THE CONSCIENCE OF THE PAST
An interview with historian HOWARD ZINN
Howard Zinn's celebrated 1980 retelling of the story
of America, A People's History of the United States
(Harper Collins), remains one of the most popular populist
works on that topic. The book was not the first work
to revise American history from a progressive perspective;
rather it was one of the first to offer such a complete
history of the U.S. to the non-academic reader.
Zinn, a professor at Boston University (and former chair of the history department at Spelman in Atlanta), takes a non-traditional approach to choosing what is history, giving importance not just to the actions of leaders, but to the ordinary men and women who lived through it. As a former activist affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the anti-war movement in the 1960s, Zinn has not just written about history: he's been there. In anticipation of his lecture at UGA's Georgia Hall (7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23), we spoke with Professor Zinn briefly about his conception of history, government and a few current events that will shape the near future.
Flagpole: As an introductory question, how would you
define history ?
Howard Zinn: History is everything that has happened up to 10 minutes ago. I don't distinguish between history and contemporary events. If we exclude the recent past, we are putting an artificial line between the remote past and the immediate past, when we need the whole range of past in order to understand what happens.
FP: In the first chapter of A People's History, you
mention Albert Camus and his advice for human beings
not to be on the side of executioners. What prompted
you to adopt that line ?
HZ: Because Camus was committed to taking positions. I have always felt that a scholar or a writer has to take sides for the victims. From the very beginning, I have always objected to neutrality and objectivity. The most important task of a historian is to use the material of the past in order to defend the victims, those who have not been in power.
FP: What do you think is your contribution to history
with such a book?
HZ: I felt I brought the point of view of those who have been overlooked in American history. I wanted to look at the wars not from the standpoint of the political leaders, but from the point of view of the ordinary soldier, or the enemy, or the working people.
FP: In writing A People's History, what were you calling
for? A quiet revolution?
HZ: A quiet revolution is a good way of putting it. From the bottom up. Not a revolution in the classical sense of a seizure of power, but rather from people beginning to take power from within the institutions. In the workplace, the workers would take power to control the conditions of their lives. It would be a democratic socialism.
I'm thinking of the German and the French and the Scandinavian models. Here in the U.S., we need to develop social benefits that we don't have in this country: health care, unemployment insurance, benefits for pregnant women, et cetera. President Clinton thinks he is being generous, but he is not. We still have a long way to go, and we should learn from other countries.
FP: Is there a meaning that you associate with the success
of the book?
HZ: It has been very surprising to me and to the publisher 450,000 copies have been sold. I think there is a great hunger in this country for a version of history that does not favor the establishment and the military.
FP: What would you emphasize if you had to write the
HZ: I would try to emphasize the differences between the powerful nations in the world and the exploited nations. It would be a history of the imperial power from the 16th century, with Europe, to 20th century and America. I would like to look at the struggles of the people in order to eliminate imperialism, and then establish democracy in an attempt to eradicate war and violence.
FP: In a nutshell, how would you recast the history
of Georgia ?
HZ: The most important thing about the history of Georgia is of course race relations. It is a long struggle for racial equality and class equality. There still remains the problem of poverty among both black and white people. I would look at history as an ongoing struggle of poor people to achieve a measure of equality.
FP: Finally, if you were writing an article for Flagpole
about the crisis in Iraq, how would you present it
? What would be your opinion and how would you voice
HZ: Whatever madness there is in Saddam Hussein, it is matched by the madness of the American political establishment. It is absurd for the U.S. to consider bombing Iraq, killing innocent people, for an objective which is unattainable.
To single out Iraq as the great danger in the world when there are tyrannies all over the world with weapons that the U.S. has supplied them is an act of hypocrisy. If we were bombing Iraq, we wouldn't be accomplishing anything. In fact, we would be using the weapons we don't want Iraq to use.
Another thing that we overlook is that the U.S. is the greatest possessor of weapons of mass destruction. Now we want inspectors to go to Iraq, but we should have inspectors in the U.S. at the same time. Our own weapons are a great danger to the world.
I think there is a kind of military madness that has seized Washington, D.C. The American people have been kept ignorant, and the American press has not done anything to educate them.
WHO: Historian Howard Zinn
WHERE: Georgia Hall, UGA campus
WHEN: Monday Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Students: FREE. Non-students: $2