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Howard Zinn has changed the way we read history. The People's History of the United States pulled the mask off some of the enduring, and damaging myths about America. His writings and teachings encourage us to look beyond what we've been spoonfed and to question the "need" for violence. He continues to be an outspoken critic of war and political coruption and a vocal proponent of grassroots activism. The Internationalist caught up with him for our Worldly Advice Issue.
You argue that governments must convince the public to go to war; that war is not inherent of human nature. How did this happen with the Iraq war?
The government set out to present false information. Colin Powell presented a detailed account of Hussein's WMDs, probably the most compact assembly of falsehoods that have ever been uttered in front of the United Nations. They then bombarded the public, aided by an uncritical press, with information that led them to believe that the United States was somehow in imminent danger and that we had to go to war. There was a barrage of information given to the public by the government, and then repeated by the press. This is clear evidence that the government cannot depend on the public's natural instinct to go to war; they have to work very, very hard; they have to propagandize and persuade them [the public] that war is necessary.
In a recent article in The Progressive, you say that we have an "addiction to massive violence." How can we shake this addiction?
It isn't that the people are addicted to massive violence, but they can become addicted. That is, they can become accustomed to the idea that the only solution to a problem, when someone crosses a boundary or when a tyrant exists, war is the solution.
The wars are poisoning minds of the people engaged in them, and the answer is to look back in history, to look at the outcomes of war. Can you find that when you kill millions of people and maim hundreds of thousands, is there more democracy? More liberty? To learn about history is to kick the habit of violence and show that war is futile and addiction is a consequence of engagement in it.
How do you look back on your time as a WW2 bombardier?
Now I am very regretful and very sad. I indiscriminately killed, which is what bombing is, and it was acceptable. It was only afterward that I began to think about what I was really doing to human beings. I was participating in atrocities. Over half of those dead were not soldiers, but civilians. So, I look back regretfully at that experience and have since tried to make up for it by educating people and by participating in the anti-war movement.
What is an issue on which your opinion has changed, and what have you learned from the change?
Certainly my opinion changed from the time I was a bombardier that there was such a thing as a good war, and I now know that there is no such thing. I also thought we had a democratic society and government, with checks and balances. I now believe only in the movements of the people that can change history.
Are popular resistance movements different now than in the past?
I think that the mobilization of people is not fundamentally different. Very often, people will get frustrated that the movement isn't succeeding in stopping the war. They think there must be a better way, that there must be some magic new way to organize, but it takes time and patience; there's no magic to it. There's no cause for despair that we have not yet seen results yet; it's a matter of continuing to do it because people are basically decent and don't want war.
Should there be limits on free speech in higher education?
Professors and students should be express whatever opinions they want. Our culture is dominated by certain ideas: the ideas of patriotism, nationalism, ideas of capitalism and success in terms of wealth and prestige; students are already exposed to all sorts of ideas. Professors should be free to express their ideas because it serves as an example to students. For them to bring their ideas into the classroom is to bring their own cart to the marketplace of ideas. Professors need to express those opinions; when a professor holds back and is timid, he is setting an example of timidity in the classroom.
How can students contribute to and encourage the marketplace of ideas?
Students shouldn't simply accept the authority of their teacher; they should go outside of the reading lists and outside the syllabus to bring into the class challenging ideas. They must be willing to speak up and argue with the professor and not worry about being put down.
What would the 20-year-old you say to the current you?
Wow, I didn't realize you would turn out this way! I didn't realize that you would turn from an eager young bombardier to an anti-war protester. And the 20 year old would say, "I didn't think you would last this long!"
Any advice for readers?
Go to the library. Don't watch TV! Every time you are tempted to watch TV, pick up a book. Pay attention to independent news sources and independent magazines!
What's your biggest guilty pleasure?
Watching baseball games.