Monday, September 22, 2008

Howard Zinn, the Walt Whitman of Historians

I've been away, doing a reading with Mark Nowak in Madison, Wisconsin, and back again, trying to complete the introductory essay for the forthcoming anthology of peace poetry, Come Together: Imagine Peace, so I have not been keeping up with blogging. In the process of trying to locate radical historian Howard Zinn's contact information (anyone?), I discovered this piece dated five years ago, from a book that captures some of the voices from Zinn's great A People's History of the United States. Howard Zinn has been one of my models for how to remain a politically engaged academic. This is from Third World Traveler dot com:

Howard Zinn on:
A People's History of Antiwar Protest
Socialist Worker Online, March 7, 2003

With Bush's new Gulf War slaughter looming, America's rulers are cranking up a patriotic frenzy common to any war drive. Their goal is simple: To disguise the lies they tell and to stampede ordinary people into believing they have a stake in this war.

But that's only one side of it. There is a long and rich history, hidden from us most of the time, of people in the U.S. standing up against war--exposing the lies and rejecting the appeals to patriotism.

Many of these struggles are chronicled in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This year, A People's History sold its 1 millionth copy--an incredible achievement for a book that tells a story the ruling establishment would prefer to conceal.

To celebrate this milestone and to pay tribute to Zinn, hundreds of people gathered in New York City at the 92nd Street Y February 23 for an evening of readings--featuring James Earl Jones, Marisa Tomei, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, Danny Glover and others--from Zinn's new book project.

The new book, co-edited by Zinn with Anthony Arnove, will collect speeches, articles and essays, poetry and more from people who were part of the struggles chronicled in A People's History. The new book will be called Voices of People's History, and it is due to be published in 2004 by Seven Stories Press. Here, Socialist Worker reprints some of the excerpts read at the 92nd St. Y--with brief introductions written by Zinn.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, once a slave, became the brilliant and powerful leader of the anti-slavery movement. In 1852, he was asked to speak in celebration of the Fourth of July:
Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.

This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice. I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?
Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

Mark Twain
The orthodox texts in American history pay much attention to what was called "a splendid little war," the victory of the United States in the three-month long Spanish-American War of 1898. But they slide quickly over the bloody conquest of the Philippines that went on for years, which President McKinley said was necessary to "civilize and Christianize" the Filipinos, and which Theodore Roosevelt hailed as the newest outpost of the American Empire.

Roosevelt loved war and militarism, and when the U.S. army massacred 600 Moros on a southern Island in the Philippines in 1906, Roosevelt congratulated the commanding general. Here is novelist and essayist Mark Twain's response:

This incident burst upon the world last Friday in an official cablegram from the commander of our forces in the Philippines to our Government at Washington. The substance of it was as follows: A tribe of Moros, dark-skinned savages, had fortified themselves in the bowl of an extinct crater not many miles from Jolo; and as they were hostiles, and bitter against us because we have been trying for eight years to take their liberties away from them, their presence in that position was a menace.

Our commander, Gen. Leonard Wood, ordered a reconnaissance. It was found that the Moros numbered six hundred, counting women and children; that their crater bowl was in the summit of a peak or mountain 2,200 feet above sea level, and very difficult of access for Christian troops and artillery. Then General Wood ordered a surprise, and went along himself to see the order carried out.

Gen. Wood's order was, "Kill or capture the six hundred." There, with 600 engaged on each side, we lost 15 men killed outright, and we had 32 wounded--counting that nose and that elbow. The enemy numbered 600--including women and children--and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.

So far as I can find out, there was only one person among our eighty millions who allowed himself the privilege of a public remark on this great occasion--that was the President of the United States. All day Friday, he was as studiously silent as the rest. But on Saturday, he recognized that his duty required him to say something, and he took his pen and performed that duty. This is what he said:
Washington, March 10. Wood, Manila: I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag. (Signed) Theodore Roosevelt.

I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeemIt should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

Helen Keller
Helen Keller is presented to American school children as an extraordinary person who overcame blindness and deafness and became internationally famous. What our schools do not say about Helen Keller is that she was a socialist, a radical, that she opposed war and militarism, that she walked on picket lines.

But she had to deal with charges that she was incompetent to judge such issues because of her disabilities. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who had once praised her lavishly, changed his mind when she declared herself a socialist. She wrote a letter to the newspaper in response, addressing it: "Poor blind Eagle."
Here she speaks in Carnegie Hall, on the eve of American's entrance into the First World War.

