Magazine article Tikkun

AN INTERVIEW WITH Howard Zinn

Magazine article Tikkun

AN INTERVIEW WITH Howard Zinn

Article excerpt

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, North Carolina, 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: Since the context of this interview is Tikkun, I'd like to start by asking you about Michael Lerner's new book, The Lefl 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 naïve, with little to teach us. You must have had your own bouts with critics who see your vision as naïve. 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 naïve 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 naïve. When I was in South Africa in 1982, and apartheid was fully entrenched, it seemed naïve to think that it would be dissolved and even more naïve 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 growing.

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. …

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