John Wayne or Gandhi?

When I grew up, I wanted to be like John Wayne. I won’t be insulted, I won’t be cheated, I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same in return. If you do, there’s going to be a fight.

It’s taken me a very long time to understand that John Wayne was wrong. Gandhi was right.

18 responses to “John Wayne or Gandhi?

  1. John Wayne was also a racist asshole who favored white supremacy, so there’s that.


    [Response: What purpose does your comment serve? The only one I can imagine is that you are so resentful of him that you felt compelled to speak ill of the dead, in a context where I had already said that his approach was wrong. Mission accomplished.]

    • I’ll try replying again, since some other comments have gone through elsewhere. It may have been my computer didn’t send it last time, or perhaps you have cut me off from this thread; if not the latter, feel free to snip this lead-in:

      To be honest, I had not watched the video before I commented. I was on a work computer which blocks video links and I can’t be bothered to find out how to get around it. After watching it, I understand my first comment is definitely out of place.

      Seeing the Wayne name brought back some unsavory facts in my mind indeed. To the extent that the question of following Wayne’s example v. not following his example mattered as a subject itself, I figured I would share one of those facts. But this was not the appropriate context to bring that up, and I would like to apologize for doing so.

      • Susan Anderson

        Good apology. But a lesson learned here might be that you shouldn’t reply (and were you on break, or just at work and unable to resist commenting on your employer’s time?) until you check the source. Since almost all of the post was the video, that would mean waiting until you knew what was there. [We all do it, but it’s a habit that needs breaking.]

        Then there’s internet addiction. It’s not healthy.

  2. Are Wayne and Gandhi really the only options on the table? I very much believe in behaving with as little violence as possible, but sometimes that means using force; I doubt even the speaker is an absolute pacifist. One of the key points presented is that “violence begets violence”, and this is certainly true in some situations (especially interpersonal relationships) but it’s not a self-evident, absolute principle like conservation of energy. After Crazy Horse achieved major battle victories against the US military in the 1860’s, Lakota society didn’t implode with violence, but won relative peace for another decade. His eventual surrender and death were not a tit-for-tat reaction to earlier militant resistance, but the natural conclusion of an expansionist policy, explicitly declared decades earlier to be the “manifest destiny” of the colonizers.

    There are also serious causality problems here: when gender and sexual minorities picked up bricks and defended themselves at Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria, did that somehow, retroactively, “beget” years of authoritarian abuse? It certainly didn’t create a longterm, escalating retaliatory feedback loop; nowadays, Pride is a party and the police whine when they aren’t invited. It is also dangerously close to victim-blaming to claim this as a general rule: there are plenty of violent situations, from schoolyard bullying on up, where most sensible people would recognize that merely asking “Why did you fight back?” would, itself, be a violent act (especially when other victims are blamed in inverse: “Why DIDN’T you fight back?”)

    Things get even muddier when you consider that, although everyone (myself included) claim to detest violence, no one can seem to agree on what, exactly, violence is. Is waterboarding violent? What about eating meat? Giving birth? Ask n people and I bet you’ll get n+1 answers. MLK had some choice words about about the violence inherent in poverty, militarism, and capitalism which are often omitted by those who invoke him in the name of nonviolence as a principle. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who will, with a straight face, rationalize any volume and intensity of police violence on behalf of a couple of broken windows, and I’m sure there were Soviet apologists who rationalized the occupation of Hungary on the basis of kids getting in the way of the tanks. Even the speaker, after all-but declaring interpersonal anger to be violence, seems to think that the US military can ever be anything but the violence arm of the state, let alone be transmuted by the beauty of people power and meditation. I, myself, am not limber enough for such mental gymnastics!

    The speaker claims that “using force against force doesn’t work”; this is certainly true in some cases, especially interpersonal ones. But it’s hardly a universal principle either, and there are plenty of counter examples. In the 1946 “Battle of Athens”, citizens in Tennessee took up arms against a brutal, antidemocratic political machine that started shooting black voters. What possible basis is there to believe that this was “… not only less humane, but less effective than using methods that connect people, that rebuild”? (What does that even mean, tactically speaking?) There was also the breaking up of Klan hives in the South, by armed groups like Deacons of Defense in Louisiana, or at the Battle of Hayes Pond in Lumbee country.

