An Interview with Jonathan Schell
by Sid Pranke
Jonathan Schell doesn’t think of himself as a utopian pacifist: he prefers to live in the real world as a nuclear abolitionist, movement writer and peace activist who delivers remedies for dead-end ways of thinking about electoral politics, war resisters and American complacency. Schell worked as an editor and writer at The New Yorker from 1967 to 1988, as a columnist for Newsday and New York Newsday from 1990 to 1996, and is the author of “The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People”; “The Fate of the Earth”; and “The Time of Illusion.” He is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Yale University’s Center for the Study of Globalization.
as The Nation’s current peace and disarmament correspondent, he has written
about the triumph of “fantasy politics” that has existed in our
country since September 11, 2001—a scenario where Osama bin Laden and
President George Bush entered into a world not unlike “an apocalyptic
comic book.” This was the time when history deteriorated into a bad plot
in the hands of a third-rate writer, where the characters “seem to have
become crasser, coarser, woven of shoddier materials.” And during this
time America was besotted by the “pickled media” of misinformation—one
that separated the world into the evil-doers vs. the do-gooders, and outsiders
were either with us or against us.
Schell reports gladly that he thinks Americans no longer believe in the politics
of illusion, but says it is now time for elected officials to recognize and
act on that change by making public policy that reflects these new ideals. If
Schell is correct, that would be one of the most notable shifts in popular culture
in the new millennium.
Schell wants America to turn off its televisions—turn off Reality TV and
the propaganda of advertising, which he has compared to “the mental equivalent
of low-level radiation”—and go outside to meet the neighbors.
He speaks at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul this Saturday, Sept. 17 at 8
p.m., at the invitation of Friends for a Non-Violent World (FNVW). The event
is meant as a FNVW fundraiser and unifying tool for the Left. Pulse recently
interviewed Schell via telephone—an excerpt follows.
PULSE: “Your talk is titled ‘Will Peace Win?’ Is that
“Yes. There are strong reasons for being hopeful. Some of them are short-term,
and some are long-term. In the short term, we see that the military policies
of the Bush administration are failing … that’s number one, and
number two, the public recognizes this. I don’t think that the political
world has woken up to the fact that the polls are consistently showing that
a majority of the public thinks it was a mistake to get into the war in Iraq.”
PULSE: “Probably even more so now after Hurricane Katrina? I’ve
seen the high numbers of dissatisfaction [with Bush’s performance] in
SCHELL: “Yes, there’s one poll that has him down to 39 percent
[approval rating] … He’s paying a price politically for that, too.
We’re no longer in the period where the public is being fooled by what
the Administration has to say about the war. It’s a new period—politically.
What hasn’t happened yet is that we haven’t had a response from
the political world. We do have some good people in Congress, such as Dennis
Kucinich and others in the Progressive caucus who’ve long opposed the
war. More recently, we’ve had Sen. Russ Feingold [Wisconsin] coming out
for a withdrawal of American troops, but the Democratic Party is still stuck
in a pretty hawkish mode.”
PULSE: “You think the Democratic Party is stuck in a hawkish mode?”
SCHELL: “It looks that way so far, at least on the Senate side,
very much so. Except for Feingold, I haven’t seen any strong inititatives
against the war. In the House, it’s different. There are a couple of good
proposals. But not in the Senate, where very often you get the presidential
PULSE: “I was in New York a few years ago and heard Francis Moore
Lappé [author of “Diet for a Small Planet”] speak. Somebody
asked her—‘How do you feel about the earth right now?’ And
she said, ‘We have no hope. And I don’t even like to talk to my
granddaughter about it, because it depresses me and I don’t want to upset
her.’ You write about all these things—where do you get the strength
to continue this kind of work?”
“To me, this kind of work is not depressing, it’s invigorating.
And the work itself gives me hope. One thing is that you consistently meet wonderful
people. And this is very inspiring. Also, I take something of a long view. And
I see that in movements of the past there has been even less reason for hope
then there is now and yet good causes have won out in the end … it’s
just way premature to give up on hope.”
PULSE: “Do you think that resistance is a slow burn then, from
the bottom up?”
SCHELL: “Resistance is always, and necessarily, from the bottom
up. And I think the challenge for this country is to figure out how—in
this affluent and media-pickled society—we should conduct ourselves. It’s
different than what Gandhi faced in India or what the Solidarity movement faced
in Poland 25 years ago. But the cause is no less important, and the stakes are
no less high.” ||
For tickets to the Sept. 17 event, call the Fitzgerald (651-290-1221), Friends
for a Non-Violent World (651-917-0383) or Ticketmaster (651-989-5151). $15 (students
and low-income); $25 (regular seating); $50 (premium seating) and $150 (premium
seating and reception backstage with Jonathan Schell).