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(en) US, A World without Borders - An interview with Howard Zinn by David Barsamian

Date Wed, 03 May 2006 09:34:00 +0300

[Editor note - some quotes from below:
"You're sometimes described as an anarchist and/or a democratic socialist" ( David Barsamian}.
..." Since I do not believe in throwing bombs or terrorism or violence,
I don't want that definition of anarchism to apply to me."
.."Anarchism is also misrepresented as being a society in which there is no
organization, no responsibility, just a kind of chaos, again, not realizing the
irony of a world that is very chaotic, but to which the word anarchism is not applied."
"Anarchism to me means a society in which you have a democratic organization of society
decision making, the economy and in which the authority of the capitalist is no longer there"
"... So I see anarchism as meaning both political and economic democracy, in the best sense
of the term..." - I.S.]

Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University, is
perhaps this country's premier radical historian. He was an
active figure in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War
movements of the 1960s. Today, he speaks all over the
country to large and enthusiastic audiences. His book, A
People's History of the U.S. continues to sell in huge
numbers. His latest work is Original Zinn.

BARSAMIAN: Politicians use history as a kind of mystical
element or device. We often hear that the U.S. is called on
by history to do certain things in the world.

ZINN: History is always a good entity to call on if you are
hesitant to call on God because they both play the same
role. They are both abstractions, they both are actually
meaningless until you invest them with meaning. I've noticed
that President Bush calls on God a lot. I think he's
hesitant to call on history because I think the word history
throws him. He's not quite sure what to do with it, but he's
more familiar with God.

Political leaders, I guess, suppose that the population is
as mystified by the word history as they are by the word God
and that they will accept whatever interpretation of history
is given to them. So political leaders feel free to declare
that history is on their side and the way is open for them
to use it in whatever manner they want.

Donald Macedo, in the introduction to On Democratic
Education, mentions the Tom Paxton song, "What Did You Learn
in School Today?" He quotes a couple of the lyrics. "I
learned that Washington never told a lie / I learned that
soldiers seldom die / I learned that everybody's free." What
does a democratic education mean to you?

To me, a democratic education means many things: it means
what you learn in the classroom and what you learn outside
the classroom. It means not only the content of what you
learn, but also the atmosphere in which you learn it and the
relationship between teacher and student. All of these
elements of education can be democratic or undemocratic.

Students as citizens in a democracy have the right to
determine their lives and to play a role in society. A
democratic education should give students the kind of
information that will enable them to have power of their own
in society. What that means is to give students the kind of
education that suggests to the students that historically
there have been many ways in which ordinary people can play
a part in making history, in the development of their
society. An education that gives the student examples in
history of where people have shown their power in reshaping
not only their own lives, but also in how society works.

In the relationship between the student and the teacher
there is democracy. The student has a right to challenge the
teacher, to express ideas of his or her own. That education
is an interchange between the experiences of the teacher,
which may be far greater than the student in certain ways,
and the experiences of the student, since every student has
a unique life experience. So the free inquiry in the
classroom, a spirit of equality in the classroom, is part of
a democratic education.

It was very important to make it clear to my students that I
didn't know everything, that I was not born with the
knowledge that I'm imparting to them, that knowledge is
acquired and in ways in which the student can acquire also.

How do you as a teacher foster that sense of questioning and
skepticism and how do you avoid its going over to cynicism?

Skepticism is one of the most important qualities that you
can encourage. It arises from having students realize that
what has been seen as holy is not holy, what has been
revered is not necessarily to be revered. That the acts of
the nation which have been romanticized and idealized, those
deserve to be scrutinized and looked at critically.

I remember that a friend of mine was teaching his kids in
middle school to be skeptical of what they had learned about
Columbus as the great hero and liberator, expander of
civilization. One of his students said to him, "Well, if I
have been so misled about Columbus, I wonder now what else
have I been misled about?" So that is education in skepticism.

When you taught at Spelman College, and later at Boston
University, you were teaching kids just coming out of high
school. They come with a lot of baggage, a lot of embedded
ideas. How difficult was it for you to reach them?

In the case of teaching at Spelman College, my students were
African American and I was one of a few white teachers. For
most of my students I was the first white teacher they had
ever encountered.

