Arts & Entertainment
Giving voice to civil disobedience
Book Review: Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches, 1963 – 2009 / Edited by Anthony Arnove
A passionate historian, dedicated teacher and activist, the late Howard Zinn declared repeatedly that the study of history should never be a placid exploration of the past, and it should never be confined to academia. Indeed, a thorough grasp of history is an indispensible key to understanding urgent political and economic issues of the present. It is vital that this historical perspective incorporate the vantage of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized and the working class.
Historical awareness ensures that the bombast and platitudes of elected politicians and media pundits are never taken at face value. Too often such pronouncements are slick deviations from truth intended to mask ulterior motives of the upper class, the military or the corporate elite. A compliant populace can be persuaded to give consent to policies that serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else. However, an informed citizenry capable of critical thought is not easily lulled. Says Zinn, “Without history, anybody in authority can get up before a microphone and say, ‘We’ve got to go into this country for that reason and this reason, for liberty, for democracy, the threat.’ Anybody can get up before a microphone and tell you anything. And if you have no history, you have no way of checking up on that.”
Zinn came from humble roots. His parents were hardworking immigrants. Zinn himself was employed in a shipyard before enlisting as a bombardier during the Second World War. “I had ten years between graduating from high school and going to college under the GI Bill of Rights. And in those ten years I think the experiences that I had, when I finally went to college at the age of 27, gave me a certain approach to education and to the study of history, and they made me want to study history, to put it very modestly, in order to try to change the world. Nothing more than that.”
Twenty chapters comprise this collection. All are informative and entertaining. They are just a few of the many speeches Zinn made over four-and-a-half decades. Only one appeared originally in typescript. The others are transcriptions replete with Zinn’s deep commitment to nonviolence, freedom of speech and his abhorrence of war. There are spontaneous digressions and plenty of humorous asides. A diversity of topics is covered, ranging from the Civil Rights struggle to the presidency of Barack Obama. Always an engaging speaker, Zinn’s talks sparkle. They abound in outrage and insight, intelligence and compassion. Some themes and subjects frequently make their way into various presentations: the story of executed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Shay’s Rebellion in the 18th century and the brutal U.S. invasion of the Philippines in the late 19th century.
Zinn wanted Americans to know that our nation’s founders had more than noble ideals on their minds when they drew up the Constitution. That document is distinct from the Declaration of Independence, which preceded it. The ringing phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” enshrined in the Declaration was altered slightly in 1787 to read “life, liberty and property.” Drawn up by elite bond holders and slave holders at the Constitutional Convention, the document ensures that their economic interests were paramount. On the other hand, the Declaration is fired by a revolutionary fervor. Says Zinn, “The Declaration of Independence is a manifesto for civil disobedience.”
Zinn had a deep fondness for the anarchist tradition. He was fascinated by the life of Emma Goldman. He even wrote a play about her. Goldman was yet another important thinker overlooked by mainstream history courses. It was not until Zinn had earned his doctorate that he became more aware of Goldman’s life and legacy. He speaks of her relationship with Ben Reitman who “was an anarchist among anarchists.” When their correspondence was discovered, those letters were found to be “most erotic.” In referring to two biographies that made use of these sensual missives, Zinn urged his listeners: “You ought to take a look at those biographies, just for the fun of reading those letters and pretending that you’re doing historical research.”
As an inveterate critic of government malfeasance and social injustice, Zinn avowed “that I have never considered my criticism of the United States as unpatriotic. If patriotism has any valid meaning, surely it means love and respect for the people of your country, indeed for human beings everywhere, and this may require honest criticism of your government, which is something quite different from your country.”
He believed the effort desperately needed to redress injustice and end corporate plunder and dangerous militarism is the responsibility of everyone: “We have run out of space and time and boundary lines. We are all crowded together on a planet which must find universal brotherhood and sisterhood, across lines of class, of race, of religion, of nationality — or we will go down, whether it be nuclear holocaust or endless civil war.”
Zinn died three years ago. His voice and message of peace live on in these vibrant pages.
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