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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Fighting Words

In the presidential election, sixteen years after the turn of the century, “America First” was the winning slogan in an exceptionally close race. The victor didn’t win his home state but he managed to secure the Electoral College by taking several swing states by razor-thin margins. Blue collar workers believed in him. His opponent decried him as anti-business but it didn’t stick. Michigan and Pennsylvania, two traditional democratic strongholds, went Republican.

He locked up the office with the help of a brilliant media strategist who took maximum advantage of emerging mass-communications systems. Bits of news, statistics and editorials were carefully targeted to special groups. Material was prepared for rural types and sent just to that constituency; labor received appeals in that direction; evangelicals got specialized religious messaging. The campaign provided so much usable material that newspaper editors sent thank-you notes and happily ran stories about his opponent’s supposed secrecy and furtive deal making. After pulling off the stunning victory, an Atlanta paper credited the mastermind with “the most brilliant achievement in the history of American politics.”

Questions of aggression surrounded the entire contest. Which of them would keep the country safe in a dangerous time? Who was going to take the fight to the enemy? Was the country up for a fight?

It was a brutal election at a brutish historical moment. Distastefully, in the end it was very much an election about balls.

Woodrow Wilson ended up winning.

It was the summer of 1916 and Europe was suicidal. Coca-Cola was bringing its current formula to market and the first supermarket, a PigglyWiggly, was opening in Memphis. To run his reelection organization and communications strategy, President Wilson brought in Robert Woolley, a big-city journalist and native Kentuckian. The elements of Woolley’s approach define the modern presidential campaign to this day – opposition research, targeting, and message control. Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate, lost – barely. The slogan that Woolley is inaccurately credited for (as it was rejected by the Woolley team but caught on anyway), is the one that everyone remembers: “He kept us out of war.”

Of course within three months of his reelection, with Germany’s continued submarine warfare and plot to ally with Mexico against the US, the President asked Congress for a declaration of war. But not before agonizing over it.

Wilson was a famously ruminant character. Trapped by events, he lost sleep. He perseverated. He couldn't see an alternative. He felt he had tried every way he knew to avoid war. “I think I know what war means,” he said to Frank Cobb of the New York World in the wee hours of the morning prior to the congressional request. 'What else can I do?' the President asked his newspaperman friend. “Is there anything else I can do?”

“Once lead this people into war,” Wilson said, according to the Cobb account, “they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street.”

By votes of 373-50 and 82-6, both chambers of Congress supported the war declaration, deafening the hall with an almighty cheer. The President returned to the White House and reportedly broke into tears.

Far less well remembered from that summer of 1916 is another slogan from Wilson’s campaign: “He proved the pen mightier than the sword.” As I sit here writing, reading essay upon essay by an especially gifted thinker, ignoring news of yet another mass shooting and risking absolutely nothing in this, my chosen form of protest, I can only hope that it’s true -- that the pen really is mightier.

The concept has been around a long time, though an English author, Edwin Bulwer, made it stick after including the line in his 1839 play Richelieu about the famous French statesman and Cardinal. Well before that, however, versions of the idea appear the old and new testaments, Mohammad, Euripides, and Shakespeare. People and events, the saying implies, are ultimately impacted more by the transmission of thoughts -- by writing -- than by the use of force or violence.

Aside from the fascinating parallels precisely a century apart, the account of President Wilson’s 1916 campaign and entry into World War One interests me because it goes to the heart of a dilemma that many of us find ourselves in these days, and not only these days: whether and how to fight. Or maybe less dramatically, how best to Resist. I’ve written the last couple of blogs with a mind toward “what to do.” This is another attempt.

There is a lot of space between militarism and pacifism. Regular folks take up residence somewhere in between quite comfortably I think – some barking away madly, many actively working on resistance campaigns, a few, I suppose, like me, withdrawing into the quiet of ideas. In choosing the pen and rejecting the sword, I hope I am contributing in some small way to the Resistance. As usual, I take comfort in knowing that a lifetime of words, carefully assembled and tirelessly proffered, really can change hearts and minds (see Berry, Wendell). But there is an option between militarism and pacifism that has always seemed even more heroic to me, from the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King. And so I was excited to read the penultimate piece in It All Turns on Affection in which Mr. Berry responds to a request to share his thoughts on civil disobedience.

