Interview by David Barsamian conducted on July 21, 2004, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This interview was published in the February 2005 issue of International Socialist Review and included in the book, Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics.
BARSAMIAN: 2004 saw a number of anniversaries, most particularly the 60th anniversary of D-Day. But there was another event that went under the media radar, and that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address on economic justice, where he laid out a rather radical vision of what American society could be like. He spoke of “the right to a useful and remunerative job…the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation…the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to a good education.”
ZINN: That is a forgotten moment in the presidency of FDR, when he outlined an Economic Bill of Rights. It is still sort of a surprise to Americans, who know that we have a Bill of Rights. To be told that this Bill of Rights only applies to certain political rights, such as the right to free speech and assembly, the right to a lawyer, the right to a fair trial. People are surprised when you tell them, “But, you know, the Bill of Rights does not include economic rights, does not include the right to health care, does not include the right to a job, does not include the right to decent housing, does not include the right to food.” And without these rights, without economic rights, how can people make use of the political rights? Because, after all, what good is freedom of speech if you don’t have the wherewithal to utilize that freedom? What good is the right to counsel if you can’t afford to get a lawyer, and therefore you must have a court-appointed lawyer? All of the political rights are subject to the weakness that, if there is no Economic Bill of Rights, then they don’t have very much meaning.
Roosevelt, in 1944, was in the midst of World War II. Wars bring out the best of rhetoric, because it is necessary to mobilize an entire population for war. And the best way to do that is to tell them what the future holds in store for them and to envision a grand future where their problems will be solved. And so, yes, 1944 was the right time for FDR to present his Economic Bill of Rights.
Interestingly enough, the provisions of the Economic Bill of Rights were then incorporated by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt was a bridge between FDR and the UN. She helped get it adopted. And this Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes all those provisions that FDR talked about: the right to remunerative employment, the right to health care, the right to education, the right to housing.
Both of those documents, it’s fair to say, have been forgotten. FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights has been pushed aside, ignored. I would guess that 95 percent of the American people do not know of its existence. And I would also guess that a similar percentage of the American people really don’t know about the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it’s important to remind people of them, because those are legitimate, important goals for American society and for world society today.
Robert Kuttner, writing in today’s Boston Globe, says that, “More workers have lost health insurance and pension coverage” in this period and that “these policy changes did not just happen, they were worked out in concert with organized business.”
It’s been a long story, that the major parties are closely tied to big business, to corporate power. And corporate power does not support the idea of health care for everybody; they support privatization of the medical system. At this moment, because the Republican Party has been in power, there is a tendency to say, “You see what happened under the Bush administration: more people have lost their health care.” The fact is, this was also happening under a Democratic administration. Both the Democrats and the Republicans have ignored the necessity of free, universal health care for everyone.
Just going back to FDR for a moment, he innovated this idea of fireside chats, talking to the American people and using this new electronic medium–which was becoming widespread at that time–the radio. You may recall some of those talks. What was it like listening to the radio and listening to the president of the United States?
I see, David, you think I’m old enough to have listened. Let’s say I was a little baby on the rug in front of the radio, absolutely entranced by the radio, whoever was talking. But let’s say this. As a historian, I know that the fireside chat was a remarkable innovation and that people all over the country sat around the radio and listened to Roosevelt’s fireside chats. They were not like the canned speeches that we have heard from presidents since then, and they really did have the atmosphere of a fireside chat. And Roosevelt himself was a great communicator. He could speak to people without a teleprompter, and he could make people feel that, yes, he was speaking very personally to them. We have not had the likes of such communication since then.
Even though his background was one of great wealth. He was from a patrician family.
It’s certainly clear historically that you cannot tell the policies of the president by whether the president has a patrician background, like Roosevelt, or perhaps a middle-class or lower-class background, like Reagan, because once somebody has been catapulted into political power, into the White House, that class background becomes unimportant. What really becomes important are the pressures and forces circulating around the White House. What really becomes important is what’s happening in the nation.
