[Howard Zinn raw #14: Lecture on the omissions and the nature of history]

Howard Zinn gives a talk at the University of Georgia. He discusses the idea of neutrality and objectivity in history, the omission of the labor struggle from American history, the Civil Rights movement, and his personal experiences as a worker, soldier, and teacher.

0:04Copy video clip URL Howard Zinn talks about his rejection of the idea of objectivity and neutrality in the study and teaching of history. “As soon as you begin to do history, you are selecting data. As soon as you teach, as soon as you write, as soon as you present anything in history, you are selecting data out of an enormous mass of material. And as soon as you begin the process of selection, you are establishing a point of view, whether you admit it or not.” He says that your values, politics, and point of view will influence what you will think is important and therefore what you will include and leave out in presenting history.

1:32Copy video clip URL Zinn discusses the New York Times survey of high school students’ knowledge of history. He says the questions they ask, about the order of historical events and who was president when something happened, are irrelevant and unimportant questions that don’t lead to any further questions.

3:51Copy video clip URL Zinn tells the story of the Mexican-American War and how it started when the United States sent troops into disputed territory and President James Polk declared that American blood had been shed on American soil. Zinn wants people to be provoked into looking at how the wars fought by the United States in the 19th  and 20th centuries got started. He discusses the omission of the conflict between the United States and the Phillipines following the Spanish-American War. “So yes, if you started with that question on the Mexican War, it might lead you to all sorts of troublesome questions about how wars start.”

8:00Copy video clip URL Zinn tells the audience about the truth behind the sinking of RMS Lusitania, which led to the United States’ entry into World War I. He talks about the utter disillusionment following WWI. He discusses the Gulf of Tonkin incident and how the American public was decieved by those seeking to sanction and justify military action.

10:45Copy video clip URL Zinn says that when you treat history simply as a collection of names, dates, and sequential orders of events, you are collaborating with an uncritical view of American history. “You’re not being led to examine, to think for yourself, to think critically.” Zinn recounts that when he started teaching, he chose to be forthright about his values and why he was selecting what he was selecting. Zinn says the most serious kind of lying is the omission of events and perspectives from the historical record.

12:33Copy video clip URL Zinn says that when he started to study history, he was astonished by the omissions he encountered. He asks the audience how many people have heard of the Ludlow Massacre; only about four have. He tells the story of the struggle between the wealthy and powerful of Colorado and the miners of United Mine Workers, which culminated in an assault on the UMW tent colonies by the National Guard.

15:34Copy video clip URL Zinn says his life experiences and late entry into academia allowed him to recognize these historical omissions. He recounts his life, touching on his working-class background, his service as a bombadier in WWII, his experiences working blue-collar jobs, his marriage and his family, his decision to become a teacher, and his experiences teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. “My attitude towards history was informed by these experiences, that is, my growing up in the way I did, the kind of family, community, and neighborhood and work situation that I was in, gave me, what I  can only describe as class-consciousness.”

19:04Copy video clip URL Zinn speaks on the rarity of class-consciousness in American public life. “This is the most terrible thing you can do, is talk about class, because we’re all brought up in this country, and our education system is based on the idea that we’re all one family, we’re all one, our interests are the same: the interests of Exxon, and my interests, the janitor at General Motors and the President of General Motors, the same, we’re all Americans!” He says the words and phrases we use to talk about ourselves obscure our differences.

22:40Copy video clip URL Zinn examines the difference between the national legend of the Constitution and the historical reality of the Constitution. He talks about its legitimization of slavery, its development in response to Shays’ Rebellion and the anxieties of wealthy, ruling elites. “The government was set up so that it could control things, so it would be strong enough to protect the slaveowners against slave revolts, strong enough to protect land speculators who are going out West and encountering people who have lived there for centuries and who thought they deserved to stay there.”

30:52Copy video clip URL Zinn dismisses President Clinton’s assertion that “the era of big government is over.” He is doubtful that Clinton will be ending lucrative military contracts, reducing the size of the military, ending tax breaks for the rich or cutting oil subsidies. “We’ve had big government from the very beginning, big govenment on behalf of the wealthy interests of the country.”

32:10Copy video clip URL Zinn continues speaking about how the American government has served the interested of the wealthy and powerful throughout history while the camera pans out over the crowd. He lays out how discussions in the United States about tax policy frame it as “raising taxes” or “lowering taxes” and hardly ever look at the class dimensions of tax policy.

34:32Copy video clip URL The camera returns to Zinn at the podium as he speaks on the continuation of subsidies for aircraft manufacturers following the end of WWII. “My point in all of this is I guess I was conscious, as I began to study American history, of the class bias in the study of history and of the class nature of American society, which was being concealed behind this fog of ‘we’re all in this together and all our interests are the same and we’re doing this for national security and so on.'” He says his teaching was influenced by his experience fighting during WWII. After the war ended, he gradually realized that WWII didn’t bring any sort of end to fascism, imperialism, racism, or militarism and that war ultimately can’t solve anything. He talks about his disillusionment throughout the Cold War, especially towards the lies put forward by the American government surrounding the Vietnam War. “My heroes when I not taught were not military heroes […] my heroes were people who fought against war, my heroes were Eugene Debs, my heroes were those women who went to jail in World War One for protesting against the war, Kate Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman.”

42:23Copy video clip URL Zinn talks about the effect that teaching at Spelman had on his teaching. He says living in hyper-segregated Atlanta forced him to reassess his own understanding of history. He talks about the stark difference between the official history of “the Progressive Era” and how black historians write about the time period.

45:05Copy video clip URL Zinn speaks on the difference between the classroom model of the checks and balances of the federal government and the actual forces behind social progress in the United States. He says that social movements cannot depend on the formal structure of government or depend on elections. “Out of little movements grow great movements, out of small actions, historic things happen.” He says unless a social movement confronts the current trajectory of the United States, we’ll continue to fight pointless wars and invest our wealth into military production.

50:32Copy video clip URL The audience gives Howard Zinn a standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk.

51:16Copy video clip URL A student asks Howard Zinn if Iraq were to use chemical or biological weapons, at what point we should interfere and what we should do. Zinn responds that Saddam Hussein is not the only leader in the world with the potential to use extremely deadly and destructive weapons against us and we can’t just go bomb them all. He says that the United States’ history of using weapons of mass destruction is a much bigger concern of his.

53:57Copy video clip URL Zinn says he believes that drug use comes out of desparate circumstances and we need to address those circumstances rather than drug use itself.

54:50Copy video clip URL A student asks Zinn why the working class isn’t in a state of constant rebellion and how working people lose their sense of class-consciousness. Zinn replies that working people have always rebelled against their situation when they saw the chance to win and move forward, but people and movements are constantly being crushed whenever they attempt to move the world past its current conditions. “People, even in the face of what seems like continual defeat, have to keep going, have to keep doing, working, in the faith, really, that if you keep protesting, that at some point, critical mass will be created.”

58:58Copy video clip URL Zinn talks about the crisis of the American welfare system under the Clinton administration. “But I’m afraid that the Clinton administration has really become more and more like the Republican administrations that we have and therefore we can’t depend on them […] Clinton will only act if there is a great movement in this country to push him to act.”

1:00:07Copy video clip URL A man asks Zinn about the substitution of race for class as the issue at hand in American politics. Zinn responds by talking about the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s understanding of the need to address poverty, not just segregation.



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