Of the People: A Conversation with Howard Zinn


G.M.S.: Here in Tucson, Arizona, 70 miles from the border, we are feeling the effects of President Bush’s deployment of National Guard troops at the U.S. border.  The first hundreds arrived last summer, and 2,500 are expected to be in our “Tucson Sector” by August.  Moreover, the Border Patrol is to grow from 12,400 agents today to 18,000 by 2008.  What are the purposes of a greatly militarized border?

H.Z.: 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 which is viciously nationalistic, xenophobic, hostile to strangers of any kind.  Creating fear of people on the other side of the border gives the government more control over its own people.

There are many striking parallels in immigration policies and social discriminations against the Mexican and Chinese throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which included massive deportation and legal exclusion, for instance, through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  What conclusion may be drawn from the treatment of the Chinese, Mexican, and other immigrant workers?

The conclusion to be drawn from this history is that we have an economic system which 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, and 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 the great corporations to divide the working class.  The same factors operate today with Mexicans and other immigrants.

You’ve written and spoken much about how crucial a knowledge of history is for us to understand the present conditions in which we find ourselves.  You, as well as others like Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky, emphasize that it is a vital interest of the government to keep people in a state of “historical amnesia.”  Would you explain?

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 that “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 U.S. President James Polk pretended he was making war on Mexico because of a clash on the border in 1846 and 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.

You have done extensive research on war and human nature.  What can studies of history, psychology, and anthropology tell us about 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 in anthropology, or in 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.  But 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 naturally, spontaneously 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.  And if none of that is sufficient, the government must coerce the young, draft them, threaten them with prison if they don’t join.

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 that 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.

Why do some believe that there is a human instinct for war and that it’s inherent human nature to kill?

It is an easy explanation.  And it is useful for governments because it turns people away from examining the imperial motives of governments.

You have expressed immense reverence and gratitude for artists during times of war and popular struggle.  Would you discuss the role of artists?

Artists have a special role in social movements — they lend passion, poetry, humor to the principles any movement espouses.  With that, they enhance the power of a social movement, which needs every additional strength it can muster to challenge the power of authorities.

The opening passage in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls quotes a very moving “Meditation” by John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am a part of mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”  What do you feel it says, not only to activists, but all people who are seemingly safe and far away from misery, famine, atrocity, and injustice?

It reminds people that we all share a common humanity and that if we turn our faces away from people who are in trouble, we are being less than human.

You’ve written and spoken much about the importance of civil disobedience.  A prevalent mood of ordinary citizens is aversion to breaking the law under any circumstances.  Many are led to believe, “If it’s against the law, you shouldn’t be doing it.”  What moral and pragmatic arguments would you give, 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; that the law is made by the people who run the society; and that 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, that the interests of the people should be served.  Without civil disobedience, we are at the mercy of people in power who make the laws, execute the laws, decide which laws to enforce and which not to enforce.

The important question to ask about any policy or any action is not “Is it legal?” but “Is it just?”  In other words, 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 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 one 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, in this country and abroad?

Let’s talk about choice and abortion rights.  Many feel that the overturning of Roe v. Wade may be very imminent, given the powerful anti-choice lobby, a spate of anti-choice legislations (such as Bush’s “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003”), and the new balance of power in the U.S. Supreme Court with Justice Alito’s recent appointment.  What can activists of the reproductive justice movement learn from Emma Goldman and other early birth control advocates, who worked to win freedom when a mere dispensing of information about birth control was punishable by imprisonment?

The crucial question is the right of women to control their own bodies, and the fact that outside authorities, the government, have no moral right to tell women what to do with their children, or their unborn children.  We point to totalitarian states and their control over their citizens, the elimination of individual freedom, but, when a democratic state prevents a woman from making a decision about her own life, it is acting like a totalitarian state.

The popular logic among anti-choice advocates is that abortions will stop simply if they are made illegal.

Well, we know historically that this is not so.  Women who want abortions will find a way, and if they are illegal the abortions will be done under dangerous circumstances.

Noam Chomsky has observed that “representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere.”  Take the example of abortion: after the 1973 victory of Roe v. Wade, the Hyde Amendment, upheld by the Supreme Court, severely restricted Medicaid benefits which could help poor women obtain abortions, thus divorcing economic from political freedom.  In what ways can a movement gain any ground in the economic sphere, when systems of inequality are so deeply rooted within colluding corporate and government sectors?

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.

Noam Chomsky says in his essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”:

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.  In the Western world at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression.  For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology, and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us.

What would you say, not only to all American citizens, but especially to those who are sometimes referred to as the elite intelligentsia, comprising students, scholars, professors, artists, writers, scientists, and public intellectuals, about the correspondence of their privileges to greater responsibility?

It is important for people in the academic professions, or in science, 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.

The great writer and anti-imperialist Mark Twain once wrote, in an article entitled “As Regards Patriotism”: “In absolute monarchies [patriotism] is furnished from the Throne, cut and dried, to the subject; in England and America, it is furnished, cut and dried, to the citizen by the politician and the newspaper.”  He ends by saying that, if people can be trained to have “newspaper-and-politician-manufactured” patriotism imposed upon them, then they can be also trained on their own — by common sense, if you will — to “labor it out in their own heads and hearts, and in the privacy and independence of their own premises.”  He was speaking specifically about patriotism, but what would you say about people’s potential to free themselves, in social struggle, from mass disinformation?

This is an important insight by Mark Twain, that we absorb the propaganda of those who control the 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.

Howard Zinn is a Professor Emeritus of Boston University, author of numerous works including the landmark A People’s History of the United States and his most recent book A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (City Lights, 2006).  This interview was conducted through correspondence between December 12 and December 19, 2006.

Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a poetry editor for Days Beyond Recall Literary Journal at the University of Arizona.  He is an active member of Students for Reproductive Justice, Students for a Democratic Society, and Students for a Moral, Objective Scholarship.  He may be reached at gabrielm@email.arizona.edu.

| Print