Edited by Anthony Arnove, this new release from Haymarket Books offers the first collection of Howard Zinn’s inspiring, fearless speeches over the course of more than 40 years. Although he spent much of his life as a professor, Zinn is best known for reframing American history from a progressive perspective. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Zinn never forgot his working class roots as he advocated for equality and peace. Make a minimum donation and support progressive writers and Truthout. Just click here to receive a copy.
Mark Karlin: In your introduction to Howard Zinn Speaks, you refer to how he exemplified a saying from French leftists, “Be realistic: Demand the impossible.” Explain the seeming paradox in that statement.
Anthony Arnove: Howard understood that the commonsense understanding of what is “realistic” in any political moment is always slanted against activists. So if you let so-called realism define your politics, you will always be circumscribing your horizons and the possibilities of what you can achieve. I think by “demanding the impossible,” French activists from 1968 did not mean demanding change that literally could not be achieved, but change that could not be achieved within the flawed framework of the existing economic and political system. So, to give an example, universal health care is deemed politically impossible, “unrealistic,” in the United States. But the fact is, the US government could provide universal health care. The resources exist. It’s just off the agenda because it threatens powerful interests that are determined to have a for-profit medical system that systematically distorts health care. But that could be changed. Howard was brilliant at taking a small step back to look at current political issues in historical perspective and give you that sense of alternatives, of possibilities for change.
Mark Karlin: Zinn was trained as an academic, but all his speeches are impassioned and easily accessible; there is nothing pedantic about them. What in him propelled him to speak with what Naomi Klein calls “moral clarity?”
Anthony Arnove: Howard was always pushing the boundaries of the historical profession, challenging the limits of its language, its concerns and its priorities. I think in part that came from Howard’s work as an organizer in the shipyards and his experience in political reading circles before he came into academia. In his earliest days studying history, he realized the limits of existing historiography, which largely overlooked labor history and the other struggles he came to document in his work. Howard came into academia as an outsider and remained one in many ways, and repeatedly took actions that jeopardized his academic career whenever principle was at stake, whether that was supporting civil rights struggles when he was teaching at Spelman [College in Atlanta], which led to him being fired, or actively supporting striking union workers at Boston University. But, beyond that, you see from the earliest of the speeches in this book, a talk to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta in 1963, that Howard really had a great ability to connect with his audience through humor. He never spoke down to audiences, as so many academics do. He didn’t speak a language that was about showing erudition rather than communicating with people. As great organizers can, he spoke with people in a way that respected their intelligence, their humanity and their aspirations.
Obtain Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches 1963 -2009 with a minimum contribution to Truthout. Click here.
Mark Karlin: Can you speak to Zinn’s rousing defense of civil disobedience as found in his famous “Speech Against the Vietnam War on Boston Common?”
Anthony Arnove: I think Howard realized early on the power of protest and the limits of working within the official channels of politics. When he moved down to Atlanta to teach at Spelman, the civil rights movement profoundly deepened his sense of the importance of civil disobedience. He saw in practice how people had to break unjust laws in order to achieve their fundamental rights, and how in struggle people changed the courts, the law, the political institutions that held them back. Then with the bloody US intervention in Vietnam, he realized the war would just escalate and spread if people did not engage in acts that physically confronted the war machine and disrupted the normal functioning of the political process, which, left to its own devices, was leading to more and more devastation in Indochina. Howard had a historical perspective that informed his understanding of what you can achieve through civil disobedience. He points out in this speech that the United States was founded through radical acts of civil disobedience against the King of England. That civil disobedience, even revolution, is OK. We celebrate it in our schools and songs and movies. But now, no, you must obey the rule of law, no matter how unjust. Howard also understood how civil disobedience can shift public opinion. As he says in the speech you mentioned, “The history of civil disobedience in this country and in other parts of the world shows that people may at first sight be put off by civil disobedience, but at second sight, at second thought, they learn that the protesters against war are right, and after a while they join us in their own way, and that’s why we must carry on.”
