Paradoxes of Pacifism
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Igor leads Donward his warriors.
His misfortunes already
are forefelt by the birds in the oakscrub.
The wolves, in the ravines,
conjure the storm.
The erns with their squalling
summon the beasts to the bones.
The foxes yelp
at the vermillion shields.
O Russian land,
you are already behind the
—Song of Igor’s Campaign (late 12th century, tr. Vladimir Nabokov)
On at least a few occasions in my adult life, I have conducted myself with what may have looked to an outside observer like courage. I have for example put myself between a raving junkie, with a broken bottle in his hand, and the girlfriend he intended to slash with it, thus interrupting my routine evening stroll across the Place de Stalingrad. Such scenes of violence are not uncommon there, as if there were something about Stalingrads in general, and I confess I have let many similar scenes continue without my intervention.
The broken man slinked away with his broken bottle, presumably because I appeared to present to him a credible threat of force. The meaning of this phrase, so often heard in the context of great-power politics, does not entail a demonstrable threat of force, and indeed had the man with the bottle tried to strike me with it, I really don’t know what I would have done. The truth is I have no idea how to “fight”, just like I have no idea how to dance ballet: I can see that there is some distinct human capacity that fighters and dancers are deploying, but I don’t know what it is.
My self-understanding as a pacifist, it has recently come to seem to me, may amount to little more than a rationalization of cowardice. No matter what the by-standers may have observed that evening at the Place de Stalingrad, a moment far more revelatory of what I fear is my true character occurred years before. One day in 1989 I’m in the boys’ room at Mira Loma High School, and a boy walks in just as I’m about to walk out. He smiles at me, and lights a joint. He’s our school’s only known affiliate of the Crips. I’m honored, and I smile back. Then enters Gerry the drivers-ed teacher, a sitcom-worthy schlub with a pocket-protector, and the Crip quickly flushes the joint and walks out. “You weren’t smoking pot in here, were you?” Gerry asks me. “No”, I say truthfully. He makes an inference from my negative claim that I should have been able to anticipate, and so the next day I’m standing around in the courtyard at lunch-hour, I feel a tap on my shoulder, I turn around, and the Crip punches me hard in my stupid face.
I’m stunned, mostly because I miss the good old days of yesterday when I could still get a smile from this strange demigod, connected by invisible webs to a world more powerful than the mundane reality of adult-run institutions. I still don’t understand what has caused my loss of standing with him, but quickly his two stout lackeys, a pair of identical twins of Indian ancestry who have recently emigrated from South Africa, flank me on each side and begin aggressively to query me, running California gang slang through their spellbinding accent: “Why you snitch on homie?” from the left side. “Why you snitch on homie?” from the right.
Before I can find a plausible answer homie is punching me again, and the only thing I know how to do is to slink away, or try to slink away, as he grabs my shirt, takes me to the ground, keeps punching. The school’s covey of skinheads are all gawking, delighted by the spectacle. They had long had it out for me, having placed me in our high-school taxonomy, with at least some accuracy, as a “femme”. With the skins and the South Africans the whole affair had a rather more British imperial ambiance than you might ordinarily expect in the Central Valley of California, except of course there was also a Crip involved, and there was me involved, who hardly had anything to do with the British empire either, even if I had already come to feel strongly at least that I belonged somewhere very far away from California.
So I’m getting pounded, and doing absolutely nothing at all, and my friend K*** who is in the National Guard reserve and is thin as a reed but filled with some kind of ideal of martial honor that I literally cannot comprehend, sees what’s going on, and pries my attacker off of me, and holds him from behind in a brace until Gerry and the other plodding adults arrive like lowly deputies and things quickly calm down, more from pity for the flustered grown-ups than from fear of their authority. The Crip is never seen again — presumably he will be expelled. My reservist friend is angry, refuses to talk to me, except to hint in various ways that I need to man up. My deepest and most enduring problem however remains the skinheads, who I sincerely fear will cause me serious harm soon (I usually anonymize people from my past in my writing, but I’ll make an exception this time: fuck you, Mike Koffenberg).
