Sunday, July 31, 2011

Nonviolent evolution

Interesting piece in the Boston Globe, Call to arms, by a scholarly journalist, Thanassis Cambanis. He seems convinced, and tries to convince the reader, that only violence can produce a revolution.

His point is that revolutions are meant to sweep away entire governments and start completely afresh. He cites the Iranian Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the French Revolution as exemplars and then disses the Egyptian Revolution and all the colored revolutions and the Philippines liberation as not really replacing much.

Really? We want to emulate the Russian Revolution? They replaced one dictatorship with another and he calls that a revolution? We want what the French had, replacing one terrorist regime with another? I'm not even going to get rhetorical about the Iranian Revolution, especially since Cambanis doesn't seem to realize it was essentially nonviolent. He manages to confuse a nonviolent revolution with a bloodless change. No nonviolent activist nor scholar would make that basic error. If virtually all the violence is on one side, that is a nonviolent struggle, which is usually too obvious to mention.

Cambanis is clearly swept up in the romance of revolution. He goes afield until he finds Egyptians who will say what he wants them to say, which cannot be extremely hard. It wasn't hard to find African American rank and file who, if asked by enterprising reporters in 1965, would say that only violence could produce the real change they wanted and that nonviolence was a dud. With enough Facebooking, I could find you Filipinos who would call for violence, Serbs, Poles, Indians, Ghanaians, members of the UFW, etc.

If we want an entirely new government and that is the only time we accept a change as revolutionary, I suppose Cambanis would have smiled upon the great sweeping changes brought about by the Khmer Rouge, who renamed their country, took great pains to kill as many perceived opponents as possible (some 7.1 million of them, proportionally making their regime the most violent in the 20th century) and even reset the calendar. Now that's a revolution, eh, Mr Cambanis?

But perhaps he's correct. Perhaps we should purge ourselves of the term revolution, which, after all, connotes coming back around to the same point, since violence seems to bring us right back to oppression after we use it to throw off the ancien régime. Nonviolent evolution is better. That implies adaptation, creativity, preparing for a whole new environment (especially with consideration of punctuated equilibrium, an interesting improvement upon Darwinian theories), and simply becoming better suited to our world. A nonviolent evolution would not require a complete systemic change but would rather help us all tweak the system toward more justice, better living, and far less structural or direct violence.

I mean, the American Revolution retained the basic system of white male property owner power and privilege, so even the use of violence doesn't change the real conditions much for those at the bottom, right Mr Cambanis? Nonviolent improvements on American democracy--women's suffrage, legalization of unions, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act--all these were essentially won with nonviolent struggle often even more widespread than the proportions actually involved in the Russian Revolution, and all extended more rights to more groups of people. That is evolution and none of those struggles hurt people, but rather helped.

Nothing wrong with sweeping changes when they are done nonviolently. I still think evicting the entire British government from India and restarting indigenous governance was pretty revolutionary, but I take Mr Cambanis's point. I just wish he'd apply it to his own pet cases.

1 comment:

Daryn Cambridge said...

"Nonviolent evolution." I love it! I am definitely using that from now on. Thanks, Tom!