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Zinn calls for an attitude shift

Published: November 21, 2008
Section: Front Page


A PEOPLE’S HISTORIAN: Howard Zinn implores audience members to change their views on war at a talk at Back Pages Books on Moody Street Tuesday evening.<br /><br /><i>PHOTO BY Dilenia Matta/The Hoot</i>

A PEOPLE’S HISTORIAN: Howard Zinn implores audience members to change their views on war at a talk at Back Pages Books on Moody Street Tuesday evening.

PHOTO BY Dilenia Matta/The Hoot

“The mindset that accepts war is a dangerous mindset in the world today,” Howard Zinn said Tuesday evening at an event hosted by Back Pages Books on Moody Street. In his third visit to Waltham in the last three years, the historian, social activist, playwright, and history professor spoke about the need to change our outlook on war.

While a large percentage of Americans may be concerned with the need to end the war in Iraq, Zinn addressed the American mindset that “got us into Iraq in the first place.” According to Zinn, instead of focusing on short-term solutions, Americans must first change their perception of the government as an entity with interests similar to those of the people. Next, the notion that war is necessary to solve problems must be eradicated. Finally, Zinn advocated a reform of the average history class syllabus as a means to better educate Americans about historical trends and different possibilities available for solving national and international conflict.

“Since when is patriotism equal to obedience to the government?” he asked. Zinn explained how the notion of patriotism has been distorted over time, and now represents more than one’s love for his or her country. People assume that the government represents the interests of the people, “but this has not been a country of common interests from the very beginning,” he said. Currently, the need to appear patriotic and support one’s government has been turned into a requirement to endorse American wars. Even President-elect Barack Obama has been subject to this dangerous paradigm, according to Zinn, based on his views on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Is Obama worried about being unpatriotic? I think so,” Zinn said.

<i>PHOTO BY Delenia E. Matta/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Delenia E. Matta/The Hoot

He said that our perception of war is also problematic, even for those generally against it. Though we tend to believe that war may be necessary to solve problems, it is nothing but a quick fix, according to Zinn. “That is what makes it so appealing,” he added. Zinn also criticized the prevailing notion that “if you don’t use militarism, you’re weak. If you don’t counter terrorism with war, it shows a lack of spine.” Moreover, he finds it difficult to understand the rationale behind distinguishing good wars from bad wars. “Has Obama repudiated these elements from his own mindset? No, and it worries me,” he concluded.

Despite his avid objection to all wars, Zinn himself was “an enthusiastic bombardier” in World War II. He explained that he had time to re-think his view of war after that experience, but conceded that it is difficult to address certain issues such as the need to combat fascism, without force. Similarly, Zinn had no clear response for a question raised by an audience member concerning how Americans can help women denied education by their governments without the use of forceful intervention. Zinn claimed, subsequently, that he is not a total pacifist despite his avid support of anti-war movements. “The idea of being an absolutist in anything doesn’t strike a chord with me,” he said.

Brandeis students who attended the event were generally pleased with the discussion that took place. “It was fantastic,” said Nathan Robinson ’11. Unlike many other analysts, Robinson said that by reading Zinn’s books or listening to him, “we can figure out where we are, where we’ve been, and how we got here.”

Recalling Zinn’s address at Levin Ballroom two years ago, attended by 500 people, many were pleasantly surprised by the intimacy of the small room in the back of Back Pages, owned by Alex Green ’04.

Though most audience members seemed to enjoy the event, some may have left disappointed. “I think a lot of people wanted [Zinn to provide us with] solutions to problems and might have been disappointed,” Katie Gray-Schofield ’09 said. She added that though it is useful to look at history for guidance, it is not possible to obtain three-step solutions to war and foreign policy-related issues, as some questions raised in the discussion session seemed to expect.

Ironically, Zinn criticized the American tradition of looking for saviors instead of taking action. He attributed the root of this problem to history syllabi across the country. “If kids were taught the history of social movement instead of the history of presidents we’d be more prepared,” he said. As a suggestion for shifting history curriculum, Zinn offered a partial joke: “you could start by using my books,” he said, addressing teachers in the audience.In an interview, Zinn said that he regrettably felt that social and political issues have not advanced drastically since he published his best-selling book, A People’s History of the United States. “I’d like to say the world has changed drastically but it hasn’t,” he said, referencing the progressively larger social and economic gaps in the country and the unnecessary wars. “So I can’t really give any credit to my book,” he joked. Even so, he conceded that a large shift has taken place in terms of Americans’ consciousness of significant issues such as race, and especially war.

“In a sense, we’re all experienced drug-addicts in that we’ve all been subject to the addiction of war,” he said, but concluded that people have finally recognized that they were fooled by the government to believe that it was a good solution.