My choice, from an early age, has been to engage in social change from the ground up, using the power of organized nonviolence. A distrust of the political process was firmly in place by the time I was 15. As a daughter of Quakers I pledged my allegiance not to a flag or a nation state but to humankind, the two often having little to do with each other.
Today is the ninth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. In recognition, here’s my Nonviolence.org essay from 10/7/2010. It’s all sadly still topical. Nine years in and we’re still making terror and still creating enemies.
The United States has today begun its war against terrorism in a very familiar way: by use of terror. Ignorant of thousands of years of violence in the Middle East, President George W. Bush thinks that the horror of September 11th can be exorcised and prevented by bombs and missiles. Today we can add more names to the long list of victims of the terrorist airplane attacks. Because today Afghanis have died in terror.
The deaths in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania have shocked Americans and rightly so. We are all scared of our sudden vulnerability. We are all shocked at the level of anger that led nineteen suicide bombers to give up precious life to start such a literal and symbolic conflagration. What they did was horrible and without justification. But that is not to say that they didn’t have reasons.
The terrorists committed their atrocities because of a long list of grievances. They were shedding blood for blood, and we must understand that. Because to understand that is to understand that President Bush is unleashing his own terror campaign: that he is shedding more blood for more blood.
The United States has been sponsoring violence in Afghanistan for over a generation. Even before the Soviet invasion of that country, the U.S. was supporting radical Mujahadeen forces. We thought then that sponsorship of violence would lead to some sort of peace. As we all know now, it did not. We’ve been experimenting with violence in the region for many years. Our foreign policy has been a mish-mash of supporting one despotic régime after another against a shifting array of perceived enemies.
The Afghani forces the United States now bomb were once our allies, as was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. We have rarely if ever acted on behalf of liberty and democracy in the region. We have time and again sold out our values and thrown our support behind the most heinous of despots. We have time and again thought that military adventurism in the region could keep terrorism and anti-Americanism in check. And each time we’ve only bred a new generation of radicals, bent on revenge.
There are those who have angrily denounced pacifists in the weeks since September 11th, angrily asking how peace can deal with terrorists. What these critics don’t understand is that wars don’t start when the bombs begin to explode. They begin years before, when the seeds of hatred are sewn. The times to stop this new war was ten and twenty years ago, when the U.S. broke it’s promises for democracy, and acted in its own self-interest (and often on behalf of the interests of our oil companies) to keep the cycles of violence going. The United States made choices that helped keep the peoples of the Middle East enslaved in despotism and poverty.
And so we come to 2001. And it’s time to stop a war. But it’s not necessarily this war that we can stop. It’s the next one. And the ones after that. It’s time to stop combat terrorism with terror. In the last few weeks the United States has been making new alliances with countries whose leaders subvert democracy. We are giving them free rein to continue to subject their people. Every weapon we sell these tyrants only kills and destabilizes more, just as every bomb we drop on Kabul feeds terror more.
And most of all: we are making new victims. Another generation of children are seeing their parents die, are seeing the rain of bombs fall on their cities from an uncaring America. They cry out to us in the name of peace and democracy and hear nothing but hatred and blood. And some of them will respond by turning against us in hatred. And will fight us in anger. They will learn our lesson of terror and use it against us. They cycle will repeat. History will continue to turn, with blood as it’s Middle Eastern lubricant. Unless we act. Unless we can stop the next war.
A lot of people, include Jeanne Burns over on Quakerquaker, are talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker article, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted”.
Malcolm Gladwell’s modus operandi is to make outrageously counter-intuitive claims that people will talk about enough that they’ll buy his boss’s magazine, books and bobble-head likenesses. I find him likable and diverting but don’t take his claims very seriously. He’s a lot like Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson, his sometimes sparring partner, which isn’t surprising as they work for the same magazine empire, Conde Nast Publications.
In his article, Gladwell takes a lot of potshots at social media. It’s easy to do. He picks Clay Shirky, another New York “Big Idea” guy as his rhetorical strawman now, claiming Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” is the “bible of social-media movement.” Reading Gladwell, you kind of wish he’d get out of the echo box of circle-jerk New York Big Talkers (just getting out of the Conde Nast building’s cafeteria would be a good start).
