Sunday, April 26, 2020

Violence, Non-Violent Non-Cooperation, and Human Nature

Violence is an inescapable reality of life. It is not possible to survive without committing violence and, indeed, one's ability to survive is directly proportional to one's capacity to both withstand and deliver violence. If you doubt this premise then just consider how you obtain food, water and shelter: none of those essential commodities can be procured without committing violence against other life forms, from tiny microbes to large plants and animals. Killing is an essential part of living.

Non-violence is an aspirational ideal for human beings interacting with other human beings, but elevating non-violence as the highest ideal can sometimes endanger the most innocent and vulnerable among us. The truth of that seemingly paradoxical statement can be seen by closely examining the concept of non-violent non-cooperation. Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of non-violent non-cooperation is credited with ending the British Empire's rule over his native India. Gandhi instructed his followers to not fight the British militarily, but to refuse to cooperate with the British through boycotts and other measures. Gandhi's goal was to highlight the inequities inherent in British control over the Indian people. Gandhi did not view the British as inherently evil; rather, he sought to expose the evil inherent in colonial rule, and thus exercise moral suasion over British society to end such colonial rule.

Gandhi's ideal of non-violent non-cooperation worked in India because Britain, while flawed, was a nation built on the rule of law. Similarly, when Dr. Martin Luther King adopted Gandhi's principles as cornerstones for the Civil Rights Movement in America, he operated under the basic assumption that non-violent non-cooperation would force the American people to see the evil inherent in Jim Crow laws/segregation, and thus exercise moral suasion over American society to end Jim Crow laws/segregation. Britain and America did not seek to annihilate the Indian and Black people respectively, and thus it was possible to awaken the collective consciences of those countries to the injustices inherent in the way those countries treated Indian and Black people respectively. 

Non-violent non-cooperation can be very effective in open, democratic countries that have racist laws and/or racist subcultures. Non-violent non-cooperation is much less likely to be effective in closed, non-democratic countries that consider mass extermination to be an acceptable policy choice. Failing to distinguish between open, democratic countries, and closed, non-democratic countries is to engage in what Vladimir Nabokov termed "poshlost," for which he gave the following explanation: "Poshlost speaks in such concepts as 'America is no better than Russia' or 'We all share in Germany's guilt.' ...Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost."
Although violent and murderous acts were committed by both British and American forces, it is inconceivable that either country would have made a policy decision to kill every Indian or to kill every Black person. Violence was used as a method of repression and subjugation, with the goal of control, not genocide. Faced with the realization that violence was not effective--and that violence was increasingly viewed by the larger population as immoral and unjust--Britain ultimately ended colonial rule over India, and America ended legally sanctioned segregation.

Non-violent non-cooperation was not a viable strategy when confronting Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, regimes that had no reservations about murdering millions of people. Nazi Germany developed an Endlosung ("Final Solution") policy that prescribed the murder of every Jewish man, woman, and child under Nazi rule. The Nazis meticulously catalogued the Jewish population of Europe, including specific classifications of full-Jews, half-Jews, and so forth, and then relentlessly enacted this policy, even to the extent of diverting personnel and materiel from the war effort to kill as many Jews as possible; the 1942 Wannsee Conference documented the goal of murdering 11,000,000 European Jews under this policy, including the Jewish populations not just of countries currently under Nazi rule, but also the Jewish population of Britain, and the Jewish populations of neutral countries such as Sweden and Switzerland. The Wannsee Protocol meticulously describes how the Nazis planned to implement "the final solution of the European Jewish question" by genocide conducted in various stages and through various specific means. Although the document is filled with euphemisms for genocide, these chilling passages clarify the ultimate goal of the Endlosung program (emphasis added):
Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East. Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes.

The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as a the seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history.)

In the course of the practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east. Germany proper, including the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, will have to be handled first due to the housing problem and additional social and political necessities.
Had Nazi Germany succeeded in conquering the world, there is every reason to believe that the Endlosung policy would have been extended world-wide with the goal of killing every Jewish person.

