Howard Zinn: Interviewed about his new book
1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book with, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, is about? What is it trying to communicate?
The book assembles my most recent writings on a variety of subjects, from the war in Iraq to essays on Eugene Debs, Henry David Thoreau, and Sacco and Vanzetti. The central theme is probably best expressed in the final essay, "The Optimism of Uncertainty," in which I draw upon historical experience to suggest that the apparent power of governments and corporations is in fact fragile, that it rests on the obedience of the citizenry, and when that obedience is withdrawn, extraordinary change can take place.
2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?
The book is really the idea of my editor at City Lights, Greg Ruggiero, who thought (and who was I to contradict him?) that my fugitive essays for the Progressive magazine and other publications deserved to be brought together, updated, and published as a book. Matt Rothschild, editor of "The Progressive," where I am a regular columnist, graciously gave permission, and because he allows me to write on whatever subject I choose, there is a wide range of topics in the book. The editors at Princeton University Press allowed us to reprint my Introduction to a collection of Thoreau's political writings. Deepa Fernandes agreed to let us use my introduction to her fine book "Targeted" on the immigration debate. We reprinted, with his permission, my introduction to David Cortright's timely book on GI resistance to the Vietnam War. The magazine "Cineaste," which has the most thoughtful and probing writing on the movies, offered to let me reprint the essay I wrote for them on the relatinship of film to the telling of history. The book also contains several essays that have never been published before.
3) What are your hopes for A Power Governments Cannot Suppress? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?
It is rare that any one book will have a cataclysmic effect on society — yes there was Tom Paine's "Common Sense" and Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and "The Communist Manifesto." All any writer can hope for is that his or her book plays a small part in raising the consciousness of its readers, in pointing to new ways of seeing the world, in making them conscious of their own power when joined to others. So to talk about "success" is only reasonable if "success" is defined modestly. And if that is so, then a writer can never wonder if his or her book was "worth all the time and effort."
4) A Power Governments Cannot Suppress has a beautiful cover photo taken during the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Were you on that march? Can you relay a story?
I was on the last leg of that march, the last twenty miles to Montgomery. We had spent the night before that — the thousands of people on the march — on a field of mud, because there had been a torrential rain, and so our sleeping bags rested on pure mud. As we came into the city of Montgomery, the streets were lined with people, mostly black, cheering and applauding. I decided that I didn't want to stay for the speeches and ceremony that would take place in front of the state capitol. And so, tired, my clothes caked with mud, I decided to go home and made my way to the Montgomery Airport. At the airport I ran into my friend and former colleague, Whitney Young. He was arriving to be at the ceremony concluding the march. Whitney was a tall, distinguished looking black man. I was pretty disheveled. We decided to have a coffee together. The airport cafeteria in Birmingham was still segregated. Indeed, all over the South, the motto was "The Deep South Says Never." But we decided to try anyway. We sat down. The waitress, a young woman, came over to us. I could see in her eyes her indecision. Then she turned to Whitney: "What will you have, sir?" I look at her uniform. On it was a huge button: "The Deep South Says Never."
That is the point of much of what I say in the book. All those cries by the Establishment — "We will never give in...we will never cut and run...we will never end apartheid, etc. etc." have turned out to be hollow claims, because when movements of people grow and become overwhelming, things change.
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Sheldon M. Stern - 1/11/2007
As always, Professor Zinn's idealism is remarkable. However, let me repeat a point I made on HNN last April.
Since Zinn reserves special (and deserved!) contempt for the current administration and the catastrophe in Iraq, it is important to remember that Zinn was a public supporter and active campaigner for Ralph Nader in 2000 despite obvious indications that Nader would throw the election to Bush. Nader's 22,000+ votes in New Hampshire allowed Bush to narrowly take the state--the only one in the northeast lost by Gore. Those four electoral votes would have changed the result. Also, Nader's 98,000+ votes in Florida made the election close enough for the Bush forces to control the vote count (a margin of 537 votes!) and the outcome. Perhaps Zinn did not see any difference between two "capitalist" candidates but I would suggest that Gore would not have continued the destruction of the environment and surely would never have invaded Iraq.