pegging WMDs as a serious problem, but thinks Bush's Pax Americana solution is ludicrous. Only cooperative approaches can solve it: "The days when humanity can hope to save itself from force with force are over." And he credits "cooperative power" and the nonviolent activism it suggests as being not only morally powerful, but being the only practical and effective way to counter overwhelming brute force.

Schell is after Big Questions and Big Answers here; the result can sometimes be astonishing overgeneralizations. But his concise, lucid prose and his exploration of both the history and potential of nonviolent, cooperative politics are welcome contributions to the far too small collection of books in this genre. People despairing for an alternative to George Bush's militarism will find it invaluable.

Two other fine new books I've read of late deserve a plug in this space. Now that Iraq has been liberated and the neocons are busy deciding who's next -- rather than whether there should be a next -- it's hard to imagine a more important book to read than Chris Hedges' new, devastating critique of war's addictiveness, "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning". This book will do the impossible: change how you think about war. Hedges, a New York Times reporter who spent nearly two decades in war zones from El Salvador to Kosovo, calls himself a recovering war addict, and he describes in riveting detail the horror and seductiveness of combat, both at an immediate personal level and for whole societies.

Hedges is not a pacifist; he avers that war is sometimes necessary, and his devastating description of the civilian impact of the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo before international forces got around to intervening makes his point compellingly. But his is a cautionary tale that war be not only a last resort, but a very, very, very last resort. The chicken hawks now running our country should step away from the photo ops, give back their borrowed uniforms, and be forced to recite whole chapters of Hedges' book, from memory, at the next ten National Security Council meetings. As for the rest of us, if you want to understand the fever and the disease that has overtaken Bush's America, read this book.

"Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor" is hard for me to review with total objectivity, because of its two editors; I've edited the writing of one, Tara Herivel, and corresponded for years with the other, the invaluable Prison Legal News co-publisher (and lifer Washington state inmate) Paul Wright. So take my somewhat slanted word for it: "Prison Nation" is chock-full of outstanding essays, by authors you'll know and authors you'll want to know, that span the range of prison issues and activism. It's as good an overview of Gulag America as has come out since, well, Wright's "The Celling of America, with the difference that in the years since "Celling" prison populations have continued to increase (despite dropping crime rates), civil liberties have continued to be trashed, and, with the budget crises and social safety net destruction afoot in all 50 states, the nature of America's prisons as a vicious form of class warfare has never been clearer.

The enemy has been winning on all fronts, usually away from the public's view. "Prison Nation" is the welcome corrective, the spotlight on the shadows, the glimpse -- if we don't get busy -- into all of our futures.

It's impossible, of course, to summarize -- in a column where I only occasionally consider books or pop culture -- all the books, good and dreadful, that come across my transom. But one deserves special note, if only because I've wondered just why, for all these years, Alexander Cockburn reserves such bitter (and frequently hilarious) venom for social critic Todd Gitlin.

Now I know. Consider this, the very first sentence of the newly published Letters to a Young Activist, Gitlin's contribution to an "Art of Mentoring" series based on Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
"Dear --,

Let's agree to overlook (maybe even enjoy) the absurdity that joins us: You agree to indulge my lecturing on matters I didn't understand until I was older than you, and I make every effort to connect to your passions and objections -- to take your arguments seriously, even though you're too young to have had the experience I draw on."
Thus begins Gitlin's Letters, and it gets worse, if that's imaginable, on each successive page. It's hard to imagine any 20-year-old activist tolerating such a pompous ass. But then, it's also hard to imagine that Todd Gitlin even knows any actual young activists.

Gitlin, president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963 -- just before it became relevant -- is mainstream media's safe Rolodex substitute for interviewing actual activists. For example, Global Exchange head, direct actionist, and Green Party Senate candidate Medea Benjamin -- the closest thing to a visible "young" activist in the country -- has had 22 New York Times references since 1996, two in the last year. Gitlin's numbers are 78 and 16. He's safer than an actual activist, and he can be counted on to discount and patronize activists as readily as he does in his book's opening sentence. For the last 30 years, he's made his living explaining away activism to fellow boomer editors and reporters at networks, the Times, and the like. For three decades Gitlin's been a critic, and in Letters, too, boomers -- not students -- are his audience.

Leaving aside Gitlin's absolutism, his excessive use of imperatives (do this, don't do that), his frequently tortured metaphors, and his failure to even define activism -- presumably we know it when it blocks rush hour -- not all of Gitlin's advice is bad. Encouraging activists to focus on changing actual policy, or not dismissing all things American out of hand, for example, is advice activists of all ages could do well to heed -- if it fits their goals. Gitlin generally assumes only one valid goal -- immediate policy change -- and is dismissive of other activist roles or tactics. Personal or group witness or empowerment aren't in Gitlin's universe. He also focuses almost entirely on the theories underpinning activism, assuming those to be timeless; the imparting of skills, contemporary examples, or incorporation of developments like the Internet are notably missing from Gitlin's reading suggestions as well as his own text. The elder Gitlin would have given this same advice to the young Gitlin in 1963. More to the point, there have been a half-dozen activist handbooks published in the last two years full of better, more comprehensive advice -- hands-on as well as chin-stroking -- for young activists.

A critic, by definition, explains to the public the work of an artist, performer, or, in Gitlin's case, activist; she or he doesn't explain the public to the performer (or whomever). In presuming to do so with Letters, Gitlin mostly explains Gitlin. I can't think of a worse activist mentor. Fortunately, there are a ton of better ways to start your summer activist reading.
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