Honoring dissent

By Robert Jensen

with Rahul Mahajan

Published in Common Dreams · September, 2001

[This article was published on Common Dreams, September 30, 2001, and other websites.]

After two weeks of personal and political attacks from fellow citizens because of our antiwar writing, we have relearned how dissent is honored in the United States.

Many Americans like dissent that is safely in the past, where it does not raise uncomfortable questions or challenge contemporary prejudices. But dissent in the present, about matters of the greatest public importance, well, that’s quite another matter.

One of us, a graduate student of Indian origin, has been told to “go back to Afghanistan where you came from,” even though he was born in the United States. “After what this country’s done for you, how dare you attack us, you (#$@%)?” wrote another.

Meanwhile, a Texas newspaper on Sept. 14 published an essay by the other, an Anglo professor, that asked Americans to turn from the desire to react with massive violence and confront some of the ugly truths about our own history of targeting civilians in war, so we can understand how we are viewed in much of the rest of the world.

That piece generated lots of angry messages from citizens and alumni, to the author and University of Texas officials, making it clear they would send neither money nor their children to UT until said professor was fired. The president’s response was to issue a statement acknowledging the professor’s right to speak but suggesting that no one need pay attention to such a “fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy.”

We’re not complaining about any of this; we’re glad we were attacked. It is not flippant to say that it is better to be hated than ignored; people are paying attention, finally.

Too often Americans have “honored” dissent by ignoring it, allowing people to speak because they thought it would make no difference.

For several years we have been part of organizing aimed at changing U.S. actions around the world, including the movement to end the sanctions on Iraq and resist the U.S./NATO attack on Yugoslavia. The response of most Americans on such issues has been a collective yawn.

The 3,000 email and phone messages we have received since Sept. 11 suggest that times have changed. The ferociousness of the response means we’ve hit a nerve.

The people who in the past refused to listen to us but “defended” our right to speak had a very incomplete notion of the rights and obligations of a citizen in a democracy. For too long, too many people have accepted the notion that democracy means simply the right to be left alone to engage in our private pursuits, with a trip to the voting booth every couple of years. In truth, the heart of democracy is the ability of the people to affect government policy, including foreign policy.

The first step in the process of re-politicization has been achieved people are listening and reacting.

Now that America has been attacked, people finally see the relevance of foreign policy to their own interests.

The next step is to have more and more people move past simply reacting to critical engagement with antiwar arguments. There is real potential to take this issue far beyond the traditional peace community.

We must repeatedly ask people whether they understand that Bush’s Sept. 20 speech (when taken in conjunction with the joint resolution of Congress passed Sept. 14) announced an unlimited war against a potentially endless enemy. Do they understand the consequences of a war that the secretary of defense has said has no “exit strategies” and will be “a sustained engagement that carries no deadlines”? What do they imagine will be the end result of “draining the swamp,” a reference by that same secretary to an old counterinsurgency term that means destroying societies suspected of harboring terrorists by creating refugees or killing civilians?

A growing number of Americans are nervous, wondering how this bellicose talk of war is going to make them more secure. It is not a big jump from that nervousness to the conclusion that a military strike is not going to bring terrorists to real justice and may well start a war in which civilians on all sides will be victims. A recent poll indicates that 63 percent of Americans believe that strikes on Afghanistan will increase the threat of terrorist attacks; that’s a good place to start.

The president has encouraged us to “return to normal” i.e., politically detached and passive. The television anchors encourage us to stick to the narrow spectrum of opinion they allow on the air. We must say no, not only to the policy being sold us but to that conception of politics and public dialogue.

A new, richer sense of public dialogue, of truly caring about what other people say, and realizing that is affects us, is crucial. This war may finally be making it possible.