On May 2, 2009, sportswriter Dave Zirin, author of A People’s History of Sports (New Press) and What’s My Name Fool? (Haymarket Books), interviewed Howard Zinn. Some 250 people attended the event at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It was sponsored by Haymarket Books. The discussion ranged from the U.S. elections, the New Deal in the 1930s, the struggle for racial justice, equal marriage, and the need to recreate a socialist alternative. The following is the transcript of the interview, originally published in the International Socialist Review (July 2009), and video clips from the event.
ZIRIN: Welcome everyone. Thanks for coming. This is certainly a unique format. Just think of this as Frost-Nixon. Except, I’m not British and he’s not evil. At the start, I’d just like to ask you a question if I could.
Zinn: Yes, you can. I’m happy to be here with Dave Zirin. In fact, we’re going to spend most of our time congratulating one another. This is my second appearance—I say appearance as if this is a show—this is my second appearance with Dave Zirin. I don’t know if you remember this Dave, most people don’t remember the times they encounter me, but we were on the same platform with Jim Bouton. Do you know who Jim Bouton is? Like Dave Zirin, he’s an oddity. I hope you don’t mind my saying that, Dave.
Not at all.
But Jim Bouton was a pitcher, a major league pitcher, with a political point of view. And Dave Zirin is a sportscaster with a political point of view. And so, anyway, we had a great time together. Dave, I’m happy to be here with you. And I assume that we’re going to talk about baseball in the age of Obama.
Ummm, no. I wanted to ask you this. This is something I’ve wanted to ask you for quite some time. As a paragon of social justice, how can you be a Red Sox fan?
Because, the general manager of the Red Sox—I know people will be very interested in this—because the general manager of the Red Sox invited me—how many know who the general manager of the Red Sox is? Five people.
That’s our demographic.
Yeah. The general manager of the Red Sox is a guy named Theo Epstein and he invited me to sit in his box at a Red Sox game because he had read A People’s History of the United States. How many general managers of baseball teams have read anything? So, how can I stop being a Red Sox fan? Besides, they do win. A lot. There’s something else you wanted to ask me.
There is. As somebody who has fought around issues of racial justice for decades, could you take us to where your head was on November 4, 2008, when you realized that Barack Obama was going to be the next president of the United States?
It was exciting. I was excited. I was exhilarated. Of course, how could I not be? We were getting rid of this evil gang! Yes, the first African American president. But I wouldn’t have welcomed any first African American, right? What if Clarence Thomas were running for president? No. But Barack Obama? Very decent guy. Articulate, intelligent, and with a wife who’s very politically-savvy and charming and all of that besides. No, this was a historic moment. For me it was also a special moment because at one point that evening when his victory was announced, the camera flashed on students at Spelman College [a historically Black college] in Atlanta, where I taught for seven years. And it showed the students at Spelman—these young women—it showed their faces and they were ecstatic. It was just thrilling to see that. So, that was that moment.
Now… is another moment.
Yes, now we’ve seen Obama in action for the much-discussed first hundred days. First, as a historian, is that in any way, shape, or form a metric by which to judge a president? And second, what do you think of the first hundred days?
No, it’s not really a measure. And therefore, I will discuss it.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, about journalism. They get fixed on things… hundred days, hundred days. But, okay. We’ve seen a lot from Barack Obama in these first hundred days. I mean people say, “We mustn’t judge him by this brief period of time.” People say that to me when I dare to utter some criticism of Obama. And you have to dare to utter criticism of Obama because of this great exhilaration, this great feeling. Yes. And so it’s kind of tough to voice criticism of Obama. But we should. Because Obama is a politician. We are not. We are citizens. In the days of the abolitionist movement, the abolitionists said, you know, Lincoln and those in the White House: these are politicians. He will do what he wants and say what he wants and we must do what we want and say what we want, hoping that they will in some way be moved, or pressured or affected by what we say and do. So all of this is a preface to saying that Obama has done a lot in his first hundred days that have not made me happy. Because what they suggest to me is that in many ways he’s a very traditional Democrat. That he’s a very traditional leader of the Democratic Party. And I don’t know if you know the tradition of the Democratic Party, but I’ll sum it up very briefly.
