My Fanatical Will 11/9/16

Michael Nagler

Michael Nagler

The Kapp Putsch and Modern Memory  – by Michael N. Nagler

On March 13, 1920, right-wing elements of German society along with some military units, particularly the Freikorps, or volunteer corps, smarting from the humiliating conditions imposed by the victorious allies at Versailles, and alarmed by the mildly democratic policies of the year-old Weimar government, staged a Putsch (coup) in Berlin, led by Wolfgang Kapp and Walther von Lüttwitz. The Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch was a resounding failure ¾ in one respect. Kapp quickly declared himself Reichskanzler (sound familiar), but the Weimar leadership, already partly in exile, called on all Germans to strike. The resulting general strike was so effective that the putschists simply could not rule the country. In three days they themselves were in exile, or prison. The successful resistance has long held an important place in the canon of successful nonviolent actions catalogued by Gene Sharp in his pioneering works on nonviolence. Though it was marred by some fighting (and had a violent aftermath, as communists and labor unions tried to take over) it was in fact a classic example of the power of civil resistance to protect a democratic order from takeovers or invasions.

But that was not the end of the story. One putschist who had been flown in to Berlin to participate keenly watched the chaotic events unfold. His name was Adolph Hitler. He admired the energy and ruthlessness of the Freikorps, with their swastika-marked helmets, and noted the putsch leaders’ mistakes (including timing). Before long he set about appealing to the same anger Kapp and the others had manipulated, only more effectively, and played heavily on the ruthlessness. By 1935 he could triumphantly declare, Ich habe in fünfzehn Jahre die Deutsche Nation geretted, durch meinen fanatischen Wille: ‘I have rescued the German nation in fifteen years through my fanatical will.’

There are two lessons from these chaotic events that we, too, can learn; in fact, we ignore them at our peril.

One. It definitely can happen here. While our democratic institutions are far more robust than those of the fledgling Weimar republic, which itself had been installed by a recent revolution, they are weakening under attacks now from all sides. If Donald Trump fails to win the presidency next week, by the grace of God, he has nonetheless gained shocking support, and done so by appealing to precisely the same unspecific indignation, xenophobia, scapegoat logic and inflated egos as Kapp and his “conservative” backers ¾ not excluding the same dark hints of violence. If our democratic institutions are stronger than those of the fledgling German republic, our general culture is if anything more violent, thanks to the development (and abuse) of modern mass media ¾ and the flood of weapons. Trump is failing at least in part, maybe entirely, because he is not the fanatical, ruthless, inhumane personality Hitler was ¾ but who’s to say such a maniac could not appear next? We have had the shot across the bow of our democracy.

Two. Nonviolence is the way out. But nonviolence cannot simply mean you wait for the putsch to happen, then rush out into the street and non-cooperate. That is a stopgap ¾ if it works. It has to mean a complete overhaul of the cultural factors that have led to our putting more fellow citizens in prison per unit population than any comparable democracy, having more guns than people and a higher rate of murder or suicide by orders of magnitude, a larger military budget than most of the world’s countries put together, and a foreign policy apparently incapable of any response but endless war. Throw in an addiction to media violence that indoctrinates the minds of children from the earliest ages, and the picture is not reassuring.

What is reassuring is that nonviolent alternatives to all these factors are already present, across the board. Economically and socially alternative communities are springing up all over, along with a sprinkling of “public benefit” corporations that work to a far more humane and inclusive bottom line and often are democratically owned, or at least managed, like Berrett-Koehler publishers, like Kickstarter, to mention two examples. Nonviolence is slowly being recognized as a subject for research and education (189 U.S. schools at various levels have peace studies programs, at last count, and thousands have at least one peace/nonviolence course). Civil resistance is being more often and sometimes more accurately practiced, as we’ve seen here from Occupy to Standing Rock, with many episodes in between that are not cited by the media. As nonviolence scholar Erica Chenoweth told me recently, “nonviolence is the technique du jour for uprisings now.” And not just uprisings. A worldwide institution called Unarmed Civilian Peacemaking (or Civilian Protection, in any case UCP), descended from Gandhi’s concept of a Shanti Sena or ‘peace army,’ is operating in some of the most dangerous pockets of global violence ¾ yes, including Syria ¾ and to very good effect. UCP has been seriously discussed at the UN and received substantial support from some European governments (not American). And for the long term, perhaps this may be the most important of all: freethinking media, like what you’re reading right now. We should be learning about and supporting all these inspiring developments. What they’re up to, and why it’s working, has to be far better known and far more systematically developed; otherwise we might be heading for a particularly nasty case of history repeating itself.

Professor Michael N. Nagler is the President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence and the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future.

Deeply Saddened 1/27/16

Michael Nagler

Michael Nagler

A Lesson (Still) Not Learned

By Michael N. Nagler

I was deeply saddened to read last week of the death by suicide of Cmdr. Job Price who was with a Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan. I was even sadder when I realized that the hopeful idea that sprung up in my mind was naive: “Now maybe people will understand why soldiers commit suicide.” The only reasons for his suicide that the media could offer were the usual suspects: it was a bad deployment, “a cautionary tale of how men were ground down by years of fighting and losing comrades,” and of course, the old fallback that puts a stop to the whole inquiry, “no one knows why.”

The fact is, we know very well why soldiers and veterans commit suicide – if we allow ourselves to know it. In his book, “On Killing,” Lt. Col. David Grossman describes that from the beginning of the historical record up to the Korean War, soldiers were extremely reluctant to kill their fellow human beings, going so far as reloading weapons they hadn’t fired. Muskets were found on the battlefields of the American Civil War with as many as eighteen balls rammed down the barrel in this pretense. And what Grossman concluded has been strongly confirmed by science: human beings have a strong, inherent inhibition against killing and injuring their fellows.

