Zinn and the Art of Liberal Persuasion
Interviewed by Perspective • March 1999
Below is an interview conducted for Perspective, the monthly liberal magazine at Harvard.
PERSPECTIVE: I hear that you’ve retired from teaching.
ZINN: Yeah, I don’t use the word retired.. . . I’ve become a professor emeritus, which means I’m no longer teaching at Boston University.
P: But obviously you haven’t retired from social activism. I’m wondering what your main activities have been since then.
Z: I’ve been going around the country speaking – you might call it freelance teaching – that is, teaching without having to deal with university administrations and without having to grade papers and going through all of that. It’s a very nice kind of teaching – you go through all parts of the country talking to more diverse audiences than [you would if you were] teaching in a particular university with a particular population. So I will speak in high schools around the country, in community colleges, in activist organizations in conferences of teachers. . . .
P: So do you find yourself speaking because you want to precipitate social change, or just because you like to talk to people?
Z: Well of course, my secret agenda is trying to precipitate social change. That’s my intent, not just for the fun of speaking – although it’s fun. Yeah, my aim is to kind of provoke people to get active, people who’ve got some awareness of what’s going on in the world, who have enough awareness to come to one of my talks. They have a little bit of awareness, and my hope is to increase that awareness, and turn it into action. And I use history – that’s my field, history – and I use history a lot to give people encouragement about the kind of things that have happened in the past, where people have occasionally succeeded in bringing about social change. So I use history to expose information which has been concealed, and which is troubling. History has a very – you might say gloomy – message when you look at what has happened in history. And then on the other hand to counter that with the stories of social movements that have done very inspiring and marvelous things.
P: It seems that from your work in history you basically think that social movements can take lessons from previous social movements, and can educate people about what bad things have happened in the past, and what might be going on today. Are there any other ways that we can use history?
Z: Well, I see history as a way of teaching people to be very skeptical of what they read here in the mainstream press, and what they get in a mainstream education.
P: And do you often find – when you’re speaking to people – that you’re preaching to the converted? Or do you find people questioning you, and criticizing?
Z: Some of the people I speak to are the converted. And then with the converted you have a different job than when you’re speaking to the unconverted. And that’s why you can’t speak the same way to all people. You have to tailor your talk to who [your audience is], and where [it is]. If these people are already on your side, then there’s still work to do. . . . Because the converted also need information – they need ammunition, they need to be able to counter the arguments of the people who confront them. . . . And the other thing to do with people who are already converted . . . Although they may be converted theoretically – that is they may know a lot of things – . . . they may not act on them. You miight say [the proportion of activists is small] compared to the number of people who are aware that things should be done but . . . don’t do things. . . .
So of course for the unconverted . . . And I do speak to them, very often, to audiences who have no idea who I am or what I stand for. For example, high school assemblies – I’m often invited to speak to assemblies of high schoolers. And it may be a particular faculty member or headmaster of a school who invites me, but the students may not know, except for a handful, anything about me. Sometimes they’ve been studying my book in class. A People’s History [of the United States] is used a lot in high schools. But very often that’s not true at all. And I remember during the Gulf War, early 1991, I was speaking to high school assemblies, where 90% of the kids – as the student leaders told me – were in support of the war. And I was there because I had something very, very important to do. And the important thing to do with the unconverted is to try to expose the misinformation that they are getting, to tell them things that are not being told to them, and by doing that to suggest to them that there are always things not being told to them, that they have to look for it. That the most important thing that a critical thinker can do is not to ask whether a lie is being a told – in the crass sense of a falsehood – but [to see] whether information is being omitted – which then amounts to a lie.
P: And certainly these situations in which you find yourself are not in any way isolated – we as student activists see this sort of thing happening all the time. And one problem that we run into, which has probably been your experience as well, is that there are people who are just not willing to listen, who seem ready to disagree even when they have very little information.
Z: Well sometimes it’s a matter of countering . . . their limited information, or information they don’t have. And which if it doesn’t persuade them immediately . . . And most people are not persuaded immediately, most people are persuaded after some reflection. But at least present them with some information they don’t know, which may be troubling to them, even if at the moment it doesn’t change their fundamental viewpoint.
