Book Review & Literature

Book Review: Against All Odds; The Iraqi Nonviolent Movement

by Judith Mahoney Pasternak

Book jacket art courtesy

If you follow the Western media, the news from Iraq is almost always bad. A quarter century of war, including 13 years of brutal sanctions, invasion, a no less brutal eight-year occupation, an externally imposed, undemocratic and repressive government, and now the attempt by the Islamic State to remake Iraq in its image — all have resulted in millions of deaths, and the toll keeps rising. “Such a bruised country! No society can withstand such pressure,” declares Indian journalist Vijay Prashad in his foreword to Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq [Washington, D.C. and Beirut: Tadween Publishing, 2015].

Yet there is another side to the story of Iraq, one that has been rendered all but invisible in the media, which seem to have no room for the words “hope” and “Iraq” in the same sentence. In February of 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the hunger for a better future for Iraq — a hunger that had been repressed but never suppressed — arose again in force in cities across the ravaged country, in the form of a decentralized mass nonviolent protest movement. Against All Odds is the story of that movement, told in part by War Resisters League organizer and writer Ali Issa, and in part by eight leaders of different segments of that movement.

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Book Review: Badshah Khan and Islamic Nonviolence

by Paul Rogers

Badshah Khan wih Gandhi; photograph courtesy

The story of Badshah Khan, told in Heathcote Williams’ new book, Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior, London: Thin Man Press, 2015, is a powerful antidote to Islamophobia. Anyone who has also seen Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi will remember the vivid depiction of the Amritsar massacre in April 1919 when British and Gurkha troops under the command of General Reginald Dyer opened fire on unarmed protestors and killed well over 350 people. It was one of the worst atrocities committed by the British in India, but far from the only one.

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Gandhi’s Better Angels: A Vision for a Nonviolent Future

by Max Cooper

Cover art courtesy

Amongst the scores of letters he attended to every day, Mahatma Gandhi responded to one V.N.S. Chary, on April 9, 1926. Chary’s original letter does not survive, but we may reconstruct from the Mahatma’s response that he raised a particular existential question that has long troubled many practitioners of nonviolence: Is overcoming violence really possible? Is violence not simply an ineluctable feature of embodied existence and human nature? Questions in this spirit have a long history, having been explored by thinkers such as Heraclitus, Freud, Nietzsche, and others, who have often emphasized the essential duality of worldly existence – of the mutual necessity of opposites – for good to exist, so must evil; to know peace, perhaps we must know violence.

In his letter, Mr. Chary appears to have cited examples from the animal world: Hawks eat snakes; snakes eat lizards; lizards eat cockroaches, who themselves eat ants. This violence is simply natural, and it occurs perhaps for a greater good. If beings did not eat other beings, life on earth would not be possible. Beyond Chary’s points, we might also reflect that even our own human bodies are unavoidably violent; besides periodically crushing or inhaling insects unawares, our own white blood cells are constantly exterminating malignant bacteria; if they failed to kill these bacteria, we would die. Is violence not necessary for life, and should we not see it as unreasonable, or indeed impossible, to hope for a renunciation of violence?

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Enlightenment and Violence: How the Indian National Movement and Mahatma Gandhi Reshaped the Human Heritage of the Democratic Enlightenment

by Tadd Graham Fernée

Cover art courtesy

The sea changes in 20th century experience provide the ground for dismantling the often tacit colonial paradigm which erased non-Western viewpoints, and for incorporating the wider human experiences of modernity, development, progress, scientific achievement, secularism, the nation, justice, ethics and aesthetics. A case is made in my book, Enlightenment and Violence: Modernity and Nation-Making, for an Enlightenment ideal grounded in identifiable values committed to nonviolent conflict resolution, rather than a single cognitive worldview claiming a ‘new’ monopoly on ‘truth’. Modern science, in itself, yields no fixed picture of things, nor provides the comfort of a single fixed worldview. It follows that the Enlightenment heritage should shift from totalizing epistemic claims to the ethical core of Enlightenment in nonviolence. Where claims to total truth or moral certitude justify mass murder – even on grounds of modern secular ideologies – the Enlightenment has been fundamentally betrayed. From this perspective, the book is an auto-critique of the many-sided universal Enlightenment heritage. It comparatively studies nation-making patterns, experiments and revolutions in terms of the criterion of non-violence as an ideal normative value.