And what was happening in the nation when FDR was president was that, whatever his background–yes, rich, aristocratic–he had to listen to what was going on. And what was going on in the nation was a country in the midst of turmoil, a country that was suffering deeply from the Depression, and where people were reacting against this militantly, with strikes all over the country. There were general strikes in San Francisco and Minneapolis, a huge textile strike in the South, with people organizing, tenants organizing, unemployed organizing, and a kind of danger to the system by the growth of radicalism in the 1930s. Roosevelt was responding to this. And his political patrician background didn’t matter. Reagan, when he became president, did not have that kind of situation in the country, and Reagan was surrounded by big business and corporations and acted accordingly.
It’s sometimes said that FDR saved capitalism. Is that a reasonable observation?
I think it’s reasonable to say that FDR saved capitalism. After all, he did not want capitalism to go down the drain, and capitalism did look in danger in the 1930s. It was a time ripe for radical thought about radical change. Socialists and communists and radicals of all sorts were in their heyday in the 1930s, because people were looking for radical solutions and people were wondering whether capitalism was really the way to take care of people’s needs. So Roosevelt acted, you might say, in the best interests of the capitalist class, because he did the kinds of things that would mollify radicals, that would mollify people who might become radicals by persuading them that capitalism can have a human face: capitalism can give you social security, can give you unemployment insurance, can give you subsidized housing. So, yes, in a very important sense, he did save capitalism.
After the peak of unemployment in the early 1930s, by 1939, 1940, and 1941, unemployment was going up again. And then the war came. Cynics say this was a great bailout for FDR because he was able to solve the unemployment problem.
It’s true. While Roosevelt’s measures took the worst edges off the Depression and ameliorated the problem of unemployment to a certain extent, it did not solve the problem of unemployment, it did not solve the problem of poverty. Even the measures–Social Security, for instance, gave very meager amounts of money to people when they retired. Unemployment insurance didn’t match the unemployment insurance provisions, for instance, to be found in Western European countries. The minimum wage that was passed was a minimum wage that started with 25 cents an hour and was to go up to 40 cents an hour. So, no, poverty still existed, homelessness, the need for housing still existed, even after the New Deal reforms had done all that they could.
And, yes, the war created the absolute necessity for people to be given jobs, because so much production was needed to send the materials to the front. And it’s a sad commentary on the capitalist system that the capitalist system could only solve unemployment through war. But, in fact, it’s sort of a basic fact about this system that it is only driven to give people jobs when those jobs contribute to war and militarism. And there is such a thing as military Keynesianism. Keynesianism is the idea that, yes, the government should do something to interfere with the economy and regulate the economy in such a way as to help people at the bottom. Military Keynesianism is even more effective than ordinary Keynesianism, because there is the profit motive for corporations operating to give people jobs in war industries. And it’s a commentary on the capitalist system that that seems to be the only way it can maintain economic stability.
Let’s see how those threads of the system continue today, where the United States has an empire of bases. It’s fighting two wars–one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq–and it’s said that a lot of the volunteers are economically driven to join the military.
This has always been true, even when there was a draft. For people at the lower end of the economic spectrum, people who grow up in families where there is no money, people with little education, people who drop out of high school, or even graduate from high school and find there are no jobs for themselves there is the lure of the military, promising them steady work, and promising them health care. In the military there is no such thing as having to buy health insurance. When you’re in the military, there is free, universal health care. And then there is the promise that when you finish your military service you will get educational benefits, something like the GI Bill of Rights, which was enacted for World War II veterans. So there are great economic incentives to young people from poor families to join the military.
And generally, when they join the military, they don’t envision going into war and dying or killing. And then they are surprised and shocked by what they suddenly encounter–that they have, in effect, offered their lives or their limbs for economic security.
Jessica Lynch was from a rural town in West Virginia and became, momentarily at least, a hero of the Iraq war, for much exaggerated reasons. She joined the military, apparently, after she could not get a part-time job in the local Wal-Mart in her town.
