Comet Ping Pong pizzeria was of a conspiracy theory that has since become known as Pizzagate. (Wikimedia)

Characterizing conspiracy memes as a public health crisis

Professors Ron Hirschbein and Amin Asfari join Nonviolence Radio to talk about the motives and drives that generate conspiracy theories, particularly ones that have led to attacks on Jewish and Muslim communities.
Comet Ping Pong pizzeria was of a conspiracy theory that has since become known as Pizzagate. (Wikimedia)

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Professor Ron Hirschbein, founder of the War and Peace Studies Program and the Peace Institute at Cal State Chico, and Professor Amin Asfari from Wake Tech College join Michael Nagler to talk about the motives and drives that generate conspiracy theories. What are some of the deeper causes that lie behind recent attacks on Jewish and Muslim communities? How might the internet galvanize individuals to commit violence against “others” in a way that traditional media did not? Together, Amin, Ron and Michael consider the powerful (and often destructive) desire for fame and recognition, the parallels between COVID and conspiracy theories, the search for life’s meaning and the insidious objects of addiction.

Stephanie: Welcome everybody to another episode of Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook. And I am here with Michael Nagler. We’re recording this program for September 11. And Michael was able to conduct an interview with two philosophers on the nature of conspiracy theorists and the violence they engage in. Michael, can you talk about the interview we’re about to listen to?

Michael: Yes, I can Stephanie. Thanks. This is from two colleagues of mine, Ron Hirschbein and Amin Asfari. The first being Jewish, the second being Muslim. And they are talking about the modern forms that antisemitism – embracing now both communities – has taken, how they have been exacerbated by the use of Internet and social media and how in particular cases this leads to direct outbreaks of violence.

Stephanie: So, let’s tune into that interview that you did with them, Michael.

Michael: I am very happy to announce that we have two distinguished guests sitting here with me. That is metaphorically, of course. One is an old friend and colleague in the peace movement world, Professor Ron Hirschbein who is teaching in the War and Peace Studies program at Cal State Chico where he hosted me some years ago.

Ron, would you like to start please? Will you introduce yourself? Tell us a little bit about your background and what you’ve been working on.

Ron: Glad to do so, Michael. In terms of pursuing my teaching and research in Peace and Conflict Studies, I started a program at the state college here, War and Peace Studies, and also, a Peace Institute here at Cal State Chico. I had a chance to serve as a visiting professor in comparable programs at Berkeley and the University of California at San Diego and at the U.N. university. I’ve written about five books in the area. Amin and I are pleased to present some of the ideas that we’re developing in this next book, which is going to be called, “Jews and Muslims in the White Supremacist Conspiratorial Imagination.” Hasten to add that’s a tentative title and maybe we can come up with a snappier title.

It turns out that we’re both stigmatized and endangered by the conspiratorial views of white supremacists. And that’s a study we’ve been pursuing for the past year — I think it’s safe to say we found out more than we care to know.

Michael: Oh, thank you very much, Ron. Amin? Would you mind now introducing yourself and tell us a little bit about how you and Ron got connected up? Then we’ll get into the substance of what you’re working on.

Amin: Very good. Yes, Michael, thank you very much. I’m pleased to be with you. Ron and I met when I was in graduate school. He was my doctoral advisor. I currently hold a teaching position at Wake Tech College here in North Carolina where I’m an associate professor in the department of Criminal Justice. Also, I’m an affiliated faculty member here at a couple of colleges where I teach political science and social science research methods.

Broadly speaking, I’m what you call a “generalist” in terms of my research interests. But more and more, I’m finding that, as a criminologist, I’m really intrigued by this idea of prejudice that underlies a lot of the violence that we see. In particular, in our current project, we note that the standard antecedent conditions, the criminological ones, at least, don’t apply to these white supremacist mass shooters who terrorize both Muslim and Jewish communities.

Michael: And does either of you want to tell us a little bit about your forthcoming book?

Ron: I’ve been writing for various popular philosophy and popular culture series and in one of the most recent series they requested a volume called, “Connecting the Dots on Conspiracy Theory.” So, I contacted my friend, Amin, and I was not surprised to discover that the sort of conspiracism that applies to the Jewish community also applies to the Muslim community.

