Leaders in nonviolence
By COLMAN McCARTHY
Among those American veterans of World War II who had obeyed orders to kill or try to kill German or Japanese people, a few came home in varying states of regret or remorse. These include Howard Zinn, Philip Berrigan and Kurt Vonnegut. But the ex-soldier whose life would take the most passionate turn against U.S. militarism and nationalism, as well as zealously turn toward pragmatic solutions that went beyond mere antiwar denunciations, was Garry Davis.
Now 79 and living in Burlington, Vt., his story is like no other. The title of his lucid and often wry memoir -- Dear World: A Global Odyssey (Xlibris, 312 pages, $16 paperback, $25 hardcover) -- gives only a hint of his commitment to international peace building. In 1948 at the American embassy in Paris, the former B-17 bomber pilot renounced his U.S. citizenship and declared himself a world citizen. The well-publicized event caused a furor at home. The 27-year-old dissident, son of the famed society bandleader Meyer Davis, was seen as a harmless loony or a self-hating American consumed by bomber pilot guilt.
In fact, Davis was hardly the only one-worlder. Intellectually, he joined the company of Gandhi and Einstein. Later, Norman Cousins and E.B. White would embrace the idea. But Davis singularly went beyond talk. He took literally Article 13 (2) of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.
On a planet of well-armed and economically competitive nation-states obsessed with protecting national boundaries, Davis became the ultimate globalist. In 1953, he founded the World Service Authority, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that has issued more than a half-million World Passports to refugees and others in the worlds homeless population.
In the past 30 years, Ive interviewed Davis a dozen or so times. He is a natural storyteller, whether the subject is his frequent stays in the worlds jails or his tales of stateless people he has been helping all these years. His belief that national citizenship in the nuclear age is a collective suicide pact strikes me as rational, and his work on behalf of the worlds wandering poor is both visionary and needed.
Recalling his renunciation of nationality in 1948, Davis writes: I wanted to demonstrate that the modern nation-state was really a whole-cloth myth, perpetuated by the slavery of tradition, unreasonable loyalties and pieces of paper that at best only pretend to recognize rather than bestow existence upon the individual. As world citizen, I would survive without papers, cross frontiers without a passport, and strike a human blow at the very heart of nationalism itself. My humanity, identified politically as world citizenship, was sufficient to meet the criterion for world peace in microcosm.
In this, as in his earlier works -- My Country Is The World (1961), World Government: Ready or Not (1985) and Passport to Freedom (1992) -- Davis has put into practice what politicians glibly and hollowly preach, that the time has come for a new world order.
Some others who believe that that is true, and whose belief is genuine, gathered in November 1998 at the University of Virginia for two days of dialogue and reflection. They were nine Nobel Peace Prize winners: Oscar Arias, the Dalai Lama, Jose Ramos-Horta, Rigoberta Menchú, Bobby Muller, Desmond Tutu, Betty Williams, Jody Williams and Harn Yawnghwe speaking for Aung San Su Kyi. In the Moral Architecture of World Peace: Nobel Laureates Discuss Our Future (University Press of Virginia, 271 pages, $25), Helen Cobban, a seasoned author whose global affairs column bolsters the Christian Science Monitor, brings to life the people behind the aura that a Nobel Peace Prize can create.
Cobban includes extensive selections from the speeches of the nine, plus excerpts from exchanges among them. Some, like Jody Williams of Vermont, are campaign organizers. Others, including Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, are theorists. The relevant ideas range from ways to demilitarize the world economy to bringing aid to the victims of weapons made and sold by governmental violence and arms peddling.
Not that anyone should strain to read global affairs columnists and their tepid prescriptions for ending international violence, but Cobban is almost alone in her analysis of current thinking by policymakers and national security experts: Few propose doing much beyond fiddling at the margins of the world system as we know it today. Few ask the deeper questions about what kinds of responsibilities people in different human groups should have toward each other. Few even start to tackle the complex problems raised by the issue of state sovereignty; few question the state-dominated, political assumptions on which most of the Western theory of international relations has been built until now. Few, therefore have done anything that can be said to contribute to sketching out the moral architecture of a future world at peace.
Readers looking for an intellectual feast served up by people who understand, and live by, the philosophy of nonviolence can find it in abundance in these pages. Sophisticates -- first cousins to sophists -- are likely to mock the laureates who denounce militarism and nationalism, calling them impractical. Oscar Arias, from an enlightened country that abolished its army 40 years ago and put the savings into true security -- an educated, healthy and wealth-sharing population -- agrees. Seeking peace and justice is impractical, all right -- impractical because it puts concern for human life before a free market drive for profits. Impractical because it listens to the poor who are crying out for schools and doctors, rather than the dictators who demand guns and fighters. Yes, in an age of cynicism and greed, all just ideas are considered impractical. You are discouraged if you say that we can live in peace. You are mocked for insisting that we can be more humane.
Many citizens of impractical bents earn the praising attention of Robert Coles in Lives of Moral Leadership (Random House, 247 pages, $23.95). In cant-free prose and understated commentary revealing the meditative side that has marked his writing for some four decades in his more than 50 books, Coles is that rarity: a moralist who doesnt moralize, a religious man who avoids religiosity, a person of political vision who takes on political shortsightedness.
Longtime readers of Coles will find him returning again in these pages to people and events that shaped his conscience as a young psychiatrist. He gives ample space to his visits with Ralph McGill and Lillian Smith, progressive Southerners in the civil rights years. He goes back to his many taped conversations with Dorothy Day, Robert F. Kennedy and Erik Erikson. Equally compelling is what he learned from interviewing an elementary school teacher caught in the desegregation turmoil of New Orleans in the l960s, and a Boston school bus driver amid the same chaos when it was the Norths turn to confront racial antagonism.
For Coles, these are women and men who did no more than use their gifts for peacemaking in whatever way possible, people who can bring us all up morally. They hand us along, become a source of moral encouragement to us, arouse us and stir us, move us to do things when we might otherwise not be provoked, and they have the will to act in pursuit of purposes we have come to regard as important.
Now in his early 70s, Coles own life -- as a husband, father, writer and teacher-mentor to thousands of students at Harvard, Duke and elsewhere -- is one of selfless generosity and kindness. The authenticity of his writing is traceable to those expressions of moral leadership.
Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, Washington. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001