Jessica Lynch is just typical of a large, large percentage of the people who join the military. And so war is a class phenomenon. It is the poor who go to war, who get wounded and die in war.
In A People’s History, you quote Randolph Bourne saying, “War is the health of the state.”
Randolph Bourne wrote that around the time of World War I. He saw that war was something that the state needs, that the government needs, for various reasons, but one of them being that it gives the government a reason for existence. It gives the government a rationale for all it does. It gives the government more security from the possible rebelliousness of its own population when they face difficult conditions. Because war gives the government, the state, as Randolph Bourne put it, an opportunity to unite the country around a foreign enemy and, therefore, to put into the shadows the grievances that people have against their own system.
Talk more about economic justice. Bernie Sanders is the lone independent congressperson in the House of Representatives. In an article he writes, “There has always been a wealthy elite and there has always been a gap between the rich and the poor. But the current disparities in wealth and income haven’t been seen in over a hundred years. Today, the richest 1 percent own more wealth than the bottom 95 percent, and the CEOs of large corporations earn more than 500 times what their average employees make.”
Bernie Sanders is certainly giving us an accurate picture of the situation. We’ve always, as he says, had this great disparity between rich and poor, we’ve always had a class society. I’ve looked at the records in the colonies just before and just after the American Revolution, and what they show is that around that time, 1 percent of the population owned 33 percent of the wealth. You could take that figure all through American history, and it will only deviate maybe five or six or seven percentage points one way or the other. Today, the figure is not 1 percent owning 33 percent, but 1 percent owning 40 or 41 percent. But that disparity has always existed. Even before the ratio of CEO salaries to ordinary worker salaries became 500 to 1, it was 40 or 50 to 1, which is bad enough. But it’s true that in recent years–and not just with the accession of the Republican Bush but through the Clinton period–the ratio has kept changing drastically in the direction of huge, huge sums of money to the heads and managers of corporations.
Is this unique to the United States?
In general, in what they call free-market societies, capitalist societies–”free market” being a euphemism, a nice, polite term that they like to use so that we don’t have to use this terrible left-wing term “capitalism”–there is this huge gap between rich and poor. Here we have an example, in the former Soviet Union, where, whatever you can say about Stalinism–and you can say a lot of terrible things accurately about Stalinism–while there was a kind of privileged elite connected with the Communist Party, you did not have businessmen making billions of dollars.
Today, after the Soviet Union has collapsed, American political leaders and other people in the business world have said very happily, “Well, now free enterprise will come to the Soviet Union, the market system.” The market system in the Soviet Union has been disastrous. It has resulted in the flow of enormous wealth to a handful of people while at the bottom there is great difficulty for people in surviving. And I think this is just a general fact about the market system.
Life expectancy has dramatically declined in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
That’s one of the very sad things. Under Soviet rule, while they had to endure the tyranny of Stalin, they did have a decent health system and guaranteed health care for everybody. And now, with privatization, life expectancy has gone down to startling levels.
Silvio Berlusconi is prime minister of Italy and also a major media mogul. He took umbrage when a comparison was made between Saddam Hussein and Mussolini. He said, “That was a much more benign dictatorship. Mussolini did not murder anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday to internal exile.” Is that your recollection of Mussolini’s record?
I wasn’t an intimate of Mussolini, but one of the first important books that I read when I was growing up was a book about Mussolini’s Italy. It was Sawdust Caesar by George Seldes, a remarkable American journalist. Seldes was a correspondent in Italy when Mussolini came to power, and he saw what Mussolini was doing. Mussolini never murdered anybody? Somebody should have mentioned to Berlusconi the name of Matteotti. Giacomo Matteotti was a member of the Italian parliament who, when Mussolini came to power, dared to criticize him. And shortly after, Matteotti was dragged out of his house and murdered. There was no question about who murdered him.