Therefore, Gandhi's public assertion that European Jewry should accept without resistance whatever fate Hitler's executioners delivered is not only absurd but it is obscene. As Rabbi Shmuley Boteach explains, "What Gandhi failed to realize is that when dealing with moral or at least somewhat humane governments, nonviolent resistance has its place. But when dealing with murderous barbarians such as ISIS or the Nazis, no level of nonviolent resistance will ever change their minds. Gandhi's philosophy would only guarantee that they take over the world."

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains that to overcome certain forms of oppression one must understand that sometimes violence is necessary to survive:
This is certainly a major reason for Moses' ability to lead the Jewish people: he was raised in the palace of Pharaoh, without the fear of a slave, devoid of a slave mentality. Slavery is a tragedy, and one of its consequences is how the victim ends up internalizing the accusations made against him, believing himself to be a worthless parasite, incapable of fighting for his rights. Indeed, Moses learns this lesson after he slays the Egyptian task-master, an act he had probably hoped would incite and inspire the Hebrew slaves to rise up against their captors and demand their freedom. The very next day, when he tries to break up a fight between two Hebrews, they taunt him for having killed the Egyptian; instead of hailing Moses as a hero because he risked his own life to save a fellow Jew, they throw his actions back into his face. Moses now realizes ". . . the incident is known.." (Exodus 15:2). If he wants to save his life, he must flee at once. Slavery corrupts captor and captive alike.

There is yet another issue. Power may corrupt, absolute power may corrupt absolutely--but powerlessness corrupts most of all. A magnificent post-Holocaust Australian play, "The Edge of Night," has a former Kapo declare: "There were no heroes in Auschwitz, there were only those who were murdered and those who survived." And a slave feels impotent, uncertain of his ability to obtain food, and becomes almost obsessed with the desire for a piece of bread--almost at any cost. From this second perspective, the desert possesses not only a stark landscape but also a stark moral message concerning the transformation of an enslaved Hebrew into a freed Hebrew. The manna, which descended daily from heaven, was intended to change the labor camp mentality of greedy individuals in Egypt into a nation in which "...the one who had taken more did not have any extra, and the one who had taken less did not have too little. They gathered exactly enough for each one to eat..." (Exodus 16:17-18)
Moses understood that non-violent non-cooperation was not a viable option in Pharoah's Egypt, even if many of his Hebrew countrymen had been dragged down by the slave mentality to the point that they could not imagine resisting their oppressors. Sometimes, survival means nothing less than kill or be killed.

Unfortunately, many people are either unwilling or unable to discern the true nature of the world; there is a facile tendency to put the most positive spin on even the most horrifying events, a tendency that Cynthia Ozick excoriated in her October 6, 1997 New Yorker essay titled "Who Owns Anne Frank?" Ozick ruefully notes that the signature quote from Anne Frank's diary--"I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart"--does not at all capture the overall tone of Frank's writing. Ozick asks, "Why should this sentence be taken as emblematic, and not, for example, another?" Ozick then quotes from Frank's May 6, 1944 diary entry: "There's a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill." Ozick comments, "These are words that do not soften, ameliorate, or give the lie to the pervasive horror of her time. Nor do they pull the wool over the eyes of history."

Anne Frank's story has been sanitized for public consumption, but the true, complete story is not uplifting or positive. Anne Frank was a young girl whose family was forced into hiding solely because they were Jewish; Anne, her sister Margot and her mother Edith were murdered in Nazi concentration camps as a result of the Endlosung policy described above. Three weeks before Anne and her family were captured by the Nazis--after being betrayed for the equivalent of about one dollar per person--Anne wrote, "I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness. I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions...In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I'll be able to realize them." A few months earlier, Anne wrote, "I've asked myself again and again whether it wouldn't have been better if we hadn't gone into hiding, if we were dead now and didn't have to go through this misery...Let something happen soon...Nothing can be more crushing than this anxiety. Let the end come, however cruel."

