Tikkun  [Printer-friendly version]
May 17, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "People think there must be some magical
tactic, beyond the traditional ones -- protests, demonstrations,
vigils, civil disobedience -- but there is no magical panacea, only

By Shelly R. Fredman

When I arrived at Boston University in 1978, it was like showing up at
a party after all the guests had gone home. The Civil Rights movement
and the Vietnam War protests were over, and everyone around me was
studying business and honing their resumes. The Sixties had died. All
the activists were gone.

Except for Howard Zinn. You could sign up for Zinn's classes,
"Marxism" and "Anarchism," and there, every Tuesday and Thursday, you
could hear the stories no one else would tell you: Columbus's arrival
on these shores from the Arawak Indian's point of view, Emma Goldman's
message to the unemployed in Union Square, black students in
Greensboro, NC, who one day sat down at the Woolworth's counter where
only whites could eat.

Now, some twenty years later, in the wake of Katrina, mired in Bush's
reckless reign and the ever-escalating death toll in Iraq, it seemed a
good time to revisit Zinn.

Best known for A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn
has been a professor, radical historian, social activist, and
intellectual leader of the Left for forty years. In over twenty books,
he has devoted himself to connecting America's past with its present,
providing a frame for left-wing activism and politics. Praised by
academics and lay readers alike, Zinn feels more at home on the
streets than in the ivory tower.

Zinn's message of hope is unflinching, and he is busier than ever. He
has written a play, "Marx in Soho," is producing a People's History of
the United States television series, and his new book, Original Zinn,
will be released in July.

He seems to have stashed De Leon's fountain of youth in his back
pocket. Though we are seated at a small table drinking coffee,
occasionally he still moves his large hands through the air, as he did
in class, underscoring the urgency of his words. And at the end of his
most radical sentences, a wry smile lights up his eyes, as if he's
imagining the glorious trouble we the people can, and will, make.

Shelly R. Fredman: I'd like to start by asking you about Michael
Lerner's new book, The Left Hand of God. In it, Lerner says that, post
9/11, a paradigm of fear has gripped our culture and been used to
manipulate the public into supporting politicians who are more
militaristic. How would you characterize the post-9/11 world?

Howard Zinn: Michael Lerner is certainly right about how fear has been
used since 9/11 to push the public into support of war. "Terrorism" is
used the way "communism" was used all through the Cold War, the result
being the deaths of millions and a nuclear arms race which wasted
trillions of dollars that could have been used to create a truly good
society for all.

SF: Lerner also claims that the parts of our cultural heritage that
embody elements of hope are dismissed as naive, with little to teach
us. You must have had your own bouts with critics who see your vision
as naive. How do you address them?

HZ: It's true that any talk of hope is dismissed as naive, but that's
because we tend to look at the surface of things at any given time.
And the surface almost always looks grim. The charge of naivete also
comes from a loss of historical perspective. History shows that what
is considered naive in one decade becomes reality in another.

How much hope was there for black people in the South in the fifties?
At the start of the Vietnam War, anyone who thought the monster war
machine could be stopped seemed naive. When I was in South Africa in
1982, and apartheid was fully entrenched, it seemed naive to think
that it would be dissolved and even more naive to think that Mandela
would become president. But in all those cases, anyone looking under
the surface would have seen currents of potential change bubbling and

SF: Has the Left responded adequately to the kind of fascism we see
coming from Bush's people? Street protests seem to be ineffective;
it's sometimes disheartening.

HZ: The responses are never adequate, until they build and build and
something changes. People very often think that there must be some
magical tactic, beyond the traditional ones -- protests,
demonstrations, vigils, civil disobedience -- but there is no magical
panacea, only persistence in continuing and escalating the usual
tactics of protest and resistance. The end of the Vietnam War did not
come because the Left suddenly did something new and dramatic, but
because all of the actions built up over time.

If you listen to the media, you get no sense of what's happening. I
speak to groups of people in different parts of the country. I was in
Austin, Texas recently and a thousand people showed up. I believe
people are basically decent, they just lack information.

SF: You have been outspoken against the war in Iraq. Despite all the
chaos we've heard may ensue, do you still believe we should get out of
Iraq now?

HZ: Yes, we should immediately withdraw. There will be chaos... it is
actually there already, and much of the chaos and violence has come
about because of our involvement. But that doesn't change the fact
that our occupation of Iraq is wrong.

What's more troubling [than a military mistake] is that this is an
administration that is impervious to pressure. If you listen to LBJ's
tapes, where he discusses the escalation of the war in Vietnam, you
can hear that he is torn....