The tradition of the Democratic Party is: be more liberal than the Republican Party on domestic matters. Not too liberal, but more liberal. On matters of foreign policy, don’t be much different at all. The history of the Democratic Party is the history of being as expansionist and militarist and imperialist as the Republican Party. Really, just look at that history. I know Bush carried it so far that it’s very hard to match, but the fact is that historically, the Democratic and Republican Parties on matters of foreign policy have generally been together. They call it bipartisanship. And you’re supposed to be happy with bipartisanship. No.
So, I welcome the steps Obama has taken domestically. Steps. They’re just steps in the Democratic tradition of caution. We’ll spend more money for education, and we’ll try to create jobs; that’s all good. And we’ll talk about closing Guantánamo. Maybe even start to close it. But on the other hand, the appointments: Who are these appointments? Old-guard Democrats. Even older than old-guard Democrats. Even Republicans, right? Financiers and economists who represent the old way of thinking. Economists who are not up to dealing with an economic crisis such as we face now. And Hillary Clinton? She voted for the war! She basically has a militarist point of view. She is so over the top on her support for Israel that she doesn’t have a balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. So, she shouldn’t be secretary of state. I’d remove her immediately.
And then, just a couple of more things to say. Obama’s maintaining a huge military budget. One of the first things he should have done was cut several hundred billion dollars out of that bloated military budget. And almost as soon as he takes office, there are Predator missiles flying over Pakistan, killing people. They tell us they’re aimed at terrorists. Truth is, they don’t know who the terrorists are. They’re suspected terrorists. We’re always killing suspects. You’re not supposed to kill suspects. And, then innocent people get killed along with the suspects. I don’t want to just end with a negative, sour view. Although I am negative and sour.
But, I guess I want to say this: Our job as citizens is to honestly assess what Obama is doing. Not measured just against Bush, because against Bush, everybody looks good. But look honestly at what Obama’s doing and act as engaged and vigorous citizens, deciding what we think is right and asking of Obama to do those things.
I’ll tell you, one of my favorite headlines in recent days was: “Bush less popular since leaving office.” [Audience laughter; someone in audience: “Is that possible?”] Somehow, it’s possible. Somehow. A margin of error thing, maybe. I don’t know. He might have negative popularity. Which I guess means people leave a will that says, remember, I hate Bush. But it seems like times are ripe to turn Bush from an ex-president into a current convict. You read these torture memos and I wanted your thoughts on that. If you thought Bush should be prosecuted, and what we could do.
I don’t think Bush should be tortured.
I don’t believe in capital punishment. However, I believe that in some way we have to hold these people who are responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of people; we have to hold them responsible for what they did. And I’m not a person who believes in punishing people, or retribution, or anything like that. But I do believe in recognizing when somebody has done something bad and doing something about it which says to the rest of the world, we will not tolerate this. This is wrong.
And for anybody in the Obama camp to say, “That’s in the past.” That’s in the past? You mean, after a guy has robbed a bank and you call the police, do the police say, “That’s in the past?”
Everything is in the past. When people were put on trial in Nuremburg, for the crimes committed during World War II, that was in the past. Should they have said, “Why should they have put people on trial at Nuremburg? Let bygones, be bygones.”
No. No. The people of the United States—and the people of the world—should know that all this is taken very seriously. Maybe if enough people raise a cry that will change, and I do think a lot of people are indignant about this.
Oh, and by the way, there was a nice cartoon by Dan Wasserman. He’s a great cartoonist. Almost as funny as Dave Zirin. But Dan Wasserman had a cartoon the other day that showed somebody who looked like Cheney. Which is not easy. So somebody looks like Cheney, saying: “Well, we lied, brought the nation to war, we tortured, what we did led to a lot of people dying. But, we’re not going to be prosecuted. Hooray for liberalism!”
I saw another cartoon recently that had Osama bin-Laden in a cage, talking to one of his supposed henchmen and bin-Laden said, “I brought destruction to the financial sector in New York City.” And his henchman said, “I hear you can get a bonus for that.” And that leads to my next question, which I think is on all of our minds. Trillions of dollars going to the banks, a crisis without historical precedent, a lot of people comparing it to the 1930s. As a historian, are those comparisons apt?
