An interview with Howard Zinn

From the years 2000 to 2002 I ran an online zine, Actionattackhelicopter, along with my friends, Brian and Josh. I was fortunate to interview many individuals. I’m posting some of those interviews here for anyone who may have missed them the first time. They have been edited for length, relevance, and to correct for my poor editing skills at the time of original publication. Keep in mind that these were done over ten years ago, thus individuals’ opinions, thoughts, and ideas may no longer be relevant, but they are still interesting as a snapshot of a particular time and place.

Howard Zinn passed away in 2010. This interview was originally published in May 2001.

Historian Howard Zinn is a central figure in the neo-leftist school of thinking. This former professor at Boston University is known for his unique and engaging views on history, the political system, and social justice. Recently, I had the opportunity to read Zinn’s best seller, A People’s History of the United States, and was thoroughly impressed with a side of history that heretofore I had been unfamiliar with—and this coming from someone who was a history major at college! A highly recommended work, A People’s History is what its title suggests, a form of history for the common man who is too often overlooked. Honest and inviting, in the twenty years since its publication it has sold approximately 800,000 copies. I was fortunate enough to interview Zinn via phone from his home near Boston.

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What do you think of the term “revisionist” as it relates to history? Is that something you enjoy being labeled as?

I don’t actually like to be labeled a revisionist. For one thing because the word revisionist has such a general meaning which then becomes meaningless. You might say everyone revises history when they write about history, so although it’s true I’m revising the orthodox view of history, to simply call me a revisionist doesn’t give you any idea from what point of view I’m actually revising history. It only tells you I’m revising. If I’m revising history from the point of view of the Ku Klux Klan, I’d also be a revisionist. So, it misses the question of “What kind of revision is this?”

I recently had the opportunity to hear Ralph Nader speak and couldn’t help but hear some of the similarities in both of your views. Politically speaking, were you a supporter of Nader? How do you view yourself politically? And what’s your take on some current events in American politics?

Well, I’ve never wanted to stay inside the two party system. I’ve always believed we should have independent political voices because I’ve always thought that the Democrats and Republicans were too close together and both are too far away from the needs of the American people. Nader had a big rally in Boston and about 15,000 people attended. I spoke at that rally amongst others, so I was a supporter of Nader during that campaign. And I still believe, even though Bush is a horror, that it’s important to keep alive in the United States an independent voice in politics. Otherwise we are stuck within the limits of the two-party system and we go back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, one of which may be a little better than the other. But not better enough to justify giving up an independent critique of our political system.

So, why do you think that Bush is a horror?

He’s only had a short time to become a horror. He’s managed to compress an awful lot within a short time. His appointments all fit right into the design of the Christian right (this is not a slam against Christianity, just a slam against those who use the word Christian to sort of mask things which would have horrified a compassionate Jesus). The appointment of Ashcroft—I mean, he’s appointing people behind whom is this kind of shadow of racism. He’s appointed people who don’t care about the environment or even if they do care about the environment, they’re going to be overridden by Bush’s desire to give the oil companies all they want. On environmental issues, he’s opening up public lands to private exploitations like opening up the Alaska wild territory to oil exploration. He seems to think the United States is desperately short of energy. But the United States, per capita, consumes twice as much energy as the average European. Europeans are not going about living in the dark or doing without automobiles. They’re not suffering as a result of using half as much energy as Americans. They’re just not as wasteful. Of course Bush doesn’t want to set drastic limits on the amount of arsenic on drinking water. Maybe he thinks arsenic will be good for us. We may need a little stimulant in our drinking water. Arsenic would be just the thing. Maybe it’s a Malthusian plot to get rid of a lot of Americans, especially those who voted for his opponent in the election. If he could really apply the arsenic restrictions in a discriminatory way, that would be something. The whole business of emissions and he doesn’t want to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions. The other countries in the world have been working for years to get agreements to cut down emissions and it’s the height of arrogance as well as stupidity and immorality for Bush to disregard all of that and declare that the United States on its own—which already produces a disproportionate amount of emissions—doesn’t want to set a limit on carbon dioxide. Of course then there’s the tax plan where forty-three percent of money saved in the tax plan would go to the richest one percent of the population. So, when I say Bush has been a horror, yes. But it must be said that the Democrats’ views on these things are different, but not radically different. For example, on the tax plan, the Democrats have not centered their argument on the class character. It’s a footnote in the things they say. It’s like the fourth thing they say. First, they talk about other things that are meaningless. I remember that Al Gore—even on the emissions—he didn’t want to set absolute levels on the emissions. He wanted to make it voluntary. Try and plead with General Motors to voluntarily cut down on their emissions and see what happens. I mean, this is as wimpy as you can get on dealing with environmental problems.