As for sending people on vacation, maybe Berlusconi was sent on vacation. He’s accustomed to nice vacations. The people that Mussolini sent abroad were soldiers sent to Ethiopia to kill Ethiopians in a war that was designed to sort of restore the glory of the Roman Empire. Fortunately, Berlusconi, despite his control of the press, has not been able to mesmerize the people of Italy, who, despite his control of the press, turned out in huge numbers to protest the present war in Iraq, which Berlusconi is supporting.
In terms of fascism in the U.S., Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel in the mid—1930s, It Can’t Happen Here. About fifteen years later, Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King’s Men. His character Willy Stark was loosely based on the charismatic and flamboyant Kingfish of Louisiana, Huey Long, who once said, “If fascism ever came to the United States, it would be wrapped in an American flag.”
I remember reading It Can’t Happen Here. Interestingly enough, it’s probably the least known of Sinclair Lewis’s novels.
He’s best known for Babbitt and Arrowsmith.
Exactly. But as soon as a well-known novelist writes something political, then whatever he wrote is sort of pushed into obscurity. The same thing happened with Mark Twain, of course a famous, famous novelist. But his political writings were sort of kept in obscurity. Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in the 1930s, when fascism was arising and had arisen in Italy and Germany, and people were saying, “It can’t happen here in the United States.” He wrote a novel to show how it could happen in the United States.
There is, in my opinion, no clear-cut difference between a fascist state and other forms of government, other states, including a liberal, democratic, capitalist state like the U.S. When I say no clear-cut difference, of course, there are differences, but it isn’t a polar difference. It isn’t as if you have fascism at one end of the spectrum and American democracy at the other end of the spectrum. I believe that in a country like the U.S., which has certain democratic liberties and a certain degree of freedom of the press and a certain degree of freedom of speech, nevertheless there are aspects of American society which I would say resemble fascism.
I point to the prison system; I point to the two million people who are in the prison system in the U.S. If somebody asked you, “Could you describe the prison conditions in Iraq?” the ones that have just been brought into the limelight, torture, and horrible treatment of prisoners, well, prisoners in American prisons–and I receive letters to this effect because I have correspondence with American prisoners–have said, “Don’t they realize that the same kinds of things happen in American prisons? That there are sadistic guards, sadistic wardens, that we are tortured? Don’t they realize that people in police stations are tortured to get confessions from them?” As soon as you enter that area of American society, as soon as you go into the police station and then into the jail, then into the prison, you have removed yourself from the Bill of Rights. From that point on you are a helpless victim of whatever the authorities want to do to you. And I would argue that that’s a form of fascism.
The main character in It Can’t Happen Here is a newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup. Toward the end of the novel, when he’s in jail, he says, “The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of big business nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup, of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in without fierce enough protest.”
That’s a very interesting passage. Jessup understood something which would be important for us to understand today–that if fascism did come to the United States, it would come as a result of the silence and the pitiful weakness of the American media, who would, as they have done again and again, go along with whatever the president says so long as he says he is doing it for national security.
This is exactly what has been happening in the war in Iraq. If you want to blame Bush and Cheney and the people in the White House for getting us into an illegal and immoral war in Iraq, you would also have to blame the press for going along with that, for not raising an outcry. Because if the press, if television, which most people watch, had raised an outcry about this, they would not be able to get away with this war.
American politics are fond of quoting the founding fathers. Of course, these quotes are used very selectively and they pick the ones out that buttress their position. But here’s one from James Madison. It’s inscribed outside the Library of Congress, “A popular government without popular information, or means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” You’re an educator, you’re in the knowledge-imparting business.
Are you calling me a businessman?
That’s your craft, that’s your trade. I mean it as a compliment.
Thank you. I’m in the knowledge-imparting business. As you say, we selectively quote the founding fathers. That’s a good selection from Madison, because it states a very important truth; in other words, democracy is meaningless if the public cannot get accurate information. If information is withheld from the public by government secrecy, the public is misled by government lies, if the media do not report these lies, and if the media do not investigate what the government is doing and watch very carefully what the government is doing, then we do not have a democracy. It’s very nice that that’s inscribed so that people in Washington can see it. I doubt that they read it.
