Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Reasons for Optimism

Howard Zinn concluded his 1994 lecture at Michigan Tech with an expression of optimism that I did not expect, especially as it came right after his description of the shameful treatment of Native Americans in U.S. history, and after he’d stressed the ways factual omissions distort our understanding of history. He closed his talk by saying:

“Unless we begin … thinking about other points of view and enlarging the scope of our understanding, we’re just going to repeat history as it was. My hope is that we are beginning to learn, that people are beginning to think in different ways, and that maybe the next century will be different.”

Then he opened the floor to questions.

This January, after Zinn passed away, I listened to his lecture on an old audiocassette tape. In more than 15 years I’d forgotten much of what Zinn had said, and I’d also forgotten about the Q&A after the talk. So it was with great surprise, as I listened to this part of the tape, that I heard a familiar voice – my own – ask Zinn a question.

“You ended this on an optimistic note,” I said. “What makes you optimistic?”

Zinn paused, and must have had a look on his face, since the audience laughed a little – and then he laughed a little. He might have picked up a slightly incredulous tone in my voice when I asked the question, because he began his answer with:

“Behind that is the thought, ‘How can you be so ridiculously optimistic, given what is happening in the world?’ I’m drawing on my age and experience. We like to do this, we in my position.”

He chuckled again, then continued:

“I’ve lived through situations where things seemed hopeless and where people didn’t seem to have a chance to do anything and yet they did something. That is, going to live in the South when it looked in the mid-1950s as if nothing was going to happen here and then to see a movement spring up and to see an amazing development, and to see suddenly hundreds of thousands of people in action, millions of people becoming aware of what they did, and to see, really, changes take place in a very short time in the South. Obviously not enough. Changes are never enough – it was certainly not enough.

“But yes, real changes take place. To see people who did not seem to have any power at all suddenly develop power, power that comes out of their organization, their sacrifice, their commitment to one another. Same thing with going through the anti-war movement and seeing the feeling of hopelessness at the beginning of the escalation of the war in Vietnam. I mean, how in the world can you affect the decision-making of this powerful country, how can a handful of protestors – I mean, in spring of 1965 we had our first protest meeting against the Vietnam War on the Boston Common. There were a hundred people there, at this anti-war meeting. I remember I was one of the speakers, Herbert Marcuse was one of the speakers, and a hundred people were there, in the spring of ’65. In the fall of ’69, there was another anti-war meeting on the Boston Common and a hundred thousand people were there. In a few years, an anti-war movement had developed all through the country, embracing every section of the population. GIs were coming back from Vietnam, angry at the government, wanting the war to stop, forming an organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Throwing their medals over a fence in protest.

“Sure, we’re not in a great state, but the fact is that people have a capacity to [change things]. Out of what seems like nothing, and powerlessness … the things that they do which are small and isolated and don’t seem to have any effect – at a certain point in history these things begin to come together and you have a great movement and things begin to change.

“It sort of gives me hope that that possibility exists. And I guess I believe that people basically have good common sense and good values. I don’t really believe that people are fundamentally selfish or people are fundamentally, inherently racist or people are fundamentally mean and violent. I believe they are made so by what is fed to them day after day. But I think that at certain points in history, that common sense asserts itself.

“I go around the country, and I speak in different parts of the country, and I speak in places [about which] my friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts, would say: ‘What? You’ve speaking in Texas City, Texas? Is there anybody there who will listen to you?’ Maybe they’ll say this about the Upper Peninsula! ‘Really? Are there people in the Upper Peninsula who care what’s going on?’ …. But there are people all over this country, no matter how small is the town that you go in, anywhere in this country, there are people who care: care about children, care about war, care about poverty.

“I’m convinced that you can’t judge the possibilities in a situation by looking at it at any one point and seeing silence or inaction, and then deciding, well, this is the way it’s always going to be. Surprising things take place. Well, we’ve seen it happen in Eastern Europe, right? Who expected suddenly the rise of great movements of people in Eastern Europe, and governments [to] topple and systems [to] change? Surprises take place in history, and we’re surprised only because we’ve not had the faith that the common sense of people and the good instincts of people and the small acts of people will at certain points come together and have an effect. So I meet a lot of very good people all over the country, and that’s what makes me hopeful.”

Thank you, Howard Zinn, and thanks again to all those who helped bring him to Houghton in 1994. May we continue to live in surprising times.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Political Movements and Democracy

At the end of my last post, I promised one more excerpt from Howard Zinn’s 1994 lecture at Michigan Tech. Really, though, there are two more posts I want to include here to complete this series. I’ll still end with an entry on Zinn’s optimism, but first, I want to share part of what seeded that optimism by posting some of Zinn’s remarks on political movements and democracy.

Teaching at Spellman College in Atlanta in the late 1950s and early ‘60s put Zinn in the midst of the blossoming Civil Rights Movement. He both witnessed and participated in this striking moment of change in the U.S. Here’s what he told his Michigan Tech audience about that experience, and about the role such movements play in democracies.

