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The Limits of Denial
Published on Wednesday, September 4, 2002 by
Looking Back To See The Challenge Ahead
by Howard Zinn

The issues and controversies that filled the newspaper columns and airwaves on September 10, 2001 were rendered irrelevant on 9/11. The nation seemed traumatized, incapable of thinking of anything beside what occurred that morning.

The fire and smoke that cascaded from the Twin Towers on 9/11, and the thought of the thousands trapped, burned, crushed by an act of unspeakable horror, transfixed the nation. People at all points of the political spectrum seemed traumatized.

First to recover was President George Bush. He immediately declared a "war on terrorism." This relieved the paralysis of most Americans, for now they could turn their attention to the military action which would, supposedly, locate and destroy those responsible for the awful events of that day.

This meant also that the great body of the American public would now put behind them whatever concerns they had before 9/11. Those concerns, real and troubling as they were, seemed dwarfed by two enormous and immediate realities: terrorism and war.

There were many Americans who did not believe that the proper response to 9/11 was to start bombing Afghanistan. However, their very opposition to the war trapped them inside a circle where they were greatly outnumbered, their backs turned to critical issues which had roused them before 9/11, but which were now obscured in the smoke of that event.

In the months before the attacks, there was a large body of Americans who believed that the Bush administration had been put into office not by popular will, but by a politically motivated Supreme Court majority, and that we were now living, essentially, in an occupied country. Clearly, something was wrong with a political system that could allow this. Talk was beginning about structural change: abolition of the electoral college, preferential voting for the presidency, proportional representation in voting for Congress.

The terrorists cut that discussion short -- indeed the dubiously elected president now could command overwhelming support because the nation was at war.

Before 9/11 there was growing alarm about the new administration's policies on the environment: opening wildlife areas to oil exploration, allowing the auto companies to continue polluting the air with high levels of auto emissions, refusing to ratify the Kyoto treaty to reduce global warming, and a whole array of plans involving deregulation of corporate activities dangerous to the environment.

After the war began, it was difficult, in an atmosphere where fear of terrorism crowded out everything else, to hear voices of protest as the administration stepped up its attacks on the environment: undermining the Clean Air Act of 1970, resussitating nuclear power, cutting billions of dollars from the conservation of natural resources.

Through the '90s, and even as the nation moved into the new millenium, there was a growing consciousness about the flagrant maldistribution of wealth in the world's richest country. Largely as a result of changes in the tax structure in the '70s and '80s, by 1995, the richest 1 percent of Americans had gained over a trillion dollars, and now owned over 40 percent of the nation's wealth.

Between 1980 and 1995 the Dow Jones average of stock prices had gone up 400 percent, while the purchasing power of workers declined by 15 percent. Forty million people were without health insurance, and infants, especially those of color, died of sickness and malnutrition at a rate higher than that of any other industrialized country. Homelessness and unaffordable housing were becoming a national scandal.

The Clinton presidency took no bold steps to deal with the gross problems of economic injustice. The Bush administration came into office unabashedly pro-business and anti-labor. In the atmosphere of militarism and flag-waving that accompanied the war, the Democratic party, which had spoken out occasionally and cautiously about economic equality (after all, their ties were with corporate power, too) remained cowed and silent.

Since 9/11, those Americans who do not think that war is a justifiable response to terrorism have had difficulty concentrating on the traditional concerns of progressivism -- the plight of the poor, the homeless, the victims of both class and race prejudice. Ironically, their strong revulsion against war has left little room to deal with those issues where they stand the greatest chance of finding support in the larger American public.

But a year has passed since the Twin Towers collapsed and the Pentagon burned. The claim of the Bush administration, after 10 months of ruthless bombing in Afghanistan, and continued alarms about terrorists everywhere, that "we are winning the war on terror" (Bush's "State of the Union" speech) looks more and more hollow. The corporate scandals, crippling the hopes of retirees, devouring the savings of working people, have revealed the long-standing corrupt connections between government and big business.

What remains to be seen is if a new, bold agenda, centered not only on the rejection of war, but on a rational and humane distribution of the country's enormous wealth, may now be revisited. The challenge will be for a new, energized citizens movement to present this as an inspiring vision to what could be an increasingly receptive American public.

Howard Zinn is an historian and author of A People's History of the United States.


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