Questions for Howard Zinn: The People’s Historian
In 1980, when Boston University historian Howard Zinn published A People’s History of the United States — a lively, anti-triumphalist retelling of the story of America from the perspective of the disenfranchised — it “changed the consciousness of a generation,” as Noam Chomsky has put it. Nor has Zinn been content just to write about history. As the recent documentary biography “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” reminds us, he was active in the early civil rights movement in the South, and in the `60s — while teaching at BU — he became a leader of the antiwar movement in Boston.
A People’s History has sold over a million copies. Now Zinn and co-editor Anthony Arnove bring us Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Seven Stories), an anthology of speeches, letters, poems, petitions, and songs by Native Americans, fugitive slaves, feminists, activists, and workers — from a 1542 eyewitness account of the annihilation of the Arawak Indians to statements by families of 9/11 victims opposing the invasion of Iraq. Zinn, 81, spoke with Ideas via telephone from his home in Auburndale.
IDEAS: “Voices” has provocative chapter titles like “Half a Revolution” and “Bush II and the `War on Terror.”‘ Is it fair to say that your version of US history remains as fiercely partisan as ever?
ZINN: Long before I decided to write A People’s History, my partisanship was shaped by my upbringing in a working-class immigrant family, by my three years as a shipyard worker, by my experience as a bombardier in World War II, and by the civil rights movement in the South and the movement against the war in Vietnam. Educators and politicians may say that students ought to learn pure facts, innocent of interpretation, but there’s no such thing! So I’ve chosen to emphasize voices of resistance — to class oppression, racial injustice, sexual inequality, nationalist arrogance — left out of the orthodox histories.
IDEAS: One of the chapters in your new book is titled “Challenging Bill Clinton.” Clinton is a hero to many Democrats today — in your opinion, did the left go too easy on Clinton?
ZINN: The moderate left — liberals — had high hopes for Clinton and were not prepared to battle against his policies. As a result, Clinton got away with a lot, from the passage of so-called welfare reform to his foreign policy — he was the first to raise the specter of weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to bomb Iraq. . .. But I was certainly critical of Clinton, and so were others. One of the documents in that chapter is Adrienne Rich’s letter refusing the 1997 National Medal for the Arts in protest of the dismantling of welfare.
IDEAS: What’s the social effect of leaving “voices of resistance” out of mainstream American histories and standard textbooks?
ZINN: The problem is that when we only hear the voices of important people — when we only read about presidential policy, congressional legislation, Supreme Court decisions, when we only see wars from the standpoint of generals and admirals, when we only see economic developments through the eyes of the financiers and industrialists — it suggests that these are the people who will decide what happens to the country. The average person is left in a position of passivity.
IDEAS: Don’t presidential elections reflect the will of the people as much as protest movements do?
ZINN: More important, I think, than who sits in the White House is who sits outside it. Whenever social injustices have had to be rectified, they were rectified not at the initiative of the president or Congress or the Supreme Court but because of social movements. . .. Only after thousands of black Americans demonstrated and were beaten, jailed, and killed was segregation in the South done away with. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize for it, it was not only Kissinger alone who ended the Vietnam War, but the antiwar movement. . .. The point of publishing the voices of mutineers, rebellious women, labor organizers, pacifists, socialists, is to remind readers that social movements can have an important effect on events — and that you, too, can join or even lead one.
Published at The Boston Globe • Nov. 14, 2004