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Nonviolence
Cover of Nonviolence
Nonviolence
The History of a Dangerous Idea
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In this timely, highly original, and controversial narrative, New York Times bestselling author Mark Kurlansky discusses nonviolence as a distinct entity, a course of action, rather than a mere state of mind. Nonviolence can and should be a technique for overcoming social injustice and ending wars, he asserts, which is why it is the preferred method of those who speak truth to power.
Nonviolence is a sweeping yet concise history that moves from ancient Hindu times to present-day conflicts raging in the Middle East and elsewhere. Kurlansky also brings into focus just why nonviolence is a "dangerous" idea, and asks such provocative questions as: Is there such a thing as a "just war"? Could nonviolence have worked against even the most evil regimes in history?
Kurlansky draws from history twenty-five provocative lessons on the subject that we can use to effect change today. He shows how, time and again, violence is used to suppress nonviolence and its practitioners–Gandhi and Martin Luther King, for example; that the stated deterrence value of standing national armies and huge weapons arsenals is, at best, negligible; and, encouragingly, that much of the hard work necessary to begin a movement to end war is already complete. It simply needs to be embraced and accelerated.
Engaging, scholarly, and brilliantly reasoned, Nonviolence is a work that compels readers to look at history in an entirely new way. This is not just a manifesto for our times but a trailblazing book whose time has come.
In this timely, highly original, and controversial narrative, New York Times bestselling author Mark Kurlansky discusses nonviolence as a distinct entity, a course of action, rather than a mere state of mind. Nonviolence can and should be a technique for overcoming social injustice and ending wars, he asserts, which is why it is the preferred method of those who speak truth to power.
Nonviolence is a sweeping yet concise history that moves from ancient Hindu times to present-day conflicts raging in the Middle East and elsewhere. Kurlansky also brings into focus just why nonviolence is a "dangerous" idea, and asks such provocative questions as: Is there such a thing as a "just war"? Could nonviolence have worked against even the most evil regimes in history?
Kurlansky draws from history twenty-five provocative lessons on the subject that we can use to effect change today. He shows how, time and again, violence is used to suppress nonviolence and its practitioners–Gandhi and Martin Luther King, for example; that the stated deterrence value of standing national armies and huge weapons arsenals is, at best, negligible; and, encouragingly, that much of the hard work necessary to begin a movement to end war is already complete. It simply needs to be embraced and accelerated.
Engaging, scholarly, and brilliantly reasoned, Nonviolence is a work that compels readers to look at history in an entirely new way. This is not just a manifesto for our times but a trailblazing book whose time has come.
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    IImperfect Beings

    "We expect to prevail through the foolishness of preaching."
    --William Lloyd Garrison, Declaration of Sentiments adopted by the Peace Convention of Boston, 1838

    The first clue, lesson number one from human history on the subject of nonviolence, is that there is no word for it. The concept has been praised by every major religion. Throughout history there have been practitioners of nonviolence. Yet, while every major language has a word for violence, there is no word to express the idea of nonviolence except that it is not another idea, it is not violence. In Sanskrit, the word for violence is himsa, harm, and the negation of himsa, just as nonviolence is the negation of violence, is ahimsa--not doing harm. But if ahimsa is "not doing harm," what is it doing?

    The only possible explanation for the absence of a proactive word to express nonviolence is that not only the political establishments but the cultural and intellectual establishments of all societies have viewed nonviolence as a marginal point of view, a fanciful rejection of one of society's key components, a repudiation of something important but not a serious force in itself. It is not an authentic concept but simply the abnegation of something else. It has been marginalized because it is one of the rare truly revolutionary ideas, an idea that seeks to completely change the nature of society, a threat to the established order. And it has always been treated as something profoundly dangerous.

    Advocates of nonviolence--dangerous people--have been there throughout history, questioning the greatness of Caesar and Napo- leon and the Founding Fathers and Roosevelt and Churchill. For every Crusade and Revolution and Civil War there have always been those who argued, with great clarity, that violence not only was immoral but that it was even a less effective means of achieving laudable goals. The case can be made that it was not the American Revolution that secured independence from Britain; it was not the Civil War that freed the slaves; and World War II did not save the Jews. But this possibility has rarely been considered, because the Caesars and Napoleons of history have always used their power to muffle the voices of those who would challenge the necessity of war--and it is these Caesars, as Napoleon observed, who get to write history. And so the ones who have killed become the ones who are revered. But there is another history that manages to survive.

    It survives, but nonviolence is in fact a marginal rejection of a marginalized concept. Political theorist Hannah Arendt, in her 1969 study On Violence, pointed out that while it can be universally agreed that violence has been one of the primary movers of history, historians and social scientists rarely study the subject of violence. She suggested that this was because violence was such a mainstay of human activity that it was "taken for granted and therefore neglected." Violence is a fundamental of the human condition, whereas nonviolence is merely a rarified response to that reality. What does this mean? If we lived in a world that had no word for war other than nonpeace, what kind of world would that be? It would not necessarily be a world without war, but it would be a world that regarded war as an aberrant and insignificant activity. The widely held and seldom expressed but implicit viewpoint of most cultures is that violence is real and nonviolence is unreal. But when nonviolence becomes a reality it is a powerful force.

    Nonviolence is not the same thing as pacifism, for which there are many words. Pacifism is treated almost...

About the Author-
  • Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times bestselling and James A. Beard Award—winning author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World; Salt: A World History; 1968: The Year That Rocked the World; The Basque History of the World; and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell; as well as the novel Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue and several other books. He lives in New York City.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 19, 2006
    Kurlansky applies the microhistorical approach of his bestellers (Cod
    ; Salt
    ) to the loftier subject of nonviolence—which, he observes, is so "profoundly dangerous" to the powers that be that it has never existed as an idea in and of itself, only as the absence of violence. "Active practitioners of nonviolence are always seen as a threat," he says, and the conflict between authority and nonviolent resistance becomes a "moral argument" that, all too often, the nonviolent lose by abandoning their ideal in the name of self-defense. But as he studies the history of nonviolence from the dawn of Christianity to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kurlansky can also point to prominent victories, like Gandhi's quest for Indian independence and the Eastern European resistance to the Soviets. There are plenty of missed opportunities, too; the American Revolution, he suggests, need not have escalated into war; "protest and economic sabotage" might have forced Britain to withdraw from the colonies. Sometimes, Kurlansky's impassioned rhetoric turns argumentative, and his "lessons"—e.g., "behind every war there are always a few founding lies"—offer scant practical guidance to those wanting to take up the nonviolent mantle themselves.

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The History of a Dangerous Idea
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