Reflections on an Airplane Conversation
Iraq, Horowitz, and Critical Thinking
Revolution #043, April 16, 2006, posted at revcom.us
I grabbed a middle seat in the first row. The plane from New Orleans to Houston was late and I wanted to quickly get off to catch a connecting flight. The guy in the window seat looked like a businessman and I asked him what he had been doing in New Orleans. He said he was a salesman, visiting clients and was on his way back home to Texas. I told him I was a photojournalist for Revolution newspaper and had spent a couple of days in New Orleans taking photographs, trying to capture the enormity of the city’s devastation, and the ongoing plight of the residents. Ted had been to New Orleans about a half a dozen times in the seven months since Katrina and seen how little has been done by the government to address the huge problems faced by the residents who want to rebuild and move back.
We settled in for the hour plus plane ride and continued a discussion that didn’t stop until we landed and the seatbelt light went off. We talked about a lot of things – more on the dire situation in New Orleans, the Iraq War, efforts by the government to criminalize immigrants, the separation of church and state, taxes and Ted’s two-year-old daughter.
Ted is like a lot of people in the United States. Doesn’t live in a major city, owns a home, has a pretty comfortable income and can afford to go on a couple of vacations a year. When the conversation got around to how the government lied to people about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Ted sheepishly told me he voted for Bush. But then quickly added that he now thinks Bush might just end up being the worst president in the history of the United States.
There were many moments in our conversation that made me think about Bob Avakian’s writings on the need and possibility of repolarization for revolution in this country. Huge things going on in the world are making Ted question a lot of the way he has thought about things all his life. He’s really worried about the future – he told me that at one point he had decided not to have any children because of how bad things are. He is really pissed off about the state of the world and was very interested in hearing my revolutionary views on things.
Ted joined the U.S. Marines after high school and fought in the first U.S. Gulf War. He said he was glad and has no regrets that he “served his country proudly” for six years. But he’s outraged about Bush's lies about Weapons of Mass Destruction and he’s against the War in Iraq.
He said when he was in the Marines he was totally isolated from any information about what was going on in the world – that the only thing he knew was what his commanders told him. He marched day after day, chanting — “Blood makes the grass grow, Marines make the blood flow.” He said he was so indoctrinated he did everything they told him to do – he didn't even think twice about killing people because he believed he was there in Iraq to “serve and save his country.” He didn't question anything he was told to do. He said they were conditioned to not even think about the people they were killing as human beings.
We started talking about the horrendous torture at Abu Ghraib and Ted said, “I can completely understand how that happened.... if I had been in that position when I was in the Marines, I would have done what they did. If they told me to crush someone, torture someone, I would have done it.”
I said – you're clearly not that person now. What changed your thinking?
After the Marines, a lot of things happened in his life – and in the world – that changed Ted's thinking. But he told me one thing that I found particularly interesting. He said he went to college and there was one class he took with a very “liberal professor.” Ted said he used to get into heated arguments with him every class – that everything the professor said, he would disagree with and they would go at it. He kinda laughed then and commented, that it turned out that a lot of the things the professor had to say were true. And this had a big effect on Ted – at least it got him thinking in new ways, opened his mind up to other points of view, and led to him looking more objectively at what this system is doing to people around the world and here in the United States.
I commented to Ted – just think if instead of going to college, you had become a cop on the streets of New Orleans after the Hurricane? What would he be doing with that “Marine Mentality.” Ted said, “I'd be beating people up.”
I wondered if that “liberal professor” knew he had such an big impact on Ted. And I wondered if he might be one of the professors attacked by David Horowitz's reactionary book, “The Professors – the 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.”
If Horowitz had his way, Ted's professor would have been driven off campus for, let's say, challenging Ted's view that the Marines were doing something good in Iraq by making “blood flow.” Or some student would have been sent in to spy and tape the arguments between Ted and the professor – and then offer them up as evidence that the professor should be fired because he is “supporting terrorism” by opposing the war.
A Marine doesn't ask questions or think critically about what he is told. But in our conversation, Ted was inquisitive, self-reflective, open to new ideas and not afraid to go back and forth in a tug-of-war over differing ideas. I think he probably got a lot of this from his experience with that “liberal professor.”
As we continued our conversation, I thought about how Ted's transformation is an example of the importance of colleges and universities being centers of critical thinking, dissent and debate. It was important and great that Ted – and all the other students — had the opportunity to disagree and debate that professor – whether or their thinking changed. Academic freedom should thrive on hypotheses being set forward and vigorously examined. Teachers should encourage students to seek out the truth. Colleges and universities should be places where students can really thrash out ideas, where radical and conservative professors alike are challenged as part of the swirl of debate and struggle aimed at getting to the truth of things. This is the kind of crucial and vibrant learning atmosphere being attacked by Horowitz in the ame of “academic freedom.”
The captain turned on the seatbelt light and announced our arrival. We exchanged business cards and toward the end of our conversation, Ted looked at me and said, “Well, I guess we need a revolution. I’m ready for it!”