by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - March 12, 2012)
In a recent New York Times article about the upheavals in Syria, the reporter wrote about the widespread violence occurring there. Every time he used the word "violence" he attached it to the protesters. He did not use it to describe the use of force by the government. Why is it that when the Syrian government kills protesters, reporters don't use the word violence to describe it but do when they describe anti-government forces? That New York Times reporter isn't alone in the use of the vocabulary of violence. Indeed, his word choices are emblematic of a great deal of reporting about war, revolution, and terrorism. Part of the ongoing problem of violence is a linguistic problem. Perhaps this seems obvious. Still, it seems to me to bear repeating. The words that are used to describe mass murders, genocide, and the killing of civilians shape the ways that the world is perceived. The words often perpetuate the violence.
The language and the images that are used to describe bloody, brutal acts can and do incite individuals to commit more bloody and brutal acts, as photographers and journalists have noted. It's a challenge to write about war without glorifying or distorting it. That's what I've noticed over the past half-century.
Indeed, I've been keeping an eye on the language of war and revolution since the 1960s when I protested in the streets against the War in Vietnam, destroyed property, and was arrested and jailed. I've also taken part in recent discussions about the Occupy Wall Street movement and the confrontations that have taken place between police and protesters. The same concerns and issues that came up 50 years ago come up today. In the hopes of providing clarity on the subject, I've written a short personal history of my thinking about violence and my own violent pursuits.
Chapter One: 1942-1952
I was born into a world of bombings, atrocities, and genocide. My father took me to movies about World War II, told me about German concentration camps, and about the lynching of African Americans in the United States. As a young boy, I didn't use the word "violence" or really think about it either, though I thought about war and revolution. Killing Nazis at the battle of Stalingrad seemed like a good thing. Dropping atomic bombs on Japan seemed like a bad thing. If crowds had risen up during the American, the French, the Russian, and the Chinese revolutions, I was all for them. My world was made up of good guys and bad guys. Our side was righteous, their side cruel. My father, who had been a member of the American Communist Party from 1932-1949 and who was a lawyer, was perhaps also my most illuminating teacher. From his point of view, capitalism inflicted suffering and pain on workers everyday in the workplace. Violence was, he insisted, ingrained in the system. Socialism would usher in an era of peace and prosperity for all.
Chapter Two: 1953-1963
The world seemed to become a place of continuing, intensified upheaval and crisis. The threat of nuclear war was palpable during the Cuban missile crisis when I was a student at college. My friends and I thought that the world might well come to an end. In this period, from 1953 to 1963, from the age of 10 to the age of 20, I behaved violently. As a boy, I belonged to a gang and fought other gangs, and then as a teenager I became an athlete. On the football field, violence was encouraged and rewarded -- within limits, of course. One might be penalized, and penalties were to be avoided. The point was to win the game or the match and to use just enough force to overcome opponents. I fell in love, was married, and thought that marriage might create a cocoon and wall-off the horrors of the world. Matthew Arnold's poem, On Dover Beach, summed up much of my thinking and my feeling. "Ignorant armies clash by night," Arnold wrote. But he and his wife -- and all lovers -- might "be true" to one another. Then the Beatles arrived and buttressed that feeling. "All you need is love," they sang, as the world made ready for war.
Chapter Three: 1964-1974
I was arrested several times in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I rioted in the streets, clashed with the police in New York and Washington, D.C., and was physically beaten by police officers, my bones broken. Of course, I wasn't the only one. Tens of thousands of protesters were engaged in similar activities. Black Panthers talked about "offing the pig" -- which meant assassinating police officers. Panthers exchanged gunfire with cops. The Weathermen "trashed" cars and windows, then went underground, made bombs, and set them off in the US Capitol, the Pentagon, and other government buildings. There were heated debates, discussions, and arguments about tactics.
On one side, radicals and revolutionaries insisted that they'd use "any means necessary" to change the system and to end oppression. That meant that they'd riot, shoot, and make bombs. On the other side of ideological fences, protesters no less impassioned insisted on non-violence, passive resistance, adhering to the tactics of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1970, three members of the Weathermen whom I had known from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) blew themselves up accidentally when making a bomb. Violence clearly bred more violence.
