How Empires Fall

… Including the American One … Published on ZNet, by Andy Kroll and Jonathan Schell, March 02, 2012.

… One afternoon in January, I met Schell, now the Nation’s peace and disarmament correspondent, in his office at the Nation Institute, where he’s a fellow, a few blocks from Union Square in Manhattan. It was a bright space, and for a writer, surprisingly clean and uncluttered. A Mac laptop sat opened on his desk, as if I’d walked in mid-sentence. Various editions of Schell’s books, including his Vietnam War reportage The Village of Ben Suc, were nestled into the bookshelves among titles popular and obscure.   

I settled into an empty chair next to Schell, who wore a jacket and khakis, and started my recorder. Soft-spoken and articulate, he described the world as elegantly in person as he does in his writing:

AK:

  • As you say in the book, they sounded eerily like Carl von Clausewitz, the famed Prussian war philosopher of the eighteenth century.

Schell:

  • Yes exactly, because they knew that the heart of their strength was their victory in the department of hearts and minds. Eventually, the U.S. military learned that as well. I remember a Marine commandant, “Brute” Krulak, who said the United States could win every battle until kingdom come — and it was winning almost every battle — and still lose the war. And it did lose the war. That was what I saw in Vietnam: the United States winning and winning and winning until it lost. It won its way to defeat.
  • Then there was the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland. I had friends, Irena and Jan Gross, who had been kicked out of Poland in 1968 for being dissidents and for being Jewish (thanks to an anti-Semitic campaign of that moment). Even if there were sparks of rebellion in Poland, it seemed the definition of noble futility: to be up against a government backed by the Polish secret police, and the whole repressive apparatus of the Soviet Union — the Red Army, the KGB, a nuclear arsenal. What did the rebels have to work with? They weren’t even using guns. They were just writing fliers and demonstrating in the street and sometimes occupying a factory. It looked like the very definition of a lost cause.
  • Yet, as the years went by, I began see some of the names of people Irena and Jan had been contacting in the papers. They’d been sending packages of crackers and cheese and contraband literature to someone called Adam Michnik and someone called Jacek KuroÅ„ — who turned out to be kingpins in the precursor movement to Solidarity and then in Solidarity itself.
  • And when Solidarity bloomed, being entirely nonviolent, it shed new light on the question I’d been asking myself: What was this something that overmatched superior violence?
  • Solidarity exhibited another version of political power, an entirely nonviolent kind. From there, I was led to see that there were forms of nonviolent action that could unravel and topple the most violent forms of government ever conceived — namely, the totalitarian. This went entirely against the conventional wisdom of political science, which taught that force is the ultima ratio, the final arbiter; that if you had superior weaponry and superior military power you were the winner. Really that was the consensus from left to right with very few exceptions.
  • So I asked myself what exactly is nonviolent action? What is popular protest? How does it work?

The Einstein of Nonviolence: … //

… The Hidden Sphere of the Human Heart and Mind:

AK:

  • Unconquerable World was published in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the drum beat of invasion mania reached a deafening roar. How did that affect the book’s reception?

JS:

  • At the moment it came out, in this country certainly, the believers in violence reigned supreme. Here I was saying all empires are going under the waves, and here under George W. Bush was the U.S. styling itself as the last world-straddling imperial superpower about to administer an unstoppable, shock-and-awe demonstration of its might. So it was a particularly unpropitious moment for a message about the power of nonviolence. There were some favorable reactions, but at that point the book didn’t really enter the broader discussion.
  • I honestly wondered myself whether this history of successful nonviolent movements hadn’t… [he hesitates] if not ended, at least come to a pause. Eight years later, I was as surprised as anyone by the Arab Spring. And while I’d certainly hoped for something like the Occupy movement in the United States, I hadn’t foreseen that either. I was happily surprised by these movements, which gave new life to the whole tradition of nonviolent action and revolution.
  • The reason I had wondered whether we weren’t at some sort of pause was that so much of the nonviolent action of the twentieth century had been tied to the anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements. Certainly that was true with Gandhi and the Soviet Union. Even the civil rights movement in the United States was, in a certain sense, a response to a crime that had really begun under imperial auspices — namely, the slave raids in Africa, which were distinctly an imperial enterprise. If I was right that a certain kind of territorial imperialism imposed by force had run its course, then maybe so had the movements generated in opposition to it. There were a few examples where that wasn’t the case. Myanmar, for example.
  • There was, however, another aspect to the surprise of 2011. I think it may be the nature of such nonviolent movements that they come as a surprise, because at their very root seems to be a sudden change in the hidden sphere of the human heart and mind that then becomes contagious. It’s as though below the visible landscape of politics, whose permanence and strength we characteristically overestimate, there’s this other landscape we rather pallidly call the world of opinion.
  • And somewhere in this landscape of popular will, in these changes in hearts and minds — a phrase that has become a cliché but still expresses a deep truth — lie hidden powers that, when they erupt, can overmatch and bring down existing structures. That’s what John Adams said about the American Revolution: the revolution was in the hearts of the people, the minds of the people. It was amazing to find that very Vietnam-era phrase in Adams’ eighteenth century writings. What John Adams was saying you find over and over again in the history of revolutions, once you look for it.

Occupy and Freedom:

I used to say that, before the Occupy movement here, we Americans were suffering from our own energy crisis, which was so much more important than not being able to drill for crude oil. We didn’t know how to drop a bucket into our own hearts and come up with the necessary will to do the things that needed to be done. The real “drill, baby, drill” that we needed was to delve into our own consciousness and come up with the will:

AK:

  • How do you see the history of nonviolent action since Unconquerable Worldwas published? What were you thinking about the Tunisian uprising, the Egyptian uprising, the Occupy movement, the general global protest movement of the present moment that arose remarkably nonviolently?

JS:

  • I was astonished. Even now, I don’t feel that I understand what the causes were. I’m not even sure it makes sense to speak of the causes. If you point to a cause — oppression, food prices rising, cronyism, corruption, torture — these things go on for decades and nothing happens. Nobody does anything. Then in a twinkling everything changes. Twenty-three days in Egypt and Mubarak is gone.
  • How and why a people suddenly develops a will to change the conditions under which it’s living is, to me, one of the deep mysteries of all politics. That’s why I don’t blame myself or anyone else for not expecting or predicting the Arab Spring. How that happens may, in the end, be undiscoverable. And I think the reason for that is connected to freedom. Such changes in opinion and will are somewhere near the root of what we mean when we talk about the exercise of freedom. Almost by definition, freedom refers to something not visibly or obviously caused by anything else. Otherwise it would be compelled, not free.
  • And yet there is nothing obscure — in the sense of clouded or dark — about freedom. Its exercise is perhaps the most public of all things, as well as the most powerful, as recent history shows. It’s a daylight mystery.

(full long text).

Links:

US Will Lose Influence over Mideast, on Ria Novosti.ru, by Syrian Mufti, March 3, 2012;

Russia Enters Day of Silence before Presidential Election,  on Ria Novosti.ru, March 3, 2012.

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