Michael N. Nagler's groundbreaking new book, "Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future," is selling like hotcakes from what I hear. Small wonder. Professor Nagler's work was published last year, but in the aftermath of 9-11 will surely come to be seen as a seminal work in understanding the causes of violence and the sorely-needed application of nonviolence -- which is not the same as pacifism.
For starters, let's get over the prevailing modern assumption that waging peace is somehow wimpy or unworkable. Prof. Nagler (UC Berkeley Emeritus) challenges us to really understand nonviolence, as Gandhi meant it to be employed. It is not "passive resistance." Neither is it nonviolence-unless-that-doesn't-work-and-then-we'll-go-back-to-being-violent-again. It is a morally-compelling, wondrously effective way of responding to violent force, not without its concomitant dangers, but then as Nagler says, "Nonviolence is dangerous, but not as dangerous as violence."
Would that everyone in the Middle East had a copy of this book, they might be able to see that nonviolence is the only way out of escalating violence. The marvel is that we now have a choice between the two modes of action. Calling it by different names, the Quakers adhered to it, Gandhi perfected it, and Martin Luther King, Jr. used it to great advantage during the Civil Rights movement; countless other people and groups are now carrying it forward into our new century, where it may be the brightest ray of hope there is in an otherwise dark and gloomy forecast of a violent, militaristic, and authoritarian future, the beginnings of which are already in place.
Since my novel about an adolescent would-be suicide is coming out this May, I was struck by Nagler's ideas about why, in a land of freedom and plenty, increasing numbers of adolescents, at increasingly younger ages, are feeling the need to end their lives. While there are many layers to such a complex issue, one thing is obvious, says Nagler: "The reason a young person ends his or her life . . . is because life has lost its meaning for them -- they cannot imagine a future with any hope or purpose."
What's the tie-in between suicidal young people and our war-based world? I think bright, sensitive young people who have given up on life are the canaries in the gold mine. With everything in the world to live for, why are they choosing to check out? Could it be that the endless violence, trivialization and denigration of life all around them causes them to lose faith in the future -- or at least one they want to participate in?
This is where nonviolence comes in, as an alternative way of thinking and living. Nonviolence isn't just a negation of violence, it's an active embracing of peace in all its forms, a refusal to accept less than the bravest and best we can be, as for example with the Human Shield Project in Israel. In short, it's a calling, to our highest aims as collective, collaborative, and cooperative human beings, an ideal young people desperately need in our time.
Though sometimes it seems our culture is presently sinking in a sea of negativity, there actually is more reason for hope now than at any time in our history. We are fortunate to have a humanitarian like Michael Nagler in our backyard. I urge anyone interested in the future of the human race to read his book. Its principles may just be the saving of us.
Paki Wright was born in NYC but is a 30-year resident of Northern California, Paki's work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, among other venues. Her novel about growing up Reichian during the McCarthy era, "The All Souls' Waiting Room," will be published this May.