A Tradition of Protests and Re-education of the Oppressed
By Theodore T. Hodge
Theodore T. Hodge
I will always remember the day I first met the late Dr. Howard Zinn; I met him again on two subsequent occasions. He was an American historian, playwright, and social activist. He was a professor of political science at Boston University and a professor of history at Spellman College in Atlanta. But before his stint as an intellectual and a man of letters, he was an American bombardier during WWII. After the war, he returned home and finished his studies before beginning his life as an academician. A strange thing happened. The man who had been a fighter pilot, responsible for dropping bombs on civilians, had a change of heart; he became a pacifist and an anti-war activist. He would spend the rest of his life criticizing his country on its internal and external polices, especially on defense.
He lost his job for criticizing the US stance on the Vietnam War. He was one of the many opponents of the cozy relationship between the USA and apartheid South Africa. He championed the movement to divest in South Africa, forcing many US corporations to divest in the South African economy and eventually leading to the collapse of the government there... paving the way for the new South Africa and the era of majority rule.
He was speaking at an event in Cleveland, Ohio during my undergraduate days. He was on our campus under the auspices of the university; many of the students attending the program were there involuntarily, that is, they were attending the program as a class requirement; for me it was a great honor and opportunity I could not forego, after all, I had read and admired his work. At the end of the program, one of my classmates said to me, "If this man hates America so much, why doesn't he just pack up and leave? It is quite obvious he hates this country... he is so anti-America."
I listened patiently and parted company with this frustrated student, this frustrated American who didn't seem to understand the fundamental right of free speech, the fundamental right to dissent. Though we had witnessed the same program and listened to the same speaker, we had both come away with different impressions and understanding. I admired Professor Zinn and he loathed him. I was encouraged by his forthrightness and honesty and the courage it took him to speak out on such an unpopular subject: American policies; the other student saw him as a traitor. I respected and will always honor people like Howard Zinn who lived his life by fighting to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Not only was he an opponent of war, he respected and supported the civil rights of his fellow countrymen; that fight put him on the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. His life, in short, was simply a profile in courage. (It was an honor to have him autograph copies of two of his books; I still have them and keep them proudly today).
Another American I admire whole-heartedly is Dr. Noam Chomsky. A Wikipedia page describes him as a linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician, political commentator and activist. But that doesn't tell you all about this complex mind sharing our planet. He is simply controversial; both loved and loathed. As the student just mentioned above thought of Dr. Zinn as anti-American, so do many other Americans think of Noam Chomsky in questionable ways as far as ideology goes. The good news is, Dr. Chomsky has stood the test and criticisms of his detractors and remains on course as a creature of conscience. He listens to his conscience and he knows he's not in a simple popularity contest. He will be vilified by others, but he knows he must be true to himself otherwise he loses his soul. Imagine a man of pure Jewish extraction who has the courage to disagree with and criticize the policies of the Israeli government in its ongoing crises with the Palestinians. Now that's courage and honesty; you don't find many others like him.
Many others come to mind that I admire for their intellectual honesty, but I will never finish this short article were I to name them all. One more won't hurt, and so I add Dr. Cornel West. I have admired Dr. West for a very long time and have considered his political opinions invaluable. But I've begun to admire him even more vigorously for his stance against some of President Barack Obama's policies, especially his military policies. He finds it quite disconcerting that a man who has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize supports the escalation of war around the globe, although hesitatingly. Many will argue the pro and con of the issue, but Cornel West makes a point every opportunity he gets to criticize the Obama administration, although he was one of Mr. Obama's staunches supporters during his candidacy. (I support President Obama but agree that he didn't deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. It was awarded to him too early in his tenure as president).
This is the great tradition I've come to admire. Yes, I am a Liberian but I've spent considerably more of my life in America than I've spent in Liberia. I've adopted some American approaches to life, especially the political philosophy that embodies free speech as a fundamental tenet. For those people that have not embraced the fact that free speech is a right in a democracy, you have my sympathy, but I owe you no apologies. One thing I find puzzling is that the Liberian constitution is basically a replica of the American constitution. The two political traditions (according to what's on the books) are so similar that going from one to the other does not require a quantum leap. Yet I find it so baffling when Liberians mistake the criticism of a public figure as "hatred". That is simply too strong a word to justify the differences in opinion. One does not have to "hate" someone to criticize that person. And a writer or speaker does not have to be called "ignorant" or "stupid" for expressing an opinion that does not concur with one's position. The expression of opposite viewpoints on whatever the topic is the lifeline of democracy. It is our right to express divergent opinions and our fellow citizens cannot dictate to us our choice of words or our timing. The only civilized option is to listen to or read your opponent's viewpoint and craft a response to counter the opinion, not to censor or muzzle free speech. What is required in response to a work of criticism is proof and evidence to counter what was said or written, not a berating of the messenger. To do so shows a lack of refinement and it is unfortunate that some folks think that's the way to show intellectual prowess.