Reading those passages, it is easy to understand why Ozick declares, "The diary is not a genial document, despite its author's almost vividly satiric exposure of what she shrewdly saw as 'the comical side of hiding.' Its reputation for uplift is, to say it plainly, nonsensical." Ozick adds that the diary cannot be considered Anne's story in total because "A story may not be said to be a story if the end is missing. And because the end is missing, the story of Anne Frank in the fifty years since The Diary of a Young Girl was first published has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied."

The story of Anne Frank ends with an emaciated girl dying at Bergen-Belsen, one victim out of the six million Jews the Nazis murdered. Ozick says that inspirational blurbs--such as the one calling the diary "a lasting testament to the indestructible nobility of the human spirit"--are "no more substantial than any other display of self-delusion. The success--the triumph--of Bergen-Belsen was precisely that it blotted out the possibility of courage, that it proved to be a lasting testament to the human spirit's easy destructibility. 'Hier ist kein Warum,' a guard at Auschwitz warned: here there is no 'why,' neither question nor answer, only the dark of unreason. Anne Frank's story, truthfully told, is unredeemed and unredeemable."

As Martin Amis put it in the Afterword to his novel Time's Arrow, "The National Socialists found the core of the reptile brain, and built an autobahn that went there." While the systematic, brutal efficiency of the Holocaust is unique, violence is a universal part of the human condition. It is unpleasant but important to note that American history is drenched in blood. In The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History, Ron Rosenbaum summarizes historian Bernard Bailyn's book about the dark side of the pre-Colonial era:
Bailyn has not painted a pretty picture. Little wonder he calls it The Barbarous Years and spares us no details of the terror, desperation, degradation and widespread torture—do you really know what being "flayed alive" means? (The skin is torn from the face and head and the prisoner is disemboweled while still alive.) And yet somehow amid the merciless massacres were elements that gave birth to the rudiments of civilization—or in Bailyn's evocative phrase, the fragile "integument of civility"--that would evolve 100 years later into a virtual Renaissance culture, a bustling string of self-governing, self-sufficient, defiantly expansionist colonies alive with an increasingly sophisticated and literate political and intellectual culture that would coalesce into the rationale for the birth of American independence. All the while shaping, and sometimes misshaping, the American character. It's a grand drama in which the glimmers of enlightenment barely survive the savagery, what Yeats called "the blood-dimmed tide," the brutal establishment of slavery, the race wars with the original inhabitants that Bailyn is not afraid to call "genocidal," the full, horrifying details of which have virtually been erased.
It is remarkable that from such beginnings a society emerged in which Dr. King's strategy of non-violent non-cooperation proved to be effective--but it would be naive to state that such a strategy would have been effective in pre-Colonial America.

It cannot be emphasized enough that violence is not limited to one race, one society, or one culture. Violence is a fundamental human characteristic. For example, Joshua Hammer notes that Napoleon Chagnon discovered that violence is at the heart of Yamomamö culture:
Challenging Rousseau's romantic notion that man in his natural state is altruistic and peace-loving, Chagnon described the Yanomamö as a violent tribe whose males derive status--and women--from killing rivals. His groundbreaking 1968 work, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, sold one million copies, became a standard university text--and made him an outcast among anthropologists.

Chagnon based his findings on copious research. He traveled to dozens of remote Yanomamö villages, cultivated informers and interviewed killers. He asserted that the territory was in a chronic state of war. Tribal groups often abducted females from other villages, prompting acts of retaliation and nomohori, or "dastardly tricks," to lure rivals to their deaths. He also asserted that one-quarter of adult Yanomamö men were murdered by other Yanomamö, and that murderers were highly respected and produced more children than those who didn’t kill. "The whole purpose and design of the social structure of tribesmen," he writes in his memoir, "seems to have revolved around effectively controlling sexual access by males to nubile, reproductive-age females."
Chagnon's work is considered "politically incorrect" by some critics, and his conclusions have been savagely attacked, but his work has not been refuted scientifically; that does not prove that he is right--science correctly done is an ongoing search for truth, not a declaration of inviolable principles--but that means that someone will have to do some very thorough research to prove him wrong.

