See the mother and father of a baby, and you see the faces of joy. Watch the baby, and you see his little eyes struggle to keep up with the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes and shadows of shapes rushing at him every moment.
Or see her little ears strive to understand the cacophony of sound, the good voices and the not-so-good, the warnings and the praises, the trains, the cars, the voice of the simit peddler, the music. Watch the baby, and you share the parents' joy.
Something both difficult and wondrous happen about the time the baby turns two. The baby, having learned a few words, suddenly stands and says, "No!" The question doesn't matter.
"Do you want some ice cream?" Mama says.
"Go to grandma," Papa says.
This moment is hard for the parents, and, truth be told, difficult for the child. But the baby's saying No is a transformation from babyhood to childhood, and beyond. No doesn't mean "no" so much as it means it's time for a new direction, and new beginning. A time to grow into adulthood.
Times come in the lives of nations when some of the people say No. Those in charge don't like it. They warn of the end of times, of outside agitators, of the selfish and narrow motives of a tiny minority. They claim the support of a majority who stays in the shadows, whom no one hears, a majority who may be too comfortable, too lazy, too afraid, too ignorant, too much in denial. Saying nothing, thinking yes, living the easy way.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s in America, a small minority said No. They said No to an unjust war in Asia and No to denying political and civil rights to black people and to women. Mohammed Ali, the greatest boxer in the world, said No to being drafted into a war that violated his religious beliefs.
The people in charge didn't like it when Ali said No and they put him in jail. They sent hundreds of police with dogs and guns and tear gas and clubs against people demanding civil rights. Their thugs sneaked into the night and murdered people. Young men burned their draft cards and young women burned their bras. Gay people rioted over Stonewall. President Nixon claimed the support of "the Silent Majority." The protestors were called criminals, terrorists, and malcontents.
And they still said No.
It took time--babies don't grow up quickly and nations change even more slowly--but in America today, black people don't just vote, they become President. In nearly half of American households, women earn more than men, and in colleges, women outnumber men. The government doesn't force young people to serve in the military. Gay people can marry in many states, and Mohammed Ali is an American, even international, hero.
History teaches us that the strongest power in the universe is the power of ideas. No one knows for sure where ideas come from, and each of us imagines their source. But there's no denying their power.
We also know from history that rights are never, ever given freely. They must be demanded and, ultimately, taken.
And the process doesn't happen until people say No.
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