It has somehow been written – in bullet holes and amputations, in shell shock and mushroom clouds – that political science is a clenched fist, that power flows from the mouth of a gun, that blood lust is coded in our genome, that death is the inevitable trajectory of all narrative. Thus, in entertainment as in statecraft, the basic plotline is a showdown followed by a body count. Who would think passive resistance had a chance against massive retaliation?
Steve York does, in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (Mondays, September 18 and 25; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13). Covering the past 100 years, as atrocious as any in human history, this remarkable documentary mini-series still manages to find reasons for radical optimism. In India in 1930 for Gandhi’s march to the sea to collect salt, in Denmark during the Nazi occupation, in the American South for the first sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, in Poland for the shipyard strike at Gdansk and the birth of Solidarity, in South Africa for the start of an economic boycott that spread to every Western nation, and in Chile for the “NO” campaign against Pinochet, it bears witness to the tactics and triumph of nonviolent resistance that was anything but passive.
On the contrary, this resistance was active, mobile, disciplined, and smart – as shrewd in its scattershot dispersal of actions and resources as it was sophisticated in its sequencings of protests, slowdowns, strikes, and sabotage; as media-savvy in its selection of symbolic issues as it was innovative in rallying support, evading censorship, and capitalizing on overreactions. If the intention was to dramatize the depraved nature of authority by withholding consent – by refusing to abide by the rules; by challenging a regime’s legitimacy; by disrupting public life and destabilizing the economy – there was also a crucial dividend. In mobilizing a popular movement against tyranny and exploitation, occupation and oppression, servitude and second-class citizenship, the resistance also created and sustained a community with a right to feel proud of itself: the wherewithal of civil society.
Besides embarrassing the British, Gandhi decolonized the Indian mind. Besides refusing to build German ships, feed the German army, or honor Nazi racial laws, the Danish resistance saved not only the lives of many Jewish citizens but also the nation’s dignity. Besides desegregating Nashville’s downtown shopping center and changing the minds of its mayor and newspaper editor, students at Fisk University and local black churches inspired a civil-rights movement that swept across America. Solidarity, which simply insisted on the right to strike and never fired a single shot, planted the seeds for that velvet revolutionizing of police states all over Eastern Europe. Mandela may have prolonged his long ordeal in prison by declining to renounce violence, but his release only became possible – much less his presidency even imaginable – after an economic boycott strangled the apartheid state. Chile was delivered from Pinochet’s dictatorship not by left-wing guerrillas but by unions and the mothers of the disappeared, by non-shopping days and monthly candlelit protests, by street festivals and songfests and slick television commercials before the 1988 plebiscite.
Against all the retaliatory power of British imperialism, of the Third Reich and American apartheid and the Soviet monolith and tin-pot fascisms in South Africa and Latin America, a principled and nuanced nonviolence would ultimately prevail. So much for theories of totalitarianism. While our host for A Force More Powerful, the perhaps inevitable Ben Kingsley, is so understated as to suggest sedation, what we see on the screen is thrilling – Fisk students taunting each other with racist epithets to prepare for dime-store confrontations; Polish workers occupying factories and negotiating a breath of air; Jewish children whisked out of their classrooms by Danish teachers before the death-camp roundup; Bishop Tutu telling off youthful rioters in Cape Town; those mothers in black in Santiago; and all of India refining salt while Gandhi plays with his spinning wheel.
Nor have these three hours exhausted the rich subject. In a companion volume with the same name, by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall (St. Martin’s Press), we spend time in Burma, El Salvador, Mongolia, Argentina, and the Philippines. We meet Leo Tolstoy and Corazón Aquino and Aung San Suu Kyi. We hear about the women of India, who boiled the water for the salt, who shamed buyers of confiscated goods, who were beaten by police, and who went to jail in the tens of thousands. We revisit those Dutch doctors who refused, during the Nazi occupation, to screen for race and genetic defects. We recall the nonviolent aspects of the Palestinian intifada, a “white revolution” of theater, poetry, and flags, of cigarette boycotts, tax refusals, and job actions. We remember yellow flowers, nappies worn as symbolic scarves, open palms and hidden cows and whistles instead of guns.
An entire history has gone not only unhonored but almost unremarked upon, because it’s not all that spectacular. It lacks a lip-smacking body count. It proposes courage and endurance, love and ingenuity, comradeship and suppleness. If Danish schoolboys could unbalance the Nazi killing machine, if the women of Manila could embarrass the tanks of Ferdinand Marcos with a bouquet of yellow flowers, what might any of us be capable of? I am reminded of a visit to Prague in the summer of 1990, where we tried to imagine in Wenceslas Square that multitude whose jangling of keys had sounded to the peripatetic historian Timothy Garton Ash like “massed Chinese bells.” Where we ventured from Kafka’s Castle and the Jewish cemetery and the Old Town cuckoo clock to the very birthplace of the Velvet Revolution.
It was at the Magic Lantern Theater, on a stage set for Durrenmatt’s Minotaurus, under a television set with the sound turned off, that Vaclav Havel and his friends – writers, professors, actors, and jailbird intellectuals – met to compose a brand-new social contract. Ash tells us that once when they were tired and depressed, students appeared onstage dressed comically as Young Pioneers (red kerchiefs, white blouses, and pigtails): “It is the Committee for a More Joyful Present. We have come, they say, to cheer you up – and make sure you don’t turn into another politburo. Then they hand out little circular mirrors to each member of the plenum.” So that the members of that plenum would have to look at themselves as they wrote the future.
It seems to me that we could do a whole lot worse than look at A Force More Powerful and imagine ourselves in its mirrors. There are heroes here.