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Howard Zinn and Arundhati Roy: A Conversation Between Two Leading Social Critics

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We turn now to a conversation between two of the most preeminent social critics of our time.

One of them was born in Shillong, India, in 1959. She studied architecture in New Delhi, where she now lives, and has worked as a film designer, actor and screenplay writer in India. Her first novel, “The God of Small Things,” won the prestigious Booker Prize.

The other was born in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York, to two Jewish immigrants who worked in factories. He grew up in slums there, worked in a shipyard and was a bombardier in World War II. In 1960, he decided to try to write a new kind of history of the United States, a view from the ground up, from the people who built this country, the workers, the immigrants, the slaves. He spent the next two decades researching and writing. In 1980, he published his history, and beyond all expectations, it became a best-seller. A little while ago, he sold the millionth copy of that history book.

I am talking about Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn.

A couple of weeks go, Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn had a conversation in front of thousands in Riverside Church in Harlem. The event was sponsored by the Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Lannan Foundation.

This is what they had to say to each other.

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

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Right now a conversation between two of the preeminent social critics of our time. One of them, born in Shillong, India, 1959, she studied architecture in New Delhi, where she now lives, and has worked as a film designer, actor, screenplay writer. Her first novel, The God of Small Things, won the prestigious Booker Prize. The other, born in Brooklyn in 1922, his parents Jewish immigrants who worked in factories, he worked in a shipyard and was a bombardier in World War II. In 1960, he decided to try to write a new kind of history of the United States, a view from the ground up, from the immigrant workers who built this country. He spent the next two decades researching and writing. In 1980, he published his history, and beyond all expectations, it became a best-seller. A little while ago, he sold the millionth copy of this history book. His book is called People’s History of the United States. I’m talking about Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn.

Several weeks ago, they had a conversation in front of thousands of people at Riverside Church in Harlem. It was an event sponsored by the Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Lannan Foundation. This is Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn.

HOWARD ZINN: One of the reasons for the acceptance of the war by so many Americans, or not as many Americans as they would like us to think, but the acceptance of the war by a good number of Americans is that the American population has had concealed from it the human consequences of what we’ve been doing. It’s all been presented as a kind of antiseptic operation. And the bombing of Iraq, just like the bombing of Afghanistan before it, like all bombings, really, are presented as something that really doesn’t do anything to human beings.

And I think of that really through the prism of my own experience, because I was a — you probably know this, Arundhati, and my close friends know it, because I never let them forget this, but I was in the Air Force, and I was a bombardier in the Air Force. And I did not know what I was doing. I did not know what was happening to people down there. So, when I see these pilots coming back from their missions in Iraq, or as they did in Afghanistan, and they’re smiling, and they’re happy, and we hit our targets, it reminds me of myself, and how flying at 30,000 feet, you drop bombs, and you don’t hear any screams, and you don’t see any blood. You don’t see kids with dismembered limbs. And that’s the way — that’s the way modern warfare is carried out.

And what happened to me is that I didn’t understand the human consequences of what I was doing as a bombardier until I read John Hersey’s book, Hiroshima, right after the war. And he went into Hiroshima, and he talked to survivors. And you can imagine what those survivors were like. They were people without legs, without arms, people who were blinded, people whose skin was something you could not bear to look at. And he described that. And for the first time, I thought, “Oh, this is what happens when you bomb.”

ARUNDHATI ROY: And President Truman said that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the greatest thing in history.

HOWARD ZINN: That’s right. And he also said — and, that’s right. He said also that we have just bombed a military target. And I try to remind people when I’m talking to audiences in the United States that when they hear Rumsfeld and — what did you call him?

ARUNDHATI ROY: The prince of darkness.

HOWARD ZINN: The prince of darkness, yes. When they hear Rumsfeld explain casually, you know, how, well, an accident took place here, and an accident took place there, yes, these people in a bus were killed, or these people in a marketplace were killed, but these are accidents, because we only bomb military targets. And as you say, Hiroshima was a military target. Dresden was a military target. Tokyo was a military target when 100,000 people were killed in one night of bombing in Tokyo. And the definition of “military targets” is something, you know, that we must remind people about.

