Of the People:
A Conversation with Howard Zinn
by Gabriel Matthew Schivone
G.M.S.: Here in Tucson, Arizona, 70 miles from the border, we are feeling the effects of President Bush's deployment of National Guard troops at the U.S. border. The first hundreds arrived last summer, and 2,500 are expected to be in our "Tucson Sector" by August. Moreover, the Border Patrol is to grow from 12,400 agents today to 18,000 by 2008. What are the purposes of a greatly militarized border?
H.Z.: I think the main purpose is not so much to keep people from crossing the border -- they will always find a way to do so -- but to create an atmosphere in the country which is viciously nationalistic, xenophobic, hostile to strangers of any kind. Creating fear of people on the other side of the border gives the government more control over its own people.
There are many striking parallels in immigration policies and social discriminations against the Mexican and Chinese throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which included massive deportation and legal exclusion, for instance, through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. What conclusion may be drawn from the treatment of the Chinese, Mexican, and other immigrant workers?
The conclusion to be drawn from this history is that we have an economic system which sees human beings as property, to be used when it is useful, to be discarded when it is no longer profitable.
The Chinese were welcomed to provide cheap labor on the transcontinental railroad, but then they were not needed, and creating hostility against them turned the attention of white workers away from their own exploiters and against "the other." This has been the historic device used by the great corporations to divide the working class. The same factors operate today with Mexicans and other immigrants.
You've written and spoken much about how crucial a knowledge of history is for us to understand the present conditions in which we find ourselves. You, as well as others like Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky, emphasize that it is a vital interest of the government to keep people in a state of "historical amnesia." Would you explain?
When people don't know their history (and I'm not speaking of the sanitized, nationalistic history that we get in school and in the media) -- they are easily deceived. When the President tells the nation that "we must go to war" for liberty, or democracy, or because we are being threatened, a public with no knowledge of history has no way of checking up on this. But if people knew the history of presidential deceptions to get the nation into war, they would not go along, they would be very skeptical. If they knew history, they would know that U.S. President James Polk pretended he was making war on Mexico because of a clash on the border in 1846 and bringing civilization to the Mexicans. They would understand that he lied about his true motive, which was to acquire almost half of Mexican land. If they knew history, they would remember that the U.S. went into Cuba in 1898, claiming to liberate the Cubans, and then made Cuba a virtual colony of the United States. They wou
d know that President Mckinley lied about his real motive for going into the Philippines, and Woodrow Wilson lied about World War I, and Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin in getting the U.S. into the Vietnam War.
You have done extensive research on war and human nature. What can studies of history, psychology, and anthropology tell us about human nature and the conditions of war?
A common belief, which you see all the time, is that wars are the result of "human nature." But there is no evidence for this in genetics, or in anthropology, or in psychology. The only evidence given is that we have always had wars. True, but you could say the same about slavery, or any institution that has lasted a long time. But it's a way of avoiding the fact that war, slavery, and other phenomena are not natural but created by human beings under certain social conditions. If wars were the result of human nature, it would not be necessary for governments to work so strenuously to mobilize their populations for war. People would naturally, spontaneously rush to kill. But that's not the case. Governments have to deceive the population, use enormous amounts of propaganda to persuade people to go to war, entice young people of the working class into the military in the hope of bettering their lives. And if none of that is sufficient, the government must coerce the yo
ng, draft them, threaten them with prison if they don't join.
I can tell you from my personal experience in the Air Force in World War II: my fellow crew members were not lovers of war. They were persuaded that they were doing something good in fighting fascism, that this was a just war. You can see, in the Vietnam War, how, once soldiers saw through the propaganda of the government, many of them turned against the war.
Why do some believe that there is a human instinct for war and that it's inherent human nature to kill?
It is an easy explanation. And it is useful for governments because it turns people away from examining the imperial motives of governments.
You have expressed immense reverence and gratitude for artists during times of war and popular struggle. Would you discuss the role of artists?
Artists have a special role in social movements -- they lend passion, poetry, humor to the principles any movement espouses. With that, they enhance the power of a social movement, which needs every additional strength it can muster to challenge the power of authorities.
The opening passage in Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls quotes a very moving "Meditation" by John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am a part of mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." What do you feel it says, not only to activists, but all people who are seemingly safe and far away from misery, famine, atrocity, and injustice?
It reminds people that we all share a common humanity and that if we turn our faces away from people who are in trouble, we are being less than human.
You've written and spoken much about the importance of civil disobedience. A prevalent mood of ordinary citizens is aversion to breaking the law under any circumstances. Many are led to believe, "If it's against the law, you shouldn't be doing it." What moral and pragmatic arguments would you give, both to activists and the public, regarding the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of legal injustice?
It's important to know that the law is not made by any divine being, it is not sacred; that the law is made by the people who run the society; and that they make the law to serve their own interests.
Even if there are organs of representative government in the United States, these are not truly representative of the people but serve the interests of the elite, so it is not sufficient to tell people, "Go through the regular channels," because those channels are controlled in such a way as to block radical change. That's why civil disobedience is necessary, in order to fulfill the requirements of democracy, that the interests of the people should be served. Without civil disobedience, we are at the mercy of people in power who make the laws, execute the laws, decide which laws to enforce and which not to enforce.