Sunday, June 15, 2008


I'm finally getting around to reading Howard Zinn's very excellent Passionate Declarations: Essays on War and Justice. Every single piece in it so far has been stupefyingly good, and I'm kicking myself for not diving into this book sooner.

The third essay in the collection, "Violence and Human Nature," spends the bulk of its time examining how, throughout history, the idea of humans being an innately war-making group is not only complete bunk, but has been used countless times to justify a bloody conflict. At the end, he turns it around and looks at humans' propensity for kindness — propelled forward by our power to imagine a better world for ourselves — which often wins out but never makes the headlines.

I felt compelled to reproduce the anecdote Zinn includes at the end of his essay. I don't think I need to explain anything here.

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Anyone who has participated in a social movement has seen the power of idealism to move people toward self-sacrifice and cooperation. I think of Sam Block, a young black Mississippian, very thin and with very bad eyes, taking black people to register to vote in the murderous atmosphere of Greenwood, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. Block was accosted by a sheriff (another civil rights worker, listening, recorded their conversation):

SHERIFF: Nigger, where you from?
BLOCK: I'm a native of Mississippi.
SHERIFF: I know all the niggers here.
BLOCK: Do you know any colored people?
(The sheriff spat at him.)
SHERIFF: I'll give you till tomorrow to get out of here.
BLOCK: If you don't want to see me here, you better pack up and leave, because I'll be here.

History, so diligent at recording disasters, is largely silent on the enormous number of courageous acts by individuals challenging authority and defying death.

The question of history, its use and abuse, deserves a discussion of its own.

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Duke said...

I believe that it's entirely possible to reach a point in which armed conflict is no longer actively taking place - but I think we will always need to be prepared to use force, if necessary. Even in peaceful societies, an armed police is still necessary to keep order. I would direct your attention to an equally moving bit of authorship - "Demolition Man", by the Warner Brothers.

JTL said...

Mr. Fistman,

The main reason I posted this was to share this bad-ass anecdote. The rest of the essay is pretty solid, and the main thrust of it is that, when people say "humans are warmongering creatures," it's often people picking-and-choosing convenient bits from history in order to make their point. His larger point is that people can pick whatever they like from history to prove whatever point they want to make.

Duke said...

It's quite the conundrum. How do you separate well-reasoned analysis from analysis with an agenda? It's the usual list - consider your source, try to disprove the hypothesis, avoid relying solely on "gut instinct", and all the rest of those critical thinking skills we all (should have) learned in unimaversity.

Also, as human beings, we have a natural tendency to express greater interest in violence than we do in gradual, peaceful developments. Consider it a survival mechanism. Where this is most dangerous, however, is in the media. While our students in Afghanistan were giving lovely speeches on International Women's Day in 2007, they were interupted by the distant rumble of a suicide bombing. Wouldn't you know it, all of the reporters at the back of the room promptly filed out to cover the more 'exciting' story...

JTL said...

as human beings, we have a natural tendency to express greater interest in violence than we do in gradual, peaceful developments
all of the reporters at the back of the room promptly filed out to cover the more 'exciting' story

These are two different phenomena: what reporters deem as newsworthy and important, vs. what humans "naturally" do; it's important not to conflate the two.

Plus, the bulk of Zinn's essay dealt with what people say humans "naturally" do, and how writers, politicians, and others have twisted this phrase to meet their own ends. I've been on board with that idea for a few years now... basically, whenever anyone whips out the phrase "it's human nature, blah blah," I completely tune them out. If it can be backed up with objective, irrefutable research, I'll listen... but if it's just the speculation of some hack writer at the Post, for example, I'll probably set fire to it.