Do you think the journalists know what’s actually going on and choose not to report, or they’re simply ignorant?
It’s a complicated situation. There are all kinds of journalists. I think there are journalists who become wrapped up in nationalism and patriotism. And if they’re given uniforms and told, “We will embed you in the American Army”–I guess they could put it another way, that you will go to bed with the American Army–”then you will have certain privileges.” There are journalists, who, when they’re offered that are just delighted. And then they are caught up in the atmosphere of the military and of winning and so on. How can they possibly report in an honest way what is going on?
And there are other journalists who will go outside of the official boundaries, just as some journalists in Vietnam, instead of just listening to the press accounts in Saigon, what were called the 5 o’clock follies in Saigon–every [day at] 5 o’clock the government would give them the news–would venture out of that and they would go out into the field and they would report on what was happening.
So there are some journalists in Iraq who have reported–and I’ve seen some–and there haven’t been too many–accounts in mainstream newspapers of a reporter who goes into a hospital and goes to the bed of a 10-year-old kid who has lost an arm and a leg and is blinded by an American bombing and who reports on that. So there are different kinds of reporters.
But the higher up in the journalistic hierarchy, the more difficult it is to really become independent. The editors are more conservative than the reporters.
Is the system just so powerfully seductive?
The system has the power to give jobs to people and to offer people job security. You said I was in the knowledge industry. Journalists are in the knowledge industry, too. Everybody in the knowledge industry is in an industry. And if you’re in an industry, if you’re in the knowledge business, then you are part of a hierarchy of power and influence. And your job, your security, whether you’re a reporter or a college professor, is dependent on people above you who have more power than you do, so you have to be very careful about what you do so as not to displease them. So that operates in the culture of journalism.
And then sometimes you have very blatant orders given down by the media moguls. I just saw I think it was an ad, in fact, in the New York Times by MoveOn, in which they reported on the orders that are given by the Fox network executives to Fox reporters, saying things like, “Well, you know, you shouldn’t really play up the civilian casualties in the Iraqi population,” and a number of orders given down to reporters in the Fox network.
Actually, I just happen to have a copy of that ad in front of me.
You always manage to have these things in front of you.
It’s serendipity. Tuesday July 20, 2004. “The Communists had Pravda, Republicans have Fox.” One of the memos handed down to the journalists said, “Let’s refer to the U.S. marines we see in the foreground as ‘sharpshooters,’ not ‘snipers,’ which carries a negative connotation.”
Sharpshooters, not snipers. Snipers carries a negative connotation. And also, you could add to that list of language, the many thousands of people who have been hired by private corporations to be security people, really a paramilitary function in Iraq. The press has repeatedly referred to them as contractors, implying that they’re just there for business reasons. The more accurate term would be mercenaries. They are being paid to work with the American military. They are armed; they’re just not wearing uniforms. This is the privatization of an ugly war. So you can go on and on with the euphemisms that are used to describe this war.
You fought in World War II. Can you imagine a situation where perhaps the pilot of your bomber was a privately hired contractor and not accountable to the so-called chain of command? That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?
I think we would have rebelled at that time. Maybe we’ve gotten so accustomed to the idea of privatization that now we accept that. I must say that the idea of using a kind of language to disguise what is going on was happening in World War II also. We went on bombing missions. It’s interesting, the word “mission.” The word mission, like “missionary,” suggests something benign, something good that you’re doing: You’re on a goodwill mission, you’re on a medical mission. It was a bombing mission. You’re dropping bombs on people. They don’t say, “You’re going on a mission to kill anybody who lives in this city.” No, it’s a mission. And when they described how many missions you were on to decide how many medals you could get, they would say you flew so many missions. No hint of what these missions were doing to ordinary people on the ground.
Or to those engaging in them.
Or what they were doing to the minds of those engaging in them in getting people in the Air Force accustomed to dropping bombs, no matter who they killed.
