Thursday, August 29, 2013

Looking into a mirror at the war criminals

I was at the light rail train station, handing out leaflets opposing the plan to bomb Syria. Most people agreed; it's such a poor idea. One man vociferously disagreed. "Bomb the sh_t out of them. You see those bodies? All contorted? Naw, we need to bomb 'em."

This is the American way. Good-hearted people are led to believe that we have two choices when it comes to ghastly offensive behavior: cowardly shirking or violent attack. We either man up or we take it like little girls.

Of course the problem with that thinking is that we then begin to commit our own crimes that require others to man up and teach us a lesson.

Chemical weapons? They are a crime and need to be opposed and stopped. But not repeat NOT by yet more violence and not by the nation that has used more chemical weapons than any other nation since World War I. Yes, that would be us, US, USA. "During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 US gallons (76,000,000 l) of material containing chemical herbicides and defoliants mixed with jet fuel in Vietnam, eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia, as part of Operation Ranch Hand." Twenty million gallons of chemicals all over farmers and rural dwellers, killing approximately 400,000 Vietnamese and producing a half million Vietnamese babies with birth defects, according to the Red Cross of Vietnam.

I've met some of these survivors, now in their 40s and 50s. Their lives were ruined by our chemical warfare. Some can't walk. Some can't hold things. Some can't think. And some even passed along birth defects to yet another generation. Agent Orange persists in the environment.
And I've tended to a dying victim, my former brother-in-law, who was in combat in Vietnam and said the barrels of the chemicals were often stored right in the mess hall. He was never shot, never wounded, but was killed in Vietnam and never knew it until he came back, married my sister, fathered two children, and those girls found him writhing on the floor in convulsions one day.

He had Agent Orange cancer, inoperable tumors up and down his spine, in his brain, and in his lungs. I read his medical chart that hung on the end of his bed at the VA hospital in Minneapolis, a chart which began with the words, "This poor man..." and went on to describe more than 40 central nervous system tumors. We moved him home to hospice and I helped feed him morphine for three days until he died, hanging on in pain and with a death rattle that got him into Fathers Day, 1995, when he gave up the ghost. He was 46. Thanks to Senator Paul Wellstone, my sister got Agent Orange victim benefits that stopped the bank from taking their little home and the funeral and burial at Fort Snelling was paid for. I spoke at his service and burned sweetgrass--Tim was Blackfoot.

So before the US unilaterally attacks anyone else for their crimes, let's square up with the Vietnamese. We owe them so much. Not a single Vietnamese sailed a single sampan up the Mississippi to attack Americans. The Vietnamese shot exactly zero bullets at the US or at Americans until we invaded. No Vietnamese bombs ever shot at, let alone hit, the US. But we engaged in massive chemical warfare against them. And, as usual, it was based on a pack of lies.

On the Grand Karmic Credit Card of the Universe, our nation has done good and bad, and we need to work off that Agent Orange karma before we launch more violence, before we prematurely start blowing up things without proof of responsibility. Is the Assad regime culpable? Likely. But are the violent insurgents also possible perps? You mean the jihadis who behead, who cut out the hearts of Syrian troops and eat them on CNN? The ones John Kerry and John McCain like so much? You think?

There are nonviolent ways to resolve this. The list of alternatives is long and we have tried exactly zero of them in any serious fashion. We've invested so very much of our money, our thought, and our intentions toward violence that we seem incapacitated when it comes to imagining any paths that don't start and end either with shriveling retreat or destructive attack. We are thinking like 12 year-old boys, not mature adults. Time to really man up and devise a nonviolent approach.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Alternatives to war

Do you want to bomb somebody or just do nothing?

Could there be a third way?
For a few thousand years, all we could imagine was violence or cowardice, war or surrender, attack or apathy. Now, in the past 107 years since Mohandas Gandhi offered us a model of people power, and in the past 65 years or so of studying mediation and other paths to solutions not involving violence, we have expanded our palette of conflict colors, or our menu of options. Here is a short list and I have faith you could add more:

1. Meet with the offending party. Find out what they want--not their position, but their interests behind the position. Begin thinking of nonviolent ways to satisfy them.

