2/10/2005

Howard Zinn: Changing Minds, One At A Time

From the March 2005 issue of The Progressive:
As I write this, the day after the inauguration, the banner headline in The New York Times reads: "BUSH, AT 2ND INAUGURAL, SAYS SPREAD OF LIBERTY IS THE 'CALLING OF OUR TIME.' "
Two days earlier, on an inside page of the Times, was a photo of a little girl, crouching, covered with blood, weeping. The caption read: "An Iraqi girl screamed yesterday after her parents were killed when American soldiers fired on their car when it failed to stop, despite warning shots, in Tal Afar, Iraq. The military is investigating the incident."
Today, there is a large photo in the Times of young people cheering the President as his entourage moves down Pennsylvania Avenue. They do not look very different from the young people shown in another part of the paper, along another part of Pennsylvania Avenue, protesting the inauguration.
I doubt that those young people cheering Bush saw the photo of the little girl. And even if they did, would it occur to them to juxtapose that photo to the words of George Bush about spreading liberty around the world?
That question leads me to a larger one, which I suspect most of us have pondered: What does it take to bring a turnaround in social consciousness--from being a racist to being in favor of racial equality, from being in favor of Bush's tax program to being against it, from being in favor of the war in Iraq to being against it? We desperately want an answer, because we know that the future of the human race depends on a radical change in social consciousness.
It seems to me that we need not engage in some fancy psychological experiment to learn the answer, but rather to look at ourselves and to talk to our friends. We then see, though it is unsettling, that we were not born critical of existing society. There was a moment in our lives (or a month, or a year) when certain facts appeared before us, startled us, and then caused us to question beliefs that were strongly fixed in our consciousness--embedded there by years of family prejudices, orthodox schooling, imbibing of newspapers, radio, and television.
This would seem to lead to a simple conclusion: that we all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas. It is so simple a thought that it is easily overlooked as we search, desperate in the face of war and apparently immovable power in ruthless hands, for some magical formula, some secret strategy to bring peace and justice to the land and to the world.
"What can I do?" The question is thrust at me again and again as if I possessed some mysterious solution unknown to others. The odd thing is that the question may be posed by someone sitting in an audience of a thousand people, whose very presence there is an instance of information being imparted which, if passed on, could have dramatic consequences. The answer then is as obvious and profound as the Buddhist mantra that says: "Look for the truth exactly on the spot where you stand."
Yes, thinking of the young people holding up the pro-Bush signs at the inauguration, there are those who will not be budged by new information. They will be shown the bloodied little girl whose parents have been killed by an American weapon, and find all sorts of reasons to dismiss it: "Accidents happen. . . . This was an aberration. . . . It is an unfortunate price of liberating a nation," and so on.
There is a hard core of people in the United States who will not be moved, whatever facts you present, from their conviction that this nation means only to do good, and almost always does good, in the world, that it is the beacon of liberty and freedom (words used forty-two times in Bush's inauguration speech). But that core is a minority, as is that core of people who carried signs of protest at the inauguration.
In between those two minorities stand a huge number of Americans who have been brought up to believe in the beneficence of our nation, who find it hard to believe otherwise, but who can rethink their beliefs when presented with information new to them.
Is that not the history of social movements?
...What has happened in these two years is clear: a steady erosion of support for the war, as the public has become more and more aware that the Iraqi people, who were supposed to greet the U.S. troops with flowers, are overwhelmingly opposed to the occupation. Despite the reluctance of the major media to show the frightful toll of the war on Iraqi men, women, children, or to show U.S. soldiers with amputated limbs, enough of those images have broken through, joined by the grimly rising death toll, to have an effect.
But there is still a large pool of Americans, beyond the hard-core minority who will not be dissuaded by any facts (and it would be a waste of energy to make them the object of our attention), who are open to change. For them, it would be important to measure Bush's grandiose inaugural talk about the "spread of liberty" against the historical record of American expansion.
It is a challenge not just for the teachers of the young to give them information they will not get in the standard textbooks, but for everyone else who has an opportunity to speak to friends and neighbors and work associates, to write letters to newspapers, to call in on talk shows.
...Those truths make their way, against all obstacles, and break down the credibility of the warmakers, juxtaposing what reality teaches against the rhetoric of inaugural addresses and White House briefings. The work of a movement is to enhance that learning, make clear the disconnect between the rhetoric of "liberty" and the photo of a bloodied little girl, weeping. And also to go beyond the depiction of past and present, and suggest an alternative to the paths of greed and violence. All through history, people working for change have been inspired by visions of a different world. It is possible, here in the United States, to point to our enormous wealth and suggest how, once not wasted on war or siphoned off to the super-rich, that wealth can make possible a truly just society.
The false promises of the rich and powerful about "spreading liberty" can be fulfilled, not by them, but by the concerted effort of us all, as the truth comes out, and our numbers grow.

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