Last modified on 1 August 2014, at 15:26

Howard Zinn

If those in charge of our society — politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television — can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power.

Howard Zinn (24 August 192427 January 2010) was an American historian, political scientist, playwright and social activist.

SourcedEdit

I am not an absolute pacifist, because I can't rule out the possibility that under some, carefully defined circumstances, some degree of violence may be justified, if it is focused directly at a great evil.
In general, I believe in non-violent direct action, which involve organizing large numbers of people, whereas too often violent uprisings are the product of a small group. If enough people are organized, violence can be minimized in bringing about social change.
It seemed the U.S. was determined to drop the bomb before the Japanese could surrender — for a variety of reasons, none of them humanitarian.
The term "just war" contains an internal contradiction. War is inherently unjust, and the great challenge of our time is how to deal with evil, tyranny, and oppression without killing huge numbers of people.
Americans have been taught that their nation is civilized and humane. But, too often, U.S. actions have been uncivilized and inhumane.
When enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.
The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
  • If those in charge of our society — politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television — can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.
  • If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one's country, one's fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.
  • There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable.
  • The First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights in the United States Constitution were being violated in Albany again and again — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the equal protection of the laws — I could count at least 30 such violations. Yet the president, sworn to uphold the Constitution, and all the agencies of the United States government at his disposal, were nowhere to be seen.
  • At the great Washington March of 1963, the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, speaking to the same enormous crowd that heard Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," was prepared to ask the right question: "Which side is the federal government on?" That sentence was eliminated from his speech by organizers of the March to avoid offending the Kennedy Administration. But Lewis and his fellow SNCC workers had experienced, again and again, the strange passivity of the national government in the face of Southern violence, strange, considering how often this same government had been willing to intervene outside the country, often with overwhelming force.
    John Lewis and SNCC had reason to be angry. John had been beaten bloody by a white mob in Montgomery as a Freedom Rider in the spring of 1961. The federal government had trusted the notoriously racist Alabama police to protect the Riders, but done nothing itself except to have FBI agents take notes. Instead of insisting that blacks and whites had a right to ride the buses together, the Kennedy Administration called for a "cooling-off period," a moratorium on Freedom Rides.
    • You Can't Be Neutral on A Moving Train (1994) Ch. 4: "My Name is Freedom": Albany, Georgia
  • The white population could not possibly be unaffected by those events — some whites more stubborn in their defense of segregation, but others beginning to think in different ways. And the black population was transformed, having risen up in mass action for the first time, feeling its power, knowing now that if the old order could be shaken it could be toppled.
    • You Can't Be Neutral on A Moving Train (1994) Ch. 4: "My Name is Freedom": Albany, Georgia
  • I am not an absolute pacifist, because I can't rule out the possibility that under some, carefully defined circumstances, some degree of violence may be justified, if it is focused directly at a great evil. Slave revolts are justified, and if John Brown had really succeeded in arousing such revolts throughout the South, it would have been much preferable to losing 600,000 lives in the Civil War, where the makers of the war — unlike slave rebels — would not have as their first priority the plight of the black slaves, as shown by the betrayal of black interests after the war. Again, the Zapatista uprising seems justified to me, but some armed struggles that start for a good cause get out of hand and the ensuing violence becomes indiscriminate. Each situation has to be evaluated separately, for all are different. In general, I believe in non-violent direct action, which involve organizing large numbers of people, whereas too often violent uprisings are the product of a small group. If enough people are organized, violence can be minimized in bringing about social change.
  • To put it briefly: the evidence is quite overwhelming on this matter. The Japanese had sent an envoy (Ambassador Sato) to Moscow (still officially a neutral) to work out a negotiated surrender. An instruction from Foreign Minister Togo came in a telegram (intercepted by American intelligence, which had broken the Japanese code early in the war), saying: "Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace... It is His Majesty's heart's desire to see the swift termination of the war." The Japanese had one condition for surrender which the U.S. refused to meet — recognizing the sanctity of the Emperor. It seemed the U.S. was determined to drop the bomb before the Japanese could surrender — for a variety of reasons, none of them humanitarian. After the war, the official report of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, based on hundreds of interviews with Japanese decision-makers right after the war, concluded that the war would have ended in a few months by a Japanese surrender "even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."
