The people’s historian Howard Zinn has hope for America’s future
by Erica Grossman
You’re not going to get any short answers from me,” warned Howard Zinn during a recent phone interview. And he wasn’t lying.
Zinn, one of the most influential historians and authors of the past century, doesn’t hold much back. And at the age of 86, his commentary remains as imperative as ever in understanding up-and-coming social movements through a historical lens.
Zinn extracts his sentiments from a pool of deep academic knowledge and intricate personal experience, one that connects with some of the most significant moments and movements in America’s story. Zinn was a labor worker in the shipyards, a bombardier in WWII, a professor of history at an all-black female college in the South, an activist in both the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests. His 1980 text, A People’s History of the United States, provides an unprecedented examination of the American Dream, through the eyes of American Indians, slaves, union workers, women suffragists and protesters.
As a celebration of this prolific work, the organization Voices of a People’s History has formed in recent years to help expose the backstories of those individuals behind the curtains of American history. In true Zinn fashion, Voices of a People’s History has been a groundswell of activists, performers and scholars, both underground and famous, working in cities across the country to raise awareness and provide context for our current social climate.
The group will host live performances of Zinn’s work on Oct. 8 at CU’s Macky Auditorium, with a rare appearance by Howard Zinn himself.
Boulder Weekly caught up with Zinn to discuss his perspective on America — past, present and future.
Boulder Weekly: You’ve often commented that you look for omissions in history. What do you think is being left out of our current historical situation?
Howard Zinn: What is being left out of the discourse or the discussion of what people are talking about and what the press is talking about today — what is being left out is the history of government bailouts, the history of government support for corporations and the rich. So if you don’t have the history, you’re likely to think, ‘Oh this is something new. This is a departure from the way the United States has always been.’ It’s not a departure. It’s a continuation of something that started way back and has been going on through all of American history. What is being missed in the present discourse about the Wall Street collapse is a history which shows that this is part of a long pattern of alliance between government and big business to the detriment of the average American.
BW: Considering that continuation, what do you think is the best medium for change?
HZ: Well, we need of course a change — a very drastic change in government policy. That change, I believe, should consist of, instead of bailing out these huge corporations, let them founder. Instead of giving a trillion dollars to the corporations in the hope that, by keeping them afloat, the money will trickle down to mortgage payers and ordinary people… instead of that, take the money that would bail out the corporations and use that money to aid the victims of the financial system. Use that money to pay off the mortgages of people who are in trouble. Use that money to guarantee jobs to people that will lose their jobs as corporations downsize. Use that money to create free health care for everybody.
In other words, get to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter when you have an economic collapse — and this is what happened in 1929 — is that the money of the country has been going to the super rich, and the purchasing power of the ordinary person has declined. That gap, as it increases, becomes a bubble which is stretched thinner and thinner and which bursts. The root of it is that the people have been deprived of the wealth of the nation. Therefore, that wealth should be used for whatever the needs of people are in health, education, jobs…
Bypass the corporations and nationalize whatever industries are useful. Most of these corporations are not useful. They are financial institutions which buy and sell papers and don’t produce anything important. But where corporations produce something important, well, they should be taxed heavily.
In the Bush administration, the richest 400 people in the United States have gained something like 600 billion dollars during the Bush years as a result of tax breaks. That’s absurd. We need to change the tax structure. Now, Obama has said that he will raise taxes for the rich and do away with taxes for a large part of the population. That’s a step in the right direction, although he must go much farther than that, be much bolder than that in his tax proposals, because we need a really fundamental redistribution of wealth in the country, and a guarantee of the kinds of things that people need to survive.
BW: In addition to that, what are the key issues for voters in this upcoming election?
HZ: I think voters should vote for Obama, not because he goes as far as needs to be gone, but because with Obama there is sort of a chance of a movement away from our present situation. Whereas with McCain, he is stuck in the Bush philosophy. With Obama there’s sort of little glimmers of possibility. Our big job is not just to vote for Obama so that there is a possibility, but to turn that possibility into a reality by creating a social movement in this country which Obama will have to pay attention to — because that, ultimately, is what brings about change. The President or Congress have never initiated important change. No, what’s needed is a social movement such as we had in the labor movements of the 1930s, the black movement, the anti-war movement, womens’ movement of the ’60s, a new social movement in this country which will shake up Obama and his conservative cabinets and move them in bolder directions just as the agitators of the ’30s moved FDR in a bolder direction.
BW: You have been a witness to so many American historical and social movements. In what ways does the current climate compare with former social movements?
HZ: I suppose it’s different in the sense that the control of the media is greater and more threatening today than it was in the 1960s, but the media have always been on the side of the establishment. There are things today that make it more difficult than in other social movements, but on the other hand, the elements are there for a new social movement. By the elements being there, I mean the growing, growing dissatisfaction in the country — not yet organized, but there. It’s a reservoir of anger, of indignation against the war, against the Bush administration, against the economic system. So there’s this reservoir of energy and anger that hasn’t been organized and hasn’t been pushed into a force that can bring about change. But the potential is there.
In that sense, we resemble other times in history before the movements were effective — when they were just growing, when they were just developing. The anti-slavery movement had to develop over 30 years. The anti-war movement against Vietnam had to develop over four or five years. The Civil Rights movement had to develop over decades and decades. So, we are in a stage of development. You can’t just look at where we are right now and say, ‘Well, we’re not doing it, we’re incapable, we’re hopeless.’ No, we are in a dynamic situation changing day by day with the consciousness of people capable of growing day by day as they look around and see how disastrous the present system is — the system of war and the system of nation states. I think there is possibility and hope.
So much that goes on in this country is not reported. It’s very important to know that so much is being omitted. It’s so important for people, if they are not to despair, to, instead of watching the television, go to the library and read the history of past social movements and how people have despaired in those past social movements, but how they persisted and persisted and something happened.
To read more of our interview with Howard Zinn, visit www.boulderweekly.com.