Why I Like Colman McCarthy

Published: December 20, 2012

By Jim Lichtman
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First of all, Colman McCarthy is funny. Every time he gets on the phone with me, he always asks, “Hey Jim, how are those orange trees doing in your backyard?”

Colman is a philosopher: “Warmaking doesn’t stop warmaking. If it did, our problems would have stopped millennia ago.”

Colman is a passionate pacifist who believes in fighting fire with… water.

“Since 1982 when I began teaching courses on pacifism and nonviolence,” Colman writes, “more than 8,000 students have been in my classes. Nearly all begin the course filled with one or more myths about pacifism – the belief – and nonviolence, the method. Too often they accept the idea that violence can stop violence, without having been exposed to the view that instead of fighting fire with fire, fight fire with water.”

I had the great pleasure (and challenge) of speaking to two of Colman’s classes when I was in Washington, DC a few years ago. Both his high school and college students were smart, engaged and when it came to discussions of ethics, they were demanding of me and each other. Chief among the “demanding” was Colman himself.

During one spirited discussion about the use of drugs in sports, Colman wanted to know why it was okay for lawmakers on Capitol Hill to use “performance enhancing” drugs like alcohol and Viagra but not okay for baseball players to use other performance enhancers on the ballfield.

The class and I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Colman of the clear difference between a banned substance and an FDA approved substance. Didn’t matter. “Performance enhancement” was performance enhancement – legal or not. However, he kept referencing Viagra so many times, I stopped the class too ask: “This seems to be important to you, Colman. Is there some personal experience with Viagra that you’d care to share with the class?”

But McCarthy’s focus on pacifism has become legendary outside the classroom, as well.

Last year, he joined a group of his high school students on the street to “protest” for peace every Friday.

“I want for my students only what I want for myself,” McCarthy says, “that at the end of every semester we all leave with more kindness in our hearts, more knowledge in our minds and more energy in our bones and muscles to go out into the world to increase peace and decrease violence.”

In order to demonstrate the point that historians focus more on warriors than peacemakers, Colman begins his semester by offering students a $100 to the first student who can explain the significance of the following six historical and political figures: Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Napoleon, Dorothy Day, Jeannette Rankin and Barbara Lee.

While the students all recognize the first three, they all scratch their heads at the last three.

Dorothy Day was a journalist and social activist who helped establish the Catholic Worker Movement, a nonviolent, pacifist movement that continues to combine direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action.

Jeannette Pickering Rankin was not only the first woman in the United States Congress, but as a lifelong pacifist, she was one of 50 members of Congress who voted against the U.S. involvement in World War I. She was also the only member to vote against declaring war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Barbara Lee was a name I did recognize from my own state of California, but was not aware that she was the only member of either house to vote against the authorization of the use of force following the attacks on 9/11. Lee has pushed for legislation for the creation of a Department of Peace.

During the course of his class, Colman likes to debunk many of the myths associated with passivism. i.e. “Pacifists are parasites who refuse to serve their country while enjoying the freedoms that soldiers died protecting.”

“In hundreds of ways and hundreds of professions,” Colman writes, “pacifists serve their country. They bravely combat disease, poverty, discrimination, ignorance, injustice and hunger. What they object to is not serving their country but those who run their country: leaders who believe they can kill their way to peace, who believe that violence can end violence. Pacifists instead side with [German-American political theorist] Hannah Arendt: ‘Violence, like all action, changes the world but the most probable change is to a more violent world.’

“The violence that pacifist oppose goes well beyond military violence. It includes domestic violence, environmental violence, racial violence, economic violence, sexual violence, legal and illegal violence, homophobic violence, corporate violence, street violence, police violence, violence to animals.”

Colman is also a good friend, supporter of this site as well as a lover of home-grown oranges.

Love you, Colman!


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