Archive for ethics

Eradicating Warism, Our Most Dangerous Disease

Eradicating Warism: Our Most Dangerous Disease*
by Duane L. Cady

Preface
“Ki mai koe a au, he ahate mea nui o te, He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!”
(“If you ask what is the most important thing in the world, it is the people! The People! The People!”)
–Maori saying

Given the many problems in the world, given the violent track record of the United States of America since World War II, and given the current reckless leadership in the U.S., you may be wondering ‘why have an American speak at a conference on pacifism and public policy, much less give a keynote address?’ After all, the U.S. has more military personnel on foreign soil than any other nation, the U.S. leads all nations in international arms sales (making dangerous people ever more dangerous), and the U.S spends more of its resources for weapons and war than any other nation…by a factor of four.  (Wikipedia)

Mine is a violent country domestically as well. Americans love chanting “we’re number one,” “we’re number one,” “we’re number one.” Well…we are number one in domestic gun deaths year after year, and this by powers of ten.

The rate of gun deaths in the US is five times that of Canada, ten times that of New Zealand, and more than forty times that of the United Kingdom. Our national motto was “E pluribus unum” – out of many, one – for more than 150 years; it was changed to “In God we trust” in the 1950s when the Cold War was on the rise. Were our national motto to be descriptively accurate it would be “in violence we trust.” As Martin Luther King Jr. put it in 1967, “America is the most violent country on earth.” There is little doubt but that he would reiterate this observation were he still with us today. How, then, can an American, of all people, say anything helpful about pacifism?

Perhaps there is something to be said for observing our violent world from “within the belly of the beast.” After all, it was this context of American violence that produced Martin Luther King, Jr., arguably the most significant contributor to pacifist theory and practice since Gandhi’s death in 1948. Dr. King began his experiments with truth –appropriating Gandhian ahimsa (nonviolence) to the case of lawful racial separation in the United States in the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama– and extending his use of nonviolent direct action both to oppose the U.S. war in Vietnam and to challenge national policy on poverty, the causes King was consumed with at the time of his murder April 4,1968. In “Ending the Silence,” a major address one year to the day before his death, King identified the “giant triplets” which he regarded as the dominant values in America: racism, materialism, and militarism. He saw these three to be inextricably bound together. Addressing any of the three effectively requires addressing all of them. In his last and most radical book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King extends his critique beyond the United States to make it global with his metaphor of the “world house.” Our world has shrunk to the point that all human beings are neighbors, better, housemates. If we fail to get along, we will fail to survive. As King himself put it, “we must learn to live together or we will be forced to perish as fools.” In what follows, I see myself as working in the tradition of Gandhi and King, attempting to work out the implications of pacifism as it is applied to domestic and international relations.

* * *

The challenge of this conference is rethinking pacifism. Why? Because it is dismissed by dominant culture, embraced by few individuals, and not as effective as we would like it to be regarding public policy. Again, Why?

My thesis is that three obstacles to pacifism are reflected in conventional wisdom: 1) warism – that is, taking war for granted as normal, natural, morally acceptable, and even morally required; 2) pacifism is stereotyped as a moral extreme, an absolute easily dismissed as unrealistic, naïve idealism; and 3) pacifism is seen to be negative, that is, anti-war but nothing more. My task is to remove these obstacles to taking pacifism seriously.

When warism –taking war for granted as morally acceptable—is recognized to be, like racism and sexism, a prejudice that distorts our better judgment, then we can try to set this bias aside and openly consider varieties of pacifism. Warism is the condition that makes possible the other obstacles to taking pacifism seriously, stereotyping it as extreme and as wholly negative.

“Pacifism” means peacemaking. It should not be mistaken for “passivism,” which means being passive, suffering acceptance, not resisting evil. Because the two words sound alike, people often confuse one for the other. In fact, pacifists rarely are passivists; more often they are activists, working for peace.

Pacifism takes many forms, all of them opposing war and other forms of violence. Beyond this negative position of being against war, pacifism involves various positive strategies for making peace. So, there are two sides of pacifism: the negative, anti-war, anti-violence side, and the positive side, offering peaceful alternatives to violence.

