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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Number 280: June 2020

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Here we are again, I hope you are fit, well, and not at your wit’s end because of the lockdown, or lockslightlylessdown as it is becoming. Canon Jimmy McPhillips of Lisnaskea (north of the border), who jokingly played Orange/loyalist ant-them ‘The Sash’ at the end of (a webcast) mass, subsequently said there here were four ways for people to come out of lockdown - "like a monk, a hunk, a chunk or a drunk. So choose wisely". I’m sure there are other possibilities – a skunk, a flunk or a thunk [No such word – Ed] [Maybe but I believe readers can think out what it means, and if they can’t then they just need to think again – Billy] being others – but he managed to summarise some possibilities very pithily. I did some navel gazing the last time so I will trying to do more naval gazing, figuratively speaking, this time. On with the show.

Not a fairy story?
Once upon a time, in a land far away, in a universe far away, there was a world where everyone was getting on with their own business. Well, there were rich and poor countries and people, there were people who were content with their lot and fortunes and those who were not. Of course the rich people, and those who were comfortably off, generally saw no problems because the only problem they had was how to hold on to, or increase, what they already had.

But that world, like every world, was finite; it had finite resources and a finite ecological system which was not just at risk of collapse but actually toppling over the edge.

One day a new disease came along which made everyone very afraid. This disease came about as a result of the actions of the people of that world. But since cooperation thrives in adversity, there was a new emphasis on the wellbeing of everyone, and many people who put the care of others before their own safety helped to turn the tide. It was a very difficult time but it changed the consciousness of many people so that their priorities also changed and that led to ongoing developments in many fields and areas of life.

Sorting out that world’s problems, which had heaped up in many different directions, was a huge task. But they did it. They built a new world, sometimes using the good things that already existed, sometimes building on the foundations which were there, and sometimes having to take things apart before they built new structures.

It was a mammoth task but they did it; of course there were many issues still unresolved but a qualitative change had taken place. Looking back on those times with the advantage of hindsight, grandparents who lived through these massive changes were asked by their grandchildren what had got them through the difficult times, the times of uncertainty, the times when the powerful and rich resisted change. There were many different answers to this question but the answers almost always included “courage and concern” as the qualities which led people on: courage to venture onto new paths and care and concern for all.

Protest and persuasion in the era of coronavirus
Well, some things haven’t changed as we see huge peaceful protests and some violence (not least from the state) in the USA following the death of another black man at the hands of white police. The upsurge at this moment indicates the depth of feeling on the issue of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and related issues in the ‘United’ States. Mind you, with the Scapegoater in Chief in the White House who doesn’t look like he has actually considered the protesters’ views for a second, let alone a minute, things may get rather worse before they get better. By the way, the WRL/War Resisters’ League in the US has a tracker on militarised responses to #Justice4GeorgeFloyd which you can find on the WRL website.

While this indicates protesters will still get out there when sufficiently motivated, more generally there is an issue about how campaigners work in the era of coronavirus. Of course social media of various kinds have come into their own and are likely to continue in a more prominent role, but there is an issue of how protest and persuasion can take place at a bit more than arms’ length. Another issue is how police respond to on street protests, with differential responses by the Gardaí in Dublin to a trade union post-redundancy protest (observing social distance) and an anti-Covid-19 restrictions protest at the High Court, in late April.

The hartal, Gandhian ‘stay at home’ strike, may become a ‘stay at home but don’t work’ strike for home workers. Boycotts and various means of withdrawal of assent, taxes, or payments, are likely to become more prominent. With many companies and even local councils going to be hard pressed to keep their heads above water financially, monetary pressure on them may have more and faster influence – so long as the proposed change does not incur major expenditure for them.

Maybe what we need to do is dust off Gene Sharp’s “198 Varieties” of nonviolent action and think what would be most effective in the current environment– but of course going beyond that to consider our own situations and causes in more detail. But speaking of Gene Sharp.....

Sharp as a new pin - and a tangent on snail mail
The virtual ink wasn’t even dry on the e-mail edition of the last Nonviolent News with its feature in ‘Readings on Nonviolence’ about Gene Sharp when we received a missive back ‘by return’ from Jørgen Johansen who sent us a copy of an important article by Craig Brown he had published about Gene Sharp in the “Journal of Resistance Studies” (Vol.6, No.1, 2020)The latter publication is subscription-only but issues become open source after two years.

The conclusion is perhaps in the title, “Gene Sharp: More Anarchist than Neoliberal” but the author is not uncritical of Sharp. However he does generally defend him against attacks by such as Marcie Smith who sees him as promoting neoliberalism and being in bed with the US establishment. In regard to the latter, Brown points out that such ‘guilt by association’ (e.g. in academic institutions which also had establishment links) could equally apply to Marcie Smith herself.

I’m certainly not going to try to summarise a 46-page article (well, the last 8 pages are references) but I will pick out a few points. Usefully, at the start Brown looks at the totality of Sharp’s work and identifies five different phases in Sharp’s thinking and writing; this helps to take his work in context. He considers in some detail Sharp’s relationship to the revolutions against Russian Soviet control in Eastern Europe, and also in the WANA/West Asia and North Africa political upheavals of 2010-11. In both cases Brown finds Sharp ‘not guilty’ of being a tool of US government policy although he also points out he may have been less influential than some people think (particularly in the ‘Arab Spring’ when he was given a high profile internationally).

Craig Brown also looks at Sharp’s anarchistic affinities, and relationship to the thoughts of someone like Hannah Arendt. I may not need to state this but I will seeing this goes on the hinterlandnet; anarchism is a political philosophy based around collective organisation and rejection of coercive authority and is not a synonym for ‘chaos’, indeed it is is close to being an antonym. Brown does identify a lack of economic analysis on Sharp’s part but firmly places him as an anti-neoliberal.

