Author: Prof. Michael Nagler

Jonestown: Not Too Late to Learn

Michael Nagler asks us to learn the lessons of Jonestown by addressing our deeper needs of authentic spiritual community, and giving insight as to how to discern leadership therein.   A few years ago we had the pleasure of meeting the late, revered Narayan Desai, whose father Mahadev had been Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary. When Narayan took over after his father’s death, he told us, he had to tell Gandhi that while he fully appreciated the importance of the work he didn’t feel he was growing in the process: what to do? Gandhi’s response was, ‘you have answered your own question: if you aren’t growing, you shouldn’t be here. Go out and find yourself.’ This came back to me when I started reading that forty years ago last week in British Guyana some 900 Americans killed themselves – and their children – at the behest of an egotistical, self-appointed ‘leader.’ I have long felt that as a people we missed a priceless opportunity when that event happened, and we’re still missing it now. Forty years is too long not to have learned the lesson of this tragedy; too long to repeat the errors that led up to it – the errors that have in fact given us a right-wing, egocentric President today. A wider contrast between leadership styles could not be imagined. But there’s a larger question. The coverage in the mainstream media focused on personal stories, which is all right as far as it goes – it must ultimately be a personal story for every one of us. They give us the answer to various questions we may have had about Jim Jones and his deluded followers. But that is not the question we should be asking: how could a huge number of Americans fail to see through the “charisma” of an egocentric, substance-and-person abusing, self-serving individual who so devalued the life of others that he would order his followers to death? We should be noting that there is a pattern to this event; for a really stark example think of Adolf Hitler in his doomed bunker sending two cyanide pills and a photo of his exalted self to all his generals. What does it mean? We can get some insight from Mother (now saint) Teresa who plainly saw this, not writ large in some shocking tragedy but in the quiet tragedy all around her: You in the West, she said, have some of the “spiritually poorest of the poor.” We deny this kind of poverty at our peril. If it’s not addressed, people will turn to all kinds of destructive behavior, and often find themselves susceptible to the shallow appeal of a self-appointed ‘leader’ who promises them some kind of meaning in their lives. David Brooks, writing recently on the ubiquitous phenomenon of trauma, pointed out that Our society has tried to medicalize trauma. We call it PTSD and regard it as an individual illness that can be treated with medications. But it’s increasingly clear that trauma is […]

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Meaning of Pittsburgh

Michael Nagler offers a personal reflection on Pittsburgh, and how it is helping him to deepen his commitment to nonviolence.

Yesterday’s headline in our local paper (The Santa Rosa Press Democrat) boasts PITTSBURGH MASSACRE DETAILED. We could not ask…

My remarks at the UN

On October 2, 2018, I was invited by the Indian Mission to make some remarks at the United Nation’s International Day of Nonviolence meeting. It happened to be Gandhi’s 149th birthday. Here is my speech:  I am so pleased and honored to be sharing with you this opportunity to honor and celebrate this 149th charkha jayanti, or ‘spinning wheel birthday,’ which is how Gandhi wanted his day to be remembered. My spiritual teacher once said that the 20th Century would come to be remembered not as the atomic age but the age of Gandhi; so I am proud to be with you to honor the man and his legacy. A few days after the Mahatma’s assassination on January 30th, 1948 (ten days after my 11th birthday) the cover of Life Magazine was a photo depicting the outpouring of grief at his cremation, which left a distinct (and possibly deliberate) impression of otherness in my young mind. I suppose I was drawn to nonviolence, but vaguely, at an early age, but there was little opportunity to learn about it or even hear the word nonviolence in those days and my image of Gandhi was limited to that somewhat off-putting photograph. So I didn’t really become aware of him until I met my aforementioned teacher in Berkeley, CA right after the Free Speech Movement, in 1966. That was Sri Eknath Easwaran from Kerala, who had met Gandhi, been deeply influenced by him (this perhaps is an understatement) and would go on to write two books about him and his legacy, Gandhi the Man and Nonviolent Soldier of Islam, of course Badshah Khan. From Sri Easwaran I came to understand that Gandhi was far greater than I could have imagined and at the same time, paradoxically, more accessible. As Gandhi himself said in what may be his most important of so many memorable quotes, “I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can do what I have done…” It is nothing short of amazing how many men and women have taken up that very challenge in the decades since he uttered those portentous words. We are met at a time when nonviolence: is spreading over the globe – well over one-half of all countries have now experienced a major manifestation; the Global Nonviolent Action Database recently passed the 1,000 mark in its listing of notable campaigns, is growing in sophistication, with learning and the sharing of “best practices” spreading across national boundaries – student leaders of the Otpor revolution in Serbia stood side by side with the protestors of Tahrir Square, has drawn in new demographics, particularly women and indigenous groups – and we remember how critical it was when in 1911 two new groups were drawn into the Satyagraha struggle in South Africa: women (again) and the indentured laborers, seen the rise of new institutions, I cite particularly the institution of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping, of which the HIPPO report concluded that “Unarmed strategies must be at the […]