While pacifists are dismissed as naïve by a dominant culture that caricatures pacifism as a moral extreme, in fact pacifism grows out of the predominant values of Western culture. Over the past 1,500 years a just war tradition has been developed by scholars and strategists and is accepted by the vast majority of people. Those believing that just war is possible do not say “all’s fair in war” or “in war, anything goes.” Such a view would be war realism. But those believing in just war have ethical criteria guiding their decisions about war. According to the tradition, moral guidelines are needed to answer two basic questions: when are we justified in going to war? And, what moral restraints are required within a just war?

Regarding the first question, going to war requires meeting six conditions: 1) the war must be made on behalf of a just cause; 2) any decision to go to war must be made by proper authorities; 3) participants in war must have a good intention rather than revenge or greed as goals; 4) peace must be likely to emerge after the war; 5) going to war must be a last resort; and 6) the total amount of evil resulting from making war must be outweighed by the good likely to come of it. Once all six conditions are satisfied we can turn to the second question: what moral restraints make possible fighting a war justly?
There are two principles to meet in order to fight a war justly: discrimination and proportionality. First, a war is fought justly only if those making war discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate targets. Children, the elderly, those hospitalized or in nursing homes, even ordinary citizens not part of the war effort, all are illegitimate targets. Only soldiers and those working to advance war making can be targeted. The second standard, proportionality, requires that the evil of each individual act within war must be offset by the good it brings about. Those supporting just war allow for “spillage,” where bombs may target weapons factories or enemy soldiers but inadvertently injure or kill non-combatants. But, again, such so-called “collateral damage” must be offset by the good accomplished by the war.

For a war to be just, it must meet all the conditions and answer both questions. Meeting just a few of the conditions is not enough. Just wars require moral justification for going to war as well as moral restraint within war once it begins. War would be less problematic if those who believe in just war would understand and satisfy the moral conditions of their own tradition.

Pacifism emerges as people take the moral restraints on war ever more seriously. Varieties of pacifism differ by degree. It is helpful to understand various forms of pacifism by thinking of degrees of moral restraint along a continuum between accepting the just war tradition and accepting absolute pacifism.
The weakest form of pacifism, operating alongside versions of just war thinking, is called “pragmatic pacifism.” Here war is not opposed in principle but is opposed in particular cases because violence is not likely to work in the situation at hand; resorting to violence would only make matters worse. Pragmatic pacifists sometimes support and other times oppose war, depending on their judgment concerning the most practical solution to the problem at hand. Pragmatic pacifists will grant that war can be justified in some cases, but hold that, as a matter of practical utility, avoiding war is more likely to be effective in achieving the goals of a given conflict. For example, one might find slavery sufficiently evil to warrant war to free the enslaved, or might think that violence would only give slave owners an excuse to use extreme violence against any freedom movement among slaves.

A somewhat stronger view along the pacifist spectrum is “nuclear pacifism.” Here nuclear war is prohibited because it cannot meet the just war conditions of discrimination and proportionality. There is no way to hit only legitimate targets with nuclear weapons. They are inherently indiscriminate, destroying children, the elderly, hospitals and homes as readily as military installations and weapons factories. And nuclear war is never a pragmatic solution. Nuclear pacifists often reject the nuclear option on moral grounds yet cling to conventional warfare as sometimes justifiable.

This brings us to “technological pacifism,” the view that the technology of modern war has made conventional warfare nearly as indiscriminate as nuclear war, so that the just war requirements are never met now days due to the inevitable impact on innocents. Modern conventional war frequently spills over to harm more innocent bystanders than legitimate military targets. Perhaps war was justified many years ago when volunteers met on remote battlefields with spears, but war as we know it today is simply too big and too difficult to control. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century most casualties of war were military, but by the end of the Twentieth Century most casualties of war were civilian. If we rigorously enforce the just war guidelines, modern war doesn’t qualify as just since modern war inevitably violates the principles both of proportionality and discrimination. Even on the smaller scale of drone warfare, the principle of discrimination is routinely violated as innocent bystanders are injured and killed in numbers well beyond the injuries and deaths of “terrorists” or other allegedly legitimate targets. The nature of modern war has made the idea of just war obsolete.