I remember teaching at Boston University, teaching a class on what was going on in the Middle East, particularly in Israel. And I had them read some very standard history of the state of Israel, and I had them read Noam Chomsky – [a book] called The Fateful Triangle. And a lot of my students at Boston University were Jewish, and many of them came from – you might say very Zionist Jewish families. Well, they reacted with absolute shock to Chomsky’s book. They couldn’t believe it. And they wouldn’t believe it – they said it was impossible, that this couldn’t be. But . . . I mean there were some who probably resisted to the end, who simply would not accept it. But others were simply shaken up by it, and obviously had to think about it.
So it’s a matter of giving counter-information that jars their rather fixed notions of how the world operates. And it’s a matter of challenging the basic premises of their thinking – by basic premises I mean something as little as, you really have to assume that your government is doing right, or you have to assume good faith on the part of your government – that they mean well. Even if they do something wrong, it’s because they mean well. Well, you have to challenge the basic premise to suggest that they don’t mean well, that they have motives, and they have interests, which are not the same as the interests of the majority of people in this country, and are certainly not the . . . [interests of the] majority of people in other countries. The fundamental premise of patriotism is to support your country in whatever it does. That’s something that needs to be challenged. Or challenging the belief that if they read the New York Times, Time and Newsweek, and listen to the nightly news, that they are getting the most important source of information. Or challenging the notion that if they have advanced degrees in the academic world, that therefore they are well-educated. And that you can measure a person’s education by the number of degrees they have, and the higher the level of education, the higher the level of intellectual sophistication. Obviously if you go to graduate school at Harvard, you’re getting the absolute truth, you’re getting closer to G-d.
. . .
P: Another thing you said that interested me was about changing people’s idea about the government’s interests versus their own. While I certainly agree that that’s true, and many people understand that in the larger sense, people have a problem understanding the difference between bad government action, at large, versus individual people in government. And many times they think – well, I know this person in government, he’s a nice person, how could the government possibly be bad? How could Bill Clinton be a bad guy, he seems like such a nice, friendly fellow? And we sort of wonder how people can change hats so quickly. Can you shed any light on that?
Z: I don’t know, I suppose it’s what you’d describe as a very common phenomenon. That when you take people . . . It’s a matter of a sort of situational psychology. Put different people in different situations, and they behave differently. If you have a human contact with somebody . . . Well, this person is your neighbor, they’re very nice. They’re good neighbors – and at that level, like taking care off your dog when you go away – or helping you with shoveling your walk – they’re very nice. You know, Hitler might do that. . . .
I remember we had a delegation visiting a senator from Georgia, Herman Talmidge. He was a very racist senator. And he was charming – he invited us into his living room, he listened to us. Like Bill Clinton. He talked to us – and like others, until you get to the issue. But when it came to policy that affected very large numbers of people . . .
And I think it’s a very important lesson for people to know. You mustn’t be deluded by personality, or by smartness, or by brilliance. You know – my G-d, he’s brilliant. Especially in the world of educated people. In the world of people who don’t have higher education, you rarely here the word brilliant. . . . And the supposition is that there’s a relationship between brilliance and goodness – which is a totally false idea. . . .
I mean Clinton – Bill Clinton epitomizes both of those misconceptions. People meet him in person – you’ve probably seen this – and are totally charmed by him. They’re not only charmed by him, they’re perfectly impressed by how smart he is. But you know – what has this got to do with it? With putting more people in jail, and extending capital punishment to more categories, and bombing Iraq, or whatever.
It’s a very important step in your education, when you begin to see leaders in two separate situations, you have to understand that, and not let one color the other. And that goes both ways – in other words, not let the niceness and brilliance of a person color your attitude towards that person’s policies, but it also goes the other way – not let your indignation at this person’s social character – that is in the larger sense – your indignation at this person’s behavior in the world – to get in the way of your acknowledging that this person is charming and nice. Because if you don’t acknowledge that, then people won’t believe you. Accept that. It’s like today, this month – the argument about Ilya Kazan. Do you know about that?
P: I’m afraid I don’t.
Z: I’ll tell you about it. He’s a famous Hollywood director. He was a brilliant director, of Death of a Salesman, of Tennessee Williams play. He directed many famous movies, [like] On the Waterfront. And also, during the McCarthy period, he testified before the House un-American Activities Committee. They called up many stage and screen personalities to testify. And some of them cooperated, and some of them didn’t. Arthur Miller didn’t cooperate, but Ilya Kazan contributed names – he contributed names to the blacklist. This month at the Academy Awards, he’s now 90 years old . . . At the Academy Awards they’re going to give a special award to Ilya Kazan, a special lifetime achievement award. And there’s going to be a protest outside the Academy Awards, led by people who were blacklisted by him.
So there’s a question there – and here it’s not a matter of charm but a matter of talent and brilliance – Kazan was a brilliant director. So there’s this argument about the lifetime achievement award. Should he get a lifetime achievement award if he’s a brilliant director, but a stool pigeon, a lousy person, an informer, a person who contributed to McCarthy hysteria. And so it’s not a clear cut situation – not to be recognized as a clear cut situation, because it is complicated.
P: I’m wondering if you could shed any light on how that happens. How a person goes from a nice, charming person to a sort of automaton, or tool, or stool pigeon.
Z: Well, I guess the charm and the niceness are probably permanent characteristics, whereas the other kind of behavior comes out of a particular situation – opportunism, power, ambition, greed. So it isn’t that one turns from one to the other, one holds on to those original personality qualities – brilliance of mind, even. So one holds on to that, but the uses to which you turn that . . . You decide at a certain point what you’re going to do with your life, and whether you’re going to court power and wealth, and court the authorities, or whether you’re going to be an outsider, and forgo a lot of the emoluments you’re going to get, and do what you think is right.
P: And this is sort of a related question that we’ve been dealing with lately. A large concern that comes up every year around this time is that seniors start thinking, . . . “Well, I’m a leftist right now, but what are my job choices? I could go to an internship at Goldman Sachs.” , . . a lot of leftists don’t want to go into strictly public service type jobs. What would your advice to them be, in terms of staying leftist?
Z: That’s a tough question, because there really are practical considerations of survival. Devoting your whole life to social change – you may not get a job that way. There are people who do that – to the extent that that’s possible – if you can join your political commitments to survival – not much more than survival, not getting rich, but just survival – but doing exactly what you want to do – that’s a very laudable achievement. But it’s not easy. Most people have to compromise at some level. You could go one way or the other. You could give up your ideals, and plunge into the real world, and rise to become Secretary of State – and on the other hand you could be a Gandhi, or a. . . Mother Teresa.
. . .
But for most people it’s a matter of compromise, trying to meet both needs – trying to get married, have a wife, kids. You can’t say look, I want you to live in poverty, because this is what I care about. And even if your wife is willing to live in poverty, why should you force your kids to? So the problem is how to survive economically – you can choose your level, and at the same time hold on to your ideals. Of course, it’s very good if you can find a work to do in which you can practice your values. You know, I was lucky, I found it in teaching. Okay, I’m able to survive – I won’t get very rich, but I’ll live comfortably, but I’ll do what I want to do – I’ll teach, without anyone telling me how to teach or what to teach.
Or if you’re a movement lawyer . . . you use your skills to defend people who are unjustly accused. Or if you’re a doctor . . . I know a doctor here in Boston who made regular trips to Eritrea to help people in Eritrea, made regular trips to Latin America. . . . So, if you can do that, of course, that’s the best possible way to field these difficult questions.
Sometimes, you – you just love computers, and you love engineering, or chemistry – and these are fields that don’t lend themselves as directly as – a history teacher – to social change. But there it’s a matter of understanding that it’s okay to be this or that, to take what looks to be a very Orthodox niche in society, and at the same time, not to let that devour your life, not to let that encompass all of what you do, to hold on to a certain amount of time and energy, to do good things. After all, during the Vietnam War, there was a group called Businessmen Against the War in Vietnam, and they would use their money to take out ads in the newspapers to make arguments against the war in Vietnam.
So every individual . . . No one has the right, I believe, to say to any individual, this is what you must do, this is the level at which you must compromise – you know, everyone must compromise at a certain level. And which level you compromise at has to really come out of your own feelings.
P: That’s certainly a major, and immediate concern, and it happens all over the place – even in day-to-day life at college – I could do my homework or organize a rally, for example. I was wondering if you could shed light a little bit of light on student activism today, and on previous student movements. I know you were very involved with student activism during the 60s – at Spelman College, for example, and I’m wondering if you could compare them.
Z: Well the one thing I could say, is it’s always a mistake to look at the surface of a situation, and see the relative quiet of a situation. Nothing’s happening, students don’t care, this is the silent generation, or this is the “me” generation, students only care about their success in the world. It’s a mistake to look at the surface of things in any era, because I do believe that students are always very close to the edge of activism. That what it takes is getting motivated, and being inspired by what is going on around them.
Put it another way, if you look at the student generation, not in 1960 and 61, but in 1959, what would you conclude? You would conclude what a lot of people had concluded – this is a silent generation. So they’re surprised, when suddenly, in 1960, black kids start things off, sitting in, not even knowing that they’re starting things off, of course, not knowing the repercussions of what they’re doing. But suddenly, – these same, silent kids in 1960, 1961, are no different than the kids in 57 or 58, but the issue has been presented in their minds, something has happened to awaken their attention, and to excite their ideology.
So I believe that today, the situation that is going on today . . . It is wrong to despair when you don’t see a great student movement, the important thing is to look beneath the surface at the possibilities, and also to look for those small signs of things happening here and there. By small signs I mean – here’s a rally at Harvard, students at BU and other campuses around the country as well, protesting about the whole sweatshop issue. And in the 1980s, in the Reagan era, hundreds of campuses protested against apartheid, and against our policy in South America. And a lot of students responded in the last couple of years to the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer. So there are things happening – many, many little things – even hundreds and hundreds of bursts of activity.
Most of them of course, almost all of them, [are] unrecorded in the press, and this is an important thing to keep in mind – just because it’s not reported in the press, doesn’t mean that nothing’s happening. One of the most important things that people can learn from history is that the fact that something is unreported doesn’t mean that there aren’t things happening that you simply aren’t being told about. And therefore your responsibility is to look, to seek out sources of information that you normally wouldn’t look in.
P: I’m wondering what your take is on the recent developments in student activism. Over the last couple of years, there has been a spark in student activism, there have been sit-ins at a number of large colleges. Even here – Roxbury Community College, last May. And I’m wondering, whether you see that as a trend, or a blip on the screen?
Z: Well, you never call anything a blip. A blip implies [that] it dies. There’s no way of knowing whether something will be a blip, or whether it will proliferate. Before the sit-ins in 1960, at Greensboro – which proliferated, which became a movement throughout the South – there were many other sit-ins, that were totally unnoticed – and they were blips, they came and they went, and yet they were precursors, and you might say they prepared for what later happened.
. . .
Because you don’t [know what an action is going to lead to], it is very important to take the risk. On the supposition that if you don’t act, you know it’ll go nowhere. If you do act, at least there’s a possibility. So you have to act.
P: I’m wondering if there’s anything you can do to sort of encourage things. Was there anything magical about Greensboro?
Z: Well, communication. That is when something happens, [you need] to let other people know what is going on. It is important to do things which are dramatic enough to – since your own means of communication are limited, though you use them to the max, you call up people, you use the Internet, and e-mail, which is a great thing to be used – you do the kind of actions which will get into the press. The kind of actions that get into the press are almost always disruptive and demonstrative. I think those are the only suggestions I have – spread the word as much as you can, about any actions that take place. On the supposition that it might encourage people, it might provoke more action.
Published in Perspective, Harvard-Radcliffe’s Liberal Monthly • March 1999