ARUNDHATI ROY: But isn’t it interesting how, you know, Saving Private Ryan is so kind of detailed with the blood and the gore and the stumps and the everything? You know, the fiction is so real. And reality is so, so, so absent. You know, real wars don’t seem to be fought anymore, according to TV.

HOWARD ZINN: I was particularly annoyed by Saving Private Ryan, you know, and because — because I’ve been annoyed often in my life, you see, and especially when World War II is paraded before us again and again and again to — really to glorify war, to take sort of that element of morality — that there was, truly, in World War II, the fight against fascism and so on, but one that’s been much exaggerated — but to take World War II and to take the element of morality in World War II and to take the glow that World War II still casts on all of us, except me, and to take that glow and to cast it over all these ugly wars that we have fought since World War II, I resent using World War II, you know, in that way.

Because — and very often I think this was the “good war,” right? — in quotation marks. This was the best of wars. But when you examine it closely, when you examine the consequences of it, you know, it seems to me you must ask yourself, “OK, this is the best of wars, and at the end of it, 50 million people are dead. And has war ended? Has fascism ended in the world?” Well, we’ve seen — we’re seeing some of it in this country now. No, has militarism ended in the world?

And so, I’m sorry you brought up Saving Private Ryan, because it always leads to this burst of indignation. But I think we need to think not only about the Iraq War, but about war in general, about war, period, and decide that we have reached that point in human history where we cannot tolerate the mass killing of people for whatever cause that’s presented to us.

So, I know I’m supposed to ask you questions. But I’m wondering about — about your patriotism. No, I’m wondering about whether you face the same problem that we do in the United States when we criticize the war or criticize the Bush administration, you know, and we’re accused of being un-American and unpatriotic and so on. And —

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, I get it both ways. I’m accused of being anti-American and anti-Indian. So, you know, it’s a very — you know, when you live outside of America, I’m always brought up short by the racism of — or the racist response to a racist war, you know, because the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as racist wars. People find it so easy to just hate Americans. And I, who am all the time vilified for being anti-American, I’m always in the extraordinary position of defending Americans and defending British people and saying, “Look, if India and Pakistan were fighting a war, I don’t think 100,000 people would show up on the streets to protest, you know? It’s always like about nine of us or something.”

HOWARD ZINN: It’s interesting the way you’re defending America by pointing to the people who are America, who — that is, who represent the best ideals of America, and not the worst. And I think that’s what very often people lose. And I suppose they do the same thing with India as an abstraction, you know.

And when people — and I have been accused of being anti-American, and I respond to that, you know, by saying, “You know, we must disagree about what America is.” America is not Bush. America is not — you know, America — and, you know, America is not the government.

And, you know — and we must look at the basic principles of democracy. We must look at the Declaration of Independence, which is the fundamental philosophy of democracy, and it says governments are artificial creations. Governments are set up by the people to ensure certain rights, equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. When governments become destructive of those ends — I’m now quoting the Declaration of Independence — when governments become — if it doesn’t mind — when governments become destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish the government, you see. You know, and if you have the right to alter or abolish the government, you certainly have the right to criticize the government. But so, you know, the government is being anti-American when it goes against the principles of democracy. You know, that’s how I feel about it.

So, I know — I know, Arundhati, that you are pro-Indian in the best sense, and you are pro-American in the best sense. Yes.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, I try not to think in these categories, actually, you know? I just — I was in Porto Alegre in January, and a lady asked me to sign a petition against the War in Iraq, and I signed it. And it said name, organization, and I wrote, “Arundhati Roy, SIN,” which stands for the Sweethearts International Network. I’m actually not a nationalist of any kind. You know, I believe that we — I think it’s very important to stop, allow — you know, stop our minds coming up short against these artificial boundaries. And I think nationalism really does lie at the root of a lot of the troubles of this century and the last one. And we need — we really need to question that, because —

HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, yeah. I think one of — maybe one of the ways to remind people of the dangers of nationalism is to ask people if they believe that all people everywhere have an equal right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not just Americans, but everybody everywhere in the world. And I think most people would agree, that most people would agree that everybody — and ask people if they believe that children — that the lives of children in Iraq are equal to the lives of children in the United States or in Russia or in China, you see. And if that is so, if all children everywhere have an equal right to life, then war becomes impossible, because war is always a war against children.