Increasing awareness of the fragility of our environment has also resulted in “ecological pacifism,” a version of technological pacifism where moral concern goes beyond the impact of war on people and society to focus on the implications of war for our planet, its ecosystems, and the host of species they support, as well as for the sustainability of air and water quality for current and future generations of all living things. Ecological pacifists point out that the largest single threat to the global environment is military, not least because Earth’s military systems are the greatest sources of environmental contamination, including consuming the most fossil fuel. While individuals worry about their personal carbon footprints, their taxes support carbon footprints made by militaries which contribute to environmental damage exponentially beyond the impact of individuals. If preserving or restoring our environment is a concern, then curbing the pollution and consumption by the world’s military organizations must be paramount. Such concern often leads to ecological pacifism.

“Fallibility pacifism” is the view that even if some modern wars could meet the just war conditions in principle, our knowledge is too limited to substantiate their application in fact. Due to the sheer scale of war, we cannot know relevant factors with sufficient confidence to warrant violent actions between nations. Given the subtlety and complexity of issues, the history of tensions, biases of involved parties, propaganda, vested interests, manipulation of news media, and the various inequalities among nations – economic, political, military, geographical – our knowledge cannot be sufficiently secure to justify war, even if war might otherwise seem theoretically justifiable.

“Collectivist pacifism” is the position that violence may be morally justifiable in particular small-scale situations, such as in the execution of a convicted murderer, or fending off a violent attacker by force, but that war cannot be justified due to its sheer magnitude. For instance, although collective pacifists always object to the mass killing that characterizes war, they may allow defensive interpersonal violence when an individual does something so evil that by so doing they thereby forgo any legitimate expectation of the upholding of their human right to be protected from violence themselves. There is no inconsistency in the collectivist pacifist allowing interpersonal violence but rejecting war, since using personal weapons to defend one’s self or one’s family from attack is sufficiently different from participating in war, with its mass violence and enemy anonymity.

Finally as we describe the range of anti-war pacifist positions we approach “absolute pacifism.” On this position it is wrong always, everywhere, for everyone to use violence against another living thing. We can imagine even more absolute pacifisms, where all violence including violence against non-living things is prohibited. Few if any pacifists espouse such an extreme view. Even Gandhi said that if the choice were between violence and cowardice, he would choose violence. The point is that pacifism admits to degrees along a continuum between pragmatic and absolute pacifism, and that most of us find ourselves somewhere between the extremes of the scale.

Having described the range of anti-war pacifism and thus setting aside the accusation that all pacifists hold a single, monolithic, absolute view, we can now turn to the accusation that pacifism is always and only negative. Pacifists do not merely oppose war and violence to varying degrees; they also promote a range of alternatives to violence, a range of practices contributing to positive peace. By “peace” they mean not just the absence of war and violence but the presence of harmonious and cooperative social order. This order arises from among participants rather than being imposed on them from the outside. Positive peace is caricaturized by cooperation within groups. The Cold War was well named: “cold” because overt violence (e.g., bombing and other killing) was avoided; yet “war” because relations were deeply strained, and overt violence seemed to be held at bay only by each side threatening the other with annihilation. The uneasy lack of overt violence in Eastern Europe from the close of world war two until the collapse of the USSR was negative peace at best. By contrast, positive peace involves no threats, no massing of troops or weapons, no coercive force.

Pacifism – literally agreement making (from the Latin pax , peace + facere, building) – happens when a sense of community, shared purpose, and mutual interest all prevail over divisiveness, opposing purposes, and disunity. This is why people of common heritage, shared values, and familiar experiences usually find it easier to be at peace with one another than with those of different traditions, religions, cultures, or ethnicities. Getting along by self-control from within groups comes more naturally when groups are, or seem to be, more alike than foreign. But whether they are as large as nations or as small as nuclear families, when groups or their members are at odds with one another, tension and conflict inevitably arise. For pacifists, the better people understand one another the less likely their conflicts will result in violence. The challenge is to foster a sense of community, of participation, sufficiently strong to overcome divisiveness, differences, and misunderstandings. This harmonious ideal is anchored by a spirit of tolerance and respect, where differences are seen as enhancing possibilities for human experience rather than as threats that must be dominated or destroyed. Pacifists try to internalize practices to foster within themselves –and within their families, neighborhoods, houses of worship, workplaces, states, nations, and so on– the ideal of cooperative community. Such practices are nonviolent because violence always ruptures relationships – the basis of community – and because violence is incompatible with an internally ordered peaceful whole.