I like it when people refer to me as a historian and assume I have a wisdom other people don’t have, I really enjoy that. Well, it’s true. I do.
It’s interesting. Obama faces an economic crisis. Roosevelt faced an economic crisis. The economic crisis at that time was even worse than it is now. Now we have a lot of unemployed, but at that time, in 1932, one-third of the labor force was unemployed. So what does Obama do? He pours money into the banks.
Even before Obama became president, you may recall, the first bailout of $700 billion went to the same financial institutions that have ruined us. I remember seeing a photo as the bailout was being signed, a photo of the two nominees, McCain and Obama, both standing there applauding this. I thought, this is wrong. This is wrong. What are we doing? We’re pouring money into the top—it’s the trickle down theory, right?—giving money to the rich, to the bankers, to the financial institutions, hoping that some of that money will trickle down to the people that need it. That doesn’t work. That was tried during the 1920s. Talk about historical analogies. That was tried in the 1920s when Andrew Mellon was secretary of the Treasury and he implemented a tax program that would go easy on the rich and tax the people at the bottom more. No. The trickle down theory doesn’t work. What Obama should be doing—yes, I’m going to tell him again what he should be doing—because I think we should all be telling him what he should be doing, okay?
He should be saying, look, obviously we have a lot of money in this country. It’s true that when we want to spend money for education, jobs, and so on we hear, “Oh, we don’t have the money.” But when it comes to bailing out the banks and financial institutions, we have a trillion dollars for that. We have the money. We’re rich. We should say that we’re not going to give any of it, not a dollar, to these financial institutions. We’re going to take this money and we’re going to give it directly to the people who need it.
Anarchists call this direct action. Obama’s not exactly an anarchist, but it’s a nice principle, actually. You don’t go through middle people and middle people and middle people until nothing happens at the end. People need jobs. You give them jobs. You don’t give money to corporations hoping the corporations will give people jobs, because you believe in the market. The market doesn’t work that way. The market only works for profit, not for human beings. No. You have to give jobs directly.
The New Deal—here’s where the historical analogy is useful—the New Deal gave jobs to eight million people. It put people to work and yes, what they talk about in timorous terms: “big government”—as if we haven’t always had big government. We always have big government for the rich. But when we start doing something for everybody else, they go, oh wow, big government. No, the government must give jobs directly to people who need them. Anybody who’s unemployed and wants to work, the government will employ you. During the 1930s, the government employed young people all over the country. They built the bridges, they repaired highways, they built playgrounds and swimming pools. The government hired artists and writers and musicians; the federal arts program. There had never been anything like it. We need another federal arts program.
The first play I ever saw, I was a teenager, I guess—I actually was once a teenager. The first play I ever saw was a WPA [Works Progress Administration] play. I paid seventeen cents to get in. That’s the way the WPA worked. They put on plays all over the country to people who’d never seen a play in their lives. Socially-conscious plays, and it was a wonderful, wonderful program. So the government needs to give money directly to people, give them jobs, help the people who are having their homes foreclosed—don’t give money to the banks and say, “Treat these people nicely who can’t pay their mortgages.” No. Don’t allow anybody to lose their homes. Do whatever’s necessary. Call a moratorium. This is one of the things—a moratorium on foreclosures so nobody can be foreclosed on their homes. Help people pay their mortgages. Direct government aid. Have a government program of health care. Obama has taken a step—a step—and only a small step, and he’s resisted what is obviously needed and what other countries have done very successfully and what even we have done successfully in the form of Medicare and Social Security: a government-run program bypassing the insurance companies. We need a government-run health program. Free health care for everybody. So there are things we can learn from the New Deal and from the thirties.
You mentioned the 1930s and what existed in terms of social programs. You’ve written extensively about the struggle that it took to win those things. Three general strikes in 1934 that shut down three different cities, the sit-down strikes that defined the United Auto Workers, the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the great industrial union. I wanted to ask you, when was the first time you were aware that there was such a thing as a labor movement, that there was such a thing as labor radicalism, and that it was something that you wanted to both identify with and elucidate for the public.
