Positively Zinnful

It’s become quite clear that as a species we humans are not very smart. In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been breeding out of control, and as a consequence of eight billion people and counting, more and more each day joining the modern world of high resource consumption, we’re inexorably on a course of self destruction from the exhaustion of our resources, damages to the environment, and just plain overcrowding ourselves. We know better, or at least some people do, and yet we can’t/won’t put on the brakes and get off the merry-go-round. Instead we argue, in circles; and fight, wasting more resources. This incredible nearsightedness seems to be more acute than ever. It probably isn’t any worse than in the past, but at the current scale, its size alone makes it seem more ominous. The saddest part is that there have been a smattering of perspicacious and wide-eyed people who have been sufficiently courageous to speak out. A few have gotten some press, but were soon forgotten or ignored. Past book reviews I’ve done feature a small sampling of those brave specimens of humanity who break the moulds. Howard Zinn is another.

All have been pronouncing the same basic cautions, only using various words and coming from diverse perspectives. As we’ve gained greater technological skills and power over nature, the promises of these gains are being squandered. The progress in human rights and civil liberties, the promises of greater leisure time, freedom and equality are being trounced. And the saddest part is that the masses don’t seem to caretoo afraid to stand up, too complacent to speak up, too oblivious to even notice the writing on the wall.

[Note : Emboldened selections are my emphasis.]

For us in the United States, it is hard to accept the idea that the ordinary workings of the parliamentary system will not suffice in the world today. But recall that Jefferson himself, watching the Constitution being created, and thinking of Shay’s Rebellion, spoke of the need for revolutions every twenty years. And Rousseau, at the very moment representative government was beginning to take hold, pointed to the inability of anyone to truly represent anyone else’s interests. And Robert Michels, the Swiss sociologist, 150 years after Rousseau, showed us how an “iron law of oligarchy” operates within any government or any party to separate top from bottom and to make power-holders insensitive to the needs of the masses. No matter how democratic elections are, they represent only fleeting and widely separated moments of popular participation. In that long span between elections, people are passive and captive.

Revolution every twenty years! Crazy! I believe he didn’t intend violent revolution, rather, a review and revision of the principles laid down by the previous generation. The US constitution hasn’t had an amendment ratified since 1992 (and that one was first proposed in 1789). In the last 100 years, there’s been only two amendments of any real substance. That statement is sure to get some pushback, but Prohibition repeal was simply fixing a big mistake, limiting presidential terms to a maximum of two, lowering the voting age, allowing the District of Columbia into the Electoral College, prohibiting the non-payment of poll or other taxes from denial of voting rights are all hardly earthshaking amendments. More importantly, there’s never been a complete review and revision of the constitution and the bill of rights, which are sorely out-of-date. (If you disagree, go read them.)

Thus, we have a dilemma: wars and revolutions today cannot be limited and are therefore very perilous. Yet parliamentary reform is inadequate. We need some intermediate device, powerful but restrained and explosive but controlled, to pressure and even to shock the decision-makers into making the kinds of changes in institutions which fit our world. It turns out (and we have the experience of all bourgeois, socialist and national revolutions to support this) that no form of government, once in power, can be trusted to limit its own ambition. This means that it is up to the citizenry, those outside of power, to engage in permanent combat with the state, short of violent, escalatory revolution, but beyond the gentility of the ballot-box, to insure justice, freedom and well being, all those values which virtually the entire world has come to believe in.

And this brings us back around to education. The kind of education Howard Zinn devoted his life to promoting through his teaching, speaking, writing, and actions. Education to reveal history in all its brutality, to expose the deceptions, and to honestly look directly into the failures of the past. He understood the only reason to study history is to learn not the who-what-when it happened, but the how-why it happened, and to learn why we have to stop repeating the same mistakes and do things in a new way. Every war has been a failure of the imagination, a failure of actions and reactions, a failure of thinking clearly, logically, rationally.

