Wednesday, February 17, 2021

What A Moral Stance Looks Like


A.J. Muste was a labour activist and pacifist whose advocacy of non-violence as a tactic of change was unusual, to say the least, in the USA of the 1930s and 40s. Noam Chomsky, of whom I was a devoted reader when I was a young adult and who I have continued to read and respect my entire life, in the first of his books I read, American Power and the New Mandarins, quoted a speech by Muste that has stuck with me over the years: “In a world built on violence, one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist." It was only a few years later I found myself working in the Nicaraguan Revolution and having to confront, on a daily basis, my understandings and practices of revolution and peace. Chomsky wrote that “Muste believed, with Gandhi, that "unjust laws and practices survive because men obey them and conform to them. This they do out of fear. There are things they dread more than the continuance of the evil.”” Given all that has happened in the US in the past four years, these words seem more relevant than ever. I’ve heard it said that during the Vietnam War, Muste stood vigil in front of the White House, candle in hand, often alone and sometimes with others. I came across this account by Andrea Ayvazian of The Sun Magazine and, while perhaps apocryphal, like so many good stories, it carries a truth regardless: “A reporter interviewed [A.J. Muste] one evening as he stood there in the rain. "Mr. Muste," the reporter said, "do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?" A.J. responded, "Oh, I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me.””

Photo from Mural on the War Resisters League building.  Source.

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