For some, taking part in violent acts was a rite of passage. It was for me. I was badly beaten, but my status in the movement rose as a result of my beating at the hands of the police. It was a kind of red badge of courage. But beatings at the hands of the police eventually led me to stop rioting in the streets. One New York police officer -- a veteran of the war in Vietnam -- said to me as he beat me over the head, "If you want war we'll give you war." Clearly, the police had more weapons and far more guns than the protesters. In most battles, it was clear that the police would win. Still, one of the main lessons of this period was that a small country, namely Vietnam, using guerrilla tactics, and with political and economic support from around the world, could defeat the United States, the nation with more bombs than any other and capable of carrying out more acts of violence, perhaps than any other.
A memorable moment during this time period was a discussion I had with the popular antiwar folk singer, Phil Ochs, who cringed when he heard the abuse of language by protesters and radicals. From his perspective, the callous, cold language they used tainted and corrupted them. I was a Maoist for a part of this period and like many American Maoists, borrowed the language of The Little Red Book. An older, wiser relative explained that violence injured both the "perpetrators" and the "victims." The person holding the whip and doing the whipping was as dehumanized, she argued, as the person who received the lashing.
Chapter Four: 1975-1985
For a time, it seemed that the United States wasn't going to go to war again against another nation and that was cause for celebration. It had been beaten on the battlefield and it knew it. Then, Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Cold War revived, and US troops invaded other countries. Violence was back with a bang. Now, there were newer more effective weapons of mass destruction. I protested -- but quietly. I held placards, marched, and sang songs -- and wasn't arrested. I returned to teaching after a long absence and taught classes about American movies. I was drawn to violent Hollywood pictures and developed an attachment to violent heroes. Usually, the hero with a gun -- often the private eye and detective -- was the victim of violence, sometime from the criminals and sometimes from the police. But he also used guns when he had to -- and when all else failed. Film noir offered a code of violence and turned the shedding of human blood into an art form. The violence around me in my part of California often stemmed from confrontations between the police and marijuana growers and dealers. In 1980, I wrote the story for a movie about cops and growers, sold it to a Hollywood producer, though it wasn't made until 1996 when violence in the drug world was an epidemic.
Chapter Five: 1986-1996
On the set of the marijuana movie, Homegrown, the star Billy Bob Thornton changed the script, injecting the word "fuck" into almost all of the scenes and thereby heightening the sense of violence. He also fired a machine gun whenever he wanted, often into the underbrush simply for the pleasure it gave him. In 1990, I traveled from coast to coast visiting friends from the 1960s, all of them former activists, many of them arrested and jailed for taking part in riots. They had settled down, literally and figuratively. They weren't making bombs but babies. They'd gone back to work, bought houses, became homemakers. Most of them insisted that they were true to their sixties ideals and still wanted a world of equality and justice, but few of them rioted in the streets or were arrested.
Like the radicals from the 1930s, they seemed to have made their peace with the system. I wrote about the sixties, revisited the era in books and articles, and tended to identify with protesters who'd created symbolic acts of violence, not actual violence. Twenty years after the end of the war there, I visited Vietnam and came away feeling that no one wins a war, least of all a modern war, a twentieth-century war. I met survivors of the war against the French and young men in their late teens and early twenties, but almost no men who belonged to my own generation. Most of them had died in the war against the United States. I remember, in Hanoi, going to see an action movie with a group of Vietnamese. The film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bridges and buildings were blown up. My newly-found Vietnamese friends were naïve about movies and movie making; I had to explain that no actually bridges and buildings had been blown up. Special effects had been used. From the vantage point of Vietnam, American culture seemed like one of the most violent cultures in the world and it was exported all over the world.
