Acts of resistance

Published : Mar 09, 2007 00:00 IST

Howard Zinn's profoundly insightful book provides a critique of the contemporary political and ethical crisis.

IF there is no struggle, there is no progress," said Frederick Douglas, the 19th century American abolitionist and statesman. Acts of resistance are always underpinned by the creative power of the people fighting for social transformation. They emerge from the desperate staying power of Sisyphus incessantly pushing the rock up the mountain.

These acts are, according to Howard Zinn, the stories of people who stand up, speak out, dig in, organise, connect, form networks of resistance, and alter the course of history. They are the stories of voices raised against the establishment through the course of history, voices of the marginalised, of the indigenous and the working class, trying to put an end to racial discrimination and class inequality.

As Zinn maintains in a recent interview, "all any writer can hope for is that his or her book plays a small part in raising the consciousness of its readers, in pointing to new ways of seeing the world, in making them conscious of their own power when joined to others". Zinn argues that often history has been quiet about these stories and consequently a collaborator with the state. The ability to resist lies within history writing: "History can help our struggle, if not conclusively, then at least suggestively. History can disabuse us of the idea that the government's interests and the people's interests are the same."

Strategically using the motive of `national interest' as an excuse, governments get public approval to wage war, engage in racial discrimination, invade the privacy of an individual by even opening his e-mail, or, at the slightest suspicion, pick up Muslims and incarcerate them for months without trial.

In the essay "The Optimism of Uncertainty", Zinn explains the central issue in the world of oppression where state power is inherently weak, depending as it does on the obedience of citizens. And the moment this subservience to the state is refused, the fragility of the system becomes obvious. "All those cries by the Establishment - `We will never give in ... we will never cut and run . . . we will never end apartheid, etc. etc.' - have turned out to be hollow claims, because when movements of people grow and become overwhelming, things change." Zinn has always wanted that the voices of struggle, mostly absent from history books, be given the place they deserve. He has wanted labour history, which has been the battleground, decade after decade, century after century, of an ongoing fight for human dignity, to come to the fore.

As in his previous book Voices of a People's History of the United States, Zinn draws our attention to the major movements from the periphery that are not just imbued with words but raise vital issues concerning war, racism and class conflict. He underscores the need to air the voices of resistance that refuse to be subdued by the power of the state apparatus aided by the complicit media. Here is a strong case for people "who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of colour, or women - once they organise and protest and create movements - have a voice no government can suppress".

In his essay on the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, Zinn draws attention to Mahatma Gandhi's civil disobedience movement against British rule in India and his Salt March, which was a protest against the salt laws imposed by the British. It was Thoreau's views on putting moral principles ahead of the law that Gandhi reiterated. Thoreau declared war on the state and stood up in support of labour organisers and black leaders who rejected local laws, racial segregation and stipulations against trespass or disobedience of the police machinery. "An unjust law," asserted Martin Luther King Jr., "is out of harmony with the moral law." Consciousness of this underpins the power governments cannot suppress. This was clearly expressed in the nationwide protests against the Vietnam War, in the mass burning of draft cards, and in blacks refusing to fight for the white man in Vietnam until all blacks were given their freedom in Mississippi.

Zinn brings together essays written over many years and published in various magazines and books. They concern themselves with varied themes such as the GI resistance to the Vietnam War and the relationship of film to the telling of history. The book tries to arouse and provoke the people of America to think and organise, to engage in civil disobedience against people who have no respect for freedom and justice and who are responsible for spending billions on a war that has crippled innocent children for life.

The book contains eight sensitive and perceptive essays on war. "The Coming End of Iraq War" reiterates the theme of America's isolation from its allies, who are now reluctant to be party to its schemes. In such a situation, the U.S. is compelled to increase its military forces in Iraq to step up its challenge to the rising insurgency in the country. And the result is the escalation in deaths to the tune of over a million, and the President is keen to intensify the war further.

The history of the Vietnam War, along with the public opinion of 1967 favouring a withdrawal of troops, has fallen on deaf ears. The protracted stay in Vietnam was as calamitous as the war in Iraq. The British medical journal The Lancet puts the civilian casualties in Iraq at 100,000; it is estimated that a 100 civilians die daily. Furthermore, 10,000 detainees languish in humiliating conditions in U.S.-managed prisons. It all goes to show that "what the U.S. government has called the `reconstruction of Iraq' has become a sorry joke, a story of profiteering and corruption".

It is, therefore, clear that either the public is misinformed about the dismal conditions prevailing in Iraq or has a short memory of the era of Nazi "occupations" in France or Denmark during the Second World War. The U.S. war in Iraq clearly parallels Hitler's invasions in Europe. The American public still remains ignorant about the history of imperialism or the courageous resistance movements in Europe that brought Nazism to its early demise. This oblivion as well as the support for President George W. Bush and his ill-conceived "war against terrorism" are probably the two most glaring reasons for the provocation of the Islamic people, giving rise to a magnified problem of worldwide terrorism.

Zinn cites Gino Strada, the author of Green Parrots, in building his case against violence unleashed by economically motivated wars: "Is it monstrous to think about how to create the possibility of human relationship based on equality, on social justice, and on solidarity and relationship from which the use of violence, terrorism and war is excluded by common accord?"

Zinn's essay "The Enemy is War" is a clarion call for an end to violence. It is a resonance of what Mahatma Gandhi once said: "You cannot dispel violence with violence as you cannot dispel darkness with darkness."

The responsibility now rests with the people, Zinn argues, not with governments that have other hidden geopolitical agendas of self-aggrandisement. Examining a catalogue of failures of world powers in the last century, he advises people not to abandon the struggle for justice against the awesome power of those who have all the money and guns and who seem unassailable in their resolve to hold on to it. This is corroborated by Albert Einstein's statement: "Wars will stop only when men refuse to fight." Implicitly, it emphasises the will of the people to question the motives, conduct and consequences of a war. War as a solution for terrorism is not the answer. It is the responsible citizen who must face up to power for the common good and make a difference. Howard Zinn has written an incisive and profoundly insightful book, providing the reader with a critique of the contemporary political and ethical crisis.

It is a worthwhile initiative exposing the dishonesty of American foreign policy, the knowledge of which can lend an impetus to people's efforts to reverse the downward slide of world peace and bring an end to the unjust actions of a government that has paid only lip-service to the cause of democracy and human rights. For this, the people do not need to engage in "grand, heroic actions". Small acts "in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory".

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