Category: Dustin Howes

Dustin Howes (2)

I have been debating most of today as to whether I should publish this email exchange between me and Dustin from about 12 days ago.  And now have decided to do so.

In response to the New Year’s letter that Dustin sent to a group of his friends and family members, I wrote the following note to him on January 10th.

Dear Dustin:
Thank you very much for your letter.  I am going to be presumptuous here and respond in ways to which I am not entitled.  But I thought you might be interested in my response to what you have to say.
My first thought was “what does happiness have to do with it”?  And that led me to these thoughts.  It seems to me that what you want for yourself is the full experience of having lived (even with the awful cards you have been dealt) and (this second part is crucial) of being able to record that experience.  You are a writer.  (Yes, you are a father, a teacher, an academic, etc. as well.) But you are most decidedly a writer.  Experience doesn’t really count for you unless you can record it as well.  You have always lived as someone who intends to drink life to the dregs.  And what defines your current will to live, to keep living even under these conditions, is your ability to still reflect upon, still record in words, your experiences.  As long as you can do that, you are alive.  And why would you not want to be alive?  No reason at all.
Of course, the ongoing relationship with your children is also primary.  What is presumptuous here is my speaking for your motives.  But, as I said, I thought you might find my reaction something to chew on–while you can ignore it completely if it is off base.
I am assuming there is physical fear.  Certainly, in your shoes, I would be feeling a lot of physical fear.  But what I admire is your mental courage, your determination to be true to your capacities for thought, reflection, for (essentially) consciousness.  You are determined to be fully present to your life, to see it straight, and to record what you see.  That strikes me as the right way to be in your circumstances–and as tremendously admirable because so hard to do.  May the force be with you.  And do call on me–as you call on your various friends and family–to do what we can to make you remain true to your hard and admirable choice.
With love,
To which Dustin replied a few hours later:

The thought  “what does happiness have to do with it”?   has for some reason had me smiling on and off all day


Dustin Howes

I learned early this morning that Dustin Howes has died.  Dustin had been fighting ALS these past three plus years–with his characteristic energy and zest for life.  Somehow, while very ill, he completed Freedom without Violence, while also writing extensively about his illness and keeping up a voluminous email correspondence with his friends (who were legion).  No one who knew him could forget Dustin’s broad smile and his way of striding into a room as if its walls would have to burst to contain all his energy.  He gave himself without reserve to all the things he loved.  And he cared passionately about creating a better world than the one we currently inhabit.  His continual mediation on the problem of violence and his desire to craft, in his terms, “a credible pacifism” have influenced my thinking and my politics profoundly.  I am sure there are many others who would say the same.  He was looking forward to continuing the dialogue we had been conducting on this blog–just one sign of how he was engaged intellectually to the very end.  He was equally dedicated to maintaining his ties to family and friends. All the instruments agree; it is a sad day.

Seeing the History of Human Freedom (Dustin Howes’s Second Post)

Here is Dustin Howes’s second post:

In this post I will address the historical arguments John forwards in his posts Defending Freedom and Collective Self-Rule.

Anthony Parel once remarked that Gandhi had been “taken over by nonviolence,” a striking point about our inability to see the full measure of his political thought. Similarly, nonviolence has been overtaken by the Indian Independence movement and the American Civil rights movement, obscuring our ability to see the full measure of its historical significance. I discuss both but place them in the context of larger trends. To do otherwise distorts our understanding of how political power has been exercised more generally. My argument in the book is that it has largely obscured the struggles that have gained freedom for many millions of people.

