Dissent as Democracy

Weekend EditionJanuary 29 – 31, 2010
An Interview with Howard Zinn
Dissent as Democracy


A great titan of the progressive movement passed away this week.
Howard Zinn died of a heart attack in California at the age of 87.

The indefatigable Zinn maintained a prolific activist and academic jab
fueled by his political and social activism nurtured during The Civil
Rights Movement. The esteemed historian and controversial rabble
rouser’s seminal work, "The People’s History of the United States,"
endures as a popular and beloved history book giving voice to the often
marginalized, oppressed and downtrodden members of our society
conveniently edited out of the textbooks. Despite his advanced age, he
was still touring, giving lectures, and showed no signs of stopping.

Over the past two years, I exchanged several emails and correspondences
with him after we conducted this interview. He always had a kind word,
provided encouragement, gave great advice and made time to respond in
spite of his hectic life.

I will always remember and respect him for his unwavering moral and
ethical compass which was always directed towards ensuring social
justice and equality for all.

Last year, Professor Zinn agreed to an interview reflecting on his
historic and memorable time at Spelman College in the ’60’s, his
thoughts on the Democratic Party, his philosophy of dissent as
democracy, and his hope for America’s future.

I will let the man who spoke for the voiceless, speak for himself.

ALI: Your experiences and acts of civil disobedience at Spelman College
are, by now, thoroughly well known. However, in the 21st century, one
could look at the student body at many liberal college campuses and see
that fiery protest and consciousness replaced by apathy and materialism.
Where has that fighting spirit gone? You spoke against "discouragement"
at the 2005 Spelman College commencement speech – what of it now?

ZINN: What you describe as the difference between the Sixties and today
on campuses is true, but I would not go too far with that. There are
campus groups all over the country working against the war, but they are
small so far. Remember, the scale of involvement in Vietnam was greater
– 500,000 troops vs. 130,000 troops in Iraq. After five years in
Vietnam, there were 30,000 U.S. dead vs. today we have 4,000 dead. The
draft was threatening young people then, but not now. Greater
establishment control of the media today, which is not reporting the
horrors inflicted on the people of Iraq as the media began in the U.S.
to report on U.S. atrocities like the My Lai Massacre. In the case of
the movement against the Vietnam War, there was the immediate
radicalizing experience of the Civil Rights Movement for racial
equality, whose energy and indignation carried over into the student
movement against the Vietnam War. No comparable carry over exists today.
And yes, there is more materialism, more economic insecurity for young
people going to college – huge tuition costs putting pressure on
students to concentrate on studies and do well in school.

ALI: You were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement that dealt
not only with racial empowerment and equality, but also re-examination
of U.S. foreign policy and withdrawal from the brutal Vietnam War. Here
we are now in 2008 with a seemingly unending, and many say illegal,
occupation of Iraq. "Racism" has emerged as a contentious topic due to
Obama running for President and his Reverend’s controversial comments.
Yet, most say he and other candidates talk "pretty" but are unwilling to
fundamentally confront and change the problems of race and foreign
policy. As one who has observed this socio-political climate from the
grassroots since the 1960’s, what has changed if anything in regards to
racial enlightenment and the humanizing of non – American, "foreign

Zinn: The Civil Rights Movement was an educational experience for many
Americans. The result was more opportunities for a small percentage of
Black people, perhaps 10% or 20%, so more Black youth going to college
and going into the professions. A greater consciousness among White
people – not all, but many – of racism. For most Black people, however,
there is still poverty and desperation. The Ghettos still exist, and the
proportion of Blacks in prison is still much greater than Whites. Today,
there is less overt racism, but the economic injustices create an
"institutional racism" which exists even while more Blacks are in high
places, such as Condoleeza Rice in Bush’s Administration and Obama
running for President.

Unfortunately, the greater consciousness among Whites about Black
equality has not carried over to the new victims of racism – Muslims and
Immigrants. There is no racial enlightenment for these groups, which are
huge. Millions of Muslims and an equal number of immigrants, who whether
legal or illegal, face discrimination both legally from the government
and extra-legally from White Americans – and sometimes Black and
Hispanic Americans. The Democratic Presidential candidates are avoiding
these issues in order to cultivate support among White Americans.

This is shameful, especially for Obama, who should use his experience
as a Black man to educate the public about discrimination and racism. He
is cautious about making strong statements about these issues and about
foreign policy. So, in keeping with the tradition of caution and
timidity of The Democratic Party, he takes positions slightly to the
left of The Republicans, but short of what an enlightened policy would

ALI: You said the democratic spirit of the American people is best
represented when people are picketing and voicing their opinion outside
the White House. How does this nature of dissent and protest serve as
the crux of a democracy and a healthy, functioning civic society? Many
would argue this is divisive, no?

ZINN: Yes, dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because
they represent accurately the real divisions in society. Those divisions
exist – the rich, the poor – whether there is dissent or not, but when
there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility
not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of
the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and
the oppressed.

