The radical historian and activist Howard Zinn died this week aged 87. In 2008, he gave this interview with London Progressive Journal’s Daniel Pye.
DP: Much of your life’s work has been dedicated to the study of unorthodox history, told from the point of view of those who lived it. From reading many of your books and speeches it is clear you abhor the idea of “objectivity” which accompanies official narratives of history espoused by many scholars and other public figures. You wrote that “there’s no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation. Behind every fact presented to the world by a teacher, writer, anyone, is a judgment.” Could you elaborate on what exactly you mean by this?
HZ: Every presentation of history, indeed of any phenomena, must inevitably be a selection out of an infinite amount of data. Any writer, any speaker, will select, or omit, depening on his or her point of view. So the presentation of history is always subjective. The important thing is to know your point of view, to be conscious of your criteria for selection, and to be honest about it with your readers, your listeners.
I agree that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train” but I fear that the most pervasive political discourses – those used to perpetuate the notion of an eternal war between the “good” and the “bad” currently under the mantra of the “War on Terrorism” – have such a vast and influential network of (official and unofficial, informed and ignorant) public relations counsels that alternative sources of information are being sidelined more than ever. Your books are written with an air of hope, what do you think is the hope of the next generation of political activists and forgotten peoples of the world?
The hope lies in the fact that the truth, even with less powerful means of communication, has a special power. Deceptions and lies have a short life, they are eventually found out. The truth has a solidity which eventually wins out. Hope lies in the historical experience, where goups have always felt powerless and yet at certain points in history have overcome the apparently unassailable power of the establishment. We’ve seen corporations give in to strikers, dictators flee their countries, govenments unable to carry on wars, because their power rests on the consent of the people, and when this consent is withdrawn, when workers strike, soldiers desert, consumers stop buying, they are powerless.
You have recently narrated a new book (A People’s History of American Empire) that deals with US expansionism from the genocide of the indigenous tribes, to the attacks of September 11th and beyond. Could you tell the readers a little about this project and the content of the book?
The idea behind this “graphic” book is to reach people who are put off by a huge history book of just words, to appeal to a generation more accustomed to visual stimuli, to reach younger people and others who have not read my work. The book tries to make up for the nationalistic history taught in our schools, the super-patriotic glossing over the violent interventions in other countries, and to give an honest account of the long history of American imperialism, from its expulsion of native Americans from their lands to the overseas interventions of the last hundred years.
What are your opinions of the anti-war movement in the US and around the world? For example, do you generally believe that anti-war groups are effectively organising and putting pressure on the “right people”?
Organising always looks ineffective before it wins. There are no special tactics required, no magically new approaches, not a question of reaching the “right people”. If people persist, if their movement reaches a critical point where it creates a disruption in the normal workings of society, then the “right people”, fearful of the worst, will yield.
I know you’re a historian by trade and not a fortune teller, but I’m reminded that it’s a poor sort of memory which only works backwards. Can you offer any predictions for what will change (or not) concerning the US and its role in the world if Obama, Clinton, or McCain are elected along with their swarms of advisers and influential backers in the corporate-military world?
None of the major candidates will solve the fundamental problems facing our country. Only an energized, persistent, risk-taking, disobedient social movement can do that.
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This post was written by Daniel Pye