Would you say that some of your ideas are idealistic?

Oh, certainly. Idealistic in the sense that they haven’t been obtained and they’re worth striving for. Sometimes the word idealistic is meant as impractical or beyond achievement. Are they likely to be achieved very soon? No. But should we strive for them? Yes. And sometimes you never know how much you will achieve when you start out for them. The history of social movements is a history of groups really not knowing what they’re going to achieve and people tell them that it’s out of the question. When people were working a twelve-hour day, the idea of an eight-hour day was idealistic. But the people set a goal, they worked, they struggled, and they got it. Eliminating racial segregation in the South: idealistic. Ending the war in Vietnam: idealistic. So, ideals are idealistic until that moment that they become real as a result of people not listening to all that talk about idealism and just pushing ahead.

Going back to Bush a little bit, you mentioned that there is a relationship there between Bush and the Christian conservative movement. What are your specific views on religion, specifically Christianity, as it relates to how you interpret history?

We’re not supposed to be a religious nation, politically. That is, people have religion and they’re entitled to pursue their religions. There are two ideas to the First Amendment. One is that people should be free to pursue their religion. Free exercise of religion is called for in the First Amendment. The other thing is that there should be no establishment of religion. Religion will not be established in any official way, that is, the political structure of the government will not be connected with religion. Well, we have coins that say “In God We Trust,” and we have all sorts of religious symbols. Swearing on the Bible (which of course has never stopped anyone from lying), Congress has a chaplain, the President makes a point of being photographed every time he goes to church. That’s what going to church is for the President—it’s a photo op. We have all these religious symbols in the practice of government that have no place. The Pledge of Allegiance, which is bad enough by demanding all these kids in school before they even have a chance to think about what they’re swearing allegiance to—before they even know the history of the country—these kids are required to stand up and recite the pledge of allegiance. Then, they add to the pledge of allegiance “one nation, under God.” Well, what’s the point of that? If people want to mutter under their breath “under God,” let them do it. But as a public declaration it’s offensive. There are a lot of people who don’t believe in God, or who at least are skeptical. Or who don’t want to be connected with any particular religious beliefs. I think we ought to be very wary of attempts to tie our politics with religion. Of course, what it does is it creates a kind of “us and them.” Who are “us”? Well, that’s the Christians and lately they’ve broadened themselves. They’ll talk about “Judeo-Christian” tradition and they’ll have a Rabbi show up occasionally. But what about Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims? They become second-class citizens when this nation is proclaimed as a Christian nation.

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But it does seem to be an overriding theme in American history and it definitely plays a big part. I just think somewhere along the way it gets misinterpreted.

Well, we’re hundreds of years behind. Over two hundred years ago some of our eminent leaders said that we shouldn’t be fooling around with religion. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, which means you’re not connected with any particular church and your view of God is a very universal one that can take in anybody. It isn’t particularly tied in with Christianity or Judaism or anything. Of course Thomas Paine had very strong views about religion causing Theodore Roosevelt at one time to refer to Tom Paine as “that filthy little atheist.”

What is your personal history in relation to religion?

My parents were immigrants—Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. My father was from Austria and my mother from Siberia. They weren’t religious Jews, except in the very ordinary sense of the term. They weren’t inadequately religious; they observed holidays and so on. At an early age, religion made no sense to me. All the symbolism of religion, all the praying to God—none of that meant anything to me. It seemed to me that there was so much hypocrisy in it and I saw so many evil deeds being done in the world by those who considered themselves religious. By Christian, Jew, Hindu and Muslim. No deep-seated view in religion seemed to keep these people from carrying on horrible acts. In fact, very often they used these beliefs to justify these horrible acts. The Christians in the Crusades or the Jews in the Old Testament are good examples. So, early on I developed an antipathy towards religion. Of course I must add that while the Church has mostly in history been a force of reaction and links with power and wealth and the State, still, there have been people who have come out of religious movements and the Church wanting to take the best principles of the religion and actually try to bring them forcefully into real life. To take the message of “love thy neighbor” and peace and to make religion a supporter of the best ideals of the human race. We see a number of them around. They have always been a minority of course, whether the Catholic priests and nuns who opposed the Vietnam War and the bishops who wanted to do away with capital punishment or the rabbis who traveled down South with the Civil Rights movement. Well, those groups I mentioned have always been a courageous minority within the Church. Those people I’ve always felt close to.

