Social Change

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Non-violence’s answer to the question, “What about Hitler?”

Monday, April 5th, 2010

The rise of National Socialism and Hitler in post-WWI Germany has become for many the trump-card against non-violent approaches to resolving conflict. The man and the regime were so evil, the argument goes, and so resistant to reason and persuasion, that only a countervailing violence could have brought the evil to a halt and saved untold millions more lives.

(This conclusion is, of course, an example of the power of the myth of redemptive violence, illuminated forcefully in a 2006 essay by Walter Wink.)

Steve Thorngate, in an aside in a recent blog entry on Theolog, points us to a brief essay by Jørgen Johansen exploring the abundant opportunities that existed in the first three decades of the twentieth century to challenge and undermine the Nazis using non-violent means, and points out some of the successes that were achieved in this way.

Johansen identifies four factors that contributed to the rise of Hitler: The humiliation of Germany reflected in the Treaty of Versailles, the economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s, a prevailing racist ideology, and the “Culture of Prussian Obedience” that prevailed in the period. He explores how approaches different from those taken by the international community could have blunted or redirected the forces that National Socialism tapped.

He then points out some of the effective non-violent methods that were used within Germany and Axis countries by the resistance movements, noting that broader support of these movements from the Allies and neutral nations could have undermined the Nazi regime.

With Reinhold Niebuhr, a self-confessed “realist” in international relations, providing theological and moral foundations for much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, it is good to be reminded that non-violent approaches are not only idealistic, they’re also profoundly realistic.

An opportunity in prison budget cuts?

Monday, September 21st, 2009

The Christian Science Monitor editorial board offers a useful and well-reasoned defense of shrinking prison budgets, driven by states’ revenue shortfall, as an opportunity to rethink our approach to treatment and punishment.

The US ranks as the prison capital of the world. In 2008, more than 2.3 million men and women (or 1 in 100 adults) sat in prisons or jails. This dubious distinction comes from a near tripling of the inmate population over the past two decades – and a similar rise in state spending on corrections.

Drawing from the results of a recent study by The Pew Center on the States, the board notes that states can count on public support for rehabilitation, vocational training, and parole reform, while support for sentencing reform is weaker. Even so, the editorial concludes,

The states are imprisoned by their prison budgets. Economic necessity can unloose their chains with a different way of doing things.

Louise Fresco on feeding the whole world with Wonder Bread

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

I listened recently to Louise Fresco’s TED talk contrasting artisanal bread and the culture that prizes it with its industrial counterpart (Wonder Bread) and arguing that something like sustainable Wonder Bread is essential to feeding the planet as its population grows to 9 billion. TED puts this talk in the “Unconventional Explanations” category, and the moniker certainly fits. There’s a lively series of comments about the talk on the TED site.

Louise Fresco on feeding the whole world | Video on TED.com.

Shopping Sickness — Paul Solman talks with Paco Underhill

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

It was only a five-minute interview on The News Hour last night, but it contained a wealth of great quotes.
thumbnail for PBS Newshour interview with Paco Underhill
A few gems:

“We cannot sustain the juggernaut of consumption that we have had here in the United States over the past decade….. Our houses are too big, our cars are too big, our debts are too big, our bellies are too big, and it’s time to go on a diet.”

“Sixty percent of discretionary income of people in North American is held in the hand of people who are 55 and over…. [Those of us of that age] could live the rest of our lives on fruit, vegetables, pasta, olive oil, wine, and yearly doses of socks and underwear.”

“Our basic marketing engines are in the hands of people who are thirty-something, and they like selling to themselves, and they like selling to a younger generation.”

“One of the fundamental issues that we’re trying to discover as consumers is that there are no acquisitions that are transformational. Acquiring that iPod or that tube of lipstick or that Maserati doesn’t change us into anyone other than what we were to start out with.”

“We can’t do this anymore.”

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

This is an excellent commentary from Thomas Friedman on the vain and vacuous consumptionism that has characterized the American economy increasingly during the past several decades. We’re talking about a vicious cycle that seems now to have brought our economy to its knees – to say nothing of the harm that it’s doing to our planet.  There’s a theological point to be made about this, of course, but it’ll just have to wait.  Crux of the critique:

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.

Op-Ed Columnist – The Inflection Is Near? – NYTimes.com.

Social Movements 2.0: Harnessing the Power of the Web for Change

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

In a recent article on AlternetBrendan SmithTim Costello, and Jeremy Brecher share their perspective as labor organizers on the current state and future potential of Web 2.0 as a foundation for movements of social change. They rightly understand, in my view, that the Web does not simply offer new tools for the same old tasks, but rather dramatically changes the way in which social movements can be developed and sustained:

[T]he online universe is not simply another place for people to congregate, circulate a petition, debate politics or mail out a newsletter. Nor is it simply a new technology like cable television — merely bringing more channels into the home. Instead, the web is increasingly looking like the invention of the printing press, which radically changed the lives of even those who could not read, by spurring the Protestant reformation and scientific revolution.

It’s an excellent overview, and the authors’ analytical insights are worth reading.