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Power and Violence

For some weird reason I keep reading books side by side that I don’t imagine will have anything to do with each other directly, but then they turn out to be remarkably connected. I suppose it’s just my brain that’s making the connections, but thematically I keep getting surprised in fascinating and charming ways. The latest serendipitous duo is Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World (Holt, New York: 2003) and Gus Les’s novel China Boy (Penguin, New York: 1991). China Boy is the book currently recommended by San Francisco’s librarians as a citywide reading project. They have chosen well. It’s a crisp, fascinating story that takes us inside the immigrant child’s experience and also inside a rather different time in San Francisco and U.S. history (the 1950s). Schell’s book, which I mentioned already in an earlier post, is subtitled “Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People” and is more than anything else a history of the evolution of social power from coercive to cooperative.

The odd juxtaposition of these two books revolves around violence. In Schell’s long look at the rise of the war system, its relative demise through nuclearization and mutual terror, and the emergence of popular will or cooperative power from below, he makes a compelling argument about how ineffective violence is. Not just in terms of wrecking lives and the planet, but following Hannah Arendt and Gandhi and even Trotsky in a small way, he illustrates how violent coercion fails to get the goods, how it cannot get “its” way, that winning hearts and minds and willing cooperation is still the crux of the matter. Violent force is simply incapable of establishing long-term control. Obviously it can “win” briefly (and brutally) but over time human dignity asserts itself, even something like “truth” (a complicated abstraction these days) itself erodes the ability of madmen and tyrants to dominate.

Another way to see this is in terms of patriarchal authority. Being a dad I had a lot of years to contemplate the relationship between inspiration and coercion. I also benefited from my own father’s very liberal and nonviolent approach to reason and authority. I, in turn, could never see much point to being heavy-handed and dictatorial in my parenting life, any more than I can in the rest of life. I’ve thought since Bush came in that that crowd’s whole approach to the world is that of a stern father. If you don’t do as I say I will punish you. If you continue to disobey I will hit you harder and increase your punishment”¦. and so on, ad infinitum. Obviously it doesn’t work. Various analysts who compared Bush and Kerry in terms of fathering styles made analogous observations, that people who believed in a stern, punishing father supported Bush and those who believed in a consultative, liberal and open-minded model of fathering went for Kerry (Kerry’s hopeless inadequacy notwithstanding). The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be driven by this mindset of the angry father, trying to enforce his rules through violence. Hopeless, but it sure does kill and maim a lot of folks until people finally stop it.

The most resonant part of Schell’s analysis for me is the part of the book where he describes the 1989 revolutions and the rather sudden and relatively nonviolent disappearance of the Soviet Union. Earlier in the book he spends an entire chapter on Gandhi, which taught me a lot about the specific historic evolution of Gandhi’s merging of politics and religion, showing how that poisonous relationship has its roots in a more progressive effort. In examining the Eastern European revolts that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union (the U.S. benefited from the end of the Cold War and claims it as a great victory, but Schell’s analysis throws a much needed corrective light on this period of history) Schell takes the time to quote the secular writings of Jacek Kuron and Vaclav Havel. In particular, Havel and others around the Czech movement known as Charter 77 theorized that in the face of the preponderant power of the Soviet Union the task was to develop power by founding new associations and organizations, to found “parallel structures”. Havel predicted that these would arise first in the realm of culture, where a “second culture” might develop (Havel was in turn quoting Czech writer Vaclav Benda and rock musician Ivan Jirous). To some extent, I believe this is what a lot of us are doing these days. My next book will make this argument, among others.

By contrast, Gus Lee’s protagonist, Kai Ting, a scrawny 7 year old boy whose family escaped China at the end of WWII and ends up on McAllister near Masonic north of the Panhandle, discovers a San Francisco street life for boys that is extremely violent and intimidating. When his mother dies prematurely and his father remarries an American, the new stepmom turns out to be as violent and heartless as the streets she forces Kai (“China Boy” as he’s known) to stay in every day until dinner, regardless of what happens to him. It’s a heartbreaking story at many points, but is also a saga of incredible humanity and resilience, memory and cultural continuity, and finally a quintessentially American melting pot story. Instead of being in New York though, it’s right here in San Francisco in the 1950s, when the area around the Panhandle is nearly 100% African-American, the Korean War is killing lots of locals, and the old housing stock is completely dilapidated and impoverished. The fear and confusion of a small boy who can barely see or speak the language is eloquently captured, placing us in his narrow, frightened shoes. Local bullies beat him up with alarming regularity; when he gets home his new stepmom is not only not sympathetic but spends an inordinate amount of time punishing him and his sister for “transgressions” that are merely their normal behavior as Chinese youth.

The solution for Kai begins to take shape when his ex-Koumintang General father enrolls him in a boxing program for kids at the Central YMCA on Golden Gate and Leavenworth. His universe slowly begins to expand, and the warmth and care shown him by his boxing teachers gives him a safe haven from his heartless and deculturated home life. The story follows his long resistance to developing self confidence and physical skills, but the book climaxes with Kai taking on a huge schoolyard bully and prevailing in a bloody brawl. The epic battle is framed as his way out of being bullied for the rest of his life, and on the very last line of the book he asserts his newfound independence from the violence of his stepmother too. The ultimate underdog story, and a resonant American tale of standing up to bullies and developing self-defense skills, in this case via boxing, to stop violence with violence. His choice, largely imposed by the world around him, to learn how to fight, is contrasted to his remaining elderly Chinese uncle’s advice to turn away from the physical world and to use his brains to escape the terrain of violent confrontation. But there’s no escape except to stand up and fight, more or less the story that Americans learn from the skewed history we’re given as we grow up. Taking place in the 1950s, with WWII still a very fresh memory, it’s not hard to see why this story is so resonant.

But the message is precisely the opposite of Schell’s eloquent, cerebral repudiation of violence. Schell’s book sports endorsements from such mainstream politicos as Harrison Salisbury and Strobe Talbot. He cannot be placed in a radical context on his own merits, especially since so much of his motivation seems to be advising governments and policy makers on how to manage a complicated transition away from the imperial project currently unfolding. But his historical analysis is a vital contribution to bolstering our radical desires to remake life from below, to making plausible our vision of revolution.

“A revolution against violence in the world at large today would not be the realization of any single plan drawn up by any one person or council but would develop, like open software, as the common creation of any and all comers, acting at every political level, within as well as outside government, on the basis of common principles.” (p. 349)

As much as I was beaten up in my childhood, these two books swirl around in my head and bring up all kinds of memories and ideas. Not conclusive in either case, but together they brilliantly frame two opposite but complementary ways of confronting a world gone mad.

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