Contempt Within a Civilization

[Speech given on 9/11/02 to an anti-war community forum meeting in Austin, Texas.]

When I came to this country a few years ago, I honestly expected it to be a very closed, repressive society. That was my only explanation of why U.S. foreign policy could be as bad as it is. I thought that no democratic, open society could allow its government to be so blindly led by the war machine and the multinational corporations. I honestly expected something like Pinochet’s Chile.

I was very much surprised by what I saw here. Although we are all aware of the ways in which our freedoms are being curtailed, let me say it point blank: I believe that this is still, even after a whole year and a half of Ashcroft, one of the most open societies on Earth. I have lived in Europe and I have lived in the Third World. Nothing comes close. I know it’s hard to see if from the inside because we see all the wrongs with this country’s domestic policies; we see the racism, we see the inequality, we see the increasing erosion of civil liberties. Still, the level of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and the opportunities for social mobility for people, including immigrants such as myself, is unparalleled. I joined the chorus of progressives condemning the calls for racial profiling — even as all the while I kept thinking to myself how amazing that it was that there was a debate. That it affronted so many people’s sense of decency. In the developed democracies in Europe, it would not be discussed, it would be done. It is done, I know, having lived in Belgium and in Germany as a Turk.

Given the remarkable amount of freedom of speech we still have, the question is why we, as the anti-war, anti-empire, pro-justice, pro-democracy, movement, are not able to reach more of the American public. And we are not reaching many of them. Yes, there is corporate control of the media, but that does not fully explain why we have not been able to overcome the corporate media’s onslaught. We are able to publish newspapers, put up Internet sites, organize mailing lists, organize teach-ins and public meetings without being dragged out of our homes in the middle of the night to be tortured. Believe me, that kind of repression *is* a real disincentive.

So, why don’t people read our newspapers and our websites and join us? We have to think very long and hard about this. We have to be courageous and honest and intelligent and critical. Somehow, the propaganda machine works really well and we have to figure it out and how to fight back, not just in ways that make us feel better but in ways that are effective. Remember, this is not destiny that we try and fail. The propaganda machine in the Soviet Union failed miserably; there is no rule that says state-sponsored propaganda shall carry the day. Clearly, we face a more formidable enemy than that and we must rise to the challenge. And yes, while they are rich and powerful, we have truth, decency and integrity on our side. We should have a better shot at this than we seem to have managed so far.

I think an important part of the problem lies with this dichotomy, this mismatch between relatively decent civil liberties and relatively good domestic policies on the one hand –which have been won after centuries of struggle against slavery, against oppression, against injustice– and absolutely horrific foreign policy on the other hand. I think most Americans simply don’t believe that their government can be that bad. They know that politicians are corrupt and they know that corporations have too much power, but all in all, they have a good life. They find it hard to believe how horrible the war machine and the multinationals behave in the rest of the world. Nowadays, when I tell my friends in Turkey that the United States is a fairly open society and rather decent in many ways they think that the CIA has recruited me. When I tell Americans that their government displays a callous disregard for human life in its pursuit of greed and domination, they think that I’m some foreign knee-jerk American-hating loony.

Yes, this mismatch is striking and it makes it hard for us to communicate with people who only know one side of the story. Sometimes, I find it challenging to retain both my sanity and my sense of humanity in the face of such blatant, cynical manipulation by the warlords who rule our foreign policy.

This morning, I was listening to the radio. I heard George W. Bush talk about how the on 9/11 people were killed because they were Americans. That much is true but instead of feeling grief, I felt angry because I know that the man who was saying it has instituted a set of policies that kill people because they happen to live in Afghanistan — even though, as more and more officials now concede, our bombing of that country really didn’t help us in terms of rooting out terror. In fact, as they now admit, it probably made things worse.