All of us succeed at living peacefully to some extent, in any context dependent on cooperative behavior: perhaps with immediate family, close friends, co-workers, team members, neighbors, customers, or even drivers with whom we share the roadways. One of the fascinating features of positive peace, when it happens, is that it rarely occurs to those living peacefully that it is peace they are making; it is simply how they live and interact, habitual and taken for granted. Positive peace is nearly invisible. Unfortunately, there are limits to our peacefulness, and few of us can take cooperation for granted as how we can interact with everyone. Ignorance, fear, impatience, intolerance, all get the upper hand at times, and some individuals are disruptively self-interested, putting themselves above others, or are even bigoted and disrespectful. In the extreme this becomes criminal behavior, and those who rupture the peace must be dealt with. The mark of truly peaceful people is whether their methods of dealing with peace-breakers are consistent with their visions of peace.

Of course the most obvious peaceful method to resolve conflict and achieve agreement is discussion. Where individuals and groups cannot work out agreement by discussion, resolution may be achieved by appeal to an impartial third party. When such arbitration fails, courts may be used to settle disputes. But some conflicts do not get resolution by various legal means.

I cannot delineate all methods of nonviolent peace-building here, but in The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1971), Gene Sharp cites nearly two hundred techniques. All are ways to confront power nonviolently by taking advantage of power’s main vulnerability: that ruling requires the consent of the ruled, a fundamental principle from Gandhi. Beyond discussion, arbitration, and the courts, are political protest and persuasion – acts demonstrating support or opposition. Personal and group letters, lobbying, petitioning, picketing, wearing symbols, marching, singing, and teach-ins, all are examples of this level of nonviolent struggle. Beyond protest and persuasion are methods of noncooperation: strikes, boycotts, slow-downs, withholding funds, reporting in ‘sick,’ walkouts, and embargos. Moving beyond noncooperation are methods of nonviolent intervention: sit-ins, fasting, forming shadow governments, underground newspapers and electronic media, and acts of civil disobedience. All of these methods of nonviolent direct action can be seen as acts along a spectrum expressing increasing degrees of physical confrontation, from cooperative discussion to nonviolent intervention. Just as pacifists may occupy any point along the anti-war continuum, they may inhabit any point on the positive peace-building spectrum. The next step would be violent intervention, which is outside the pacifist range of peace-building options. For the pacifist, leaving the nonviolent range of peace-building techniques is tantamount to surrender because it amounts to betraying one’s ideals in pursuit of them. But perhaps this is too quick; after all, there are legitimate versions of pacifism where a small scale, personal resort to violence, while never desired, can be warranted – such as force used by police to apprehend a criminal for trial. Still, no pacifist can resort to war.

When warism is recognized and taking war for granted is challenged, a variety of pacifist positions become possible. And, as it turns out, pacifism is not naïve or unrealistic at all. In fact, all of us are pacifists to some degree, since all of us oppose violence as a means of interaction in many aspects of our lives. Building on this active nonviolence can expand our capacity for peace-building and make us increasingly wary of war as a solution to conflict.

This brings us back to warism, which I consider the major obstacle to a more peaceful world. Warism is the view that war is morally justifiable in principle and often morally justified in fact. War is considered to be a natural and normal activity of nations. War is simply what nations do. It seems so obvious to most people that war is morally acceptable that they don’t realize it is war they are assuming. Warism is like racism or sexism: a prejudicial bias built into conceptions and judgments without awareness that it is presupposed. Given the prevalence of warism, national focus tends to be on making war effectively or allying with nations who do.

Warism is like an international epidemic. It threatens our very survival because it supports the prevailing means of organizing our world, namely, the war system. Warism is especially insidious because it is nearly invisible behind our building, maintaining, and ever expanding the means of war. Some of us condemn the practices of weapons production, conducting foreign policy by way of military threats –and actions– and devoting growing percentages of national resources to war making. But condemning warism is like condemning cancer; it doesn’t do much good. We have yet to discover ways of exposing and eradicating the sickness that is warism. This would clear the way to replacing the war system.

Racism and sexism have been drastically reduced because they were exposed, dragged out of hiding, and made to be seen for what they are: prejudicial biases that distort our judgments, pervert our values, and mislead us into thinking we know when we do not. Warism is similarly invisible, behind our thoughts and actions, shaping and distorting our perspectives and thus our behavior. Central to exposing warism is shining a light on it, pointing it out, revealing the role it plays behind decisions public and private. Exposing warism is especially difficult because warism is so widely held.

