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News ::
10/10 Howard Zinn Teach-in at Mass Art
16 Oct 2001
Modified: 12 Nov 2001
On Wednesday, October 10, Howard Zinn, renowned historian and playwright gave a lecture on "the artist's role in society" at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. Zinn, author of "A Peoples' History of the United States," focused on how artists can use their art to criticize government, and to "transcend the framework that society has created."
Howard Zinn was introduced as an historian and playwright whose books "actively engage non-academic audiences". "A Peoples' History of the United States" has increased in sales every year since its publication, and his writings have been translated into Japanese, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, French, Spanish, Hindi, German, Finnish, Chinese, Korean, and Swedish. His plays have been performed in Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, London, and Tokyo, among others.
"...The artist is telling us what the world should be like, even if it isn't that way now, and the artist is taking us away from the moments of horror that we experience every day in this world, some days more than others, and showing us something else, showing us what is possible. So there's no need for the arist to apologize just for giving us something that is passionate and beautiful and funny..." Zinn said.
He then went on to discuss the categorization of people into "professions" and what it is to be "professional."
"During the Vietnam war, there would be meetings of historians... The war was raging in southeast Asia and the question was 'Should historians take a stand on the war?' and there was a big debate on this. And some of us introduced a resolution saying, 'We historians think the United States should get out of Vietnam.' And then there were others who said, 'No. It's not that we think the United States should stay in Vietnam, it's not that at all. It's just that we're historians. It's not our business.' Hey, whose business is it? So the historian says it's not my business, and the business man says it's not my business, and the lawyer says it's not my business, and the artist says it's not my business, and whose business is it? You mean you're going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country? I mean, how stupid can you be?"
"There are experts in little things. There are no experts in big things. There are experts in this fact and that fact and that fact, but there are no moral experts. It's important to remember that, that all of us, whatever we do, have the right to make moral decisions about the world and, undeterred by the cries of 'Oh, you don't know, you're not an expert. These people up there, they know.' It takes only a little bit of history to realize how dangerous it is to think that the people who run the country know what they're doing."
Zinn then began to criticize the concept of "getting in line," and that "we must be united." Specifically, he criticized Dan Rather. "And Rather when he said that ["When the president says 'Get in line,' I get in line."], he violated that Hippocratic Oath of journalists that is implied in the profession of journalism: Think for yourself; the kind of statement you would expect from a journalist in a totalitarian state, not someone living in a democracy," he said.
"And then you have Al Gore, who accepted his defeat graciously, so graciously that he became humble, overwhelmingly humble, so that when this happened, Gore announced, 'Bush is my Commander-in-Chief.' And I thought, 'I don't think he's read the Constitution.' The Constitution says that the president is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. He's not the Commander-in-Chief of the whole country of all of us. You see all these people rushing to get in line, rushing to get inside the perimeter of power, and it's the job of the artist to transcend that, to think outside the boundaries, to dare to say things that no one else will say."
Howard Zinn cited Mark Twain as one of the many artists who criticized the government. In 1906, during the war in the Phillipines, Twain denounced President Theodore Roosevelt and openly spoke against the war and the atrocities that the US military was responsible for. "And as soon as you do that," Zinn said, "the question of your patriotism arises. And Mark Twain said about patriotism and about loyalty, because people asked him 'Why aren't you loyal?' And he said, 'My kind of loyalty is loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing. It is the thing to watch over and care for and be loyal to. Its institutions are extraneous. There it's mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags, that is a loyalty of unreason.'"
Zinn then pointed out that the Declaration of Independence states that governments are "artificial creations" put in place to achieve certain goals for the people, and that "when government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. That's serious," Zinn said, "but that's democratic doctrine. And therefore there are times when it becomes absolutely patriotic to point a finger at the government... to do what we always praise when it is done in other countries, totalitarian countries."
In talking about the two World Wars, Zinn's words seemed to echo recent events: "...Even when the war is presumably a good war, because wars always look good at the beginning... because of this rush of fervor based on something terrible that has been done, and something that must be done in retaliation, and only later does the thinking begin and the questioning begin... You know there are good wars and bad wars?" he added, "I used to think so, until I was in a war," no doubt referring to his own experience in World War II.
"I'm thinking that one of the boundaries set for us is the idea of national power, our national power, and our national goodness, that we are the superpower in the world and that we deserve to be the superpower because we're the best and the greatest and we have the most democracy and the most freedom, and that's why terrible things are done to us, because we're the best. That's kind of arrogant," Zinn said, eliciting a few laughs from the audience.
According to Howard Zinn, the United States has behaved "like other imperial nations in the world."
"We have to think about what kind of country we want to be in the world, and whether it is really important for us to be a superpower, whether that's what we should take pride in, that we are the strongest, we are the richest, we have the most nuclear weapons, we have the most television sets and the most, you know, cars and this and that. Is that the thing we want to be most proud of? And is that strength really strength or is it something else?" he said, leading into a discussion of Joseph Heller, the author of "Catch-22," stating how hard it would have been to write a non-fiction book pointing out that "the good war [World War II] was not necessarily a good war," but that "if you write a novel like "Catch-22" and slyly -- an artist can be sly -- and slyly point to things that take you outside the traditional thinking, you can get away with it in fiction because well, it's fiction. But remember what Picasso said: 'Art is a lie that tells the truth.' Art goes away from reality. It makes up something, it invents something, and what it invents might be more accurate about the world than if somebody gives you a one, two, three photographic picture of the world."
Howard Zinn's examples of artists criticizing government in general and war in particular were not limited to literature. He mentioned "The Indignant Eye," a book with drawings and etchings from the 15th century to the present of "artists as social critics," including Goya's 82 etchings on war. He also quoted from Bob Dylan's song "Masters of War," which he strongly suggests to everyone.