I tried to have them realize that my values and ideas were
different from those of the white-supremacist society they
had grown up in, that I believed in the equality of human
beings, and that I took the claims of democracy seriously,
not only to try to break down the barrier between us by what
I said in the classroom, but by how I behaved toward them,
by not indicating that their education had been poor, which
it very often was, by not making them feel that they were
coming into this classroom handicapped.

Also by showing them that outside the classroom I was
involved in the social struggle that related to their lives.
When they decided to participate in this struggle and go to
Atlanta and try to desegregate the public library or when
they decided to follow the example of the four students in
Greensboro, North Carolina and sit in, I was with them, I
was supporting them, I was helping them, I was walking on
picket lines with them, I was engaging in demonstrations
with them, I was sitting in with them. More than anything, I
tried to create an atmosphere of democracy in our relationship.

You've been a lifelong reader from the time when as a kid
you found Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar in the street with
the first few pages torn out. Later, your parents got you
the complete collection of Charles Dickens's novels. What's
the value of reading?

I don't know if my experience agrees with the experience of
other people -- I have talked to people, young people
especially, who would say to me, "This book changed my
life." I remember sitting in a cafeteria in Hawaii across
from a student at the University of Hawaii and she had a
copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Since Alice Walker
had been my student at Spelman, I didn't immediately say,
"That's my student." I sort of cautiously said, "Oh, you're
reading The Color Purple. What do you think of it?" The
student said, "This book changed my life." And that startled
me, a book that changed your life.

And also, I must say, in all modesty, that I have run into a
number of students who have read A People's History of the
United States, and who've said, in ways that I first did not
believe but I'm almost beginning to believe now, "You know,
your book changed my life."

There are books that have changed my life. I think reading
Dickens changed my life. Reading Steinbeck's The Grapes of
Wrath changed my life. Reading Upton Sinclair, yes, changed
my life.

Today there are debates about the canon and what books are
being taught and what topics. There are charges that
campuses are run by leftists, by Marxist professors. Is this
issue more acute now or does it ebb and flow?

There has always been conflict in the educational world.
There has always been scrutiny of what young people learn --
scrutiny of their textbooks and teachers -- for the simple
reason that education has always been dangerous to the
establishment, and therefore, the risk that is taken when
young people go into the classroom is a risk that the people
in charge of the status quo want to watch very carefully. I
remember that in 1950, during the McCarthy period, Harold
Velde, the congressperson from Illinois, later to become
chair of HUAC, opposed a proposal to fund mobile library
units to go into rural areas because, he said, "Educating
Americans through the means of the library service could
bring about a change of their political attitude quicker
than any other method. The basis of communism and
socialistic influence is education of the people." While I
don't think it's quite literally true, I think it is true
that education has dangerous possibilities, always has had,
and therefore it is guarded very carefully. Attempts to
control it have always existed.

Is this a more intense attempt to control the education of
young people than we have had in the past? I think that may
be so, for one reason. The stakes for the U.S. are higher
than they ever were before. With the U.S. seeking to extend
its power into more areas of the world, there is an enormous
amount at stake for the establishment in bringing up a
generation of young people who will accept what the U.S.
government does and not be critical of it.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that the
paradox of the U.S. was "private wealth and public squalor."
There is a story on page 16 in the New York Times describing
how in John Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, California
where they're facing record deficits. The town is closing
the three public libraries, including those named for
Steinbeck and one for Cesar Chavez.

It's interesting that that item appeared on page 16. It
should have appeared on page 1 because it might have alerted
more people to what is a horrifying development today. What
is happening in Salinas, California, should be a wake-up call.

But this attack on libraries, on schools, is it part of a
pattern of undermining the commons?

Let me interject my own personal note because I grew up in a
cockroach-infested tenement in New York and we had no books
in our house. I would go to a library in East New York on
the corner of Stone and Sutter. I still remember that
library. That was my refuge. It was a wonderful eye-opener
and mind-opener for me.

But your question is a larger one. And that is, what is
happening to the public commons? That is what Galbraith
pointed to when he wrote The Affluent Society. What has been
really one of the terrible consequences of the
militarization of the country is the starving of the public
sector, education, libraries, health, housing. This is why
people become socialists. People become socialists in the
way that I became a socialist when I read Upton Sinclair and
when I read Karl Marx.