Exposing warism by pointing it out, by bringing it to light, is made especially difficult by the increasing control governments place on the media when it comes to war. During World War II reporters had broad access to soldiers on front lines, often at personal risk. By the US war in Vietnam twenty years later, political considerations began to control media access to troops in action. Government control of media coverage of flag-draped caskets containing remains of soldiers killed in action increased after the Vietnam war, again to thwart opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ownership of the bulk of large media outlets by relatively few multinational corporations contributes to the difficulty as well. Nonetheless good work is done. I’m thinking of rare reporting of US torture in Iraq and the relationship between torture and converting Middle-Eastern citizens into terrorists, of civilian casualties of the US drone warfare program, and of work like that of Nicky Hager here in New Zealand, exposing a US/NZ atrocity in Afghanistan along with government cover up. Such reporting of the truth of war and how it is fought today, reporting without misinformation or cover up, helps to shift the wider culture away from the prevalent warist paradigm. But we need such work to be common rather than rare. This is made especially difficult in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

Sadly, there is no easy or quick fix to the broad cultural addiction to war and the war system that organizes our world. But resisting stereotypes of pacifism by showing the range of pacifist views, demonstrating the positive aspects of pacifism, and exposing the warism behind our values and political decisions all are conditions for taking pacifism seriously. Until we do, our global future promises more violence, more killing, more war. The choice is not merely between war and peace; it is between war and survival. Only a transformation from warism to pacifism can help us to build a sustainable future. If we are to have a long-term future we have no choice but to embrace pacifism.

Eradicating Warism: Our Most Dangerous Disease*
by Duane L. Cady

“Reality” Show Bully as US CEO

Americans are trying to figure out how to have a Happy New Year as the White House is about to be vacated by Michelle and Barack Obama. According to media reports, the new President and First Lady, Donald and Melania Trump, are not likely to live there. Rather, they’ll continue living in their penthouse apartment atop the Manhattan Trump Tower, keeping their son in his school in New York City. Dad will use the White House for ceremonial events, and the Secret Service will scramble to secure the new first family, in any of the Trump Towers they may occupy. So much for cost containment.

Many Americans are also trying to figure out what a Trump presidency will bring, especially since so much of the Donald’s campaign rhetoric turns out to be “inoperative,” as Nixon might say. Trump’s dismissive ridicule of women, physically impaired people, immigrants, even the Purple Heart and a Gold Star family, along with his reckless suggestions of expanding rather than contracting the number of nations with nuclear weapons, dishonest five-year “birther” campaign trying to discredit President Obama, bogus charitable foundation, and plan to put Secretary Clinton in jail, all fade with little accountability, rather like his campaign promise to force Mexico to pay for an impenetrable security wall along our shared southern border. Apparently there’s a gap between saying and doing.

A friend of mine has asked me how serious I am about considering a move to Canada, questioning my own election-season rhetoric. I jokingly reply that the Canadians may wall-off our shared border to the north, making my threat “inoperative” as well. Yet I was serious in considering a move to Vancouver: milder than the Twin Cities of Minnesota, closer to the Seattle branch of our family (including our grandchildren), and an opportunity to live where Prime Minister Trudeau is taking Canada in the opposite direction promised (or threatened) by Mr. Trump, a direction I can support with enthusiasm.

I came close to migrating to Canada once before, in 1968. I had applied to my local draft board for Conscientious Objector Status while in college, but my anti-war argument was dismissed. What I needed –and couldn’t provide– was a paper trail documenting active membership with the Society of Friends (“Quakers”), Mennonites, or the Church of the Bretheran, i.e., participation with a historic “peace church.” As a vague Methodist, my appeal didn’t stand a chance (even a serious Methodist wouldn’t qualify for CO status with my local draft board). A scar from leg surgery while in high school caught the eye of the military doc, so I was reclassified from 1-A to 4-Y, draftable to serve behind compat lines as a typist or clerk only under a declaration of war. Our country has fought many a war since WW II but never under a declaration of war. Now I could go to graduate school in the US rather than Canada. My somewhat arbitrary escape from the Vietnam war pushed me further into anti-war activism.

