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Progressives Mourn Passing of Author and Activist Jonathan Schell

Colleagues and journalists 'heartbroken' at passing of trusted voice on perils of war and the power of nonviolence

Jon Queally, staff writer

Author, educator, and activist Jonathan Schell (1943-2014)

The progressive community on Wednesday was celebrating the life, work, and activism of longtime writer and Yale University professor who passed away late Tuesday at his home in Brooklyn after a battle with cancer.

A journalist who reported on the Vietnam War as a staff writer for The New Yorker and whose book, The Fate of the Earth, is still regarded as one of the great books on the nuclear threat, Schell became a longtime member of The Nation magazine's community of writers and an activist who focused on nonviolent struggles, human rights, and ending the injustice associated with foreign wars abroad and assaults on liberty at home.

Schell was a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and a lecturer at Yale University, where he taught courses on nonviolence and nuclear disarmament. Over the years, his work appeared in numerous print and online publications, including: The Nation, TomDispatch, Harper's, Foreign Affairs, and Common Dreams.

For a look at those articles which appeared on Common Dreams, click here.

The Nation's Katrina vanden Huevel, on behalf of herself and the magazine where Schell worked most for the latter part of his career, writes today:

The power and persuasiveness of so much of Jonathan's work came not only from his elegant style, clarity of analysis and powerful logic but also in the enduring belief that there is no idea so powerful as a moral one. In a special 1998 Nation issue making the case for nuclear abolition, he compelled us to confront the nuclear peril in which we all find ourselves, and he brilliantly laid out the argument that there exists a viable and desirable alternative to continued reliance on war and nuclear weapons. On the nuclear crisis, no voice was as clear, no writing as perceptive as Jonathan’s, going back to his acclaimed 1982 book The Fate of the Earth and his articles in The Nation and in other publications.

In the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and in its aftermath, Schell was an outspoken critic of the Bush administration and put particular emphasis on the failure of a pliant media that asked too few hard questions both before and during the war.

In his last essay in a column series, titled 'Letter from Ground Zero,' based specifically on the aftermath of 9/11 and the misguided road to Iraq, Schell wrote movingly about how the flawed response to the attacks of September 11th, though clear for a time, at some point became hard to distinguish from deeper problems—both new and old— that he perceived were gripping the American republic. 

"Until recently," he wrote in 2006, "it seemed possible to trace the main developments in the Bush administration's policies back to that horrible, fantastical day in September 2001, as if following an unbroken chain of causes and effects. Now it no longer does. The chain is too entangled with other chains, of newer and older origin."

Though many voiced the idea that "9/11 changed everything," Schell proved himself capable of more sophisticated analysis in which, despite the widespread damage and deep implications of those events and the Iraq War that followed, he concluded that "what remains most striking and most surprising is the degree of continuity of the systemic disorder in the face of radical, galloping change in almost every other area of political life."

And comparing the so-called 'War on Terror' to the Cold War that preceded it, Schell asked an essential question: "By looking at external foes, are we looking in the wrong place for the origins of [our society's] illness?"

In response to his death, Yale colleague Jim Sleeper offered a 'fond farewell,' calling Schell a "luminous, noble" individual who gave others a "powerful example of how to dissent" and concluded: "A much better society’s future is dimmed a bit by the loss of Jonathan Schell’s insight, magnanimity, and love."


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Announcing the news of his death, editor and publisher of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel tweeted:

And Nick Turse, editor at which published many of Schell's essays in recent years, posted this note:

From journalist and former Nation Institute colleague Liliana Segura:

And others:


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