2. Ask the other party or parties to also tell you their interests.

3. Cease all destructive aid or support to any party. No arms, no help to anyone in their destructive approaches.

4. Seek the parties who are using nonviolent approaches. Support them. It is likely they will have been overshadowed, overwhelmed, and overmatched by the violent ones or destructive ones. Help them level the playing field by listening to their support needs and meeting them.

5. Devise sanctions to nonviolently coerce all parties into stopping the violence. This subset of alternatives might include freezing assets, blocking travel, preventing participation in institutions and events, etc.

6. Work to expand the agreement of external parties to assist in all these nonviolent measures. The bigger your coalition, the more effective.

7. "Build a golden bridge over which your opponent can retreat," said Sun Tzu. Find ways to help the violent one in power understand that if he negotiates in good faith, he need not fear enraged mob attack nor kangaroo court 'victor's justice.'

8. Support a Truth and Reconciliation process of some sort.

9. Help organize a peace conference. Bring representatives from all contending parties, including the nonviolent players. Provide neutral mediators as well as a safe space to air views, listen to stories, suggest solutions.

10. Work to create and expand corporate support, much as Louis Sullivan did when he led corporate opposition to apartheid and corporations helped turn the tide toward a peaceful outcome in South Africa.

11. Support a new UN unarmed, nonviolent, peacekeeping force.

12. Outlaw war profiteering locally, nationally, regionally, and ultimately globally. Take the profit motivation out of arms transfers.

13. Use all forms of media--corporate, social, advocacy, YouTube, state, independent, electronic, print, billboards and other signage, film, television, radio--to oppose all violence and promote nonviolent alternatives.

14. Raise funds, divert resources to refugees and internally displaced victims of violence.

15. Organize massive peace rallies or massive numbers of peace rallies, supported by petitions, phone calls, emails, and in-person lobbying to any public official who might be able to affect any decision to use violence.

These are just a few steps to take to try to achieve the best outcome, even if the best outcome still produces some injustice and lack of sufficient punishment for those who have committed violence. I'm still waiting for Dick Cheney to go to prison and we can wait for Basher al-Assad to serve time too; just get them out of power. The primary advantages of taking a nonviolent stance include a lessening of damage and an end to the desire for further revenge. The only way to end the cycle of passive-aggressive responses is to do so unilaterally with creative alternatives. The world is composed of too many smart people, too many creative geniuses, to continue to shoot at each other. Bend our brains toward expanding this list and making it happen. We can change history. War is obsolete and far too costly, especially when there are other ways.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Serving his country: James Lawson in The Butler

From August 17-24, 2013, for eight solid days and evenings, approximately 55 of us gathered in Nashville, Tennessee at the premier James Lawson Institute, an educational forum on strategic nonviolence inspired by and guided by the man who was not only one of the leading intellects of the Civil Rights movement, but its best and foremost trainer in tactical nonviolence.
James Lawson--who, by the way, long resisted all efforts to name this institute for him and only ultimately capitulated to honor the wishes of the funding and organizing group--was with us every day and evening. He delivered two major speeches and offered a great deal of context and strategic thought throughout the eight day institute. He is one of the most humble, brilliant, lovable, thoughtful, humorous, insightful educators I've ever known--and a man of his word and of his conscience, starting for him when, at age 22 (born in 1928), with a ministerial deferment, he chose rather to resist conscription during the Korean War and served more than a year in prison.

Near the end of the institute, Rev Lawson mentioned the film The Butler, in which Jesse Williams plays him. Later that evening, I found out who this actor was (I'm not very TV-literate, and obviously not celebrity-conscious). The next morning at breakfast, as Rev Lawson was going through the cafeteria line, I mentioned that the actor who played him was voted one of the 100 sexiest men alive. The Rev laughed so hard he almost dropped his tray.

Rev Lawson will be 85 next month. He should be in his rocking chair, if not a nursing home, by our cultural expectations. He has long outlived his statistical life for African American males--amongst those with the shortest lifespan in the US. Instead, he is vital, engaged, on his feet when he has something to offer, and knew everyone's name almost immediately, a skill that I envy. Indeed, I am going to have to regretfully stop using my advancing age (soon to be 63) as an excuse for my failings, having been around a man old enough to be my father for this intense eight days and watching him outperform many who are a quarter his age.

