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Speaking Truth to the Powerless
November 23, 2002
By Doug Pibel

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"Speak truth to power" is a fine old motto that's seeing new life in these times of impending war, decreasing privacy, and government by madmen. It's a catchy phrase, and has some truth to it.

The concept is, however, only useful in two situations. If you assume that power doesn't know the truth, it helps to speak it. But there's little evidence that the powerful, especially in America, don't know the truth about what they're doing. If you think that all the Bush regime needs is a little education about the realities of war in general, and the risks of war on Iraq in particular, go read the National Security Strategy. These people are perfectly happy if the Middle East goes up in flames.

Or, if you believe that power has a conscience, it's useful to tell it the truth. "You're not putting this over on me," you tell power, and it slinks away, hanging its head in shame. If you think this might be applicable to the Bush regime, I refer you to the July 4, 2001 exchange between a disgruntled voter and the Former Governor of Texas, in which the latter summed up his response to the former's complaints with the punchy, yet well reasoned, "Who cares what you think?"

I'm not at all against speaking truth to power. Some of the people in the Bush regime show occasional glimpses of conscience. Well, one of them does, anyway - Colin Powell - and I think that's just for show. There's little question in my mind that The Leader Hisself has, at best, a tenuous grasp of the truth (that is giving him a bit too much credit, isn't it?), but it's also clear that he's not interested in broadening his horizons.

I'd like to suggest a little modification to the slogan. How about: "Speak truth to the powerless."

It's not, after all, the people who are running the show who are confused. It's pretty clear that they know what they're after: power and money. It's everybody else - the people who are going to be left poorer and more powerless - who are confused about what is going on.

There's an odd disconnect, much commented on in alternative media, and presented without comment by the establishment media, between the truths Americans express in opinion polls, and the truths presented by the talking heads.

On the one hand, the polls say that, on almost any single issue, the American public is at odds with the course the Bush regime is pursuing. Environment? We don't want to drill in ANWR. War on Iraq? We'd rather not, really. More tax welfare for the obscenely rich? We'll take a pass on that.

On the other hand, we receive floods of reports that gushing admiration grows second by second for our Fierce Warrior Chieftan. This notion is bolstered by the behavior of our elected representatives, who vote overwhelmingly in favor of laws demanded by the Fierce One. Our representatives are so awed by this great man that they need no longer even read legislation, let alone debate it. How can we lesser mortals question His power and rectitude?

It is time, and past time, to break the spell. There are signs that the walls of subterfuge are cracking. William Safire, one of the great propagandists of neoconservatism, finds himself discomfited by the Bush regime plan to generate an all-encompassing database. The denizens of suddenly discover that the government might track, not merely their internet usage, but, heaven forfend, their gun purchases.

But those examples are still not the masses. The mighty beacon of the New York Times shines into pitifully few nooks in America; any Internet political-interest group is tiny in a nation of 280 million people, half of whom do not surf the web.

Contrary to popular belief, the American public is not stupid. Misled, assuredly. Poorly educated, no doubt. But very infrequently unable to get it, if given the facts.

Which has to be the project. The public is uneasy; it knows something's going terribly wrong. It just doesn't have the facts; to the contrary, it is presented a daily dose of lies. It's not really even a matter of having to shout down the liars. It's more a matter of finding ways to say, "There's a perfectly good reason you feel uneasy."

People look around themselves and see their friends losing jobs, losing 401Ks, losing homes. Yet, around the blaring war trumpets, they hear only that the economy is "fundamentally sound," that we're in a "temporary soft spot." They're waiting for someone to say, "What you see with your own eyes is real. That stuff you're told that doesn't make sense? It doesn't make sense because it's a lie."

It would be nice if our elected representatives would say that. But, between the pall of political fear that seems to have settled over DC, and the fact that those who do speak out are muffled to the point of being inaudible, that's not happening.

Which leaves it to those of us who get our news outside the mainstream, who question, for good reason, the official story. How, in the face of a captive media, do we do that? Perhaps by taking our opinions beyond the internet. If we have the opportunity to insert a few facts into a conversation, we need to take it. This is no time to be shy.

We need to find ways to make anti-war demonstrations better platforms for education. It's more fun, perhaps, to carry a sign poking fun at the big boys (I plead guilty to this myself); it may be more productive to aim the signs, not at the media, not at the madmen, but at the people watching from the sidewalk, wondering, "What, exactly, are these people so upset about?"

The Internet is rife with printer-ready stickers, posters and leaflets. We need to go beyond pulling those up on the screen. Print them out and put them up. Hand out leaflets. There are growing efforts on the net to coordinate action. Find them and join them.

It does no good to bemoan the takeover of the mass media by corporations. That will not change soon. We need to take the tools we have, and use them the only place where we have access: at the grassroots.

It seems a daunting, near-impossible task, given the high volume issuing from the hard right. But the task is not to convert the true believers. The task is to wake up the biggest winners in the last election, the 61% who voted, "It's too hopeless, it's too confusing, and I don't care."

The mid-term elections were decided by a scant one percent of the mere 39% who voted. We don't need to rouse a revolutionary supermajority; we need only galvanize a tiny fraction. That doesn't require mass media. It needs only individual voices, raised only enough to firmly present the truth.

The Constitution begins, "We the people." Maybe working person-to-person is, after all, speaking truth to power.

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