Chapter Six: 1997-2007
Influenced by the writings of the British novelist, Doris Lessing, who grew up in Southern Rhodesia and settled in London in 1950, I looked at human beings as a species. As a species, humans seemed bent on self-destruction and the destruction of the environment. No other species was as violent as humans; no other species trashed the planet. So, like many others, I developed a sense of environmental catastrophe. What seemed more essential than anything else was to stop the violent acts against the earth, water, and air. Stop the pollution, stop the war on resources, and stop the wars against the poor, the outcast, the migrants, and those who were disinherited from their own lands and their own homes. I tried Buddhism; I joined a sanga, meditated, and for a time idealized Buddhist and Buddhism. Then, I also saw that Buddhists made war. They weren't pure. At a Buddhist retreat in California, I heard a talk by the lama that defended violence. She talked about the saga of Beowulf and about the necessity to slay the monster. If the hero didn't slay the monster, she said, the monster would slay him; it would come back bigger and stronger and slay more people. That point of view seems to inform much of US foreign policy. If we don't slay the terrorists, they'll slay us -- so presidents and politicians have argued. So far the war on terrorism hasn't succeeded in suppressing terrorism, though it has enriched war-makers. Violence is profitable. Whether the war on terrorism will bring about global peace remains to be seen, though it seems unlikely.
Chapter Seven: 2008-2012
When the Occupy Wall Street movement arrived I took to the streets again. I thought of myself as a pacifist but I also didn't condemn the anarchists who destroyed property and fought with the police. In many instances, the police initiated the violence. They used pepper spray and hit demonstrators over the head with truncheons. The First Amendment seemed, too, to have taken a beaten. No longer was it widely recognized as a right to gather in public, to speak and write freely, and demand an end to injustice. The way I saw it, banks and bankers were violent; they inflicted pain and suffering on the lives of Americans. Recently, I wrote an article entitled "Burn Down the Banks." I couldn't find anyone willing to publish it, though I said in no uncertain terms that if protesters burned down a bank, the bankers would build another one. That's the problem with violence. Assassinate a leader and another crops up. Destroy a building and the construction company rolls up its sleeves and goes to work. I changed the title, added a question mark at the end -- "Burn Down Banks?" -- and found a publisher.
Recently, I turned 70. Looking back, I could see that during my whole life, the United States had rarely been at peace. It had either been at war, been preparing for war, or making a transition from one war to another. At 70, as I look around me, I see that as a species, human beings haven't yet figured out how to change and evolve without creating mayhem and costly destruction to the environment and to themselves. We're a terribly self-destructive species. I know I've been physically and psychologically injured by the daily violence of the world that's all around me. I hear it and I see it. I try to keep it at arm's length. I know I can't do it alone. I haven't given up hoping, writing, and talking. One of my friends from the sixties, now a farmer, signs her e-mails to me with the word "Peace." I sign mine, "Solidarity forever."
I'd like to suggest a moratorium on the use of the word "violence." For the most part, it has been so abused and misused as to be useless. There are dozens of other, more precise words that reporters and journalists can and do use. "Violence" is far too broad a brush to paint an accurate picture of Syria or any other place in the world where there is "upheaval." Many of the best reporters are already switching or have switched from the word "violence" to more specific words and phrases. The veteran war reporter, Jon Lee Anderson, does this in a recent article in The New Yorker that's about "The Implosion" and the gathering storm clouds of "civil war" in Syria. Reading the article closely, I did notice that the word "violence" appears a couple of times, as when a shopkeeper in Homs describes the "kidnappings" and "killings" by the "rebels." Mostly, Anderson steers clear of the word "violence." There are scores of other colorful words and descriptive phrases that he does use and that paint an accurate picture. These words and phrases include: "assault," "combat," "torture," "killed," "armed revolt," "reduced...to rubble," "sabotage," "exterminate," and more. He also writes about "sit-ins," "resistance," and "fighting." I have taken these words out of context. In the context of the article, they all provide a much more detailed and accurate sense of what's really happening in Syria than the word "violence." For the most part, using the word "violence" means accepting the official government story. Getting behind the government story means finding out what, specifically, happened on a particular day, with a specific group of individuals, in a town or a city. Getting behind "violence" can mean getting back to "humanity" -- back to the people who are fighting, resisting, revolting, rebelling, sitting-in, and sometimes killing. Peace -- and solidarity forever.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)