"I didn't go into history to become a professional historian. I had a very modest aim--I wanted to change the world."
It was a typically wry remark from Howard Zinn, who spoke last Wednesday at Elon University outside Greensboro, at the invitation of the school's Liberal Arts Forum. His smart sportcoat absent a tie and his head crowned with long white hair, the self-effacing teacher, historian, playwright and activist seemed every bit as venerable as the stage of Elon's Whitley Auditorium, where he addressed a packed and enthusiastic house on the topic of "Bringing Democracy Alive."
A history professor emeritus at Boston University, with a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, Zinn was an active figure in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. He has authored more than a dozen books, including Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, and the seminal A People's History of the United States, which provides an alternative history of the United States, told from the viewpoint of those who have been exploited politically and economically. As a columnist for The Progressive magazine, he remains one of the nation's most eloquent proponents of human rights, earning the frequent scorn of conservative critics.
Zinn courted that scorn early in his lecture, making it clear that understanding history is the key to controlling our future. "If you don't know history, it's as if you were born yesterday," he said. "And if you were born yesterday, anybody in authority can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it."
The topic of Zinn's address was underscored in remarks on everything from the events of Sept. 11, to the topics of patriotism, anti-war organizing, "homeland security," and last year's election fiasco. Zinn argued that it's people and their social movements--not statesmen, elite institutions, or even the Constitution--which are responsible for the rights we enjoy today. And he suggested that it's people, and only people, who can bring democracy alive again in the face of current conflicts and growing threats to civil liberties. "No democracy comes from above," he said. "It has to come from below."
Zinn made that "bottom up" discovery during his first teaching job at Spelman College, the African-American women's school in Georgia where he served from 1956 to 1963. "I learned much more from my students than my students learned from me," he admitted. His main discovery, he said, was how much history had been left out of the textbooks. "To see American history from the viewpoint of blacks, of women, of Native Americans, of the working class, was very different."
And what he learned wasn't confined to the classroom: He was a member of the executive board of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, formed in 1960, and became active in movements for civil rights and academic freedom, joining the NAACP on the picket lines and sit-ins of the day.
Asked by a Greensboro activist in the audience to draw parallels between today's nascent and much-maligned anti-war movement and similar organizing done in the past, Zinn observed that, "All movements begin as if they have no chance." He recalled a gathering against the Vietnam War on the Boston Common in the 1960s, where he was one of only 100 people in attendance. Three years later, there were 100,000. How did it happen? "Small groups around the country persisted--they held teach-ins, had meetings and spread literature, and the American people began to learn more," he said. "The first tendency is to support the government. But then there are second thoughts, as information comes back and is spread through community newspapers and community radio stations."
Today, he said, the Internet is a useful tool for spreading news unavailable in the mainstream media. Still, he admitted, there are no guarantees. "Movements don't always grow and succeed," he said, adding that only one thing is certain: "If you don't do anything, nothing good will happen."
Zinn didn't have to reach far to demonstrate that "nothing good" has come out of our failure to keep democracy alive. On last year's presidential elections: "Even if Gore won, we'd still have a corrupt system that doesn't even give people a choice." On Dan Rather's unquestioning allegiance to George Bush: "Is this a free press when the major media moguls timidly crouch behind the president?" On the hypocrisy of bombing Afghanistan: "We're not going to bomb Saudi Arabia, even though they treat women just as badly as the Taliban."
Zinn's harshest assessments had to do with the war on terrorism and its effects, not only on the rest of the world, but on America itself--where dissent was immediately labeled unpatriotic. "They're willing to let us have freedom of speech when it's not terribly important, and to not have freedom of speech when it is," he said. "That's something that should be defied. If there ever is a time when we need freedom of speech and democracy, it's when our leaders are compelling us into war--quickly, and without discussion."
When a questioner asked him to weigh in on the "Office of Homeland Security," and "The PATRIOT Act," Zinn pointed out that neither would have prevented the Sept. 11 tragedy, calling them instead, "a great opportunity, when at war, to take away people's civil liberties." War, he suggested, is a way of controlling people. And he noted that its effects go beyond the vast monies spent on the military: There's "a spiritual and moral corruption" that comes from living in a militarized society.
Yet, short of war, what does Zinn think should have been done following the terrorist attacks? "We had to do something, but there was an instant jump from 'something' to 'bombing,'" he said, suggesting that "something" could have been many things: beefing up security; conducting an international dragnet for the remaining perpetrators; and most of all, understanding the root causes of the "complex phenomenon" of terrorism. "Beneath fanaticism there is always a grievance," he said, "and we have to decide whether it's legitimate or illegitimate."
Security, Zinn suggested, will come only from doing things differently. "The United States needs to be a more modest nation," he said. "Modest nations don't worry about terrorism." What's needed is "a fundamental change in the United States' role in the world"--its military interventions, support of dictatorships, and overthrowing of governments. Why, he asked, does the United States need to be a superpower? And why, specifically, a military superpower?
"It generates anger among other people, who think the world does not belong to the United States," Zinn said, as the audience erupted into applause. The United States, he claims, can be a moral superpower. "Instead of planes bombing, fill them up with food and medicine."
Asked to name the most pressing issue of the 21st century, Zinn replied, "Wiping out boundaries--religious, racial, national--all those boundaries that cause so much havoc in the world and set people against one another." Referring to the carnage of Sept. 11, he mused that the destruction must have been identical in the cities he bombed during his World War II stint in the Air Force--from an altitude too high to see the destruction or hear the screams.
"I was oblivious," he said. "I wasn't thinking of the people below as human beings. If we learn anything from Sept. 11, it's that people all over the world are equal to the people at the World Trade Center. We have to expand our compassion to include those people. When their children die, it's like our children dying."
Having offered his droll assessment of the shortcomings of the American political class and its foreign policy, Zinn fielded a question that, he has written, is frequently posed by members of his audiences: "Why do you still live in the United States, if you criticize the things the United States has done?"
"I'm not criticizing the United States," he replied. "I'm criticizing the government of the United States." Government, Zinn reminded the questioner, is an artificial creation of the American people. "Patriotism means that you support the principles of the government. To criticize the government is the most American thing you can do."