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Why I Write (for Newspapers)


My clearest memory of the 1991 Persian Gulf War is a few moments on a bus when the world melted in front of me.

I was in graduate school at the time, finishing a doctoral degree and working evenings on a daily newspaper copy desk. I was going to antiwar demonstrations and arguing with people about the war during the day, and then working at night to process the propaganda-like stories that were filling the papers.

I felt whiplashed between incredible rage and a deep sadness over what my government was doing and how little I could affect the coverage of it from my desk at the newspaper.

One afternoon coming home from school on a bus, all those emotions broke open. As I sat looking out the window, I couldn’t stop thinking about what was happening to people in Iraq, the bombs and the blood; I couldn’t shut the death out of my mind.

I started to cry. I have no idea if people around me thought it strange; I had no sense of being around people. I felt alone, and I felt a grief as huge as the horror that brought it on. It was a moment when the pain was so raw that I had no defenses.

Nearly 10 years later, as I write this, I can remember looking out that bus window and feeling that despair, and I realize that I have never completely recovered from that moment. There is no shortage of suffering and evil in the world that has moved people, and the Gulf War was in some ways nothing out of the ordinary for a country with a history as brutal as the United States.

But it was a turning point for me, a moment after which there was no going back to believing that my country ’tis of thee was a land of sweet anything. It was not a moment of purely rational assessment; it was a moment in which I realized things I had known but until then not completely taken in, a moment of letting myself feel what I had up to then kept at bay.

Later that night, I tried to explain what I was feeling to the one coworker at the newspaper, a man a decade older than I, who I thought could understand. “I know what you mean,” he shrugged. “That’s what happened to a lot of us during Vietnam. There’s no going back. It’s never the same again.”

That feeling comes back to me often. It came back on a day in May 2000, as the spring semester at the University of Texas was winding down, I sat down in my office one morning to finish end-of-the-semester chores. I lingered a bit with the morning paper, enjoying the slower pace that comes when the students start leaving for break.

As I read a story about the controversy over reporter Seymour Hersh’s story on war-crime allegations against a Gulf War general who violated rules of engagement and, in effect, murdered Iraqis after the cease-fire, I started to get angry about the war –angry about the unnecessary death, outraged about abuses of power that officials of my government take as their birthright, and pissed off about the ease with which fellow citizens accept it all as the natural order of things.

But the anger quickly turned to sadness, and I felt myself slipping back to 1991. I put the paper down and began to sob. All the emotion I had felt during the war flooded over me, magnified a decade later by the knowledge of how the crippling effects of the economic embargo on Iraq have made routine the ongoing death and misery. I felt pulled back into that sense of despair.

So I wrote.

I wrote for a lot of different reasons that morning — personal and political, long-term and immediate, strategic and principled. I wrote because I knew the Hersh revelations would be a good hook for an op/ed and that if I jumped on it quickly, I might be able to wedge into a mainstream paper a bluntly critical article.

I wrote because I’m expected to write in my job as a journalism professor. I wrote because I like to see my thoughts in print. I wrote because somewhere in Iraq at that moment a parent like me was watching a child like mine die because of U.S. policy.

I wrote because I think citizens should know the truth about the crimes their government commits. I wrote because forcing people to rethink the Gulf War often can help in the work to end the sanctions on Iraq. I wrote because writing is a craft in which I have always found pleasure.

But that day, I wrote mostly because I did not know what else to do with my anger and pain. I wrote because when I was done writing, I felt as if there was a purpose for the pain and anger. I wrote because if I hadn’t written, I would have felt worse than I did.

I wrote to cope and to vent. And I wrote to be part of a larger movement for progressive change. I wrote for myself, and I wrote for others. I thought about myself, and I thought about the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero’s plea that those with privilege use it to be a “voice for the voiceless.”

But, one might justifiably ask, does one op/ed in one paper really mean anything?

Though it is silly to think that writing in and of itself will bring change, it is not silly to believe in the power of writing. Most people can think of a piece of writing — whether a newspaper op/ed, a great novel, or a brilliant political book — that changed them in some way.

On occasion I get letters from people who tell me that an op/ed or an article I wrote made a difference in their lives. All it takes is one of those letters every so often to keep me writing. Virtually every day I read words that someone else has written that make a difference in my life; that keeps me writing, too.

I may be naïve. Others (including many of my professor colleagues) may be right — you can’t beat the system, so you might as well cut the best deal you can, find work that is satisfying personally, and be comfortable. “I admire what you do,” one colleague told me, “but I have to live in the real world.”

The last time I checked, I do live in the real world. It is a world full of injustice and pain and suffering, along with joy and love and solidarity. It is also a world in which we must live with uncertainty, both moral and practical. I can never know with absolute certainty that what I believe will turn out to be right, or that the choices I make to act on those beliefs will be most effective.

After I’m long dead and perhaps someone can assess the political effects, it may turn out that all the words I wrote had no tangible effect on the world, that I was kidding myself by thinking those words would make a difference. Maybe I am wasting my time. But even if I knew all that to be true, I would still write.

I write because I hurt, and because I see others hurting.

I write not because of who I am, but because of who I want to be.

I write because sometimes I don’t know what else to do.

I write not because I don’t understand what the “real” world is all about, but because I want to believe that we can make real another kind of world.

I write to keep the world from melting in front of me.

Excerpted from Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream by Robert Jensen (New York: Peter Lang, 2001). http://www.peterlangusa.com

Jensen, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, can be reached at [email protected] Other writings are available online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/freelance.htm

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