The Montebello Project: a Marker Down for Peace

The “art of peace” in a time of war — a play on Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War — was the bait and theme of three days of conversation at the end of June in the biggest log cabin you ever imagined, the Chateau Montebello in the ageless wilds of Quebec. This was my introduction to the final wrap-up session with James Der Derian of the Watson Instutute at Brown, co-host of the conference with Watson visiting fellow Nisha Shah; the extraordinary school teacher John Hunter of the World Peace Game from Charlottesville, Virginia; novelist Sandra Cisneros of The House on Mango Street; and Stephen Del Rosso of the Carnegie Corporation.

War is Us. We bring with us, even to Montebello, William James’ pair of paradoxes. First, that war, the bane of the species, also chose us. “The survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring,” as James put it. “Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us.” And second, more pointedly for us who choose to reflect ruefully on war, “Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect,” James wrote in his great speech at Stanford in 1906, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” “The horror makes the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show.”

Or is it so? A century after William James, his lineal descendant in “brain science” and Harvard celebrity Steven Pinker shocks himself with the conclusion: “today we are living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.” No matter that World Wars I and II, and Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, are part of that American century since James, Pinker writes: “Something in modernity and its cultural institutions have made us nobler.”

In a farewell conversation we will be attempting a tight fit of the conference’s contradictions, touching again on art and science in the service of peace and war, testing our broadest guesses about where history, too, is driving us. “History is a bucket of blood,” William James said. But if, as Pinker demurs, modern history is leading us out of the pit, it would be valuable, as he says, to have some better ideas: why? and how?

And this was James Der Derian’s summing up and takeaway message when the conference was almost over:

Violence and war are the means by which a very ruthless minority impose their will on a passive majority. What’s changed is the passivity no longer exists. The sleeping giant’s been poked one too many times. The fact that non-violence was the means by which the passive many chose to resist and overthrow that ruthless few [in the Arab Revolt that began in Tunisia and Egypt] is part of the reason why we held this event. I don’t know if it’s the Zeitgeist, if it’s some Mayan prophecy, or if it is simply the end of the Long War that was the term used for post 9-11 conflict, but I think we are at a moment where if you get a language, if you get a passion, and if you get the means to spread the message, the natural will of the people to overthrow that type of domination will be served. As facilitators of that, we do — by our ability to mobilize a lot of heavy-duty intellectual firepower with some image-making capacity — have some small impact. Scholars are often lagging behind the latest idea or the latest movement’s purpose and goals. But I like to believe, to the extent that Civil Society and the State coexist and need to recalibrate, that there is a new networked capacity that did not exist at the time when Hegel and others first posed the idea of Civil Society being prior to the unified democratic state…

I’ve studied War for twenty years and I think one of the reasons we chose “The Art of Peace” as opposed to “The Art of War” is because we’re witnessing something, and it’s no longer as ridiculous as it might have sounded. It’s easy for people who didn’t live through the Sixties to misinterpret that history. But this was a time when people did come together. They might not have levitated the Pentagon, as they tried to, but they did a pretty good job stopping the war.

I’m a Utopian Realist. I think that you have to have these aspirations, but you have to be totally realistic about cost and benefits. What I’m really saddened by is that the visions we’ve had in the past, visions in the past for the future, have been bankrupted. The Soviet Union bankrupted a vision of peace. We’ve seen a vision of peace coming out of the Enlightenment tradition bankrupted, hijacked, by humanitarian hawks, by the people who thought you had to bomb for peace. So I think it is the right moment to subject ourselves, or be willing to be subject to ridicule; not take ourselves too seriously, but at the same time not allow a little laughter at us or a little laughter among us to stop us from pursuing this goal.

Related Content

  • A few comments germane to the current ROS peace discussion:

    1. Charles Tilly wrote somewhere:

    “War made states and states make war.”

    In other words, states (‘the cruelest of all monsters”) are to some extent born as violent organizations and organized violence.

