Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy by Ray Acheson

A WILPF Canada book review of Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy by Ray Acheson.

Ray writes with immediacy and energy.  We get front seat in this David and Goliath performance that concludes with the United Nations (UN) Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the Nobel Peace Prize for the Coalition that made this happen the International Coalition for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). 

The established processes that have essentially maintained in place (and expanded) the nuclear power over 70+ years were disrupted. The collaborative creativity of actors heretofore relegated in a subservient role are engaged in participative, reiterative, processes and changed the rules of the game. Deeply knowledgeable actors, traditionally excluded activists and small country diplomats from diverse, intersectional backgrounds, brought in new energy. They took the agenda away from the five and four nuclear states diplomats, mostly white, middle-aged male. “But, that’s the thing about discourse shift. You have to be willing to put out unconventional ideas and carefully, methodically build the case for them…”  (p. 76) and ”… to deconstruct a discourse, one needs to show that what appears as a given is not a ’natural fact’ but a historically and socially formed reality… the very act of contesting and challenging dominant narratives helps this splinter, opening up space for change to take shape” (p. 77)

Nuclear weapons are not a security and deterrence necessity but a fundamental threat to humans and nature on a par with the other acknowledged and banned Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): chemical and biological weapons. At the same time (p.142++) Ray describes how the nuclear movement, like pretty well all the progressive movements are still very white. She let us see the dissonances that this raises even in this more than usual inclusive, collective, creative process.  

In Ch. 4, Karaoke and Campaigning, Ray indicates how building the community is essential as trust and confidence are necessary for people to take risks (p. 113). This links with (p. 239++) of Thomas Homer-Dixon (***) who refers to complex system changes and indicates that the most effective changes are not in material elements or technologies but in the ideational components. The power to transacend paradigms: beliefs, values, goals, rules. Vested interests affecting rules is one of the most difficult to dislodge. Who has the power of writing the rules? The ICAN process addressed this by building friendships, building trust, reaching each actor where the they are, friendships. By building trust they were able, in some small measure, to counterbalance the social media manipulating emotions. Edmund Burke says that fear is the most effective at robbing “the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning” (quoted on p. 258 of THD). 

The chapter “Courage, my love” (p. 197-221) reflects on how fighting for the nuclear ban felt like Sisyphus eternally pushing a rock up the mountain. The whole progressive agenda feels constantly that way. And on how white supremacists are on the ascendancy. Anti-Indigenous, anti-equality, anti-diversity, anti-dialogue, pro-violence. On p. 221 Ray quotes Shorma-Kay Richard, (deputy permanent representative of Jamaica to the UN) saying “…keeps us on the brink of massive nuclear violence and threatens the very survival of humanity” and on p. 287 “But these weapons are part of the spectrum of institutionalized violence”…”nuclear states continuing to invest billions in their nuclear arsenal.” p. 289+ indicates how cracks are appearing with pension funds and banks slowly divesting from companies producing key components of nuclear weapons.  Major cities, including Toronto and Vancouver, have endorsed the UNTPNW (****). The ban is in place… but also in place is the total non-compliance by nuclear states and states (like Canada) dependent, specifically under the NATO ‘protection’.   

For updates: and, of course, there is the venerable WILPF website that Felicity Hill (Ruby) created and curated in the early 1990 and with which she is still very engaged.  Ray Achison is now in the chair as WILPF Director in the WILPF NY office. Reaching Critical Will is the most accessed and reliable source of information on the UN disarmament actions. p. 293 “Our critique of nuclear weapons needs to be also a critique of the settler-colonial state.” Uranium extraction, nuclear tests, nuclear waste disposal are racialized and gendered and Ray makes these wider linkages and more all through the book. On p. 296 Ray says: “You never know when change might happen, but the only way it will ever happen is if you keep working for it.”

And I am ending this note with another quote from Edmund Burke “Never despair; but if you do, work on in despair.”

(*) “Banning the Bomb – Smashing the Patriarchy” (2021) see her website:

(**) Weapons of Mass Destruction

(***) “Commanding Hope: the power we have to renew a world in peril” Thomas Homer-Dixon (2020) 

(****) UN Treaty on the Prohibition of nuclear weapon —