A couple years ago we published a short popular piece on that and decided it would be worth pursuing in much greater detail. We determined that we’re both stigmatized and endangered by such conspiracism as events in mosques and synagogues illustrate.

Our overarching concern is what prompts certain young men, namely John Ernest, Robert Bowers, Brenton Tarrant. What prompted these seemingly ordinary individuals to engage in murder and arson in one case? As Amin mentioned, the usual explanations don’t seem to apply, the usual account of antecedent conditions.

So we began the project by trying to look at the origin of some of these conspiratorial ideas. We would have been remiss not to turn to the classic, the iconic Protocols of Elders of Zion. And metaphorically speaking, the protocols rely on a wide-angle lens to look backwards on – actually, a millennia of Judeophobia. Also, there are Muslim doppelgangers for the protocols. Namely works called, “The Project,” and “Eurabia,” and other works which are about, literally, the libels in the protocols.

However, the conspiracists that are our overarching concern are not avid readers. We have no reason to believe that they actually read these works. In our view, these works have been shape-shifted into memes that besmirch the dark resources of the Internet. So they are, I suppose, the etymological sources of the memes seen through very distorted lenses. Well, let me leave it there and see if Amin would like to add to that.

Amin: Yeah, as Ron mentioned, we dedicate some time to discussing how these memes are quite relevant, especially in the age of COVID-19 because the best way to describe these memes and the way that they proliferate in this underground white supremacist world is that they are viruses, essentially. And given what Ron suggested, the people who are partaking in these conspiracy theories and spreading them are not the most scholarly individuals. There’s not much scholarship going on.

What tends to happen is you see a meme on a right-wing website like 8Chan, 4Chan, Gab, etc. You don’t go to the credible sources to investigate the veracity of the claims made by the meme. They simply believe it. It enters one’s brain. You laugh at it. You enjoy the point being made and you pass it on to, say, 20-30 other people.

And that brings us to another point. There’s something qualitatively different about the time in which we live and how white supremacism seems to be spreading, which is the Internet, social media and so forth. Ron was referring back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. True, that conspiracy proliferated. It took a lot longer, we suspect, for it to spread as far as it did. Not anymore. Within minutes ideas are spread rapidly and misinformation age is upon us. So, very little critical thinking goes into this underground world that we’re seeing.

I do want to mention that we view this as a public health crisis. There is a parallel between it and COVID-19. The spread of misinformation is quite rapid, but we also consider it in the context of an addiction: a person goes to the Internet, in particular, they enter these chat rooms and the social media platforms and they become addicted. They essentially take this drug.

The social media companies – we compare them to the kingpins – give them more and more and more of the same so that they can attain the same high using these algorithms that they have. Essentially, they take the person down a rabbithole of more extreme content. To some degree, they lead them there, and once they’re addicted, of course, in the criminological sense, what comes next, after the initial high, has to be more absurd. It has to be more powerful and potent.

We find that in the manifestos of these shooters, Ernest, Bowers, and Tarrant and others — the similarity is uncanny. They’re exposed. They delve into this dark world. And they continue to become more and more extreme.

Michael: Well, Amin, this is very dangerous stuff that you are both talking about and that I think we cannot avoid. We would ignore this at our peril is almost an understatement. Amin, I would like to build a little bit on that virus metaphor that you used quite appropriately: that is, for a virus to spread this virulently it has to have a vulnerable host. It seems to me that there probably – you may know better than I — have been memes of this kind that were floated here and there down the annals of history. But at one time or another they catch on and get spread.

Is there something about this time that you two have seen which helps us understand why at this point in time it’s spreading so quickly?

Amin: I think it’s the qualitatively different nature of the medium, that is to say, the Internet. You know, if this were published in books – if you saw a meme published in a book — as Ron hazarded it early, very few of these individuals are out there in the scholarly community engaging in any meaningful reading or scholarship.

With the advent of social media, we have something like a drug. What it does is it? A person loses their inhibition. When they get addicted in the world of social media, they’re more likely to say things, post things, and pass things along that they wouldn’t do in the real world. You wouldn’t expect even sort of the visceral commentary that’s made. Ron and I were talking about this the other day. I have students in the classroom, and we try to engage in some very contemporary sort of hot-button topics related to criminology and what’s going on in the United States, and very few students are willing to speak.

