A People’s History of the United States
Democracy Now! • May 18, 1999
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AMY GOODMAN: What are the political implications of cyberspace? What role is the United States playing in Russia’s current crises? After its rise and fall, is the labor movement on the rise once again? What are the origins of corporate power? Who will control the past—and the future? As the new millennium approaches and we see TV special after TV special looking back on the past few centuries, we turn to the words of radical historian Howard Zinn. In his work, Zinn looks at history from the standpoint of those people who were victims of the state, the ordinary people who were not in power. Zinn’s radical look at the past provides activists with a platform from which to fight for the future. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As the new millennium approaches, there are special after special on television and radio about the last millennium and about history, and today we’re going to take a different look at history, particularly of the United States, with radical historian Howard Zinn. His most famous book is called A People’s History of the United States. He’s a professor emeritus at Boston University. In his work, Zinn looks at history from the standpoint of those people who were victims of the state, the ordinary people who were not in power. Zinn’s book looks at and provides activists a platform from which to fight, even as the new millennium is ushered in. This is Howard Zinn.
HOWARD ZINN: I came across a book recently called The Art and Politics of College Teaching. Any of you ever hear of it? No. I’m not surprised. But it’s a kind of a Machiavellian guide to people who want to teach in college. And it has—sort of organized in the form of concerns. And concern number nine — I skip the first eight for your benefit — “Can I involve myself in causes, crusades and political activism as a professor?” Answer: “The institution of higher education may not look kindly upon such activities. Be wary of introducing your political conclusions or social thought into classroom situations. Be on guard not to take sides, if it is possible to avoid it at all. Play dumb.” That’s interesting. Until you get your Ph.D., the advice is, play smart; then after you get your Ph.D., play dumb. “Be somewhat submissive to the senior faculty.” The only thing about that I didn’t understand was the word “somewhat.” I thought that took courage. If I had had that book available to me when I started my teaching career, I mean, who knows what I might have become? A dean, maybe.
Anyway, I’ve always been interested in teaching as a profession and the whole idea of professionalism, which ties in with Machiavelli—that is, the idea of just doing well whatever it is somebody tells you to do, without asking why or what. And I have something here that was written by Leslie Gelb, a writer for the New York Times during the Gulf War, who at the end of the Gulf War was just ecstatic over the professionalism of the American Army in the Gulf War. And, well, he had worked for the RAND Corporation and for the United States government, and he was in the habit of not asking questions other than professional questions, and so it was only fitting now that he should work for the New York Times.
And I remember that the—I saw a review not long ago of the autobiography of Leni Riefenstahl, you know, the—I started to call her the Nazi filmmaker, but then I realized she wouldn’t like it. And, you know, so let’s put it this way: she was a filmmaker who worked for the Nazis. And in this review, the reviewer in the New York Times talked about her involvement with Hitler. When I say “involvement with Hitler,” I don’t mean it in the sense of, you know, People magazine, or involve—met Hitler a few times, had lunch with Goebbels—if you can imagine having lunch with Goebbels. And then, but, you know, she is—in the world of film, her technique is admired enormously, and the reviewer ends up this review of her book by saying something like, “She may have compromised her morality, but her artistic integrity, never.”
And then I remembered the—when Mumia Abu-Jamal was facing execution last August—I don’t know how many of you have heard of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, but when the campaign was on for Mumia Abu-Jamal, I remember, at the very time, just before his scheduled date of execution, and when there’s a campaign going on around the country, indeed around the world, to stop his execution, there was a meeting, it so happened, at that very time in Philadelphia, which is the site of all of that, of Jamal and MOVE, and the Pennsylvania governor coming into office promising to carry through all of the executions that were planned in the state of Pennsylvania. And just at that time, the Association of Black Journalists met in Philadelphia and debated the question of whether they should call for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is what the campaign was for. E.L. Doctorow, the novelist, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times saying, as many people did, “We don’t really know the facts of this case. It’s hard to know. We have conflicting evidence. Who can say for sure whether Mumia Abu-Jamal killed this policeman or not? But judging from the way the trial was conducted, from the way the witnesses were brought forth, from the prejudice of the judge, who was proud of having sentenced more people to death than any other judge, he deserves a new trial.” This is what people were asking for. And this is what the Association of Black Journalists was debating. And one of—they finally decided not to call for a new trial, but to make some statement short of that. And one of the grounds for not declaring themselves boldly in favor for a new trial was that they felt it was not their job as journalists to do that. We’re—our job—as one of them put it, “Our job is to advance ourselves professionally and to do everything we can do to advance the profession. And somehow this doesn’t fit in.”