And, you know, sometimes when people bring up — you know, there are still — most people in the United States still defend the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You know, it’s troublesome to think that, that most people in the United States still — because, you know, they’ve been misinformed. They’ve been miseducated. They don’t really, you know, know what the situation was at that time. And also, they aren’t thinking in a certain way about the human race. And I ask people very often, if that — when that issue comes up, after we’ve exhausted all the political and military arguments about what was happening in August of 1945, I say, “Well, look, if in August of 1945 you knew that we could end the war quickly by killing 100,000 American children, yeah, would you agree?” Well, we know what answer people will give? Of course not. Then, would you — why would we agree to kill 100,000 Japanese children in order to speed the end of the war? And I think — you know, I think the nationalism that you talk about, I think, you know, when we put it in terms of human beings everywhere, you know.

ARUNDHATI ROY: But the fact is that, you know, when Madeleine Albright was asked about the death of 500,000 Iraqi children, she said she thought the price was worth it. And the trouble is that, you know, when you live in a country like India, all the time you are faced with the horrors of living in a feudal society, where people do believe that some of them are more equal than others. And, you know, I mean, there is the whole issue of race and colonialism. And, I mean, it is something that all of us need to ask ourselves very, very seriously. But the fact is that it is true today that, you know, if you kill 200,000 Iraqis or you kill 200,000, Afghans or you kill 200,000 Indians or you kill 4 million people in the Congo, it’s not the same thing as 200,000 Americans or 200,000 British people or 200,000 Europeans. You know, this is the truth. This is the way it is just now.

HOWARD ZINN: And I think — and you pointed to the 10 million or more people who, on February 15th, demonstrated all around the world against the war. And it must mean that there are huge, huge numbers of people around the world who recognize that.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Absolutely.

HOWARD ZINN: And I just want to say one more thing before I stop saying things, and that is that — which connects with that whole — that wonderful day of enormous solidarity, international solidarity, brotherhood, sisterhood, human beings together that day. And there was, surprisingly, in The New York Times, the day after, a reporter said — some of you may have read this — the reporter said, talking about those demonstrations, said there are now two superpowers in the world: the United States and world public opinion. But I thought, Arundhati, it might be nice for you to read something, which I think I heard you read, which I would like you to read just for my benefit.

ARUNDHATI ROY: It’s just going to be a minute. This is the end of an essay called “The Ladies Have Feelings, So … Shall We Leave It to the Experts?” It’s really an essay in defense of passion. But this is just about, you know, the role of writers and so on.

“What is happening to the world lies, at the moment, just outside the realm of common human understanding. It is the writers, the poets, the artists, the singers, the filmmakers who can make the connections, who can find ways of bringing it into the realm of common understanding. Who can translate cash-flow charts and scintillating boardroom speeches into real stories about real people with real lives. Stories about what it’s like to lose your home, your land, your job, your dignity, your past, and your future to an invisible force. To someone or something you can’t see. You can’t hate. You can’t even imagine.

“It’s a new space that’s being offered to us today. A new kind of challenge. It offers opportunities for a new kind of art. An art which can make the impalpable palpable, make the intangible tangible, and the invisible visible. An art which can draw out the incorporeal adversary and make it real. Bring it to book.

“Cynics say that real life is a choice between the failed revolution and the shabby deal. I don’t know … maybe they’re right. But even they should know that there’s no limit to just how shabby that shabby deal can be. What we need to search for and find, what we need to hone and perfect into a magnificent, shining thing, is a new kind of politics. Not the politics of governance, but the politics of resistance. The politics of opposition. The politics of forcing accountability.”

AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy along with Howard Zinn at Riverside Church in Manhattan. That does it for the show. Democracy Now! produced by Kris Abrams, Mike Burke, Angie Karran, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Ana Nogueira, Elizabeth Press, with help from Noah Reibel and Mike De Filippo, our engineer, help from Rich Kim. I’m Amy Goodman.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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