ALI: The People’s History of The United States is now considered a
seminal work taught in high schools and universities across the country.
Why do you think the work has had such lasting, influential impact?

ZINN: Because it fills a need, because there is a huge emptiness of
truth in the traditional history texts. And because people who gain some
understanding on their own that there are things wrong in society, they
look for their new consciousness; their new feelings to be represented
by a more honest history.

ALI: Minority voters, like Hispanic Catholics, voted solidly for Bush
in 2002, and some sons of immigrants have virulent anger and disdain
against "illegal" immigrants. It seems many marginalized voices have
forgotten their history and now side with those actively intent on
keeping them either on the sidelines or in some form "oppressed." How do
we explain this discrepancy?

ZINN: It is to the interest of the people in power to divide the rest
of the population in order to rule them. To set poor against middle
class, White against Black, Native born against immigrants, Christians
against other religions. It serves the interest of the establishment to
keep people ignorant of their own history,

ALI: Most say that corporations now own American media. What is the
proper outlet for democratic discourse and dissemination of information
if indeed there is a biased monopoly over media?

ZINN: Because of the control of the media by corporate wealth, the
discovery of truth depends on an alternative media, such as small radio
stations, networks like Pacifica Radio, programs like Amy Goodman’s
Democracy Now. Also, alternative newspapers, which exist all over the
country. Also, cable TV programs, which are not dependent on commercial
advertising. Also, the internet, which can reach millions of people
by-passing the conventional media.

ALI: Will anything change in regards to US foreign policy in the Middle
East, specifically on Palestine and Israel, if the Democratic Party wins
in 2008?

ZINN: The Democratic candidates, Clinton and Obama, have not shown any
sign of a fundamental change in the policy of support of Israel. They
have not shown sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. Obama
has occasionally referred to the situation of the Palestinians but as
the campaign has gone on, he seems reluctant to bring this up, and
instead emphasizes his support of Israel.

So, a change in policy will require more pressure from other countries
and more education of the American people, who at this point know very
little about what has been happening to the Palestinian people. The
American people are naturally sympathetic to those they see as
oppressed, but they get very little information from political leaders
or the media, which would give them a realistic picture of the suffering
of Palestinians under the Occupation

ALI: How can "the left" reconcile their assumed indifference to
religion with the growing "religious" sector of society siding with the
"conservative" parties? Can there be a peace between the two or is this
a permanent schism? I’ve noticed bigotry on both sides, between the
"secularists" and "religionists."

ZINN: The Left needs to more clearly make a distinction between the
bigotry of fundamentalism and the progressive tradition in religion. In
Latin America, there is "liberation theology." In the U.S., there were
the priests and nuns who supported Black people in the South and who
protested against the Vietnam War. So, it’s not a matter of being for or
against religion, but of deciding whether religion can play a role for
justice and peace rather than for violence and bigotry.

ALI: Most don’t know that you were a bombardier during WW2. Did this
experience bring about the epiphany catalyzing fundamental changes in
your ideology?

ZINN: I did not know much history when I became a bombardier in the
U.S. Air Force in World War II. Only after the War did I see that we,
like the Nazis, had committed atrocities…Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden,
my own bombing missions. And when I studied history after the War, I
learned from reading on my own, not from my university classes, about
the history of U.S. expansion and imperialism.

ALI: You’re now a man in his golden years, and you look back at your
many accomplishments. You’ve done amazing things. Any regrets? And also,
if you could choose something that would embody your legacy – what would
it be?

ZINN: I have no regrets about my political activity, only that I
sometimes got carried away with it and didn’t find the right balance
between obligations to my family and my need to be involved in social
movements. As for a work of mine that embodies my "legacy," probably it
is not one book, but rather the combination of being a writer and an
activist, being a public intellectual, by using my scholarship for
social change.

ALI: Many look to the future horizons with bleak, cynical eyes
foreshadowing disastrous scenarios resulting from our hubris and excess.
Recession. War. Deficit. Extremism. Global Anti Americanism. Insincere
Partisan politics. Will we implode? Can we move forward? Do you have
hope for the future of America?

ZINN: The Present situation for the U.S. looks grim, but I am hopeful,
as I see the American people waking up and being overwhelmingly opposed
to this war and to the Bush regime, as I reflect on movements in history
and how they arose surprisingly when they seemed defeated. I believe the
American people have the capacity to create a new movement, which would
change the direction of our nation from being a military power to being
a peaceful nation, using our enormous wealth for human needs, here and

Wajahat Ali is a writer, journalist, blogger and attorney. His work,
“The Domestic Crusaders,” is a landmark play about Muslim
Americans premiering on 9-11-09 in New York. He blogs at Goatmilk.

1 Comment

Filed under Development

One response to “Dissent as Democracy

  1. When will this issues end?

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