Does Nonviolence Work? Ta-Nehisi Coates and Maria Stephan

I’ve been trying for a while now to come to terms with the emergence of Ta-Nehisi Coates as the clearest voice of black defiance and determination during the police violence outrages of the past couple years. The appeal of Coates’s basic message of empowerment through self-awareness is obvious, but I have a big problem with a second message that permeates all his works, which is that black activists may as well reject the peaceful methodology of Martin Luther King. “Violence works,” Coates wrote last year in an Atlantic column that inspired this Litkicks blog post. “Nonviolence sometimes works too.”

These are cutting words, and not necessarily wise or mature. I addressed Coates a second time in April when he wrote again of nonviolent resistance as an irrelevant and corrupt political philosophy:

When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.

This is the familiar “Malcolm X” stance on nonviolent resistance, and many other black writers have taken this position as well. Martin Luther King was never universally acclaimed among black activists — though King’s amazing achievements stand as great pillars of inspiration to activists of every kind in every part of the world — and it’s hardly newsworthy that many reject his deeply principled approach to social change today.

But other engaged activists (like myself) find a vital lifeline for the future of the world in the philosophy of nonviolent resistance, and we ought to pay special attention to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who speaks as an influential voice of a rising generation. This author has the sheer talent as a lyrical essayist to reach large numbers of readers in the deepest recesses of their hearts. I finally began to understand the extent of Coates’s unique potential late last spring after I read his delightful coming-of-age memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

In this empathetic and soul-searching book, Coates lays out the swirling paradoxes of his adolescent life: he was raised in Baltimore by a blazingly smart and philosophical Black Panther named Paul Coates who taught him deep family values even as he skipped from woman to woman, who urged active resistance while toiling his own life away in the solipsistic world of literature and books, who hated the hypocrisy of mainstream American culture yet urged his son to get a good education so that he could bolster his mind enough to master the stacked game (as, blessedly, Ta-Nehisi Coates eventually did).

I admired Coates much more after reading A Beautiful Struggle (which also revealed the author to be as big an EPMD fan as I am myself). I’m now most impressed of all by Coates’s short but explosive new book Between The World and Me, one of the most talked-about books of the summer of 2015. Between The World And Me carries the parental theme of A Beautiful Struggle forward: it’s the 39-year-old author’s letter to his own 14-year-old son.

The book has broken big, and has been praised by Jay-Z and Chris Rock. I’m excited by Coates’s growing success, and there’s no doubt that our public conversations about social issues and racial justice are better for his engagement. Between The World and Me will win many literary awards in the months to come (just sit back and watch), and it’s good enough to deserve them all.

A joyful beauty permeates every finely wrought sentence in this short, blunt book. In the opening scene, the author sits flummoxed in a television studio as he suspects an expert interviewer of attempting to appropriate and soften the harsh words he wishes to speak.

That Sunday, with that host, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police office. Then she asked me about “hope”. And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouse and the Cub Scouts. The dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

What we see here is pure lyrical skill. These paragraphs should be taught in composition courses — for the use of color and nuance, for the careful iambic flow, for the surprising shifts in emotional tone and direct address. After reading magical, musical paragraphs like these, the reader may conclude that the greatest single influence on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s literary voice may not have been his father but the language-happy hiphop bands he writes about listening to in the 1980s. When Coates writes:

The dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.

we understand the sarcasm, but we also hear the slick, clever rhythmic flow of EPMD:

He drives a Corvette, I drive a Samurai Suzuki.

It’s because he can write so well that Coates has blown up big — but does he have a clear ideological foundation to offer his growing, trusting fan base? Does he wish to be taken seriously as an ideological critic of social progress, or will he be content to continue to connect with readers about their feelings, to map out the emotional reality of the struggles he describes?

I’m not sure that a consistent philosophy is emerging from his various platforms at all. On his Twitter account Coates has written vividly about his admiration for the Civil War general and US President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant presided over the Reconstruction of the southern states, thus providing a historical precedent for one of Coates’s core themes: a call for reparations to African-Americans for the lasting legacy of slavery today. He was also the general whose military strategy beat the slaveholding South.

But Coates’s personal enthusiasm for Ulysses S. Grant is at odds with the message of his own latest book. Grant was known for a brutal indifference to the lives of the soldiers he poured forth into battle; indeed, this brutal indifference was among his core qualifications. Lincoln famously described needing Grant because he was “a killer”, and it’s chilling to realize that Lincoln was not only referring to the enemy Confederates that Grant was willing to kill, but also to the Union soldiers that he had a cold enough heart to regularly sacrifice.

