Peace Philosophy and Public Life

The following is the foreword by David Swanson to a new book called Peace Philosophy and Public Life: Commitments, Crises, and Concepts for Engaged Thinking edited by Greg Moses and Gail Presbey, available from the publisher or amazon or your local bookstore.

This book makes a compelling case that if we are to rid the world of war, we will want to employ not only the usual tools—organization, education, activism, lobbying, nonviolent resistance, art, entertainment, and the creation of alternative structures that lead away from war—but we will also want to employ a healthy dose of philosophizing. By that I do not mean attempting to arrive at extra-human, divine, pure, or objective viewpoints on anything, but rather, attempting to bring into focus how much of our view of things is optional, and to propose preferable options.

In these pages, you will likely grasp the utility, not just the curiosity, of reconsidering any number of ways in which we speak and think, including what we mean by “we” when discussing foreign affairs, what we mean by “nationalism,” by “terrorism,” or by “humanitarianism.” Why do we assume that forgiveness has no place in public policy while overlooking those cases in which we unwittingly demand and expect it? We reject arguments from authority as consumers and voters but not—this book suggests—when we listen to law enforcement. Why?

Any number of contradictions in our labeling of practices should be examined. Can the prison and war industries really be described as creating jobs? Can we have a corrections institution that corrects nothing, or a counter-terrorism policy that increases terrorism? Are there other approaches to our public life that we haven’t properly considered? Or, rather, given the endless variety of alternative approaches that we have not considered, what provocative proposals can we bring ourselves to invent for consideration?

This is why we need philosophers and books like this one.

A couple of years ago, science writer John Horgan made a lengthy argument for the possibility of eliminating war from the world. He debunked the claim that war is in our genes, the claim that war is driven by population changes, the claim that a handful of sociopaths inevitably leads a nation to war, the claim that resource scarcity or inequality or stockpiles of weaponry make war unavoidable. After mountains of research, Horgan concluded that war exists only in those societies that accept or celebrate the idea of war. Therefore, we are free to choose to reject the idea of war and with it the practice, as others have done before.

Jean Paul Sartre, of course, arrived at this same conclusion without a speck of research. I actually think it is important that we arrive at the conclusion that we can end war without the research. We should not get into the habit of imagining that we must wait for authorities to prove to us that something has been done before, before we attempt to do it. Nothing could be more limiting. If we cannot have a world government until someone has demonstrated that world governments have existed before, we will never have one, and the idea of having one will strike us as absurd. Maybe it is absurd. Maybe it’s a horrible idea. But we should not write it off as such simply because it has not yet been tried.

This is not, of course, to suggest that empirical research is of no value. We could hardly survive or thrive without it. We could not speak intelligently about the world we want to change without it. It is hardly a condemnation of facts and data to deny them the role of limiting our imagination. No research to prove that slavery could be abolished existed prior to its abolition. Yet there was willingness by some to accept what is, after all, obvious: slavery would end if people chose to stop utilizing slavery, if they envisioned and constructed a society that lacked it.

People invest great effort in creating wars. They could choose not to do so. Transforming those glaringly obvious observations into a scientific study of whether enough people have rejected war in the past to reject it in the future is both helpful and harmful to the cause. It helps those who need to see that what they want to do has been done before. It hurts the habit we need to develop of imagining innovations.

This book in your hands is full of facts, but it is not fact driven. It is imagination driven. In these pages, you will be led to imagine various conceptions of nationalism and countryism. Is there a benevolent variation on the theme? Is there one with enough good in it to outweigh the harm? Here you will find that material to ponder.

Can we imagine nations with anti-terrorism policies? To do so, we will have to stop assuming we already have them. During the Cold War, the “balance of terror” was perfectly respectable. “Shock and awe” is a terrorist argument. Drone aircraft buzzing over villages are unmanned terrorists. What would a non-terrorist anti-terrorist policy look like?

We are helped along in our thinking by examples throughout the book of how some remarkable people have proposed paths that have not yet been taken. Dorothy Day proposed a response to Pearl Harbor that included forgiveness of the Japanese. Told that hers was an outrageous expectation, Day pointed out that African Americans were regularly lynched or assaulted in the United States and that their loved ones were expected to forgive.

Following 11 September 2001, Shirin Ebadi proposed building schools in Afghanistan named for the victims of the attacks of that day. Such a proposal will still sound crazy to most people when next it is made following some future disaster. But there is little doubt looking back that it would have done far more good than the approach actually taken—the natural, normal, acceptable, mainstream approach of bombing people to punish a crime most of them had never heard of and still have not. When the clearly preferable approach still sounds crazy, that’s a good sign we need to change our perspective.

The contributors to this volume propose shifts in perspective in several interlocking areas. These include immigration, ethics in economics, problems of consumerism, and wealth and poverty. Should we be tolerant of immigrants or welcome them with gratitude? Should we engage in charity or in solidarity? And what impact would these choices have on our acceptance of so-called “humanitarian” wars?

Nick Braune encourages us to think past arguments from authority so far as to radically shift the motivation for police interrogations. Instead of aiming for confessions, interrogators could aim to protect and inform the person being interrogated. If that sounds nonsensical, come back to this foreword after reading the book and maybe it will then seem normal. It is very hard for us to see anything as other than normal, even when it seemed crazy an hour before. But seeing choices, seeing multiple “normals,” is a skill we should practice, because we need to become capable of altering our vision.

The majority of people selling illegal drugs in the United States are white, but only people of color “look like” drug dealers to some police officers. Anyone accused of a crime “looks” guilty to many people employed in the criminal justice system. A “war” on drugs that has been used to generate real wars looks justified by those wars. Surely we would not legalize something we fight wars over!

Our “corrections” industry is not educating prisoners, but it is educating the rest of us to accept mass incarceration. The prison and war industries are promoted as jobs programs, as life-giving, as pro-peace. But we are perfectly capable of a coherent worldview in which that sort of nonsense sounds like nonsense. We should strive to develop that perspective.

Nuclear weapons are sometimes imagined as keeping us safe, but Day and Sartre and Albert Camus responded with appropriate horror immediately upon their creation. It turns out that horror is an appropriate response to all sorts of developments announced as progress or not announced at all. We are filling the skies with killer drones these days and suffering a corresponding deficit of horror.

What new horrors await us? This book warns of some of what we can expect: resource crises, climate catastrophe, mass immigration, refugees, and minority societies existing within hostile larger ones. These problems have solutions and means of prevention, and we should be thinking our way through them now.

Our politicians are largely ignoring Syrian refugees at the moment in which I write, while supporting violence in Syria for the supposed benefit of Syrians. If we had a better understanding of refugee crises in the world, could they get away with this?

We cannot know what all the problems will be. The unknown unknowns await us. But we can know for certain that the unknown knowns—the products of human thought that some people in places of power choose to avoid awareness of—will dominate many a future Donald Rumsfeld.

War is not only the product of the idea of war. It is a product of irrational madness and willful ignorance. It does not hold up on its own terms. The cakewalks are never cakewalks. The liberated are never grateful. The resources slip through the fingers of the plunderers. The bombs persistently fail to generate popular democracies. The freedoms we kill for are inevitably sacrificed to support the killing.

David Swanson Charlottesville, Virginia


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