Changing Minds, One at a Time
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, March
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
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
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?
There was a hard core of people in his
country who believed in the institution of slavery. Between the
1830s, when a tiny group of Abolitionists began their agitation,
and the 1850s, when disobedience of the fugitive slave acts reached
their height, the Northern public, at first ready to do violence
to the agitators, now embraced their cause. What happened in those
years? The reality of slavery, its cruelty, as well as the heroism
of its resisters, was made evident to Americans through the speeches
and writings of the Abolitionists, the testimony of escaped slaves,
the presence of magnificent black witnesses like Frederick Douglass
and Harriet Tubman.
Something similar happened during those
years of the Southern black movement, starting with the Montgomery
Bus Boycott, the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the marches. white
people-not only in the North, but also in the South-were startled
into an awareness of the long history of humiliation of millions
of people who had been invisible and who now demanded their rights.
When the Vietnam War began, two-thirds
of the American public supported the war. A few years later, two-thirds
opposed the war. While some remained adamantly pro-war, one-third
of the population had learned things that overthrew previously
held ideas about the essential goodness of the American intervention
in Vietnam. The human consequences of the fierce bombing campaigns,
the "search and destroy" missions, became clear in the
image of the naked young girl, her skin shredded by napalm, running
down a road; the women and children huddled in the trenches in
My Lai with soldiers pouring rifle fire onto them; Marines setting
fire to peasant huts while the occupants stood by, weeping.
Those images made it impossible for most
Americans to believe President Johnson when he said we were fighting
for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, that it was all worthwhile
because it was part of the worldwide struggle against Communism.
In his inauguration speech, and indeed,
through all four years of his presidency, George Bush has insisted
that our violence in Afghanistan and Iraq has been in the interest
of freedom and democracy, and essential to the "war on terrorism."
When the war on Iraq began almost two years ago, about three-fourths
of Americans supported the war. Today, the public opinion polls
show that at least half of the citizenry believes it was wrong
to go to war.
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.
The history is powerful: the story of
the lies and massacres that accompanied our national expansion,
first across the continent victimizing Native Americans, then
overseas as we left death and destruction in our wake in Cuba,
Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and especially the Philippines. The long
occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the repeated
dispatch of Marines into Central America, the deaths of millions
of Koreans and Vietnamese, none of them resulting in democracy
and liberty for those people.
Add to all that the toll of the American
young, especially the poor, black and white, a toll measured not
only by the corpses and the amputated limbs, but the damaged minds
and corrupted sensibilities that result from war.
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,
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 juxtapositions wait to be made. The
recent disaster in Asia, alongside the millions dying of AIDS
in Africa, next to the $500 billion military budget, cry out for
justice. The words of people from all over the world gathered
year after year in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and other places-"a
new world is possible"-point to a time when national boundaries
are erased, when the natural riches of the world are used for
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.
Howard Zinn's latest work (with Anthony
Arnove) is "Voices of a Peoples' History of the United States."
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