In 1963, Howard Zinn was fired from Spelman College, where he was chair of the History Department, because of his support for students’ civil rights activism. In 2005, he was invited back by President Beverly Daniel Tatum to give the commencement address.…
In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manage to stay involved and seemingly happy? I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.
Barsamian: You have called attention to the role of artists in a time of war. What attracts you to artists?
Zinn: Artists play a special role in social change. I first noticed this when I was a teenager and becoming politically aware for the first time. It was people in the arts who had the greatest emotional effect on me.
The "victory" over an already devastated and disarmed Iraq led Bush, Rumsfeld, and their teammates into a locker-room frenzy of exultation and self-congratulation. I half expected to see Bush joyfully pouring beer on Rumsfeld's head and Ashcroft snapping a towel at Ari Fleischer's derriére. But it turns out that the war did not bring order to Iraq, but chaos, not crowds of cheering Iraqis, but widespread hostility. "No to Saddam! No to Bush!" were the signs, as Iraqis contemplated their ruined historic treasures, their destroyed homes, and the graves of their dead--thousands and thousands of civilians and soldiers, with many more men, women, children wounded. And it goes on as I write this in mid-June--an ugly occupation. I see a headline: "U.S. Troops Kill 70 in Iraqi Crackdown."
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?
You ask how I manage to stay involved and remain seemingly happy and adjusted to this awful world where the efforts of caring people pale in comparison to those who have power? It’s easy. First, don’t let "those who have power" intimidate you.…Second, find people to be with who have your values, your commitments, but who also have a sense of humor. That combination is a necessity!