Interview: Mark Kurlansky

WHAT, I wonder, inspired Mark Kurlansky, the author of a diverse range of books such as Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and The Basque History of the World, to write Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea?

"I very much believe in the importance of political activism and the moral obligation to speak out," Kurlansky tells the Star. This belief led him to actively resist the draft during the Vietnam war.

A genuine and humble man, Kurlansky explains that, although he applied for conscientious objector status, by the time that this had been rejected and appealed against several times, the war had ended.

"I sometimes regret that I didn’t just go to Canada to make the statement," he laments.

The nub of Kurlansky’s thesis is that non-violence, when it has been used, has a pretty good track record of success. Violence, on the other hand, hasn’t. Asked to qualify the subtitle of his book, Kurlansky says: "It’s not so much that I think it’s a dangerous idea – it’s that established power has always thought that it’s a dangerous idea and has always thought of non-violent activists as extremely dangerous."

He points to the example of Martin Luther King. "Now, all of these politicians get up and make these nice speeches about the great man," but "King would have opposed most of these people and most of these people would have opposed him," Kurlansky elucidates.

"King spent his entire activist life being hounded by the FBI because they regarded him as dangerous."

Although he mentions the World War II draft resister Dave Dellinger as a key influence, he reserves his greatest praise for Gandhi – Kurlansky’s nomination for the most important person of the 20th century.

"Like most things that have to do with non-violence, it’s not studied very much, but the influence of Gandhi on the world was tremendous," says Kurlansky. "The reason why there was so much non-violence during the 20th century was the impact of Gandhi."

From the US civil rights movement to Czech dissidents plotting the downfall of the Soviet Union to the end of apartheid in South Africa, the influence of Gandhi is unarguable.

But surely Gandhi’s methods were only successful in India because of the moderate nature of the British administration? Kurlansky argues that this is a convenient myth that doesn’t stand up to the historical record. "A lot of Gandhi’s people were killed. They mowed them down with machine guns."

Kurlansky also points to the successful non-violent resistance to nazi Germany. Indeed, he recently received an email from eminent US historian Howard Zinn – a World War II veteran himself – praising him for dispelling the notion of World War II as the great just war.

"It’s the war that everyone seems to love," says Kurlansky. He says that he has always wanted to take it on, "because, when I go around and talk about this, it’s the one that always comes up. Everybody always says: ‘What about Hitler? What about World War Two’?"

But didn’t the allied war effort, while making it possible for the nazis to instigate the "final solution," also stop it with the invasion of Germany?

"It only stopped it by chance," retorts Kurlansky. "There are lots of cases of Jews being saved and the Holocaust being stopped for a moment by things the allies did, but it’s coincidental."

He goes further. "The Allies not only made no effort but absolutely refused to do anything stop the Holocaust. It’s one of those things that gets passed down later.

"World War II was not about stopping the Holocaust. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Churchill – all these people, when asked, were very clear about that."

He notes: "All you had to do to stop the Holocaust was bomb some train tracks."

Like many progressives, Kurlansky is optimistic about the possibility for change. "I’ve seen amazing things in my lifetime. I see small signs of progress in the world, a lot of steps backwards, some steps forward."

As an example, he cites the protests against the Vietnam war and what "a huge and shocking thing" it was to oppose your country. Today, "nobody thinks anything of that any more."

He believes that there is a lot that people can do to stop the glorification of war in society. "They can change their school system. They can change the way history is taught. They can change what sort of monuments their municipalities erect in public parks."

As a former newspaper reporter, Kurlansky realises the importance of positive news coverage to the continuing success of non-violence. For example, "Gandhi was very good at getting press attention. Before he did something, he called up the London Times and all the American papers.

"That famous picture of him picking up the salt – he made sure the cameras were ready. He was very media savvy."

However, Kurlansky believes that the news media, along with other cultural institutions, generally marginalise non-violence.

"People in the news media are really in the political class with politicians. It’s the government, militarised power crowd. These are people who don’t believe in non-violence. They believe in military solutions."

Kurlansky is less optimistic about the ability to effect change within the confines of the formal political system. He finds it "amazing the way the British people and the American people have made it so clear they don’t want the Iraq war and, in these democracies, these elected officials managed to completely ignore that and even get re-elected."

Returning to the issue of the draft, I’m surprised to hear the draft resister and non-violent activist suggest that there some things to be said in favour of it.

"It’s more democratic and it makes the war everybody’s concern," says Kurlansky.

He clarifies: "I’m not saying your sons should be drafted and serve in the military – I’m saying they should have the opportunity to refuse.

"I’m glad I had that opportunity. I think everybody should have that opportunity and take it." 


Mark Kurlansky’s book Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea is published by Jonathon Cape, priced £12.99.   Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England. [email protected]


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