From understanding to action: The Art of Waging Peace

Paul K. Chappell, The Art of Waging Peace (2013)

After reading seven books to understand Trump’s win, I knew there still remained much to understand, but I was also hankering for some ways to enact positive change. I turned to a book that was recommended by a friend soon after the 2016 elections: The Art of Waging Peace by Paul Chappell, a West Point graduate and veteran of military service who now serves as a peace activist. Chappell’s main argument is that while war endangers our survival on the planet and needs to come to an end, there are strategic principles and disciplines developed by means of warfare through the ages that we can learn from while working for peace.

While I found Chappell’s style somewhat wordy and repetitive, and had a hard time quelling my editorial wish to reorganize and cut down his text to make it more streamlined and effective, his ideas are fascinating and extremely valuable. They do not only apply to large-scale international relations, but to our everyday lives; waging peace with my husband and coworkers is something I struggle with on a daily basis. And when the world situation seems hopeless, it’s the small actions we can take in our own families and workplaces that make us feel change is possible. Chappell’s suggestions have already provided me much food for thought, and I’m excited to see how I might apply them toward healing and transformation, one day at a time.

For example, he points out that from ancient times military strategists have known that self-defense is the first priority. Escalating conflicts unnecessarily, being arrogant, and feeling invincible are recipes for disaster. Therefore, respect for one’s opponent is the “infinite shield” that can stop many conflicts before they start, and help to reduce the berserker rage that is the most dangerous element of combat. It’s essential to calm people down and remain calm oneself, increasing empathy and respect as the situation becomes more volatile. This gives the best chance of engaging in a nonviolent way, or if violence ensues, of minimizing the casualties.

See what I mean about these ideas being applicable in daily life? I know this cycle: I disrespect someone, their hackles go up, they stop listening to me, and I get into berserker mode and my brain shuts down. Instant conflict. The strategy recommended by Chappell, and supported by military thinkers from Sun Tzu to General Douglas MacArthur, actually calls on us to develop an inner spiritual discipline that can rally us against the forces of disintegration and chaos. This discipline was once used for outer warfare, but we now need to use it for peace — and it alone can give us the strength we need for our peacemaking to be powerful and lasting.

War has a strong, deceptive hold upon our minds; we’ve been told over and over again that we need to employ violence to make ourselves safe, while the opposite is actually true. Waging peace is not only morally preferable, but more effective than violent responses to the challenges of our world. Comprehending this requires us to discard some of our preconceived notions, and gather the strengths of war while turning them to a new cause. The great nonviolent activists are not weak, passive types, and great military leaders are not bullies. An effective fighting unit is one in which the members love and will die for one another. Our current challenge is to turn this force from pitting groups of people against each other toward the service of all humanity.

Developments since the book was published may make some of Chappell’s premises seem questionable. For example, he points toward the gains made by the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement as proof that a cultural mindset can be changed through peaceful action. The current resurgence in white nationalism and anti-feminist rage could make it appear these achievements were illusory.

However, I think that Chappell would see these as signs that nonviolence is actually working, causing the deceptive war-forces to try to provoke us into violent action (a serious mistake, as he points out in relation to the aftermath of 9/11). It’s just that we’ve gotten too complacent in recent years, depending on dead, fixed laws to protect us, rather than doing the constant, living work to keep transforming our society on a deep level. Let’s use this as a wake-up call to take up the fight for peace, in whatever way we can, and small actions toward a common goal will make a difference.

Chappell’s military background allows him to write as one who knows of what he is speaking, and inspires confidence in his message. He has also been through discrimination due to his multiracial heritage, and domestic violence from his own combat-traumatized father. His experiences have given him insight into the psychology of abuse, while convincing him that the cycle of pain and revenge originating in these and other wrongs must be broken.

I’ve heard that he’s a dynamic and powerful speaker, and that might be an even better way to experience his ideas (his very full speaking schedule is here). But failing that, I can recommend The Art of Waging Peace as a thought-provoking, inspiring catalyst for change.

What other books might you advise reading on this topic? I’m very interested in more suggestions.


Trying to Understand Part 5: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash (2016)
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (2016)

This is part 5 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land  Part 4: Listen, Liberal

Also posted as part of Nonfiction November, hosted by JulzReads, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Doing Dewey, and yours truly. Please visit these blogs for tons of wonderful nonfiction reviews, discussions, and more!