  • Why should we accept that the "talent" of someone who writes jingles for an advertising agency advertising dog food and gets $100,000 a year is superior to the talent of an auto mechanic who makes $40,000 a year? Who is to say that Bill Gates works harder than the dishwasher in the restaurant he frequents, or that the CEO of a hospital who makes $400,000 a year works harder than the nurse or the orderly in that hospital who makes $30,000 a year? The president of Boston University makes $300,000 a year. Does he work harder than the man who cleans the offices of the university? Talent and hard work are qualitative factors which cannot be measured quantitatively.
  • Scholars, who pride themselves on speaking their minds, often engage in a form of self-censorship which is called "realism." To be "realistic" in dealing with a problem is to work only among the alternatives which the most powerful in society put forth. It is as if we are all confined to a, b, c, or d in the multiple choice test, when we know there is another possible answer. American society, although it has more freedom of expression than most societies in the world, thus sets limits beyond which respectable people are not supposed to think or speak. So far, too much of the debate on Vietnam has observed these limits.
  • One certain effect of war is to diminish freedom of expression. Patriotism becomes the order of the day, and those who question the war are seen as traitors, to be silenced and imprisoned.
  • Not only did waging war against Hitler fail to save the Jews, it may be that the war itself brought on the Final Solution of genocide. This is not to remove the responsibility from Hitler and the Nazis, but there is much evidence that Germany's anti-Semitic actions, cruel as they were, would not have turned to mass murder were it not for the psychic distortions of war, acting on already distorted minds. Hitler's early aim was forced emigration, not extermination, but the frenzy of it created an atmosphere in which the policy turned to genocide.
    • Howard Zinn on War (2000), Ch. 21: Just and Unjust War
  • Whenever I become discouraged (which is on alternate Tuesdays, between three and four) I lift my spirits by remembering: The artists are on our side! I mean those poets and painters, singers and musicians, novelists and playwrights who speak to the world in a way that is impervious to assault because they wage the battle for justice in a sphere which is unreachable by the dullness of ordinary political discourse.
  • We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times.
  • The term "just war" contains an internal contradiction. War is inherently unjust, and the great challenge of our time is how to deal with evil, tyranny, and oppression without killing huge numbers of people.
    • Terrorism and War (2002)
  • Americans have been taught that their nation is civilized and humane. But, too often, U.S. actions have been uncivilized and inhumane.
    • As quoted in Quotations on Terrorism (2004) by Harry Kawilarang, p. 61
  • I don't believe it's possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions, and to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that, is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I, as a teacher, do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world. I want myself, as a teacher, and I want you, as students, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world.
    • Howard Zinn: You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004) documentary film
  • I would encourage people to look around them in their community and find an organization that is doing something that they believe in, even if that organization has only five people, or ten people, or twenty people, or a hundred people. And to look at history and understand that when change takes place it takes place as a result of large, large numbers of people doing little things unbeknownst to one another. And that history is very important for people to not get discouraged. Because if you look at history you see the way the labor movement was able to achieve things when it stuck to its guns, when it organized, when it resisted. Black people were able to change their condition when they fought back and when they organized. Same thing with the movement against the war in Vietnam, and the women's movement. History is instructive. And what it suggests to people is that even if they do little things, if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper. Anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much, much larger sort of flow of energy. And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.
  • Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.
  • To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
    • A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, p. 270

A People's History of the United States (1980)Edit

I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.
This book, originally published in 1980, has been printed in a number of updated and revised editions. The chapter numbers used here are for quotes found in the linked online edition.
  • I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.
    • Ch. 1
  • It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status.
  • While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not. A study of the origins of 303 textile, railroad and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle- or upper-class families. The Horatio Alger stories of "rags to riches" were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.
  • One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and the unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.
  • Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.
    • Ch. 24
  • There is the past and its continuing horrors: violence, war, prejudices against those who are different, outrageous monopolization of the good earth's wealth by a few, political power in the hands of liars and murderers, the building of prisons instead of schools, the poisoning of the press and the entire culture by money. It is easy to become discouraged observing this, especially since this is what the press and television insist that we look at, and nothing more.
    But there is also the bubbling of change under the surface of obedience: the growing revulsion against endless wars, the insistence of women all over the world that they will no longer tolerate abuse and subordination…
    There is civil disobedience against the military machine, protest against police brutality directed especially at people of color.
    • 1999 edition, p. 661

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