There are lots of distortions and misrepresentations
attached to Marx. Should people be reading Marx today?

Yes, but I wouldn't advise them to immediately plunge into
Volume II or III of Das Kapital, maybe not even Volume I,
which is formidable. But I think The Communist Manifesto,
although the title may scare people, is still very much
worth reading because what it does is suggest that the
capitalist society we have today is not eternal. The
Communist Manifesto presents an historical view of the world
in which we live. It shows you that societies have evolved
from one form to another, one social system to another, from
primitive communal societies to feudal societies to
capitalist societies. That capitalist society has only come
into being in the last few hundreds years and it came into
being as a result of the failure of feudal society to deal
with the change in technology which was inexorably happening
-- the commercialization, industrialization, new tools and
implements. Capitalist society was able to deal with this
new technology and to enhance it enormously.

But what Marx pointed out -- and I think this is a very
important insight -- is that capitalist society, while it's
developed the economy in an impressive way, nevertheless did
not distribute the results of this enormous production
equitably. So Marx pointed to a fundamental flaw in
capitalism, a flaw that should be evident to people today,
especially in the U.S. Here is this enormously productive
and advanced technological country and yet more than
forty-five million people are without health insurance, one
out of five children grow up in poverty, and millions of
people are homeless and hungry.

I think another thing that would be important is Marx's view
that when you look beneath the surface of political
conflicts or cultural conflicts, you find class conflict.
That the important question to ask in any situation is, "Who
benefits from this, what class benefits from this?" If
Americans understood this Marxian concept of class then,
when they went to the polls and they had to choose between
the Republican and Democratic Party, they would ask, "Which
class does this party represent?"
[If they did that, they probably wouldn't vote for either
Republicans or Democrats.--DC]

There was a parade in Taos, New Mexico on February 15, 2003.
The lead banner read, "No Flag Is Large Enough to Cover the
Shame of Killing Innocent People." That's a quote from you.
How is patriotism being used today?

Patriotism is being used today the way patriotism has always
been used and that is to try to encircle everybody in the
nation into a common cause, the cause being the support of
war and the advance of national power. Patriotism is used to
create the illusion of a common interest that everybody in
the country has. I just mentioned about the necessity to see
society in class terms, to realize that we do not have a
common interest in our society, that people have different
interests. What patriotism does is to pretend to a common
interest. And the flag is the symbol of that common
interest. So patriotism plays the same role that certain
phrases in our national language play.

The U.S. is the only country in history to use weapons of
mass destruction. The year 2005 marked the 60th anniversary
of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That anniversary,
incidentally, came amid reports that the U.S. was
redesigning atomic weapons that would be sturdier and more
reliable and last longer. Where were you when the bombs were
dropped and what were your thoughts at the time?

I remember it very clearly because I had just returned from
flying bombing missions in Europe. The war in Europe was
over, but the war in Asia with Japan was still on. We flew
back to this country in late July 1945. We were given a
30-day furlough before reporting back for duty with the
intention that we would then go to the Pacific and continue
in the air war against Japan.

We were there waiting at the bus stop and there was this
newsstand and the big headline, "Atomic Bomb Dropped on
Hiroshima." Because the headline was so big, although I
didn't know what an atomic bomb was, I assumed it must be a
huge bomb. And my immediate reaction was, well, maybe then I
won't have to go to Japan. Maybe this means the end of the
war on Japan. So I was happy.

I began to question the bombing of Hiroshima when I read
John Hersey's book, Hiroshima, which is based on a series of
articles he wrote for the New Yorker. He had gone to
Hiroshima after the bombing and spoken to survivors. You can
imagine what the survivors looked like -- people without
arms, legs, blinded, their skin something that you couldn't
bear to look at. Hersey spoke to these survivors and wrote
down their stories. When I read that, for the first time the
effects of bombing on human beings came to me.

I had dropped bombs in Europe, but I had not seen anybody on
the ground because when you're bombing from 30,000 feet, you
don't see anybody, you don't hear screams, you don't see
blood, you don't know what's happening to human beings. When
I read John Hersey, it came to me, what bombing did to human
beings. That book changed my idea not just about bombing,
but it changed my view of war because it made me realize
that war now, in our time, in the time of high-level bombing
and long-range shelling and death at a distance inevitably
means the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people
and cannot be accepted as a way of solving problems.