Hmm, first time. I think I was three-years-old. I don’t know. I think the first time I became aware of a labor movement and unions and so on was at the age of eighteen, I went to work at a shipyard—the Brooklyn Navy Yard actually—and, you know, I grew up in a working-class family and my family and other families around us in our neighborhood, kids did not go to college at the age of eighteen. They went to work. I went to work at the shipyard and I discovered that there were unions in the shipyard, but I was not allowed to join. I also noticed that there were Black workers in the shipyard who were not allowed to join the union because the unions that existed at that time in the shipyard were the old AFL [American Federation of Labor] unions, which were craft unions. In other words, the ship fitters were in one union, the shipwrights were in another union, the pipe fitters were in another union—all these people were in separate unions and all exclusive, leaving out unskilled workers like me, like the young workers in the shipyard, like the Blacks who did the heaviest work, working the riveting machines and the chipping machines.
Then I saw—I became aware that the CIO was coming up and growing, that the CIO had a totally different point of view, and the CIO had—well, they had the same idea that the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] had back in the early part of the twentieth century. And that is, you don’t separate workers. You don’t keep people out of the unions because they’re unskilled or they’re foreign-born or they’re women—no. Everybody in one big union. The CIO was doing that. And the result was an upsurge of labor power in the 1930s. And it was a wonderful thing to see. And it was that—you pointed it out—that’s what propelled the New Deal reforms. It wasn’t that Roosevelt suddenly decided, “Oh this would be a nice thing to do for people.” Presidents don’t make decisions like, “Oh, this is a nice thing to do for people.” No, presidents do not do things just because they had it in their hearts. No, they do things because they’re politicians and they see what’s happening in the country and if there’s turmoil in the country and there’s a kind of threat to the system, they react.
When I was teaching in the South, those of us who were in the Southern movement could see liberal Democrats were not going to do anything against racial segregation until Blacks went out into the streets and created a big commotion in the nation. That’s what happened in the thirties with Roosevelt.
I’d like to continue pulling that thread on the sweater because of your involvement in the Southern movement and in the African American freedom struggle. When was the first time that you were aware that such a thing as the civil rights movement existed? And that it was something that you wanted to champion?
Well, I guess I learned about the existence of the movement as it was developing. I came down to Atlanta, Georgia, to teach at Spelman College in 1956, and that was one year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, of which we were all aware. But now it was 1956 and things seemed quiet. It’s interesting about things seeming quiet. It’s a very important thing to understand. Never assume that because things seem quiet that people aren’t thinking. Or that people aren’t feeling. Or that people aren’t capable of speaking out and acting, because social change happens first under the surface. It happens first in the minds and hearts of people and you don’t see it and so you think, oh, nothing is happening. But no. My students were feeling racial segregation, even if they weren’t doing anything about it. And so I became aware as I was talking to my students and realizing, sure, things seem quiet around here but there’s enormous indignation in my students and I wonder when it’s going to burst out.
Even before the sit-ins, we began to do things in Atlanta. My students began to do little forays against racial segregation. Desegregating the Atlanta public library. Going to the state legislature and sitting in the wrong part of the gallery and so on. But then came the sit-ins in February of ’60, and everything exploded. Very often it’s all under the surface and then somebody makes a move. Somebody does something and that sets things off. So, any time—think about doing something. It might set something off. It might not, for the first twenty times. But keep doing it. Because the twenty-first time….
And for folks who don’t know, when Howard talks about teaching in Atlanta, he mentioned Spelman College—that’s a women’s college, and a historically Black college. And that leads to this: when were you first aware that there was such a thing as a women’s movement, which you’ve written about, and that there were aspirations among women for equal rights and full citizenship in a profoundly sexist country?
That’s a very strong statement, Dave.
I forgive you. I think I first became aware of the women’s movement when the women’s movement emerged and women began acting out and speaking out. Although, I think I first became aware—before it was a movement, I first became aware of the specific problems of women at Spelman College, because I had women students. A lot of these students came from very poor backgrounds, their parents were tenant farmers or janitors and so on, and they were the first kids to go to college. They would say to me, “My mother told me to remember: ‘You’re poor. And you’re a woman. And you’re Black. You’ve got three strikes against you. So keep that in mind.’” Which, when she said that to me, oh yeah, if you’re a woman, that’s a strike against you. And I hadn’t really been thinking about it that way. And so, that’s how we learn things, when we encounter people who teach us.