Gladwell’s certainly right in that most of what passes for activism on Twitter and Facebook is ridiculous. Clicking a “Like” button or changing your profile image green doesn’t do much. He makes an important distinction between “weak ties” (Facebook “friends” who aren’t friends; Twitter campaigns that are risk-free) and “strong ties.” He cites the Civil Rights movement as a strong-tie phenomenon: the people who put themselves on the line tended to be those with close friends also putting themselves on the line.
What Gladwell misses is strong-tie organizing going on in social media. A lot of what’s happening over on QuakerQuaker is pretty strong-tie – it’s translating to workshops, articles, and is just one of a number of important networks that are forming. People are finding each other and making real connections that spill out into the real world. It’s not that online organizes creates real world changes, or even the reverse. Instead, under the right circumstances they can feed into each other, with each component magnifying the other’s reach.
One example of non-hierarchical involved social media is how Quaker bloggers came together to explain Tom Fox’s motives after his kidnapping. It didn’t have any effect on the kidnappers, obviously, but we did reach a lot of people who were curious why a Friend might choose such a personally dangerous form of Christian witness. This was all done by inter-related groups of people with no budget and no organizational chart. But these things don’t have to be quite so life-and-death.
A more recent example I’ve been able to see up close is the way my wife’s church has organized against diocesan attempts to shut it down: a core group of leaders have emerged; they share power, divide up roles and have been waging an organized campaign for about 2.5 years now. One element of this work has been the Savestmarys.org blog. The website’s only important because it’s been part of a real-world social network but it’s had an influence that’s gone far beyond the handful of people who write for it. One of the more surprising audiences have been the many staff at the Diocesan headquarters who visit every day – a small group has taken over quite a bit of mental space over there!
It’s been interesting for me to compare QuakerQuaker with an earlier peace project of mine, Nonviolence.org, which ran for thirteen years starting in 1995. In many ways it was the bigger site: a larger audience, with a wider base of interest. It was a popular site, with many visits and a fairly active bulletin board for much of it’s life. But it didn’t spawn workshop or conferences. There’s no “movement” associated with it. Donations were minimal and I never felt the support structure that I have now with my Quaker work.
Nonviolence.org was a good idea, but it was a “weak tie” network. QuakerQuaker’s network is stronger for two reasons that I can identify. The obvious one is that it’s built atop the organizing identity of a social group (Friends). But it also speaks more directly to its participants, asking them to share their lives and offering real-world opportunities for interaction. So much of my blogging on Nonviolence.org was Big Idea thoughts pieces about the situation in Bosnia – that just doesn’t provide the same kind of immediate personal entre.
Malcolm Gladwell minimizes the leadership structure of activist organizations, where leadership and power is in constant flux. He likewise minimizes the leadership of social media networks. Yes, anyone can publish but we all have different levels of visibility and influence and there is a filtering effect. I have twenty-five years of organized activism under my belt and fifteen years of online organizing and while the technology is very different, a lot of the social dynamics are remarkably similar.
Gladwell is an hired employee in one of the largest media companies in the world. It’s a very structured life: he’s got editors, publishers, copyeditors, proofreaders. He’s a cog in a company with $5 billion in annual revenue. It’s not really surprising that he doesn’t have much direct experience with effective social networks. It’s hard to see how social media is complementing real world grassroots networks from the 40th floor of a mid-town Manhattan skyscraper.
- What Malcolm Gladwell Doesn’t Understand About Activism and Social Networks over on StudentActivism.net, via @public_historian.
- Friends and Hierarchy and Social Change. Jeanne Burns on QuakerQuaker.
- Make the Revolution from Anil Dash: “People who want to see marches in the streets are often unwilling to admit that those marches just don’t produce much in the way of results in America in 2010.”
- Social Media for Good and Evil, Strong and Weak Ties, Online/Offline,and Orgs and Networks from Beth Kantor
The NYTimes is reporting that a military analyst who leaked the “Collateral Murder” videos to Wikileaks has been arrested.
