Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cold cases

There is a serious uptick in research on nonviolence these days as the intellectual baton transferred from Gene Sharp and his Albert Einstein Institution, where they did enormous and meaningful research into aspects of nonviolence, to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which is funded by libertarian capitalist Peter Ackerman. Ackerman preceded Bill Gates as a business entrepreneur with a conscience, and indeed is a moral entrepreneur who funds the way many seek to understand and practice a far less costly and deadly form of conflict.

One of the results of greater funding for such research is the development of how research can serve the practice, that is, how learning about facets of a phenomenon can help those who deal with it. Thus, we find some of the research underwritten by ICNC is looking at quantifying some of the vexing conundrums that many of us know about anecdotally and inductively, often from long experience. And the ability to cite cases to illustrate a point is highly persuasive. Listen to Gene Sharp, Stephen Zunes or some of the other amazing intellects in this field for such illustrative demonstrations of encyclopedic and usable knowledge.

One potentially fecund field of research that is untapped to my knowledge but that might yield volumes of interesting findings is to look for cold cases of possible victory and ask how to treat them. What happens to our analysis when we think we lose in a long struggle to engage using nonviolence and then, quietly, our opponents change everything, effectively handing us a victory that we now feel we didn't earn and aren't struggling to get any longer? It's not like a movement creates a visible mass and the dictator topples, new laws are passed, a colonizing power leaves, a corporation promises better behavior, or human rights are upheld. There is no direct temporal cause, no signed peace accord, and no connecting effect that is easily discernible. There are no smoking memos. There is zero acknowledgement that a movement existed or had any effect on the decision, which is often framed as pragmatic and unrelated to civil society.

Honeywell was a focus of a sustained and apparently fruitless campaign of nonviolent resistance for years. After that movement essentially ended, Honeywell sold off much of its military side. Some claimed victory for nonviolence, but the links were unproven.

Dan (pictured below) and Phil Berrigan raided a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, burning records of young men about to be drafted and shipped to Vietnam. Dozens of other copycat actions interfered with this involuntary servitude, but the draft did not end until the Vietnam War did. Still, it has not returned, even though we are in at least two wars. Is this a victory?

The thermonuclear command center in northern Wisconsin and Michigan, called Extremely Low Frequency, or Project ELF, was the object of sustained civil society resistance--including five Plowshares actions--and the campaign was a total failure in dislodging the base. Fewer and fewer participated. The navy said it would be there for three more decades. Then it quietly left, suddenly claiming obsolescence.

These kinds of cases give rise to some speculation and all the anecdotal evidence suggests a meaningful victory for nonviolence. But the knowledge of these cases is scant and the connection between and among them around the world is nonexistent. There is no named phenomenon here--Sub Rosa Civil Resistance Success? Nonviolent Victory Orphans? Who Knew Wins for Unarmed Force?--but I believe it's a category that would help persuade that nonviolence is a modest and unassuming, but effective, method. It would be a forensic study of these cold cases, but might bring new candlepower to our efforts to illuminate our poor world, so wedded to destructive methods of managing the inevitable conflicts between humans.

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