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“Basic Training” for Spiritual Warriors

Image of art from Kabul graffiti artist, Kabul Knights Joanna Macy talks about three tasks needed to bring in a world of spiritual progress: create new institutions, change the culture, and stop the worst of the damage. At Metta we feel that the worst of the damage has been to the human image – who are we and what can we become. Stop that damage, and we’ve laid the groundwork for all the other changes. There are five things each of us can do to recover a saner image of who we are, whether we think of ourselves as peace activists or not. We can all do them, every day, and thus they answer somewhat to Gandhi’s famous charkha, or spinning campaign at the heart of his work to reform and liberate India. Organizations and campaigns will grow out of this kind of personal change.[1] The first might be called “out with the old:” Shun the violence and vulgarity of the mass media. Long before television, the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “the only thing we can control, and the only thing we need to control, is the imagery in our own mind.”[2] More recently Judy Cannato brought this up to date: “the images that engage our imagination …shape who we become. It happens all the time. We simply do not notice. But what if we were to notice? What if we were to be intentional about engaging our energy in a story that we know has the power to change our lives?[3] What indeed! When we take charge of our mind we will find we are actually mastering a power that puts us in charge of our own destiny ¾ and to that extent the future of the world. Martin Luther King lamented, “We have guided missiles and misguided men (and women).” And we know what has misguided them: we have put the enormous compelling power of the media in the hands of people who have no idea how to use the power they are wielding. Gandhi warned, in 1925, that while “The political domination of England is bad enough, the cultural is infinitely worse. When the cultural domination is complete the political will defy resistance.” The beginning of shaking off that domination is when we take charge of our inner culture. Think of it as a cleanse for the mind, which is if anything more important than one for the body. You may be thinking, ‘But if I don’t watch the violence and vulgarity, there’ll be nothing left to watch.’ Well you know, there are worse fates! And besides, alternative media are growing on all sides, some of which we try to keep up with on our bi-weekly program, “Nonviolence Radio.” And now, it’s “in with the new.” Learn everything you can about nonviolence. Nonviolence, it turns out, is an extraordinarily rich subject. Its theory, history, and methodology are inspiring: a powerful antidote to today’s demoralization. Today, while it has made so far only tentative inroads into formal education […]

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Memorial Day: A Reflection

I regard myself as a soldier, though as a soldier of peace. ~M.K. Gandhi~

We bow our heads in reverence to all those who have given their lives in witness to the truth, or had it taken from them in that effort; who upheld peace and justice in the fa…

Foundations of Resistance- Reflection

FOLLOWERS of that great pioneer of nonviolent action, the late Gene Sharp, often speak of the “pillars of support:” no dictator can function without police, armies, bureaucracies to carry out their orders (I suppose today we’d have to add a “deep state…

Not just a billboard, a story

On my rare visits to LA, I am always impressed (negatively) by the blatant violence of the billboards advertising films and TV. This past weekend was no exception. Apparently, there are fashions in violence. A while back it was crime, then a particular…

Is this #Enough?

If this is #enough, then what’s next? “Protests come and go, almost no matter what the scale and entrenched regimes of violence and injustice wait them out.”   There have been far too many pious clichés in response to all these tragedies, but I’m going to risk one more: if – and it remains to be seen – this one will lead to a wave of awakening and permanent, significant changes to the culture of violence we are suffering through, then the violent death of those seventeen people may not have been entirely in vain. What will it take to make that kind of difference? We have very happily reached a point now where this is not an idle question. Enough systematic studies of nonviolence have now been done – a mere beginning, but what a difference it makes when until recently there was practically nothing – that we can be confident about some ‘best practices’ for many kinds of nonviolent resistance. One thing is clear: the walkout, in which something like 3,000 high schools across the country saw students taking action, with or without the support of their teachers and administrators, was a great beginning. No less, but no more. Protests come and go, almost no matter what the scale and entrenched regimes of violence and injustice wait them out. We need three things to parlay the solidarity and concern they evince into real change: continuity (what Latin American activists call firmeza permanente), determination, including the willingness to sacrifice, and of course strategy. To rely on some kind of atrocity (which this is) to galvanize our reaction is a recipe for sure, painful defeat. Look at Egypt, or almost any country that experienced “Arab Spring.” Let’s do them in reverse order. For an action to become a campaign and a campaign a movement (thanks to thoughtful activist George Lakey for those terms) it must have a credible path forward from the “effervescence of the crowd,” as we call it, step after step, to victory. Victory itself should be visionary to really work – remember Gandhi’s proud appellation for himself as a “practical idealist.” But the steps should be progressive, and realistic. In broad terms, for example, we have been working with ‘giant steps’ from institutionalizing restorative justice in the nation’s schools to our overstuffed prison system to – why not? – the deconstruction of war. In nonviolence, as in war itself, you have these steps but life happens: you have to be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities and regroup in the fact of setbacks. Classic example: Gandhi fell back on non-confrontational forms of Constructive Programme, like spinning, when the regime blocked any path of resistance. Determination is often the nonviolent answer to ruthlessness. Contrary to a popular misconception, nonviolence is not weak; it does not crumble in the face of stark repression, does not, as mentioned, shrink back even from sacrifice and suffering where that must be undertaken to awaken the opponent. Firmeza or continuity means two […]

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Is this #Enough?

