Do opinion pieces ever change your opinion?
Given the fixity of our partisan beliefs, it's a rare occurrence. Yet history shows that reason and rhetoric can win converts.
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Neither can I. Like Blaise Pascal, who believed in God because the dangers of disbelief were greater, I place my faith in the wisdom of the American people. And I try to do my own small part in enhancing that wisdom, by writing op-eds that challenge readers to look anew at what they see.Skip to next paragraph
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Does it work? Now and again, I do receive messages from readers who tell me that my piece changed the way they think.
The majority of respondents remain squarely in the "Right On" or (more commonly) the "Wrong Again" zone, writing to confirm what they believed all along. But maybe they, too, are doing more thinking – and more changing – than their e-mails let on.
After all, our history is replete with examples of collective moral progress. And pamphleteers – the op-ed writers of their day – helped speed it along, with the logic and power of their prose.
Start with Thomas Paine, who helped persuade Americans that their problem lay not just with the particulars of British rule; it lay in monarchy itself, which was inimical to human decency and dignity.
Or consider Frederick Douglass, whose broadsides and speeches reminded Americans that slavery violated their founding credo: All men are created equal. "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?" Douglass asked, in his famous Fourth of July address in 1852. "Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?"
And then there was Susan B. Anthony, who indicted American men – including antislavery campaigners – for their oppression of women. "Many Abolitionists have yet to learn the ABC of woman's rights," Anthony wrote.
Consider Abraham Lincoln, Eugene V. Debs, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In different ways, every great American freedom fighter urged us to heed what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" – especially our ability to reason. Only when all citizens thought for themselves – unencumbered by cant, prejudice, and propaganda – would Americans become truly free.
In my op-eds, then, I try to scrutinize my own views. As a lifelong Democrat, I incline toward the left-liberal side of most political issues. So I try to criticize liberals, whenever I can, subjecting my own biases to the same type of rigorous examination that I'd like others to adopt.
In my heart, I believe in the ability of everyday citizens to deliberate public questions with reason, fairness, and intelligence.
And if you disagree, send me an e-mail. We'll talk.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His next book, "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," will be published in June.
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