Articles & Interviews

Robert Birnbaum Talks with the Author of A People’s History of the United States

Interview by Robert Birnbau • Published at IdentityTheory.com • January 10, 2001
“I talk to audiences in Oklahoma and Texas and here and there and mostly to audiences of people who don’t really know my work. I certainly don’t expect them to be sympathetic to my ideas. When I express my ideas — and they are radical ideas — except that I don’t start off by saying, ‘I’m now going to tell you radical ideas.’ Or, ‘I’m now going to expound ideas of socialism or attack capitalism. Or, ‘This is going to be a hate imperialism talk.’ None of that. People respond to common sense ideas about foreign policy and domestic policy. It encourages me about the potential in this country, despite who is running it.”

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Tennis on the Titanic

Published by ZCommunications • December 16, 2000
As the prize of the presidency lurched wildly back and forth in the last days of the year, with the entire nation hypnotized by the spectacle, I had a vision. I saw the Titanic churning through the waters of the North Atlantic toward an iceberg looming in the distance, while passengers and crew were totally concentrated on a tennis game taking place on deck.

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The Electoral College and Election 2000: A Historical Perspective from Howard Zinn

Democracy Now! • December 8, 2000
“I mean, what’s astonishing, or maybe not so astonishing, is here over 200 years later, we are still operating with an undemocratic system of electing the president of the United States, a system which not only was flawed from the beginning by the requirements of the founding fathers, but had become more and more flawed as the election process has become dominated by two major parties, which monopolize the political arena, and dominated more and more by the fact that money decides who can reach the American people.”

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A Campaign Without Class

Published by ZCommunications • September 29, 2000
There came a rare amusing moment in this election campaign when George Bush (who has $220 million dollars for his campaign) accused Al Gore (who has only $170 million dollars) of appealing to ‘class warfare’.… I noticed that neither of the accused responded with a defiant “Yes, we have classes in this country.”

Only Ralph Nader has dared to suggest that this country is divided among the rich, the poor, and the nervous in between. This kind of talk is unpardonably rude, and would be enough to bar him from the televised debates.

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Howard Zinn’s Book Review of Karl Marx: A Life

 In the September 2000 issue of In These Times, Howard Zinn wrote this review of a book about the life of Karl Marx by Francis Wheen. It takes some courage to write still another biography of Karl Marx, especially… Read More

Downfall

Published by ZCommunications • August 18, 2000
I am surprised that my friend Hans Koning, a stalwart protester against the war in Vietnam, seems to have been taken in by the argument of Richard Frank, in his review of Frank’s Downfall. Yes, we must all be willing to reconsider our most hardened judgements in the light of new evidence. But there is nothing in Frank’s argument — however assiduous his research — to make those of us who see the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an unspeakable atrocity change our minds.

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A Fourth of July Commentary

Published by ZCommunications • July 4, 2000
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…

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Unsung Heroes

Published in The Progressive • June 1, 2000
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?

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The Heroes Around Us

Published by ZCommunications • May 7, 2000
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.

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Sender Garlin

Published by ZCommunications • March 9, 2000
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.

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Notes for a Gathering

Published by ZCommunications • December 16, 2000
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…

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A Flash of the Possible

Published in The Progressive • January 1, 2000
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.

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American History Review of the 20th Century: Manning Marable and Howard Zinn

Democracy Now! • December 27, 1999
“But what the history of this country shows, and especially in this century, is that democracy comes alive when people who see that the formal structure of government doesn’t help them. The formal structure of government does not change the 12-hour day, doesn’t change the conditions of work, doesn’t change the power of the corporations over working people. When people see that that formal structure doesn’t work, then they organize. They go out on strike. They demonstrate.”

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Beyond the Soviet Union

Published by ZCommunications • December 22, 1999
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…

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A Larger Consciousness

Published by ZCommunications • December 22, 1999
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.

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Seattle

Pubilshed by ZCommunications • December 22, 1999
…it suggested…how apparently powerless people, if they unite in large numbers, can bring the machinery of government and commerce to a halt.

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On Rewarding People for Talents and Hard Work

Published at ZCommunications • November 25, 1999
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!

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‘Inspire Please…’

Published by ZCommunications • July 16, 1999
For those not in the know, let me explain that we who write for the progressive-radical movement have our specialties. Some specialize in writing depressing stuff. Others write humorous pieces. Some concentrate on trashing other Left writers. It seems that there was an opening this month for someone to inspire, and I was chosen. Not an easy job, when the United States government has just finished dropping thousands of cluster bombs on Yugoslavia…

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Their Atrocities—and Ours

Published in The Progressive • July 2, 1999
Official terrorism, whether used abroad or at home, by jet bombers or by the police, always receives an opportunity to explain itself in the press, as ordinary terrorism does not.

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Whose Atrocity is Bigger?

Published by ZCommunications • May 25, 1999
I get e-mail messages from Yugoslav opponents of Milosovic, who demonstrated against him in the streets of Belgrade (before the air strikes began), who tell me their children cannot sleep at night, terrified by the incessant bombing. They tell of the loss of light, of water, of the destruction of the basic sources of life for ordinary people.

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