[Howard Zinn raw #13]

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Howard Zinn delivers a lecture at Kansas State University on his involvement with social justice movements, the importance of history, and the American government.

0:04 A speaker at the podium informs the audience of alternative viewing options that are available if they cannot find a seat and then leave the stage.

4:03 Linda Teener takes the podium, announces an award.

4:52 Another speaker takes the podium to introduce Howard Zinn. She tells a story about the kindness displayed by Zinn and his family when they were her neighbors in the Boston area eighteen years ago. “Dr. Zinn is a brilliant writer and teacher. He is so because he has lived his life standing with people who are fighting for their rights and for their very lives.”

9:36 Zinn takes the podium, jokes with the audience about their desire to attend his lecture, and introduces his lecture. He says when he teaches a course, he lets his students know on the first day of classes that he will not be teaching from a neutral point of view and that it’s not really possible to be neutral becuase the world is already moving in certain diretions. “In a world like this, to be neutral, to be passive, to simply inspect these events as an outside observer and report on them without being involved is to collaborate with whatever is going on.”

13:07 Zinn advises those attending university to not allow their professional aspirations and occupational specializations to isolate them from the issues of the world at large. “There’s a way in which a culture can teach people to become professionals, to take their accepted place in society[…]but not to look outside of that, not to step outside those boundaries, not to take an interest in what is happening to other people in other parts of the world, to people who are not professionals.”

15:25 Zinn says he didn’t study history because he wanted to become a professional historian, but because he wanted to change the world. He says he grew up watching his parents struggle to survive and provide for their children; he was always aware that there were plenty of people in America who worked hard and never “made it” financially.

19:57 Zinn says as a teenager he became one of the organizers of the young shipyard workers and began to read Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Lincoln Steffens, and Karl Marx. “And I think that had a really strong effect on me later when I began to teach history and began to study history.”

20:56 Zinn says his experiences in the Air Force also played a crucial role in molding him into a certain type of historian. He says he was initally very enthusiastic about contributing to the fight against fascism. “Once you decide that your side is good and the other side is bad, you don’t have to think anymore, you thought the one thought that is important and you’ve made the decision and after that, anything goes.” He says after the war ended, it was clear that fascism, anti-semitism, and militarism had not been eliminated from human society and this disillusionment shaped his approach to history.

25:25 Zinn talks about his first real teaching job at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia and his involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He says that working at Spelman gave him a different perspective on history. He says that there were no black historians on the reading list in his graduate program at Columbia University and that when he came and lived in a black community in the South he started reading more and things began to look very different. “Heroes of our history books suddenly look less heroic when looked at by black people; nice periods in American history don’t look nice.”

30:42┬áZinn advises teachers to bring their personal life experience into the classroom to get students interested. He adds that one of the most important things to communicate to high school students is that there’s no such thing as an objective presentation of history, the mere act of putting forth a set of facts in lieu of other facts is to take a stand and pass a judgement on the relative importance of historical events.

36:22 Zinn looks at the ways in which American schools tell the story of Christopher Columbus. “The facts presented about Columbus were designed to present a heroic figure to elementary school kids, and the facts were all true. The only problem was that there were other facts that were not being presented to the students. They were not presented with facts of what Columbus did to the Indians he encountered on Hispaniola, not confronted with Columbus’s enslavement of these Indians, his torture of these Indians, his murder of Indians, his lust for gold.”

38:08 Zinn says that by choosing to withhold the troublesome elements of Columbus’s story, “you can create in a young person’s mind the idea ‘it’s a good thing to go off to someplace else and claim it for your own.” Zinn says this lesson gets reinforced in the stories of Jamestown, the Pilgrims, the Louisiana Purchase, the continued seizure of Indian land. He says that the story of Christopher Columbus is important because if you learn some of the lesser-taught facts about Columbus, you might become wary of the idea of “progress” premised upon taking things from and subordinating other people.

41:37 Zinn examines the American Revolution. He says it was not simply a great and glorious thing for everybody in the country; the American Revolution led to heightened expansion by white settlers into Indian territory. He asserts that depicting the American Revolution as a struggle between America and Britain erases the class conflict between American colonists. This class conflict, he says, is expressed through the Constitution as a document that served the interests of the wealthiest colonists and legitimized slavery. “Let’s remember that the abolitionists burned the Constitution at a meeting outside of Boston in the 1830s because the Constitution was a ‘slave document.'” He says that the desire for a strong central government was fueled by fears of rebellion like Shays’ Rebellion.

48:24 Zinn dismisses the idea that “Big Government” is a recent development or something that can be “solved.” “We have a very big government and it’s been big for a very long time. It started big, it has remained big, and big government was set up to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and it served their interests. It gave the merchants tariffs and it gave the industrialists all sorts of protection, it gave the merchant rings subsidies, it protected slaveholders against rebellions, it protected corporations against strikers and sent strikers to jail when they protested against their conditions. That’s been the role of the government: to maintain a tax structure that keeps the wealth at the top, where it has always been.” He says that these interests never complained about big government until legislation was passed to help working people.

51:20 Zinn emphasizes the importance of knowing this history in order to critically engage with the slogans and messages being put out in today’s political climate.

52:51 Zinn breaks down the ways in which our official histories classify entire decades as “good times” or “bad times.” He talks about how the widespread poverty and suffering of the 1920s and 1950s usually end up getting swept aside by the official account of these decades as “prosperous.”

56:00 Zinn says that poverty and preventable suffering in America is unexcusable, seeing as we are an incredibly wealthy country.

57:38 Zinn says that solutions aren’t going to come out of any of the three branches of government. “Whenever we’ve had serious greviances in this country, they have never been able to be solved by the structure set up by the Founding Fathers and sustained by people going to the polls every two years and four years and voting for A or B, or rather, A and A prime.” He said problems haven’t been solved by waiting for the government, but by people coming together, building movements and insisting on change. “We will need a great new social movement in this country if we are going to take the huge wealth that we have in this country, and the enormous talent that we have, and energy that we have, and the great resources, the human resources that we have in this country and use it for the betterment of all.” He says that democracy requires more than just going to the polls, but requires consistent engagement, or, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “eternal vigilance.”

 

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