On A. J. Muste

There is a remarkable photograph of A. J. Muste, a tight-lipped old man, climbing over the fence at a missile base in Nebraska, with two burly Air Police waiting to arrest him, and a reporter with open mouth, blabbing away. It is a staged public ritual in high Byzantine style. Presumably, since we see the backs of the police, the news photographer is inside the compound where Muste, however, will be arrested for trespassing. The scene is blocked somewhat like Greek drama with a central sacrificial hero, but it is not even emotionally real, because of the on-stage presence of the reporter. It is “alienated” Epic Theater, as Brecht called it. The symbolic idea of it all is that A. J. Muste is obstructing the destruction of the world by nuclear bombs.

Of course, in an important sense, the pacifist is here more for real than the soldiers and certainly than the reporter. It is self-contradictory for the soldiers and their scientists to be bent on such vast or total destruction for any of the political or moral reasons that are alleged; and what the reporter is doing is quite ethereal. Whereas Muste is at least making one normal response to danger—either stop them or run away—and it will be a somewhat real jail. Yet in the objective situation his behavior is symbolical and infantile-magical. When the picture is taken, there is no atomic war going on. If and when there will be a war, any opposing action will be too late, so Muste makes logical sense. But average people seem to find it impossible to think through this obvious logic and to respond to anything but immediate perceptible catastrophe; indeed, they are busy by the millions, all over the world, in preparing the catastrophe. Thus, the direct pacifist action—“you are putting me in mortal danger; I try in every way, including with my body, my rowboat, my sailboat, to forestall you”—is prima facie reasonable but it has no social credibility. To the extent that such action is a personal Bearing Witness, declaring, “I must do this in order to live on without guilt,” it could have a certain reality. But since A. J. is rather calculatingly political, the photograph lacks also this kind of passion; it is Byzantine rather than a martyr-play.

A new book on Muste that Nat Hentoff is preparing, to be published by The New Yorker and as a book in January by Macmillan, has the paradoxical title, Peace Agitator, and this expresses the same objective dilemma. Muste cannot fight for peace in a concrete conflict—as, for example, he fought (non-violently) on labor picketlines in the Twenties, when the police also were not taking part in staged scenes. He must first, from outside, intervene in a smoothly going concern and agitate, create a factitious conflict, arousing people to their own advantage when they couldn’t care less. We Jews call it hocking a tchainik, banging on an empty tea-kettle. It is a thankless occupation. Ordinarily one could…

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