History can work another way, however. If the present seems an irrevocable fact of nature, the past is most usable as a way of suggesting possibilities we would never otherwise consider; it can both warn and inspire. By probing the past we can counter myths which affect the way we act today. We can see that it is possible for an entire nation to be brainwashed; for an “advanced, educated” people to commit genocide; for a “progressive, democratic” nation to maintain slavery; for apparently powerless subordinated to defeat their rulers; for economic planning to be unaccompanied by restrictions on freedom; for [the] oppressed to turn into oppressors; for “socialism” to be tyrannical; for a whole people to be led to war like sheep; for men to make incredible sacrifices on behalf of a cause.

. . . for an entire nation to be brainwashed.” Today, I’d bet he would have to revise that statement to, “. . . for the entire world to be brainwashed.” He’d have to add not only economic planning unaccompanied by restrictions of freedom, but also environmental planning, urban planning, resource management planning.

He offers some good suggestions on how to get out of the vicious cycles of repetition.

The only way to compensate for this is to behave as if we are freer than we think. We can never—because the present is harsh and the future is shadow—weigh accurately how free we are, what our possibilities are at any moment. With such uncertainty, and recognizing the tendency toward overestimating the present, there is good reason for acting on the supposition of freedom.

Acting as if is a way of resolving the paradox of determinism and freedom, a way of overcoming the tension between past and future. It is risky to act as if we are free, but (unless one is content with things as they are) it is just as risky to act as if we are bound, and there is even less chance of reward. The leaps that man had made in social evolution came from those who acted as if. . .

Sartre does not fail to see the armies, the prisons, the blind judges, the deaf rulers, the passive masses. He talks the language of total Freedom because he knows that acting as if we are free is the only way to break the bind.

As if : if only. Action, unfortunately takes courage. It takes conviction. It takes being fed up. And yet, I don’t see many people around me who have had enough. I keep hearing, just go along with it. There’s nothing you can do. I keep hearing resignation. I keep sensing that there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, that people do see the disconnect between what they are being told and what is happening on the street. They know. But they aren’t acting. There’s no discontent, no resistance.

He goes on to condemn academics for their complaisance, for their picking the low hanging fruit while ignoring the big picture. For not letting indignation seep through to acknowledge that the injustices are not isolated. That the problems are systemic, worldwide, and inexcusable.

What is ironic is the fact that when historians do make moral judgments they are about the past, and in a way that may actually weaken moral responsibility in the present.

Moral indignation over Nazism illustrates the point. When such judgment becomes focused on an individual, it buries itself with that person and sticks to no one else. It follows that Germans who obeyed orders during the war may now weep at a showing of The Diary of Anne Frank, blaming the whole thing on Adolf Hitler. (How often these days in Germany does one hear “if not for Adolf Hitler. . . “?) It is these ad hominem assignment of responsibility, this searching the wrong place for blame with a kind of moral astigmatism, which Hannah Arendt tried to call attention to in her dissection of the Eichmann case.

But is it any better to widen responsibility from the individual to the group? Suppose we blame “the Nazis.” Now that the Nazi party is disbanded, now that anti-Semitism is once again diffuse, now that militarism is the property of the “democratic” Government of West Germany as well as the “socialist” Government of East Germany, what effect does this have except to infinitesimally decrease the sale of Volkswagens, and to permit every other nation in the world but Germany to commit mayhem in a softer glow?

What we normally do then, in making moral judgments, is assign responsibility to a group which in some specific historic instance was guilty, instead of selecting the elements of wrong, out of time and place (except for dramatic effect), so that they can be applicable to everyone including ourselves.

It is racism, nationalism, militarism (among other elements) which we find reprehensible in Nazism. To put it that way is alarming, because those elements are discoverable not just in the past, but now, and not just in Germany, but in all the great powers, including the United States.

To define an evil in terms of a specific group when such an evil is not peculiar to that group but possible anywhere is to remove responsibility from ourselves. It is what we have always done in criminal law, which is based on revenge for past acts, rather than a desire to make constructive social changes.

