Howard Zinn Remembered – by Noam Chomsky

The following remarks below are excerpted from a tribute to the late Howard Zinn by his friend the eminent linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky, published in Al Jazeera, 27 January 2012, the second anniversary of the death of Howard Zinn. Zinn was dismissed in 1963 from his position as a tenured professor at Spelman College in Atlanta after siding with black women students in the struggle against segregation. In 1967, he wrote, one of the first, and most influential, books Vietnam-The Logic of Withdrawal, calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. A veteran of the US Army Air Force, he and Noam Chomsky edited The Pentagon Papers, leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, and was later designated a “high security risk” by the FBI. Toward the end of his life, Zinn said he wanted to be known as “somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn’t have before.”  In an interview he said he wanted to rehabilitate the term “socialism” which had became tainted by its identification with Soviet communism. He said he considered himself politically an “anarchist, socialist … maybe a democratic socialist.”

His best-selling  A People’s History of the United States spawned a new field of historical study: People’s Histories. This approach countered the traditional triumphalist examination of “history as written by the victors”, instead concentrating on the poor and seemingly powerless; those who resisted imperial, cultural and corporate hegemony. Since its publication in 1980, the book has sold 1.7 million copies, became required reading in thousands of classes, been turned into a play, and excerpted on audio CDs read by Zinn and actor Matt  Damon. The People Speak, released in 2010, is a documentary movie inspired by the lives of ordinary people who fought back against oppressive conditions over the course of the history of the United States. Watch a preview:
The film includes performances by Zinn, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Viggo Mortensen, Josh Brolin, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Don Cheadle, and Sandra Oh.  The book was posted in its entirety at zero cost on the internet by an anonymous group calling themselves History is a Weapon with Zinn’s approval, despite the book publisher’s opposition (A People’s History of the United States). In 2008, a graphic adaptation by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki and Pul Buhle was published as A People’s History of American Empire, concentrating on America’s imperial role in the world. Significantly, this version also followed the Zinn model of history-writing – to place the historian’s point of view clearly into the narrative.

His uniquely personal, engaged and engaging views on history and modern society also were expressed in  short plays: a one-person play called Marx in Soho: A Play on History (1999) and another short play Emma: A Play in Two Acts about Emma Goldman, American Anarchist (2002).

His memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, was also the title of a 2004 documentary about Zinn’s life and work.

Here is what Noam Chomsky wrote in his memorial tribute:  

It is not easy for me to write a few words about Howard Zinn, the great American activist and historian. He was a very close friend for 45 years. The families were very close too. His wife Roz, who died of cancer not long before, was also a marvellous person and close friend. Also somber is the realisation that a whole generation seems to be disappearing, including several other old friends: Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmed and others, who were not only astute and productive scholars, but also dedicated and courageous militants, always on call when needed – which was constant. A combination that is essential if there is to be hope of decent survival.

Howard’s remarkable life and work are summarised best in his own words. His primary concern, he explained, was “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lie at the roots of “those great moments” that enter the historical record – a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma. His life was always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and interviews. It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown people who brought about great moments.

That was true when he was an industrial worker and labour activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a black college that was open mostly to the small black elite. While teaching at Spelman, Howard supported the students who were at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement in its early and most dangerous days, many of whom became quite well-known in later years – Alice Walker, Julian Bond and others – and who loved and revered him, as did everyone who knew him well. And as always, he did not just support them, which was rare enough, but also participated directly with them in their most hazardous efforts – no easy undertaking at that time, before there was any organised popular movement and in the face of government hostility that lasted for some years. Finally, popular support was ignited, in large part by the courageous actions of the young people who were sitting in at lunch counters, riding freedom buses, organising demonstrations, facing bitter racism and brutality, sometimes death.

By the early 1960s, a mass popular movement was taking shape, by then with Martin Luther King in a leadership role – and the government had to respond. As a reward for his courage and honesty, Howard was soon expelled from the college where he taught. A few years later, he wrote the standard work on SNCC (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), the major organisation of those “unknown people” whose “countless small actions” played such an important part in creating the groundswell that enabled King to gain significant influence – as I am sure he would have been the first to say – and to bring the country to honour the constitutional amendments of a century earlier that had theoretically granted elementary civil rights to former slaves – at least to do so partially; no need to stress that there remains a long way to go. …

After being expelled from the Atlanta college where he taught, Howard came to Boston, and spent the rest of his academic career at Boston University, where he was, I am sure, the most admired and loved faculty member on campus, and the target of bitter antagonism and petty cruelty on the part of the administration. In later years, however, after his retirement, he gained the public honour and respect that was always overwhelming among students, staff, much of the faculty, and the general community. While there, Howard wrote the books that brought him well-deserved fame.