In relation to the criticism made of Sharp’s inability to transcend pragmatic/principled and reformist/revolutionary binaries in nonviolent theory, Brown states the following (references omitted): “However, it is notable that Sharp suggested the ‘pragmatic-principled’ split in nonviolence is overstated, seeing the dynamics of both being mutually reinforcing and advocating a ‘mixed motivation’ of ‘practical considerations’ and ‘relative moral preference [original emphasis]’. This is not a case of principled and pragmatic nonviolence being compatible, but actually conflated.” (p.91)

Part of the conclusion is that “through Sharp’s connection and engagement with the work of [Hannah] Arendt, E.F. Schumacher and its invocation by others such as Murray Bookchin, it seems eminently reasonable to situate Sharp’s nonviolence within more anarchistic thought, which after all was where Sharp’s formative sympathies lay.” (p.94-95) So there you have it, well one analysis of Gene Sharp’s orientation.

Returning to (my tangent and) the term ‘by return’ that I used at the start of this piece, I am well aware that it is now archaic. ‘By return’ is where you responded to one piece of mail by getting your reply in the very next possible post. Ah, the days of snail mail; we are, we think, so much more advanced and sophisticated today – but that also brings pressures on us and our time. However ‘snail mail’ is a considerable misnomer. If we go back some time, cities like Belfast and Dublin might have had a first and a second post, or in some cases even more. If you got a letter in the post box for delivery in the same city before the first pick up, it would be delivered that day – indeed it might even have been possible for the recipient to reply ‘by return’ and that to be received by the original letter writer the same day. No, not as fast as the click (why not a squeak?) of a mouse - but there were times when ‘snail mail’ was anything but that. However, to use another animal reference, that time is as dead as the dodo.

Brexit and coronavirus
For the moment anyway, the British government is proceeding with its Brexit exit strategy (insofar as it has a viable and coherent one) from the transition period in leaving the EU without any hint that the coronavirus situation has altered anything. You might think that the prospect of a further serious economic shock, coming for Britain, (and, not that it is Britain’s concern, even more so for Ireland, and to varying but lesser extents for other EU countries) might have softened their minds. Not so. This one is likely to go to the wire as well.

But then I thought about the connection between Brexit and coronavirus. Britain, well a significant number in England and English-Wales, wants to get rid of the ‘virus’ of the EU. They want to self isolate from the EU but not practice social distancing from the rest of the world. I wouldn’t take the analogy too far but given the disdain in which the British right and right-wing press have held the EU, it has been a virus which has eaten into British perceptions of their place in the world. The world is not going to want to mix it up with them any more than the EU, and certainly less than with the EU when they were members; in fact a ‘social distance’ might be too close for some other countries.

As you know, ‘we’ [the royal ‘we’? - Ed] are not a fan of EU neoliberalism and militarisation but it has other positive features which have certainly helped transform life in Ireland and also assisted North-Republic relations. The British right has been criticising the EU for mainly the wrong reasons, and the resultant myths would give even Dominic Cummings’ version of his schlockdown adventures a run for their money. Like the coronavirus, Brexit is here to stay and will be an issue for quite some time to come. We are certainly not out of the woods on either.

Two bibles
The sight of the President of the USA posing with what looked like an old fashioned black Christian bible in front of a damaged Episcopalian church close to the White House on 1st June – after he had peaceful demonstrators (including a number of Episcopal clergy) beaten out of the way to walk there for a photo op – reminded me there are two bibles. No, I’m not talking about different translations, I am talking about two very different books, in fact with no connection between them. One is the book with the Hebrew prophets in what became the Christian ‘Old Testament’ where they continually and vehemently denounce injustice; the same book in its second part has an inhabitant of 1st century Palestine talking about those who strive for justice and who make peace being known as God’s children.

The other bible? Well, I am not sure what the words and chapters are but clearly it supports racism, greed, injustice, warmongering and the status quo. Unfortunately the second one seems to be at least as common as the first, and it is not just Donald Trump who has that version. But many Christians were incensed by President Trump’s actions in using the bible as a prop for a brutal and racist law’n’order agenda and adhere to the first book. I know the USA still has many ‘Christian trappings’ but what was POTUS doing in that context identifying with one distorted version of one religion anyway? And this is without even getting into the issue of Christianity and violence in general – as Mohandas Gandhi said, Christians are the only people not to realise that Jesus was nonviolent, see ‘Nonviolence and Christians’ poster in the INNATE downloadable selection.

Thirty years a-goin’
Blowing our own trumpet (make your own trumpeting sound please), I should perhaps note briefly that this publication is now going 30 years, which kind of blows our minds as well. The first issue was for 30th May 1990 but it began as an occasional publication and didn’t become monthly until 1994 - which explains why we are on issue 280 rather than 300 or 300+. As well as ten issues a year we have for quite some time issued news supplements for January and August, the two months there is no ‘full’ issue. So it really is monthly.

If you fancy taking a trip down memory lane, or are looking for something in particular, those back issues are available with the earliest issues there as PDFs – also the publication ‘Dawn Train’ which began with the Dawn group and continued for a few more issues with INNATE. The files are searchable too (using the box under the INNATE banner) so you can, I hope, find what you might want without too much difficulty. Perhaps it is innately simple but that might be too easy to say…....


That’s me for now. Summer is here and I hope you are able to enjoy some fine weather (plus some rain at times, especially night times, for us haughty-culturalists, the ground is exceedingly parched after an extremely dry spring) and in due course trips or stays to/at places of beauty and relaxation. Simple pleasures to look forward to in these uncertain times. See you soon, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

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