And I hazard that those same students have no problem expressing their opinion on the Internet. So what exactly is the difference? We argue that the difference is that they are exposed to this “drug,” and the drugs alter an individual’s state of mind, and this is coupled with the virality of the memes. We’re seeing something qualitatively different than in a historical sense in terms of actual media.

Ron: I would like to hasten to add this – that we’re not certain about what makes these shooters tick, particularly a case such as John Ernest who seemed like the ideal young man. Certainty for conspiracists, not for us. We are audacious enough though to think that we may have a piece of the puzzle. But what I want to stress is that there’s much that’s problematic about this. We are certainly not the first to suggest that the Internet somehow promotes and reinforces conspiracism. But here’s what’s problematic about most accounts, and this is where we may be on to something. I’d like to think so, perhaps immodestly.

Not everyone Internet subscriber, say, to 8Chan becomes a murderer or an arsonist. So that could be a necessary condition, but what’s a sufficient condition? It seems to us that these shooters had two fixations. One is transparent, very obvious from their manifestos and their postings. There was a visceral hatred of Jews and Muslims applying the same apocalyptic thinking that Jews and Muslims want to overthrow white privilege and white civilization. And accordingly, they’d like nothing better than to eliminate Jews and Muslims. But not everyone who does such posting engages in violence.

It seems to me that there’s a second and largely unrecognized fixation that these people have and that is a recognition hunger. Now, if their primary concern had been crusading against Jews and Muslims, it seems to us they would have done it in secret. I’m not making suggestions here, but they would have planted bombs. They would have tried to stay anonymous. But quite to the contrary, they don’t remain anonymous. They post publicly. They write manifestos. And they want to livestream their heinous acts.

So, it seems to us that their most immediate goal might not be a crusade against Jews and Muslims, but obtaining some sort of narcissistic nutrient, some sort of recognition, adulation for themselves. And this is clear. We can’t imagine anything that these conspiracists would not do to gain recognition.

One example from a very good book by the New Yorker reporter Andrew Marantz, interviewed a guy named Michael Enoch. Now, Enoch himself hasn’t engaged in any crimes, but he has a particularly vicious website, virulent anti-Jewish, where he talks about Jews being kikes, would like to gas them, turn them into lampshades, the worst sort of vile rhetoric against Jews. Never mind that while he was doing this he had a Jewish wife. Makes no difference. Got the recognition he craved.

Same with the Trump speech writer who comes from a Jewish background, Stephen Miller. Miller associates with a lot of the white supremacist groups, who it’s safe to say are not overly fond of Jews. Nonetheless, he gains fame. So, celebrity culture, the recognition hunger, the insatiable desire for narcissistic nutrients. Perhaps our study is novel, maybe even unique in calling attention to this factor.

Michael: Well, it certainly seems intuitively plausible to me. And you backed it up very well by describing how these people behave and how you’re able to factor out other possible motives. I pull that phrase, “recognition hunger” out of some of the material that you already sent me, for which I thank you guys. It gave me this thought that I’d like to run past you. And that is that perhaps recognition hunger itself is a form of what might be an even deeper hunger which is the hunger for meaning. To have meaning in your life. When you don’t have a healthy meaning, you’ll grab hold of an unhealthy one.

How do you two feel about that in the work you’ve been doing?

Ron: Well, I certainly take a dramaturgical approach, that these conspiracists have a finely – well, not finely developed, but highly developed desire for drama. We couldn’t imagine them somehow thinking that we Jews and Muslims are rather ordinary people. What they do is turn the ordinary into “the other.” They somehow imagine themselves involved in end-of-the-world apocalyptic confrontation. And it’s this that gives them meaning.

But to that I want to add the other meaning can be more immediate. Apparently, it’s very meaningful, for at least the three people we’ve talked about, to get recognition from their community. Adulation from their community gives them immediate meaning. In terms of being involved in an ultimate apocalyptic battle…well, they realize – I mean they are not irrational. They realize that that’s a long way off and they may or may not some day be involved in that sort of meaning.

But the immediate struggle, it seems to us, is for recognition and getting adulation. We bring in this notion of gamification, Michael. These people are videogamers. They’re on videogamer sites and who is going to get the highest kill score? This is what would give them immediate meaning.

