Harness That Anger

Harness That Anger
By Howard Zinn, January 2005 Issue

In the days after the election, it seemed that all my friends were either depressed or angry, frustrated or indignant, or simply disgusted. Neighbors who had never said more than hi to me stopped me on the street and delivered passionate little speeches that made me think they had just listened to a re-broadcast of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, in which powerful creatures arrive on Earth to take it over.

But then I reconsidered: They had not been listening to H. G. Wells. There really were strange and powerful creatures that had just occupied the United States and now wanted to take over the rest of the world. Yes, Bush was reelected President, and whether there was fraud in the voting process or not, John Kerry quickly threw in the towel. The minnow called for reconciliation with the crocodile.

The reelected Bush triumphantly announced that he had the approval of the nation to carry out his agenda. There came no sign of opposition from what was supposed to be the opposition party. In short, the members of the club, after a brief skirmish on the campaign trail (costing a total of a billion dollars or so) were back having drinks at the same bar. When, in mid-November, the Presidential library of Bill Clinton opened, former Presidents, Democratic and Republican, along with the current President, sat side by side and declared their fervent desire for unity.

But someone was left out of the celebration, this insistence that we were all one happy family, accepting the President for another four years. The American people were not quite in agreement.

Consider this: Bush won 51 percent of a voting population that was just 60 percent of the eligible voters. That means Bush won the approval of 31 percent of the eligible voters. Kerry won 28 percent of the eligible voters.

The 40 percent who did not cast a ballot seemed to be saying there was no candidate they could approve of. I suspect that a large percentage of those who voted had the same feeling, but voted anyway. Is this a decisive victory? Has the will of the people been followed? (If we were truly democratic, then maybe the 40 percent nonvoters who were the plurality might have their wish: No President at all.)

The President may insist he has "a mandate," but it is up to the rest of us to declare firmly that he doesn't. Sure, he had more votes than his Democratic opponent, but to most of the electorate, that candidate did not represent a real choice. More than half the public, in opinion polls over the past six months, had declared their opposition to the war. Neither major party candidate represented their view, so they were effectively disenfranchised.

What to do now? Harness those fierce emotions reacting to the election. In that anger, disappointment, grieving frustration there is enormous combustible energy, which, if mobilized, could reinvigorate an anti-war movement that had been slowed by the all-consuming election campaign.

It is in the nature of election campaigns to siphon off the vitality of people imbued with a heartfelt cause, dilute that cause, and pour it into the dubious endeavor to propel one somewhat better candidate into office. But with the election over, there is no more need to hold back, to do as too many well-meaning people did, which was to follow uncritically in the footsteps of a candidate who dodged and squirmed on almost every major issue.

Freed from the sordid confines of our undemocratic political process, we can now turn all our energies to do what is discouraged by the voting system--to speak boldly and clearly about what must be done to turn our country around.

And let's not worry about offending that 22 percent of the country (we don't know the exact number but it is certainly a minority) who are religious and political fundamentalists, who invoke God in the service of mass murder and imperial conquest, who ignore the Biblical injunctions to love one's neighbor, to beat swords into plowshares, to care for the poor and downtrodden.

Most Americans do not want war.

Most want the wealth of this country to be used for human needs-health, work, schools, children, decent housing, a clean environment--rather than for billion dollar nuclear submarines and four billion dollar aircraft carriers.

They can be deflected from their most human beliefs by a barrage of government propaganda, dutifully repeated by television and talk radio and the major newspapers. But this is a temporary phenomenon, and as people begin to sense what is happening, their natural instinct for empathy with other human beings emerges.

We saw this in the Vietnam years, when at first two-thirds of the nation, trusting the government and given no reason for skepticism by a subservient press, supported the war. A few years later, when the reality of what we were doing in Vietnam began to show itself--when the body bags piled up here, and the images of napalmed children in Vietnam appeared on TV screens, and the horror of the My Lai massacre, at first ignored, finally surfaced--the nation turned against the war.

The reality of what is going on in Iraq is more and more coming through the smoke of government propaganda and media timidity. It cannot help but touch the hearts of the people of this country, as they see our soldiers going innocently into Iraq, but becoming brutalized by the war, practicing torture on helpless prisoners, shooting the wounded, bombing houses and mosques, turning cities into rubble, and driving families out of their homes into the countryside.

As I write this, the city of Fallujah has been turned into rubble by a ferocious bombing campaign. Photos are beginning to appear (though not yet in the major media, so cowardly are they) of children with limbs gone, an infant lying on a cot, one leg missing. It is the classic story of a military power possessing the latest, most deadly of weapons, trying to subdue the hostile population of a small, weak country by sheer cruelty, which only increases the resistance. The war in Fallujah cannot be won. It should not be won.

The movement here against the war must confront the horror of the situation by a variety of bold actions.

We will take up the classic instruments of citizens in the history of social movements: demonstrations (there will be a big one in Washington on Inauguration Day), vigils, picket lines, parades, occupations, acts of civil disobedience.

We will be appealing to the good conscience of the American people.

We will be asking questions: What kind of country do we want to live in?

Do we want to be reviled by the rest of the world?

Do we have a right to invade and bomb other countries, pretending we are saving them from tyranny and in the process killing them in huge numbers? (What is the death toll so far in Iraq? 30,000? 100,000?)

Do we have a right to occupy a country when the people of that country obviously do not want us there?

Election results deceive us by registering the half-hearted, diluted beliefs of a population forced to reduce its true desires to the narrow dimensions of a voting booth. But we are not alone, not in this country, certainly not in the world (Let's not forget that 96 percent of the Earth's population resides outside our borders).

We do not have to do the job alone. Social movements have always had a powerful ally: the inexorable reality that operates in the world impervious to the aims of those who rule their countries. That reality is operating now. The "war on terror" is turning into a nightmare. Whistleblowers from the Administration itself are beginning to reveal secrets. (A high CIA official writes of "imperial hubris" and then leaves the agency.) Soldiers are questioning their mission. The corruption attending the war--the billion dollar contracts to Halliburton and Bechtel--is coming into the open.

The Bush administration, riding high and arrogant, adhering to the rule of the fanatic, which is to double your speed when you are going in the wrong direction, will find itself going over a cliff, too late to stop.

If the leaders of the Democratic Party do not understand this reality, do not squarely address the desires of people in every part of the country (forget the red, the blue, the nonsensical generalizations that ignore the complexities of human thought), they will find themselves tailgating the Bush vehicle as it heads for disaster.

Will the Democratic Party, so craven and unreliable, face a revolt from below which will transform it?

Or will it give way (four years from now? eight years from now?) to a new political movement that honestly declares its adherence to peace and justice?

Sooner or later, profound change will come to this nation tired of war, tired of seeing its wealth squandered, while the basic needs of families are not met. These needs are not hard to describe. Some are very practical, some are requirements of the soul: health care, work, living wages, a sense of dignity, a feeling of being at one with our fellow human beings on this Earth.

The people of this country have their own mandate.

-- Howard Zinn, the author of "A People's History of the United States," is a columnist for The Progressive.