The three pillars of the nonviolent movement for freedom over the last two centuries are the abolitionist, women’s rights, and prodemocracy movements. The worldwide abolitionist movement was almost entirely nonviolent and indeed central to innovating the concept of what was then called nonresistance. I discuss the two important exceptions of the Haitian revolution and the American Civil War, but the organized efforts of committed, creative, relentless nonviolent activists is what brought an end to the most lucrative slave system in the history of the world. These activists succeeded in making slavery a signature moral evil and for the first time in history making it illegal everywhere. The women’s rights movement was born from women participating in abolition. With similar techniques and new innovations, feminists continue a worldwide struggle that achieved astonishing results. Without a single violent revolution, the women’s movement has already advanced freedom for more people than all the violent revolutions combined. Finally, prodemocracy, people power movements have toppled some of the most brutal regimes of the past century. The Velvet revolutions and the Arab Spring are perhaps the most prominent examples, but from Bosnia to Chile to the Philippines to South Africa nonviolence has spread democracy more effectively than violence. A potential fourth pillar is the labor movement, which I discuss extensively but has a complicated relationship to violence and nonviolence.

John asks if the organizations of voluntary collective self-rule that are the lifeblood of power require states that nourish them or at least allow them to exist. The answer is clearly no. In fact, they can form in the face of the most brutal attempts to stomp them out. They also transcend state boundaries and transform states. Regimes, laws, structures, armies, have all proven to be malleable to nonviolence, which is just to say the exercise of power by people without violence.

I discuss the Civil War in the book, but to address John’s point directly. The idea that the alternative to war was ” waiting” for the slaves to be free is strange and ahistorical. The reason the South seceded is because abolitionists were succeeding. The underground railroad in combination with making the international slave trade illegal, put tremendous pressure on the Southern economy. The idea that the Civil War accelerated the end of slavery is certainly the conventional wisdom, but half a million people dead, abolition the world over without violence, and the horrors of the post reconstruction backlash should give us pause.

Without reiterating the details of the first two chapters, I feel compelled to underscore some of the main points when it comes to the history of slavery. The Haitian revolution is the only successful large scale slave rebellion in the history of the world. Even uprisings of tens of thousands of people had all failed. Freeing the slaves of one’s opponents in warfare is a common occurrence historically and the American Civil War is another example of that. But none of the previous examples were part of a movement to make slavery itself illegal. The idea of ending slavery and the political process of passing the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments ended slavery as much as the war. Both were unimaginable until abolitionists articulated and struggled for them.

Without reiterating the details of the argument I make in my first book, I want to underscore some of the main points as they link up with the new one. John asks if Britain “was wrong to fight the Nazis.” My argument is not that all violence is unjust. Nor do I argue that violence is always ineffective. Instead, I stipulate that violence can be just and politically effective. My argument is that nonviolence shows that violence is never necessary. This is a consequence of freedom and also means that violence, even if politically effective, cannot ultimately forward the particular cause of human freedom. If there is a tragic aspect to the history of freedom, it lies in the quixotic efforts to achieve freedom with violence because it appears violence is the only option. In fact, it never is. As John reminds us in another post, the Nazis were fighting for freedom too.

Self-Sufficiency (by Dustin Ells Howes)




Here’s is Dustin Howes’s first response to my thoughts on his book.  More to come, as I will also continue my posts on the book–and will respond to his comments when I feel moved to do so. (Dustin’s comments here connect to the post: Freedom without Violence). This first response seems to me not to call for any comments from me; it very clearly lays out a key argument of Dustin’s book and what is at stake:


The two figures I draw upon to understand the roots of the idea that violence expresses freedom are Pericles and Aristotle. Pericles argues in his famous funeral oration that Athenians are distinguished from others by their capacity for politics. The fact that they decide together what to do and know how to rule themselves makes Athenian men free. The highest expression of this freedom is the courage they display in warfare. When the Athenians lost the Peloponessian war, philosophers and women called the connection between freedom and violence into question. Aristotle is a nuanced reactionary to these critics, who attempts to resuscitate the freedom violence connection without celebrating empire for its own sake.

What I had not realized until John raised the issue is how this is baked into Aristotle’s definition of the polis. Aristotle says that what distinguishes a city-state from a family or a village is a word usually translated as self-sufficiency. To be clear, the “self” here cannot refer to the individual. Indeed, one way to interpret his argument is that freedom is only possible with the company of a certain number of people. Freedom and politics proper are collective. The only way to be free of dependency is to come together with others to exercise our uniquely human capacity for talking about and ruling with justice. This is contrasted with and requires the dependency of slaves and women, who are ruled by free men. The horizontal relationship  among a collective of equals is founded upon a vertical relationship between the free and enslaved largely defined by violence. As John mentions, most slaves were women and most were acquired in warfare.

Democratic freedom as collective self-sufficiency underwritten by violence that subdues the unfree is both familiar and unfamiliar in our time and the past century. Nationalism and socialism both assert a brand of collective freedom often expressed through violence. Independence and secessionist insurgencies all over the world assert that collective freedom requires a particular collective be unhampered by association with others.

Yet in the Anglo-American context, the idea of collective freedom is complicated by an individualistic understanding of self-sufficiency. In the book, I place the liberal individual squarely within a tradition that claims violence is only legitimate in the defense of freedom. Every individual has the ability to enforce the natural law, which reason tells us demands the preservation of life and liberty. The dynamic John describes where individuals find the actions of others frustrating and the potential for eliminating or dominating them liberating, is one liberals reject in theory. For thinkers like Locke for instance, any reasonable person will recognize the rights of others. However, not everyone is reasonable, some will take license (Locke refuses to call it liberty) and this is when violence becomes necessary. We might say that liberal individuals must defend liberty from those who mistakenly believe it can be expressed through violence.

But in practice, the figure of the self-sufficient individual is so wedded to his enforcement powers, that it is hard to imagine his identity without them. The sources informing the figure I have in mind are many, it may not even be one figure, and is almost exclusively masculine. The individual in the state of nature cultivating and defending his property, the republican militia man defending his free state, the frontiersman who survives with his wits and his musket, the cowboy who draws fast but only when needed, the cop who is tough but fair, the homeowner who stands ready to defend his family. The line between violence as expressing freedom and violence as defending freedom is blurry in these archetypes. Some also blur the line between individual and collective self-sufficiency. The militia man is part of a militia, the cop represents the state. In just war theory, states themselves become liberal individuals in relation to other states. Historically, certainly in the American context, rugged individualism and the free state have been set against the dependency and unreasonableness of savages, women, slaves and foreigners. So self-sufficiency does a tremendous amount of work here.

Our first response from the perspective of nonviolence might be to challenge the very notion of self-sufficiency and point to the undeniable interdependence of human beings. The purveyors of violence may wish to stand alone but they will need the help of others, and in particular, find that how others respond to their violence will largely determine its impact. This holds true for the violence of peoples or individuals.

But even while emphasizing our interdependence, advocates of nonviolence are keen to offer a quite different vision of self-sufficiency. Gandhi in particular argues that every single individual is capable of creative nonviolence and self-rule. Self-sufficiency and swaraj involve confronting violence and having the discipline to refrain from violence but encompass a great deal more as well. The spinning wheel as the symbol of independence and the centrality of home spun cloth to the movement are the most prominent examples but the entire system of cottage industries Gandhi sought to promote was inflected with the idea that individuals, villages, and nations ought to be self-sufficient.

Gandhi challenges the presumption that human need stands opposed to freedom. The labors of the ashram could be performed in conjunction with politics. He would sometimes spin while hosting prominent dignitaries. His public experiments with the mortification of his body and his glorification of self-sacrifice  stand in a complicated relationship to socialism and feminism. But on this particular issue of self-sufficiency, he shares much in common with certain versions of both. He collapses public and private, individual and collective self-rule, and the labor of the household and political action. Self-sufficiency stands in stark contrast with Aristotelian patriarchy and liberal individualism. He offers a vision of freedom where interdependence is acknowledged and valued while the capacity of individuals to provide for themselves is emphasized equally. This raises issues of political organization that I will address in other responses.  (BY Dustin Ells Howes)