His book Vietnam – The Logic of Withdrawal, in 1967, was the first to express clearly and powerfully what many were then beginning barely to contemplate: that the US had no right even to call for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, leaving Washington with power and substantial control in the country it had invaded and by then already largely destroyed. Rather, the US should do what any aggressor should: withdraw, allow the population to somehow reconstruct as they could from the wreckage, and if minimal honesty could be attained, pay massive reparations for the crimes that the invading armies had committed, vast crimes in this case. The book had wide influence among the public, although to this day, its message can barely even be comprehended in elite educated circles, an indication of how much necessary work lies ahead. Among the general public by the war’s end, 70 per cent regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral” a remarkable figure, considering the fact that scarcely a hint of such a thought was expressible in mainstream opinion.

Even more influential in the long run than Howard’s anti-war writings and actions was his enduring masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, a book that literally changed the consciousness of a generation. Here he developed with care, lucidity and comprehensive sweep his fundamental message about the crucial role of the people who remain unknown in carrying forward the endless struggle for peace and justice, and about the victims of the systems of power that create their own versions of history and seek to impose it. Later, his “Voices” from the People’s History, now an acclaimed theatrical and television production, has brought to many the actual words of those forgotten or ignored people who have played such a valuable role in creating a better world.

Howard’s unique success in drawing the actions and voices of unknown people from the depths to which they had largely been consigned has spawned extensive historical research following a similar path, focusing on critical periods of US history, and turning to the record in other countries as well, a very welcome development. It is not entirely novel – there had been scholarly inquiries of particular topics before – but nothing to compare with Howard’s broad and incisive evocation of “history from below”, compensating for critical omissions in how US history had been interpreted and conveyed.

Howard’s dedicated activism continued, literally without a break, until the very end, even in his last years, when he was suffering from severe infirmity and personal loss – though one would hardly know it when meeting him or watching him speaking tirelessly to captivated audiences all over the country. Whenever there was a struggle for peace and justice, Howard was there, on the front lines, unflagging in his enthusiasm, and inspiring in his integrity, engagement, eloquence and insight; a light touch of humour in the face of adversity, and dedication to non-violence and sheer decency. It is hard even to imagine how many young people’s lives were touched, and how deeply, by his achievements, both in his work and his life.

An end to GM crop development for Europe

Awareness of and resistance to food from genetically modified organisms is much greater in Europe than the US. The battles between the industrial food and chemistry corporations on the one hand and public health experts, food nutritionists and small-scale organic farmers on the other hand, have been raging for years in Europe, yet have barely begun to emerge into US public media awareness. The news reported below, from the Financial Times, reports a watershed development.

BASF, the German chemical giant, is to pull out of genetically modified [GM] plant development in Europe and relocate it to the US, where political and consumer resistance to GM crops is not so entrenched. The headquarters of BASF Plant Science will move from south-west Germany to Raleigh, North Carolina, and two smaller sites in Germany and Sweden will close. The company will transfer some GM crop development to the US but stop work on crops targeted at the European market – four varieties of potato and one of wheat. The decision … signals the end of GM crop development for European farmers. Bayer, BASF’s German competitor, is working on GM cotton and rice in Ghent, Belgium – but not for European markets. “This is another nail in the coffin for genetically modified foods in Europe,” said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth. BASF battled for some 13 years before the European Union approved in 2010 cultivation of its Amflora potato, which was intended to provide high-quality starch for industrial customers. However, German test sites had to be put under constant guard and activists still succeeded in destroying potato fields.

From an article in Financial Times
, Jan 16, 2012.

The European public is well aware of the serious threats of GM food, yet the U.S. public, Seeds of Deception is a book by Jeffrey M. Smith, which exposes industry and government deception about the safety of genetically engineered foods. John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America, says of this book “clear, profound and unerringly accurate, .. tells you what you need to know about genetically engineered food – and what Monsanto won’t tell you.” For a ten-page summary click here.

