Howard Zinn

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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.

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

Quotes[edit]

If those in charge of our societypoliticians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television — can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power.
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.
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.
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.
We in the United States are still quite a long way from democracy and certainly a long way from economic democracy.
We...are... a long way from democracy ... Because of the control of the economy by corporations and the tax structure, which is set up by an unrepresentative Congress and approved by a president, a tax structure which has so far channeled the wealth of the country towards the richest one percent of the population.
  • 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.
  • We in the United States are still quite a long way from democracy and certainly a long way from economic democracy. Because of the control of the economy by corporations and the tax structure, which is set up by an unrepresentative Congress and approved by a president, a tax structure which has so far channeled the wealth of the country towards the richest one percent of the population.
  • 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.
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.
  • 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.
  • Behind the rebel battle yells and the legendary spirit of the Confederate army, there was much reluctance to fight. A sympathetic historian of the South, E. Merton Coulter, asked "Why did the Confederacy fail? The forces leading to the defeat were many but they may be summed up in this one fact"The People did not will hard enough and long enough to win."Not money or soldiers, but willpower and morale were decisive.
    • Ch.10, "The Other Civil War"
  • To white Americans of the thirties, however, blacks North and South were invisible. Only the radicals made an attempt to break the racial barriers: Socialists, Trotskyists, Communists most of all.
    • Chapter 15
  • 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.

Chapter 24. The Coming Revolt of the Guards[edit]

Full text online

There is evidence of growing dissatisfaction among the guards... alienated... from a political system... angry over economic insecurity, unhappy with their work, worried about their neighborhoods, hostile to government - combining elements of racism... contempt for the lower classes, along with distrust for the elite.... and thus open to solutions from any direction, right or left.


The... 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...
  • 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 (w:Divide & rule).
  • Capitalism has always been a failure for the ower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.
  • It is very important for the Establishment - that uneasy club of business executives, generals, and politicos - to maintain the historic pretension of national unity, in which the government represents all the people, and the common enemy is overseas, not at home... It is important for them also to make sure this artificial unity of highly privileged and slightly privileged is the only unity - that the 99 percent remain split in countless ways, and turn against one another to vent their angers.
  • How skillful to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation! How adroit to bus poor black youngsters into poor white neighborhoods, in a violent exchange of impoverished schools, while the schools of the rich remain untouched and the wealth of the nation, doled out carefully where children need free milk, is drained for billion-dollar aircraft carriers. How ingenious to meet the demands of blacks and women for equality by giving them small special benefits, and setting them in competition with everyone else for jobs made scarce by an irrational, wasteful system. How wise to turn the fear and anger of the majority toward a class of criminals bred - by economic inequity - faster than they can be put away, deflecting attention from the huge thefts of national resources carried out within the law by men in executive offices.
  • But with all the controls of power and punishment, enticements and concessions, diversions and decoys, operating throughout the history of the country, the Establishment has been unable to keep itself secure from revolt. Every time it looked as if it had succeeded, the very people it thought seduced or subdued, stirred and rose.
  • Blacks, cajoled by Supreme Court decisions and congressional statutes, rebelled. Women, wooed and ignored, romanticized and mistreated, rebelled. Indians, thought dead, reappeared, defiant. Young people, despite lures of career and comfort, defected. Working people, thought soothed by reforms, regulated by law, kept within bounds by their own unions, went on strike. Government intellectuals, pledged to secrecy, began giving away secrets...
  • To recall this is to remind people of what the Establishment would like them to forget-the enormous capacity of apparently helpless people to resist, of apparently contented people to demand change. To uncover such history is to find a powerful human impulse to assert one's humanity. It is to hold out, even in times of deep pessimism, the possibility of surprise. True, to overestimate class consciousness, to exaggerate rebellion and its successes, would be misleading. It would not account for the fact that the world-not just the United States, but everywhere else-is still in the hands of the elites, that people's movements, although they show an infinite capacity for recurrence, have so far been either defeated or absorbed or perverted...
  • But most histories understate revolt, overemphasize statesmanship, and thus encourage impotency among citizens. When we look closely at resistance movements, or even at isolated forms of rebellion, we discover that class consciousness, or any other awareness of injustice, has multiple levels. It has many ways of expression, many ways of revealing itself-open, subtle, direct, distorted. In a system of intimidation and control, people do not show how much they know, how deeply they feel, until their practical sense informs them they can do so without being destroyed.
  • History which keeps alive the memory of people's resistance suggests new definitions of power. By traditional definitions, whoever possesses military strength, wealth, command of official ideology, cultural control, has power. Measured by these standards, popular rebellion never looks strong enough to survive. However, the unexpected victories -even temporary ones - of insurgents show the vulnerability of the supposedly powerful.
  • In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbage men and firemen. These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.
  • That will happen... when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica - expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.
  • Certain new facts... emerge so clearly as to lead to general withdrawal of loyalty from the system. The new conditions of technology, economics, and war, in the atomic age, make it less and less possible for the guards of the system-the intellectuals, the home owners, the taxpayers, the skilled workers, the professionals, the servants of government - to remain immune from the violence (physical and psychic) inflicted on the black, the poor, the criminal, the enemy overseas. The internationalization of the economy, the movement of refugees and illegal immigrants across borders, both make it more difficult for the people of the industrial countries to be oblivious to hunger and disease in the poor countries of the world.
  • There is evidence of growing dissatisfaction among the guards. We have known for some time that the poor and ignored were the nonvoters, alienated from a political system they felt didn't care about them, and about which they could do little. Now alienation has spread upward into families above the poverty line.
  • These are white workers, neither rich nor poor, but angry over economic insecurity, unhappy with their work, worried about their neighborhoods, hostile to government-combining elements of racism with elements of class consciousness, contempt for the lower classes along with distrust for the elite, and thus open to solutions from any direction, right or left.
  • 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 (though much of this is kept from us, to keep us intimidated and without hope) the bubbling of change under the surface of obedience: the growing revulsion against the 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.
  • In the United States, we see the educational system, a burgeoning new literature, alternative radio stations, a wealth of documentary films outside the mainstream, even Hollywood itself and sometimes television-compelled to recognize the growing multiracial character of the nation. Yes, we have in this country, dominated by corporate wealth and military power and two antiquated political parties, what a fearful conservative characterized as "a permanent adversarial culture" challenging the present, demanding a new future.
  • It is a race in which we can all choose to participate, or just to watch. But we should know that our choice will help determine the outcome.

