Jody Williams’ new book is called My Name Is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize, and it’s a remarkable story by a remarkable person. It’s also a very well-told autobiography, including in the early childhood chapters in which there are few hints of the activism to come.
One could read this book and come away thinking “Anyone really could win the Nobel Peace Prize,” if people in fact told their children they could do that instead of telling them they could be president, and if one was thinking of Nobel peace laureates as saintly beings. In a certain sense, of course, anyone can win the Nobel Peace Prize, as it’s often given to good people who have nothing to do with peace, and at other times it’s given to warmongers. To win the Nobel Peace Prize and deserve it, as Williams did — that’s another story. That requires, not saintliness, but activism.
Activism is usually 99% perspiration and the dedication that drives it, just like genius. But in the case of the Nobel Peace Prize, and of the sort of rapid success it honors when applied in accordance with Alfred Nobel’s will, the perspiration is 49%. The other 50% is timing. The activists who recruited Williams to lead the campaign to ban landmines had the timing perfect. Williams tapped into something powerful. She orchestrated some initial successes, communicated the viability and importance of the project, worked night and day, and watched many other people, in many countries, throw themselves into the campaign in a manner that people only do when they believe something will dramatically and rapidly improve the world.
How does one pick the right issue at the right time? Following the example of the land mine campaign, one must pick a topic on which the rest of the world can do some good without the participation of the U.S. government, and in fact succeed despite fierce opposition from the U.S. government, and then drag the U.S. government along, kicking and screaming, once the rest of the world has moved forward.
What strikes me most about the first half or so of Williams’ book is how hard we always make it for anyone who wants to work for a better world to find appropriate employment. We dump billions into recruiting young people into the military or into business careers. Imagine if young people had to find those paths on their own. Imagine if television ads and video games and movies and spectacles at big sporting events were all used to recruit young people into nonviolent activism for peace or justice. Williams and many others could have found their way more quickly.
Williams argued with her father over the U.S. war on Vietnam. He began to come around with the exposure of the Gulf of Tonkin incident as fictional, and with the looming threat of a son being drafted — and no doubt also as a result of Williams’ persuasiveness.
What got Williams into full-time paid activism, years later, was a flyer handed to her at a Washington, D.C., metro stop. The headline read: “El Salvador: Another Vietnam?” Eventually, Williams found herself engaged in activist work that “didn’t feel like work.” I take this to mean that for something to “feel like work” it needed to be a waste of time. Activism, of course, is not. Think about what sort of society we have constructed in which the norm is uselessness.
Finding activism does not, of course, mean finding an easy life. It means sacrifice and risk, but fulfilling sacrifice and risk. Williams risked death and injury in Central America and suffered, among other things, rape. Years later she publicly told that story before an audience of 2,000 as part of The Vagina Monologues. “I felt it was time to use the example to tell women they didn’t have to let horrible experiences ruin their lives. I didn’t let it ruin mine.” She didn’t let all sorts of other horrible experiences stop her either.
Once Williams had begun organizing the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), success began coming much more rapidly than she expected. Resistance grew right along with it. Landmines don’t kill people, governments said, people kill people. The United States was the worst, proposing to use “smart landmines” that would switch off when wars ended, thus killing the right people but not the wrong ones, killing soldiers but not farmers and children. Williams recounts the way she cursed at and denounced a U.S. diplomat who was trying to persuade her of the merits of “smart landmines.” Williams didn’t find peace “in her heart” or in her personal interactions in order to advance peace in the world. She advanced peace in the world through passion, and through smart strategy. The people of the world were not prepared to get passionate about working for a ban on dumb landmines. A campaign to ban dumb landmines would have resulted in nothing at all.
Williams gave not an inch in response to then-President Bill Clinton’s speeches against landmines, which accompanied his policy in fierce defense of landmines. “Soaring rhetoric does nothing to save lives,” she remarked — a piece of advice of potentially endless value to supporters of President Obama’s speeches against his own policies.
Campaigns against landmines developed, with Williams’ help, in many countries. In Italy, activists forced the issue into the media and moved the minister of defense to support a ban. They also convinced the trade unions whose members produced landmines for a living to support a ban. Williams participated in a long march to a factory town, where four women workers held up a banner that said “We will not feed our children by making landmines that kill other people’s children.” Imagine creating a culture in the United States in which people took that step in significant numbers! Maybe it’s starting.
The ICBL combined diplomacy with activist pressure. At a meeting with government officials in Geneva, campaigners arranged to have the sound of a landmine explosion projected every 20 minutes, and a counter display the rising count of victims around the world (one every 20 minutes). Photos of victims were displayed. Ads and stickers were everywhere. In France and Austria, campaigners delivered piles of empty shoes to prominent locations. In some African nations, the ICBL helped develop an activist civil society where there hadn’t been one.
Williams had to deal with all the usual divisions that arise in a movement. Some objected to the cost of meetings when money was needed for the “real work” of removing landmines. “They somehow managed to avoid understanding that, without the pressure generated by meetings, there would have been little interest in putting up money for mine clearance at all.”
In 1996, Canada took the lead in proposing to sign a treaty banning landmines in 1997. Nation after nation committed. But the United States went to incredible lengths to try to sabotage the process. At a meeting in Oslo, activists arranged for diplomats to enter the building through a simulated mine field, and to confront landmine victims when they’d made it in. Pressure was building in the right direction, but “the degree and crudeness of U.S. bullying was hard to fathom.”
Williams built momentum for a very clear demand: “no loopholes, no exceptions, and no reservations.” But the United States strong-armed nations and just about turned Canada against its own initiative. The ICBL began calling Canada the 51st state. Props mocked Canada even as pro-ban Canadian diplomats passed by. “What the fuck is your government doing?” Williams demanded of a Canadian official. “You started all this! If Canada caves, we will publicly fry your foreign minister.”
Then came the Nobel Peace Prize, and Williams famously calling President Clinton a weenie for refusing to support the ban. It was a peace prize that actually helped a movement, and a peace prize whose recipient responded appropriately, rededicating herself to peace.
Then came the treaty to ban landmines. Then came virtually complete compliance with it, including by the United States which has still not signed on.
In her Nobel speech, Williams said this was the first time the leaders of governments had heeded a public demand. That is, of course, not true. Exceptions include August 27, 1928, when the nations of the world banned war. But such an occurrence is very rare, and the question is how to make it happen again. Blinding laser weapons were banned in 1996, and cluster bombs in 2008.
There is a movement now forming to try to ban autonomous drones. There’s a parallel there to landmines, if one thinks of both as killing without human discretion. Yet, the family visited by hellfire missiles simply will not care whether a human pressed the button. And the revulsion those living under the drones feel in particular toward unmanned airplanes hardly has room to expand should those drones become autonomous. Drone murders already look like murders, even to many Americans, in a way in which much killing in war does not. Why, I wonder, shouldn’t the movement be to ban weaponized drones?
Or should the movement perhaps be to enforce the ban on war? Perhaps somehow partial movements against elements of war should begin advancing an understanding of total abolition along the way. A movement to ban military bases in foreign nations, for example, could be pursued with a fundamentally anti-war philosophy. In any case, we can certainly learn about the best way forward by picking up Williams’ book and engaging in a little of that practice that President Obama so despises: looking backwards.
Photo by Justin Hoch under Creative Commons license