Tag Archives: Howard Zinn

The World According to Howard Zinn

In his 2002 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn wrote:

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.

There was nothing naive or sentimental about Zinn’s positions. He had seen firsthand the worst that humanity was capable of, and simply chose to confront it as a challenge rather than accept it as our final destiny. 

In this excerpt from the 2004 documentary also called Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn describes his experiences as an Air Force bombadier in World War II, which helped inspire his life’s work. The “great question of our time,” he later wrote, is “how to achieve justice with struggle, but without war.”

Howard Zinn’s legacy is the millions of people he has educated–and will continue to educate–through his personal example, his writings, and myriad projects based on his work.  Here’s one of my recent favorites, an illustrated video on American empire.

Obama’s Disappointing State of the Union

Obama’s State of the Union message offered little that was new, bold, or inspiring. He spoke about the need for jobs, but avoided any specific proposals for creating them. While the unemployment rate runs 10 percent overall, and over 15 percent for blacks in some states, Obama is focused on tax credits for the middle class. Just how an unemployed worker can benefit from such tax breaks is a mystery.

The president’s economic plans eschew dramatic government action in favor of the market and the private sector. The administration is proposing the Heritage Foundation’s automatic IRAs to encourage savings by workers. To make this idea more appealing, the administration has suggested that the government might put $500 into each individual account to jump-start the program. As I wrote earlier, this scheme promises to be another boon to Wall Street. If the Democrats were willing to to ignore Republican attacks on big government, they might choose to put the $500 into Social Security instead.

Continuing the government-cutting theme, Obama proposed a freeze on spending, starting next year. The freeze wouldn’t include Medicare or Medicaid. But in another proposal, Obama said he would create by executive order a commission that would propose cuts in entitlements. That’s how, in Washington, you can support one program by undercutting it at the same time.

As for health care reform, it looks like what’s in store is a further weakening of an already weak bill, perhaps reducing it to a ban on some of the worst abuses by insurance companies, such as denying benefits to people with pre-existing conditions. There is likely to be no meaningful reining in of the insurance or pharmaceutical industries, and no control over costs. All in all, a lackluster, disappointing speech.

What would I like to have heard the president say tonight? Earlier this week, I wrote about FDR, and the ambitious initiatives he undertook in his first year. I thought about his insistence–which today sounds almost quaint–that the government exists to help its people, and when they need more help, the government should do more, not less. I thought about this particular historical moment, when the ruthlessness of Wall Street and the folly of conservative economic policymaking have been laid bare. It was a moment that might have been siezed for the purpose of real change. But tonight’s speech tells us, once and for all, that the moment has come and gone.

The historian and humanitarian Howard Zinn, who died suddenly today at age 87, said this in a speech made a few days after the 2008 election, and broadcast by Amy Goodman earlier this year: 

Why is all the political rhetoric limited? Why is the set of solutions given to social and economic issues so cramped and so short of what is needed, so short of what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights demands? And, yes, Obama, who obviously is more attuned to the needs of people than his opponent, you know, Obama, who is more far-sighted, more thoughtful, more imaginative, why has he been limited in what he is saying? Why hasn’t he come out for what is called a single-payer system in healthcare?…

I was really gratified when Obama called for “Let’s tax the rich more, and let’s tax the poor and middle class less.” And they said, “That’s socialism.” And I thought, “Whoa! I’m happy to hear that. Finally, socialism is getting a good name.”…But still, you know, he wouldn’t come out for a single-payer health system, that is, for what I would call health security, to go along with Social Security, you see, wouldn’t come out for that; wouldn’t come out for the government creating jobs for millions of people, because that’s what really is needed now. You see, when people are—the newspapers this morning report highest unemployment in decades, right? The government needs to create jobs. Private enterprise is not going to create jobs. Private enterprise fails, the so-called free market system fails, fails again and again. When the Depression hit in the 1930s, Roosevelt and the New Deal created jobs for millions of people. And, oh, there were people on the—you know, out there on the fringe who yelled “Socialism!” Didn’t matter. People needed it. If people need something badly, and somebody does something for them, you can throw all the names you want at them, it won’t matter, you see? But that was needed in this campaign….