Amin: I can just add to that a little bit. It seems to us also that this sense of nihilism that you speak of, Michael, is one of the antecedent conditions for engaging in conspiratorial thinking. See, conspiracy is about recognizing or at least making the claim that you recognize something. You know something that others don’, and in so doing, it turns the attention, the spotlight onto you. You become somehow more important, “I want to convey this to the world.” We see this with Islamophobia, which we investigate in our book.

Who was the one, Ron, that went from the Red Scarce to the Green Scare?

Ron: Oh, Gaffney.

Amin: Frank Gaffney, thank you. So, Frank Gaffney works for a former president and worked for the Bush administration, and at the time of the Red Scare he thought he knew it all. He was in charge of national security or something and he’s warning America, “Look, the communists are coming.” Unfortunately for him, they weren’t watching TV, so they never came. And after a period, he went back into the shadows. He comes back out and says, “Well, look, it’s no longer the Red Scare. It’s the green scare. It’s the Muslims that are coming.”

He starts to advocate for this idea – he and fellow Islamophobes. In both cases, they know something that the rest of us don’t, and they want us to pay some attention to them. I think this notion of recognition hunger also comes into play there.

Ron: Yeah, Amin, in the world according to Gaffney, you’re what they would call, “A pre-violent Muslim.”

Amin: Correct.

Michael: I think this is undeniable myself, what you have been discovering. And I have some thoughts here, both a positive and a negative one. The negative side of it, I guess, is that an absence of meaning is widespread in our culture. You find it everywhere. I was just describing with some friends how I tried to get the University of California Berkeley to have a discussion on what is the meaning of education and they wouldn’t do it. I realized ultimately it’s because they had no idea, and if you have no idea what the meaning of education is, it’s because you have no idea what the meaning of life is.

That’s the alarming factor here, that this could happen to ordinary people, which is exactly what you two are discovering. But the positive side of that – and here’s where I’d really like to get your comment – is this is a way that we could potentially address the problem, by creating a worldview that gives every person importance and gives the meaning to life that it actually has and it deserves. Not that it’s easy to do that, but at least we would have identified an approach that would kind of render us invulnerable to the kinds of hateful memes that you’ve been talking about. So, I would love to get your comments on that.

Amin: I think this idea of meaning is something worthwhile to discuss because as you suggested earlier, it’s this nihilistic world in which these people find themselves, devoid of any sort of meaning. There was a Reuters article entitled, “White Nationalism Upsurge in the U.S. Echoes Historical Pattern, Say the Scholars,” and what they find is essentially this struggle for meaning, this struggle for identity lays dormant until it’s challenged. When you see the civil rights era in the 1960s and what’s happening today, when others get some of the recognition, when others begin to develop a sense of community, to build meaning for themselves, those without identity seek to impose upon others their version of events, their worldview.

That’s how the sort of prejudice functions, and it happens in stages, historically. I think that underlying all of this are the mechanics of prejudice, and we don’t discount those it effects, like demographic change, psychological antecedent conditions. There’s a great book written about this and it’s called, The Functions of Prejudice, right? Gordon Alport wrote a book in the 50s called, The Nature of Prejudice, whereby he asks us, how does prejudice function within the brain? What are the psychological mechanics of prejudice?

And he counters by saying, “One way to ameliorate the effects of prejudice is to engage with others that are not like you” —  essentially, what he titled, “contact theory.” Now, The Functions of Prejudice by a gentleman, Jack Levin, argues, “Well look, prejudice taken not in it’s pejorative sense is merely a tool that societies use. You’ll find that it the spikes and it comes down gradually over time depending on the circumstance.”

And here, your point is well made, Michael, that the circumstance here, in my view is demographic change and so forth. But when you look at other countries where there’s not a lot of demographic change that’s taken place, you still see the rise of right-wing conspiracism and right-wing violence and so forth. It seems that this attention, the sort of recognition hunger coupled with the need to assert yourself as supreme, is dominant. These things sort of coincide to give us what we have today.

Now, what will give us meaning? At the individual level, that’s up to individuals. And of course, for them, this gives them meaning. It’s quite telling that Berkeley told you that they won’t speak on this issue. I’m suggesting that perhaps that’s, in fact, more of a reason for us to engage in this discussion, whether it’s the meaning of education or the meaning of life in general, right? Get more philosophical.