You're sometimes described as an anarchist and/or a
democratic socialist. Are you comfortable with those terms?
And what do they mean to you?

How comfortable I am with those terms depends on who's using
them. I'm not uncomfortable when you use them. But if
somebody is using them who I suspect does not really know
what those terms mean, then I feel uncomfortable because I
feel they need clarification. After all, the term anarchist
to so many people means somebody who throws bombs, who
commits terrorist acts, who believes in violence. Oddly
enough, the term anarchist has always applied to individuals
who have used violence, but not to governments that use
violence. Since I do not believe in throwing bombs or
terrorism or violence, I don't want that definition of
anarchism to apply to me.
[Actually, I have seen a good number of examples of the word
"anarchist" applied to violent governments. These usually
appear in newspapers in places like Africa or Asia.--DC]

Anarchism is also misrepresented as being a society in which
there is no organization, no responsibility, just a kind of
chaos, again, not realizing the irony of a world that is
very chaotic, but to which the word anarchism is not applied.

Anarchism to me means a society in which you have a
democratic organization of society -- decision making, the
economy -- and in which the authority of the capitalist is
no longer there, the authority of the police and the courts
and all of the instruments of control that we have in modern
society, in which they do not operate to control the actions
of people, and in which people have a say in their own
destinies, in which they're not forced to choose between two
political parties, neither of which represents their
interests. So I see anarchism as meaning both political and
economic democracy, in the best sense of the term.

I see socialism, which is another term that I would accept
comfortably, as meaning not the police state of the Soviet
Union. After all, the word socialism has been commandeered
by too many people who, in my opinion, are not socialists
but totalitarians. To me, socialism means a society that is
egalitarian and in which the economy is geared to human
needs instead of business profits.

The theme of the World Social Forum, which is held annually,
is "Another World Is Possible." If you were to close your
eyes for a moment, what kind of world might you envision?

The world that I envision is one in which national
boundaries no longer exist, in which you can move from one
country to another with the same ease in which we can move
from Massachusetts to Connecticut, a world without passports
or visas or immigration quotas. True globalization in the
human sense, in which we recognize that the world is one and
that human beings everywhere have the same rights.

In a world like that you could not make war because it is
your family, just as we are not thinking of making war on an
adjoining state or even a far-off state. It would be a world
in which the riches of the planet would be distributed in an
equitable fashion, where everybody has access to clean
water. Yes, that would take some organization to make sure
that the riches of the earth are distributed according to
human need.

A world in which people are free to speak, a world in which
there was a true bill of rights. A world in which people had
their fundamental economic needs taken care of would be a
world in which people were freer to express themselves
because political rights and free speech rights are really
dependent on economic status and having fundamental economic
needs taken care of.

I think it would be a world in which the boundaries of race
and religion and nation would not become causes for
antagonism. Even though there would still be cultural
differences and still be language differences, there would
not be causes for violent action of one against the other.

I think it would be a world in which people would not have
to work more than a few hours a day, which is possible with
the technology available today. If this technology were not
used in the way it is now used, for war and for wasteful
activities, people could work three or four hours a day and
produce enough to take care of any needs. So it would be a
world in which people had more time for music and sports and
literature and just living in a human way with others.

You've said that you became a teacher for a very modest
reason: "I wanted to change the world." How close have you
come to achieving your goal?

All I can say is, I hope that by my writing and speaking and
my activity that I have moved at least a few people towards
a greater understanding and moved at least a few people
towards becoming more active citizens. So I feel that my
contribution, along with the contribution of millions of
other people, if they continue, and if they are passed on to
more and more people, and if our numbers grow, yes, one day
we may very well see the kind of world that I envision.

David Barsamian is director of Alternative Radio
(http://www.alternativeradio.org ) and author, with Tariq
Ali, of Speaking of Empire & Resistance.

Dan Clore

Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

"It's a political statement -- or, rather, an
*anti*-political statement. The symbol for *anarchy*!"
-- Batman, explaining the circle-A graffiti, in
_Detective Comics_ #608

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