My Path to "Almost" Pacifism

Attila Gyenis with a Yoko Ono poster

(We asked our friend and fellow traveler Attila Gyenis what pacifism means to him. He insists that he is an "almost" pacifist, though we are sure he fully qualifies! Here's what he wrote. - Editors)

There is an ongoing worldwide crisis that is not being addressed by any mainstream institution in society (including government, business, military, media, religious, or education system). This unsatisfactory condition is evidenced by our continuous wars, environmental destruction, unfair economic system, and unjust justice system. Something has to change. I am not an absolute pacifist. But I do believe that if there is going to be a sustainable resolution to these issues, the change will have to be non-violent. It is by chance that I started writing this on December 10, International Human Rights Day.

My parents fled Hungary during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution with only the clothes on their back and arrived in New York City in 1957 (the year I was born). As a result I grew up in a dual culture; one rooted in an ethnic Hungarian home speaking Hungarian, eating Hungarian food, and going to Hungarian dances and cultural events. Being named Attila certainly cemented the Hungarian heritage to my life. Then there was my “American” life which revolved around neighbors, school, friends, speaking English and eating pizza (I am from New York after all).

Growing up during the Cold War, we were always reminded in school and by the media to be prepared for the Communist invasion. We even had air raid drills in school where we would have to drop under the desks clutching our necks with our hands, which would protect us against the nuclear bombs that the commies were going to drop on our heads.

I took my first trip to Hungary in 1968 when I was ten years old. I was going to visit family — my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. My upcoming visit did raise some minor concerns: I was going to a communist country, entering the den of the enemy. I arrived there and surprisingly had an enjoyable time. Actually, I had a great time. Everybody treated me nice, not just my relatives but complete strangers. I would walk around my grandparent’s village and everybody would say hello. People were friendlier to me there than back here in the States. They were communists, and they were nice. How could that be?

That was the first crack in the myth that everything ‘American’ was the best, and the realization that not everything you see on television is true. In spite of that, I still believed that our government was basically good and really trying to make things better for people. That would change as time went on.

My experience growing up in two cultures gave me an awareness that there wasn’t ‘one way’ to do things; and more importantly that even though we all live in different countries, we are all ‘one’ people. It also started me on one of my paths, the desire to become a diplomat. I thought that the problems of the world were that people weren’t talking to each other because they were afraid of each other or they didn’t understand the other’s culture. I thought everybody wanted to get along. The solution seemed simple, get people talking to each other and then the world would be one big happy family.

I went to college in Washington DC and received a degree in International Relations in 1979, but that would be the extent of my diplomatic experience. By the time graduation rolled around my concerns with US politics and the corporate influence on global issues had grown into serious objections to the status quo. I join VISTA (something like a domestic Peace Corps) for a year, and taught English as a Second Language to Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Cuban refugees in Florida. That was one of my most rewarding jobs.

Humans like to think they are so civilized, but act in a very uncivilized and cruel manner towards other people. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five pointed out not only the inherent cruelty of one human being toward another human being, but the contradiction in human nature in how we view ourselves versus how we act. Torture (like waterboarding) and prisons like Guantanamo are accepted in this country (or at least allowed). Imagine the outrage if another country treated American citizens in that manner. Many fail to see the contradiction.

The country would go through the Reagan years, the Bush Dynasty, Bill Clinton, and Obama. Throw in a few wars for good measure while passing the Patriot Act, the Iran Contra affair, a minor economic collapse, GMOs, fracking, Citizens United, continued corporate /congressional corruption (I meant to say cooperation), and you have US history for the past 30 years. I find no significant difference between the Democrats and the Republicans on the major issues. They both support corporate interests first and foremost, even when they are damaging to the public trust. This is unacceptable to me.

I mention these issues because they are the background to my current view. I used to excuse these injustices by saying that they are a mistake, an oversight, or a lapse in judgment. But they aren’t a mistake. These acts are intentional. They are implemented by individuals who are financially benefitting from the wars and environmental destruction and don’t care about the negative consequences of their actions. Really, they don’t care enough to change their behavior.

It took a while to find the word that describes the heart of my concern. The word is this: oppression. I objected to the ‘oppression’ that governments, corporations, and certain individuals imposed towards individuals, the general public and environment. They oppress people because they want to have an unfair advantage for financial or political gain. To oppress people you have to suppress the truth. To put it plainly, our political and business leaders started illegal wars to make money, they destroyed the environment to exploit natural resources to make money, and they rig the political system to get elected officials who won’t act to protect the public trust. And they are never held accountable for their oppressive actions. A truly just society would have never allowed these injustices to happen.

Which brings us to ‘Human Rights’. Oppression requires acting against somebody’s rights. To prevent ‘oppression’, society would have to adopt a policy of ensuring that everybody’s basic rights were protected, without exceptions. This would apply to every decision made by governments, corporations, and individuals. Whether you were living under a democracy, socialism or capitalism, every decision would first have to ensure that it isn’t violating anybody’s human rights. An idea attributed to the Iroquois Indians states that every decision made has to consider the impact on the next seven generations.

Protect the basic human rights of all people, no exceptions. It sounds simple, but some will argue as to what constitutes ‘human rights’. The United Nations has a very nice definition, but we can start with a basic definition of human rights that includes access to shelter, safe food and clean water, and self-determination (as long as you don’t infringe on anybody else’s rights). Protecting basic rights should trump everything else, including democracy. For instance, just because a majority of the country believes in slavery, it shouldn’t be accepted, since it denies an individual’s rights.

Oppression comes in many forms, from lying to the general public on why the country is going to war, to failing to protect clean water and safe food supply, to jailing people who are speaking out against the injustices, to engaging in illegal wars that put our national security at greater risk, to demonizing whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. You can’t depend on the mainstream media or the government to tell you the truth.

Another problem isn’t just that the top 1% doesn’t care about the bottom 99%. The problem is that the top 5% doesn’t care about the bottom 95%; the top 10% doesn’t care about the bottom 90%; the top 25% doesn’t care about the bottom 75%; and nobody cares about the bottom 25%. Basically, it seems that people as a whole are a lying, greedy, selfish group of individuals who would love to make as much money at the top 1%, and they wouldn’t care who they hurt in the process either. The sad truth is that people really don’t want ‘peace and justice for all’ as much as they want a new color television (John Lennon was right).

I am thankful for those individuals throughout history who have sacrificed much to protect the public trust and act in a manner that protects the weakest and most vulnerable. Some people accused Frederick Douglass of pushing too hard to end slavery. This was his response:

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Some favorite quotes:

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."

Thomas Jefferson

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

Former President Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

"The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable."

William Golding on Lord of the Flies.

"Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice."

Julian Assange

Attila Gyenis was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island, lived in Washington DC, New Hampshire, and currently California (near the magnificent redwood trees). He enjoys spending time with family, friends, books, music, and grandkids, and eating his mom's Stuffed Cabbage whenever he gets to New York. Attila is currently a substitute teacher, editor of a community newsletter and a songwriter/singer. His own pacifist website can be found at

Previous testimonials on Pacifism for the 21st Century: Shucking Off Conformity: What Pacifism Means to Me by Jay Mejia. If you'd like to share your own story about living as a pacifist, contact us at