Ron: Perhaps the paradigm case here would be the case of John Ernest, the person who committed arson and murder in suburban San Diego. It’s tempting to say that he got involved in the Internet and his conspiratorial projects to find meaning perhaps even though he was an honor student and he was a good athlete, he had friends – he’d even won medals for some of his piano renditions of Chopin sonatas.

But we could argue if you want to pursue the meaning angle, that just wasn’t enough, particularly in a macho psychotic culture. So, it is tempting of course. And the best way to deal with temptation is to give in. it’s tempting to bring in his search for meaning in that it would really be meaningful if you became a real macho shooter and engaged in a heroic journey by risking everything in this fatally attractive game. That’s one angle to pursue.

But I’m troubled by something else. As tempting as it is to freight the analysis very heavily on this notion of meaning, I can’t resist the temptation here to talk about something as simple and hidden in plain sight as addiction. Could it be that these people are responding to addiction? Much like the opioid crisis, a person gets hooked on this drug and it’s not that they’re searching for meaning, it’s that they’re addicted. Somebody plays a few slots in Vegas and what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas and they become addicted to gambling. It isn’t necessarily a search for meaning, it’s addiction.

I see these two elements at play and they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. Yeah, they want meaning, and maybe Ernest’s upper-middle class life in San Diego was bereft of all the meaning that he wanted. But could it also be that we’re talking about addiction to the irresistible gamification of the Internet? Got to work this through and I’m not sure, but you certainly raised a salient point here, Michael, about the search for meaning.

I think our mutual friend, Mike Lerner, deals with this too in his latest book, if I’m not mistaken.

Michael: Yeah, he does. I happen not to see those two things as irreconcilable, Ron, but as aspects of the same thing: the recognition hunger and the addiction factor and the search for meaning factor.

Ron: Yeah, when you’re an addict getting your fix, it’s as good as it gets in terms of meaning.

Michael: So, what I would like to ask you both is two things, actually. Why the emphasis on Judeophobia rather than antisemitism? And then I was quite intrigued by what you said about certainty? So, could you both comment on that, please?

Ron: Well, very quickly – I try to tantalize you about why we don’t like the term antisemitism. The term antisemitism was created by a virulent racist, Wilhelm Marr in the late 19th century to demonize Jews and talk about Jews being genetically inferior. So we much prefer the term Judeophobia. But we’ll leave out for a moment that Semitic and semantic point.

In terms of the quest for certainty, one distinction we make in historicizing this is that the traditional conspiracy theorist does have a quest for certainty — that’s the more old-fashioned conspiracism. These conspiracy theorists see themselves as prophets and they have a theodicy. They have an explanation of evil, and they prophesize about the evil to come because they’re certain about this.

But, indebted to some other authors, we talk about a new conspiracism, what’s called, “Post-modern conspiracism.” And there it’s not in any way freighted with any quest for certainty or any theory. This is Trump style, where a lot of people are saying, “Or what about Pizzagate?” Many of these other conspiracist claims about COVID and Epstein and so forth, they don’t traffic in any particular explanatory theory. They simply make the claims, much as the claim that we would find Trump making in reality TV shows, “Find out about Pizzagate. Stay tuned.”

The QAnon notion isn’t backed up by any grand theory the way The Protocols of Elders of Zion would be. The analogy I use is that it’s much like teenage graffiti designed to alarm and offend people, and to draw attention to yourself. This electronic graffiti on the Internet isn’t some quest for certainty backed up by elaborate theories and narratives. It’s just something to grab attention and gain recognition. So, both are occurring.

Amin: Regarding the Judeophobia, I was invited by Ron, kindly enough, to give a talk at his college some time ago, in 2017. We titled the talk, “Islamophobia, the new antisemitism.” Our concern, of course, was that oftentimes the sort of target of Islamophobic attacks is not the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Texan, it’s often the Arab. What we call the neophytes of Islamophobia, they are fixated on the Arab. We argue that a more apt name for Islamophobia then is antisemitism given that Arabs are also Semites.