I got mad because George W. Bush institutes policies that let millions die of AIDS and other more curable diseases because they are in Africa and because access to cheap drugs might upset the already obscene profits of the pharmaceuticals. While my anger was rising, the coverage shifted to the crash site of United Flight 93 where they were reading the names of the victims. Just as I was thinking how I wished they also read the names of people who died in Afghanistan through bombs, through starvation, through neglect, I heard the name Deora Bodley. It stopped me cold in my anger, I choked up.

I had talked with Deora’s father, Derrill Bodley, a few days after 9/11 while I was working on helping to arrange media visibility for families that had lost members in the attacks but that were speaking out against the then-upcoming war. It was important work but it was horrible. Without having done it, you just can’t imagine how hard it is arranging media interviews for people who had just suffered a devastating loss. Deora was his only child, she was just 20. He said that had no strength left, he was simply devastated. Then, he said, he found Deora’s journals. She had written about peace, about justice, even as a kid. She was one of those people; she volunteered for animal shelters, for the special olympics, and to help kids at a local elementary school. Derrill said that he knew that, for his daughter’s sake, he had to gather his strength and oppose the war. Last February, he traveled to Afghanistan, where he met with family members of people who had lost relatives to the American bombing. One couple had lost a son who was much like Derrill’s daughter. We don’t speak the same language, Derrill says, but I understand and they understand. It’s the same kind of pain, he says. He is a music teacher; he composed a peace for Deora titled “The Steps to Peace” and played it for bereaved families in Afghanistan. Derrill joined peaceful tomorrows — the website is — whose members continue to speak out against war.

When people got killed because they were Americans, Derrill Bodley decided to fight against people being killed for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. George W. Bush, on the other hand, thinks 9/11 gives him a pretext to authorize policies that kill other people for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, so far, it has worked. How is it that George W.’s message of divisiveness and callousness rules the day when the light of hope that Derrill kindled in the name of his daughter gets drowned out? We must ask this question. I don’t think the answer is simple or straightforward. We must find a way to stop this cynical manipulation — we couldn’t for Afghanistan but we must for Iraq.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked with Diane Wilson from Seadrift, Texas. She had just gotten arrested for climbing to a tower inside the Dow Chemical plant and hanging a 10 foot banner that reads “Dow responsible for Bhopal.” She had just ended a thirty day hunger strike to make the same point. You see, Dow Chemicals had bought Union Carbide, whose extreme cost-cutting measures caused the worst industrial accident of all time in Bhopal, India back in 1984, killing up to 20,000 and maiming hundreds of thousands who suffer to this day. Union Carbide has paid less than $500 per victim and Dow says that’s that and let’s move on. Diane said to me that this is what gets her the most — that Dow Chemical could never get away with doing that little if the victims were Americans. She said to me: “We are all human beings on this one planet. It’s outrageous that the lives of people in India are so devalued.” So true, so simple. I must repeat my question; why are we not able to rally people around this simple, obvious point of decency? We must face this question. Tiptoeing around it is not going to help the people of our planet whose voices are not heard. It’s the main reality we must face — it’s really up to the people in this country to right the wrongs of this country.

Clearly, as Derrick and Diane and countless others showed, including the firefighters who rushed up the stairs of the World Trade Center –while Dick Cheney was hiding in a bunker and George W. Bush was flying out somewhere over in Nebraska– there is no shortage of decent, courageous people this country.

An example I like to cite about the vast gap between the decency of people versus the success of the propaganda machine is that most Americans believe that we spend too much on foreign aid –they think it’s about 20 percent of the budget. They think it should be about 10 percent. Well, we know it’s less than one percent, much of which goes to a few countries such as Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Columbia and that for poor countries often aid is tied to making them purchase American goods.

Once again, somehow, the propaganda machine has managed to take people’s decent urges –that we should not let our neighbors starve while we remain so rich ourselves– and totally and completely twisted it with their many, many levels of lies. We must find a way to cut through this web of deceit. It’s hard and challenging work. If we succeed, we will be the first Empire that was brought down and fashioned into a peaceful and equal member of the global community at the hands of its own citizens.

Zeynep Toufe is a doctoral student in Austin, Texas. She can be reached at