Fast-forwarding to today, where there is clear evidence of torture in U.S.-run prisons of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo, there is a Geneva Convention on torture. There is no Geneva Convention on abuse. And the most prestigious newspaper in the country, the New York Times, refuses to use the word “torture.” It’s an interesting choice of words. They use the term “abuse.” So if I keep you up for three days and deprive you of food and keep the lights on, and every time you try to fall asleep I wake you up or throw hot or cold water on you, that’s not torture, that’s abuse, so the Geneva Convention does not apply to me, thank you very much.
The U.S. government also has lawyers working for it. It’s been interesting listening when these stories came out of Iraq about just what is torture. You could hear on public television, and I mention public television because you would expect it to be more independent, more critical of government than commercial television. That, in fact, is not so. You turn on PBS and you see that they’re giving a lot of time to a government lawyer or a lawyer who has worked for the government. In fact, a lawyer who has written memos for the government in which his job is to try to explain and justify torture by how the word is defined.
Of course, lawyers are good at this. They go into complicated and obscure definitions of the word “torture” so as to show that these horrible things that are being done in Iraq and elsewhere, really cannot be called torture and therefore are not violations of international law. This is a monstrous use of legal education.
It’s Orwellian. War is peace.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his historic 1967 Riverside Church speech in New York, said, “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war.” Why is that?
We’ve seen this historically again and again. It’s not easy for people to immediately decide that their government is wrong. We grow up with a belief in government. It’s not inborn, it’s cultivated. You grow up in this country learning that your country is a democracy, everybody has the right to vote, we have a Bill of Rights, you pledge allegiance to the flag, you salute, you grow up learning that the heroes of the country’s history are military heroes. And when the government speaks, your first impulse is to believe, yes, the government is right. After all, we elected the government. There is a kind of belief that if you elected the government, then everything is democratic and you can trust the government.
You’re also brought up to believe that your interests and the government’s are the same. You’re not brought up to look at history and find that very often the interests of the government are not the same as the interests of the people, especially when it comes to war. So you grow up believing that your interests are the same. You grow up with language that suggests a common interest. You grow up with phrases like the national interest, national defense, national security, implying that the government’s security, the government’s defense are all your defense.
And add to that kind of obfuscation of reality the fact that when the government sets out to go to war, it is in control of the information and it is in a position of being able to create an atmosphere in which we’re doing the right thing. The enemy is evil. We’re going to war for civilization. We’re going to war because something was done to us. The battleship Maine is blown up in Havana harbor. American troops have been attacked on the Mexican border. This happened in 1846. They have fired the first shots in the Philippines. This happens in 1901. They’ve attacked our destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. This is what happens in 1964. And the American public has no idea what is going on, the American public has no way of checking up on what the government tells them, so the tendency is to just believe the government.
And the public is not helped by members of Congress. Congress is presumably there to check the excesses of the executive branch. That’s what they mean when they talk about checks and balances and separation of powers. That’s what Congress is supposed to do. But Congress doesn’t do that in matters of foreign policy. Congress goes along with absolute obsequiousness to whatever the president does. So if Congress does that, and then the newspapers go along and the TV networks go along, then the public has no independent source of information from which to criticize or to suspect that something is being put over on them.
Is the role of education to inculcate in students critical thinking and a sense of skepticism?
The university traditionally is supposed to be a place for independent thought and a place that teaches critical thinking. But, in fact, that may apply to trivial things, like what was the first capital of the United States or let’s check up if they’ve given us the wrong date for the Boston Massacre. There is no problem in thinking critically when it comes to unimportant facts. But when it comes to really critical matters of life and death, of war and peace, you do not find that the educational system prepares young people to be critical of American foreign policy. You can go through the courses that are given all through the American educational system, and you will find very orthodox thinking.
You go into the departments of political science in universities, and you will see that the education that students get is Machiavellian. By Machiavellian I mean that it’s education from the point of view of the state. You will get courses in war games, you will get courses in public policy, always from the point of view of the government, what policy the government should pursue, and you will not really learn in a critical way about the history of American foreign policy.
