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This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Fearless Idealism of Jonathan Schell | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Fearless Idealism of Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell

(Credit: David Barreda)

The passing of our friend Jonathan Schell last week is a profound loss for journalism and for the international peace movement. In twenty years at The New Yorker and sixteen at The Nation, Jonathan’s work insisted on seeing through the headlines to the deeper currents of history swirling below. His great theme was the survival of humanity, both as a species and as a general principle of common decency and purpose. In addition to his incredible early reportage, works like The Fate of the Earth (1982), The Gift of Time (1998), and The Unconquerable World (2003) conveyed in bracing prose Jonathan’s fearless idealism, his unique combination of justified alarm and unbridled optimism which forever changed the way the United States understands itself and the way the entire world understands matters of war and peace.

As our peace and disarmament correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute, Jonathan filed for The Nation well over one hundred eloquent, elegant, passionate and forcefully argued essays on topics ranging from nuclear abolitionism to the Iraq war, from the Clinton impeachment proceedings to the fallout from September 11th, from the disclosures of illegal NSA spying in 2005 to the even more alarming Snowden files of 2013. To read through those essays now—especially his special series, “The Republic on Trial” and “Letter from Ground Zero”—is to watch one of the most important journalists this country has ever produced grapple with unfolding trends and historical themes he had been tracking for decades—and at a prolific, often weekly pace—about which he always had original and clarifying things to say. It is also to discover once again that Jonathan, as he once wrote in The Nation of history itself, was “no respecter of conventional wisdom”—that being among the loftiest legacies a journalist can leave behind.

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The Gift of Time” (February 2, 1998):

“To succeed in the task would, by securing human survival through human resolve and action, go far toward restoring our faith, so badly shaken in the century, in our capacity to make use of the amazing products of our hands and minds for our benefit rather than our destruction. It would bring undying honor to those who carried it to fulfillment and to their generation. It would have the character not of a desperate expedient resorted to under pressure of terror but of a tremendous free act, following upon calm public deliberation in every nation—among all humankind. In a way, it would be the foundation of humankind.”

 

The Republic on Trial: What Works: The Constitution” (February 15, 1999):

“In most respects, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton—now destined to go on for yet more weeks—is different from the proceedings against President Richard Nixon a quarter-century ago. Nixon was accused of abuses of the power of his office. You had to be President to bomb Cambodia secretly, to use the IRS to harass your political enemies or to ask the CIA to squelch an investigation by the FBI. Clinton, on the other hand, is accused of violations of law in his individual capacity. It is within the power of almost anyone to fool around at the office, to invite a colleague to dissemble about the affair in court or to ask a friend to do the lover in question a favor.

“The historical circumstances were different, too. In the immediate background was the cold war, in whose name the presidency had accumulated powers that Nixon used to break the law. The question before the country was whether to embrace this ‘imperial’ presidency or to restore the constitutional balance, and it chose the latter. Today, by contrast, one would be hard put to name and large public controversy that is going to be settled one way or another by the impeachment trial. If anything, the trial has created fresh issues (mostly regarding abuse of the impeachment power itself) rather than resolved existing ones.”

 

Letter from Ground Zero: The Power of the Powerful” (October 15, 2001):

“Vaclav Havel once invoked the ‘power of the powerless,’ by which he meant the power of the nonviolent weak to defy and defeat totalitarian regimes through unarmed acts of non-cooperation and defiance. But the powerful have some power, too. Terrorism is jujitsu, by which the violent weak use the power of the powerful to overthrow them…But the powerful can refuse to cooperate. Tom Friedman of the Times advised that the United States, like the Taliban, should act ‘a little bit crazy.’ But the Taliban are a poor model. That way lies our undoing. When all is said and done, it is not in the power of America’s enemies to defeat us. Only we can do that. We should refrain.”

 

The Growing Nuclear Peril” (June 24, 2002):

“The goal of nuclear abolition, it is true, is ambitious, and the difficulties are mountainous. Many will say, as they have throughout the nuclear age, that it is unrealistic. They would perhaps be right if we lived in a static world. But events—in South Asia, in Central Asia, in the Middle East, in New York—are moving at breakneck pace, and the avenues to disaster are multiplying. A nuclear revival is under way. A revival of nuclear protest is needed to stop it.”

 

Letter from Ground Zero: The Path to Point B” (September 23, 2002):

“A year that began (if we count by the new calendar whose Day One is September 11, 2001) with an attack on the United States by a terrorist group consisting mostly of Saudi Arabians headquartered in Afghanistan has ended with preparations for an attack by the United States on Iraq, a country that had not demonstrated involvement in September 11. The path from point A a year ago to point B now has been lengthy and circuitous, Along the way, a radically new conception of America’s role in the world has been advanced by the Bush Administration. It has claimed nothing less than a right and a duty of the United States to assert military dominance—a Pax Americana—over the entire earth. Discussion along the way has been muted, but now a debate has begun. Its subject, however, has been not so much whether the United States should first meet certain conditions (find allies, explain itself to Congress, win the support of the American public, make plans for Iraq’s political future) and only then wage the war. The debate proceeds backward from the conclusion to the arguments for it….

