Determining Justice in Our Current History
G.M: Here in Tucson, Arizona, we are feeling the effects of President
Bush’s deployment this past summer of National Guard troops
to marshal the U.S. border. Bush also called for 18,000 agents of
the Border Patrol to be stationed by 2008. What do you see as the
intentions and ramifications of a greatly militarized border?
ZINN: I think the main purpose is not so much to keep people from
crossing the border—they will always find a way to do so—but
to create an atmosphere in the country that is viciously nationalistic,
xenophobic, and hostile to strangers of any kind. By creating fear
of people on the other side of the border, it gives the government
more control over its own people.
There are many striking parallels to the government border policies
and social discriminations and persecutions of both Mexican and
American Chinese throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
What may be drawn from this?
The conclusion from this history is that we have an economic system
that sees human beings as property to be used when it is useful,
to be discarded when it is no longer profitable. The Chinese were
welcomed to provide cheap labor on the transcontinental railroad,
but then they were not needed. Creating hostility against them turned
the attention of white workers away from their own exploiters and
against “the other.” This has been the historic device
used by corporations to divide the working class. The same factors
operate today with Mexicans and other immigrants.
You’ve spoken and written about how crucial a knowledge
of history is and about how it is a vital interest of the government
to keep people in a state of “historical amnesia.” Would
When people don’t know their history—and I’m not
speaking of the sanitized, nationalistic history that we get in
school and in the media—they are easily deceived. When the
president tells the nation we must go to war for liberty or democracy
or because we are being threatened, a public with no knowledge of
history has no way of checking up on this. But if people knew the
history of presidential deceptions to get the nation into war, they
would not go along, they would be very skeptical. If they knew history
they would know that President James Polk pretended he was making
war on Mexico because of a clash on the border in 1846 and that
he was bringing civilization to the Mexicans. They would understand
that he lied about his true motive, which was to acquire almost
half of Mexican land. If they knew history they would remember that
the U.S. went into Cuba in 1898, claiming to liberate the Cubans
and then made Cuba a virtual colony of the United States. They would
know that President McKinley lied about his real motive for going
into the Philippines and Woodrow Wilson lied about World War I and
Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin in getting the U.S.
into the Vietnam War.
can we understand from studies of history, psychology, and anthropology
concerning human nature and the conditions of war?
A common belief, which you see all the time, is that wars are the
result of “human nature.” But there is no evidence for
this in genetics or anthropology or psychology. The only evidence
given is that we have always had wars. True, but you could say the
same about slavery or any institution that has lasted a long time.
It’s a way of avoiding the fact that war, slavery, and other
phenomena are not natural, but created by human beings under certain
social conditions. If wars were the result of human nature it would
not be necessary for governments to work so strenuously to mobilize
their populations for war. People would rush to kill. But that’s
not the case. Governments have to deceive the population, use enormous
amounts of propaganda to persuade people to go to war, entice young
people of the working class into the military in the hope of bettering
their lives. If none of that is sufficient, the government must
coerce the young, draft them, and threaten them with prison if they
I can tell you from my personal experience in the Air Force in World
War II, my fellow crew members were not lovers of war. They were
persuaded they were doing something good in fighting fascism, that
this was a just war. You can see in the Vietnam War how, once soldiers
saw through the propaganda of the government, many of them turned
against the war.
You’ve expressed reverence and gratitude for artists during
times of war and popular struggle. Would you discuss the significance
of artists in times of civil unrest?
Artists have a special role in social movements—they lend passion,
poetry, humor to the principles any movement espouses. They enhance
the power of a social movement, which needs every additional strength
it can muster to challenge the power of authorities.
You’ve written and spoken about the importance of civil
disobedience. What pragmatic and moral arguments would you articulate,
both to activists and the public, regarding the legitimacy of civil
disobedience in the face of legal injustice?
It’s important to know that the law is not made by any divine
being, it is not sacred; the law is made by the people who run the
society and they make the law to serve their own interests. Even
if there are organs of representative government in the United States,
these are not truly representative of the people, but serve the
interests of the elite. So it is not sufficient to tell people,
“Go through the regular channels” because those channels
are controlled in such a way as to block radical change. That’s
why civil disobedience is necessary—in order to fulfill the
requirements of democracy. Without civil disobedience, we are at
the mercy of people in power who make the laws, execute the laws,
and decide which laws to enforce.
important question to ask about any policy or any action is not
is it legal, but is it just? There is a difference between law and
justice and justice is more important. When the law serves justice,
it can be obeyed, when it does not, it does not deserve obedience.
With the resurgence of groups like Students for a Democratic
Society [SDS], what do you see as a new direction for student involvement
in social struggles?
This is a time in history when students, who I believe are naturally
idealistic and ready to take up a just cause, need to organize.
The issues are matters of life and death for young people. Will
they have to go to war? Will the wealth of the country be monopolized
by 1 percent of the population? Will they live in a society which
they can be proud of, a society that does not make war on other
people, that takes care of human needs?
What insight would you share with activists in the reproductive
The crucial question is the right of women to control their own
bodies and the fact that outside authorities have no moral right
to tell women what to do with their children or their unborn children.
When a democratic state prevents a woman from making a decision
about her own life, it is acting like a totalitarian state.
In what way do you see the movement gaining ground in the economic
Economic democracy can only come from the organization and struggle
of people against corporate and government power. Workers gain a
measure of economic democracy when they form a union and challenge
the power of the corporation to determine their hours and wages
and working conditions. When consumers boycott a product successfully
they are creating democracy in the economic sphere.
The control of the economy by the wealthy can only last so long
as people obey. When they stop obeying, when they refuse to work—or
refuse to buy—the most powerful corporations become helpless.
What would you say to those who are sometimes referred to as
the elite intelligentsia about their responsibility on a greater
It is important for people in the academic professions or in science
or in the arts to understand that they are fortunate to have a certain
degree of freedom, which most people struggling to make a living
do not have. They should also understand that if they make use of
this freedom to create a just society, to oppose war and militarism,
they are being true to the best of their profession, to the greatest
poets, the greatest writers, the greatest scholars.
What do you feel is the potential of people freeing themselves
from mass coercion and disinformation?
This is an important insight, that we absorb the propaganda of those
who control society and internalize the ideas which keep the status
quo. History is useful in showing those times in the past when people
have broken out of the bonds of manufactured ideas and begun to
think on their own, and as a result of independent thought rebelled
against the conditions of their lives.
M. Schivone is a poetry editor of
literary journal at the University of Arizona (where
this interview also appears). He is a member of Students for Reproductive
Rights, SDS, and Students for a Moral Objective Scholarship.