Sincere rebel

On the impact of Howard Zinn’s daring and rousing speeches on his students and political thinkers and activists all around the world.

Published : Mar 21, 2013 16:25 IST

One day...

Children at school will ask:

What is war?

You will answer them.

You will tell them:

Those words are not used any more.

Like stagecoaches, galleys or slavery.

Words no longer meaningful...

-Martin Luther King

NOAM CHOMSKY, remembering the speeches and writings of Howard Zinn, the American historian, playwright and, more than all, a committed and compelling political activist, writes: “Reading Howard’s spoken words I feel that I am almost hearing his voice again. Even in writing its unique appeal comes through—his stunning pitch-perfect ability to capture the moment and the concerns and needs of the audience whoever they may be, always enlightening, often stirring, an amalgam of insight, critical history, wit, blended with charm and appeal. I’ve heard Howard speak to tens of thousands at demonstrations, to small groups of homeless people, to activists enduring brutal treatment, and at many other times and places. Always just the right tone and message, always inspiring, a gift to all of us to be treasured.”

This speaks a lot for the man who, in decades of dogged work, put social revolution at the top of his academic and political agenda, an enthusiasm that he focussed on all his life. To him the tedious academic conferences meant nothing if they could be turned into arenas of polemics so crucial to the various social causes he stood for. It is for this reason that he gave up academics after the Vietnam war and turned to writing plays with the fervour that art is innately related to politics and social change.

The mastery of his subject matter and the gravity of his involvement with issues of justice and equality buttress the persuasive political criticism in his daring and rousing speeches that constantly disclose an almost unspeakable truth about the two-facedness and doublespeak in American political affairs, combining “personal conviction and powerful historical narratives with comedic punchlines”.

A pointed question that Zinn asks is whether we are willing to surrender the business of the most noteworthy and scathing issues of the world in the hands of the people who rule and govern the country. In his celebrated play Marx in Soho , Zinn restores Marx to life so that he can speak to the contemporary audience in Soho, urging them to get moving and keep in mind that to be radical is to appreciate and seize the fundamentals of the problem, which is not very alien but starts with the people themselves. His suggestion to the common people at the end of the play is to pretend that each one of them has boils on their bottoms as Marx is known to have suffered from. He urges the people to feel the excruciating pain, which they would suffer if they would sit on their bottoms with the boils. Therefore, each one of them must stand up and act, refusing to sit. As Anthony Arnove writes in the introduction: “That was the spirit of Howard Zinn: think for yourself, act for yourself, challenge and question authority. But do it with others. It is for this reason that Zinn would have appreciated the fight between the Wall Street and the Main Street if he was alive, loving the calling for money for schools, health care, and jobs, not for war, and the placards saying we should Occupy Wall Street not Palestine.”

It is with this resolute belief that Arnove has brought these speeches together with the hope that the new generation behind the popular protests worldwide will achieve enough inspiration not only to be part of history and modern culture but to contribute radically towards the making of history.

Zinn, in his speeches, tells his audience not to forget that all governments tell lies, making out a case for “transcendence”, a need “to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought, and dare to say things that no one else will say”. Indeed, his social activism has brought an innovative and sensitive approach to the study and teaching of history. The United States government, according to him, has economically and politically exploited its own people as well as the people of the world. This is largely kept out of the histories taught to schoolchildren. The White House and Congress are not the only bodies that have to take decisions and know; the involvement of citizens, as emphasised by Rousseau, is fundamental to the running of the country. Patriotism does not only mean blindly supporting the rulers of the state. The definitions and nature of patriotism extend to include the acts of dissension and criticism when the government of the country turns hegemonic.

Zinn sends out a clear reprimand of his country’s rulers by stating that the people who do not even have a degree of respect for human life, freedom and justice have been, regrettably, made rulers of their country. However, dissent nurtured by a positive and active role by the people can help restore the sanctity and freedom of their land. He is of the view that the average citizen can shape history through social involvement. Zinn feels that the role of artists, activists and publishers is vital to resistance movements aimed at peace and protection of human rights as well as an important counteractive and remedial measure to check the spurious triumph of U.S. military power.

When I asked him in an interview to tell me about his support for activists and students and his involvement in the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, he replied: “Yes, I was active in the movement against the Vietnam war. I marched and protested with my students. I came out of Second World War with the conviction that war solves no fundamental problems, and instead, corrupts everyone who engages in it. As far as my experience of going to Hanoi, you could read about that in my memoir You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train . I can only say that it was the first time that I, a bombardier, had experienced being bombed, as was true every day and night Daniel Berrigan and I were in Hanoi. It was a sobering experience. Bombing is terrorism. It terrorises people, and it kills the innocent, on an even larger scale than any brand of terrorist can achieve.”

Lecturing in school and at anti-war rallies or speaking on the Vietnam war, academic freedom, Emma Goldman and anarchism, civil disobedience in the 21st century or the imperialist discourse that celebrated Columbus with the view of a historical justification of violence that went with his march into the Americas, Zinn has always come across as a sincere rebel with a cause, who through his “lyrical, uplifting, honest” voice moved his audience towards a life of dissidence and passionate activism.

‘Righteous songs’

Eve Ensler drives home the impact of his speeches when she remarks, “One of my favourite expressions from Nicaragua is: ‘Struggle is the highest form of song.’ In that case, Howard Zinn is one of our great singers and these speeches are righteous songs filled with the boldness, vision, humour, depth and urgings of his profoundly human voice. He sang of the lies and deceit of the government and the impossibility and horror of wars made in America’s name. He sang of a dream, a deeper dream that is now rising in the streets.”

In the same vein, Alice Walker reminisces on her college days when she was taught by Zinn: “The first time I heard Howard Zinn speak I was a student in the deep South, and amazed that anyone could stay alive long enough to say such things. He was completely fearless, totally relaxed, making joking asides as he went straight to the bloody heart of Empire. How much time it has saved me, having him as a teacher my second year in college. Reading this book brings back memories of those times when Howie spoke to sometimes shocked crowds of people who, before hearing him, had thought historians should be silent about current affairs or, at most, write quiet books. Howard Zinn was a free man. Delightful because of this. Howard Zinn Speaks is a book to savour. It is wise, humorous, and serious, without one moment of hesitation in tackling the basic notions about who we are as a people, a country, and a world.”

All credit for bringing Zinn’s deeply provocative speeches together in this collection goes to Arnove, who directed and produced the critically acclaimed documentary “The People Speak” with Zinn, which is the film companion to Zinn’s bestselling book A People’s History of the United States and its primary source companion, Voices of a People’s History , which Arnove co-edited with Zinn. In his speeches and his works like Disobedience and Democracy, The Politics of History, The Pentagon Papers: Critical Essays, Declarations of Independence: Cross Examining American Ideology and Rule by Force , Zinn has elucidated our history like no other U.S. historian.

This collection of his speeches which focus on protest movements, war, and topics vital to our democracy will be an invaluable resource for the new generation of students who continue to discover his work as well as to the millions of people who Zinn moved and informed in his lifetime.

Zinn has indeed made a profound impact not only on his students but political thinkers and activists all around the world who believe in the idea of free will and justice, two cardinal motives that are conspicuous in not only his writings but his speeches where, with impish humour, he strikes out at all state violence, giving our generation (and generations to come) enough material for thought in an era of mass movements and uprisings that is imperative for a progressive world.

The slogan from the volatile 1960s “Be realistic, demand the impossible”, is therefore, of colossal implication as it does not emphasise the utopian, but asks for changes and demands that, in the words of Arnove, “are achievable but not within the logic of the current system”.

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