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An Interview with Howard Zinn


When I arrived at Boston university in 1978, it was like showing up at a party after all the guests had gone home. The Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War protests were over, and everyone around me was studying business and honing their resumes. The Sixties had died. All the activists were gone.

Except for Howard Zinn. You could sign up for Zinn’s classes, ‘Marxism’ and ‘Anarchism,’ and there, every Tuesday and Thursday, you could hear the stories no one else would tell you: Columbus’s arrival on these shores from the Arawak Indian’s point of view, Emma Goldman’s message to the unemployed in Union Square, black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, who one day sat down at the Woolworth’s counter where only whites could eat. Now, some twenty years later, in the wake of Katrina, mired in Bush’s reckless reign and the ever-escalating death toll in Iraq, it seemed a good time to revisit Zinn.

Best known for A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn has been a professor, radical historian, social activist, and intellectual leader of the Left for forty years. In over twenty books, he has devoted himself to connecting America’s past with its present, providing a frame for left-wing activism and politics.
Praised by academics and lay readers alike, Zinn feels more at home on the streets than in the ivory tower.

Zinn’s message of hope is unflinching, and he is busier than ever. He has written a play, ‘Marx in Soho,’ is producing a People’s History of the United States television series, and his new book, Original Zinn, will be released in July. He seems to have stashed De Leon’s fountain of youth in his back pocket. Though we are seated at a small table drinking coffee, occasionally he still moves his large hands through the air, as he did in class, underscoring the urgency of his words. And at the end of his most radical sentences, a wry smile lights up his eyes, as if he’s imagining the glorious trouble we the people can, and will, make.

Shelly R. Fredman: Since the context of this interview is Tikkun, I’d like to start by asking you about Michael Lerner’s new book, The Left Hand of God. In it, Lerner says that, post 9/11, a paradigm of fear has gripped our culture and been used to manipulate the public into supporting politicians who are more militaristic. How would you characterize the post 9/11 world?

Howard Zinn: Michael Lerner is certainly right about how fear has been used since 9/11 to push the public into support of war. ‘Terrorism’ is used the way ‘communism’ was used all through the Cold War, the result being the deaths of millions and a nuclear arms race which wasted trillions of dollars that could have been used to create a truly good society for all.

SF: Lerner also claims that the parts of our cultural heritage that embody elements of hope are dismissed as naaive, with little to teach us. You must have had your own bouts with critics who see your vision as naïve.
How do you address them?

HZ: It’s true that any talk of hope is dismissed as naïve, but that’s because we tend to look at the surface of things at any given time. And the surface almost always looks grim. The charge of naïvete also comes from a loss of historical perspective. History shows that what is considered naaive in one decade becomes reality in another.

How much hope was there for black people in the South in the fifties? At the start of the Vietnam War, anyone who thought the monster war machine could be stopped seemed naive. When I was in South Africa in 1982, and apartheid was fully entrenched, it seemed naive to think that it would be dissolved and even more naive to think that Mandela would become president. But in all those cases, anyone looking under the surface would have seen currents of potential change bubbling and growing.

SF: Has the Left responded adequately to the kind of fascism we see coming from Bush’s people? Street protests seem to be ineffective; it’s sometimes disheartening.

HZ: The responses are never adequate, until they build and build and something changes. People very often think that there must be some magical tactic, beyond the traditional ones-protests, demonstrations, vigils, civil disobedience-but there is no magical panacea, only persistence in continuing and escalating the usual tactics of protest and resistance. The end of the Vietnam War did not come because the Left suddenly did something new and dramatic, but because all of the actions built up over time.

If you listen to the media, you get no sense of what’s happening. I speak to groups of people in different parts of the country. I was in Austin, Texas recently and a thousand people showed up. I believe people are basically decent, they just lack information.

SF: You have been outspoken against the war in Iraq.
Despite all the chaos we’ve heard may ensue, do you still believe we should get out of Iraq now?

HZ: Yes, we should immediately withdraw. There will be chaos – it is actually there already, and much of the chaos and violence has come about because of our involvement. But that doesn’t change the fact that our occupation of Iraq is wrong.

What’s more troubling [than a military mistake] is that this is an administration that is impervious to pressure. If you listen to LBJ’s tapes, where he discusses the escalation of the war in Vietnam, you can hear that he is torn.

Still, the good news is that more and more of us are becoming aware of Bush’s true nature. Less than fifty percent of Americans are for the war, and forty percent are calling for [Bush's] impeachment.