    The speaker offers a change of tactics on the part of the ANC and Mandela in support of her position. I find this dubious and simplistic:
    “Many believe apartheid would have endured much longer if he hadn’t rebelled and overturned the ANC’s long-standing nonviolence policy. […] Mandela was offered freedom several times on various conditions, including renouncing violence, but he refused. […] Umkhonto we Sizwe abandoned its policy of violence in 1990 as negotiations on the dismantling of apartheid and the setting up of free elections continued. After his release, and on becoming South Africa’s chief executive in 1994, Mandela adhered to the commitment to peace, tolerance and equality that became the hallmark of his presidency.”
    In particular, the speaker never gives us any reason that they could have gotten to that position without their previous diversity of tactics. Similarly, without militant action on the part of groups like Deacons for Defense, the nonviolent portion of the US Civil Rights movement would likely not have gotten as far as it did (and it bore heavy casualties). Indeed, MLK, while he said a great deal that was admirable about nonviolence, owned guns for self defense, and justifiably! Gandhi, on the other hand, acknowledged that nonviolence has the potential to fail catastrophically by any material standard, but redefines success to include one’s obliterator feeling bad afterwards. This is a reasonable thing to say if you accept his metaphysics, rooted in radical, religious mysticism, but I doubt that most people who invoke Gandhi to scold militant direct action, do.

    The speaker mentions several icons of nonviolent movements, including King and Gandhi, but this is superficial and simplistic: neither liberation movement is reducible to these leaders or to their tactics. Gandhi’s personality and tactics were the most popular, but Indian resistance to colonial rule was wider than his movement and included the derailing of freight trains and political assassinations: other than ideological precommitments, why do we give full credit to Gandhi, while forgetting entirely that Bhagat Singh ever lived or died? Surely it is lopsided to ignore the criticism of Kwame Ture, for whom the violence of racism was no academic matter: “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

    To be clear, I believe in doing the least violent thing possible, and in putting forth effort towards figuring out what that is! I haven’t read the book mentioned, but I have read my share of such manuals and used their tactics. They can be really powerful, and they are absolutely necessary. But demanding a blanket rejection of all violent tactics, whatever “violent” means, in the face of severe differences of power, isn’t realistic, may well be suicidal, and has a mixed historical track record at best. This doesn’t even mean one needs to participate themselves, but accepting political nonviolence as an absolute principle can create counterproductive situations. For example, when a North Carolina GOP headquarters was set alight in 2016, nonviolence enthusiasts reflexively forked over $10k to the jokers who tried to outlaw sea level rise. I mean, come on, if your enemy trips, don’t help them up!

    • I once had cause to ponder what violence was.

      Everyone has, in their head, a complete model of their world. Some things are entirely central to the model, for example, having 2 working arms, or 3 children. Some things are out on the fringes, e.g. a second cousin who you met a few times at family gatherings when you were a kid.

      Violence is anything that forces you to change the internal model of your world. The more central to your model the enforced change, the greater the violence.

      If you play football and someone bumps you, knocking the wind out of you and sending you to the ground, that is not violence. Built into your model of the world is that bumping and tackling are part of the game. You’ll get up, dust yourself off, get your breath back and get back into the game. At the end of the game you’ll shake hands with the guy who bumped you.

      If you are walking down the street and someone bumps you, winding you and knocking you to the ground, that is violence. You carry in your model a belief that walking down the street is fairly safe, and that you can relax and need not worry about possible attacks (ok, that will be different depending on where you live). When you get up and recover, you’ll be upset and angry and scared – because what just happened was not in your model. So when this happens to you in the street you must adjust your model of the world to one in which walking down the street is not necessarily safe, or you must try and forget and hope that you can continue to use your existing model.

      Typically something that causes permanent physical injury is most violent – because at the very centre of our model is our body and how we use it to interact with the world. Take away an arm, and an awful lot of adjustment to your model is needed. But as alluded to above, we have “hidden” parts to our model that can hurt a lot when challenged. My house was broken into once. They took very little. But I was so angry, because in my model my house is a safe secure place, not somewhere that a thief can get into. Its part of my model that I didn’t want to change.

      I’m always annoyed that when we say “violence” we usually take that to mean physical violence. Yet nasty words at home or in the schoolyard can do just as much violence as a punch.

      • So, by your logic, reality is doing violence to the Ayn Rand Republicans by constantly assaulting them with evidence?

      • I think your comment is insightful and useful. But I can’t help but wonder: what about someone who lives in a violent environment, such as a war zone? To some extent, their models include the possibility of sudden, pointless and violent death–yet we know that such ‘model adjustments’ do not obviate psychological and physiological harm. (Of course, the modeling of one’s own bodily integrity, or other cherished ‘goods’, shouldn’t change, even though the model of ‘safety’ attached thereto does.)