I suppose the threat they posed was not entirely beyond my control. I could for example have removed the eye-liner and the nose-ring and other such accoutrements, which in 1989 had a semiotic power roughly equivalent to a full-facial tattoo in 2022. I could have manned up. But it did not seem to me at the time that I could do any such thing, and so instead I simply stopped going to school. Retrospectively people who have known me for decades like to congratulate me for having been “too smart” for high school, but the preeminent reason I dropped out two years before finishing is much more basic: for me to continue to go to school was to live in constant, pervasive, and justified fear of violence.
I never manned up, but only slinked along into manhood for lack of any alternatives. And now I live in Western Europe, which has been at peace since 1945 for one reason alone: it is armed to the hilt, and any false move could easily entail total war. Mutually assured destruction: this is the other phrase that we used to hear in great-power politics almost as often as credible threat of force, and that we may start hearing again as in my childhood.
What gave the calm of Europe a veneer of virtue was the Pax Americana — the hard work of propaganda that the Atlanticist alliance undertook in the post-war era to build the ruined continent back up into a materially prosperous place, but more than that, into a moral standard-bearer, uniting all the pacifists of the world, beckoning them from as far as the Western American frontier still simmering with the violence of its settlement. Europe was a place where you could sit around and talk about Leibniz, or really just do whatever you like. The propaganda effort was so successful that the weapons often came to seem invisible, and the peaceful conduct that prevailed could be taken as if it were the sure sign of a new stage of civilizational evolution. We, who could not fight, congratulated ourselves for living here — as if a peace, in fact maintained by force, were emanating from our own bright souls.
Until the past few years, as my own private world and the world itself have gone haywire in tandem, I basically took the Pax Americana for granted.
In Leningrad in 1991 it seemed natural and fitting to me that valyuta —dollars, deutschmarks, finnmarks, and other fiat currencies of wealthy nations— should be the money that is accepted for desirable world-class commodities like Heineken and Marlboro, while rubles are what you spend on sacks of half-rotten potatoes. At the time there were still plenty of veterans of the Great War for the Fatherland around — World War 2, as we call it in our own history, as if it were some dumb Hollywood sequel. Many of them were still only in their sixties, liked to stroll about the city and chat with passers-by, the lapels of their cheap suits —suits barely more elegant than those worn by the Azeri watermelon vendors outside the metro stations— covered with medals attesting to otherwise forgotten acts of heroism.
I remember one of them so clearly, on a sunny day on Vasilyevsky Island, who knew I was American and who said to me: “You think you won, but how can you win if you haven’t even fought?” He meant the Americans thought they had won the Cold War, while in fact anything that can properly be called a victory takes a real sacrifice, which evidently Americans like me had not been required to make. He told me —and I know this seems hard to believe— exactly what we have been hearing from Putin for many years now: that Gorbachev had fucked things up, and that sooner or later Russia would be back.
It’s true: I thought we’d won. Not at all so long after being pounded by a Crip and mocked by skinheads, by some surprising turn of events I found myself getting my long feminine locks cut off at the salon of the Pribaltiïskaya Hotel, Dee-lite’s “Groove Is in The Heart” playing on a TV screen above my head as the Soviet women attending to me marvelled at what was likely their first encounter with a truly long-haired male. Samson’s strength was in his hair, while mine, ceremoniously sacrificed that day, had only made me a target of the track-suited gopniks roaming about the city; it is not that they were more frightening than the California skinheads, but only that by now, at the age of nineteen, I had finally had enough of living in fear.
But if I was afraid of the gopniks, I was not at all afraid of the veteran with his prognostications about world history, nor of the reappearance in the still-far-off twenty-first century of great-power politics. The student exchange program that had brought me to Russia had the general spirit of a victory tour, and we were subtly encouraged by the American organizers of this Russian sojourn to enlighten the locals about the virtues of entrepreneurialism, as if we were making first contact with an island-bound tribe and instructing them in the usage of Tupperware or contraception.