“There is no assurance so far that the public will be told whether or when the Administration has decided to attack Iraq before the bombs begin to fall. At an appearance before a gathering of troops at Fort Hood, Texas, Rumsfeld said, ‘The President has made no such decision that we should go into a war with Iraq.’ According to the Times, Rumsfeld added with a characteristic coy chuckle, ‘He’s thinking about it.’

“A debate about the war, if the nation decides to have one, will be in vain if it does not address the wider revolution in policy of which the war is an expression. Will other nations claim for themselves the right of pre-emptive overthrow of hostile regimes? Can the proliferation of nuclear weapons actually be prevented by military force? Are negotiations and treaties worthless for this purpose? Will American superiority be so great that other arms races fade away? Will such action provoke the very military challenges, from terrorists and others, that it is meant to prevent? Should the United States aim at preserving military dominance over the earth for the indefinite future? Is such dominance possible? If it is possible, do the people of the United States want it? If the attempt is made, can the United States remain a democracy? Can the United States act as military guarantor of a world that rejects and hates its protector? George Bush is thinking about it. Are we?”

 

The Case Against the War” (March 3, 2003):

“A revival of worldwide disarmament negotiations must be the means, the abolition of all weapons of mass destruction the end. That idea has long been in eclipse, and today it lies outside the mainstream of political opinion. Unfortunately, historical reality is no respecter of conventional wisdom and often requires it to change course if calamity is to be avoided. But fortunately it is one element of the genius of democracy—and of US democracy in particular—that encrusted orthodoxy can be challenged and overthrown by popular pressure. The movement against the war in Iraq should also become a movement for something, and that something should be a return to the long-neglected path to abolition of all weapons of mass destruction. Only by offering a solution to the problem that the war claims to solve but does not can this war and others be stopped….

“Let us try to imagine it: one human species on its one earth exercising one will to defeat forever a threat to its one collective existence. Could any nation stand against it? Without this commitment, the international community—if I may express it thus—is like a nuclear reactor from which the fuel rods have been withdrawn. Making the commitment would be to insert the rods, to start up the chain reaction. The chain reaction would be the democratic activity of peoples demanding action from the governments to secure their survival. True democracy is indispensable to disarmament, and vice versa. This is the power—not the power of cruise missiles and B-52s—that can release humanity from its peril. The price demanded of us for freedom from the danger of weapons of mass destruction is to relinquish our own.”

 

Letter from Ground Zero: Accountability” (October 27, 2003):

“Of all the responsibilities of government, the decision to go to war is the most grave. Can an Administration take the country to war on false pretexts and get away with it? A year ago, the issue was war and peace. Now the issue is the integrity of the American political system. Not democracy in Iraq or even the entire Middle East—that fading mirage—but democracy in the United States is now at stake.”

 

The Empire Backfires” (March 29, 2004):

“The reliance on force over cooperation that was writ large in the imperial plan was also writ small in the occupation of Iraq. How else to understand the astonishing failure to make any preparation for the political, military, policing and even technical challenges that would face American forces? If a problem, large or small, had no military solution, this Administration seemed incapable of even seeing it. The United States was as blind to the politics of Iraq as it was to the politics of the world….

“The same pattern is manifest on an even larger scale. Just now, the peoples of the world have embarked, some willingly and some not, on an arduous, wrenching, perilous, mind-exhaustingly complicated process of learning how to live as one indivisibly connected species on our one small, endangered planet. Seen in a certain light, the Administration's imperial bid, if successful, would amount to a kind of planetary coup d'état, in which the world's dominant power takes charge of this process by virtue of its almost freakishly superior military strength. Seen in another, less dramatic light, the American imperial solution has interposed a huge, unnecessary roadblock between the world and the Himalayan mountain range of urgent tasks that it must accomplish no matter who is in charge: saving the planet from overheating; inventing a humane, just, orderly, democratic, accountable global economy; redressing mounting global inequality and poverty; responding to human rights emergencies, including genocide; and, of course, stopping proliferation as well as rolling back the existing arsenals of nuclear arms. None of these exigencies can be met as long as the world and its greatest power are engaged in a wrestling match over how to proceed….

“If the engine of a train suddenly goes off the rails, a wreck ensues. Such is the war in Iraq, now one year old. At the same time, the train's journey forward is canceled. Such is the current paralysis of the international community. Only when the engine is back on the tracks and starts in the right direction can either disaster be overcome. Only then will everyone be able to even begin the return to the world's unfinished business.”

 

The Hidden State Steps Forward” (January 9, 2006):

“There is a name for a system of government that wages aggressive war, deceives its citizens, violates their rights, abuses power and breaks the law, rejects judicial and legislative checks on itself, claims power without limit, tortures prisoners and acts in secret. It is dictatorship.