Mark Karlin: You worked with Zinn on The People Speak project and film. What was his view on the common American who seeks justice, versus the ruling class and entrenched government?
Anthony Arnove: Early on in The People Speak, Howard says in his narration, “The people in power would like us to believe we all have the same interest. We don’t. There is the interest of the President of the United States and there is the interest of the young person he sends to war. There is the interest of powerful corporations and the interests of ordinary workers. And they use words like ‘national security’ as if the word ‘security’ means the same to everybody. To some people … national security means having military bases in a hundred countries. To most people, security means having a place to live. Having a job, having health care….” This sense of class and of conflicting interests between the vast majority of the people and the government, the captains of industry, was essential to Howard’s worldview. It meant he was always skeptical when people talked about “the national interest” or “American values” or appealed to “shared sacrifice,” when in reality the sacrifice is never evenly shared – working people, the poor, are always the first to bear the costs.
Mark Karlin: Can you explain his views on American exceptionalism as a concept in a speech included within the book on the topic?
Anthony Arnove: I include in the book a terrific speech Howard gave on American exceptionalism at MIT. Howard points out that it has a long history, going back to at least 1630. But what’s striking is how it persists, no matter how much harm has been done under the banner of Washington believing we have God on our side as we selflessly spread peace and democracy around the world. So, just to take the most recent example, President Obama’s acceptance speech earlier in November in Chicago. Obama said, “We live in the greatest nation on earth.” Really? Does that mean we have the best protections for children, the best health care system, the least inequality, the best quality of life? That’s not the case. So what does it mean? It really means, as Obama said, we have the “strongest military on earth. “We can impose our will on other people. But it’s not “our” will, really. It’s the will of the ruling class, the people with the power, with influence, who profit from war, who benefit from US hegemony, while the vast majority of us do not. There was another version of American exceptionalism that was also striking in Obama’s speech. He called out “the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.” This is just nonsense. First of all, plenty of people work very hard and never make it in this country. Obama here is updating, and further entrenching, the Reaganite myth about people who are poor or marginalized having only themselves to blame for their condition. But, beyond that, it does “matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight.” Your life conditions will be radically different depending on which of these you are because of the persistence of racism, sexism, homophobia.
Mark Karlin: How did Zinn’s experience serving in the military in World War II influence his views on peace?
Anthony Arnove: Howard came away from the war a changed person, really. I think it allowed him to see firsthand the disconnect between the soaring rhetoric of patriotism, of righteousness and the reality of war. In particular, he came to see the reality of modern warfare. Technological development meant that war necessarily will involve devastation of civilians. And with the advent of the nuclear bomb, the real possibility of complete destruction of humanity. I think Howard especially was affected by being a bombardier, which meant that his training was to hit a mark on a map, to view the world through a bombsight. But he came instead to see the war from the standpoint of the people thousands of feet below him who were on the receiving end of those bombs. And war looks completely different once you view it from that standpoint.
Mark Karlin: In his speech after Obama was elected the first time, Zinn emphasized the difference between politicians and people acting as activist citizens. He said that injustice in the United States has only been overturned with activism from the bottom up. How do his years at Spelman College and his work in the civil rights movement reflect this?
Anthony Arnove: Howard’s activism in the civil rights movement definitely informed his sense that we cannot rely on the Democratic Party, that it is not the party of the poor, of working people. In the SNCC speech I mentioned earlier, he says, “There’s something about the national political structure itself – no matter who is in power, whether the Democrats or Republicans are in power – which gets in the way of solving the basic human problems that have to be solved in our time.” That’s a profound insight. Once you realize that, you come to see the role of activism differently. You see electoral politics differently. And I think you come to appreciate that we have to put pressure on whoever the president is, whichever party is in power. If you don’t understand this, then I think you end up like the many people who, tragically, became apologists for Obama’s continuation – and in some cases escalation – of Bush policies, defending the very actions, such as the president’s authority to kill people, including US citizens, without due process, that they would have been shouting bloody murder about if they had been carried out by George W. Bush.
