“Howard Zinn’s Echoes
We’re approaching three years since Howard Zinn left us, and to my ear his voice sounds louder all the time. I expect that effect to continue for decades and centuries to come, because Zinn spoke to enduring needs. He taught lessons that must be relearned over and over, as the temptations weighing against them are so strong. And he taught those lessons better than anybody else.
We like to use the word “we,” and to include in it everything the Constitution pretends to include in it, notably the government. But the government tends to act against our interests. Multi-billionaires, by definition, act against our interest. Zinn warned us endlessly of the danger of allowing those in power to use “we” to include us in actions we would otherwise oppose. It’s a habit we carry over from sports to wars to economic policies, but the danger of a spectator claiming “we scored!” doesn’t rise to the same level as millions of spectators claiming “we liberated Afghanistan.”
We like to think of elections as a central, important part of civic life, and as a means of significantly impacting the future. Zinn not only warns against that misperception with incisive historical examples, and with awareness of the value of the struggle for black voting rights in the Southern United States, but he was a part of that struggle and warned against misplaced expectations at the time.
We like to think of history as shaped by important stand-out individuals. We like to think of war as a necessary tool of last resort, as demonstrated by our list of “good wars” which generally includes the U.S. war of independence, the U.S. civil war, and the second world war (debunked by Zinn as ‘The Three Holy Wars’). We imagine that political parties are central to our efforts to shape the world, but that civil disobedience is not. We imagine that we often have no power to shape the world, that the forces pushing in other directions are too powerful to be reversed. If you listen to enough Howard Zinn, each of these beliefs ends up looking ludicrous — even if, in some cases, tragic.
Later (years later) Zinn says, without self-pity: “So if we don’t have a press that informs us, we don’t have an opposition party to help us, we are left on our own, which actually is a good thing to know. It’s a good thing to know we’re on our own. It’s a good thing to know that you can’t depend on people who are not dependable. But if you’re on your own, it means you must learn some history, because without history you are lost. Without history, anybody in authority can get up before a microphone and say, ‘We’ve got to go into this country for that reason and for this reason, for liberty, for democracy, the threat.’ Anybody can get up before a microphone and tell you anything. And if you have no history, you have no way of checking up on that.”
But if you do have history, Zinn says, then you gain the additional advantage of recognizing that “these concentrations of power, at certain points they fall apart. Suddenly, surprisingly. And you find that ultimately they’re very fragile. And you find that governments that have said ‘we will never do this’ end up doing it. ‘We will never cut and run.’ They said this in Vietnam. We cut and ran in Vietnam. In the South, George Wallace, the racist governor of Alabama: ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’ Enormous applause. Two years later, Blacks in Alabama had in the meantime begun to vote and Wallace was going around trying to get Black people to vote for him. The South said never, and things changed.”
The more things change . . . the more we need to hear Howard Zinn.”