Then came the “Wild East” period of the 1990s, during which I made several return visits for months-long stays, in 1994, 1996, 1999. This period saw frequent shoot-outs between would-be oligarchs, and cynical pyramid-schemes bilking ordinary Russian citizens with promises of some small share in Western-style prosperity. From a distance Jeffrey Sachs was stoking all of this madness with the doctrine of shock therapy, underlain by a mystical belief that capitalist prosperity will emerge, with perhaps a few bumps along the way, wherever there is freedom (mutatis mutandis this was also the expectation in Iraq in 2003).
But what looks like freedom to an opportunist outsider can easily appear, to an opportunist insider, as a vacuum of power. And so a former KGB agent, which is to say a KGB agent, moved in to replace Boris Yeltsin, the comical muzhik-president the Americans had preferred, whose most iconic moment was the time on a DC visit he got drunk, and then hungry, and tried to hail a cab in his underwear to go get a pizza. And then the KGB agent crushed the oligarchs, and consolidated power, installed a psychotic warlord vassal in Chechnya, encroached back into Stalin’s Ossetian homeland in 2008, back into Crimea in 2014 (which in my view is neither Russian nor Ukrainian, but Tatar), and, finally, launched a full-scale irredentist campaign for the return not so much of the USSR as of the old Russian Empire in 2022.
The Sakha newspaper of record, Kyym (which is the Sakha word for Iskra, which is the Russian word for ‘spark’, which is the name of the newspaper founded by Lenin in 1900), tells us that in far-away Ukraine Russian forces have “intervened” in order to “de-Nazify” the country. There is a thoroughgoing counterfactual account of events that must look extremely compelling from within a far-flung Yakut village. It is very important not to lose sight of this: there, as in our America riven by the MSNBC/Fox dichotomy, information-bubbles shape reality.
Meanwhile, governments and their volunteers struggle and generally fail to plant effective propaganda on social media. Just a few days ago, before the invasion, the US embassy in Kyiv circulated an idiotic meme showing the various monasteries that had already been built in that city at a time when Moscow was still forest. I don’t know quite what the embassy’s “social team” could have been thinking, but the meme clearly does not make the argument they thought it was making. Rather, it only reminds us that the roots of Russia, before Muscovy, lie in Kievan Rus’, and that therefore on a certain understanding Ukraine is not only a natural part of Russia, but the oldest and most authentic part. As a student of Old East Slavonic, I can confirm that even well after the settlement of Moscow, in the study of old documents it is a pointless exercise to try to specify whether they are written in “Russian” or “Ukrainian” — with so little standardization, prior to the modern period virtually every document is in its own idiosyncratic language, all existing on a continuum, and all containing elements that appear variously ancestral to both Russian and Ukrainian. I’m certainly not making the argument that Russia is currently retaking its own territory, but only that Ukraine’s absolute right to twenty-first-century independence does not at all follow from its having the oldest monasteries.
The old veteran, anyhow, was right, and the realization of his prophecy has somewhat put to shame those of us who once marched around Europe as if its freedom were a natural expression of its virtue and civility, rather than something maintained at great cost and through the constant credible threat of force.
Waking up, belatedly, from the naïveté I have attempted to characterize, and with some shame at my relatively unreflective past identification as a pacifist, it seems to me now that, if pacifism is not to be wholly scorned, there are at least some paradoxes it entails that must be confronted by anyone who is sympathetic to it.
I have just read that President Zelenskyy has ordered a mass mobilization of the citizens of Ukraine, and has barred all Ukrainian men between eighteen and sixty from leaving the country. I am forty-nine, and this means that if I were Ukrainian it would be my obligation to stay and fight. What would I do in that situation — I, who have spent my life, other than in some rare moments like that evening at the Place de Stalingrad, just slinking by?
