In the last 3459 years only 268 were without war. As Mark Kurlanksy tells Brian Donaldson, this fact drove him onto his next book, with the Dalai Lama in tow
It’s the afternoon of the US midterm elections with writer and journalist Mark Kurlansky having already performed his democratic duty. As the repercussions have shown, the Republican defeat was seen as a massive vote of no-confidence in the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld war of terror in Iraq and a sign that non-violent means are often a more sensible method of bringing about change than smart bombs. ‘And now they’re going to kill Saddam Hussein; what’s that going to do? It just means one more dead Iraqi,’ Kurlanksy tells me on the phone from his New York office.
In his conclusion to Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, he records his belief that the move away from military action in resolving conflicts may be coming. ‘I’m not especially optimistic that I will see it happening in my lifetime, but I can still imagine a scenario where it would,’ he notes. ‘If you look at Europe, a continent where historically everyone has tried to blow everyone else up, it’s now unthinkable that the Germans and the French would start killing each other.’
In the book, Kurlansky tells how the religious texts of Judaism, Islam and Christianity have all been perverted from their original meanings to fit in with the fierce powers which states have chosen to wield at any given opportunity. It seems a no-brainer that any publication which contains the phrase ‘thou shalt not kill’ should ever be used as propaganda for warfare. ‘There’s this linguistic thing that it doesn’t actually say “thou shalt not kill”, that it says “thou shalt not murder”; but murder is a legal distinction which probably wouldn’t have been made back then.’
Moving through the ages, Kurlansky shows how every time soldiers or troops or terrorists have been mobilised into action, a converse movement rises up to oppose the ritual slaughter. From the Quakers to Maori leaders and onto figures such as slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, the call to arms has meant a hug for the enemy rather than a bullet to the skull. To aid his cause, Kurlansky sought out the help of the Dalai Lama to write his introduction. ‘It was all done through email so I didn’t have to go to the mountains to get him,’ he recalls. ‘It was just a question of getting the book to him and luckily he liked it and wrote this thing for me.’
Kurlansky’s literary trip to the world of the pacifist has been a thoroughly idiosyncratic one. Having been a professional chef and pastry-maker in New England, he lived for periods in Mexico and Paris writing for the likes of Harper’s and The International Herald Tribune. And while he has written an acclaimed book of short stories, The White Man in the Tree, it’s his non-fiction which has earned him most publicity with books about cod (subtitled A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World), salt (A World History) and 1968 (The Year that Rocked the World) under his belt. Not your average bunch of topics for tomes. ‘None of those subjects seemed odd until people started asking me that question. Maybe my mind just works in odd ways.’
Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea is published by Jonathan Cape on Tue 28 Nov.