It has been brought to my attention that some folks think me unpatriotic for being such a bold critic of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration during this tragic period of our nation. Well, don't hold your breath waiting for an apology; I have none to give. I shall call it as I see it and in the tradition of the late great Steve Biko, I'll write what I like. My challenge to my detractors and the supporters of the present administration is simple: Write articles in support of the administration. Tell us what the administration is doing for the people of Liberia; catalogue its progress. It is not enough to call me a liar, a provocateur or unpatriotic. It is my right to oppose and expose the government and it is your right to support it. Don't stifle my right and hope to sweep the issues under the rug. The issues are out now and a pluralist society demands transparency. That's the challenge I have accepted, and to play the role of a thorn in the side the government has become my calling.
To those of you who don't know me, let me state this for the record. I supported Mrs. Sirleaf in her first candidacy for president. I wrote numerous articles and even went to a National Public Radio (NPR) studio where I was interviewed on a program by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). I was a full-fledged and enthusiastic supporter of her campaign because I believed she was the best among the many candidates. Yes, my reasons for supporting her were purely subjective and I was hoping I was right. In retrospection, I have come to the realization that I was wrong for pinning my hopes on her. But it was my right to support a candidate and that's what I did.
It didn't take long into the first term before I realized I had made an error in judgment. Before coming to that conclusion I had met with the president during one of her visits to the United States. I met with her in a private meeting at the Liberian Embassy in Washington, DC and later on at the residence of Ambassador Minor. She urged me to return home and give her a call upon my arrival in Monrovia, but I did not jump to the invitation. I continued to watch from the sidelines as she made one blunder after another; I was disappointed in her cabinet and other major appointments. I came to see her not as the statesman I had envisioned, but as a mere politician who mastered the art of deception and self-promotion; making Liberia a better place was not prime on her agenda. I had to make the break. I am wholly dedicated to the task of stripping away the cloak of deception.
There are those who cannot reconcile the fact that I first supported the candidacy of Mrs. Sirleaf and now oppose her so staunchly. Yes, I do plead guilty to a bad judgment, but it was not a crime. In a democratic system each citizen has a choice to choose his/her candidate; and that's all I did. But once it became perfectly clear to me that I had made a bad choice, I went on record to register my discontent. It is clear that I was a supporter, not a disciple. I have a responsibility to be honest to myself. I am not a stooge nor am I fanatical. I make decisions on the basis of objective analyses and empirical data. My decision to now oppose this administration rests on its record; pure and simple. The presidency is not an imperial position according to our constitution and though our presidents are normally imperious, they are elected by the people to be public servants; there are not monarchs beyond reproach. I owe no president any loyalty because I am not a subject. On the flip side, it is the president that has a responsibility to deliver on his or her promises or face the consequences.
Before this administration, there was another administration headed by one Charles G. Taylor. I joined a band of Liberians opposed to the Charles Taylor regime. I took the forefront in that movement with gusto and extraordinary energy. Sometimes I wrote as many as two to three articles a week and became wholly subsumed in the battle to bring attention to the rogue regime in Liberia. I spent so much time writing against the regime that there were rumors flying about me that I did not have a job; that I was on Welfare or Social Security. They could not conceive of someone giving so much time to a project without getting paid for it. The truth is I worked for a living and still dedicated my free time to fighting against the terror of the Taylor regime; I still hold a full-time job now as I fight this new battle. There are those who think we accomplish nothing by all this writing and protest, but there were those who were of the opinion that we were simply wasting our time criticizing the Taylor regime, but they were wrong. Where is Charles now? After creating an epidemic of fear and terror in our country, Taylor now spends his days as a lonely prisoner behind walls and the walls are caving in.
In that battle for the removal of Charles Taylor, I realized I was in a marathon, not a hundred-yard dash. I realized that when one makes a commitment, one must have the guts to stick to it. That is the same spirit and the same determination I bring to this fight to expose the current regime in Liberia. It is an ugly fight, but someone has to do it. In the tradition of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Steve Biko, I shall stand up to expose the bad policies this government espouses. I shall take the right granted me under the constitution seriously. There are those of my countrymen and women who may not have the time or opportunity to fight this necessary fight; I fight for them.
I don't want to be misunderstood. I do not intend to compare myself to the giants I've named above. I do not consider myself in their class. As a matter of fact, I do not consider myself an intellectual and I never claimed to be. I'm simply a concerned citizen of Liberia and I will put my mouth in Liberia's business every chance I get as long as I can; this is a marathon and you can bet your last dollar I'm in it for the long haul, whatever it takes.
Let me close with three more heroes: Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Edward Said. Frantz Fanon was a Martinique-born Afro-French psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary and writer. He wrote 'The Wretched of the Earth' and it is said that his works are influential in the fields of post-colonial studies. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian-born educator and philosopher who wrote the 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed'. He criticized traditional pedagogy and proposed a new relationship between teacher, student, and society. And Edward Said was a Palestinian-American literary theorist and public intellectual; he wrote many books and helped found the critical-theory field of post-colonialism. These three heroes of mine were not Liberians but their thoughts and teachings were universal; their teachings are quite applicable to the Liberian society. How could one go through this life without being concerned about the wretched of the earth and our responsibility to re-educate the masses that have been oppressed. I'm simply following a great tradition and proud to be following in the footsteps of giants.
The Author: Theodore Hodge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org