If we don’t look at ourselves and admit our guilt, we will never solve a single issue. If our educational system has failed us, it’s only partly at fault. We, individually, have the personal responsibility to act, here and now, not tomorrow, not waiting for someone else to start, not pointing fingers of blame at others.

We have voices, and even votes, but not the means—more crassly, the power—to turn either domestic or foreign policy in completely new directions.

That is why the knowledge industry (universities, colleges, schools, representing directly $65 billion of the national spending each year [1977 dollars]) is so important. Knowledge is a form of power. True, force is the most direct form of power, and government has a monopoly on that. But in modern times, when social control rests on “the consent of the governed,” force is kept in abeyance for emergencies, and everyday control is exercised by a set of rules, a fabric of values passed on from one generation to another by the priests and teachers of the society. What we call the rise of democracy in the world means that force is replaced by deception (a blunt way of saying “education”) as the chief method for keeping society as it is.

This makes knowledge important, because although it cannot confront force directly, it can counteract the deception that makes the government’s force legitimate. And the knowledge industry, which directly reaches seven million young people in colleges and universities, thus becomes a vital and sensitive locus of power. That power can be used, as it was traditionally, to maintain the status quo, or (as is being demanded by the student rebels) to change it.

Those who command more obvious forms of power (political control and wealth) try also to commandeer knowledge. Industry entices some of the most agile minds for executive posts in business. Government lures others for more glamorous special jobs: physicists to work on H-bombs; biologists to work on what we might call, for want of a better name, the field of communicable disease; chemists to work on nerve gas; political scientists to work on counter-insurgency warfare; historians to sit in a room in the White House and wait for a phone call to let them know when history is being made, so they may record it. And sometimes one’s field doesn’t matter. War is interdisciplinary.

Most knowledge is not directly bought, however. It can also serve the purpose of social stability another way—by being squandered on trivia. Thus, the university becomes a playpen in which the society invites its favored children to play—and gives them toys and prizes to keep them out of trouble. For instance, we might note an article in the leading journal of political science not long ago, dealing with the effects of Hurricane Betsy on the mayoralty election in New Orleans. Or, a team of social psychologists (armed with a fat government grant) may move right into the ghetto (surely the scholar is getting relevant here) and discover two important facts from its extensive, sophisticated research: that black people in the ghetto are poor, and that they have family difficulties.

I am touching a sensitive nerve in the academy now: am I trying to obliterate all scholarship except the immediately relevant? No, it is a matter of proportion. The erection of new skyscraper office buildings is not offensive in itself, but it becomes lamentable alongside the continued existence of ghetto slums. It was not wrong for the Association of Asian Studies at its last annual meeting to discuss some problems of the Ming Dynasty and a battery of similarly remote topics, but no session of the dozens at the meeting dealt with Vietnam.

There is the Establishment of political power and corporate wealth, whose interest is that the universities produce people who will fit into existing niches in the social structure rather than try to change the structure. We always knew our educational system “socialized” people, but we never worried about this, because we assumed our social norms were worthy of perpetuating. Now, and rightly, we are beginning to doubt this. There is the interest of the educational bureaucracy in maintaining itself: its endowment, its buildings, its positions (both honorific and material), its steady growth along orthodox lines. These larger interests are internalized in the motivations of the scholar: promotion, tenure, higher salaries, prestige—all of which are best secured by innovating [innovating? or continuing] in prescribed directions.

All of these interests operate, not through any conspiratorial decision but through the mechanism of a well-oiled system, just as the irrationality of the economic system operates not through any devilish plot but through the mechanism of the profit motive and the market, and as the same kinds of political decisions reproduce themselves in Congress year after year.