For key articles from major media sources on the risks of genetically modified foods, click here.  This and the other two sources listed here come from the excellent series of websites.

This excellent website has a 12-page list and description of seasoned and respected journalists who have exposed mass media cover-ups on a variety of topics. The general public generally knows very little about this. For details on the work of these courageous and independent-minded journalists, click on this link controlled media. Here are excerpts from the revealing accounts of 20 award-winning journalists in the highly acclaimed book Into the Buzzsaw. These courageous writers were prevented by corporate media ownership from reporting major news stories. Some were even fired or laid off. They have won numerous awards, including several Emmys and a Pulitzer. A partial list of the journalists whose work was censored by the major media is Jane Akre, Dan Rather, Monika Jensen-Stevenson, Kristian Borjesson, Greg Palast, Michael Levine, Gary Webb, Joh Kelly, Robert McChesney.

Class War and Inequality in America – Some Startling Facts and Perspectives

A dominant theme in the Occupy movement that is roiling urban centers in the US is the extreme wealth inequality, expressed in the slogan of the 1% vs the 99%. Those who have lost their jobs or their homes or both are well aware of the extent of poverty in their community, but the wealthy class and the media they own do not dwell on the uncomfortable statistics demonstrating this inequality. That may be changing. A PBS Newshour special (Aug 16, 2011), entitled Land of the Free, Home of the Poor, took on this project.

Here are some extracts from it, with statements by several different commentators:

Inequality in America. It’s a subject that’s getting more attention in light of the weak economy and the ongoing debate around budget cuts and raising revenues… People don’t understand how much wealth the top 20 percent have. They actually have 84 percent of the wealth. And more disturbingly, people don’t understand how little wealth the bottom of the distribution have. The bottom 40 percent of the U.S. have about 0.3 percent of the wealth, basically zero. … In the last 30 years or so, the share of national income that has gone to the upper 0.1 percent rose by 10 percentage points. That is one of the most astounding patterns I have ever seen in data. People sometimes say, oh, the rich, it’s the upper 10 percent, it’s the upper 5 percent. No, no, this is the 0.1 percent.

The program featured an interview with one of the wealthiest men in the world billionaire businessman Warren Buffett, who has argued in favor of higher taxes on the wealthiest. He said:

It should be a land of opportunity. But the market system has led to extremes. Everybody in this country owes their good fortune in some way to the rest of the country.

A wonderful statement and valuable reminder.

Buffett says: Yes, there’s been a class war in the United States. And my class, namely the super rich people, have won.

Noam Chomsky on the American Policy of World Militarization

In an interview with The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, published Dec 16, 2011 in the online journal Waging Nonviolence and republished in  TRUTHOUT.ORG, Noam Chomsky returns to his familiar, valid and essential critique of the long-standing U.S. agenda of world imperial domination.

There is very little doubt that the U.S. government intends to maintain effective military control over Afghanistan by one means or another, either through a client state with military bases, and support for what they’ll call Afghan troops. That’s the pattern elsewhere as well. So, for example, after bombing Serbia in 1999, the United States maintains a huge military base in Kosovo, which was the goal of the bombing. In Iraq, they’re still building military bases even though there is rhetoric about leaving the country. And I presume they will do the same in Afghanistan too, which is regarded by the U.S. as of strategic significance in the long term, within the plans of maintaining control of essentially the energy resources and other resources of the region, including western and Central Asia. So this is a piece of ongoing plans which in fact go back to the Second World War.

Right now, the United States is militarily engaged in one form or another in almost a hundred countries, including bases, special forces operations, support for domestic military and security forces. This is a global program of world militarization, essentially tracing back to headquarters in Washington, and Afghanistan is a part of it. It will be up to Afghans to see if, first of all, if they want this; secondly, if they can act in ways which will exclude it. That’s pretty much what’s happening in Iraq. As late as early 2008, the United States was officially insisting that it maintain military bases and be able to carry out combat operations in Iraq, and that the Iraqi government must privilege U.S. investors for the oil and energy system. Well, Iraqi resistance has compelled the United States to withdraw somewhat from that, substantially, in fact. But the efforts will still continue. These are ongoing conflicts based on long standing principles.