Howard Zinn:

My first real teaching job was in the south [at] Spellman College, a black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. I taught there from 1956 to 1963, seven years. My wife and I and our two little kids left New York … and went down south and spent the next seven years essentially living in the black community … at that time in the south when the Civil Rights Movement was coming to its head. And there was no way I could teach in that kind of situation and be neutral – teach in a city like Atlanta, which at that time was as totally segregated by race as Johannesburg, South Africa. A city where if a black person and a white person walked down the street together and it looked as if they weren’t employer and employee, looked as if they might be walking down the street as equals, there was an immediate change in the atmosphere of that street. An immediate tension, an immediate air of threat in the street. That’s what Atlanta was like ….

“You have to understand that southern colleges were more conservative than northern colleges, and women’s colleges more conservative than men’s colleges, and black colleges more conservative than white colleges, and you put all of that together and you have Spellman College, virtually a convent, really, in which students were signing in and signing out and going to compulsory chapel six times a week. There was like an unspoken pact between the City of Atlanta and the black colleges of Atlanta, and the pact was or seemed to be, you can have your nice little Negro college, and turn out the college graduates who will service the segregated black community, the social workers and the teachers and maybe a doctor or a lawyer here or there, and in return, don’t venture out into the city. Don’t trouble the way we live in the City of Atlanta.

In the late ‘50s and especially in the 1960s, with the sit-ins, that pact was broken. The students at Spellman College and at Morehouse College, the men’s college across the street where Martin Luther King went to school – they saw on television the pictures of the four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sitting in at a lunch counter, and the violence and the arrests that ensued. And they decided it’s time to move, to do something, and they leaped over the wall – there actually was a stone wall around the Spellman College campus – and they went out into the city and they demonstrated and they got arrested and they came back from that experience no longer the same, no longer the quiet subdued dutiful obedient students they had been. They were very different.

“You mentioned Alice Walker, who was one of my students and who participated in that movement. Marion Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, who was another one of my students at Spellman, and who came out of jail a very different person than she went in. Then I as a teacher felt that I had to somehow join them. I had to become involved, I had to sit in, I had to march. I didn’t see how I could simply be a classroom teacher while all these things were swirling around me, because I thought by doing that, by just being a classroom teacher and not taking part in what was going on out in the city, that I was teaching my students that it’s all right to talk but not to act. And I felt that a teacher teaches more by what he or she does than by what he or she says. And so I became involved … with a particular civil rights organization in the south, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee … and I went to Albany, Georgia, and I went to Selma, Alabama, and Townsend, Mississippi, and I was both a participant and a writer about these events.

“One of the important things I learned – and this is a lesson that history books, the traditional history books, somehow fail to convey (it struck me that I’d gone through all this training as an American historian and I still hadn’t learned [this] until I saw events unfold before my eyes in the south in a social movement) – what I learned was that when important social change comes about in our country, it doesn’t come about as a result of the operation of our formal democratic system. It doesn’t come about as the result of Congress passing a law, the President signing a law. It doesn’t come about as a result of what we learn in the civics classes in junior high school, the three branches of government, the checks and balances, oh how beautiful it is, how wonderful it works out. Those alone have never sufficed to solve any important problem that we’ve had in the United States. When we have faced important injustices, they were redressed not by the formal structure – voting for this candidate or that candidate – they were addressed by citizens, getting together, forming a movement – the Anti-Slavery Movement before the Civil War, the Labor Movement in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Black Movement of the 1960s. The Anti-war Movement. The Women’s Movement. The Gay Movement. The Disabled People’s Movement. It’s when citizens get together and organize and do things, that’s when democracy comes alive. I mean, to think that we live in something we call a democracy and that we don’t learn through our history what democracy is, that we come out of all this learning thinking that the most supreme act that a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls every two or four years and vote for somebody we don’t care about? I began to understand that democracy was much more intricate, more complex. It required much more of us than voting, and I suppose in my teaching and in my writing I try to convey that.”

Tomorrow, at last, I’ll put up the final post in this series: Zinn on optimism.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Facts About Wars

To lead off Howard Zinn’s 1994 lecture at Michigan Tech, Social Sciences Professor Mary Durfee gave a superb introduction, highlighting the famous historian’s experiences both in war and against war. As Durfee said of Zinn, “Here is a man who has been active in pressing the cause of peace, but who was a bombardier during much of World War Two because he believed strongly in combating the evils of fascism.”

Zinn also mentioned his wartime experience, explaining how he had evolved from “enthusiastic bombardier” to peace activist. In fact, a significant part of Zinn’s lecture focused on war, on reasons for and against war, and on the questions we need to ask about war.

We especially need to ask these questions, Zinn said, because the stated reasons for any particular war might not be the prime motivations behind it. It thus becomes important for citizens, historians, and journalists to dig into these motivations, to ask questions about the factors underlying wars, especially if we hope to understand wars and how we might avoid them in the future. This kind of questioning was my own goal in the article, “Afghanistan: War for Oil? Local Voices Weigh In,” published online in 2002 by Keweenaw Now.