“The Administration of George W. Bush is not a dictatorship, but it does manifest the characteristics of one in embryonic form.”

 

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Obama and the Return of the Real” (February 9, 2009):

“One day someone will undertake a comprehensive study of how all these bubbles grew and why they were inflated at the same time. It will be a story of a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life. It will recount how the largest government, business, military and media organizations, as if obedient to a single command, began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of or subservience to wealth and power. Individual deceivers must arrange their untruths by themselves, by flat-out conscious lying, self-deception or a combination of the two. Huge bureaucracies have wider options. Banks, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies, intelligence services, the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream news organizations can grind inconvenient truths to dust, layer by bureaucratic layer, until the convenient lies that had been wanted all along are presented to the satisfied money- or war-hungry decision-makers at the top. The study of these operations will be a story of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters. It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the creation of the illusions of the real estate bubble with the creation of the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In both cases contrary facts were readily available at the base of the system but were filtered out as the reports went up the chain. For a somewhat contrasting, top-down model, the White House method for suppressing the truth about global warming within government agencies is instructive. In that case, the science was duly gathered but often squelched at the last minute by political appointees editing the reports…

“In short, the relationship between observation and action had been reversed. Reality was not the field of operation in which you acted, and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not the other way around.”

 

Torture and Truth” (June 15, 2009):

“It has fallen to President Obama to deal with the policies and practices of torture inaugurated by the Bush administration. He started boldly, ordering an end to the abuses, announcing the closing in one year of the detention camp at Guantánamo and releasing the Bush-era Justice Department memos authorizing torture. Subsequently, he seemed to grow cautious. He discouraged formation of an independent commission to investigate the torture and reversed a previous position in favor of releasing Pentagon photos of abuses and instead opposed release. In his May 21 speech at the National Archives, he seemed to try to create a framework for understanding his policies, but they remained very much a work in progress. He surprisingly embraced a number of Bush policies, including military commissions for trying detainees, the use of the State Secrets privilege to protect information in court and the indefinite use of preventive detention--all to be revised in ways that were left vague or unspecified. Yet among these reversals and improvisations, one very general preference has remained steady. Throughout, Obama has expressed a desire to concentrate on the ‘future’ rather than the ‘past.’ As he put it a while back, he is bent on ‘getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past.’ Or as he said in the National Archives speech, ‘We need to focus on the future’ while resisting those ‘with a strong desire to focus on the past.’

“But can the United States really get things right in the future by turning away from the past? For one thing, the factual record is still incomplete. For another, the reasons for what went wrong aren't as clear as they might at first seem. Why did the United States make the decision for torture? What changes does it portend for American life? It seems likely that getting things right will depend on having answers to these questions.”

 

Occupy Wall Street: The Beginning Is Here” November 7, 2011:

“The power of the movement does not lie in the mite that it can add to or withdraw from some existing grouping through such traditional means as alliances and endorsements. Rather, its power lies in its direct appeal to the hearts and minds of the population at large—to the 99 percent that the movement so audaciously and promisingly claims to represent. By this process, the mite becomes mighty. It was surely such a felt tremor in the hidden recesses of hearts and minds—in short, in public opinion and, even more, in public will—that alone can explain the established expressions of support as well as the wildfire spread of the protest.

“When such sea changes in opinion and will are under way, entrenched institutions start to tremble and shake, and political miracles become possible. If the scale of the national and international response to Occupy Wall Street is any measure, they have begun.

“The exceptional creativity in the movement has been evident in countless handwritten signs. For example: I Lost My Job but Found an Occupation. And, Love Is the New Fear. But perhaps the loveliest, appearing in the demonstration’s early days and cited in these pages, was The Beginning Is Near. To this we can now gratefully add, The Beginning Is Here.”

 

America’s Surveillance Net” July 8-15, 2013:

“What should Americans do when all official channels are unresponsive or dysfunctional? Are we, as people used to say, in a revolutionary situation? Shall we man the barricades? The situation is a little more peculiar than that. There is a revolution afoot, but it is not one in the streets; it is one that is being carried out by the government against the fundamental law of the land. That this insurrection against the constitutional order by officials sworn to uphold it includes legal opinions and legislation only makes it the more radical and dangerous. In other words, the government is in stealthy insurrection against the letter and the spirit of the law.

“What’s needed is counterrevolution—an American restoration, returning to and reaffirming the principles on which the Republic was founded. Edward Snowden, for one, knew what to do. He saw that when government as a whole goes rogue, the only force with a chance of bringing it back into line is the public. He has helped make this possible by letting the public know the abuses that are being carried out in its name. Civil disobedients are of two kinds: those inspired by universal principles, and those inspired by national traditions. Each has its strengths. Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is the first kind; Snowden, the second. Asked why he had done what he did, Snowden replied, ‘I am neither traitor nor hero. I am an American.’ He based his actions on the finest traditions of this country, which its current leaders have abandoned but which, he hopes, the current generation of Americans still share. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll find out whether he was right.”

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