Howard Zinn interviewed by Melody Berger • The F-Word Zine/PM Press • 2008
“If history is to be creative to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.” —Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
Melody: I sent out this email saying, “So, what would you ask Howard?” and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote back, “I would ask him why he’s in the outlaws issue of the F-WORD!”
Howard: Well, that’s not hard to figure out! I’m a believer in civil disobedience! I don’t think the law is sacrosanct. So, I believe that when the law is in the way of justice, which it often is, then the law needs to be broken. And, historically, that’s what people have done. They’ve committed civil disobedience. They’ve violated the law because they had to do that in order to achieve racial justice or gender justice, or to stop a war, or to gain some sort of economic right. All these people who commit civil disobedience arc outlaws.
Melody: When we were talking about the theme for this issue, we talked about the difference between an outlaw and a criminal.
Howard: It’s the difference between criminal disobedience and civil disobedience. Very often people use the term civil disobedience and they don’t take a good look at that word civil. Civil disobedience is the disobedience of a citizen, not of a criminal. Criminal disobedience is when you’re violating the law for some personal gain. Civil disobedience is when you’re violating the law for some social purpose. Sure, people who have done it for personal gain have been called outlaws: Jesse James and Al Capone and criminals in general, but I think maybe it’s better to reserve the term “outlaw” for people who do things not just for themselves.
Melody: I’ve heard many people say that even though we’re in another unjust war, the 60’s can’t happen again for various reasons. . . .
Howard: Well, maybe the 60’s can’t happen again but the 00’s can happen. Or the 10’s can happen. Nothing can happen exactly as it did before, but if by that they mean we can’t have another protest movement in this country, they’re wrong. Whenever you go through a period of decline in protest, as we have been going through since the 60’s, people assume it will last forever. Like when you get sick, you think it will last forever. No, people recover from that. We have always had periods of protest and periods of decline of protest and then periods of protest again. So, yes, we will have another period, not exactly like the 60’s, but we will have a period of protest again for the simple reason that there is need for it. If policies are being followed like carrying on an endless war, like taking people’s tax money and spending it on the military, like leaving people homeless and without healthcare. . . so long as people have grievances then there is the possibility, not the certainty, but the possibility that those grievances will become large enough and will lead to enough organized resistance to create a new social movement. So, I think it’s too glib when people say, “Oh, well, there were the 60’s and they’re gone and that’s it.” There’s too much cynicism around, too much pessimism. And that’s because people have lost their perspective. They don’t go far back enough in history — they can go back as far as the last 10 years. You have to take a long look at history and what you see when you have a long look at history is you have periods of quiet on the part of the masses of people and then you see periods of unrest and turbulence. Whether you have one period or another is not inevitable. It depends on what people do. It depends on the situation. So I would not rule out another large social movement in this country.
Melody: There seems to be a lot of organizing now, but maybe we need different tactics of protest than those used in the 60’s because they’re just not as effective now?
Howard: All tactics of protest look ineffective until they become effective. People are always looking for dramatic new tactics. There are no dramatic new tactics. The tactics always involve the same sort of thing: protest, resistance, non-cooperation, strikes, boycotts, refusal to serve in the armed forces. When these become large enough and intense enough then you have a social movement. It’s not a matter of tactics, of finding new tactics, or of saying, “Oh, the old tactics don’t work.” No, they won’t work for a while. Protest did not work in the first four years of the Vietnam War, and then suddenly it worked. Protest didn’t work for the first years of the Civil Rights movement, but then it worked. The important thing is that people not give up. If people go to demonstrations and nothing happens and then they go home and say, “Well, I guess we mustn’t have demonstrations, it doesn’t work.” You can’t do that. You have to persist. You have to have a kind of confidence, a kind of faith that if you continue doing the right thing, other people will catch on and something will happen. If you don’t act, you can be sure nothing will happen. If you do act, you can’t be sure something will happen, but you have a chance.
Melody: Some might argue that the mainstream media don’t cover protest as much as they used to. . . .
Howard: Protest has never been well covered. The media have always played down protest until it gets large enough so they can’t ignore it. So, we can’t expect the media to do what they are not inclined to do. When a movement becomes large enough and disruptive enough and troublesome enough, then maybe the media will cover it. But today we have an alternate media. We have alternate press and magazines, we have the internet. We have ways of bypassing the traditional media. The other media will continue to underreport the amount of opposition that there is in the country, but that’s nothing new.
Melody: I’m excited about indie media too, obviously.
Howard: Yes, you are!
Melody: Looking at labor history, it’s always kind of unbelievable to me how much it’s downplayed almost how many people were martyrs and went to jail for things that we take for granted today, like the eight hour work day or the weekend. And there are just so many anti-union efforts out there now. . . .
Howard: The labor movement is in a tough situation today because manufacturing has declined and that’s where unionization was most prominent, in the manufacturing industries. And now manufacturing has declined and the service industries have grown and that’s where unionization is taking hold. That’s why the Service Employees International Union is now a huge union. It will take a lot more organizing effort to organize workers into unions, but it is true that we are at a low point in the organization of labor.
Melody: Well, going on a feminist tangent in the union organizing question, there’s a lot of controversy in some feminist circles about sex workers forming unions and creating independent publications like $pread Magazine, etc. Because on the one hand, you want to support workers, but on the other hand, you don’t want to condone an industry that obviously sucks in a lot of ways.
Howard: But that’s always been the dilemma. People have always needed to organize people who are doing terrible work. So, what do you do? You ignore them because you want that to go away? You have to do both at once. You have to organize the sex workers and at the same time, carry on a campaign to end their situation. Find other work for them, put pressure on government to guarantee jobs so people won’t have to go become sex slaves. Very often, you have a double job to do, and that is, you have to do something in the immediate to help people immediately, like organizing for better wages and better treatment. But at the same time, you have to work to end the system that has given them such bad treatment. You have a short term job and a long term job at the same time.
Melody: I’d like to end on a hopeful theme. . . . How would you compare the general collective sense of hope on the U.S. left with other periods?
Howard: Obviously, people are lacking much hope today. It’s not a good time for hope. Therefore, it’s a time when people who do understand something about history and the people who are socially conscious must convey to the rest of the population that there is hope, must convey to people who feel powerless that they have power. Must go back to the history and show the many times that people felt hopeless, but when they struggled and fought and organized, they won. So, we have a job to do in a time of hopelessness: to create hope. Hope which is not based on just dreams, but hope which is based on reality: the reality that the people in power only have their power so long as we obey them. We stop obeying them, they don’t have power. And that gives us hope.