The university should unashamedly declare that its interest is in eliminating war, poverty, race and national hatred, governmental restrictions on individual freedom, and in fostering a spirit of cooperation and concern in the generation growing up. It should not serve the interests of particular nations or parties or religions or political dogmas. Ironically, the university has often served narrow governmental, military, or business interests, and yet withheld support from larger, transcendental values, on the ground that it needed to maintain neutrality.

Specifically, we might use our scholarly time and energy to sharpen the perceptions of the complacent by exposing those facts that any society tends to hide about itself: the facts about wealth and poverty, about tyranny in both communist and capitalist states, about lies told by politicians, the mass media, the church, popular leaders. We need to expose fallacious logic, spurious analogies, deceptive slogans, and those intoxicating symbols (the flag, communism, capitalism, freedom) that drive people to murder. We need to dig beneath political rhetoric. We need to expose inconsistencies and double standards. In short, we need to become the critics of the culture, rather than its apologists and perpetuators.

Our “lefty” universities, “communist” professors, the “liberal” media, are not serving us well. They are orthodox conservators of the status quo, too high on the hog to care. Too locked into the system to be radical. Too caught up in the momentum of business, economic growth, and the dazzle of technology to take a breath, a time-out, to look beneath the surface, to ask questions. So, why am I repeating what was just quoted? Because sometimes I wonder if anyone is listening. Maybe an extra repetition, in other words, will break through.

Now maybe we have not been oblivious to this idea that the professional scholars in any society tend to buttress the existing social order and values of that society. But we have tended to attribute this to other societies, or other times, or other professions. Not the United States. Not now. Not here. Not us. It was easy to detect the control of the German scholars or the Russian scholars, but much harder to recognize that the high school texts of our own country have fostered jingoism, war heroes, the Sambo approach to the black man, the vision of the Indian as savage, and the notion that white Western Civilization is the cultural, humanistic summit of mans’ time on earth.

The problems of the United States are not peripheral and have not been met by our genius at reform. They are not the problems of excess, but of normalcy. Our racial problem is not the Ku Klux Klan or the South, but our fundamental liberal assumption that paternalism solves all. Our economic problem is not depression but the normal functioning of the economy, dominated by corporate power and profit. Our problem with justice is not a corrupt judge or bribed jury but the ordinary day-to-day functioning of the police, the law, the courts, where property rights come before human rights. Our problem in foreign policy is not a particular mad adventure: the Spanish American War or the Vietnam War, but a continuous set of suppositions about our role in the world, involving missionary imperialism, and a belief in America’s ability to solve complex social problems.

I have argued that the crisis of present-day America is not one of aberration, but of normalcy, that at issue are not marginal characteristics, but our central operating values: the profit system, racial paternalism, violence towards those outside our narrow pale. If this is so, then scholarly passivity, far from being neutral and disinterested, serves those operating values. What is required then is to wrench ourselves out of our passivity, to try to integrate our professional lives with our humanity.

I would extend that accusation not only to scholars and teachers, but to every citizen, every adult who claims to care.

Context for the next quotation is needed. From 1971-1996, John Silber was the president of Boston University. He was ultra-conservative and controversial, particularly during the early 70s when there had been considerable disagreements among the teachers, students, and administration over the war, tuition, salaries, and university policy concerning US Marine recruiters setting up an office to enlist students on campus property. There were peaceful student protests that were broken up violently by police. In stark contrast to Ohio University’s president, Claude Sowle, who supported and coordinated with students to allow peaceful protest. Unfortunately, the protests didn’t remain peaceful. But, where did the violence originate? The students or outside instigators? I ask these questions because I find it difficult to believe students protesting war would resort to violence. Or that the students could have been sufficiently organized to make and deploy bombs. Was the violence planted to discredit the students?

Is not respect for human life more important than respect for the law? Why did not Silber say instead: “We have made it perfectly clear that there is no immunity on this campus from the laws of humanity, which say Thou Shall Not Kill.” It is sad that a university president, presumably committed to rational inquiry, should make “respect for the law” his supreme value. It is a standard which shows ethical impoverishment and intellectual laziness.

