Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nonviolent Shimmer

Back in the day, Saturday Night Live did a darn funny skit on Shimmer, the floor wax and dessert topping. Gilda Radner and Dan Ackroyd fought over a spray can that Dan claimed was a dessert topping and Gilda swore was a floor wax. Chevy Chase was the spokesman who then appeared to authoritatively explain that Shimmer is a dessert topping and a floor wax.

Some say nonviolence is strategic. Some say it is philosophical. I say it's Shimmer, a strategic philosophy of action. That is how Gandhi seemed to regard it; he certainly was strategic, devising actions that put the British into impossible dilemmas again and again. He was clearly philosophical about nonviolence, calling it the first article of his faith and the last article of his creed.

Yes, there are many nonviolent actions that are undertaken with no hope for the goal that would be the fantasy of the actor. Dorothy Day did not realistically believe she would cause the United States to disarm its nuclear weapons when she and other sat on park benches to protest the fatuous civil defense drills of the 1950s. Indeed, Dorothy often spoke and wrote about the inadvisability of being wed to the outcome of our actions, but rather to act on faith and with belief in taking a nonviolent stand.

That is strategic.

Dorothy sat down in Eisenhower's 1950s America with a couple of other women and within a few years had inspired and helped lead a movement of thousands (she is on the far right on a bench in this 20 July 1956 photo) , changing the views of Americans on the efficacy of civil defense and helping to galvanize the antinuclear movement. Just because she acted on pure faith with utter nonviolence didn't mean she didn't give a try to organizing around the question. And her organizing paid off, discrediting the notion of going underground to ride out a nuclear war that would instantly incinerate everyone in those shelters in cities and leave a shattered poisoned world for those in rural areas who had escaped immediate death from such a disaster. Her original three women on a park bench was powerfully strategic.

This is not a claim that she knew her strategy at that moment. But offering nonviolent resistance in faith, or with a nonviolent philosophy of abjuring harm insofar as we can, is a powerful act, often gaining an inverse power to the vulnerability of the actionist, thus turning the notions of strategy and philosophy around. Rosa Parks had some strategy in mind on that December 1st day when she sat down on the Montgomery bus 55 years ago in 1955, but mostly she just did what she regarded as the just, nonviolent thing. She enabled and inspired others to make strategic use of her act and they were able to do so much more effectively--much more strategically--because she was a hardworking, unoffending, prim and proper woman. Had she been loud and yelling about her rights, cursing the police, the movement would have lacked a strategic advantage of the public sympathy. She was bold but not offensive. That was her faith, her philosophy, and her approach to life. It was strategic. She set in motion the ten years of advancement for black people in the southern US.

Strategic nonviolence is also an act of faith. The more that the oppressor is convinced that you will not in fact crush him when he relinquishes power, the more likely it is that he will do so, and your credible claims of nonviolence, demonstrable by your repeated actions, give him that assurance. Your own commitment to nonviolence becomes a faith, a philosophy, as you realize the strategic advantage of not holding a secret card of violence in case all else fails. Certainly the bargaining that the apartheid government finally did with Nelson Mandela was first delayed because of that fear--Mandela refused to renounce violence--but then was made possible after a younger generation of South Africans committed to nonviolence gathered recruits and external sympathy and support, finally setting in motion the four years of secret negotiations with Mandela and others that culminated in DeKlerk's stunning announcement that Mandela was to be released and the African National Congress was no longer banned. It is very likely that this could have happened much earlier with nothing but nonviolence, but when it finally did it was related to the increasing faith by the white minority that there would be life after apartheid because the committed nonviolent leadership, including Desmond Tutu, had convinced them of that.

This dialectical relationship between strategic nonviolence and faith-based nonviolence is probably not perfect and is certainly not well understood in many cases. It needs much better historical exegesis, but it is for the most part a false dichotomy that can be much more reconciled than not.

Nonviolence shimmers. It is tasteful and puts a good glow on your movement and your arguments.

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