So last night I had to see The Butler. It is a complex set of interconnected stories of racist violence, racist culture, and racial advancement. Forest Whitaker--the butler--is the outstanding lead, Oprah Winfrey is perfect as his evolving wife, and the entire cast is compelling--how can we not go see a film in which Nancy Reagan is played by Jane Fonda and John Cusak is Richard Nixon? Impossibly unavoidable. But not until I watched Jesse Williams play James Lawson right after spending a week with the Reverend did I really internalize serious admiration for consummate acting skill. Williams sticks it. He gets Lawson's expressions, mannerisms, intensity, and loving commitment to both spirituality and effective, rigorous training. Williams has watched the same archival footage I have, and spent time perfecting his character. I have never in my life said an acting performance made me cry. This one did. Jesse Williams brought me to tears when he brought the real spirit of the Reverend James Lawson to a Hollywood film--a film now being attacked by the rightwing (for its accuracy, which makes it such a dangerous bit of entertainment).

Watch We Were Warriors, the film segment about Nashville and the Sit-In Kids in the 2000 York Zimmerman documentary A Force More Powerful. That 30 minute segment features archival footage and current interviews with Rev James Lawson. Then watch The Butler. Somewhere in there read David Halberstam's The Children. And if you can, go hear the Rev talk. He lives in Los Angeles and is still active. His life has been an astonishing set of commitments and accomplishments, underscored by herculean persistence. I was so honored that I was chosen to be one of the founding faculty of this excellent institute and I'm sure all that fed into my emotional state watching Lawson, as depicted by Williams, prepare innocent college kids for the abuse they would take when they merely politely sat at a lunch counter in Nashville and asked to be served.

Why teach them to take it without complaint or defensive response? Why educate, train, and drill them in the psychological skill set it takes to show true superior nonviolent discipline? Rev Lawson--who was just returning to the US in 1959 after studying Gandhian nonviolence in India for three years--knew that in every campaign for justice the challengers would get what I call The Test. They would be attacked. If they responded with violence, or even whining, their image would provide justification for further violence and would stop attracting many new participants. Lawson prepared these young people and they rose to it. Images were so clearly contrasted; dignified and courageous black (and some white) young students taking physical and verbal abuse from snarling, hateful, foaming, ignorant racists. The Test provided the image that galvanized the country, again and again, generating enormous sympathy and Civil Rights gains, one campaign after the next. Rev Lawson is the historic figure who gave them that edge, that model of training, that technique that turned philosophical nonviolence to strategic nonviolence. His model was replicated and disseminated.

So seeing that training in a Hollywood movie, when so little of it happens any longer, made me cry. I was really crying for the loss of advantage for Occupy, for Arab Spring, for any movement that struggles less successfully with The Test, even though the knowledge is right there for them. "Oh, well, we know all that. We got nonviolence training. We have evolved. We are all about ruckus now."

Uh-huh. The Lawson model won and won and won. It wore down its participants, it's true, and some degenerated into armed defense--the ultimate loser in the US, also well depicted in The Butler. Of course, romantic notions of violent revolution are sexy and mythologically appealing, even when the track record sucks. So we need a Lawson Institute every year and more of them to proliferate.

From one who learned nonviolence from Marv Davidov, an old Minnesota radical who learned it directly from the workshops formed by Lawson in the South in the Civil Rights years, I am so grateful for the wisdom and patience of the Rev James Lawson, an American hero.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Witness to war crimes: Our Genovese Syndrome again

How culpable is the person who watches a mugger rob someone and does nothing? What is our social psychology as we bystand silently and our government gears up toward yet another war crime?

Lies or misleading information that leads to war should be an enforceable war crime and crime against humanity. The UN actually took the first baby step toward that in 1947 and has made virtually no progress since. It was titled "Resolution adopted by the General Assembly 110 (II). Measures to be taken against propaganda and the inciters of a new war." The strongest measure, unfortunately, was mere condemnation. There was no mandate to the Security Council to level economic or political sanctions if such propaganda were proven.

