Friday, January 14, 2011

Tests of Courage

by Miki Kashtan

Until I read Michael Nagler’s The Search for a Nonviolent Future, I had no idea that some efforts to respond to Hitler nonviolently did take place, let alone that by and large such efforts were successful. The most notable of them is partially known to many: the successful effort on the part of Danes to save virtually all their Jews and smuggle them to Sweden. What is usually less known is the progressive and widespread nonviolent resistance to German occupation that Danes mounted as the war dragged on.

Denmark Rising: A Novel
Author Barry Clemson used these facts of history as the foundation for a literary project the likes of which I had never seen: a what-if novel about a full-on nonviolent resistance on the part of Danes right from the first moment of occupation. Barry didn’t veer significantly from the historical record. Almost all the characters in the novel are real-life people albeit with some embellishment and added circumstances. In addition, many of the specific acts described in the book took place, sometimes by fewer people than described, sometimes in more circumscribed circumstances or later dates than appear in the novel. The fundamental difference lies in the premise: whereas real-life Danish resistance started from the bottom up and built over time, the novel’s context is an already established upfront plan of action designed from the top and encompassing the overwhelming majority of the population.

The result is Denmark Rising, a document that defines an entirely different flavor of heroism from the popular image of the person who kills the “bad guys.” The people populating this novel, from Danish King Christian to the workers in a factory who risk flogging to delay and prevent the construction of a submarine for use by the German navy, all exhibit the double courage that defines the passage into nonviolence: the courage to overcome internal habits of reaction, and the courage to face the potential consequences that arise from standing up to those in power, especially when they are fully committed to subjugation of the resisters.

I read this book, and I recommend others read it, not because of its literary value. I wasn’t, in fact, particularly enamored by the writing style. I still found it hard to put the book down, because the story and the characters were so compelling, and the effect so profoundly inspiring. I had already seen and read enough prior to reading Denmark Rising to know that ordinary citizens rise up to extraordinary circumstances. What this book provides, in addition, is a level of detail that makes the vision of massive nonviolent resistance utterly believable. I couldn’t help wishing that it were even more true than it is, and hoping that, somewhere, someone with enough influence will read this, become inspired, and mount such a principled and comprehensive program. My own intuitive conviction that even war can be met with nonviolence now has a vivid story to back it up.

Police Adjective: A Movie  
At the other end of the spectrum of studies in courage I found a movie that I saw last night. Written, directed, and produced by Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, this movie has a very simple plot: a police officer following a teenager who is accused of selling drugs, and facing a major moral dilemma along the way.

I think of this movie as a rare masterpiece, a profound and subtle exploration of core aspects of what it means to be human. The movie moves slowly in time, and contains very little action except at the very end. Because of the moral compunction that the main character has about his assignment, he is being presented with an incredibly difficult choice that might have life-changing consequences. Will he follow his conscience and stand up to power, or will he succumb to fear and give up?

How far would any of us go in following our own moral intuition? How much and how often and how far do we each give up on what we know is true for us in order to maintain food on the table, social acceptability, or any other kind of basic comfort? I don’t know of short or easy answers to these questions. I do have a deep sense that in some way our future depends on our growing ability to keep reflecting on these questions, and on our collective ability to learn how to move towards deep moral and personal integrity. I want to keep growing in these areas and inspire others to do the same. I want to keep wrestling with my own complicity when it’s there. I want to find, accept, and then stretch my limits so I can take bolder and bolder actions in the face of fear. I want to become ever better at encouraging others to do the same, because I want us to have a future we can look forward to and participate in wholeheartedly.

Note: The movie is available for instant watching on Netflix. You can also read an interview with Corneliu Porumboiu.