But I did want to digress just a bit and address an earlier point that Michael talked about. He said, “How come, if memes are the things that trigger conspiracism, why isn’t everyone acting upon it?” Going back to that parallel, comparing them to the COVID-19 situation, we consider that the role of a virus is to infect and to propagate itself. Along the line, somewhere, some people die, those with underlying health conditions and so forth.

The same holds true here. Many people may be exposed to the memes, but sometimes those memes become deadly, and the person acts upon them. They delve into that world of conspiracism further and they want that recognition hunger and so forth, but they too have antecedent conditions. Here, I’m referring to the people that actually act upon these viruses, these memes.

Now, what these are, of course, you’ll have to stay tuned because we’re investigating many potential antecedent conditions. Again, as Ron suggested quite aptly, we can’t be certain. We’re simply investigating at this point.

Michael: That leads me to my final question or comment. First, I’d like actually to read the very brief description that you two have made of the work that you’re doing. Here it goes: “We narrate these paranoid fantasies on an historical continuum, beginning with the tattered texts of modernity, follow them through the dark interstices of the Internet, and analyze their violent denouement in synagogues and mosques.”

So it is not a pleasant read, but it is an unavoidable one. My last question to you, as we run up to the end of our time here, is where would you send people to find out more about this. Where is your book going to be published and so on so forth?

Ron: Well, right now, we have three publishers looking at it. Speaking of this hunger for recognition and narcissistic nutrients, we would like to think that it could be marketed as a trade book, scholarly book, and of course, a supplemental text for classrooms. This would be aimed at the proverbial “reading public” who like to find out more about what just might make these white supremacists tick, and also realize that there’s something profoundly problematic about understanding them. Certainty is for the conspiracist, not for us. So, in terms of the scholarly community, my task would be problematizing some of what this is. What do you have to say, Amin?

Amin: Well, nothing much to add. We hope that if it comes out soon, assuming any of the publishers that like the work. I suspect a good contact would be Ron.

Michael: So, this is Professor Ron Hirschbein from Chico State. Do you want to give us any more particulars, Ron, if people wanted to find out more about this?

Ron: Well, they certainly could send an email to

Michael: It’s the German word for deer, H-I-R-S-C-H plus the German word for bone – B-E-I-N.

Ron: Yeah, deer’s leg or dear bone. I don’t know how we got that name. So, I would be pleased to correspond with anyone by email if they –

Michael: Excellent

Stephanie: You’re listening to Nonviolence Radio. And we just finished an interview with Ron Hirschbein and Amin Asfari on the nature of conspiracy theorists and the violence that is committed in the name of conspiracies. We’re going to turn now to something more positive which is the Nonviolence Report with Michael Nagler. Michael?

Michael: Thank you Stephanie. And yes, we do need something a bit more positive because of the polarization that’s taking place in the movement just now. But I don’t think I want to dwell on that. I’d like to share with you some resources that are coming up. I had the great pleasure of reading part of Mahadev Desai’s diaries. Mahadev Desai was Gandhi’s main secretary. And for 25 years he wrote in his diary every single day, except when either he or Gandhi were in prison. So, from the age of 25 until his untimely death in prison at age 50, he compiled these diaries. And already almost 10,000 pages have been published. It’s quite a precious resource.

But what we’re waiting for are the years 1936 to 1942 which, of course, would carry us into the Quit India movement. So, watch for the emergence of those diaries. It is really of special importance and especially helpful to follow Gandhi’s words and thinking day by day for a certain period of time.

Okay, well, coming up more locally there’s an important Zoom meeting that’s going to take place on inoculating a nonviolent campaign against violent participation or what we sometimes in the academic field call, “Radical flank,” which has been shown over and over again to be unhelpful in every way. This took place – and I hope it’s still online. It took place on September 8th and I can give you the Meeting ID to see if you can find that. It’s 927 8415 7891.

Now, I’ve been saying for quite some time now that if you want to have a public demonstration – and we use the term collective versus dispersive action. You know, there’s a time when you want to assemble and collect and show your numbers. Show your strength. There’s a time when that becomes superfluous. There’s a time when it becomes extremely dangerous because you’ve rendered yourself vulnerable as the students did in Tiananmen Square.

So, when you are going to do a collective action there are three things that need to be in place. You have to be able to inoculate against the radical flank. You have to have a way of neutralizing in some nonviolent way those who wish to mingle some violence into your movement.