Quotes about Howard Zinn[edit]

  • He was a very funny man and warm man. Told jokes all the time. Very self-deprecating. And very humble. When it came to his students and students who disagreed with him -- and a lot of students in our classes disagreed with him; it was the mid-'80s, Reagan and all that, a very conservative era -- he didn't sit there and shut them down. ... He would lecture for a little while, maybe a guest speaker, and then it was an open forum for students to talk and challenge him. He enjoyed being challenged. It kept him fresh and it kept him on his toes and it kept him connected to the next generation. He always wanted to connect to young people.
  • ...the anti-apartheid movement in the '80s... he was there. ... He wasn't a detached academic who sort of wrote about these things but didn't put his heart where his mouth was. He put everything there, because he cared very deeply that these things were wrong -- that apartheid was wrong. Obviously. That's easy to say in retrospect. But, that was the early '80s, and there were people who didn't really think it was so bad. That's the thing. A lot of times we look back and we remember how radical it was to confront apartheid. Now, everyone looks back and knows it was wrong. It was so radical to oppose the Iraq war. Most of the public doesn't think we should have gone in. That's why dissent is so important, because it creates an atmosphere in which people can explore alternative ways of thinking. That's something I took from Howard. That's what Howard taught. That's why he still matters.
  • Historian and activist Howard Zinn died in 2010, and the progressive world greatly misses his spirit and guidance. One wonders what he’d have to say about America today — one in which senators create legislation in secret and a president denigrates foes and allies alike via Twitter. What would he, a former Cub Scout, think about the president’s recent speech in which he exhorted Boy Scouts to boo a previous president? We can be pretty sure that he’d be dismayed and disgusted by an America where CEOs make 271 times the pay of an average worker... He’d certainly be no fan of a culture that made serious, though unsuccessful, attempts to ban his signature work, A People’s History of the United States.

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