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The Enlightenment’s Unfinished Business: Adding Gandhian Values to Nation-Making

by William J. Jackson

19th century print of the Enlightenment, courtesy

Tadd Graham Fernée’s new book, Enlightenment and Violence: Modernity and Nation-Making, causes readers to consider some timely issues. I will begin by mentioning some of the issues it has caused me to mull over and explore, questions the book raises both directly and indirectly.

Chronologically, the European Enlightenement ran from 1650-1800. It was a period of remarkable advances in rationality, science and technology, and also a time of new social theories and revolutionary acts of violence ushering in the modern age. Typical dictionary definitions describe the Enlightenment as an eighteenth century movement of philosophical thought which explored the potential of the empirical method in science, questioned authority, and developed new political theories. While many people think of the Enlightenment as dead and gone, it is possible, and reasonable, to see it in another way. It can be seen as a time of blossoming advances which are still bearing fruit, of ongoing intellectual probes and experiments still giving birth to new sets of viewpoints and refinements which are capable of being informed by non-Europeans now, long after the chronological period of the original phase of the Enlightenment has passed.

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The Little Fir Tree: A Fairy Tale

by Manfred Kyber

Editor’s Preface: Manfred Kyber (1880-1933) was born in Riga, now the capital of Latvia, but then a part of Russia. His family was German and when he was still a small boy they moved back to Germany. He studied philosophy at the University of Leipzig and later moved to Berlin where he published a novel, poetry, and theater criticism. He married Elisabeth Boltho, a Theosophist through whom he met Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and mystic, and became associated with the anthroposophical movement, which Steiner led. Kyber was not only a pacifist but an outspoken early proponent of animal rights. As well as poetry and novels, he published several volumes of fables and fairy tales, many of which have been translated into English. See the note at the end for links and further details about the translation and translator. Please note that we have also posted two other fairy tales by Kyber, “The Daily Work before Sunrise”, and “The Key of Heaven”.  WJJ

Illustration courtesy

Once upon a time, deep in a forest of firs, there was a little fir tree who yearned to be a Christmas tree. But that is not as easy as most things in the community of trees, because Saint Nicholas is very firm in regard to his policies, and allows only those trees which have been duly recorded in his book to go into towns and cities as Christmas trees.

The book is frightfully thick, as is proper for a good old saint, and Saint Nicholas takes it with him into the woods on clear cold winter nights and records which trees are to be chosen for the Christmas celebrations.

And the trees, thrilled that they have been chosen for Christmas Eve festivities, bow before him in gladness to thank him, and then the saint’s halo glows, and that is very beautiful, and very solemn.

Now this little fir tree deep in the forest of firs yearned to be a Christmas tree. But for many years Saint Nicholas, when passing by the little fir tree in the clear cold winter nights, had said nothing, absolutely nothing. The poor little fir tree had not been noticed, and so he became very, very sad, and began weeping and weeping, and all his branches trickled with tears.

When someone weeps so much that he begins trickling, someone is bound to hear it. Indeed, this weeping could be heard by a small gnome. He wore a green moss cloak, had a grey beard, and a flame-red snout, and lived in a dark hole.

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The Key of Heaven: A Fairy Tale

by Manfred Kyber

Perugino, “Christ giving Peter the Keys to Kingdom of Heaven”; Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

Once upon a time, there was a very great and powerful king who ruled over many lands. All the treasures of the earth belonged to him, and he sported daily with the precious gemstones of Ophir and the roses of Damascus. But with all his great wealth and his great kingdom, there was still one thing he lacked, and that was the key to the gate of heaven.

He had sent out a thousand messengers to search for the key of heaven, but none could bring it to him. He had asked many wise men who had come to his court where one might find the key of heaven, but none of them had known the answer. Only one, a man from India with strange eyes, who smiled, pushing aside the precious gems of Ophir and the roses of Damascus with which the king sported, said to him: “All the treasures of the earth may be received as presents, but each person must seek individually for the key of heaven.”