We are watching another such crime against humanity unfold and the crime of incitement propaganda is about to descend into more serious bloody war crimes. The Pentagon--apparently leading the President instead of the other way around--is claiming that Syria's agreement to let the UN experts inspect alleged chemical weapon use is "too late to be credible." This is almost exactly the language used by Bush and Cheney to falsely justify the invasion of Iraq. We seem about to attack Syria with a similar low level of evidence. Indeed, analysts from that Condi Rice/Robert Gates school of hawkthought are weighing in with their private enterprise persuasion. For years the rightwing invested $millions in "institutes" that produced this thinking. Now they just form for-profit consultancies and get hired to write analysis that promotes more bloodshed all the time. They produced Shock and Awe in Baghdad in 2003 and they have produced Shock and Awe in slo-mo in the US by bleeding our resources to war, to war, to war, leaving everything else crumbling.
And, as usual, the rightwing media is featuring the calls of John McCain for a military strike right now. I'm almost waiting for McCain to demand that Obama override the ban on production of chemical weapons and allow US contractors to make them so we can give them to the Syrian rebels. Seriously, the older I get, the more I see things happen that I once thought were so fringe and so objectionable that they were impossible--until the war hawks make them happen. Of course even in this case--cruise missiles from off-shore aircraft carriers seem the most likely murder weapon--McCain and his ilk will be criticizing Obama for waiting too long and telling their base that the US should have done this much earlier.

Some cogent analysis suggests that this is all about who controls what oil flow from the region, and that is frankly credible, but there is an even more basic problem. The conflict industry is determined to enrich themselves endlessly at the expense of the American taxpayer. Calls for more military involvement, more weapons use or export, all serve this war profiteering complex and it's blood money. In our democracy the blood is on our hands.

I've been out of town for 10 days and am emailing my friends to find out where and when to meet to demonstrate against striking Syria. I'm hoping this is spontaneously and naturally happening across our great country. Daniel Ellsberg was featured in the brilliant 1974 Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, in which he said (paraphrase), "It is to the eternal credit of the American people that they react strongly against those who fool them in order to commit acts of war. It is to the eternal shame of the American people that they are so easy to fool."

Let us try not to be fooled again. Let us overcome the "Bystander Effect" and try to stop a US attack that will kill even more Syrian civilians and precipitate even more war in the Middle East.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Go with the flow

Every academic term I assign my students in some of my classes a group project. They must think up some goal to change public policy or corporate policy and come up with a hypothetical plan to achieve that change in less than six months. We start studying actual successful campaigns. We talk about lessons learned, what might be transferable, and how to think about their own campaigns. The final week of class, they are the show. They present their campaigns and we all ask questions and discuss the likelihood of success.

At the center of all campaigns is their flow chart. This is not brain surgery and has been around more than 90 years. They deconstruct the working elements of their campaign--meta-goal development, campaign goal-setting, coalition-building, investigative work, recruitment, trainings, media, actions, fund-raising, events, negotiations, legal work, etc.--and build their flow chart from a reverse-engineered assumption that they will succeed in less than half a year, preferably faster, since the sooner you can achieve a victory, the more rapid the movement growth. Time is the x axis, of course, and tasks are stacked up the y axis.

Each situation is different, of course. In many cases, the campaign only invites ridicule and high costs by launching street actions before garnering a good number of willing participants. The same can be true of mainstream media work--social media and other alternative media is a different bar in that flow chart, of course.

Working with your strategic team and point people, that flow chart can be adaptively modified on a weekly basis. Areas that are not going as well can get more personnel, more resources, and fresh thinking. This can keep everything moving forward in a coordinated fashion.

It can also give multi-talented people a chance to participate more in one task when that task is running hot, and jump to another task when needs shift. The campaign can readjust for developments, for events, for a sudden influx of funds, in-kind donations, or recruits. New people can join the strategic update, assessment, and adjustment meetings as appropriate.

First they ignore you. Then you make a flow chart. Then they laugh at you. Then you follow the flow chart. Then they fight you. Then you win.