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Changing Minds, One at a Time

by Howard Zinn, The Progressive, March 2005 issue

New York, USA -- 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?

There was a hard core of people in this 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, 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 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 everyone.

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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Howard Zinn's latest work (with Anthony Arnove) is "Voices of a People's History of the United States."


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