We are facing a grave crisis in our national life. The few who profit from the labor of the masses want to organize the workers into an army which will protect the interests of the capitalists. You are urged to add to the heavy burdens you already bear the burden of a larger army and many additional warships. It is in your power to refuse

We are not preparing to defend our country--we have no enemies foolhardy enough to attempt to invade the United States. Yet, everywhere, we hear fear advanced as argument for armament. Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the United States. It is planning to protect the capital of American speculators and investors in Mexico, South America, China, and the Philippine Islands.

Every modern war has had its root in exploitation. The preparedness propagandists have still another object, and a very important one. They want to give the people something to think about besides their own unhappy condition. Every few days, we are given a new war scare to lend realism to their propaganda.

They are taught that brave men die for their country's honor. What a price to pay for an abstraction--the lives of millions of young men; other millions crippled and blinded for life; existence made hideous for still more millions of human beings; the achievement and inheritance of generations swept away in a moment--and nobody better off for all the misery!

Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction

Eugene Debs
Eugene Debs led a national strike of railroad workers in 1894, and spent six months in jail for doing that. He went into prison a labor leader and came out a socialist. As leader of the Socialist Party, he ran for president four times.

When the United States entered the First World War, President Wilson signed the Espionage Act, which provided long jail terms for anyone who said anything that might discourage recruitment in the armed forces. Debs spoke against the war and was arrested for violating the Espionage Act, and his conviction was upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court, which pointed to his statement that "the master class has always made the wars, the working class has always fought them."

Here, at his trial in the fall of 1918, he is speaking to the court:
Your Honor, years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change--but if possible by peaceable and orderly means.

Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen, I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen, I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison.

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization, money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth, gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.

This order of things cannot always endure. I have registered my protest against it. I recognize the feebleness of my effort, but, fortunately, I am not alone. I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time, they will and must come to their own.

Martin Luther King Jr.

In the great national campaign against the war in Vietnam, young Black people in the Southern civil rights movement were among the first protesters, and in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., against the advice of more conservative black leaders, spoke out powerfully against the war.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day, we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed, so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

A Gulf War resister
Early in 1991, President George Bush Sr. sent American troops into Iraq, presumably to liberate Kuwait from the control of Saddam Hussein--more likely to assure American power in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. The government had learned from the Vietnam experience that an antiwar movement must not be allowed time to develop, that U.S. casualties must be kept low, and that information about the war must be controlled. A massive air attack quickly defeated the forces of Saddam Hussein, and the American people were kept ignorant of the large numbers of casualties among Iraqi civilians.

Nevertheless, a protest movement developed, and there were refusals among the military to participate in the war. A Navy Reserve corpsman named James Lawrence Harrington wrote to his Commander:

There comes a time in life when maintaining silence is but a betrayal of one's own spiritual core of being. Such a time has come, and I must declare from the expansion of my heart and over the limited sphere of my mind, that I am a conscientious objector opposed to any and all wars. The power and command of my faith dictates that I work diligently and completely to stop war. To this end, do I dedicate the efforts of my life.

I do not hold that the absence of participation in war is itself a peace. Through the power of the people, peace is an active force that can and must spread to all nations, including our own. Our nation suffers from a deep malady in its consciousness that leads it down the path of continual violence and strife. I seek not only to stop this impending war in the Persian Gulf, but to also treat our own profound sickness.

War is but a symptom of a greater concern. I prescribe the treatment of a radical revolution within our nation from that of a "thing"-oriented society to a "person"-oriented community. We must learn to love and respect all people for the sake of divinity and basic goodness that dwells within them.
When we deny people the rights to exist and to self-determination, we are assuring our own self-destruction. In order to save my nation and in order not to betray my own soul, I take this open stance of opposition to all wars.

Howard Zinn
This excerpt comes from the first pages of A People's History of the United States.

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can "see" history from the standpoint of others.

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, depletes our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run, the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don't want to romanticize them.

But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: "The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don't listen to it, you will never know what justice is."

1 comment:

Game Feaster said...

Howard Zinn was forced upon me, but it was great. It was shocking, and amazing to read some of the stuff that the early Americans were capable of.

thank you for the introspective, and i hope you can visit my blog for games and such, games, and books, go together, and i plan to synthesize great american literature with vieo games one day. one day.