You know, I like him. I’m for him. I want him to do well. I’m happy he won….But when I saw Obama and McCain sort of both together supporting the $700 billion bailout, I thought, “Uh-oh. No, no. Please don’t do that. Please, Obama, step aside from that….I’m sure something in your instincts must tell you that there’s something wrong with giving $700 billion to the same financial institutions which ruined us, which got us into this mess, something wrong with that, you see.” And it’s not even politically viable. That is, you can’t even say, “Oh, I’m doing it because people will then vote for me.” No. It was very obvious when the $700 billion bailout was announced that the majority of people in the country were opposed to it. Instinctively, they said, “Something is wrong with this. Why give it to them? We need it.”…

Obama should have been saying, “No, let’s take that $700 billion, let’s give it to people who can’t pay their mortgages. Let’s create jobs, you know.” You know, instead of pouring $700 billion into the top and hoping that it will trickle down to the bottom, no, go right to the bottom, where people need it and get—so, yes, that was a disappointment. So, yeah, I’m trying to indicate what we’ll have to do now and to fulfill what Obama himself has promised: change, real change. You can’t have—you can say “change,” but if you keep doing the old policies, it’s not change, right?

Obama’s Stimulus Package, FDR’s New Deal, and the “Economic Royalists”

The world watches with bated breath as Obama arrives in Washington for his first serious meeting with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. The subject, of course, is how to rescue the economy, and even the most cynical are no doubt hoping that the new president can snatch prosperity from the jaws of depression.

The mood seems reminiscent of the days preceding the arrival of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, in the throes of the Great Depression. That mood is captured in some of the political cartoons of the time–like this one, published on the eve of FDR’s first inauguration in March 1933:



Just as they were in 2008, voters in 1932 were looking for bold and sweeping change. They got it with FDR. The same is unlikely to be true with Obama. Some details of the president-elect’s stimulus plan have already emerged. It includes modest tax cuts for businesses and middle-class workers, modest investments in jobs and infrastructure, and modest increases in aid to the states for such vital safety net programs as Medicaid and unemployment insurance benefits. It’s all an improvement over the Bush approach, of course. But as ThinkProgress points out today, according to leading progressive economists, it’s also too little as well as too late.

The cautious-by-nature Obama is already playing it down the center, Bill Clinton style, looking to please conservatives (who are unlikely to cooperate no matter how far he reaches out). This is in stark contrast to Roosevelt, who was willing to directly challenge what he called the “economic royalists”–the banking and business interests who were largely responsible for the Great Depression.

Historian and radical geezer Howard Zinn made this point in a speech at SUNY Binghamton following the election in November. He spoke of the conflict between Obama’s electoral mandate for change, and the powerful business interests that continue to oppose any real change, which might come in such forms as universal single-payer health care:

Obama so far has not challenged those economic interests. Roosevelt did challenge those economic interests, boldly, right frontally. He called them economic royalists. He wasn’t worried that people would say, “Oh, you’re appealing to class conflict,” you know, the kind of thing they pull out all the time, as if there isn’t, hasn’t always been class conflict, just something new, you know. Class conflict. “You’re creating class conflict. We’ve never had class conflict. We’ve always all been one happy family.” … And so, yeah, there are these interests standing in the way, and, you know, unfortunately, the Democratic Party is tied to many of those interests….I mean, look at the people on Obama’s economics team, and they’re Goldman Sachs people….They don’t represent change. They represent the old-style Democratic stay-put leadership.

In this spirit, here’s another political cartoon from March 1933.


[Cartoons are from the Basil O’Connor Collection at the FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York; many of them have been placed online in a database created by students at Niskayuna High School in upstate New York.]