We’re going to stay at Spelman a second and I want to say some names to the crowd; you may know these names and you may not: Nagesh Rao, Loretta Capeheart, Norman Finkelstein, Joel Kovel. And what they all have in common, along with a couple of other professors out there right now, is that they’ve been hounded by David Horowitz—and his efforts to force radical thinkers off the college campuses. And I wanted to ask you: You worked for years at Spelman and Boston University. How did you manage to stay employed?
How did I manage to stay employed? Well, the answer is, at Spelman I didn’t manage to stay employed. I was fired.
Oh. A little awkward. Sorry about that.
I was there for seven years and I was fired. I’m proud. When you’re fired, be proud. It means you’re doing something good. I was fired, basically, because my students, who had been living in this patriarchy which is Spelman College, resisted, and when my students came out of jail in the city in Atlanta, they came back to campus and rebelled against the oppressive conditions of the campus and I supported them. I was fired.
There’s a little sequel to that. It was 1963 when I was fired. A few years ago, I got a letter from the president of Spelman College—not the same president who had fired me—but a new president saying we’d like to invite you to be commencement speaker and get an honorary degree. Forty-two years after I was fired—I was better off than a lot of people who were killed by Stalin and then were pardoned. So I’m still alive and got an honorary degree. And Boston University? I survived—barely. I was threatened with firing—I and four others, we were known as the BU Five. You never heard of us? I’m really disappointed. The BU Five. Five of us, we’d been on strike. Faculty on strike, secretaries on strike, buildings and grounds people on strike, etc. We’d been on strike against a very ridiculous administration—most of them are. And they settled the strike with the faculty, but not with the secretaries. Faculty went back to work and a number of us said, no, we’re not going back to work if the secretaries are still out.
So we refused to cross the picket line of the secretaries and some of us held our classes out on the street, on Commonwealth Avenue, rather than cross the picket line. So we were threatened with being fired by the man who was the president of Boston University. The notorious John Silber who was called the Idi Amin of higher education.
Anyway, there was a big outcry in our favor. We all had tenure. And it was not easy to fire us. But finally, they stopped their proceedings. But, I say that in answer to your question. One, I was fired. And two, I was close to being fired and, the truth is, you know, we live in a hierarchical society where somebody has power over our jobs always, and therefore, that’s an inducement to caution and compromise. Everybody’s part of this hierarchy and somebody has power over you and if you step out of line, something may happen to you. You have to understand this. Sure you want to survive, but if you only survive, nothing will change. And so, everybody, no matter what job you have, you have to take risks. Really. Not suicidal risks, but risks. We all have to play a kind of guerrilla warfare with the system.
One of the exciting campus developments has been that a lot of students of these professors haven’t taken this lying down. And it’s not just about the professors. A lot of students over the past year, two years, have made the decision to occupy buildings, whether around the issue of divestment from Israel or budget cuts or trying to keep a beloved radical professor employed. I want to ask you, because we’re taping this, if you had a message for students who are in their own head thinking, “What am I going to do today? Study, hang out, or occupy a building?”
You know, it’s interesting. Yes, students want to go to class, they want to get grades, they want to graduate, they want to get jobs. But students who have stepped out of that role, even briefly, and gotten involved in social movements have never regretted it. The moments in which students, even for a day or a week, even for a sit-in or an occupation or a picket line, or whatever, when students have stepped out of their role as students for a while and become activists, for a time being, they never regret it. And they look back on those days, later on, as the best education they ever had.
I remember at Spelman College my students were going into town and sitting in and getting arrested. A colleague of mine wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution—the newspaper—and he said, “You know, I really want to say I regret the fact that my students are cutting class and they’re missing their educations.”
This guy could not know what education was. The best kind of education you can get is when you’re involved in social struggles for a cause.
And speaking of social struggles, we are in a country right now where there’s gay marriage in Iowa. And looking like it is coming to Maine and New Hampshire as well. Maybe even by the time this meeting is done.