With war as his subject, Zinn illustrated for his Houghton audience how he differentiated between the types of facts addressed by history. On one hand, we have standard facts from standard texts – such as names of presidents or dates of events – memorized (or not) by standard students. These, Zinn opined, might not mean as much as the types of facts that he considered more important. Here’s how he explained what he meant.

Howard Zinn:

“There are important facts to ask about – let’s say, in connection with the Mexican War. It’d be very interesting to ask, how did the Mexican War start? The Mexican War, you may recall, took place between 1846 and 1848…. It started with a fabricated incident. It started with the United States government sending troops into a disputed area with Mexico. It wasn’t clear who this land belonged to…. Mexico claimed it, the United States claimed it, but the United States sent troops into this disputed area, whereupon there was a skirmish, blood was shed, and immediately President Polk … announced to the nation, ‘American blood has been shed upon American soil!’

“That happens every once in a while, right? Somebody has done something, somebody has insulted us, somebody has fired at us, somebody has done something to us – we’ve got to go to war, concealing the real reasons for the war. In this case, concealing the fact that Polk and the United States government – they had their eyes on Mexican territory long before this incident took place on the Texas-Mexican border…. There was a big part of Mexico that they coveted, and the war enabled them to get it. Relatively short war, America victorious, and we take 40 percent of Mexican territory: California – nice place to have – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, that whole area of the southwest. That was Mexico. You wonder, why are there so many Spanish names there? It was Mexican!

“Well, that would be an interesting and important fact to ask about, not because it’s a fact about the past, not just because it informs you about something that you didn’t know about in the past, but because it has very strong connections with things that happened after that and things that are still happening today. Because it raises questions about how wars begin. And to learn that about the Mexican War might lead you to ask questions about other wars. It might lead you to wonder, is it possible that governments – I mean, not just our government, of course, but governments everywhere – find reasons to start wars that they want for purposes that they will not tell the public about.

“It might lead people to ask whether we really went into Cuba to fight Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898 because we wanted to ‘liberate’ Cuba from Spain, because we were just natural-born ‘liberators.’ But it’s very appealing to think that we are. It’s always appealing to think, well, when we go somewhere, it’s to liberate somebody. Might be interesting to go into that and then ask, well, what happened in Cuba after the United States ‘liberated’ Cuba from Spain? You’ll discover very quickly, we got the Spaniards out, we got ourselves in. Now Cuba no longer belonged to Spain. Now Cuba belonged to us. Now American corporations could go into Cuba. Now American railroads could go into Cuba. Now American banks could go into Cuba. Now United Fruit could go into Cuba. Now we could take several million acres of Cuban land and get it dirt cheap, and we could write into the Cuban constitution the power of the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever we felt like. Well, that’s dangerous thinking….

“We might ask questions then about how did the war in Vietnam start? And we might look into the Gulf of Tonkin episode in 1964, when … the United States leaders … announced that ‘American destroyers have been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin’ …. Nobody asked, ‘What were we doing halfway around the world in the Gulf of Tonkin?’ …. What were our destroyers doing there? And were they really on a ‘routine patrol’ as was claimed by the Secretary of Defense, or were they doing something else? And in fact did the attack really take place? There was no physical evidence of any attack. Nobody had been hurt, no injury had been done to any American vessel….

“What if people then ask questions about the Gulf War? …. Did we really go into the Gulf War because President Bush’s heart ached for Kuwait? And because President Bush just is emotionally moved every time one country invades another? Is that why? People might ask: Why did we go into Panama? Did we really go to end the drug trade? Any of you who have followed the situation in Panama since the United States went into Panama and yanked Noriega out – any of you who have followed the drug trade will learn that the drug trade has increased since that time.

“Anyway, yes, there are historical facts which are important and interesting because they reverberate through history and they come down to our present day and they raise important questions about national policy which as citizens we should be asking….

“I guess all of this is to explain my point of view in teaching American history…. I was – I dropped bombs in the Second World War. I hesitated to tell you which war that I was in, but I thought if I didn’t say it, you might think it was the Spanish-American War. [audience laughs]

“But it was the Second World War, what is known as ‘The Good War,’ right. That’s the war that has the best reputation. It’s the best of wars, although some of you may have noticed if any of you have read Studs Terkel’s oral history of World War Two, you may have noticed that he puts quotation marks around ‘The Good War.’ And when I came out of the Air Force, although I had been an enthusiastic bombardier, by the time I finished and came out of the Air Force, I, too, was putting quotation marks around it. I was beginning to have questions about this simplistic notion that there are good wars and bad wars …. Especially as the years went on and I observed the world after the war, the world that had been promised as: now, finally, a world without fascism, without racism, without Hitler, you know, this would be the good world, after the expenditure of 40 million, 50 million lives. And I guess I came to the conclusion that war, even the best of wars, really doesn’t solve anything in the long run. And that somehow, human beings have to find different ways of solving problems of aggression and tyranny, all the problems that exist in the world, the real problems. Not to be passive, [but] to find a way to solve these problems without the massive destruction of human life and the corruption of values that goes along with it.”

Coming soon, one more excerpt from Howard Zinn's 1994 MTU lecture: Zinn on his reasons for optimism.