Secondly, you have to have a clear sense of your goal. And that’s quite important because in real nonviolence we want to be able to compromise as much as possible. We can’t compromise on our goal. If we know what the goal is, then we can compromise on almost anything else. And that really presents a very good nonviolent posture to the general public and to our opponents.

And the third thing you need is a decision-making process. We’ve talked about that from time to time. You also need a type of leadership. And apparently, the most successful types lie between the extremes of horizontal leadership where there’s no one is in charge and vertical leadership where only one person is in charge. So, these are all interesting developments which we have to work on going forward into what is going to be a very active future for nonviolent action.

There’s also a free training coming up. In fact, there are lots and lots of trainings going on. I’m just going to talk about one. The International Center for Nonviolent Conflict is offering a free training called, “People Power: The Strategic Dynamics of Civil Resistance.” And that’s going to begin on October 1st. The applications are due a couple of days from now – Sunday the 13th. And you can find the application form on Okay?

And our friend Rivera Sun will be leading a virtual workshop on Strategies for Powerful Social Change that will take place on September 26th. And a course. Her course is entitled, “Nonviolence in action, planning, and strategy.” I actually think she’s going to call me in and show our film at some point in that course. I hope you’re listening, Rivera. And that one will begin on October 6th. You can find the social change workshop on And the planning and strategy one on P-A-C-E-E-B-E-N-E.

So, some actions that are going on – the Campaign Nonviolence, Week of Actions will be coming up very soon. It’s September 19th to 27th. We’ve been reporting on their progress regularly. They now have over 3500 actions that are planned around the country.

And now here’s an interesting item from Stanford. Sociological researchers at Stanford collected data from 350,000 police officers and other law officials. And apparently, this data – I’m going to tell you why I say apparently in a minute – this data showed that policing the way we do it in the U.S. does more harm than good overall. The study shows that when law enforcement is coercive in nature, it’s bad all around for everyone including the police. So, right there we have two general principles of nonviolence. Oh, gosh, it would be so nice if people understood this subject.

The first general principle is persuade, don’t coerce. There are times when you don’t have time to persuade and you must coerce. Understood. But wherever possible, you try to bring the opponent out of an oppositional stance onto your side. That’s a much more lasting solution and it builds human community, which is what you’re always basically after.

The second general principle is that violence is a lose/lose. Nonviolence is a win/win. And you might notice that nowhere in this formula does a win/lose situation emerge. That’s a big difference between nonviolence and other forms of negotiating dispute.

Now, the reason I said, “Evidently,” before is that somehow strangely this study was taken down by the administration at Stanford and we have yet to find out what the problem was and what’s going on there.

Now, interesting development – people have said in favor of the current president that he is not a war president in the sense that George H.W. Bush, President Bush was proud to name himself. But things have gone in a strange direction there because he seems to be alienating the military. The worst example of that being a recent state – and he let slip, where he said that those who died in war are losers.

You know, no one could be more opposed to war than I am – well, I and people like me. We are dead set against war, but we would never say something like that about a person who risked his or her life and lost it. And the reason this is of interest is that it is reminiscent of the difficulties that Adolf Hitler had with the military at first. The real military had high ideals. He did not. He had to win them over and it wasn’t easy. So, hopefully our situation will not have the same outcome.

But moving on now to some environmental news. Unfortunately, the American Chemistry Council has been pushing during this pandemic to use an upcoming trade agreement to dump plastics in Africa. Especially Kenya. They hope to reverse the strict limits on plastics and persuade the Kenyan government to continue to import foreign plastic garbage. Again, we see a fairly traditional lineup of parties using the pandemic to advantage. Going to have to say more about that in a bit and it’s going to be more serious. And the way that pollution, environmental degradation and conflict are intersectional. They affect one another. We can say more about that in a minute.

Moving around the world now to Belarus where the conflict does go on. It’s one of these kind of protracted situations in the attempt to bring about regime change. So, there’s a live television channel called, “Nexta.” And it’s run by Stsiapan Putsila in Belarus. The interesting thing about Stsiapan being that he’s 22 years old. And he and his companions have been doing some very clever anti-censorship work to allow people to maintain a fairly consistent access and share their personal experiences – using VPN, cleverly leaving USB sticks in elevators with VPN access files. And I understand that they basically hardwired the Internet to keep it going after the government shut it down.