We need to remember that no one need renounce citizenship to become an expat, and many Americans feel a need to take a stand against the nastiness of the recent campaign and the throwback policies Trump seems to call for. Surely we can’t accept any and all political nonsense; we have to draw a line somewhere.

I don’t know whether I’ll be driven to find my way to Canada –or New Zealand, or Jamaica– to try daily living beyond Trump’s America, but I hope Americans won’t simply accept the shift from serious government to Bully-in-Chief or federal leadership as a reality TV show, with the ratings king at the top. With luck, Mr. Trump will be satisfied with having proven he’s “a winner” and bored with doing the hard work of governing. I’m sure he will not enjoy the pay cut and the required distance from his financial holdings, nor will his cabinet employees. I will not be surprised if
he doesn’t run for reelection; actually, he may be disgusted enough with DC gridlock to resign and leave us with Pence. Happy New Year?

Hilary & Bernie

The national news media named Hillary Clinton the “presumptive nominee” of the Democratic Party for US President on the eve of the California primary, amid questions of journalistic ethics violations. Did the announcement affect the outcome with some Sanders’ supporters not voting because they were told the race was over? We’ll never know.

The national media’s decision to “call” the race for the nomination before the single largest delegation was chosen by voters surprised only the most rabid Sanders supporters. After all, HRC was anointed “presumptive nominee” by the media years ago. Few expected a serious challenge, and the press, TV news, radio, and internet journalists all repeated frequently that Sanders had no real chance. Did this affect the outcome? Certainly. Why vote for a symbolic candidate interested in raising economic and moral concerns only to push the inevitable nominee to address such issues?

Hillary ran as the candidate who could “get things done” and painted Bernie Sanders as a naive idealist. But Bernie appealed to four out of five millennials who are, after all, the future of the party and the nation. So HRC stressed her experience and her practicality while Bernie stressed Hilary’s connections to big money from Wall Street banks and to establishment politicians like Henry Kissinger.

Of course Hillary Clinton’s now official run for the White House is historic; few women have been candidates for the presidency, and none has been a major party nominee until now. Lost amid gender politics is the historic significance of Sander’s achievement: an aging Socialist jew winning twenty-two states and 12,000,000 votes in primaries, and running very near to Clinton (except for Super Delegates), despite her longstanding hold on this opportunity to represent her party and, perhaps, become the first woman president of the US.

It was the polling of Super Delegates that generated the early call of the nomination, since Super Delegates don’t participate in the process until the party convention. By design, Super Delegates protect the party from being hijacked by an outsider. And Sanders, a socialist-independent, certainly is an outsider to the Democratic Party’s system of nomination despite caucusing with Democrats in the Senate. No doubt some in the GOP will be thinking about reforming their nomination process given the outsider, Donald Trump, beating a dozen establishment Republicans to take that party nomination.
Many dedicated Clinton supporters are clammoring for Bernie to concede the race and go away. But Hillary herself took four days to concede to Obama in 2008, hoping to broker a deal for influence going forward. Sanders has earned his right to take his time in an effort to push the political pendulum to the left. After all, it was Hillary’s husband Bill who stole the Republican agenda from Newt Gingrich and swung the Democratic Party to the right of Richard Nixon (who ran on a negative income tax in 1968, something no candidate could do today).

We do live in interesting and historic times. When the dust settles, most Sanders supporters will vote for Hillary, and Bernie will not run as an independent, his most rabid enthusiasts notwithstanding. I expect millennials to vote — for Clinton — though not with the same enthusiasm Sanders inspired. And I expect Trump to dig as much dirt as he can — even invent some if necessary — and present a “scandal” in mid-to-late October, too late for effective fact-checking and thoughtful consideration. Let’s hope the system, while badly bent out of shape, is not sufficiently broken to prompt an exodus for Canada in the face of President Trump.

Novel Recommendation

DO NOT MISS: Marlon James’ award-winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2014), 688 pages.

It took me five hours and 130 pages to get into this demanding work of historical fiction, but it is both rewarding and insightful. James explores political and cultural events in Jamaica from Dec. 2, 1976 through March 22, 1991 (plus background from the successful 1959 Cuban revolution and the failed ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion, the US effort to topple Castro, US and USSR covert tampering with elected governments in Chile, Nicaragua, Argentina, and more in the ’60s), set in Cold War Latin America, complete with the CIA, Cuban agents, rival Jamaican gangs, political upheaval, the People’s National Party led by socialist Michael Manley, the rival Jamaican Labor Party struggle, the rise –and perceived threat– of Bob Marley as more than an entertainer, Marley’s two “peace concerts” aiming at Jamaican unity (including the attempts to murder Marley prior to the first concert), and the sweeping wreckage among ordinary people caught in the crossfire of international economic and political forces.

