by A. J. Muste
Pendle Hill Pamphlet 64
The Land Of Propaganda Is Built On Unanimity
The quotation which follows is from Ignazio Silone’s novel, Bread and Wine, which was a moving exposition of life under Fascism in Italy. The conversation between a young woman and an anti-Fascist priest takes place in a small Italian town at the end of the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy. During the night, anti-war and anti-Fascist slogans had been written on walls and steps in the town.
Bianchina told Don Paolo she couldn’t understand why there was such a lot of fuss about a few inscriptions on the wall. Don Paolo was surprised, too. He tried to explain it.
“The Land of Propaganda is built on unanimity,” he said. “If one man says, ‘No,’ the spell is broken and public order is endangered. The rebel voice must be stifled.”
“Even if the voice is that of a poor, solitary sick man?”
“Even if it belongs to a peaceful man who thinks in his own way, but does nothing evil apart from that?”
These thoughts served to sadden the girl, but gave the man new heart. He felt ashamed of his previous discouragement.
“In the Land of Propaganda,” he said, “a man, any man, any little man who goes on thinking with his own head, imperils public order. Tons of printed paper repeat the government slogans; thousands of loud speakers, hundreds of thousands of manifestoes and leaflets, legions of orators in the squares and at the crossroads, thousands of priests from the pulpit repeat these slogans ad nauseam, to the point of collective stupefaction. But it is enough for one little man to say ‘No!’ in his neighbor’s ear, or write ‘No!’ on the wall at night, and public order is endangered.”
The girl was terrified, but the man was happy again. “And if they catch him and kill him?” the girl asked.
“Killing a man who says ‘No!’ is a risky business,” the priest replied, “because even a corpse can go on whispering ‘No! NO! NO!’ with a persistence and obstinacy that only certain corpses are capable of. And how can you silence a corpse?”
A book which the French writer, Georges Bernanos, wrote in Brazil—to which he had exiled himself because he would not remain in France under Nazi occupation—has just been published in this country. It is entitled Tradition of Freedom and is a hymn to freedom, an impassioned warning against obedience and conformity, especially obedience to the modern State engaged in mechanized, total war.
In the closing pages of this work, Bernanos writes:
I have thought for a long time now that if, some day, the increasing efficiency of the technique of destruction finally causes our species to disappear from the earth, it will not be cruelty that will be responsible for our extinction and still less, of course, the indignation that cruelty awakens and the reprisals and vengeance that it brings upon itself…but the docility, the lack of responsibility of the modern man, his base subservient acceptance of every common decree. The horrors which we have seen, the still greater horrors we shall presently see, are not signs that rebels, insubordinate, untamable men, are increasing in number throughout the world, but rather that there is a constant increase, a stupendously rapid increase, in the number of obedient, docile men.
It seems to me that this is a true and timely warning. It might serve as a text for a general appeal to American youth to adopt and practice the great and urgent virtues of Holy Disobedience, non-conformity, resistance toward Conscription, Regimentation, and War. For the present I want to use Bernanos’ words as an introduction to some observations on the discussion regarding the absolute and relative role of these “virtues” which goes on chiefly among pacifists, members of the Historic Peace Churches and other such groups. I think it will be readily apparent, however, that the principles set forth have a wider bearing and merit consideration by all who are concerned about the maintenance of freedom in our time and the abolition of war.
Most believers in democracy and all pacifists begin, of course, with an area of agreement as to the moral necessity, the validity and the possible social value of No-saying or Holy Disobedience. Pacifists and/or conscientious objectors all draw the line at engaging in military combat and most of us indeed at any kind of service in the armed forces. But immediately thereupon questions arise as to whether we should not emphasize “positive and constructive service” rather than the “negative” of refusal to fight or to register; or questions about the relative importance of “resistance” and “reconciliation,” and so on. It is to this discussion that I wish to attempt a contribution.
It may be that it will be most useful both to young men of draft age and to other readers if we concentrate largely on the quite concrete problem of whether the former should register, conform to other requirements of the Selective Service Act which apply to conscientious objectors and accept or submit to the alternative service required of them under the law as amended in June, 1951; or whether they shall refuse to register, or if they do register or are “automatically” registered by the authorities, shall refuse to conform at the next stage; and in any event refuse to render any alternative service under conscription. We deal, in other words, with the question whether young men who are eligible for it shall accept the IV-E classification or take the more “absolutist,” non-registrant position. (For present purposes, consideration of the I-A-O position, the designation used for draftees who are willing to accept service in the armed forces provided this is non-combatant in character, may be omitted. The IV-E classification is the designation used for persons who are on grounds of religious training and belief opposed to participation in any war. Those who are given this classification are required to render alternative service, outside the armed forces and under civilian auspices, and designed to serve “the health, safety and interest of the United States.”)
Two preliminary observations are probably necessary in order to avoid misunderstanding. In the first place, in every social movement there are varied trends or emphases, and methods of working. Those who hold to one approach are likely to be very critical of those who take another. Disagreements among those within the same movement may be more intense or even bitter than with those on the outside. I suppose it can hardly be denied that every movement has in it individuals whose contribution is negative, and that such individuals do not all come from within one wing of the movement. Objective evaluation also leads to the view that the cause is forwarded by various methods and through the agency of diverse individuals and groups. But this does not mean that discussion within the movement of trends and methods of work is not useful and essential. Even if it were true that each of several strategies was equally valid and useful, it would still be necessary that each be clearly and vigorously presented and implemented in order that the movement might develop its maximum impact.
Secondly, in what I shall have to say I am not passing moral judgment on individual draftees. But from the fact that a pacifist minister should not pass moral condemnation on the young man in his congregation who in obedience to his conscience enlists or submits to conscription, we do not deduce that this minister should abandon his pacifism or cease to witness to it. Similarly, the fact that in the pacifist movement we support various types of COs in following the lead of conscience does not rule out discussion as to the validity and usefulness of various strategies. It is one thing for a young and immature draftee to follow a course which amounts to “making the best of a bad business” and for others to give him sympathetic understanding and help. It is a very different thing for pacifist organizations or churches to advocate such a course or to rationalize it into something other than it really is.
As some of the readers of this statement are likely to be aware, the writer has advocated the non-registrant position. The majority in the pacifist movement probably believe that it is preferable for COs to accept or submit to the alternative civilian service which was required under the World War II Selective Service Act and is now again required under “peacetime conscription.”
The varied considerations and arguments which currently enter into the discussion of this choice confronting the youth of draft age tend, as I see it, to fall into three categories, though there is a good deal of overlapping. One set of considerations may be said to center largely around the idea of Christian or human “vocation”; a second set has to do with the problem of “the immature 18-year-old”; the third with the relation of the pacifist and citizens generally to military conscription and the modern Power-State. The argument for accepting alternative service, under the first category, has been stated somewhat as follows:
God calls us to love and serve our fellowmen. This is for Christians and other pacifists a matter of vocation. If, then, the government in war time, or under peace time conscription, requires some service of mercy or construction from us, which is not obviously and directly a part of war-making, we will raise no objection to undertaking such work. We may even seek, and shall certainly be grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate our desire to be good citizens and helpful members of society, and to show a reconciling spirit.
This question of the meaning and implications of Christian or human vocation in the context of military conscription clearly needs careful analysis.