Talking to the Toastmasters

Recently I was asked to reflect on the antiwar work of the past eight months, with an eye toward signs of hope. For those of us in that movement, it is easy to feel defeated these days. So, here’s one small story to counter that.

Since September 11, I have been speaking out against the so-called “war on terrorism” — writing for print publications and on the web, speaking at public forums and on countless radio shows. Although mostly shut out of the mainstream commercial media, my words have reached more people than I would ever have imagined.

But in some sense my most important words that fall were spoken to nine people at a “Fun Company” Toastmasters meeting on a Friday night in Austin, Texas. That’s not because any tangible political change came from my talk, but because in those two hours there was a real exchange of ideas among regular Americans in open, honest dialogue.

That was remarkable in part because of the timing. It was October 19, and the country was still overwhelmed with patriotic fervor. Anyone daring to criticize the war was suspected of disloyalty. A few weeks earlier I had been denounced publicly by the president of my university for my views. No one was being thrown in jail for speaking out (though hundreds of Arab and Muslim men were — and many still are — being held in secret detention, usually on minor immigration violations), but the social climate helped to suppress open discussion and dissent.

Yet that night in a small meeting room, dissenting views were discussed, without accusations of disloyalty hanging in the air. That alone was an important achievement.

Also important was that the nine people I spoke with were not political activists. The Toastmasters is a non-profit group whose mission is to help members develop speaking skills, not develop political views. Most of the people at the Austin meeting where I spoke said they usually didn’t pay much attention to politics or foreign affairs. They were, in this regard, “regular folks.”

Though they didn’t define themselves as political people, most of them had political concerns, which became clear after I finished my prepared remarks and we began talking. Most of them said what they knew about U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East and Central Asia, Islam and fundamentalism came from the news, especially TV news. That is, most of them acknowledged they didn’t know much.

But they knew what questions to ask. They knew where to demand more explanation from me. They knew what kind of information they needed. They were willing to challenge me, and challenge themselves. Not everyone left the meeting that night agreeing with my antiwar stance; I don’t think I made a single convert on the spot. But a number of them said that they realized they had an obligation to learn more if they were to be responsible citizens.

In the months after 9/11 I gave several talks to large audiences that were supportive of my position and generous in their response to me, for which I was grateful. But in some ways my Friday night with the Toastmasters was more important to me. That evening reminded me that we in the antiwar movement should never write off people who at first might seem uninterested in our ideas.

The cover story that policymakers and politicians offer about their noble intentions in going to war is always terribly thin, and most people recognize that at some level. Our task is to create the space in which people can air their uncertainties and doubts. If we can offer honest analysis in plain language, we can move people to reconsider what the powerful have told them.

My favorite example of this in my life came 10 days after September 11, when I was giving a talk to college journalists. After I finished, a staff person from my university who had helped organize the conference told me that prior to my talk, all she knew about me was what she had read in the paper, mostly about the university president’s condemnation of me. She had assumed that I was some kind of nut case who spouted crazy ideas. After hearing me, she said she wasn’t necessarily convinced by my argument.

“But you aren’t crazy,” she said with a smile.

I laughed and told her I wasn’t completely sure about that. But whether or not I am crazy isn’t the main point. More important is that the argument against the so-called war on terrorism isn’t crazy. The argument for a world based on solidarity and compassion instead of greed and violence is not crazy.

And believing that we can struggle to create such a world is not crazy. That struggle is, in fact, the only sure way to stay sane.

Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet “Citizens of the Empire.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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