Tikkun… to heal, repair, and transform the world. All the rest is commentary. A Jewish magazine. An Interfaith movement.

SF: Where do you see the Democrats in all this? What of their role, their responsibility?

HZ: The Democratic Party is pitiful. Not only are they not articulating a spiritual message, as Lerner says, they don’t even have a political message. The Democrats are tied to corporate wealth. And they are incompetent when it comes to understanding how to win elections. By the time Kerry ran, the public had actually shifted.
Fifty percent were against the war. The Democrats should have been saying they would end the war, and make those dollars available for healthcare.

SF: What about the upcoming crop of presidential candidates-Hillary Clinton, for instance?

HZ: Hillary Clinton is so opportunistic. She goes where the wind is blowing. She doesn’t say what needs to be said. And Barack Obama is cautious. He’s better than Clinton, but I’d suggest Marian Wright Edelman as the Democratic candidate for president. Shethe epitome of what we need. A very smart black woman who deals with children, poverty… She’s in the trenches, and she ties it in with militarization. But she doesn’t come out of government.

That’s another problem-the Democratic Party is a closed circle. It may take a threatening third party to shake things up.

SF: Many people believe that history is a pendulum, and that we are overdue for a swing to the Left. Lerner, for instance, views American history as an oscillation between the voices of hope and the voices of fear-the fear after the stock market crash in 1929, the hope of the New Deal, the fears of McCarthyism, the hope of the Civil Rights movement and social change movements in the sixties. Is this a compelling view of history?

HZ: Without making it chronological, like a roller coaster, with predictable ups and downs, it’s certainly true that in any period there are voices that demand maintenance of the status quo, and other voices demanding change. In other words, it isn’t so much a period of hope, then a period of fear, etc. But in every period there are both tendencies, with one or another dominant and the dominant characteristic often leads to a simplified picture of an era.

My differences with Lerner, though, reside in the proportion of attention he pays to spiritual values. These are important, but they’re not the critical issue. The issue is how are people living and dying. People are dying in Iraq and our wealth is being squandered on war and the military budget.

SF: Don’t you believe the Left needs to address spiritual needs to win? How else can we galvanize the heartland, people taken in by the religious rhetoric of Bush?

HZ: Yes, there are special needs and they need to be addressed. But after the last election there was a kind of hysteria among liberal pundits about a ‘failure’ to deal with the moral issues. There is a hard core for whom religion is key. They are maybe twenty-five percent of the population. It’s a mistake to try to appeal to that hard core.

I define the spiritual in emotional terms-to the extent that religion can draw on the Ten Commandments (for example, thou shalt not kill), it is important. And I find the spiritual in the arts, because they nourish the spirit and move people. Artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, for example, and now Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. We need more of these.

It’s not that people are turned off by the Left. The Left hasn’t reached out to people with a clear, coherent, and emotional message. The Left often does not know how to talk to other people. Tikkun itself appeals to intellectuals.

I’ve never spoken the language of ivory tower academics. And there are other voices on the Left that speak in understandable language. For instance, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, in which she took menial jobs across the country and wrote about those lives, was a bestseller. There’s an emotionalism to her message that makes contact and touches thousands. Michael Moore’s movies have been seen by all sorts of people. GI’s in Iraq watched his movie. We just have to do more along those lines.

SF: Many on the Left seem to identify religion with the fundamentalist versions of it we see in the worst moments of human history. Do you see any value in religious ideas and traditions? If I can get personal: do you identify at all as a Jew, with the Jewish story? Is there anything in it that’s meaningful to you? Are there any thoughts of the world beyond this one-where, for example, you can sit with Marx in Soho and eat Deli Haus blintzes together?

HZ: If I was promised that we could sit with Marx in some great Deli Haus in the hereafter, I might believe in it! Sure I find inspiration in Jewish stories of hope, also in the Christian pacifism of the Berrigans, also in Taoism and Buddhism. I identify as a Jew, but not on religious grounds. Yes, I believe, as Pascal said, ‘The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.’ There are limits to reason. There is mystery, there is passion, there is something spiritual in the arts – but it is not connected to Judaism or any other religion.

For those who find a special inspiration in Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism or whatever, fine. If that inspiration leads them to work for justice, that is what matters.
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Shelly R. Fredman recently made her lech lecha from St. Louis to New York City. Her work has appeared in Best Jewish Writing, First Harvest, the Chicago Tribune Magazine, and the Forward.

 

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