Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Objectivity and Omissions

In December of 1994, Howard Zinn came to Houghton to speak at Michigan Technological University. I was fortunate to be in the audience as he gave one of the most provocative and consciousness-raising lectures of the many I've heard on that campus. After Zinn passed away on Wednesday, I dug out an old audiotape of his talk and was reminded just how important he was as a thinker, writer, and advocate.

Introduced as a man with "a whole litany of academic achievements," Zinn was also lauded for having "taken to the streets for civil rights, peace and justice." Alice Walker, who studied with Zinn at Spelman College, once called him an "unassuming hero." "Unassuming" indeed seemed apt for the slender, spry and casual fellow who stood before us that evening.

"Thanks for inviting me to a part of the country I've never been in. But then again," he said to all who'd tromped through the snows of this remote, sparsely populated region to hear him, "I guess I'm not alone." Everyone laughed.

Zinn quickly moved on to more serious matters: his approach to teaching, academic politics, war and peace, civil rights, the shameful neglect of Native American perspectives in history. His ideas have important implications for everyone and in particular for writers and journalists, those of us who chronicle politics, culture and life.

I haven't read all of Zinn's books, but I'm guessing some or all of what he said at Michigan Tech appears elsewhere in his work. Still, it's important enough to repeat. In memory of Howard Zinn, below are some of the comments he made in that lecture. Emphases in bold are mine. I hope to post further excerpts in the next few days.

Howard Zinn:

"I started out teaching with the idea that I was not going to be a neutral teacher. I would start my classes, the very first day I would tell my students, 'This is not a neutral class, I want to make that clear. I am not a neutral teacher. I am going to express my point of view as strongly as I can, and I want you to express your view as strongly as you can. And then it'll be more interesting.' ....

"In fact, you can't be neutral. It's impossible. That is, we live in a world in which things are already happening, things are already in motion .... People are already dying in wars. Terrible things are happening. To be neutral, to be passive, to be uncommitted, to be standing outside of this, to pretend to be objective is to collaborate in whatever is going on. The word 'collaborate' had a very very special meaning during World War Two and during the years of Fascism. People who lived in Fascist countries, or people who were overrun by Fascist powers and who did nothing ... you might say, oh, they were being neutral. They weren't being neutral. They were collaborating by doing nothing.

"And so I thought from the beginning I was not going to be a neutral historian .... I guess I went into history with a very modest aim: I wanted to change the world. I wanted to do something useful .... I wanted to go into the past and I wanted to see what I could learn that would be useful for the things that are going on in the world today and I wanted to come out and DO something. And I knew it would be safer just to stay in the past, and very often that's the great inducement for not coming out, and not applying history to the urgent and controversial issues of today. It's safer that way. But I guess to -- well, to put it in contemporary language, I didn't want to practice safe history.

"I was aware that when history was talked about as an important thing for people to learn ... that very often it was talked about as something that required people to learn a certain set of important facts, a certain amount of important information. This was the emphasis: facts. It seemed very clear to me that there was no such thing as just a fact without a judgment. That is, every fact -- every selected fact to be put into a book, to be presented in a class, to be passed on to somebody else -- every fact is selected out of an infinite number of facts and therefore every fact represents a judgment that this fact is important. So to say, well, this is a purely factual account -- and it may be, in the sense that everything in this account is true -- but why just these things that go into this account, and what are the things that are omitted from the account?

"The important things in history, the important distortions in history, do not come from outright lies in history, outright falsehoods. That would be relatively easy to check up on. The really crucial distortions in history come not from lies, but from omissions. And when things are omitted, well -- you have no way of checking up. The information is being kept from you. And this is true whether it's in history books or on television screens or in the newspapers. When the New York Times says 'All the news that's fit to print,' that is an arrogant and false statement. [It's] all the news that the Times editors deemed fit for you to read. But there are a lot of other things going on in the country that the New York Times does not report."

More to come. Recalled, transcribed and reprinted with thanks to Howard Zinn and to all who contributed to bringing him to the little town of Houghton, Michigan, in December of 1994.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Church of the Almighty Dollar

On a September 2009 visit to a small Upper Michigan town, my spouse and I came across this historic church, now office space for investment brokers.

The stone structure displays a plaque which tells passers-by of its identity, when first built in 1908, as the Immanuel Baptist Church. The plaque blends discreetly into the building’s rock walls. In contrast, each single letter in the brokerage sign beside it stands taller and some stretch wider than the entire historical nameplate.

