The Quiet American - New York Times
On a quiet street in an unfashionable East Boston neighborhood not far from Logan Airport lives an 84-year-old man whom dictators around the world fear and despise. On the morning I go to meet Gene Sharp, the taxi driver cannot even find his house, and there is no sign on the door to mark the building as headquarters of the Albert Einstein Institution, the nonprofit organization he founded in 1983. When I arrive, Jamila Raqib, the institution’s executive director, answers the door dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. “We want to be low-key,” she says. “And keep it that way.”
Gene Sharp, photographed in June 2012, in his office at the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston. Credit Sebastian Kim
Sharp, a former University of Massachusetts professor who has written 11 books, is widely regarded as the godfather of nonviolent revolution. His 93-page book, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” is available on the Internet in 24 languages and was as influential to would-be revolutionaries during last year’s Arab Spring as any other text. His work was reportedly taught in training workshops for Egyptian revolutionaries long before the events in Tahrir Square. And it has been used by activists in Zimbabwe, Estonia, Serbia, Vietnam, Burma and Lithuania. Officials in Damascus and Iran have accused him of being a C.I.A. agent.
Sharp isn’t in direct contact with the activists who protested in Tahrir Square, or in Homs, or in Tunis. He watched the Egyptian revolution on TV like the rest of us. He is reluctant to take credit and insists that it is the people, not him, who influenced their own revolutions.
Unlike Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., whom Sharp admired (Coretta Scott King wrote an introduction to one of Sharp’s books), he is not a practitioner of nonviolent movements but rather a theorist of power. People assume positions of power, he asserts, not by some intrinsic individual strength but solely by the populace who puts them there. When enough people withdraw their support of a repressive regime for long enough, it topples.
His work is not based on religious belief or higher moral principles of peaceful human coexistence but rather is starkly pragmatic: his seminal 1973 trilogy, “The Politics of Nonviolent Action,” lays out 198 methods of resistance that do not kill or destroy, including “sick-ins,” mock elections and the refusal to use government currency. He writes that “exhortations in favor of love and nonviolence have made little or no contribution to ending war and major political violence. It seemed to me that only adoption of a substitute type of sanction and struggle . . . could possibly lead to a major reduction of political violence.” Violence, Sharp says, is “your enemy’s best weapon.” Dictators will only try to crush rebellions.
Sharp is part of a tradition of academics whose work finds expression among political interventionists outside the academy — think of Noam Chomsky’s writing on United States foreign policy or Cornel West’s work on racial inequality. But Sharp himself will not presume to know which countries need reform. “I don’t talk about what needs changing or where,” he says quietly in his soft Midwestern voice. “It’s up to the people themselves to decide to change.”
Sharp’s modesty can at times seem at odds with his stature. His office is tiny and cluttered and dusty, full of boxes left unpacked from the day he moved to it in 2004. “I’m sorry for the mess,” he says at one point, pointing to the boxes and piles of books. When he remarks that he still can’t find his Oxford English Dictionary, I tell him it’s available online and he looks bemused. Sharp’s office is not a tech-enabled zone. There is a sign hanging on the wall — written by Raqib, who has been with him for 10 years — instructing him how to send an e-mail. “To open a blank file. . . . ” He does not use Facebook or Twitter or even read his organization’s Web site. The Albert Einstein Institution consists of him, Raqib and an assistant she found working at a coffee shop around the corner. Sharp’s only sanctuary away from his work is his orchid room, which visitors are not invited to visit.
But to listen to those whom Sharp has inspired is to understand his place among the great teachers of peaceful resistance. “If there is one powerful message to send to the world — that nonviolent social change is the way to change it for the better — then there is nobody else who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize more than Gene,” says Srdja Popovic, a young Serb who first encountered Sharp’s work during the revolt against Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and who now runs the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies in Belgrade. Popovic calls Sharp “the Master” and uses his theories while teaching activists around the world, including those in Syria, Iran and the Maldives. (In Sharp’s office hangs a poster that reads, “GOTOV JE!” — “He’s finished!” — the rallying cry that Popovic and his comrades sent to thousands of cellphones during their first attempt at overthrowing the Serbian dictator.)
And according to Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, a professor of peace and conflict studies at the University for Peace, an affiliate of the United Nations, “Gene has, in my opinion, probably done more for building peace than any person alive. Because without broader knowledge of how to fight for social change and justice without violence, it is unlikely that more peaceable societies will evolve. Postconflict societies need Gene’s writings to help prevent a relapse into civil war.”
Sharp is uncomfortable talking about himself, and he shifts in his chair when I ask him about his early years. He was raised by a Protestant clergyman who moved the family around a lot before settling in Columbus, Ohio, when Sharp was 15. “My childhood was not important,” he says, adding that he was aware of racial inequality and participated in a luncheonette sit-in. “I knew there was a war and a Nazi system,” he says. “That, and the atomic bomb influenced me, I suppose. And later, as an undergraduate, Gandhi.”
He received his master’s degree from Ohio State University in 1951. By 1953, he was in New York, first in Harlem, then Brooklyn. He was employed as an elevator operator and a guide for a blind social worker for a while. “I wasn’t interested in having a real job,” he says. “I wanted subway fare and food and to research Gandhi.” He wrote to Albert Einstein, at Princeton, and asked if he would contribute an introduction to the book. To Sharp’s shock, he agreed.
