Just over two years ago, I read my first Howard Zinn book. The book was A People’s History of the United States and it taught me a lot about the struggles of Native Americans, African Americans, women, war resisters and workers to overcome prejudice and fight for their rights in this country. Since reading that book, I’ve become a real fan of Howard Zinn’s books and his philosophy on social change. Whenever I’d pick up a progressive magazine, like The Progressive or The Nation, I’d always look to see if there was a Howard Zinn article and would be excited if that particular issue had one. I was sad to hear about his death earlier this year. His books and his life, though are a constant inspiration to me on how to be active in fighting for the poor and the marginalized in this country.
Though A People’s History of the United States is his most famous book, my favorite books of Howard Zinn are Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics and You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train. Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics is a collection of interviews that David Barsamian took with Howard Zinn for public radio over the course of a decade. It covers a diverse range of topics, from Zinn’s dissenting views on capitalism and the Iraq War, to his views on FDR’s economic Bill of Rights, to reminiscences on his time as a teacher at Spellman College in the 1950s and early 1960s. My favorite interview in this book dealt with the topic of artists and their importance in resistence. Zinn said in that interview:
The reason that I do is because artists play a very special role in relation to social change. This came to me when I was a teenager and becoming politically interested for the first time. It was people in the arts who perhaps had the greatest emotional effect on me. Singers such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Paul Robeson. Writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London. I was reading the newspapers and Karl Marx. I was reading all sorts of subversive matter. But there was something special about the effect of what artists did.
And by artists I mean not only singers and musicians but poets, novelists, people in the theater. It always seemed to me that there was a special power that artists had when they commented, either in their own work or outside their work, on what was going on in the world. There was a kind of force that they brought into the discussion that mere rose could not match. Part of it had to do with a passion and an emotion which comes with poetry, which comes with music, that comes with drama, which is rarely equaled in prose, even if it is beautiful prose. I was struck by that at an early age.
Later, I came to think about the relative power of people in charge of society and the powerlessness of most people who become the victims of the decision makers. I thought about the possibility of people without the ordinary attributes of power, that is, money and military equipment, resisting those who have a monopoly on that power, and I thought how can they possibly resist it? I thought art gave them a special impetus through its inspiration and through its emotional effect that couldn’t be calculated. Social movements all through history have needed art in order to enhance what they do, in order to inspire people, in order to give them a vision, in order to bring them together, make them feel that they are part of a vibrant movement.
You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train is about Howard Zinn’s life in activism. He talks about his time in World War II, when he flew missions to bomb European towns, which laid the seeds to his later anti-war feelings. Zinn’s time as a teacher of Spellman College, an African American woman’s college in Atlanta, Georgia, led him to be involved in the early civil rights movement and taught him many lessons about social movements. He taught Alice Walker and Marian Edelman Wright during his tenure there, and in the course of his activism there, met members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and future civil rights leaders Stokely Carmichael and Bernice Johnson. During his time in Boston College, he led teach-ins and gave speeches against the war in Vietnam. His activism continued to his last days, as he spoke out against the Iraq War and against the bailouts of the last few years.
His life of activism really inspires me. One of the things I most like about Zinn is his confidence in the ability of ordinary people to affect social change. In one of my favorite passages, Zinn writes:
It is this change in consciousness that encourages me. Granted, racial hatred and sex discrimination are still with us, war and violence still poison our culture, we have a large underclass of poor, desperate people, and there is a hard core of the population content with the way things are, afraid of change.
But if we see only that, we have lost historical perspective, and then it is as if we were born yesterday and we know only the depressing stories in this morning’s newspapers, this evening’s television reports.
Consider the remarkable transformation, in just a few decades, in people’s consciousness of racism, in the bold presence of women demanding their rightful place, in a growing public awareness that homosexuals are not curiosities but sensate human beings, in the long-term growing skepticism about military interventions despite the brief surge of military madness during the Gulf War.
It is that long-term change that I think we must see if we are not to lose hope. Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.
There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment we will continue to see. We forget how often in this century we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.
The bad things that happen are repetitions of bad things that have always happened- war, racism, maltreatment of women, religious and nationalist fanaticism, starvation. The good things that happen are unexpected.
Unexpected, and yet explainable by certain truths which stpring at us from time to time, but which we tend to forget:
Political power, however formidible, is more fragile than we think. (Note how nervous are those who hold it)
Ordinary people can be intimidate for a time, can be fooled for a time, but they have a down-deep common sense, and sooner or later they find a way to challenge the power that oppresses them.
People are not naturally violent or cruel or greedy, although they can be made so. Human beings everywhere want the same things: they are moved by the sight of abandoned children, homeless families, the casualties of war; they long for peace, for friendship and affection across lines of race and nationality.
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zig-zag towards a more decent society.
We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
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 think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
I end this blog with a quote from a Zinn article in the March 2009 issue of the Progressive. Many Progressives had high hopes for change when President Obama began his administration, and have been bitterly disappointed in the compromises that Obama has made while in office. Howard Zinn was not surprised. In looking at the history of reform Presidents, Zinn knew that any efforts of reform would be challenged by entrenched corporate interests, conservative politicians, and an establishment that doesn’t take too kindly to change. With such opposition, it’s often easier for Presidents to delay or even shelve reform efforts, unless an active and powerful grassroots movement pushes back and pressures the President for change. Zinn wrote on March 2009:
I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes- the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.
But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhoods, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on maters of war and social justice.
Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…
Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed it responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.
Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which require direct action by concerned citizens.
If you enjoy this cartoon, take a look at these links for more of my political cartoons at Everyday Citizen:
Jasper and the Nature Poem
Government and the Market Economy
Jasper Joins Two Protests
Bob the Nerd Vampire
Jasper Debates War
Jasper Finds His Way Home
Jasper Escapes the Detention Center
Jasper At A Detention Center
Jasper Meets a Poet
Jasper Tackles Health Care
Jasper Protests the War
Jasper and the Economy
Jasper Sings a Protest Song
The Road To Health Care Reform Cartoon
A Cartoon about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A Cartoon about My Experience in an Evangelical Church
A Cartoon about Political Debate
A Cartoon On Gay Marriage