So, this is again, a kind of typical example of the fight for communication, which is a critical part of nonviolent campaigns, always. Now, as we know, back in the states, there is this very fraught issue of whether or not to reopen schools.

There are many things to be said in favor of doing that, but there’s one big one against it. And that is the serious danger of super-spreader events – outbreaks of COVID-19. And now, some of these outbreaks are being hidden from the public in the guise of protecting medical privacy. This is being done by the Department of Homeland Security which has quietly labeled teachers, “Critical infrastructure workers.” So, that enables them to use, again, coercive means to force teachers back into schools, even if they’ve been exposed to the virus.

So, I have a general comment here to share with you. We really need to ponder the dedication to death that seemingly has emerged among a large sector of our population, starting with the president – or at least culminating with him. For someone like myself and for people like us, it kind of baffles the imagination how people can be so dedicated.

But I guess the general truth is that nontruth and violence always come together. And this will show us the other side of the coin. As we’ve reported before, the U.N. Secretary General, Antonio Guitterez has called for peace as a necessary response to the pandemic, saying that a commitment to sustaining peace is more important than ever.

Among other things he’s calling on banks to integrate sustaining the peace as a priority and as a core element of their recovery strategies. For that matter, his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon who was famous for saying, “That this crisis should spur us to change our priorities and our understandings of what threats and values really matter,” and view the current situation – this is not a quote now – view the current situation as an opportunity to, “steer humanity and our planet towards a more peaceful and sustainable future.”

So, there you have a rather stark contrast between the way some groups, some interests, some individuals are taking advantage of the pandemic to deepen the dangers. And some are viewing this whole complex situation, the upcoming threat of disruption in the American president federal election coming up in November, the pandemic, and ecological destruction.

Looking upon that as a kind of big signboard, a big lesson telling us now we need to really figure out what we are all about and start making progress toward that. You will remember that I mentioned during the interview with my colleagues Ron Hirschbein and Amin Asfari, that in my view, underlying a lot of the motivation behind people who commit terrorist acts of that kind is a search for meaning.

The reason that meaning is in such short supply is that we really don’t have a concerted idea of human destiny. Where are we going on this planet? Now this is something that’s very, very clear to nonviolent folks. We’re going for a more nonviolent world in every single compartment, every single institution are going to be reconsidered on the basis of is this serving our nonviolent purpose? Is this serving the further evolution of humanity on this planet?

I mean, gosh, once you just even grasp that a little bit, which nonviolence should always do for you, you immediately can get over this question of boredom, the question of not fitting in that so many of us feel, and a question of a lack of meaning.

So, I just want to mention one other thing because it does come from a different corner, a different part of this intersectional field, and that is a number of cities around the globe – and it’s been traditional for some time now that cities and sometimes states are more progressive than the nations in which they’re embedded. So, they’re creating complimentary currencies which has been around for a long time. But they’re revitalizing it to combat the negative effects of the global financial crisis. So, these localized currencies are helping to fill in the cracks created by our failing economic system while simultaneously encouraging local shopping.

So, this one example here from Tenino, a little city in Washington State where the currency is presented as wooden dollar bills. They’re pegged at the rate of real U.S. dollars and they’re made out of plain maple veneer, which must be very pleasant to handle, actually. And the wood money is being handed out to locals who demonstrate they are suffering financial hardship caused by the pandemic. They can get a stipend of up to $300 a month in wooden dollars and spend that money in every local public Tenino business.

Well, 300 maple veneers would be a pretty impressive stack. And I like the idea of contemplating it. But once again, I want to site the basic principle that it is more the local communities that are taking us forward and the most local of all communities is the human individual. That’s you and that’s me. So, thank you very much for listening. That is the Nonviolence Report for this recording coming to you on September 11th, 2020.

Stephanie: Thank you so much, Michael, for that Nonviolence Report. And I want to also thank our mother station, KWMR, to our listeners, to all of the friends and volunteers at the Metta Center for Nonviolence who make this show possible. Especially Matt Watrous who is also transcribing this show which you’ll find up later at Waging Nonviolence. And until the next time everybody, please take care of one another.

Transcription by Matthew Watrous.

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