With Berry it’s an especially interesting question. For one thing, he’s been on the losing side of arguments his entire life. At some point, perhaps from exasperation alone, aren’t more direct measures almost mandatory? And what of Wendell Berry the “activist?” Though he’s often described as such, I bet he would consider the appellation misapplied. In truth, the man has had an almost entirely apolitical career. He’s a writer and he spent many years as a university professor. His ideas are radical, I suppose. But that doesn’t make him, nor other academics like him, activists -- whose goals are political and necessarily short of term. Fighters they are indeed, these intellectuals, but the Berry types are separated from the main column by their exclusive choice of that old, old weapon -- the pen.

It takes only a few pages for Wendell to sum up his experience with, and his feelings about, civil disobedience. It’s Berry at his charming best. He is both amusing and appropriately solemn right from the very first paragraph in which he admits that given his druthers he would ignore the request, but that several hours of hard thought "did not afford him an adequate excuse to do so."

Over his lifetime, Berry took part in three separate demonstrations of civil disobedience: once in 1979 in opposition to a nearby nuclear power plant proposal, once 2009 in Washington DC against a host of environmental threats, and finally in 2011 in Frankfort, Kentucky against coal mining by mountaintop removal.

At the site of nuclear plant, he and his fellow protestors were arrested, booked and let go. In Washington DC, the crowd of a few thousand elected to disperse rather than trespass and risk arrest. In Frankfort, the Governor invited the protestors into his office where they encamped for a weekend, enjoying excellent food and bedding brought in by supporters, whereupon on Monday morning, without having made a mess (which Wendell was proud about) or any political dent at all, they went home.

“And so my career in civil disobedience so far,” he says, “has been an exercise in anticlimax. Also it has been, by any practical reckoning, pretty useless.” Further, he confesses, the episodes were all mostly pleasant. Policemen were friendly, the march in Washington was socially uplifting (“better by far than any cocktail party I attended”), the weekend in the Governor’s office was joyful.

Nonetheless, says Berry, it is a serious matter to attempt to force your government to redress a grievance. And it is not a choice to be made lightly.

On how to choose, his thoughts go the practicalities. One must consider the blunt fact of inconvenience – the disruption to one’s life and work. Disobedience is lonely too, no matter the justice sought. It makes yourself an exception to the governed. It is also plenty scary, he says. You can get hurt, or worse, and just to invite contempt is fearful. And in the end, it is almost inevitably ineffective. “This means it is a mistake to make your opposition conditional upon winning.”

There, I think, is the crux.

Why, he wonders, after fifty years of failing to win any ground against Big Coal, have so many more people joined the cause, risking arrest, organizing, marching, arguing with politicians, over and over again, to no visible effect?

The reason, says Berry, is to keep alive the possibility of decency, and to refuse to accept as normal, the indecency of public officials. To be on the side of the right.

This feels dead-on to me. I know that it burns brightly within me, this moral flame -- this magnetism toward decency, kindness, rectitude. Ironically, it’s this very orientation that makes fighting so repellent to me. This must be yet one more reason why I’m drawn to Wendell Berry. He has been fighting all these years, for decency, without ever harming his opponents. Some might find that foolish. I find it wonderful.

I’m sure that’s what President Wilson wanted too, in those fraught months leading up to America’s entry to World War One. To fight for decency, without resorting to indecent means. So when the gauntlet was finally thrown down in April 1917, it wasn’t in the name of self-defense or retaliation for naval atrocities. It was for the high-minded vision of making the world safe for democracy, and to promote freedom and stability around the world. A century later, it's not just Robert Woolley's world that we're still living in. It's Woodrow Wilson’s as well.

But though both are exemplars of morality, here is where Woodrow Wilson and Wendell Berry part ways. Wilson knew better. He knew that by joining the fight, the “spirit of ruthless brutality” would infect the American spirit. And as predicted by the 28th president, we have become a fighting people (see Trump, Donald). Berry, on the other hand, in favor of “making sense,” has said repeatedly that answering violence with violence is understandable, but is also nonsense.

As long as there is injustice and intolerance out there, which is to say for all eternity, we are going to be faced with the questions that defined the 1916 and 2016 elections: when and how should we join a fight. I imagine the best we can do, as citizens, is to show up for Decency, as courageously and consistently as we can.

I also imagine we'll have to leave the winning and losing to the politicians and the Robert Woolley’s of the world. And meanwhile trust that Decency will eventually have her day.


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