Last May, on two consecutive Monday evenings, I viewed the six episodes of “A Force More Powerful,” a documentary about the efficacy of nonviolent direct action campaigns, which originally aired on PBS stations in 2000. I helped arrange for the screenings, because it’s my sense that such campaigns will be increasingly called for in our own time and place.
Among the six campaigns were Gandhi’s salt march, a critical episode in the struggle he led against British rule over India. Another was the Fisk University student sit-ins that desegregated lunch counters — and ultimately all downtown retail businesses — in Nashville. A third was the resistance to German attempts to round up Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark.
The success of these campaigns, as well as the other three, required imaginative and smart strategizing. But identifying the oppressors and formulating the goals presented no challenges whatsoever. Ending colonial rule, dismantling Jim Crow, not cooperating with a brutal military occupation — formidable but clear.
You and I aren’t called to run the risks of those whose struggles “A Force More Powerful” documents. Our challenges are different and, in their way, equally difficult. We must match their dedication yet resign ourselves to acting without their intellectual and moral certainty. We sense that immensely powerful forces are warping our world and imperiling our future, but we have no broadly shared understanding of what they are and who should be held accountable.
As a test, I’ll assert here that Barack Obama was an agent of oppression. I doubt if even a third of you reading this column would agree, and I suspect I’ve offended many of you. I can sympathize with that. He’s a thoughtful and caring person, so unlike his predecessor or successor. And as president he seemed to be trying to do the right things. Yet, during his eight years in office nothing essentially changed. The U.S. military continued to treat the entire globe as its protectorate, intervening to disastrous effect when ordered. Our destruction of the Arab world expanded well beyond his predecessor’s; Libya, Yemen and Syria lie in ruins. He remained committed to neo-liberal economic policies abroad, and at home the wealth disparity widened during the economic recovery over which he presided. Obamacare was a giveaway to the insurance companies. He took modest steps to address climate change, but never took on the giant fossil fuel corporations, which continued to enjoy tax breaks and government subsidies.
That so decent a person was an agent of oppression signals how hard our task is. It tells us we, too, may be complicit, that we are both oppressor and oppressed without realizing that we are either.
The oppressor is our culture. The salient manifestation of our culture is competition; its underlying premise is there must be winners and losers. The matrix is economic. From it grow our foreign relations, our politics, our entertainment. It even distorts our personal relationships.
What are we to do? We must disengage from this culture at the personal level and deeply engage it at the political level. The disengagement requires an attention to our attitudes and behavior that workshops on racism and sexism have made familiar, and then continuous self-remediation. The engagement requires resistance at the national level and building alternatives at the local level. It will take time, and we will make mistakes. But we won’t go far wrong, I think, if we too make an unwavering commitment to nonviolence.
— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.