Come you Masters of War, you that build the big guns,
You that build the death planes, you that build all the bombs.
You that hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks,
I just want you to know I can see through your masks
You've thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled,
Fear to bring childen, into the world,
For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed,
You ain't worth the blood that runs in your veins
Let me ask you one question; Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness, do you think that it could?
I think you will find, when death takes its toll,
All the money you made will never buy back your soul.

"You get the impression that I'm against war," Zinn said, provoking laughter again, "and that I think at a time when all the bugles are blowing for war and all the voices on television and the government spokesmen and the media people are not questioning, are getting in line, they're not questioning 'should we do this,' they're questioning how we should do this. 'Should we use ground troops or should we use airplanes?' and the trick in thinking transcendentally is to think 'what questions aren't they asking? What are they assuming that we accept?'... Of course I'm telling you all this at a time when it is unpopular to speak against the bombing that is now going on, because all these voices around us are telling us 'It's the right thing to do. It's the only thing to do.'... When you enlarge the question and define terrorism as the ugly killing of innocent people for some presumed political purpose, then you'll find that all sorts of nations have engaged in terrorism, as well as individuals and groups, and that there is such a thing as state terrorism... And when states commit terrorism... they have far greater means at their disposal for killing people than the single individuals or groups. The United States has been responsible for acts of terrorism. It's difficult to say that. When you say that, people say you're trying to minimize what was done. No, not trying to minimize. Trying to enlarge, trying to broaden our scope, trying to understand. The United States and England have been responsible for deaths of large, large, numbers of innocent people in the world. It doesn't take too much history to see that, to think of Vietnam, to think of Laos and Cambodia, to think of Central America, to think of 200,000 dead in Guatemala as a result of the government that the United States armed and supported. I know all this is unsettling. We don't want to hear criticism of the United States government when we have been the victims of a terrorist act, but we have to think about terrorism in the larger sense of how we are going to stop it, and we have to ask the question, 'Is bombing going to stop it?' Or is further terrorism going to stop it because war is terrorism, because war in our time inevitably involves the killing of innocent people."
"And it may not," Zinn continued, "immediately match the killing of 6000 people, we've only killed a handful of people in Afghanistan, but we have more than matched that at other times, and there are perhaps a million people who have died in Iraq as a result of sanctions that we have enforced and opposed. And it's not a matter of measuring... You have to see all these things as terrorist acts that have taken place in the world and what we can do about it... The thinking goes like this: 'Yes, innocent people died. Too bad. But it was done for an important purpose. It was collateral damage. You must accept collateral damage when you are doing something very important. That's how terrorists justify what they do, that's how nations justify what they do. So I'm asking all of us to transcend what's coming at us from all sides and to think carefully and clearly."
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17 Oct 2001
I commend Howard Zinns contributions to the civil rights movement in America and to higher education. That said, he stinks at foreign policy making.

Well, not so much stinks, per se, but rather is working with a limited scope as to the mechanics needed to run a world wide enterprise (note, not empire) as the United States encompasses.

People die all of the time, what is everyone's problem with death? Civilian deaths, criminal deaths, animal deaths, forestry deaths... it is all relative, nothing is immortal, everlasting. Life is temporal, human existance is temporary.

"mechanics of death"
12 Nov 2001
Yeah, they sure do "die all the time" --thanks in no small part to "world wide enterprises" nee "empires". I guess that's really no "problem"... unless you happen to be one of them. And I'm sure unfortunately, that you're right that there are "MORE TO COME". "Human existence is temporary" alright... and hopefully, so too are "world wide empires" ...err "enterprises.