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Mommy, Where Do Peace Activists Come From?

The Kateri Peace Conference, which has been held in upstate New York for 22 years, will be held online this year, allowing anyone in the world who can get online to attend and hear from and speak with such wonderful U.S. peace activists — (Hey, World, did you know the U.S. had peace activists?) — as Steve Breyman, John Amidon, Maureen Beillargeon Aumand, Medea Benjamin, Kristin Christman, Lawrence Davidson, Stephen Downs, James Jennings, Kathy Kelly, Jim Merkel, Ed Kinane, Nick Mottern, Rev. Felicia Parazaider, Bill Quigley, David Swanson, Ann Wright, and Chris Antal.

Yes, my name is in that list. No, I am not suggesting that I am wonderful. But I have had the privilege to speak at the Kateri Peace Conference in-person in 2012 and 2014, and was scheduled to be there again in 2020 until the Trumpandemic changed everyone’s routines.

The speakers at this year’s Zoom-Conference, plus the truly wonderful Blase Bonpane, who died in 2019, are the authors of the various chapters of a new book called Bending the Arc: Striving for Peace and Justice in the Age of Endless War. Each was asked to write about the roots of their commitment to peace and justice, the features of their peace work, their thoughts on the causes of war and peace, and their vision of a “world beyond war” and of the work needed to get to it. I titled my chapter “How I Became a Peace Activist.”

I’ve just read everyone else’s chapters, and they’re highly enlightening, but not what I expected. I had been hoping to answer the childish question with which I’ve titled this article. How, I wanted to know, do people become peace activists? I don’t think this book answered that question in the way I was imagining.

It’s interesting to learn that when Medea Benjamin was young, her sister’s nice young boyfriend was sent to Vietnam and quickly mailed her (the sister) the ear of a Vietcong fighter to wear as a souvenir. Medea’s sister vomited, and Medea realized something about war.

It’s curious that Ed Kinane recalls ten bruising whacks on the backside by a fifth grade teacher as helping him to become a skeptic of all authority.

But what do all such recollections tell us? Numerous people had ears mailed to their sisters. Countless people were spanked. Statistically, virtually none became peace activists.

Reviewing the stories in this book, I find that none of the protagonists were raised by peace activists to take over their parents’ positions in peace organizations or businesses. Very few studied peace in school. (That may be changing in recent years.) Some were inspired by other activists, but that’s not a major theme. Most had to find their way into peace activism at a relatively advanced age for launching their peace careers. None were attracted by a billion-dollar-a-year advertising campaign or recruitment offices all over the country handing out big bonuses and slippery lies, the way people are attracted into the war movement.

In fact, some of these peace activists started out as war activists. Some grew up in military families, others in families leaning against war, others in between. Some were religious, others not. Some were wealthy, others poor.

Many noted, and the editors noted this trend, that travel abroad had been part of their awakening. Many noted the importance of having experienced other cultures or sub-cultures within the United States or outside it. Some stressed having witnessed injustice of one sort or another. Some participated in inflicting injustice. Some observed poverty and actually made the connection to war as the place where unfathomable resources were being dumped. Several of these authors discuss the importance of moral lessons from their parents and other teachers, including school teachers. But applying moral lessons to war and peace is not a normal activity. The television news and U.S. newspapers would suggest that love and generosity have their proper sphere, while patriotism and militarism have theirs.

For the most part it goes unsaid in these chapters, but each of the authors is something of a rebel, something of the skeptic of authority that Ed became or always had been. Without some degree of stubborn, independent, principled, rebellious thinking for oneself, without a bit of resistance to propaganda, none of these people would have become peace activists. But no two of them are remotely the same, not even in their rebelliousness, not even in their peace activism. Many, if not all, arrived at opposition to war by stages, questioning first a particular atrocity or war, and only after passing through a number of stages, coming to favor abolition of the whole institution. A few of them may still be passing through some of those stages.

The conclusion I arrive at is that I was asking a stupid question. Virtually anybody can become a peace activist. Most of these people became activists for other causes first, and found their way eventually into an understanding of the centrality of war and imperialism to the whole array of injustices we must overcome. In an age of expanded and popular peace activism, billions of people could chip in their little bit. But in an age of widely accepted, even obliviously avoided, endless war, those who nonetheless become peace activists, those who seek to prepare the way for the epoch of unprecedented peace activism that will come if humanity is to survive, those in that select few are just not very unique. There could be millions more of us.

The problem is that the peace movement doesn’t have the funds to hire all the willing and able peace activists. When my organization, World BEYOND War, hires new staff, we are able to sift through huge stacks of well-qualified applicants. Imagine if we, and every peace organization, could hire all willing activists! Imagine if those of us featured in this book had been actively recruited into a peace movement at younger ages than those at which we haphazardly found our way into it. I have two suggestions.

First, read Bending the Arc: Striving for Peace and Justice in the Age of Endless War and see what you think.

Second, buy a ticket to the conference. The funds collected by World BEYOND War will go to World BEYOND War, Voices for Creative Non-Violence, Upstate Drone Action, CODE PINK, Conscience International, and the Revolution of Love. May they all hire whole bookshelves full of people and put them to good use! As Steve Breyman notes in the book’s introduction, “The moral arc of the universe does not bend of its own accord.”

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.

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