Mark Karlin: In his speech at Reed College about his seminal book, A People’s History of the United States, Zinn said that legislation is passed and history written from a class bias; i.e., the bias of the ruling elite. What did he mean in that speech when he said, “The history of legislation in this country is a history of class legislation?”
Anthony Arnove: We have this idea that we have a government “of, by and for the people.” That’s never been the case. Mary Elizabeth Lease was more to the point when she said, “Wall Street owns the country” and we have “government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.” It’s not just Wall Street, or financial capital, as powerful as the bankers and investors and speculators are. But collectively we do have a ruling class. They are not even the 1%, really. They are more like the .1 or .01 percent. But the 1% slogan certainly is a good place to start the conversation. And what we see throughout our history – and today – is the power of that 1% to buy and sell politicians, to shape legislation, even write it. They do so not in some abstract national interest, but to maintain and extend their own class interests, their privilege and power. Howard points out that in discussions of political legislation, “It’s talked about as if all the laws that are passed apply equally to everybody.” They don’t.
Mark Karlin: What are Zinn’s “second thoughts on the First Amendment?”
Anthony Arnove: Howard makes a number of observations about the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in the speech you mention. But one in particular I think is relevant is that, “The First Amendment has always been shoved aside in times of war or near war.” Despite all the soaring rhetoric about “free speech,” in periods like the one we have been in for the last 11 years, the state has no problem curtailing speech if it is critical of war, if it challenges those in power. We have seen vivid examples of the persecution of speech, especially by Muslims. It is now common to be confined to a “free speech zone” on a demonstration, usually far from the target of your protest. A “free speech zone” is an utter contradiction in terms. In this talk, Howard also makes another vital point. He asks – assuming you have free speech, truly free speech, which you don’t – “What resources do you have to speak out?” Does your speech as an individual public school teacher have the same weight as the speech of some billionaire who wants to destroy teacher unions and can take out full page ads in newspapers and run television ads to promote his views? It doesn’t, which is one of the reasons you have to find ways of working with others to amplify your voice.
Mark Karlin: In terms of the war in Iraq, what did Zinn have to say about confronting government lies?
Anthony Arnove: Howard was fond of quoting the muckraking journalist I. F. Stone’s dictum, “governments lie.” It’s a simple observation, but a profoundly important one. Because if you start from that assumption, you will have a radically different view of politics and of the role of journalism. The standpoint of the establishment media, by contract, is that, “Governments generally tell the truth. Sure they spin, we know that. But that’s all part of the game. And basically, whatever governments may do, they mean well. Governments sometimes make mistakes, but we are all human. No one is perfect. OK, occasionally there is someone who is corrupt or lies, like Richard Nixon, but the system will correct itself. That’s an aberration from an otherwise basically sound system. Yes, sometime governments are not completely honest – but they have to keep some things secret ‘for reasons of state,’ to protect us from our enemies, to properly manage the business of government.” Well, Howard rightly rejected that viewpoint. I think the reason his work caught on with so many people, and has had such a profound influence on how people view history and view themselves, is that he gave people a sense of skepticism, a sense of history, that enables them to cut through the media charade to begin to see how power really works and how we might change that.
Obtain Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches 1963 – 2009 with a minimum contribution to Truthout. Click here.
We need to update you on where Truthout stands.
To be brutally honest, Truthout is behind on our fundraising goals for the year. There are a lot of reasons why. We’re dealing with broad trends in our industry, trends that have led publications like Vice, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic to make painful cuts. Everyone is feeling the squeeze of inflation. And despite its lasting importance, news readership is declining.
To ensure we stay out of the red by the end of the year, we have a long way to go. Our future is threatened.
We’ve stayed online over two decades thanks to the support of our readers. Because you believe in the power of our work, share our transformative stories, and give to keep us going strong, we know we can make it through this tough moment.
If you value what we do and what we stand for, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our work.