White Trash is subtitled “The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” which I find misleading. This is not primarily an overall history of class structures and conflicts throughout the entire United States, but a study of the origins and development of a particular group generated by a peculiar intersection of ethnicity, economics, and geography. Variously called white trash, rednecks, hillbillies, mudsills, and other derogatory names, this distinctively Southern underclass is an uncomfortable part of our national heritage. Through the years it has been reviled or celebrated, ignored or grotesquely exaggerated, but never integrated into our American self-image in a constructive way.

So, overlooking the grandiose subtitle, what does the book have to say about where this group came from and how it has developed? Starting with the early days of European settlement, it’s an absorbing and appalling chronicle of how our country was seen in part as a repository for the “waste people” of Europe, who were relegated to substandard, badly managed land and grew into their own caste alongside the institution of slavery. Shadowing the imported black race was a home-grown white race of uncivilized, illiterate, violent, promiscuous, lazy throwbacks, who had to be kept down so that the more palatable elements in American society could rise to the top.

The whole image of human waste, going along with the laying waste of the environment, rang true to me as something that we need to face up to right now. The so-called New World was once seen as a limitless field for exploitation, where people and resources could be discarded or pushed aside in order to create new possibilities for a certain portion of the population. But as we now know, our world cannot be exploited indefinitely, and human waste is as problematic as any other. The illusion of the “classless society,” Isenberg argues, was actually a way for those in power to mask their fear of class mobility and solidify structures that benefited them. Regarding the rural poor as a race apart was key to keeping them in their place.

An eye-opening point, which Isenberg traces in detail from its origins at the very beginning of colonization, is that the antislavery movement was strongly founded in the observation that slavery was pushing out and paralyzing the white laboring class. For many abolitionists, the goal was not to uphold the human rights of black people, but to give work back to the white underclass who were squeezed out of the Southern aristocracy. They, in turn, fought back against what they saw as a degenerate Northern rabble who would upend the social hierarchy within their own race. They argued that slavery at least provided a class above which poor whites could feel superior, and thus satisfied with their lot at the bottom of the (white) social ladder. Such cruelly tangled thinking is incredibly difficult to root out of the American soul, it seems.

Another striking section was about the eugenics movement that flourished here only a century ago. The solution to the problem of America’s “strange breed” was to be found in better breeding, in people of good blood choosing the right mates and in sterilization or even euthanasia of the bad seeds. Theodore Roosevelt was a strong supporter of eugenics, among many other prominent voices. Though we Americans like to feel we are on moral high ground compared to the Nazis, it’s important to realize that with a little push over the edge into mass hysteria, there could have been a kind of Holocaust here in the middle of the last century. There still could, as it feels as though we are treading very close to that edge right now, and any number of groups could be targeted.

Unfortunately, soon after this the final part of the book disintegrated into a confused muddle of reflections on trailer parks, Elvis Presley, LBJ, Dolly Parton, Deliverance, Sarah Palin, and other topics without a clear focus or conclusion. Perhaps that is not inappropriate, as there is certainly no way to wrap up this problematic segment of society in a neat intellectual package. But it proved something of a letdown after some of the earlier insights.

Isenberg herself starts to seem ambivalent in her view of the actual human beings behind the “white trash” label, distancing herself from them by only discussing public figures and pop culture phenomena, rather than ever actually talking to real people. In her over-the-top descriptions there is a certain amount of disgust and repugnance, even as she tries to point our attention toward an unjustly neglected population. Thus she demonstrates the very contradictions that have plagued our country from the start, the tension between fascination and repulsion that has prevented any meaningful change from taking place. Where do we find the compassion and true humanity to bridge the gap, and fully encompass this part of our being?

For this endeavor, a first-person account like J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy can be a help. Vance grew up in Ohio, but his family was from Kentucky and retained strong emotional and cultural ties there. Vance movingly depicts his troubled upbringing with an unstable mother, the vicious cycle of poverty, abuse, and hopelessness, and the saving grace found through the love of his grandmother. “Mamaw” is an unforgettable personality, tremendously flawed but gloriously human. Her power to make a difference in her grandson’s life shows how love can bring transformation into the most unlikely places.

Vance is less successful when he tries to interject some political and historical commentary into the narrative. He often seems underinformed, and at times harmfully naive — as when he argues that his conservative social group were repelled by President Obama not because of his race, but because Obama was an Ivy League graduate who “didn’t talk like us.” (I doubt they would have quite the same reaction to a white person with the same credentials; antagonism aroused by people of color gaining education and social status is a very pervasive feature of racism.)

