James Adams: A Cautionary Tale for a Polarizing America and the World

by Heidi Burgess for James Adams

September 4, 2022

James came to Boulder a couple of months ago, and I got to talk with him at length about his new book Analytic Reflections from Conflict Zones: A Cautionary Tale for a Polarizing America and the World. While mostly a reflection on his many decades of experience as a peacebuilder in conflict zones around the world, James couldn't help but notice the similarities between the tensions and conflict dynamics he had witnessed in places such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, with what he was now witnessing at home in the United States.  His alarm matches ours, and he had several thoughts about what we might do to avoid the violent fates that those countries came to.  I asked him to contribute a piece for our hyper-polarization blog, and he did, although it was longer than what we are generally posting here.  For that reason, I am taking out a few of the most important sections and reprinting them here, while suggesting that those with more time, read his full post, which is now published on BI as a "Practitioner Reflection." 

In his reflection, James starts out with a quote from the preface of his book:

“I have seen the consequences of caustic discourse, deep societal division, and the dehumanization of others that, when taken to their logical extreme, slice through families, societies, and nations, leaving destruction and decades of tragedy. Nationalistic and ethnic-racial passions are stirred to hatred and violence, and identities and circumstances are weaponized for political ends.

Such a path, if taken unrestrained, leads down the avenging-angel road  to its logical extremes – civil strife, civil war, hundreds of thousands killed and maimed, and millions made internally displaced or refugees, plus the inevitable  perpetuation of cycles of violence. Rule by mob is not a circumstance you want to find yourself in.” (Adams, XIV)

He goes on to observe: "what I see happening now in America is the early-stage genesis of such a history in the making, if we continue on this course of increasing violence, broken discourse, extremism, and political and social polarization."

James' way of addressing that problem was first, to write the book in the first person, as part memoir, and part scholarly analysis, in an effort to appeal to scholars and non-scholars alike. He is following this up with a speaking tour in which he is trying to introduce a common orientation and language about conflict and peace between academics, professional, and citizens.  This, he suggests "can contribute to changing the hostile tone of conflicted national discourse for the better. It can reach and inform audiences otherwise not exposed to informed conflict, peacebuilding, and human condition explanations."

Saving American democracy is not just important for America, Adams asserts.  It is important for the world.

The world cannot afford to lose the hope and role model of democracy, of a free people, that the United States represents historically in the world, even with its numerous flaws. People living under the iron heel of authoritarian regimes around the world need the kind of hope and encouragement toward a free society that the United States has promoted in the past, despite some notable lapses in judgment as to support for certain dictatorships and an ill-chosen war or two.

Still, the torch of freedom needs American leadership. The torch of freedom needs the continued American practice of democracy and active support for basic civil and human rights as envisioned by our founding fathers in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, despite notable omissions, and the flaws of their own characters and time.

Nevertheless, the struggle of American democracy for respect for basic human dignity, and the civil and human rights of all, needs to be demonstrated. This effort that we have inherited from our forefathers and foremothers down to this day, despite their flaws and oversights, and despite our own very human flaws and clashes, must continue. It needs to be seen – for humanity’s sake, and for America’s sake.

I was amused that James asks in his BI reflection "who would manage an intervention in the United States"? For many years I (Heidi) used an exercise in many of my classes that I called "Intervenors Coming to the US? A Role-Switch Thought Exercise." I had students read an article from Slate " If It Happened There: Courts Sanction Killings by U.S. Security Forces." This is a satirical news report of the aftermath of the 2014 Ferguson, MO and New York, NY police killings of black men and the subsequent court decisions, written from the point of view of another country "looking in"—a much the way we "look in" and "report on" other world trouble spots.  I ask my students to continue from that point of view, to consider how we, in the US, might respond, if peacebuilders from abroad (I suggested a team from South Africa and Rwanda--places with a lot of experience dealing with the aftermath of racial and ethnic conflicts--decided they should come to the U.S. to "help us" deal with this and related situations.) Most of my students complained that this was ridiculous--nothing like this possibly could happen. I asked them to humor me, and explained that the exercise was deigned to help students—and conflict resolution practitioners—understand how recipients of conflict resolution services might feel when outsiders come in to help them solve their own conflicts.  Without being asked to, James is asking (and answering) the same thing! 

He quickly answers his own question by saying: "There is a large well-educated, well-trained body of professionals in the United States, with supporting institutions (governmental, civilian, and military), capable of managing the tasks of a large scale in-house intervention in the United States should it be necessary.."  But, he goes on to reflect what these professionals in the United States could and should do, based on concepts drawn from his peacebuilding efforts overseas.  Among the concepts he suggests must be considered are the interplay between structural changes and relationship building, positive peace and negative peace, and Track One vs. Track Two+ peacebuilding. 

Other important concepts he introduces are human realism -- a melding of realism and idealism, which he says is a "useful meeting place, I think, for engaging a common-ground discussion about changing things for the better in stressed times" and violentization which is the process of socializing people to accept and participate in violence. Adams suggests that if people were to have a better understanding of such processes, they would be better able to interrupt them.

Adams ends his essay for BI by listing nine tasks that he suggests would improve our chances of avoiding continued polarization, escalation, and widespread violence. And then he adds:

A word of caution here to those eager to divide. A few proud politicians and citizens have recently called for the secession of Texas and Georgia from the United States. They should very carefully consider the hard lessons about divisiveness learned from the Yugoslav wars and earlier fascist eras. How will the status of a Texan or Georgian be decided, and who decides? Ethnicity, race, and ideological firestorms burn everyone for a very, very long time. It is a sure path to the pain and destruction that awaits along the avenging-angel road.

There is no doubt, from what I have seen, that ever-increasing divisions only bring further pain and destruction. Is that what we want for those generations who come after us? For our children?

A caution to anarchists, extremists, or want-to-be fascists eager for a fight, eager to burn something. Whether an avenging angel fire is lit, literally, by someone on the extreme left or the extreme right doesn’t seem to matter much. Everything burns.


Read James Adam's full Practitioner Reflection