If you missed the leaks at the time, you can watch them at CollateralMurder.com. They are videos taken from the gun-sights of US helicopters, complete with the commentary from military personnel firing down into the Iraqi neighborhoods below them. The videos capture the killing of civilians, including two Reuters journalists. They show just how impersonal murder has become. This is a video game war and there’s no real consequence to shooting the wrong target from thousands of feet away.
“We’ll end the war just as soon as…” is the rhetorical parent of empire-crushing quagmires. The conditional changes as needed, because it needs to stay fresh to stay plausible. One president will claim that the right enemy leader needs to be killed, another that more troops need to be temporarily added.
Strategic changes can change the tide of a military conflict but Afghanistan is now an eight-year-old war. We’re not battling some other empire for control of territory. The fighters shooting at American soldiers are Afghani. They will still be there when we leave, whenever we leave. They are Afghanistan’s future whether we like it or not. The only real question is whether we’ll leave as friends or as enemies. Thirty thousand additional U.S. troops will be 30,000 additional U.S. rifles aimed at 30,000 more Afghanis who simply don’t want us there. Eighteen months will be eighteen more months of Afghan seething over the corrupt U.S.-backed Karzai government.
I’m no fan of the Taliban. But it’s hard to imagine being the country being ruled by anyone else when the U.S. troops eventually do pull out. Ten years of war will have insured another generation of radicalized Aghani youth. And what about America? A whole generation got interested in politics because of a bright young president promising change, yet here we have the same tired quagmire playbook. It’s a shame.
I occasionally go back to my blogging archives to pick out interesting articles from one, five and ten years ago.
ONE YEAR AGO: The Not-Quite-So Young Quakers
It was five years ago this week that I sat down and wrote about a cool
new movement I had been reading about. It would have been Jordan Cooper’s blog that turned me onto Robert E Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals, a look at generational shifts among American Evangelicals. In retrospect, it’s fair to say that the QuakerQuaker community gathered around this essay (here’s Robin M’s account of first reading it) and it’s follow-up We’re All Ranters Now (Wess talking about it).
And yet? All of this is still a small demographic scattered all around. If I wanted to have a good two-hour caffeine-fueled bull session about the future of Friends at some local coffeeshop this afternoon, I can’t think of anyone even vaguely local who I could call up. I’m really sad to say we’re still largely on our own. According to actuarial tables, I’ve recently crossed my life’s halfway point and here I am still referencing generational change. How I wish I could honestly say that I could get involved with any committee in my yearly meeting and get to work on the issues raised in “Younger Evangelicals and Younger Quakers”. Someone recently sent me an email thread between members of an outreach committee for another large East Coast yearly meeting and they were debating whether the internet was an appropriate place to do outreach work – in 2008?!?
FIVE YEARS AGO: Vanity Googling of Causes
A poster to an obscure discussion board recently described typing a particular search phrase into Google and finding nothing but bad information. Reproducing the search I determined two things: 1) that my site topped the list and 2) that the results were actually quite accurate. I’ve been hearing an increasing number of stories like this. “Cause Googling,” a variation on “vanity googling,” is suddenly becoming quite popular. But the interesting thing is that these new searchers don’t actually seem curious about the results. Has Google become our new proof text?
Published 10/2/2004 in The Quaker Ranter.
TEN’ISH YEARS AGO: War Time Again
This piece is about the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia (Wikipedia). It’s strange to see I was feeling war fatigue even before 9/11 and the “real” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There’s a great danger in all this. A danger to the soul of America. This is the fourth country the U.S. has gone to war against in the last six months. War is becoming routine. It is sandwiched between the soap operas and the sitcoms, between the traffic and weather reports. Intense cruise missile bombardments are carried out but have no effect on the psyche or even imagination of the U.S. citizens.
It’s as if war itself has become another consumer good. Another event to be packaged for commercial television. Given a theme song. We’re at war with a country we don’t know over a region we don’t really care about. I’m not be facetious, I’m simply stating a fact. The United States can and should play an active peacemaking role in the region, but only after we’ve done our homework and have basic knowledge of the players and situation. Isolationism is dangerous, yes, but not nearly as dangerous as the emerging culture of these dilettante made-for-TV wars.
Published March 25, 1999, Nonviolence.org