We can filibuster and stay here long enough until—
Yeah, that’s true… Until Alabama! That’ll be our slogan. How do you see this movement for gay marriage—which by the way, now, a plurality of the United States supports gay marriage, which is a shift—in two months it’s gone from being a minority position to a plurality because of struggle—struggle has changed people on this question. How do you see this movement in the continuum of the movements you’ve written about in your life?
Well, one of the things we can learn from what you just described; a remarkable emergence of gay marriage as suddenly acceptable, when a decade ago, nobody wanted to talk about it. The whole issue of gay and lesbian rights is a real example of how things can change. Things that look as if they will never change. Really, no one would have dreamed you could even talk about homosexuality, gays and lesbians—it was just a taboo thing. And now it’s in the culture, it’s in the movies, it’s on television. People—and what you learn is that people are basically decent. They may have imbibed in the prejudices of the culture, but if people speak up, if people come out of the closet, not only gay people, but non-gay people come out of the closet of silence about gay people, the truth has power. And that will emerge if you continue doing the right thing. And I think the movement is an example of this.
And I think radicals need to come out of the closet and not be afraid to speak our minds in this political climate. And that leads to this question; I’ve wanted to ask you all day.
I’m worried about this.
The word socialism is all over the media right now. Except it’s being said by people like Rush Limbaugh, Jim Cramer—who called Congress a gaggle of Bolsheviks—Mike Huckabee who said he thought that Lenin had advised Obama on his banking plan and Michele Bachmann, the utterly unhinged congressperson who said that Barack Obama is going to be sending our children to reeducation camps. To which, Jon Stewart made the point: “Don’t we have to educate them first?” And it raises a question, certainly, this discussion of socialism. Oh, by the way, the best line: Matt Taibbi, the journalist, he said: “All these people, it’s like they’re fighting for the heavyweight championship of stupid.” But it raises a question. Clearly they wouldn’t be saying the word if they weren’t fearful of the word. And I wanted to know your thoughts about the prospects of a radical politics emerging in this day and age?
Let’s talk about socialism. It’s time that people were not afraid to utter the word socialism. You see, there’s a long period when socialism was discredited because it was connected to the Soviet Union. People thought, oh socialism, oh that’s Stalinism. It’s the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But it wasn’t socialist. It was something else. But the word—I think it’s very important to bring back the idea of socialism into the national discussion and to bring socialism back to where it was at at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union even existed, before the Soviet Union gave socialism a bad name. Socialism had a good name in this country. Socialism had Eugene Debs. It had Clarence Darrow. It had Mother Jones. It had Emma Goldman. It had several million people reading socialist newspapers around the country. There were thirteen socialist locals in Oklahoma.
Really? Where the reds go sweeping down the plain, I guess.
Socialism was a marvelous ideal. And it was understandable that socialism would have taken hold in this country at the turn of the century, at the beginning of the twentieth century people could see capitalism at its ugliest. People could see people working longer hours. People could see the market system at its worst. And labor struggles taking place all over the country against horrible, oppressive conditions and socialism basically said, hey, let’s have a kinder, gentler society. Let’s share things. Let’s have an economic system that produces things not because they’re profitable for some corporation, but produces things that people need.
I remember the slogan that I learned when I was first learning about socialism, I first learned about it from Upton Sinclair, who was a great writer, a great socialist and the author of The Jungle. You read the last pages of The Jungle—the beginning of The Jungle is all about the meat-packing plants—in the last pages of The Jungle, he expounds on what a socialist society would be like. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful picture. And so we need to restore that idea of an egalitarian society.
In other words, instead of retreating, too many people on the left—or certainly it’s true of liberals, like liberals retreating from the word liberal. Civil libertarians retreating from—oh, are you a member of the ACLU? No, I swear!
No. People should not be retreating from the word socialism. You have more and more people talking about it because you have to go beyond capitalism. Capitalism has failed.
And for those people who think, “Oh, socialism means bureaucracy or socialism means centralization”—no. Socialism is open to various forms. But the fundamental principle in socialism is production for use and not for profit. I remember learning that expression: An economic system for use, for human beings and not for profit.
I’ll just give you one other slogan. I suddenly feel full of slogans. There’s a Marxist slogan—talk about socialism being back, how about Marxism! Woo. Marxism. But Marx said something very nice, actually. He said: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Give to society what you can, but give everybody what they need. You don’t need to be rewarded exactly for what you do—no, everybody deserves certain basic things.
