Articles by Howard Zinn
In this year 2000, I cannot comment more meaningfully on the Fourth of July than Frederick Douglass did when he was invited in 1852 to give an Independence Day address. He could not help thinking about the irony of the promise of the Declaration of Independence, of equality, life, liberty made by slaveowners, and how slavery was made legitimate in the writing of the Constitution after a victory for "freedom" over England. And his invitation to speak came just two years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, committing the national government to return fugitives to slavery with all the force of the law. So it is fitting, at a time when police are exonerated in the killing of unarmed black men, when the electric chair and the gas chamber are used most often against people of color, that we refrain from celebration and instead listen to Douglass' sobering words…
A high school student recently confronted me: "I read in your book A People's History of the United States about the massacres of Indians, the long history of racism, the persistence of poverty in the richest country in the world, the senseless wars. How can I keep from being thoroughly alienated and depressed?" It's a question I've heard many times before. Another question often put to me by students is: Don't we need our national idols? You are taking down all our national heroes- the Founding Fathers, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy. Granted, it is good to have historical figures we can admire and emulate. But why hold up as models the fifty-five rich white men who drafted the Constitution as a way of establishing a government that would protect the interests of their class-slaveholders, merchants, bondholders, land speculators?
Recently, meeting with a group of high school students, I was asked by one of them: "I read in your book, A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, about the massacres of Indians, the long history of racism, the persistence of poverty in the richest country in the world, the senseless wars. How can I keep from being thoroughly alienated and depressed?" That same question has been put to me many times, in different forms, one of them being: "How come you are not depressed?" Who says I'm not? At least briefly.
As the twentieth century came to an end last December, an extraordinary man, whose life spanned the century, died at the age of ninety-seven. His name was Sender Garlin. I first met Sender, ten years before his death, when he was only eighty-seven years old. It was the fall of 1989, and I had traveled to Boulder to give a talk at the University of Colorado. One of the chief organizers of my stay was a man named Sender Garlin, a longtime radical journalist and pamphleteer. I did not know him, and so I was not prepared for the excitement of my encounter with him.
I have been asked to imagine this situation: "The progressive third party movement has captured the White House, 60% of Congress and 30 Governorships. What do we do now?" First, we have a party, maybe three, with the third party being special. Then, we have Congress pass, and the President sign, the following legislation…
What happened in Seattle recently was not as large an event as the general strike of 1919. But it showed how apparently powerless people—if they unite in large numbers—can stop the machinery of government and commerce. In an era when the power of government, and of multinational corporations, is overwhelming, it is instructive to get even a hint of how fragile that power is when confronted by organized, determined citizens.
In the spirit of killing two obligations with one effort, I offer as my Commentary a response I just made to a letter by a retired professor in California, who wrote:
“As a great admirer of Howard Zinn [should he have said “as a former great admirer…”?] I was profoundly disappointed by some of his comments made during his interview with David Barsamian [I blame Barsamian for losing me an admirer] in the March issue of Z Magazine.” [You can see how long it takes me to respond to critical letters—I simply don’t want to believe that any rational person can disagree with me].Without reproducing my correspondent's letter I think the gist of his comments are clear from my responses. Fundamentally, he did not like my saying I was “very glad” the rule of the Soviet government ended. He took issue with my skepticism about violent revolutions. He made interesting, provocative, thoughtful arguments. My response…
Some years ago, when I was teaching at Boston University, I was asked by a Jewish group to give a talk on the Holocaust. I spoke that evening, but not about the Holocaust of World War II, not about the genocide of six million Jews. It was the mid-Eighties, and the United States government was supporting death squad governments in Central America, so I spoke of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of peasants in Guatemala and El Salvador, victims of American policy. My point was that the memory of the Jewish Holocaust should not be encircled by barbed wire, morally ghettoized, kept isolated from other genocides in history. It seemed to me that to remember what happened to Jews served no important purpose unless it aroused indignation, anger, action against all atrocities, anywhere in the world. A few days later, in the campus newspaper, there was a letter from a faculty member who had heard me speak -- a Jewish refugee who had left Europe for Argentina, and then the United States. He objected strenuously to my extending the moral issue from Jews in Europe in the 1940s to people in other parts of the world, in our time.
…it suggested…how apparently powerless people, if they unite in large numbers, can bring the machinery of government and commerce to a halt.
The president of Boston University makes $300,000 a year. Does he work harder than the man who cleans the offices of the university? Talent and hard work are qualitative factors which cannot be measured quantitatively. Since there is no way of measuring them quantitatively we accept the measure given us by the very people who benefit from that measuring!