    2. A pessimistic character in Vasily Grossman’s novel, “Forever Flowing” (you know Grossman perhaps from “Life and Fate” and the Frederick Wiseman play derived from it) says:

    “There is no such thing as historical development. History is a molecular process. The human being is equal to himself. Nothing can be done with him. There is no progress. And the law in all this is very simple—the law of the conservation of violence. It is as simple as the law of the conservation of energy. Violence is eternal, no matter what is done to destroy it. It will not disappear and it will not diminish but will only be transformed….it moves from continent to continent, and sometimes it takes a class form and then is transformed into a racial form….the eternal transformation of one form of violence into another…” (Vasily Grossman, “Life and Fate”, Harper and Row Perennial, 1972, paperback)

    “Grossman began writing this book in 1955, two years after Stalin died. It was completed one year before the author’s death in 1964, but was not published until 1970. Framed as a novel, and written with great tenderness, “Forever Flowing” is primarily a history of the horrors of the Soviet state before, during, and after its Stalinist phase.
    Grossman’s chapters recounting the huge famine of 1932, which was a government-enforced starvation of millions, particularly in the Ukraine, are matchlessly brilliant and profoundly moving. The entire novel is a tribute to human freedom. It also reflects the great courage of its author. “Forever Flowing” will become more widely read as time passes, and will become increasingly recognized as one of the greatest books of the 20th century.”


    3. Is Montebello Project a kind of Pugwash II, or the soulcraft that would allow Pugwash II?

  • nother

    Maybe my problem is with the word, “peace.” I hear that word and I hear “boooring,” I hear status quo, I hear don’t make any waves. Shhh can we get some peace and quiet around here, someones trying to rest.

    I totally admire the conference but personally I think war vs. peace is a faulty question? To fight or not to fight? No, for me it’s who will you fight for? Will you fight for the man who has no arms? Will you fight for equality?

    “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” ~Fight Club

    Marginalized globally by an income gap that is growing exponentially and people are pissed.

    The mission as I see it is not to preach peace to the marginalized it’s to redirect their angst. To convince the Catholics and Protestants that their enemies are not in pubs but in banks. To convince our disenchanted suburban youth that brand names are false and hollow idols. To convince the quiet sheep that earnest expression is “the strong life,” and that living your principles is a life in the “extremis.” Passion in your principles, love making, dancing, and debates, will be the enemy of Ennui.

  • nother

    “Peace” as Horace Silver sees it:

    • tester

      The mission as I see it is not to preach peace to the marginalized it’s to redirect their angst. To convince the Catholics and Protestants that their enemies are not in pubs but in banks. To convince our disenchanted suburban youth that brand names are false and hollow idols. To convince the quiet sheep that earnest expression is “the strong life,” and that living your principles is a life in the “extremis.” Passion in your principles, love making, dancing, and debates, will be the enemy of Ennui.

      • tester23

        principles, love making, dancing, and debates, will be the enemy of Ennui.

  • Potter

    I don’t think we will ever eradicate war anymore than we can eradicate anger. Empathy is an antidote. I think it’s the main ingredient missing in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It’s what prevents the solution. That is, the inability to let go of one’s own position and the emotions attached to put oneself in the other side’s place long enough to understand it at least and then maybe feel it.

    The 60’s was mentioned- I remember the “Love-in’s” and the “Be-in’s”. We don’t have that now. That spirit seems gone. A lot had to do with the drugs we took- LSD-and other mind altering drugs and transcendental meditation and such. These out of body experiences brought certainty about “we are one”… all of us.

    Also smoking marijuana made folks introspective and stimulated the senses made folks less-agressive. And, maybe, the resurgence of vegetarianism helped too. Some say that eating meat makes us aggressive. I think that this is as much about human chemistry as culture.

    That period seems over as a more mass movement. We have our pockets left here and there- and there are individuals that carry this deep knowledge in them. It did not hit the governing class much it seems. We elected presidents who never “turned on” and if they did and we found out about it, it was a shame- made into a negative. Clinton did turn on a bit though– but he had to say he never inhaled- or whatever he said.

    It’s not so simple- but maybe kids can be trained from an early age to have empathy. But then how would they deal with those kids who don’t have it– and on up to adulthood and the world stage how do peaceful nations deal with those that are defiantly aggressively not? How does a peaceful person deal with others who are not and who take peacefulness as weakness and then take advantage?

    But in the case of the Israeli Palestinian situation I do believe that non-violent protest will win the day. All these years have not been for naught. Violence, it has been proved, only hurt and set back the just causes. What hurts is that people die, innocent and peaceful people lose their lives in this very rough world where lesson are learned the hard way and not in unison.

  • War’s an international business for too long. Study and exposure of who is making all the money off the whole war/army/navy/air force business. Investors and shareholders who make their steady pay from war related businesses, who can expect them to to give it up? Who are these war profiteers? Make war and conflict profiteering participants the news evil people that they ARE! – 22 thousand dollar a year citizen, Pittsburgh, PA.