Have those people changed your ideas over the years on how you view religion?

They haven’t changed my views on religion, but they’ve made me less of an absolutist on the question of the role of the Church and the role of religion. They’ve made me recognize that there is a possibility of taking what religion promises and instead of violating it, fulfill it. There’s a promise of peace and brotherhood and sisterhood. A promise of taking care of the poor and understanding that the rich cannot pass through the eye of a needle. It’s had that effect on me.

How would you say that your life has changed since A People’s History of the United States first came out?

A People’s History came out twenty years ago. My life has changed in that the reception of the book was far beyond what either my publisher or I expected. It was originally published at 5,000 copies and it has now sold 800,000 copies. None of us expected that. One result of that is that a good part of my life has been taken up with the effects of that book. What I mean by that is that I receive countless invitations to speak around the country. The invitations come from people who have read my book, students who have read my book, teachers who are using it, and organizations that recognize the importance of the book. It’s led me to piling up a lot of frequent flyer miles. It has a very big effect. It’s kept me very busy just responding to people whose lives have been affected by A People’s History and who invite me to come here and there.

Do you even have much free time anymore to do the things that you would enjoy doing?

Well, I still go to the movies. I won’t let anybody stop me from doing that.

I saw that you had the spoken word CD that came out with speeches on it about what Hollywood doesn’t teach us.

Oh yes. Well, I go to the movies so that I can criticize the movies. I can look at a movie like Traffic and say, “What a waste of money to produce a film that has such a superficial view of the drug trade.” But I also go to the movies because occasionally there are some beautiful movies that say something about the human condition and evoke in the audience an empathy with people instead of driving people to violence and glorifying military heroism like in The Patriot. You’ll see a film like Billy Elliott about a boy who wants to be a dancer and in the background is a miner’s strike and it’s a beautiful human story with larger implications. But to answer your original question, I still find time to do the things I enjoy but I have to say no to invitations which would take up twenty-four hours a day if I’d let them.

What did you not like about Traffic?

It’s focused on the plight of an upper middle-class family, which is not the typical victim of the drug trade. The prisons are full of victims of the drug trade who are poor and black or Latino, but you didn’t see that. You didn’t see that social phenomenon. You didn’t see the huge incarceration of people of color and poor people who out of desperation become involved in drugs. And then the solution that’s offered at the end by the Drug Czar, played by Michael Douglas, is “Take care of your family.” That’s a pitiful solution to a very serious problem. If you saw the British television Traffic, which is supposed to be the basis of the Hollywood thing, at the end the head of their drug enforcement agency makes a speech that is very different. He said that you’re not going to be able to do anything about the supply of drugs because the supply of drugs is very profitable. In fact, some people’s livelihoods depend on it. But what you have to do is deal with the demand. Why do people need drugs? People need drugs because their lives are inadequate and they live under terrible conditions. Therefore, the long term and the only serious solution to the drug problem is to eliminate the demand by making people’s lives better and taking care of people’s needs. Surely it’s not too radical of a statement to make, but apparently it was too radical for Steven Soderburgh and the makers of the Hollywood movie Traffic.

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That is interesting. I enjoyed the movie, but I hadn’t really thought about those things.

That’s the problem. Hollywood makes a movie and it’s enjoyable because it has all the right elements: it’s exciting, has good acting, and is fast moving, but until you stop to think about what is says and what it does, you’re trapped by Hollywood values.

What would you say is your favorite movie of all time?

The movie Burn, with Marlon Brando, is historical. It’s about a slave rebellion in the Caribbean in the early nineteenth century. It has all the elements that Hollywood looks for, but it deals with a very serious issue and that is: can people be liberated from some great power outside—in this case England claiming to deliver the slaves from bondage to Portugal—or do people need to liberate themselves by organizing and struggle for their own freedom? That’s the message of this very powerful film. A film, I suppose whose message was so repugnant to the people who distribute films that it’s a film that no one knows about. It’s called Burn, if you ever get a chance. You might be able to rent it somewhere in some dark, basement video store.

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