        I guess that means that the *threat* of violence is itself also a form of violence.

      • You make a good point Doc Snow. Sport is not violent if it is played within the rules and the spirit of the rules. Because those rules should prevent all except short term injuries (and lets leave boxing out of it for now). The same is not true of war. While you could adjust your model of the world to the realities of war, I think that is just too hard, and most people prefer to have a model that is a bit wrong rather than to adjust to the brutal truth of war.

  3. If John Wayne fought Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, which one would win?

    [Response: Gandhi]

    • As you may know, Gandhi’s ashram was located in Ahmedabad, and as I was passing through western India on my way to the South, I thought I’d make a visit. Now, remember, this is India, where 1 billion souls compete for every inch of space, every mouthful of food, every breath and every rupee. And nowhere is this fight for survival more rapacious than in the country’s taxi cabs. The average Indian taxi driver only took up that profession when they failed the ethics test for highway robber.
      Unfortunately, most of India’s cities are sprawling mazes of heat and traffic, and you can’t really get anywhere unless you place your life in the hands of one of these maniacs. And so I did.
      “How much to Gandhiji’s ashram?” I asked.
      “Fare is metered,” says the cabbie pointing at a dubious apparatus on his dash.
      Getting in, the flag falls and the dials start turning. After about half an hour, I begin to suspect I am being taken there via the “scenic route”.
      “Is there a more direct way?” I ask.
      “Oh, no. Roads are closed,” my driver assures me.
      Fifteen minutes later, we arrive at the ashram. Exiting the cab, I reach in my pocket, I pull out the fare indicated on the meter.
      “Oh, no!” my driver cries, and quotes me a fare 5 times what I’ve paid!
      And that, dear reader, is how I almost got into a fist fight outside of Gandhi’s ashram.

      • Susan Anderson

        Terrific story and good illustration of life’s paradoxes. I seem to remember that Gandhi was not 100% nonviolent. Interesting information here:

        It’s a long read, and I have to confess I’ve put off the full content until later, but what I skimmed looked highly informative.

  4. And should you want to update your 2017 Arctic Sea Ice article, Axel Schweiger @ PIOMAS has now finally posted the scores: 1) 2017 (12.9 k km3), 2) 2012 (13.5 k km3), 3) 2016 (13.6 k km3). That’s right, another world record for Arctic sea ice, totally unreported by mainstream media 40 days after the fact.

  5. It’s important not to confuse two different situations of bullying. There is the situation of being oppressed by a bully, and there is the situation of experiencing direct violence from a bully. The process of ending the oppression of a bully should be nonviolent, as will be the process of removing Trump from office. But if I am beaten by a thug, or if I come upon a rape in progress or physical child abuse, it is moral to use the force that is necessary to end that instance of violence.

  6. Gandhi did discuss the issue of a satyagrahi coming on a violent act in progress. In such circumstances, he said not to intervene–even with some minimal but sufficient level of violence–would itself be cowardice, which was the opposite of satyagraha (soul-force or nonviolence).

    BTW, you can get Gahdhi’s collected works on line for free:

    • Actually, Gandhi thought nonviolence would have been effective against the Nazis. He even advocated that it be used by the Brits in Europe, arguing that the loss of life under nonviolence could not be greater than the loss of life on the battle fields, in air raids, etc.
      His contention was that even the Nazi’s were human–that they had to be motivated to kill by fear of the threat posed by the “other”. If the other posed no threat, then eventually the trauma of killing innocents would sap the morale of the rank and file even if not the Nazi leadership. There is at least some evidence to support this attitude. The concentration camp system was implemented to preserve the morale of the rank and file soldier, who found it difficult to mow down hundreds of innocent Poles, etc. at a time with machine gun fire. Hence the need to mechanize the slaughter.

      • Yes, and I’ve read that one component of military training is to get soldiers to actually aim small-arms fire at enemy combatants. In past conflicts, allegedly, there’s been serious disinclination to do so, with the result that rounds mostly get fired at the environment in general. Most people find killing very, very difficult–or so I am told. Anecdotally, I know with certainty that my father was haunted quite significantly by the 3 fatalities he knowingly inflicted during combat in WW II.

  7. Finally got my round tuit, and very highly recommend this article about Gandhi. Local sustainable action and effective organization, not new, but somehow infinitely refreshing: