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Historian Howard Zinn on History and Politics

StoryJune 10, 1997
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Howard Zinn is arguably one of the most important historians in the United States today. But that’s not because he’s followed the traditional route to influence and political power of historians before him. Instead, Howard Zinn has established himself as a "historian from below" — one who writes and chronicles the past from the point of view of those who have been exploited politically and economically. The results have been spectacular. He has won national and international acclaim, and his A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present has sold more than 350,000 copies. Today we hear from a recent talk given by Howard Zinn on history and politics. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn is arguably one of the most important historians in the United States today. But that’s not because he’s followed the traditional route to influence. Instead, Zinn has established himself as a historian from below, one who writes and chronicles the past from the point of view of those who have been exploited politically and economically. Today we’re going to play a speech he gave in California for the founding convention of the Alliance, a political movement led by Ronnie Dugger.

HOWARD ZINN: I see this gathering here as one of, you know, an infinite number of fulfillments of democracy that happened in this country, and it happened outside of the sort of regular structure of government, which is supposed to be democracy. You know, we all go to school, and we—and somewhere along the line, in junior high school, they teach us what democracy is, and what they do is they put democracy on the blackboard, and—which is a nice place to keep it. And they draw all these things. You know, here are the three branches of government, right? And the executive and the judicial and the legislative, and there are the checks and balances. And I remember how entranced we were and how beautiful it looked. And all that we had to do, as citizens, was to go to the polls every two years, every four years, and just spend a minute, right? And that would be our ultimate act in a democracy, you see.

After you lived a little and struggled a little and been involved a little, you learn at some point along the line that that’s not quite democracy. It’s very far, very far from democracy. I remember seeing—that voting is a puny act in a society which is much, much more complex and where power and people have a much more intricate relationship than they could possibly have in a voting booth. I saw a bumper sticker not long ago, which said, "If the gods" — I get a lot of my information from bumper stickers. And it’s called research. And the bumper sticker said, "If the gods had intended us to vote, they would have given us candidates." So, now, democracy is not that, and it’s not the things on the black board. It’s not that structure.

If it’s represented by any words, it’s represented best by the words of the Declaration of the Independence, which makes it clear that any government, any structure of government, is only an instrument of the people and that that government must fulfill certain obligations—the equal right of everybody to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—and that when that instrument, which is created by the people, doesn’t fulfill that obligation, then, as the Declaration says, it should be altered or abolished. No wonder, you see—those people who applauded that statement are going to be in trouble, you see. Did you know that there was a—well, that’s why the Declaration of the Independence is not legal. I mean, you know that it’s not a legal document. The Constitution, which substituted "life, liberty and property" for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is a legal document, but the Declaration of the Independence is not a legal document. At one point during the Vietnam War, there was an Army lieutenant who decided—and, you know, many people in the military were having very radical thoughts during the Vietnam War, and he decided that he would do something very radical: he would put a copy of the Declaration of the Independence up on the barracks wall. It was immediately taken down, and he was notified by his commander that he had better not do this again, you see.

Well, we know that historically where justices—where injustices have been remedied, where people have attained any modicum of justice, it has not been simply through the orthodox structures of government. It has been through citizens gathered together. It’s been through people getting together. Slavery was not overthrown because Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. As you probably know, Lincoln was not an abolitionist, and Lincoln was ready to allow slavery to continue, if only the South would return to the Union. "Please come back. You can have whatever you want." I don’t want to be too hard on Lincoln. He was a nice man, you know? Well, we know a lot of nice people. And he was a politician, and he needed the push, the prod, the pressure of a movement, which started with a handful of people in the 1830s, which started with less people than this. There were less people than there are in this room who were the first subscribers to Garrison’s Liberator, the first—the abolitionist—not the first, because there was a black abolitionist newspaper that preceded it, but an early abolitionist newspaper. But that movement gathered and grew from a small handful of people, who were harassed and beaten and killed, to a great national movement, until Lincoln had to pay attention to it, and Congress had to pay attention to it, and so we got the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments. And then, when it turned out that those amendments were shoved aside and unenforced by a whole succession of governments in what was supposed to be a democracy, and for a hundred years those amendments were without any kind of power or value, it took another movement of black people in the South, in the deepest and most dangerous sections of the South, to rise up and create a nationwide protest to create a commotion in the country and embarrass the government of the United States before the world, before we began to get some enforcement of the 14h and 15th Amendments. And that was democracy, you see.

And at one point, somebody wrote to Garrison, the New England abolitionist, a friend of his who was against slavery but thought Garrison was going too far, and who said, "You know, instead of doing all this agitation and so on, instead of being so intemperate and immoderate" — you know, all those words that have been thrown at all of you at some point in your life — "take it to the ballet box." And Garrison replied, "Sir" — in those days, they always started off that way — "Sir, slavery will not be overthrown without excitement, a tremendous excitement," you see. And that’s what we have always needed, when we needed to make change in this country. We have needed to have a tremendous excitement.

The labor movement found this to be true. The farmers’ movement found this to be true. The Constitution and laws didn’t work for them. The ordinary branches of government didn’t work for them, only began to work for them, a little, when they created great movements in the country, and they sent orators around, as the Populist movement did it. I mean, I read this in Larry Goodwyn’s book. Almost everything I tell you, I’ve read somewhere, you see. And I remember this figure jumped out at me from his book: the Populist movement had 35,000 lecturers that went around the country, you know. I see the beginnings of that here. But—really.

But we mustn’t forget the history of the labor movement in this country, which today, in the present time, because—you know, the labor movement has taken such blows and has become so weak, we tend to forget about. We mustn’t forget about that, because if there ever is a resurgence of a citizens’ movement in this country, the backbone of it will have to be a great movement of working people.

And we had—in the 19th century, the eight-hour day was won not by what Congress did or the president did or the Supreme Court did; it was done by people themselves, working people themselves, who got together, who went out on strike, who faced the police, who faced the Army, who faced the National Guard, who took direct action. That phrase, "direct action," is a very important phrase, and people associate Martin Luther King, Jr., with nonviolence, but the full expression that he used and that the other people in the movement in the South used, the full expression was "nonviolent direct action," an action outside the orthodox, outside the orthodox branches of government, you know, rejecting—rejecting the advice always given, always given: go through channels, you see. All of us have had that—have heard that. "Go through channels." And it takes us a while to realize that those channels that they tell us to go through are not channels at all, they’re mazes, into which we are invited to get lost, you see.

We’ve had the experience historically of how citizens’ movements have changed things—yes, with the black movement and with the labor movement and with the movement against the war in Vietnam and with the women’s movement. I mean, no constitutional amendment was—the ERA was not passed, no constitutional amendment was passed, but women got themselves together 20 or 25 years ago, began to meet, without any centralized leadership, but all over the country women began to just get together and meet and talk and organize and begin to put out publications, and they have created a new consciousness about sexual equality in this country. I mean, so it’s a long step from a new consciousness to new society, but a new consciousness is the beginning of a road towards a new society, and we’ve seen movements create that.

The disabled people in this country had to get together and to form a movement to get a piece of legislation from Congress so that they could—how many of you remember that 30 years ago we didn’t have those indentations in the sidewalks, right? We didn’t have wheelchair access. That just was something unheard of. Nobody talked about that. And now we take it for granted, but it didn’t come at the initiative of Congress or the president or the courts; it came because people who were aggrieved and angry got together and began to do something about it.

And so, I think we are at a point today when—one of those many points in history when people begin to realize, as blacks began—realized, with very powerful effect at a certain point, and the labor movement realized—we’re at a point in the history of this country today where those words of the Declaration of Independence become important—that is, where government fails to fulfill its charge to make sure that people have an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we’re in a situation where that lack of equality in these rights is so evident, although they try to obscure it with great enveloping words to describe our society, as they always do. You know, they talk about the economy: "The economy has gotten better." And they give you statistics, you know: "It’s up 2.1 percent." You know, "Unemployment is down 1.3 percent. The balance of trade has..." You know, and we get all of this stuff, which is supposed to make us feel good. That is supposed to be the register of how people are living. Every night on the Dow—right? I mean, everything else can change, but every night we get the Dow Jones average, you see. You know, I have tried to time my watching of television so that I would skip it, you see, but it’s very—or so you quickly change channels, and there it is again, you see. You see. And, you now—and you can just imagine—you know, next time you go into a restaurant, you say to the person who waits on your table, "Do you realize the Dow Jones average went up 30 points last night? Aren’t you happy?" You know.

I mean, yeah, and the fact is that the stock market in the last 15 years has gone up 400 percent. And the wages of working people have gone down 15 percent, you see. That’s the situation—that’s the situation we’re in today, where there’s a kind of veneer of luxury. And my god, look at the—look at the things there are about, and look at the things in the brochures of the magazines and the things that are advertised on TV, and look how people dress on the soap operas. I mean, they don’t need soap. I mean, really, it’s—look out. It’s amazing, really. And so, you know, the picture is given. But everybody who has walked through a city knows that every city has parts to it. And you can walk through a city, and maybe it’s a part of the city that most of us live in, which is a decent part and people live in decent houses and so on, but if you walk long enough through a city—and sometimes you don’t have to walk very far—you come to that other part of the city where people live in different ways. And then you know that there’s a very large part of this country that is not spoken of and that doesn’t come under the definition of the economy or doesn’t fit into any of these granfalloons, as Kurt Vonnegut called it in one of his novels, these great big bubbles of words that don’t mean anything. There’s a reality, a harsh reality, beneath that veneer of prosperity and "the economy is doing well," which you have to see as you walk through a city, or if you just pay very close attention to what is going on and read the back pages of the prominent newspapers and the front pages of the unprominent newspapers, and you find out that there are more sweatshops in New York City today than there were at the turn of the century, which was the era of the sweatshops. And you read about a diary kept by a Chinese immigrant woman in New York. She kept it for six years. She worked in a New York City sweatshop, and she recorded the story of her working 12 hours a day for wages below the minimum wage. It was illegal. But no inspector came. No—the Labor Department did not have enough inspectors to go around to make sure that the minimum wage law was enforced. But at the same time, President Clinton was—and this was during the campaign—was saying, "We need more people to go into the factories to make sure that there are no illegal immigrants working there."

There are a lot of sick things behind this layer of prosperity in this very, very rich country, and all sorts of signs of this kind of sickness. I mean, the fact that we have a million-and-a-half people in prison, you know, and millions of others who are in or out of prison, the highest rate of incarceration in the world, there’s something—something really sick about that. Something sick about spending $265 billion on the military budget, when in every city and every state and in the nation there isn’t enough money for this, and there isn’t enough money for education, there isn’t enough money for Medicare, there isn’t enough money for the arts, right? I mean, the people who do the best things in society and the social workers and the teachers and the nurses and the artists, they are the people for whom there is no money in this richest, richest of societies. There’s something that’s very desperate...

AMY GOODMAN: Historian Howard Zinn, author of, among many books, A People’s History of the United States.

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