A truly free university would not celebrate obedience, for obedience is what has enabled governments to send young men by the millions to die in war. It would celebrate resistance and disobedience, because the world, so full of authoritarianism, so full of policemen, so racked with injustice and violence, needs rebels badly. It would admire not that technical intellectual efficiency which ignores the fate of human beings far away or near, but that combination of sense and sensibility one finds in good people everywhere, educated or not. It would understand that the most important thing about a university is not its programs or curricula or any of the accoutrements of the upward-striving educator, but its soul.

The previous comments are time specific to the 1970s, yet they are pointedly concurrent with the present. There may not be students protesting war, or large numbers of organized strikes, or thousands marching in the streets over social injustice as there were fifty years ago. It’s a wonder, though, because those issues haven’t been resolved.

With the next excerpt I have taken liberty to make a minor alteration. It’s a series of probing questions that were aimed a Silber. I have changed the word “he” to “we.” They become questions we all need to ponder.

Is it possible [we do] not know the chief social function of law has been, in the United States and elsewhere, to maintain the existing structure of privilege and property? [Do we] not know that the socialization of young people in obedience to law helps keep within the most narrow bounds any attempts to create a truly just society? [Do we] not know that “the law” cannot be sacred to anyone concerned with moral values, that it is not made by god but by fallible, interest-ridden legislators, and enforced by corrupt prosecutors and judges? [Do we] not know that the law weighs heaviest on the poor, the black, the social critics, and lightest on the corporate interests, the politically powerful? [Do we] not know that the police commit assault and battery repeatedly, and the president of the United States is responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people? [Do we] not know that the law will never take the biggest lawbreakers to task because they are the ones who control the law, and they will use it instead against antiwar priests and nuns, black militants, and student protesters? [Do we] not understand that “respect for the law” as supreme value is one of the chief characteristics of the totalitarian society?

And one more question to add : Do we not know that any amount of censorship is intolerable in a free society? No matter how ugly, wrong, hateful, or distasteful someone’s words are, if we are truly on the higher ground, if we are coming from the stronger position, if we can support our position rationally and ethically, then we need not be threatened by loudmouth bullies who, intentionally or otherwise, disseminate hate speech and untruths. If we allow any amount of censoring, who’s going to be the authority of censorship? How can we have open discussions when some voices are muted? As I read view points on opposing sides of an issue, I see strengths and weaknesses on both sides. We need all the pieces to reach a reasonable resolution. Allowing all voices their opportunity to speak is the price we pay for freedom. Human rights and civil liberties are being chipped away under the guise of protecting the public. Each of us, individually, must open our own eyes, take personal responsibility for discovering the difference between fact and fiction. As long as we rely on others to feed us the truth, we are subject to being mislead and misguided. The dangers of completely free speech are far out weighed by the dangers of censorship and subjugation to authoritarianism.

Whether at universities or any other workplaces, whether in the United States or in other countries, we seem to face the same challenge: The corporations and the military, shaken and frightened by the rebellious movements of recent decades, are trying to reassert their undisputed power. We have a responsibility not only to resist, but to build on the heritage of those movements, and to move toward the ideals of egalitarianism, community, and self-determination—whether at work, in the family, or in the schools—which have been the historic unfulfilled promise of the word democracy.

We must acknowledge that many of us, even veterans of social movements of the past, have begun to feel helpless as we observed the frightening consolidation of control, the giant corporations merging, the American military machine grown to monstrous proportions. But we were forgetting certain fundamental facts about power: that the most formidable military machine depends ultimately on the obedience of its soldiers, that the most powerful corporation becomes helpless when its workers stop working, when its customers refuse to buy its products.

The strike, the boycott, the refusal to serve, the ability to paralyze the functioning of a complex social structure—these remain potent weapons against the most fearsome state or corporate power.

Next month : part 2 of Positively Zinnful

Howard Zinn, On History, Seven Stories Press, © 1964, 2011

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