It is often suggested that human beings are the only species that engages in unprovoked violence against their own kind, but this is not true; dominant elephants bully other elephants:
Researchers often describe female elephants as living in "fission-fusion" societies. But the implication is that the fission dynamic--the forces pulling the groups apart--is passive, that somehow the optimal number of elephants that forage and survive together is achieved when extended families slowly develop looser connections and become more distantly associated.
I was now starting to realize that the dynamic might be active, possibly following the direct bloodline of the matriarch, where only the highest-ranking, or "queen," elephant and her direct descendants are welcome to hold court around the best water. Others are pushed away, forced to splinter off into separate groups.

While violence is an intrinsic part of nature in general and human nature in particular, nature and human nature both also possess a tremendous capacity for compassion and resiliency. Hope for humanity's future must be based not on denying the facts described above, but rather on finding a way collectively to move forward in a manner that nurtures our best and most noble traits. One inspiring example is Jane Goodall's description of how a tree at Ground Zero survived the 9/11 attack:
Just over ten years after 9/11, on a cool, sunny April morning in 2012, I went to meet a Callery pear tree named Survivor. She had been placed in a planter near Building 5 of the World Trade Center in the 1970s and each year her delicate white blossoms had brought a touch of spring into a world of concrete. In 2001, after the 9/11 attack, this tree, like all the other trees that had been planted there, disappeared beneath the fallen towers.

But amazingly, in October, a cleanup worker found her, smashed and pinned between blocks of concrete. She was decapitated and the eight remaining feet of trunk were charred black; the roots were broken; and there was only one living branch.

The discovery was reported to Bram Gunther, who was then deputy director of central forestry for the New York City Parks Department, and when he arrived he initially thought the tree was unsalvageable. But the cleanup workers persuaded him to give the tree a chance, so he ordered that she be sent off to the Parks Department’s nursery in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

Ron Vega, now the director of design for the 9/11 Memorial site, was a cleanup worker back then. "A lot of people thought it was a wasted effort to try to rescue her," he recalled. "So she was taken out of the site almost clandestinely--under the cover of night."

Richie Cabo, the nursery manager, told me that when he first saw the decapitated tree he did not think anything could save her. But once the dead, burned tissues had been cut away, and her trimmed roots deeply planted in good rich soil, Survivor proved him wrong.

"In time," said Richie, "she took care of herself. We like to say she got tough from being in the Bronx."

In the spring of 2010 disaster struck Survivor again. Richie told me how he got news that the tree had been ripped out of the ground by a terrible storm that was raging outside, with 100 mile per hour winds. At once he rushed there with his three young children. They found the roots completely exposed, and he and the children and the other nursery staff worked together to try to rescue her.

At first they only partially lifted the tree, packing in compost and mulch so as not to break the roots. For a long while they gently sprayed the tree with water to minimize the shock, hoping she'd make it. A few weeks later they set to work to get Survivor completely upright.

"It was not a simple operation," Richie told me. "She was 30 feet tall, and it took a heavy-duty boom truck to do the job."

Again, Survivor survived.

It wasn't until six years after Ron Vega witnessed the mangled tree being rescued from the wreckage that he heard Survivor was still alive. Immediately he decided to incorporate her into the memorial design--and with his new position he was able to make it happen. She was planted near the footprint of the South Tower. "For personal accomplishments," Ron said, "today is it. I could crawl into this little bed and die right there. That's it. I'm done....To give this tree a chance to be part of this memorial. It doesn’t get any better than that."

As we walked toward this special tree, I felt as much in awe as though I were going to meet a great spiritual leader or shaman. We stood together outside the protective railing. We reached out to gently touch the ends of her branches. Many of us--perhaps all--had tears in our eyes.

As Survivor stood proudly upright in her new home, a reporter said to Richie, "This must be an extra-special day for you, considering it’s the ten-year anniversary of the day you were shot."