Though his early school career was difficult, after a stint in the Marine Corps Vance became a lawyer and thus made it into the promised land of the rich. Some find this an inspiring trajectory, but I had mixed feelings about it. Why is it that everyone who wants to “make it” has to become a lawyer? Vance doesn’t seem to have any interest in the field other than its money-making potential, and his description of his time in law school focuses mainly on how he had to negotiate the social hurdles of being with an elite population for the first time, bluffing his way through until he gained the knowledge and skills he lacked. Very likely there’s more to his inner life that he didn’t express, and I don’t want to unfairly denigrate his very real achievement, but as presented in the book there was something hollow about it.

A conversation between Nancy Isenberg and J.D. Vance would certainly be interesting, and maybe someday that will happen. In the meantime, both books are worth reading, especially in tandem. In different ways, each sheds light on a part of our national character that is hard to face, but dangerous to ignore.



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Trying to Understand, Part 4: Listen, Liberal

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal (2016)

Listen, Liberal, my latest read from the NYT list of “Six Books to Understand Trump’s Win,” can be summarized as follows:

1. Our country is screwed.

2. Don’t go blaming those crazy Republicans for this mess. Democrats (or at least the higher levels of the Democratic Party and especially the last two administrations) are just as much, and perhaps even more to blame.

I’ve never wanted to identify with one of our traditional political parties. My first political act I can recall was voting in a mock election in fifth grade, the year that Reagan defeated Carter. I — and the majority of my class, interestingly enough — voted for for neither of them, but for an Independent named Anderson. (Who the heck was Anderson? Does anyone else remember him?) I didn’t know much about any of the candidates, but at the age of ten I was already disgusted with our two-party system and wanted none of it.

By the time I was able to vote for real, politics seemed such an ugly, morally questionable enterprise that I wanted to know as little about it as possible. But with my limited knowledge, the Democrats usually seemed the only viable choice, the party seemingly on the side of greater equality and diversity, and of environmental causes. I would prefer some more progressive options, even a real socialist party, but given the unappealing choices, what could I do but vote blue?

In his blistering critique of the direction the Democratic Party has taken over the past forty years, Thomas Frank makes me ashamed of my ignorance and inattention. The one-time party of the people has betrayed its former constituency to the point of no return, and its smooth-talking rhetoric can no longer hide the fact that what Democratic administrations have done — NAFTA, welfare reform, and increased incarceration, for example — and what they have left undone — such as imposing any meaningful restraints on a rapacious banking industry, or enforcing antitrust laws  — add up to a huge increase in economic inequality, for which they refuse to take responsibility.

Given a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, many Democrats are now mainly concerned to keep themselves on the right side of this abyss, prating of “innovation” and other meaningless solutions while they shuttle between legislative office and positions in the world of high finance and technology. In place of the working class, the highly educated “professional class” has become their new constituency, leaving most ordinary people in the situation mentioned in point #1 above, and deeply disillusioned with the party that once seemed to be on their side.

Frank’s portrait is one-sided, and should be taken with a large helping of salt. He focuses on the single issue of economic inequality and ignores others, like environmental concerns and civil rights, in which the Democratic track record might be considered a little better. And there are complexities and drawbacks to rule by “the people” — the role of labor unions, for example — that he does not attempt to go into, or that even seem to enter his mind. But as he relentlessly points out the hypocrisy, greed, and plain cruelty that pervade the policies and actions of a number of high-level Democrats, he makes the case that upholding the rights and dignity of the working class is no longer the party’s concern for many.

Such contempt for the very basis of our life on earth — for work that actually produces useful things — is a sickness of our time that threatens all of us. Instead of looking for ways to create a sound basis in physical reality for cultural life, the brightest among us are obsessed with intangible but wildly profitable fields like law and finance, or with creating companies like Uber or Airbnb that parasitically feed off of the work and resources of others. Virtue itself has become a commodity for them, a unit of exchange detatched from any basis in reality, as they reap the profits from disastrous do-good ideas like microfinance and congratulate themselves at incestuous celebrity functions.

Frank is good at complaining and ranting, not so good at offering solutions — other than to look back nostalgically to the golden age of FDR, and to suggest that the people take back their party. But even if that were possible, and even if we could figure out who “the people” are in this fractured age, what good would it do? Wouldn’t there be yet another moment of seeming triumph, followed by another creeping tide of corruption? The people are no nobler than the aristocracy, only different — and also, strangely, the same.

For a battle of extremes will always result, as this one has, in both sides mysteriously coming to resemble each other. The only way out of such a dualistic prison is not for one side to conquer the other, but for a third way to emerge — not a blending of both sides, not a compromise, not even a consensus, but a dynamic heart-center that can sense the true nature of both polarities, hold them in balance, and guide them to their rightful place. We all have both red and blue blood in our veins, after all.

