Pacifism Needs Martyrs

IRAN-DEMOS-133-300x199As I pointed out in Part 1 of my series on pacifism for Political Jesus’s synchroblog, I outlined why pacifism as a viable philosophy in western culture is almost nonexistent. It’s become a incidental personal choice along the lines of choosing to be a vegetarian. It gets discussed at parties but has no real-world impact.

I suspect that this is the kind of pacifism Sarah Moon had in mind for her posts on the subject. I agree that it’s off-putting that modern pacifism seems to manifest as a private belief that never factors real life experiences. These people tend to qualify their beliefs in a defensive manner (i.e. they’re a pacifist except for situations X and Y – because surely no one is foolish enough to be a pacifist in all situations).

But I think focusing on the state of pacifism among privileged white people ignores the fact that the philosophy still thrives in the places it has always thrived: wherever the threat of violence is a daily risk, and the consequences of pacifism are measurable and severe.

In this sense pacifism presents a paradox: wherever hawkish anger and danger are elements of daily life, pacifism will blossom.  If you think about the world’s greatest pacifist movements, all of them existed in situations where death or imprisonment where likely consequences of their beliefs.  We see pacifism burn bright in Iran’s failed 2009 protests, the protests leading up to and after China’s Tianamen Square massacre,  MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi, and of course Jesus, whose arguments for peace are so much more powerful given His trial and crucifixion. It’s sad to admit, but pacifism needs martyrs. Without genuine persecution or hostility, pacifism becomes an innocuous lifestyle choice, and in the hands of the privileged it becomes an abstract exercise in hypotheticals.

Pacifism in a real sense has always been the philosophy held dear and lived out by the powerless and unprivileged. We see pacifism espoused with newfound vigor by a Pope raised in a culture where poverty and meekness were the norm. So in a sense I don’t think that privileged pacifism is ever representative of pacifism, even if its adherents are sincere in their beliefs.

Is Pacifism Dead?

hqdefaultI must admit that I was dumbfounded when I heard about Political Jesus’s synchroblog about pacifism. Nowadays pacifism is like socialism; a flawed but noble ideal that few people take seriously and fewer still are willing to embrace completely. The only thing left to say about pacifism would be to write its obituary and mourn its loss.

But Sarah Moon’s recent posts on the subject had me thinking that there was a lot to be said about the topic. In her two-part series on pacifism, Sarah levies a number of grievances against modern pacifists:

1)  The arrogance of privileged pacifists weighing on matters they themselves never had to deal with (and likely never will).

2) The tendency to reduce painful experiences to hypotheticals to be utilized to promote the cause.

Point 1 is what led me to post on the topic. But before I get too deep into this, I should say that my intentions here are to use the issues she raises as jumping-off points. I was befuddled by her description of pacifists who hold Travon Martin accountable for his own death, but then again, I’ve spent a lot of time here describing eccentric Christians. She’s obviously dealt with these oddball pacifists.

My contention with Point 1 is that there are  just plain not many pacifists left, especially among privileged individuals. I suspect the philosophy was mortally wounded by 9/11, when suggestions of a pacifist response to terrorists offended peoples’ sense of justice and desire for retribution.  Twelve years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has numbed us to accept our state of perpetual war. Sure, even non-pacifists want all our troops home. But they’re not willing to dismiss the possibility of new battles.

To remain vital, pacifism needs direct, palpable threats to respond to. This is why pacifism was more conspicuous during the Cold War. Fear of nuclear annihilation compelled people to assess what they were willing to fight for and die for, because we were one button away from the end of humanity. A draftee who refused ti fight in Vietnam was making a major decision that required sacrifice and possibly loss of citizenship. Today’s all-volunteer military filters out conscientiously objectors; if you don’t want to fight, you simply choose not to enlist.

So for the West, the stakes seemed higher back then. Terrorism may carry the threat of dirty bombs, but it’s an abstract concern. No dirty bombs exist yet, while there are still thousands of nuclear warheads that we’ve somehow forgotten about. While some fret over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, their incompetence elicits more jokes than serious discussion. The most urgent nuclear threat lies on the Indo-Pakistani border, but only a handful of westerners give much thought to south Asian politics.

Defense spending used to be a regular point of contention for liberals. Liberals still argue for defense cuts, but since it’s viewed as a losing issue politically, no one frets much about it.  The fact that our current democratic president has presided over the killing if numerous Al Qeada leaders (especially Bin Laden) has become a point of boasting rather than consternation. It’s a talking point that flusters the Right, and pacifism takes a back seat to patriotic cheers and liberal schadenfreude.

If 9/11 provided the fatal blow to the pacifist movement in the West, the seeds of its destruction were planted during the first Gulf War. Pacifists were outraged when CNN showed satellite footage of aerial bombings. The anesthetic view spared the viewer the sight of carnage and destruction. With no humans visible in the target view, every bomb looked like a clean hit with no civilian casualties.

Bill Clinton did his own share of damage to the pacifist cause. When the Serbian genocide grabbed headlines, liberals were the ones arguing for aggressive military intervention. This was back in the days when Ron Paul-style laissez faire foreign policy was the norm for the Republican Party. To give you a sense of how drastic the roles had reversed, I remember a cartoon from that period depicting an angry donkey shouting for war next to a skeptical elephant in a tie-dye t shirt and hippie peace necklace.

And of course, George W Bush did the most damage to pacifism via 9/11 and an escalation of censored war reporting (which the mainstream press gleefully embraced). Neocon foreign policy was assumed to be the most rational response to the threat of terrorism, and anything less than a full-blown effort to kill all of the terrorists was seen as a sign of insensitivity or weakness.

So if pacifism is a dead philosophy in western society, where does that leave it on a global scale? I’ll explore that question in part 2.