Suppose we want peace. Real peace. We believe that peace is possible in theory, although we haven’t lived a day of our lives in a world at peace. What do we do?

Here are some options:

  • We can get upset
  • We can protest
  • We can vote
  • We can boycott
  • We can resist more actively
  • We can think

If it sounds like I’m leading you to a conclusion, please don’t think that.   I’m just trying to be complete.   I think all of these options are things worth discussing.

Let’s take getting upset.   This is a good one, because it’s so easy.   All we need do is read the news.   There is a war going on somewhere.   An atrocity was committed somewhere, today.   A child died in a hospital, in the arms of her sobbing mother, because of some tragic act of horror that was done yesterday, or last week.   I don’t mean to make light of this.   We need to stay in touch with why we want peace.   If we cannot put ourselves in the place of that sobbing mother, we cannot have compassion for her, and if we cannot have compassion for her, how serious can we claim to be?

At the same time, though, getting upset is time consuming.   I can waste an entire day getting upset about war, researching its causes, trying to figure out who’s right, who’s wrong, what was done badly here, how much guilt I share in the horror I have just vicariously witnessed.   So personally, I try to be careful about this.   I think moderation is important here.

We can protest.   I think protest is necessary.   At the same time, we have to be realistic.   For example, when Bush was in office, no amount of public protest that was realistically possible was going to sway him from the course he’d determined to follow.   I’m not saying that no amount of protest could have swayed him – just that the will for the amount of protest that could have swayed him wasn’t present.   As witness the fact that the protests that happened did not sway him.

So I think protest is a worthwhile avenue for communicating our intentions to those in power, and it’s important for us to affirm those intentions, and not just sit back and accept passively the evil that will be done in our names.   But this kind of protest, by like-minded individuals who already believe in peace, isn’t going to be enough.   

For my part, I protest by writing letters more than by appearing in public.   I think the last actual peace rally I attended was the one in New York in 1982, unless you count Critical Mass, which was motivated by a desire to end wars over oil, and which I used to ride in when I could when I was living in San Francisco.  Although reading about those protests when I went to find links describing them got me all teary-eyed – maybe I should go to some more.

We can vote.   This is a hard thing to contemplate.   I have never had the opportunity to vote for a president who was unreservedly pro-peace.   The last one who spoke seriously about creating peace was Jimmy Carter, and he was run out of town on a rail eight days after my sixteenth birthday.   But I voted enthusiastically for Barack Obama, despite his pro-war stance.   Why?   Because I’d rather have a president who’s a diplomat willing to go to war than a president who is not a diplomat, and willing to go to war.

Obviously we will never end war simply by choosing presidents on this basis, but as a practical matter, actions which are less likely to lead to war are worthwhile.   People often brag about refusing to vote on principle, because the choice is between two evils.   But if you ask someone who lives in a U.S.-dominated country like the Philippines how life changed for them when Bush was elected, they’re quite unequivocal about it (I know because I have asked).   When you choose, on principle, not to vote for someone who’s less likely to go to war, I believe that you are choosing to risk war on principle.   I don’t think that’s actually a principled choice.

We can boycott.    The thing about boycotts is that they are essentially tactical.   It’s not that boycotting people is the right thing to do.   In all likelihood, the people who will actually suffer the most from the boycott are not the ones you want to injure.   And there it is – in a boycott, you are essentially seeking to injure someone in a small way in order to prevent a larger injury.

I do not mean to imply that boycotts are never the right thing to do, but I think that a boycott should stand the test of practicality.   If the boycott has some hope of actually accomplishing the change that’s intended, then perhaps it’s worth doing.   But to engage in a boycott as a matter of principle, when it will not actually change anything, to me seems immoral, because now you are attempting to injure someone, and you can’t even point to any good that will come of it.

So personally I tend to shy away from boycotts unless it’s pretty clear-cut.   I was pretty enthusiastic about the INFACT boycott many years ago, and I still think that, for example, boycotting chocolate that’s produced using slaves is a very good thing, but a lot of times when I’m personally called on by a friend to participate in a boycott, it just doesn’t feel like the right thing to me.

We can resist more actively.   I guess this would range anywhere from lying down in front of a train carrying munitions to Weather Underground and SDS territory.   I think engaging in a protest where you might be grievously injured is on the one hand a very powerful statement, and on the other hand, like a boycott, a very questionable tactic.   In effect, you are trading one moment of terrible risk for all the good you might do in the rest of your life if you survive.

I think Brian Willson’s story is worth examining.   I find what he says in his extensive writings on peace both inspiring and discouraging.   He’s an amazing person, but his principled act of self-sacrifice back in 1987 barely left a ripple on the national consciousness.   Whether we agree with his choice of tactic or not, I think his story should be required reading for anybody who’s serious about peace.

As for the Weather Underground and SDS, I think history shows a pretty clear conclusion.   WU and SDS made things a lot worse.   Because of their actions in the sixties, Barack Obama came under scrutiny, merely for an incidental association with Bill Ayers.   Furthermore, any good those involved do now is forever tainted by their actions as misguided youths in the 1960s.   Their actions are used as justification for police brutality against protestors, up to and including killing in self-defense.   Violence begets violence, whether it is in the service of peace or war, or any other cause.

We can think.   We can be slaves to our drives, or we can think our way out of them.   When we engage in war, we are enslaved by our drives.   We are not moral actors – we are dumb animals reacting to our environment.   Thinking is actually the most important thing we can do to promote peace.   Our drives are never permanently conquered.   We do not, one day, decide that we will never get angry again, and then thereafter our will is perfectly imposed on our drives.   Quite the contrary.

Even our thinking about war is muddled by our drives.   The more you read about human drives, the more clear this is.   People can be manipulated, en masse.   We are manipulated by our emotions even as individuals.   Look at the standard action movie setup: some bad guy commits an atrocity against the hero’s loved one.   Any subsequent action on the part of the hero, no matter how depraved, is justified by this initial act.   It works in real life too.

The only tool we have with which to fight this is our intellect.

It’s key to bear in mind that it is not only those who promote war who manipulate us.   It is also those who promote peace.   I don’t mean that peace activists are bad people.   What I mean is that we need to use our intellect to examine all arguments offered to us, not just those with which we disagree.   A peace activist friend who urges us to do something extreme, or even just something ineffective, in the service of peace is just as wrong as the war hawk who urges us to go to war.   Right now I think the peace activist who has a serious, intellectually rigorous answer for why peace is better than war as a tool for achieving any end at all is a very rare bird.   Are you such a rare bird?

So I don’t mean to discount all the other things we can do to achieve peace, because they are also important.   But we need more of those rare birds.   We should all be able to sit down with Bill O’Reilly and not be stumped by a single thing he throws at us.   We should be able to describe and justify our own agenda clearly, and we should be able to respond to cross-examination on any point.

It is in service of this crucial need that I debate with people about war and peace.   It’s why I agreed to write about peace here on this blog.   And it’s why I blew my targeted word count by about 700 words.   So if you got to this point in the article, that’s a very hopeful thing.