James presents these events through the words and actions of his 75+ characters, each telling their own story, be it in official British English, the Patois of ordinary Jamaicans, various dialects of ghetto slang, US government jargon, or US pop media gloss. And he moves between these polyphonic linguistic expressions seamlessly, making readers insiders to the sounds, smells, fears, and hopes of those in the struggle.

This is the most compelling read I have had in years. I rank “A Brief History of Seven Killings” alongside W. E. B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Reading “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a complex and difficult undertaking, but, then, as Spinoza put it, “all beautiful things are as difficult as they are rare.”

Eyes on a Different Prize?

Among the most engaging and disturbing articles I’ve read lately is “The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates” in the February 11, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books. Darryl Pinckney, novelist and longtime contributor to the NYRB, reviews Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and compares his work to that of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, mentioning W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. along the way.

Pinckney offers a disturbing analysis of the black struggle in the US as dualistic, expressing “opposing visions of the social destiny of black people. Up, down, all or nothing, in or out, acceptance or repudiation.”(p. 28) Sadly, Coates, reflecting on his father’s “prodding sense that he was seen as less,” seems to be landing on the side of expecting little, certainly not expecting the transformation in race relations that was the prize eyed by SCLC, SNCC, and the ‘60s civil rights legislation, namely, to be judged not on skin color but on character. To Coates father, Gandhi was absurd because “America was not a victim of great rot but the rot itself.”(p. 29) So much for nonviolent social change in the US.

Coates was born in 1975 and grew up forced to study works of black history. But it was rap music that moved him to consciousness at twelve. He tried writing rap and found himself. What mattered to Coates in high school: “girls, clothes, the mall, territory, styling, fights, gangs, homies, reputation, staying alive in West Baltimore, and the music. Black male adolescence had its soundtrack.”(p. 29) When he got in trouble in school, his dad came to school and knocked him down. Better than leaving it to the police, his dad told his mom.

Coates says he hadn’t noticed how different his family was. He was surrounded by fatherless friends, many getting locked up, shot, or on crack. He admits being haunted by his father’s generation. He knows his son is growing up in a different world, yet “there is no difference between him and Trayvon Martin as a youth at risk because he is black in America. His body is not his own; it is not secure. He can be destroyed by American society and no one will be held responsible.” (p.30)

Coates is convinced that progress for whites was at the expense of blacks. With DuBois he sees race as “the child of racism, not its father.” Noting that the Irish were once socially black in America –that is, at the bottom – becoming “white” changed class conflict for them. Anyone allowed to join “white” people could conveniently forget the slavery system on which the country was founded, with its suffering, theft, and death. The American Dream rests on centuries of rule by fear, black families not included in government by the people.

Coates imagined the American Dream to be “out there” in suburbia with its “unworried boys” and somehow connected to his fear. And Coates tells us those who believe in the American Dream must believe that it is just, and that those who achieve it do so as “the natural result of grit, honor, and good works…and must “look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, not forged overnight.”(p 30) Coates wants his son’s life to be different from his, wants him to live without the fear Coates has known, but is hurt by his son’s reaction to the news that no charges will be brought against Michael Brown’s killer in Furgeson.

Yes, race is a social construction; still the damage of racism runs deep. Critics of Between the World and Me have said that Coates offers no hope, that he is resigned to history. While Baldwin calls on free people to celebrate the constancy of birth, struggle, death, and love, Coates seems to see all of us at the mercy of historical forces unable to shape the future. And now American Dreamers are exploiting “not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.”(p. 30)

Is it too late to expect a better future? Is social hope foolishness? Is escape the best we can do, escape into resignation, our writing, the internet, or cynicism? I suppose if we expect the worst we’ll not be disappointed. Still, I’m grateful for Hughes, Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Gandhi, Malcolm X, King, and Coates. Shining a light on racism gives me a glimmer of hope even if Coates finds none, but that may only reflect my “race” privilege.