Before he started working at the Bronx nursery in the spring of 2001, Richie had been a corrections officer at Green Haven maximum-security prison in New York. He left the job after nearly dying from a terrible gunshot wound in the stomach, inflicted not at the prison, but out on the streets when he tried to stop a robbery in progress.

Until the reporter pointed it out, Richie hadn't even realized the date was the same. He told me that he couldn't speak for a moment. "I could hardly even breathe," he said. And he thought it was probably more than coincidence--that the tree would go home on that special day. "We are both survivors," he said.

While overseeing the design, Ron made sure that the tree was planted so that the traumatized side faces the public. Some people, Ron told us, weren't pleased to have the tree back, saying that she "spoiled" the symmetry of the landscaping, as she is a different species from the other nearby trees. Indeed, she is different. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, when the memorial site was opened to survivors and family members, many of them tied blue ribbons onto Survivor's branches.

One last memory. Survivor should have been in full bloom in April when I met her. But, like so many trees in this time of climate change, she had flowered about two weeks early. Just before we left, as I walked around this brave tree one last time, I suddenly saw a tiny cluster of white flowers. Just three of them, but somehow it was like a sign. It reminded me of a story I read in a newspaper. In the aftermath of the horrifying tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, a TV crew went to document the situation. They interviewed a man who had just lost everything, not only his house and all his belongings, but his family also. The reporter asked him if he had any hope.

He turned and pointed to a cherry tree beginning to bloom. "Look there," he said, pointing toward the new blossoms. "That's what gives me hope."
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel observed the whole gamut of human behavior, and wrestled with how to not give up hope after processing so much suffering. Here is a quote from his book Open Heart:

"I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either...We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it."

In another passage, Wiesel says that if he ever meets God face to face and can ask just one question he will simply ask, "Why?"

That is a profound meditation. Why does the universe even exist? Why does life of any kind exist? Why do people exist? Why is there so much suffering? Asking "Why?" without being specific means asking all of those things and more. Whether or not one believes in God does not change the profundity of this question.

Many religious people believe that such a question cannot be answered in this life on this planet by the human mind. Answers, they believe, await us in heaven. Yet, upon reflection, that point of view is not entirely satisfactory or comforting. James Woods' article "Holiday in Hellmouth" appears in the June 9/June 16, 2008 New Yorker. Woods writes:
Heaven, one of the tenderest verses in the Bible has it, is where God will wipe away all tears from our faces...In the end, it seems, Heaven is the only tenable response to the problem of evil. It is where God's mysterious plan will be revealed; it is where the poor and the downtrodden, the sick and the tortured, will be healed; it is where everything that we went through on earth will suddenly seem "worth it."

But Heaven is also a problem for theodicists who take the freedom to choose between good and evil as paramount. For Heaven must be a place where either our freedom to sin has been abolished or we have been so transfigured that we no longer want to sin: in Heaven, our will miraculously coincides with God's will. And here the free-will defense unravels, and is unravelled by the very idea of Heaven. If Heaven obviates the great human freedom to sin, why was it ever such a momentous ideal on earth, "worth" all that pain and suffering?

The difficulty can be recast in terms of the continuity of self. If we will be so differently constituted in Heaven as to be strangers to sin, then no meaningful connection will exist between the person who suffers here and the exalted soul who will enjoy the great system of rewards and promises and tears wiped from faces: our faces there will not be the faces we have here...

Heaven--because it comes next and is not now--is, as so often in religious thought, a solution that merely creates another problem. If God supposedly wipes away all tears in Heaven, why does he not do it now? Why does God not now establish paradise on earth, as the Jehovah's Witnesses believe he will do? And what is the purpose of these eighty or so years we spend on earth not having the tears wiped from our faces?
Maybe the answer will be revealed in heaven, but on this Earth when one is confronted by evil I would rather be the Hebrew slave saved by Moses than be Anne Frank praised by Gandhi. More to the point, any of us who has the opportunity to be Moses should embrace the chance to help someone who is powerless.

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