Still, the good news is that more and more of us are becoming aware of
Bush's true nature. Less than fifty percent of Americans are for the
war, and forty percent are calling for [Bush's] impeachment.

SF: Where do you see the Democrats in all this? What of their role,
their responsibility?

HZ: The Democratic Party is pitiful. Not only are they not
articulating a spiritual message, as Lerner says, they don't even have
a political message. The Democrats are tied to corporate wealth. And
they are incompetent when it comes to understanding how to win
elections. By the time Kerry ran, the public had actually shifted.
Fifty percent were against the war. The Democrats should have been
saying they would end the war, and make those dollars available for

SF: What about the upcoming crop of presidential candidates -- Hillary
Clinton, for instance?

HZ: Hillary Clinton is so opportunistic. She goes where the wind is
blowing. She doesn't say what needs to be said. And Barack Obama is
cautious. He's better than Clinton, but I'd suggest Marian Wright
Edelman as the Democratic candidate for president. She's the epitome
of what we need. A very smart black woman who deals with children,
poverty.... She's in the trenches, and she ties it in with
militarization. But she doesn't come out of government.

That's another problem -- the Democratic Party is a closed circle. It
may take a threatening third party to shake things up.

SF: Many people believe that history is a pendulum, and that we are
overdue for a swing to the Left. Lerner, for instance, views American
history as an oscillation between the voices of hope and the voices of
fear -- the fear after the stock market crash in 1929, the hope of the
New Deal, the fears of McCarthyism, the hope of the Civil Rights
movement and social change movements in the sixties. Is this a
compelling view of history?

HZ: Without making it chronological, like a roller coaster, with
predictable ups and downs, it's certainly true that in any period
there are voices that demand maintenance of the status quo, and other
voices demanding change. In other words, it isn't so much a period of
hope, then a period of fear, etc. But in every period there are both
tendencies, with one or another dominant and the dominant
characteristic often leads to a simplified picture of an era.

My differences with Lerner, though, reside in the proportion of
attention he pays to spiritual values. These are important, but
they're not the critical issue. The issue is how are people living and
dying. People are dying in Iraq and our wealth is being squandered on
war and the military budget.

SF: Don't you believe the Left needs to address spiritual needs to
win? How else can we galvanize the heartland, people taken in by the
religious rhetoric of Bush?

HZ: Yes, there are special needs and they need to be addressed. But
after the last election there was a kind of hysteria among liberal
pundits about a "failure" to deal with the moral issues. There is a
hard core for whom religion is key. They are maybe twenty-five percent
of the population. It's a mistake to try to appeal to that hard core.

I define the spiritual in emotional terms -- to the extent that
religion can draw on the Ten Commandments (for example, thou shalt not
kill), it is important. And I find the spiritual in the arts, because
they nourish the spirit and move people. Artists like Bob Dylan and
Joan Baez, for example, and now Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. We need
more of these.

It's not that people are turned off by the Left. The Left hasn't
reached out to people with a clear, coherent, and emotional message.
The Left often does not know how to talk to other people. Tikkun
magazine appeals to intellectuals. I've never spoken the language of
ivory tower academics. And there are other voices on the Left that
speak in understandable language. For instance, Barbara Ehrenreich's
Nickel and Dimed, in which she took menial jobs across the country and
wrote about those lives, was a bestseller. There's an emotionalism to
her message that makes contact and touches thousands. Michael Moore's
movies have been seen by all sorts of people. GI's in Iraq watched his
movie. We just have to do more along those lines.

SF: Many on the Left seem to identify religion with the fundamentalist
versions of it we see in the worst moments of human history. Do you
see any value in religious ideas and traditions? If I can get
personal: do you identify at all as a Jew, with the Jewish story? Is
there anything in it that's meaningful to you? Are there any thoughts
of the world beyond this one -- where, for example, you can sit with
Marx in Soho and eat Deli Haus blintzes together?

HZ: If I was promised that we could sit with Marx in some great Deli
Haus in the hereafter, I might believe in it! Sure, I find inspiration
in Jewish stories of hope, also in the Christian pacifism of the
Berrigans, also in Taoism and Buddhism. I identify as a Jew, but not
on religious grounds. Yes, I believe, as Pascal said, "The heart has
its reasons which reason cannot know." There are limits to reason.
There is mystery, there is passion, there is something spiritual in
the arts -- but it is not connected to Judaism or any other religion.

For those who find a special inspiration in Judaism or Christianity or
Buddhism or whatever, fine. If that inspiration leads them to work for
justice, that is what matters.

Shelly R. Fredman's work has appeared in Best Jewish Writing, First
Harvest, the Chicago Tribune Magazine, and the Forward.