Come to think of it, I just thought of another example, in which—in my own profession. Sometimes I consider myself a member of the historical profession, just for speech purposes. And during the Vietnam War, there was a business meeting of the American Historical Association—oh, thanks. Well, thank you. Now I’ll have to read what they really said. But at this meeting of the American Historical Association—you know these annual scholarly meetings. Some of you may be really lucky and get to go to some of them. And the—but right in the midst of the Vietnam War, and it was—at all of these scholarly meetings, there are all these papers are presented, and then—but there’s always a business meeting, which is attended. The whole thing is attended by thousands of people, come from all over the country for that one annual meeting. And then there’s a business meeting, which is usually attended by 32 people, because can you imagine how exciting would be the business of the American Historical Association? But this time, at this meeting, the place was jammed, because everybody had heard that there was going to be a resolution introduced at the business meeting calling for the American Historical Association to denounce American policy in Vietnam and to call for the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. And so, everybody came. And we introduced the resolution. And, in fact, I confess that I introduced the resolution, wearing dark glasses. And we had a lively debate on it, as lively a debate as you can have at the American Historical Association. And the resolution was defeated. And the main ground for its defeat was that it really wasn’t relevant to the work of historians. Immediately after my resolution, or our resolution, the resolution of what was called the Radical History Caucus—I don’t know why I’ve always been somehow part of something called the Radical History Caucus, but after that was defeated, somebody else got up and proposed another resolution, which said exactly what my resolution had said, except that it added the words: “because the money that’s going for the war could otherwise be used to advance the profession of history.” That resolution passed overwhelmingly.
So I’m glad you’re all going to be professionals. And the problem is how to work in a field without becoming a professional in that sense of the term, in that narrow, warped, anti-human sense of the term. So when I became a historian—that is, when I entered what I soon discovered was a profession—when I became a historian, I already knew that I was not going to be neutral. I already understood for myself that, in teaching history or writing history, my point of view was going to be there. I was not going to be a—what I call a disinterested historian. I had interest. I was not going to be an objective historian, because I didn’t really believe objectivity was possible, nor was it desirable—unless objectivity meant telling the truth as you saw it, not lying, not distorting, not omitting information, and not omitting arguments because they don’t conform to some idea that you have. But if objectivity meant not taking a stand, if objectivity meant presenting data without caring about the social effect of the kind of data you present, at that—I didn’t want that kind of objectivity.
History was interesting to me, but I wasn’t going into history because it was interesting. Or put another way, what was interesting about history is that it represented interests, different kinds of interests. I was very much aware of that. And I was aware, as soon as I began to study history, that you couldn’t really be objective. You couldn’t really just recapture the past as it was, a phrase that was used starting in the 19th century when history became a profession in an important sense, “reproduce the past as it was,” and an idea which is still heard today. History is an infinite number of events, an infinite number of facts. Inevitably, you must select from that number of facts those things which you are going to present, if you’re going to write, if you’re going to teach. What is going to go into this book? Or what is going to go into your lecture, into your classroom? There’s no way of avoiding the process of selection. And once you make that selection, that selection is based on your point of view, whether you acknowledge it or not, whether you even know it or not. There’s a way in which you can reproduce the point of view that has been dominant in your culture without understanding that you are reproducing the dominant point of view. And so, you make a selection according to that point of view. You make a selection according to what you think is important. And different people think different things are important. And she thought that finding out about Andrew Jackson’s first message to Congress and who wrote it was important.
I remember a few years ago, the New York Times did a survey of high school students to see how much history they knew. And they do this, you know, every few years. They do a survey of young people to prove how dumb they are and to prove how smart are the givers of the tests. And so they gave this test to high school seniors and corroborated what they thought, that young people don’t know anything about history. They ask questions like “Who was the president during the War of 1812? Who was the president during the Mexican War?” Please, I can see you thinking already. We’re in a great quiz culture, and all you have to do is drop something—I’m sorry, that was a mistake. But a question like, “What came first, the Homestead Act or the Civil Service Act?” Well, you recognize questions like that, because they’re the questions that appear on tests which enable you to get into graduate school. Or you can go very far if you know enough of those answers. You will be Phi Beta Kappa. You will become an adviser to the president of the United States. Do you remember the book, The Best and the Brightest? Which is precisely about that point, that the people surrounding the presidents who made the war in Vietnam were the brightest people. They were the people who got the highest scores. They were Phi Beta Kappa. And they were the architects of the war in Vietnam.
AMY GOODMAN: Historian Howard Zinn. His most famous book, A People’s History of the United States. We’ll be back in a minute.
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Democracy Now! • May 18, 1999