In fact, the term for the study of American foreign policy in the scholarly world is diplomatic history. That’s what it’s called. And that’s exactly what it is: it’s diplomatic history, it’s soft history. It’s history in which the United States is generally a benign power, which may have occasional moments when it veers off from its customary position of being a decent country. But in general, the education that young people get mostly does not prepare them to be critical thinkers about American society.
A constant criticism that is leveled against the Left in this country is that we talk among ourselves, we preach to the choir. What do you think about that?
The choir and the congregation. It’s probably true that often, maybe most of the time, people on the Left speak to the choir. By the way, there is value in that. There is value in people speaking to people who already agree with them but who don’t act on the principles that they believe in. And one of the reasons you have rallies and demonstrations–and you know that the people who are going to come to those rallies and demonstrations are people that already agree with the thrust of those demonstrations–is the idea of bringing the choir together to encourage people, inspire people, activate, motivate people. So it’s not a terrible thing to preach to the choir.
However, it’s not true that people on the Left, critics of the American government only speak to people who agree with them. It’s obviously not true. I’m thinking right now, at this moment in American history of Michael Moore’s remarkable film, Fahrenheit 9/11, which, if it is speaking to the choir, is speaking to an enormous choir, obviously, speaking to millions of Americans who have never before experienced a left-wing rally or demonstration.
There are ways and times in which people on the Left and left-wing ideas break through into the general population, into the mass media–break in maybe only temporarily and maybe only partially, but they do. Barbara Ehrenreich, for instance, is a person on the Left. She’s recently had a number of important columns in the New York Times. Documentary films are being shown all over the country. Those of us who go around the country speaking–I’m talking about myself or Noam Chomsky, maybe even you, David; I’m willing to include you in that group–don’t only speak to little groups of radicals who come to listen to us.
I’ve spoken to 1,500 people in Morehead, Kentucky. There are not 1,500 radicals in Morehead, Kentucky. If there were 1,500 radicals in Morehead, then we would be on the verge of revolution. But no. Maybe there were fifty and the other people came out of curiosity or because they were reading my book, A People’s History of the United States, which, by the way, itself is an example of a piece of radical literature reaching out beyond the usual radical reading public.
I go to Athens, Georgia, and speak to 800 people. I remember Athens, Georgia, the seat of the Confederacy, when I was living in Atlanta. It was one of the most right-wing, reactionary places in the country. You would never dream that 800 people would show up to listen to a very sharp critique, as I like to characterize my talks, on the war. There is a radical columnist in the main newspaper of Athens. This is what I mean. There are radical voices breaking into the mainstream. So we are not only talking to the choir. I’ve spoken in Lincoln, Nebraska, in Springfield, Missouri, all sorts of odd places where large numbers of people turn out. Noam Chomsky speaks to huge crowds wherever he goes, and they’re not just members of the choir.
Your former student at Spelman College, Alice Walker, wrote a book called Anything We Love Can Be Saved. She writes that Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rosa Parks all “represent activism at its most contagious, because it is always linked to celebration and joy.”
That sounds like Alice Walker. She is a person who does not think that activism and critical thinking is a dour, sober, humorless enterprise. She believes that social movements are movements that generate a feeling, yes, of joy and excitement and of truly being alive. And I think that’s a very important commentary that she makes, because I think it is important for people who maybe are wondering whether they should become involved in social movements and to work for peace and justice, to know that this does not mean that they are going into a monastery but that they are going to be part of an enterprise which is joyful and fun and life-giving.
I’m afraid we’re running out of time. I’m just going to end with one final question. And this is a very sensitive topic. I hope you don’t take it badly.
I was wondering what you’re planning to do when you get old. Have you been able to project that far ahead?
It’s something actually that I don’t think about, because I’ve passed it. I’ve passed being old, and now I’m in some sort of special world where age doesn’t count, where you don’t think of it, where you just do what you have to do day after day. And it saves time and energy if you don’t think about age or retirement or any of those dull words.
Thank you very much, Howard Zinn.
From the book Original Zinn and published in the International Socialist Review (Feb. 2005)