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The Daily Work before Sunrise: A Fairy Tale

by Manfred Kyber

Cover art for Kyber’s fairy tales; courtesy

Once upon a time, there was a blacksmith’s workshop and a blacksmith who labored there each day.

This blacksmith was unique, because his daily work was finished before sunrise.

It is a very difficult kind of daily work, which this blacksmith does. A person doing this kind of work becomes weary and sad. And one becomes calm and patient because of it, too. This kind of labor takes a lot of strength. Because someone who does this kind of work lives alone, and hammers in the twilight.

Now it was night, and the blacksmith was not at his forge. The fire-spirit in the chimney slept too. Only the fire-spirit’s breath faintly glowed off and on, glimmering under the ashes, and now and then scattering sparks around in the darkness. But the sparkles soon went out. Only a small gleam of light remained, and when it flickered, it cast glowing light beams that seemed to hurry here and there on the floor and walls, as if wandering and seeking something in the darkness of the smithy.

The relaxed bellows let its great stomach hang in plain glum folds, though when it is folded it becomes slimmer. It reminds us of how a stout master can grow skinny all of a sudden. One could have laughed about this, but in the smithy there was no one who understood how to laugh.

The anvil turned his fat head with its sharp pointed nose slowly in each direction, and looked at the old pieces of iron which would be hammered today. It was not much to look at. Only a few worn pieces huddled together. They lay in a corner, and they were dirty and dusty, like folks who have a long and difficult journey behind them.

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The Ordinary, Extraordinary Life of David Hartsough

by Ken Butigan

Cover art courtesy

Years ago, my friend Anne Symens-Bucher would regularly punctuate our organizing meetings with a wistful cry, “I just want to live an ordinary life!” Anne ate, drank and slept activism over the decade she headed up the Nevada Desert Experience, a long-term campaign to end nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. After a grueling conference call, a mountainous fundraising mailing, or days spent at the edge of the sprawling test site in 100-degree weather, she and I would take a deep breath and wonder aloud how we could live the ordinary, nonviolent life without running ourselves into the ground.

What we didn’t mean was: “How do we hold on to our radical ideals but also retreat into a middle-class cocoon?” No, it was something like: “How can we stay the course but not give up doing all the ordinary things that everyone else usually does in this one-and-only life?” Somewhere in this question was the desire to not let who we are — in our plain old, down-to-earth ordinariness — get swallowed up by the blurring glare of the 24/7 activist fast lane.

These ruminations came back to me as I plunged into the pages of David Hartsough’s new memoir, Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist. David has been a friend for 30 years, and over that time I’ve rarely seen him pass up a chance to jump into the latest fray with both feet — something he’d been doing long before we met, as his book attests. For nearly six decades he’s been organizing for nonviolent change — with virtually every campaign, eventually getting tangled up with one risky nonviolent action after another.

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Book Review: The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era by Shawn Francis Peters

by Joseph Geraci

Dust wrapper art courtesy Oxford University Press

The Catonsville Nine protest has often been described as one of the most significant pacifist protests of the Vietnam War era, or, in the words of the actor Martin Sheehan, “arguably the single most powerful antiwar act in American history.” But was it nonviolent, and why should it matter to ask?

All of the Nine were catholic clergymen or laity and took their inspiration, as they said, from the Sermon on the Mount, Vatican Council II, and the recent encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”). They were grounded in the Christian pacifism of Tolstoy and Dorothy Day, and influenced by the social message and call to action of Liberation Theology.

As Shawn Francis Peters writes in his arresting history, The Catonsville Nine (Oxford University Press, 2012), “They framed their protest as a call to rouse their church from its slumber regarding peace and social justice issues.” And as one of the Nine, Tom Melville declared, “Our church has failed to act officially, and we feel that as individuals we’re going to have to speak out in the name of Catholicism and Christianity.” The protest action was rich in symbols; it resembled a ritual. As they set fire to the nearly 400 draft files with their own homemade napalm, they spoke of the flame as “more than a mechanism for destroying the draft files. It was an enduring Christian symbol that evoked Pentecost.” Daniel Berrigan prayed that the flame would “light up the dark places of the heart, where courage and risk were awaiting a signal, a dawn.”

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi