SLEEPER: Schell’s legacy

Although I know that he didn’t think of himself this way, the writer Jonathan Schell, who taught courses at Yale on non-violence and nuclear arms through 2012 and who died Tuesday night, at 70, of cancer, in his home in Brooklyn, was a luminous, noble bearer of an American civic-republican tradition that is inherently cosmopolitan and embracing.

He strengthened that two-way bridge, between republican commitments and cosmopolitan openings, not because bridge-building was his project, but because he himself was that bridge.

From his work as a correspondent for The New Yorker in the Vietnam War through his rigorous manifesto for nuclear disarmament in “The Fate of the Earth,” his magisterial re-thinking of state power and people’s power in “The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People,” and his wry, rigorous assessments of politics for The Nation, Jonathan showed how varied peoples’ democratic aspirations might lead them to address shared global challenges.

Yet he also carried an American, WASP cultural sensibility — about which he was humorously self-deprecating — into the dawn of a transracial, global civil society he was helping us to envision and understand.

So doing, he set a strong counter-example, perhaps especially for Yalies, of how to challenge established power and its premises, not by railing against the privileged and their emulators but by showing them how to live up to something better and to help make it happen.

Perhaps because he was always respectful, even diffident, toward everyone he met, he immediately saw through the kinds of power that subtly encourage and train you to believe that naked emperors have clothes and even to rush to supply the missing drapery, as some Yalies do when they flock to serve the powerful.

Jonathan taught instead that power flows ultimately not from the daunting, the dazzling or the wealthy, but from seemingly powerless people who stop obeying and reconfigure their lives together without “permission” or certification or reward from above.

He explained why practicing non-violent but coercive non-cooperation is hard but effective. He showed how others have done it and how they’ve borne the inevitable costs of doing so. When he and I worked at Newsday in the early 1990s, and a writer we knew there was fretting about not getting a book award he’d been assured was coming, Jonathan said impishly, “Well, most awards are really just a society’s way of petting you on the head and certifying that you’ve been tamed.”

It’s not recognition by the powerful that counts, in other words, but courage and skill to reconfigure power itself against what’s “recognized.” Jonathan knew that a liberal education nourishes this by interrogating things as they are, not by rushing to facilitate them.

His “The Unconquerable World” shows, historically and philosophically, how unarmed, marginalized people have brought down vast empires and national-security states — from British India and the regimes of segregation in the American South and South Africa to Soviet Eastern Europe.

He also shows how would-be tyrants nevertheless keep rushing to dominate others “with refreshed ignorance,” only to founder as they grasp for strength and security in the wrong stockpiles and protocols.

Jonathan insisted that a state that floods its streets with soldiers and police and scrambles to shut down or censor its communications is only displaying its impotence. He noted that although “sophisticates” dismiss democratic yearnings for candor and equality as impractical, those yearnings are irrepressible. When impoverished black churchgoers, naïve, unarmed and trembling, walked into silent Southern squares ringed by armed men, they shamed segregationists by crediting them with some dignity and good intentions even while exposing their shortcomings.

Jonathan understood what brave artistry that requires. He understood — and he could himself have delivered — the invocation that Yale’s chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. gave at my own commencement here in 1969: “Help us to free the oppressed in such a way that the oppressor, too, is freed.”

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science. Contact him at james.sleeper@yale.edu .

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