Philosophy

The Dalai Show

A new book makes nonviolence less interesting than cod

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Mark Kurlansky has written a book about salt, a book about oysters, and a book about cod. Now he has taken the obvious next step: a book about nonviolence with a foreword by the Dalai Lama.

Tragically, the man who managed to make a book subtitled "A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" into a thrilling read has mostly failed to perform the same service for nonviolence, even with the help of the Dalai Lama's (astonishingly short and substance-free) contribution.

Kurslansky is at his best when conveying totally new information. His previous books made me want to sit next to him at a large, dull dinner party and have him entertain me. Since I knew exactly nothing about cod before I picked up his book, each new fact seemed a miracle of careful research and inspired interview choices. After reading Nonviolence: 25 Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea, though, I'm not so sure about the seating arrangement. When Kurlansky treads on familiar ground, he loses his mystique: I was less than spellbound by his revelations that Founding Fathers were sometimes hypocrites, that "the Crusades were about power, not religion," that the Battle of Bunker Hill was really fought on Breed's Hill, and that the Civil War wasn't initially about slavery. And on politics, Kurlansky turns out to be utterly run-of-the-mill: George Bush once used the word "crusade" to describe the war on terror, the Reaganite phrase "evil empire" was "a standard exercise of political deceit," the religious right has corrupted Jesus's original teachings. All true, perhaps, but not points that needed reiterating, really.

But then, just when you're checking the cover to see if you picked up Noam Chomsky from the nightstand accidentally, Kurlansky comes through. He introduces us to the Cathar monks of southern France. They refused to pay taxes to the medieval church, and rejected the right of the state to kill, in war or in capital punishment. In fact, they refused to participate in any form of government, considering the whole enterprise tainted by violence. Something alerts the reader, though, that all is bound to end badly for these adorable anarchist monks. The Catholic Church is peeved, of course, so they pin the name "Cathar" on the sect (the sobriquet alludes to persistent rumors that the renegade monks shared an unwholesome attraction to cats). Then the Church starts killing. The monks quickly realize that nonviolence only works if no one is attacking you in earnest, and betray their principles by fighting back, half-assedly. It takes 100 years, but the Church eventually manages to wipe out every last Cathar. Similar tales about the sad fate of other dissident Christians and Jews abound in the pages of the book.

Not every effort at nonviolent resistance to authority ends badly—even if, based on Kurlansky's sample, most do. Consider the example of the Mennonites, the sect often mistaken for Amish because of their plain dress and old-fashioned hats. Principled pacifists, the Mennonites wanted to prove that they were still patriots during Holland's war for independence in 1572. They offered to raise money for the king, and later submitted to war tax in exchange for exemption from service. One hundred years later, they served as volunteer firemen in besieged European cities, and most recently proved to be one of the most effective non-government sources of aid and assistance after Hurricane Katrina.

Kurlansky also digs up some neat factoids about the rise of the conscientious objector during World War I, including the labor anti-conscription slogan: "A bayonet is a tool with a worker on each end." When dealing with the status of dissidents during World War II, Kurlansky brings to mind the ongoing war on drugs when he notes that "one in every six inmates in federal prison was a conscientious objector." His chapter on WWII is the weakest in the book. He titles the chapter "A Favorite Just War" and knows he's up against serious and widespread conviction that the second World War was a just and justified use of violence. But, while he rightly points out that intentions and behavior were often less than sterling on both sides of the conflict, Kurlansky doesn't sink his teeth into what nonviolent resistance could feasibly have accomplished in the face of Hitler's tanks.

Abolitionists provide an interesting case for advocates of nonviolence. Nearly all anti-slavery advocates strongly preferred nonviolence. Yet the minute the Civil War broke out, most happy celebrated the chance to end the peculiar institution in a single blow. Kurlansky tells the story from the point of view of Lydia Maria Child, who, in addition to her impressive efforts to end one of the greatest injustices in history, also wrote the Thanksgiving song "Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmother's House We Go."

The occasional brilliantly selected quotation brightens up the pages of Nonviolence: From Confucius (did you know his real name was Kong Fuzi?) Kurlansky offers this prescient quote about how to deal with angry barbarian neighbors: "If the distant peoples do not submit, then build up a culture and character and so win them, and when they have been won give them security."

But none of these interesting factoids can cover up the fact that Nonviolence consists mostly of revisionist history forced into thematic categories. "Lessons" like "violence is a virus that infects and takes over" and "warfare produces peace activists. A group of veterans is a likely place to find peace activists" feel like hasty attempts to generalize what specific anecdotes have already taken care of, without allowing for the subtleties that anecdotal storytelling permits. And none of the 25 lessons seem to offer much guidance about how to avoid joining the thousands upon thousands of corpses of the nonviolent which litter the pages of the book.

Perhaps the book was written for personal reasons: It seems that young Kurlansky was big but wimpy. He says his size made him a moving target, and he was often challenged to schoolyard fights by plucky little classmates with something to prove. A born enthusiast of nonviolence, Kurlansky dealt with the attacks by "raising his arms to cover his head and weaving to avoid the blows." Maybe all those beating by midgets gave him a chip on the shoulder that needed exorcising in 184 quick and dirty pages of widely spaced type.

Don't worry, though. Kurlansky still has a chance to get his groove back: Rumor has it that his collaboration with the Dalai Lama has produced another project, due out in the spring: Yak Butter: A History.