But the slogan I was thinking of actually—which I refuse to forget—comes from Dalton Trumbo. Dalton Trumbo was a very successful Hollywood screenwriter. He was one of the Hollywood Ten. They went to prison for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dalton Trumbo went to prison. He was blacklisted. And by the way, he won the Academy Award while being blacklisted, under an assumed name. It was brilliant. They called out a name which was not Dalton Trumbo, but he had written the screenplay. And this person got the Academy Award for the best screenplay of the year. They called out Robert Rich. And nobody came up to get the award. It was Dalton Trumbo. Anyway—sorry for these parenthetical remarks. But most of the things I say belong in parentheses. But Dalton Trumbo… somebody asked him once: What do you believe in? And he said three words, and I’ll always remember those three words. He said, “Socialism without jails.” What a nice summing up: Socialism without jails.
We’re running close to the end of time, but since you mentioned Hollywood, I can’t resist. Howard Zinn has himself a movie that’s going to be coming out called—it’s called—
I’m playing opposite Angelina Jolie…
It’s called Original Zinn. No, Zinngelina. No, it’s called The People Speak. And I was hoping that you could say something about The People Speak, who is in it, and what is its purpose.
I’m glad you asked that question. I wanted to advertise this film just because I’m involved with it. But, The People Speak is a documentary film, which is based, roughly on my book A People’s History of the United States and based also on a book I did together with Anthony Arnove, called Voices of A Peoples History, in which we collected some 200 historical documents: voices of people in history. Not presidents, not generals, people. Agitators and organizers and dissidents.
So what we’ve done—we’re making a documentary film in which we use the historical documents, read by actors. And so we have, for instance, Viggo Mortensen reading the words of a member of the IWW when he’s sentenced to jail for opposing World War I. We have Josh Brolin reading from Dalton Trumbo’s book Johnny Got His Gun, which is the most powerful antiwar novel you will ever read. We have Marisa Tomei reading the words of a Lowell Mill Girl in the 1830s and also she reads an angry anti-Bush statement by Cindy Sheehan against the war. We have Sean Penn reading the words of Kevin Tillman who’s the brother of Pat Tillman, the football player who died by friendly fire. His family didn’t accept it neatly as some families do. And we have Danny Glover reading Martin Luther King and Langston Hughes. We have Morgan Freeman reading Frederick Douglass when Frederick Douglass is asked in the 1850s—before the Civil War—to speak on the Fourth of July and he says, “Why are you asking me? Me—a Black man—to celebrate the Fourth of July?” Anyway, Morgan Freeman does it. And it’s better than mine.
Anyway, this is a documentary film. And we’re finishing editing it. It’s going to be on the History Channel sometime this September, so look for it.
And, let me say one more thing. Dave, since you’re so nice mentioning this documentary. David Zirin has written the best sports books there are. Really. There’s no sportswriter like him. Really. So, get his stuff. The first thing I ever read by Dave Zirin was about Muhammad Ali, and other athletes who had spoken out on important issues. And it was a revelation to come across a sportswriter with a livid point of view and who writes so well and with such a combination of fun and politics.
Gee. Thank you. I feel like the young man in the anti-drug commercial who says: “You! I learned it by watching you!” But in a good way. But as we wrap up—a show of hands, people. If you have ever lent A People’s History to a friend or given it as a gift to somebody. Wow. For those of you in YouTube land, that was almost a packed house raising their hand. [Someone from the audience: “It’s Madison.”] This is Madison, Wisconsin, that’s true. But, before we leave, obviously, for me, that’s book number one of what I would give to a young person who’s at least starting to engage with the idea that maybe the world is not as it should be. But what is a book that you would recommend, not by Howard Zinn, to give to a young person?
Oooh. Well. I think I would recommend Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. A young person who is in high school is going to be faced with military recruiters who come to the high school. A young person is going to be facing major television stations parroting administration arguments for doing this and doing that and that book had such a powerful effect on me when I read it as a teenager; I mean it set me against war forever. So, that’s one book I would recommend, yes.
Thank you very much. Everybody: Howard Zinn.
Originally published in the International Socialist Review • July 2009