At 85 years old, the indefatigable Howard Zinn still maintains the prolific activist and academic jab fueled by his political and social activism nurtured during The Civil Rights Movement. The esteemed historian and controversial rabble rouser’s seminal work, The People’s History of the United States, taught in high schools and colleges across the nation, has been adapted as a documentary, The People Speak, featuring readings by Sean Penn, Matt Damon, Viggo Mortenson and Marisa Tomei. Still touring and giving lectures, Zinn shows no signs of stopping, however his hectic schedule has slowed to devote more time for his family obligations. After nearly a month of back and forth emails and missed opportunities, Professor Zinn agreed to an interview reflecting on his historic and memorable time at Spelman College in the ‘60’s, his thoughts on the Democratic Party, his philosophy of dissent as democracy, and his hope for America’s future.
ALI: Your experiences and acts of civil disobedience at Spelman College are, by now, thoroughly well known. However, in the 21st century, one could look at the student body at many liberal college campuses and see that fiery protest and consciousness replaced by apathy and materialism. Where has that fighting spirit gone? You spoke against “discouragement” at the 2005 Spelman College commencement speech – what of it now?
ZINN: What you describe as the difference between the Sixties and today on campuses is true, but I would not go too far with that. There are campus groups all over the country working against the war, but they are small so far. Remember, the scale of involvement in Vietnam was greater – 500,000 troops vs. 130,000 troops in Iraq. After five years in Vietnam, there were 30,000 U.S. dead vs. today we have 4,000 dead. The draft was threatening young people then, but not now. Greater establishment control of the media today, which is not reporting the horrors inflicted on the people of Iraq as the media began in the U.S. to report on U.S. atrocities like the My Lai Massacre. In the case of the movement against the Vietnam War, there was the immediate radicalizing experience of the Civil Rights Movement for racial equality, whose energy and indignation carried over into the student movement against the Vietnam War. No comparable carry over exists today. And yes, there is more materialism, more economic insecurity for young people going to college – huge tuition costs putting pressure on students to concentrate on studies and do well in school.
ALI: You were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement that dealt not only with racial empowerment and equality, but also re-examination of U.S. foreign policy and withdrawal from the brutal Vietnam War. Here we are now in 2008 with a seemingly unending, and many say illegal, occupation of Iraq. “Racism” has emerged as a contentious topic due to Obama running for President and his Reverend’s controversial comments. Yet, most say he and other candidates talk “pretty” but are unwilling to fundamentally confront and change the problems of race and foreign policy. As one who has observed this socio-political climate from the grassroots since the 1960’s, what has changed if anything in regards to racial enlightenment and the humanizing of non – American, “foreign others”?
The Civil Rights Movement was an educational experience for many Americans. The result was more opportunities for a small percentage of Black people, perhaps 10% or 20%, so more Black youth going to college and going into the professions. A greater consciousness among White people – not all, but many – of racism. For most Black people, however, there is still poverty and desperation. The Ghettos still exist, and the proportion of Blacks in prison is still much greater than Whites. Today, there is less overt racism, but the economic injustices create an “institutional racism” which exists even while more Blacks are in high places, such as Condoleeza Rice in Bush’s Administration and Obama running for President.
Unfortunately, the greater consciousness among Whites about Black equality has not carried over to the new victims of racism – Muslims and Immigrants. There is no racial enlightenment for these groups, which are huge. Millions of Muslims and an equal number of immigrants, who whether legal or illegal, face discrimination both legally from the government and extra-legally from White Americans – and sometimes Black and Hispanic Americans. The Democratic Presidential candidates are avoiding these issues in order to cultivate support among White Americans.
This is shameful, especially for Obama, who should use his experience as a Black man to educate the public about discrimination and racism. He is cautious about making strong statements about these issues and about foreign policy. So, in keeping with the tradition of caution and timidity of The Democratic Party, he takes positions slightly to the left of The Republicans, but short of what an enlightened policy would be.
ALI: You said the democratic spirit of the American people is best represented when people are picketing and voicing their opinion outside the White House. How does this nature of dissent and protest serve as the crux of a democracy and a healthy, functioning civic society? Many would argue this is divisive, no?
ZINN: Yes, dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real divisions in society. Those divisions exist – the rich, the poor – whether there is dissent or not, but when there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.