In the autumn evening light, this Church of the Almighty Dollar struck us as iconic. We spotted it at the end of a tumultuous year in U.S. economic history, a year in which “bailout” became the buzzword and “too big to fail” furnished the favored rationale for corporate welfare.

This converted house of worship seems even more symbolic of the country’s prevailing ideology today, after last week's Supreme Court strike-down of restrictions on corporate political spending. Follow the money. If ever we needed separation of church and state, we need it now – from this kind of church.

©2010 by Katie Alvord

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Resisting the Lure of the Web

For a writer, avoiding distractions on the web can be a challenge. I don’t know about you, but I can lose hours playing around online when I might otherwise be writing. Yet since a computer is now a publishing writer’s primary tool, the risk of online distractions is ever present. For any other writers out there who might need self-discipline aids, here are some steps I now take to manage my tangential surfing.

1) I set goals for online time. I don’t connect until I know exactly what I intend to accomplish by doing so: who I need to contact, what facts I need to check, and so on.

2) I prioritize my goals. I figure out which ones are most critical and address those first. Sometimes it helps me to write them out – yes, with pen and paper! – and turn them into a checklist.

3) I set a time limit. This helps especially when my goals are research-related. Chasing down links can send you on a websites-long trail of information, where you’ll likely find lots and lots of material related to your research question, probably all very interesting, but also probably of low value. When I use a time limit, it helps me control this by reminding me of my priorities and keeping me efficient.

4) I also set a lights-out limit. I do this for health reasons: staring at that lit-up video screen at night affects the pineal gland and suppresses production of melatonin, making it harder to sleep. I know of at least one expert -- neurobiologist Dietrich Klinghardt, MD PhD -- who recommends no video of any kind after about 8:30 p.m. if you want to sleep well.

5) Finally, I give myself some web play time – after my writing and research are done. All work and no play not only dulls us, it also precludes those serendipitous discoveries of strange and wonderful web items that only show up when you diddle around. Giving myself sacrosanct play time helps me keep my work time sacrosanct, too: if I don’t let myself play, I’m much more likely to cheat as I work. Plus it’s much nicer to surf without your inner critic's nagging voice guilt-tripping you about the article or next chapter you SHOULD be writing.

Which reminds me -- I have a bit more work to do before I hit my lights-out limit. Happy writing!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Environmental writing redux

I’m thinking back over the directed study I taught at Finlandia University last fall, Environmental Writing and Literature. Leading this little course let me come at the topic from a different angle than usual.
Instead of being immersed in environmental writing as one of its practitioners, I got to step back and look at the whole body of environmental literature.
Examined broadly, environmental lit is more complex and varied than you might first imagine. It includes nature writing, which itself is quite varied. You can see this if you look at some of its classics, from HD Thoreau’s Walden to Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf to Terry Tempest William’s Refuge. You can also see this from looking at Tom Lyon’s wonderful anthology This Incomparable Land which proposes a marvelous taxonomy of nature writing.

Overlapping with but also going beyond nature writing is environmental journalism, which ranges from stories about sewage in your local paper to features on global climate change written for E Magazine. Sometimes it’s hard to tell on what side of the line a piece of writing might fall. Should we label Bill McKibben, for instance, a nature writer or an environmental journalist? Or is the more general “environmental writer” the best moniker?

Environmental journalism is further complicated by the drift into what some call advocacy journalism. Here I’m thinking about articles of the sort published in Sierra or Audubon or Earth Island Journal – often an important source of factual information, but clearly presented with a slant. In contrast, environmental journalists who write for mainstream news outlets strive for objectivity just as much as reporters on any other beat.

In our directed study, we also added ecofiction and green poetry to the mix. Originally I was just looking for a way to get a Carl Hiaasen novel onto the syllabus (we read Skinny Dip) but we really could have done an entire class on ecofiction alone, it’s that rich and varied a genre. Skinny Dip, by the way, details the environmental travesties of the Florida sugar industry in the context of a truly hilarious albeit raunchy story. Not so hilarious is the true part, i.e., what’s happened to the Everglades as a result of agriculture and development in South Florida.

Environmental writing and literature, I decided after teaching this class, is both expansive and expanding. The latter, no doubt, is a sign of our times.