If this is #enough, then what’s next? “Protests come and go, almost no matter what the scale and entrenched regimes of violence and injustice wait them out.”   There have been far too many pious clichés in response to all these tragedies, but I’m going to risk one more: if – and it remains to be seen – this one will lead to a wave of awakening and permanent, significant changes to the culture of violence we are suffering through, then the violent death of those seventeen people may not have been entirely in vain. What will it take to make that kind of difference? We have very happily reached a point now where this is not an idle question. Enough systematic studies of nonviolence have now been done – a mere beginning, but what a difference it makes when until recently there was practically nothing – that we can be confident about some ‘best practices’ for many kinds of nonviolent resistance. One thing is clear: the walkout, in which something like 3,000 high schools across the country saw students taking action, with or without the support of their teachers and administrators, was a great beginning. No less, but no more. Protests come and go, almost no matter what the scale and entrenched regimes of violence and injustice wait them out. We need three things to parlay the solidarity and concern they evince into real change: continuity (what Latin American activists call firmeza permanente), determination, including the willingness to sacrifice, and of course strategy. To rely on some kind of atrocity (which this is) to galvanize our reaction is a recipe for sure, painful defeat. Look at Egypt, or almost any country that experienced “Arab Spring.” Let’s do them in reverse order. For an action to become a campaign and a campaign a movement (thanks to thoughtful activist George Lakey for those terms) it must have a credible path forward from the “effervescence of the crowd,” as we call it, step after step, to victory. Victory itself should be visionary to really work – remember Gandhi’s proud appellation for himself as a “practical idealist.” But the steps should be progressive, and realistic. In broad terms, for example, we have been working with ‘giant steps’ from institutionalizing restorative justice in the nation’s schools to our overstuffed prison system to – why not? – the deconstruction of war. In nonviolence, as in war itself, you have these steps but life happens: you have to be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities and regroup in the face of setbacks. Classic example: Gandhi fell back on non-confrontational forms of Constructive Programme, like spinning, when the regime blocked any path of resistance. Determination is often the nonviolent answer to ruthlessness. Contrary to a popular misconception, nonviolence is not weak; it does not crumble in the face of stark repression, does not, as mentioned, shrink back even from sacrifice and suffering where that must be undertaken to awaken the opponent. Firmeza or continuity means two […]

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THE POST: A (Somewhat Biased) Film Review

For full disclosure: I’m a long-term friend of Dan and Patricia Ellsberg, and I was a more distant friend but also admirer of Ben Bagdikian. I lived through the era depicted in The Post, and since I see very few movies I tend to have strong reactions to those I do. That said, I had a very strong, very positive reaction to this Stephen Spielberg film about the decision by Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), supported by her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), to publish the devastating “Pentagon Papers” in 1971. I cannot remember being so engrossed in a movie, and while it was not as transcendentally inspiring perhaps as Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, it was uplifting and spell-binding for me. It depicts a “finest hour” of American democracy, which itself would make it more than relevant to our America’s present dismal time; add to this, however, the superb treatment of the women’s issue and the just plain great acting. Advisory: If you go in expecting the film to be about Ellsberg and his struggle with himself to risk everything to release the devastating news to the public, or the role Patricia played in supporting him, you will be disappointed. That story is in the superb documentary by Judith Ehrlich, “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” as well as Dan’s book Secrets and many other histories. The mark of a great filmmaker (or novelist, for that matter) is to have the restraint to tell one story at a time. I appreciate that enormously, as one who has yet to find that kind of restraint. Now for the Metta Center angle: What does the film say about nonviolence? A lot. First of all, how raw courage and the power of that act of will by which a man or woman, seeing beyond the ordinary vision of personal gain and loss, decides to risk even perhaps their life for a higher cause. In Dan’s case, his career and his very freedom, e.g. to be with the wife he loved. In Ms. Graham’s case, the paper she loved and lived for, along with the rebuttal of the stereotype against women that they can’t compete in the “real world” of business or places of cutthroat competition. Then there’s the glimpse it offers of what Johan Galtung named the “Great Chain of Nonviolence:” the way people low on the social/political ladder, seemingly without access to power, can reach the seats of the mighty through those near them, who know others on up the chain. In this case, the spectrum goes from street protestors (as I was) to an insider like Dan who “saw the light” (itself a lesson in the humanity and convertibility of our opponents) to the upper echelons of journalism and government. Then, a larger lesson of the more sobering type. Would a whistle-blower on that scale enjoy the protection of the Supreme Court today? What must we do to capitalize on these moments of brilliant courage to make sure they ratchet up to a […]

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