We can, of course, be trained or conditioned to go against this inhibition; but what results is what psychologist Rachel MacNair calls Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), a form of PTSD that affects not only combat soldiers but police officers, prison guards who carry out “legal” executions, and many others. In any of these people, the cognitive dissonance can lead to suicide. This inhibition is arguably what makes us human; we cannot violate it without serious consequences, no matter what society or our conscious minds tell us about it’s being necessary, or even glorious.

This inhibition, which we should be very proud of, goes back so far in evolution that we are born with “mirror neurons” in our brain that cause us to feel what others feel. Distinguished neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of UCLA says, “Although we commonly think of pain as a fundamentally private experience, our brain actually treats it as an experience shared with others.”

In Grossman’s second book, “Let’s Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill,” he reports that after the military had discovered how few men were actually firing their weapons in combat situations, it set about conditioning recruits to override the inhibition. In some cases, they simply used the same games that our children are playing on their X-Box or Playstation (hence Grossman’s title). They were very “successful” – that is, in increasing the firing rate – not in changing human nature.

A SEAL is supposed to be beyond all this, but the case of Cmdr. Price shows it isn’t so. Now, I have no idea what goes into the making of a Navy SEAL, but as part of basic training in the regular army, recruits shout out in unison when asked the purpose of the bayonet “to kill, kill without mercy.” But to be without mercy is to be without your humanity. And this is what veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are telling us: “I lost my soul in Iraq,” “I no longer like who I am,” etc.

When will we realize that the reluctance to kill and injure is not an inconvenience, but a precious capacity that we should celebrate and reward and that we could use as a guide to how we can and should live?

There was, to be sure, one hint in the press: just before he killed himself, Cmdr. Price had in his pocket a report about an Afghan girl who had died in an explosion near the base. But it was mentioned without comment, and of course with no attempt to draw conclusions. It’s left to you and me to tell this story when and wherever we get a chance. Of course, it means that Americans will have to rethink how we conduct ourselves in the international arena, how we treat offenders in our society – many such things must be examined and re-examined, and we shouldn’t shrink from this challenge. The alternative is to go on dehumanizing our servicemen and women, who are already committing suicide at an appalling rate. And why should we shrink from it, when if we accept it we can build a far better world based on the true recognition of who we are.

Michael N. Nagler writes for PeaceVoice, is Professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and is author of The Nonviolence Handbook and The Search for a Nonviolent Future.

Beyond Empathy 8/5/15

The Lion and the Scapegoat

by Michael N. Nagler

Michael Nagler

Michael Nagler

The recent shooting of a protected Zimbabwean lion named Cecil by an American dentist who likes to hunt big game with a crossbow has caused outrage around the world, to the surprise of many, including – we can only imagine – the former dentist. It has brought attention to the plight of endangered animals in Africa, but it also raises a number of questions.

The outcry is an example of the Anne Franck effect: one death (or accident, or whatever) seizes the imagination when there are a million others going on underneath our emotional radar. Not only millions of animals: we are all suffering from “compassion fatigue” over the way global violence has created an enormous number of refugees – recently restyled as “migrants” by the press, which pushes their desperate plight further beyond the reach of empathy.

Hitler, or was it Stalin, (it’s attributed to both and would be equally characteristic of either) famously reportedly said, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” The death of this noble animal, Cecil, became a “one” that rose up out of the surrounding millions, and we would love to know how. The very real, very particular event perhaps has taken on a kind of mythic clarity, allegorizing the suppressed agony we all feel every day about what our technology – and lack of feeling – is doing to nature. In any event, it tells us that while we suffer from compassion fatigue we do not undergo compassion death: our compassion may be numb but is never beyond the possibility of revival. Unfortunately, it is hard to predict what exactly it will take to revive it. If we understood this we could perhaps awaken ourselves deliberately instead of waiting for just the right event to break through.

For full disclosure, I am a lifetime vegetarian and love all animals; I am finding it very difficult to feel any sympathy for Walter Palmer, who killed Cecil under really heinous circumstances. But I have to try. Not because his practice is already ruined and Zimbabwe is seeking his extradition. There is a real danger that by demonizing one unfortunate dentist we will be making him a symbol, and thereby a substitute, for the whole problem of our insensitivity and destruction of life – in a word, scapegoating him. That will solve nothing. The way out of this danger has two steps. First, as far as possible, shift our energy from reviling Palmer to feeling – though it’s painful – for the dead creature and what he represents. Second (and this is the only real way to assuage those feelings), take action to address this problem. That could be in many ways. More than a million people (including your author) have signed a petition to “demand justice” for Cecil and urge Zimbabwe to stop all poaching. That’s a start. But the problem so pervades our civilization that we can tackle it anywhere, from education in our community to hanging from a bridge in Portland, Oregon (as protestors recently did to try to prevent Shell oil from drilling in the Arctic).

If we choose compassionate action that engages our capacities and tackles a real aspect of the problem it will channel our emotions in a useful direction. That will be good for us personally; but taken all together, done persistently enough, it can do much more. Some news reports are saying that poachers like Palmer “give legitimate hunters a bad name.” But is killing an animal for sport “legitimate?” I say it’s degrading and it’s ultimately endangering life on earth. We have to stop it, and we can, along with the other dimensions of our misguided relationships to the environment.

Michael N. Nagler writes for PeaceVoice, is Professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and is author of The Nonviolence Handbook and The Search for a Nonviolent Future.