Between The World And Me emphasizes that police violence is a violation of the human body. But many of the pathetic Union soldiers drafted into Grant’s army and butchered by his aggressive pursuit of victory must have felt the violation of their own bodies as keenly as the victims of recent police violence. And what does Coates mean by choosing a staunch militarist as a personal hero? (He could at least have chosen the more quixotic and intellectual Union general O. O. Howard, after whom his beloved Howard University in Washington DC was named.)

It’s for the lack of a firm and consistent ideological stance that I won’t name Between The World And Me as the most impressive book about social justice I read in the summer of 2015.

In July I attended a seminar at the United States Institute of Peace and listened to a remarkable woman named Maria Stephan who has co-authored a book called Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict with Erica Chenoweth. This book is a data-driven monograph, not intended for a popular audience, and yet the message it presents is so powerful it ought to be shouted from every roof.

Stephan and Chenoweth have gone to the painstaking effort of indexing and classifying every quantifiable historical instance of social resistance (both violent and nonviolent) to injustice that they could find, from Madascagar to the Philippines to the USA. They collate the data from these 323 case studies to hammer home an inescapable point: nonviolent resistance is a much more effective agent of positive change than any form of violent resistance. The book even goes a long way to explaining exactly why this is the case, which isn’t necessarily for the reason one might expect:

Our central contention is that nonviolent campaigns have a participation advantage over violent insurgencies, which is an important factor in determining campaign outcomes. The moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent resistance than for violent insurgency. Higher levels of participation contribute to a number of mechanisms necessary for success, including enhanced resilience, higher probabilities of tactical innovation, expanded civic disruption (thereby raising the costs to the regime of maintaining the status quo), and loyalty shifts involving the opponent’s erstwhile supporters, including members of the security forces. Mobilization among local supporters is a more reliable source of power than the support of external allies, which many violent campaigns must obtain to compensate for their lack of participants.

Moreover, we find that the transitions that occur in the wake of successful nonviolent resistance movements create much more durable and internally peaceful democracies than transitions provoked by violent insurgencies. On the whole, nonviolent resistance campaigns are more effective in getting results and, once they have succeeded, more likely to establish democratic regimes with a lower probability of relapse into civil war.

This is a truth that many activists have already been able to piece together from the evidence around us. Nonviolent resistance works. Violent resistance? Not so much. Violence sure makes a lot of noise, and gets a lot of attention. But it doesn’t produce long-term positive change. Nonviolent resistance does.

Ta-Nehisi Coates must be enjoying his rise to visibility, and I don’t have any reason to expect that he has found the time to read Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth’s book. If I had a chance to ask him a question, I would ask him to consider their findings and explain whether or not he still stands by his statement that “Violence works. Nonviolence sometimes works too”.

It seems to me that Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth’s Why Civil Resistance Works ought to be taken very seriously in 2015. This book does not smell like peppermint or taste like strawberry shortcake. Tensions are pretty high in the world right now, and we really may not have the luxury we think we have to experiment with the wrong paths to a better world before we choose the right one. The mountain of evidence presented by this book can make a difference, and deserves the consideration of any current thinker or pundit who speaks about the effectiveness of social protest.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s powerful book is getting a lot of attention right now, and every reader will benefit from reading it. But Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth’s book is the one that shows a path we can actually follow. It’s because we care about our bodies and our children and our lives that we ought to consider doing so immediately.

2 Responses

  1. I’m sad for this dude and his
    I’m sad for this dude and his psychopathology.

    I didn’t say that lightly and would not have said it before reading the excerpts you chose.

    But why be sad for him? He is at the apex of success in America. He is mainstream American culture.

    In that aspect, why be sad for him.

    Should we be sad because he wants to put forth on others his own psychopathology? Because he cannot be happy, despite the highest possible success and adulation he has garnered, do we need to accept his condemnation of other people he feels superior for being happy, trying to live their lives in love and diligence, with their families?

    I think his misanthropy condemns himself and negates taking him seriously.

    Of course the mainstream corporate establishment loves him. It sells. It keeps the money and buzz and moneybuzz going.

    To my mind he is wasting his talent, perhaps his life.

    One day he will understand he is being used and patronized, at least I hope.

    I really didn’t expect to have such a negative reaction and perhaps I am too harsh.

  2. I agree with TKG’s response:
    I agree with TKG’s response: ultimately, violence leads nowhere. Though I perhaps take issue with framing the issue(s) in terms of some rabble-rousing “psychopathologist” condemning other people for “being happy, trying to live their lives in love and diligence with their families.” That certainly is not the path that various law enforcement “families” have chosen and taken. The realization, the wisdom of non-violence must apply to the cop side of the equation as well. This is not a one-way street.

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