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Can nonviolence move the next century?

I just returned to New York after visiting Belgrade, where I interviewed (among others) Srdja Popovic, a leader of the nonviolent Otpor movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and now a lively, witty, imaginative advocate for nonviolent struggle against dictatorships everywhere. There’s a fine narrative of Otpor’s progress, and Srdja’s approach to spunky nonviolence, in Tina Rosenberg’s new bookJoin the Club:  How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Excerpts from my interview will be up soon on a soon-to-be-launched global upstart news site that I’m thrilled to be connected to, Newsmotion.org.

But for now, I want to ring a bell (thank you, ex-governor Palin!) and call some domestic attention to the remarkable site that Srdja and four other activists run out of Belgrade, CANVASopedia.org. CANVAS stands for Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies. They circulate a DVD detailing the movement that overthrew the Serbian dictator. They circulate step-by-step manuals in many languages on how to organize nonviolent movements–step by step, counterstep by counterstep. They launched a graduate program at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Belgrade. They conduct training sessions with nonviolent activists from many countries.

I’m willing to take the risk of hype and say that CANVAS’s work—along with the movements they help on request (to name only one, Egypt)—amounts to something huge and fresh afoot in the world, a phenomenon that, for all the continuing wars—always hideous, almost always futile—may well prove to be the planet’s greatest outpouring of creative force, the one that will mark the coming century as total war stamped the last. It’s nonviolent struggle.

On top of Tunisia and Egypt, it now looks as though—fingers crossed—a critical mass of Palestinians may, at last, be getting the point. When they blow people up, they manufacture panic and hatred, and lock themselves up. They forfeit the initiative. When they act en masse with what Gandhi called satyagraha, soul force, they seize the initiative. If the Palestinian national movement had begun with disciplined nonviolence, it would have achieved statehood by now.

That said, much better late than never. From current reports, it would seem that something worthy of being called a third intifada may have begun on the West Bank and on the other side of the Syrian border. As the Israeli-American writer Joseph Dana wrote the other day in response to Thomas Friedman’s call for Palestinian nonviolence,

Palestinians have been holding unarmed and largely non-violent demonstrations in towns across the West Bank  for the past nine years.

With inspiration from Tunisia and Egypt, and fueled by the contemptuous obduracy of the Israeli government, amid the build-up to a UN vote on Palestinian statehood in September, nonviolence is making new friends in the West Bank. This is only one place where the balance of forces is changing and imagination is soaring.

Nonviolent campaigns do not guarantee victory or the ultimate reign of justice. Neither do wars. But human ingenuity is in the game and the human prospect opens more than a crack. International Relations ought to heed. Attention must be paid.


Todd Gitlin is an American writer, sociologist, communications scholar, novelist, poet, and not very private intellectual. He is the author of fourteen books, including, most recently (with Liel Leibovitz), The Chosen Peoples:  America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election and a novel, Undying.

This post originally appeared on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education and is re-posted here with the permission of the author and Chronicle.

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    1. Joe Catron

      This comment has been edited

      Todd Gitlin should read Mazin Qumsiyeh’s Popular Resistance in Palestine before waxing ignorant that “a critical mass of Palestinians may, at last, be getting the point,” then further pontificating, “much better late than never.”

      Reply to Comment
    2. lablueyz

      Tech ?
      Today my attempts at “liking” posts seemingly confirm, nut then
      hit back with an “ERROR”.
      Is it I or thou?

      Reply to Comment
    3. It’s facebook. Happens every once in a while.

      Reply to Comment
    4. One component of disciplined non-violent action is that the goal of the action is prominently publicly identified and that the goal is one that lends itself to a contrast between what is just and what is unjust.

      Storming a border, in addition to NOT being an example of disciplined non-violence, expresses an unjust goal, that of removing the right of Israel to manage its sovereign and even temporarily occupied borders.

      The Salt March was something different than storming a border. The march from Montgomery to Birmingham was different than storming a border.

      The non-voting Syrian Palestinians marching on Damascus would be more reminiscent of Gandhi, King, Mandela.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Micah Brashear

      Todd Gitlin is a complete and utter disgrace. I’ll sooner belief that Thomas Friedman’s moustache contains the life force which will save humanity.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Jim Holstun

      “On top of Tunisia and Egypt, it now looks as though—fingers crossed—a critical mass of Palestinians may, at last, be getting the point. When they blow people up, they manufacture panic and hatred, and lock themselves up.”

      Really disgusting: ignoring the decades of non-violent Palestinian resistance met with Galils, Merkavas, and illegal detention, and topped off by blaming the victims for “generating the panic and hatred” that victimizes them, all told with a touch of impatient professorial didacticism: the poor, backward Palestinians are finally “getting the point.”

      Do you get the point, Professor Gitlin? BDS, right here, right now, and no more F16s for the colonists.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben Israel

      Oh dear, the Leftist/Progressive epithet generating maching is working overtime today. Eitan Grossman calls us “fascists” and Jim calls us “colonists”. Yes, we are quaking in our boots. No doubt, many of us will lose sleep tonight because these progressives called us names.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Jim Holstun

      Dear Ben Israel,

      What other name would you suggest for somebody who conquers somebody else’s country and begins building colonies (I just don’t know what other word to use) there? “Militarily underwritten population overflow”? “International extension of intranational development”? “The divinely-appointed reclamation–no kidding, I mean it, stop laughing!–of Judea and Samaria”? Help me out here.

      Of course, you need not quake in your boots at people calling you what you are. But when the US stops subsidizing you and protecting you from the dispassionate application of international law, then a little quaking may be appropriate, O Ben Israel. Get back to me them, will you?

      Reply to Comment
    9. directrob

      If a “Gandhi like” leader stands up for the Palestinians I do not think Israel (and America) can cope with a river of Palestinian blood or overfull prison camps and has to give in.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ben Israel

      Please, please, PLEASE get the US to stop the aid to Israel. This is the biggest favor you could do for us. Israel doesn’t need it…it is given for political purposes. It allows the US to demand we buy Boeing instead of Airbus civilian airliners, Israeli is forced to buy military equipment in the US instead of producing it itself or buying it cheaper on the open market. The aid creates unemployment in Israel and ships the jobs to the US. I am sure Obama would have no problem to cut the thousands of jobs in the US that flow from the aid suppoedly given to Israel anyway since the US has full employment.

      If calling us “colonists” makes you happy, go ahead. You can call the Americans colonists also, and you can call the Arabs colonsts, since they conquered the Middle East in one of the biggest acts of military and cultural aggression in history. I frankly couldn’t care less. I have to worry about my own concience, I am not interested in yours.

      Reply to Comment