And so, I think my ten-year-old self had something of the right idea. I’ll try to remain independent, while seeking for what of lasting worth might be discerned regardless of partisan polemics. I’ve started to get more involved in local Democratic groups, because at the moment this still seems like the best way to connect with people who stand for the values I support. But I will try not to judge individuals by the labels they wear, and attempt to see through political smokescreens to the real issues. I think many of us have been jolted into awareness that we need to do this, and Frank’s book, biased as it is in its own way, can be a help.

This is part 4 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land


Trying to Understand Part 3: Strangers in Their Own Land

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land (2016)

This is part 3 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money

When sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild set out to explore what she calls the Great Paradox — why the very states which benefit most from government assistance, and which are the most vulnerable to environmental destruction, are the most resolute in opposing governmental and regulatory intervention — she knew she needed to get out of her liberal Berkeley enclave. Some serendipitous connections led her to Louisiana, an oil-dominated state with an abysmal environmental record, as well as being a bastion of the Tea Party that yet draws a substantial percentage of its funding from the federal government.

Hochschild wanted to get to know a group of people well, to speak to them where they lived and hear how they felt about their land and water and air, while focusing on the “keyhole issue” of how much, if at all, government should regulate industrial polluters. Her research occupied five years and generated over four thousand pages of interviews, which her book distills into a few selected stories and profiles. After we get to know some of her subjects, she creates profiles of types of right-wing thinking (the Team Player, the Worshipper, and the Cowboy), and an overall “deep story” that  feels true to the people she has been studying.

For anyone who also questions how on earth our country has gotten into such an impossible and unhealthy situation, Hochschild’s approach is enlightening. She brought both empathy and objectivity into her research, seeking first to simply observe and describe, rather than immediately argue with or contradict the people whose logic ran counter to her own. Her genuine interest drew forth their trust, and allowed her to get behind the usual liberal stereotypes of conservatives to a more nuanced, compassionate view.

This helped me to see how blaming one political party is not a full or helpful explanation of the situation. I learned about the role that “blue” states have played in pushing environmental polluters into states with looser regulations, thus displacing rather than truly solving the problem, and about the betrayal and frustration felt by people who experience the government as addressing everyone else’s woes rather than theirs. Coupled with the wish to ally themselves with the rich “plantation owners” who still rule the South, rather than with the descendants of poor slaves and sharecroppers, this has caused them to identify the government rather than industry as their oppressors. (I believe the clever manipulation of conservative ideas by the fossil fuel industry and libertarian extremists, as detailed in Dark Money, has also been a strong factor — though Hochschild does not take up this theme.)

Hochschild ended by feeling great admiration for those she met, and believing that when we meet each other in human terms, the wall between liberal and conservative can start to come down. As a reader, it was hard for me to fully enter into this view; perhaps because I did not have the opportunity to meet her subjects in person, I remained baffled and frustrated by the illogical, backward thinking so often on display. I found their impulse to throw out all government childish and egotistical, their faith in a self-regulating free market naive and self-deluding, and their un-Christian, pseudo-religious belief system sadly deficient.

Still, I also have to admit that the system has not served them well, and that as a nation we have never addressed the terrible legacy of cruelty and exploitation upon which our much-vaunted “American Dream” was actually founded. Though the Tea Party response is not notable for logic or common sense, at least it’s forcing us to confront some of the issues that have long been tearing us apart from within. The question is how to address them, when a purely intellectual approach is clearly ineffective and even counterproductive.

Logic and intellect, it’s becoming increasingly clear, have very little to do with American politics. It’s the feelings that matter, and we need to learn how to work within that realm, to find common ground there rather than in our wildly divergent perceptions and ideas, and so work our way toward a world where we can perhaps exist together. If we can get to the level where we are all simply human beings, and not slaves of one ideology or another, we might have a chance of starting a dialogue rather than a war. For as Hochschild points out, “many on the left feel like strangers in their own land too.”

When will we learn to meet each other, to welcome the stranger into our hearts, and make our place of exile into a home for all people? Such a goal may seem impossibly far away, yet each of us can make a start. We don’t have to go to a faraway state, but can begin in our own neighborhoods, our own homes, even within our own selves.

For I have to admit that in me, too, there is a stubborn separatist who doesn’t want to hear reason. Rather than battering her with logical arguments, I can admire her tenacity, her fierce drive for independence, even as I wince at the ways in which this one-sided impulse is hurting her, her neighbors, and the planet. I can try to make her feel safe, to enable her to tell her story, and to model the compassion that she so sorely needs to learn. Maybe from this point of departure, I will find the strength to listen to others’ stories as well.

Another recent review of this book can be found at The Book Stop