Among baboons we know that there is an obscenely high rate of mortality among young males who fight each other to the death in order to establish their place in the social hierarchy, but that there is also some sizeable minority of males who just opt out altogether, laze about with the females, engage in mutual grooming with them as at a beauty salon. These wily fellows are not so much “beta” as “sigma”, to use the internet lingo: they tend to do fairly well, reproductively, and the males who by contrast advance through aggression do not tend to see them as competitors, but rather as belonging to an altogether different class of beings. That had always been somewhat my ambition in this life.
But violence under the mass mobilizations of nation states is different from one-on-one violence in primate social groups. You can try to weasel your way out of it with draft deferrals, like Trump and Cheney and so many others, but one thing you can’t do is face the enemy and say: “I’m a sigma, actually”, or “Hold on, now, my pronouns are ‘they/them’”. Many Ukraine independentists may well be trying to position themselves within a sphere of values shared with those countries now pioneering post-biological conceptions of gender identity, but still, for President Zelenskyy, when it comes to fighting the Russians, a male is a male.
I’ll be honest: I don’t know what I’d do. What I do know is that that evening at the Place de Stalingrad I was not thinking about my principles, and what placed me between the man with the broken bottle and the woman was the result of a reflection on principles no deeper than anything of which a baboon might also be capable. I just ended up there.
It seems to me, now, that one must distinguish between the credible threat of force that I was prepared to display that evening, and the actual use of force that any conscripted Ukrainian man might be obligated to use.
Must a pacifist decline to show credible threat of force? Or is it acceptable for a pacifist to do so as long as this threat is what the ethologists would call “deceptive signaling”? It seems an extremely high demand of a would-be pacifist to exhibit no such threat, as even, say, walking with composure through an environment filled with dangers human or natural signals to observers that the walker has got something up his sleeve, some hidden force that would make it unwise casually to accost him. Surely no one can require of pacifists that they always present themselves as meek, cowering, and available for attack, simply in order to count as pacifists at all? But any deviation from this extreme moves in the direction of outright chest-thumping. So ‘CTF’ must be compatible with pacifism, since there is simply no way to move through the world without manifesting at least a bit of it. We manifest it simply by having bodies.
And yet, there also seems to be a form of radical pacifism, as distinct from the incoherent liberal pacifism that necessarily relies on other people’s being willing to hold the weapons. This is on some accounts the form of non-violent political resistance that Gandhi attempted to articulate under the name of ahiṃsā. Gandhian non-violence, at least in principle, requires honest signalling of weakness, and paradoxically this is something it takes a rare strength to display.
Ahiṃsā does not rely on others taking care of the dirty work for you, but instead says: “Do what you will, beat us and kill us, go ahead and achieve whatever victory you anticipate by that means. In time, when successive waves of us are dead, you will see that your victory is not working out as planned.” There may be a transcendental conviction underlying this latter belief, that violence cannot achieve its own goals, because anything attained through violence is ipso facto false and self-betraying; or there may be an empirically grounded conviction that this is how things tend to work out in the world: you just keep killing the locals, and they just keep refusing to live in submission, and this is just not what we, the aggressors, were aiming for. But either way, such non-violence is if not transcendental at least radically world-renouncing. “Go ahead and kill me” is not within the range of any liberal pacifist’s recommendations to a would-be enemy.
Just as I don’t know if I could conjure the bravery to fight, I don’t know if I could conjure the bravery to not fight in the way I’ve just described. I suspect that the latter response to violence requires considerably more courage than the former. It is the only respectable version of pacifism.
May the Ukrainian people, pacifist and non-pacifist alike, cowards and valiants, prevail against their aggressor. Cлава Україні!
Don’t forget to listen to the latest episode of my podcast, “What Is X?”, featuring Dominic Pettman on love, and what it is.
This past week I was honored to be able to give Richard Marshall, of 3:16 Magazine, an interview about my work and path as a philosopher. Read it all here!
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