ALI: The People’s History of The United States is now considered a seminal work taught in high schools and universities across the country. Why do you think the work has had such lasting, influential impact?
ZINN: Because it fills a need, because there is a huge emptiness of truth in the traditional history texts. And because people who gain some understanding on their own that there are things wrong in society, they look for their new consciousness; their new feelings to be represented by a more honest history.
ALI: Minority voters, like Hispanic Catholics, voted solidly for Bush in 2002, and some sons of immigrants have virulent anger and disdain against “illegal” immigrants. It seems many marginalized voices have forgotten their history and now side with those actively intent on keeping them either on the sidelines or in some form “oppressed.” How do we explain this discrepancy?
ZINN: It is to the interest of the people in power to divide the rest of the population in order to rule them. To set poor against middle class, White against Black, Native born against immigrants, Christians against other religions. It serves the interest of the establishment to keep people ignorant of their own history,
ALI: Most say that corporations now own American media. What is the proper outlet for democratic discourse and dissemination of information if indeed there is a biased monopoly over media?
ZINN: Because of the control of the media by corporate wealth, the discovery of truth depends on an alternative media, such as small radio stations, networks like Pacifica Radio, programs like Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. Also, alternative newspapers, which exist all over the country. Also, cable TV programs, which are not dependent on commercial advertising. Also, the internet, which can reach millions of people by-passing the conventional media.
ALI: Will anything change in regards to US foreign policy in the Middle East, specifically on Palestine and Israel, if the Democratic Party wins in 2008?
ZINN: The Democratic candidates, Clinton and Obama, have not shown any sign of a fundamental change in the policy of support of Israel. They have not shown sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. Obama has occasionally referred to the situation of the Palestinians but as the campaign has gone on, he seems reluctant to bring this up, and instead emphasizes his support of Israel. So, a change in policy will require more pressure from other countries and more education of the American people, who at this point know very little about what has been happening to the Palestinian people. The American people are naturally sympathetic to those they see as oppressed, but they get very little information from political leaders or the media, which would give them a realistic picture of the suffering of Palestinians under the Occupation
ALI: How can “the left” reconcile their assumed indifference to religion with the growing “religious” sector of society siding with the “conservative” parties? Can there be a peace between the two or is this a permanent schism? I’ve noticed bigotry on both sides, between the “secularists” and “religionists.”
ZINN: The Left needs to more clearly make a distinction between the bigotry of fundamentalism and the progressive tradition in religion. In Latin America, there is “liberation theology.” In the U.S., there were the priests and nuns who supported Black people in the South and who protested against the Vietnam War. So, it’s not a matter of being for or against religion, but of deciding whether religion can play a role for justice and peace rather than for violence and bigotry.
ALI: Most don’t know that you were a bombardier during WW2. Did this experience bring about the “anagnorisis” and epiphany catalyzing fundamental changes in your ideology?
ZINN: I did not know much history when I became a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force in World War II. Only after the War did I see that we, like the Nazis, had committed atrocities…Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, my own bombing missions. And when I studied history after the War, I learned from reading on my own, not from my university classes, about the history of U.S. expansion and imperialism.
ALI: You’re now a man in his golden years, and you look back at your many accomplishments. You’ve done amazing things. Any regrets? And also, if you could choose something that would embody your legacy – what would it be?
ZINN: I have no regrets about my political activity, only that I sometimes got carried away with it and didn’t find the right balance between obligations to my family and my need to be involved in social movements. As for a work of mine that embodies my “legacy,” probably it is not one book, but rather the combination of being a writer and an activist, being a public intellectual, by using my scholarship for social change.
ALI: Many look to the future horizons with bleak, cynical eyes foreshadowing disastrous scenarios resulting from our hubris and excess. Recession. War. Deficit. Extremism. Global Anti Americanism. Insincere Partisan politics. Will we implode? Can we move forward? Do you have hope for the future of America?
ZINN: The Present situation for the U.S. looks grim, but I am hopeful, as I see the American people waking up and being overwhelmingly opposed to this war and to the Bush regime, as I reflect on movements in history and how they arose surprisingly when they seemed defeated. I believe the American people have the capacity to create a new movement, which would change the direction of our nation from being a military power to being a peaceful nation, using our enormous wealth for human needs, here and abroad.
Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, journalist, essayist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at https://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org