When the Korean War broke out, Sharp, then 25, took a stance of civil disobedience and conscientious objection to the draft and was given a prison sentence of two years. He was transferred from the detention center on West Street in New York to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. Sharp says he could have gotten 14 years but served only “9 months and 10 days.”
“The first six months weren’t bad,” he recalls. “After that, the constant regimentation was hard. I could read books but I could not do any research.” After his release in 1954, Sharp worked for A. J. Muste, whom he calls “the most famous American pacifist.” Then he took off for Europe: in England he worked for Peace News, writing articles about the Suez crisis and the British invasion of Egypt. In Norway, he worked for Arne Naess, a professor at the University of Oslo and a Gandhi devotee.
Sharp’s years in Norway had a profound influence on him. The Norwegian resistance movement against fascism and the pro-Nazi regime of Vidkun Quisling used civil disobedience, among other forms of nonviolent resistance, in their educational system. Teachers taught against the fascist system in schools and distributed illegal newspapers while maintaining social distance from German soldiers.
“There were other methods, such as wearing a potato or a toothpick on their clothes, to protest the occupation,” Sharp says. (Much later, the Serbs would use street theater as a method of bringing down Milosevic — for instance, creating an effigy of the dictator’s head and allowing people to bash it with a bat as a game, then running away when the police arrived.) Sharp stayed in Norway for two and a half years and lived for a time with a family who had a history of resistance.
“Everyone always talks about the boys in the mountains fighting against the Nazis,” he says, “but what interested me was the teachers, the clergy and the labor movement. Those were the real resisters.” From Norway, he went to Oxford, eventually making his way — living from one grant or teaching job to another — to a professorship at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
When Sharp gave a lecture at Harvard in 1988, Retired Colonel Robert Helvey was a senior Army fellow at the university’s Center for International Affairs. On his first day, Helvey saw a notice by the elevator announcing a nonviolent sanctions seminar. He had nothing else to do that afternoon, so he slipped into the classroom just as Sharp was beginning to lecture. “He did not seem to care about his clothing,” Helvey says of his first impression of Sharp. “I saw similar styles at the local Goodwill.” But what the professor did care about, Helvey recalls, was the truth. “He was obviously careful about his words, precise, and clearly a cut above the egocentric image of some Ivy League professors.” Helvey emerged from the lecture with an entirely new frame of reference as a soldier, something he has held tight ever since.
“I think Gene’s work has changed how we think about conflict resolution,” Helvey says. “There are options other than massive bloodshed and destruction to bring political change.” He continues, “We now have an alternative to war as a means for people to liberate themselves from tyranny, to deter would-be tyrants and lesser authoritarian rulers.” Helvey, who helped the Serbian democracy movement overthrow Milosevic, adds, “Gene is a deep thinker. He has a quest to bring truth to our society.”
Sharp lives mostly in the world of books, but he has not always stayed behind his desk. In 1989, he went to Tiananmen Square during the uprising and talked to protesters. In the 1990s he sneaked into rebel camps in Burma.
Where, I ask him, do people find the courage to fight against dictators? He thinks hard.
“I honestly don’t know,” he admits. “I never studied it.” They would not think of their actions as fearless, he says, “it becomes second nature to them. What matters is that they can. And they do it.”
As Sharp talks, I think about all the activists in Syria today who work underground, communicating via Skype or encrypted e-mails to protest the regime. If they are caught, they will be tortured and sent to prison. (Even peaceful protesters are sent to jail, without their families being notified, for up to 45 days; there are currently 35,000 people in detention in Syria, according to recent human rights reports.)
“But people continue,” he says, “because it works. When you start withdrawing your cooperation, the regime won’t like it. They will start beating, torturing, stopping you. They will instill fear. But if you are not afraid” — here he pauses and thinks — “then the reason for fear does not exist.”
Sharp emphasizes in all his work the need for preparation and care, and he says that not all nonviolent movements work. Occupy Wall Street did not have a plan, he says, which was its downfall. “It’s well intentioned,” he says, “but occupying a small park in downtown New York is pure symbolism. It doesn’t change the distribution of wealth.”
Above all, Sharp’s work preaches a stern methodology. One cannot enter into a revolution without thinking it out, without planning, without being strategic. The Egyptians, in many ways, were successful, he says, because they planned ahead of time how to get rid of Mubarak. The Tunisians used the Internet for years to circumvent Ben Ali. Sharp recently wrote a letter to Syrian activists saying, “Think carefully of what activities will harm your cause.”
When I leave his office after several hours, I am touched by Sharp’s quiet heroism, his tireless research that earns him little financial reward or public attention. As Popovic says, “Persistent work, which Gene has committed his life to, was for decades underestimated by academia, misunderstood by decision makers and openly attacked by dictators. This is why I am so happy that nonviolent struggle and people-power are just getting their full affirmation.” Popovic calls 2011 “the worst year for bad guys ever.”
So what is the legacy of Sharp? Helvey says it is simple.
“One no longer needs bombs, missiles and combat forces to neutralize a regime’s very sources of power,” he says. “Gene does not say it is an easy option, but there is a way and it can and has been done. I foresee the day that governments will examine nonviolent conflict options prior to making decisions to pursue or protect important and vital interests.”
As I leave, I wonder aloud why Sharp is not working with a huge stipend in a sleek office a few miles away in Harvard Yard. He explains that financing is hard to come by — one reason he moved to East Boston a few years ago. “We had no money,” he says. “A staff of two, boxes in the basement, boxes on the second floor, no one to help” — he reaches down to pet his dog — “and Sally was no help at all.”