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.


Laura Smyth, Publisher and Creative Director said...

Thanks for posting this Katie. An amazing man, and really this is an amazing place, the Keweenaw.

Mary said...

I got to introduce him that night. I really enjoyed listening to him at dinner, and, like you, I sure enjoyed his talk.

Merle said...

Thanks, Katie. I read a long article on Zinn's life and passing in this morning's _The Hindu_ newspaper here in Kerala. I know I have some of his books (unread) tucked away in my to-be-read box back in North America....Will seek them out to honor his memory and help fuel my work. Now is certainly the time for increased academic<>activist linkage.