Standing up for justice in the age of Obama

March 13, 2009

Howard Zinn is a veteran of more than half a century of struggles for peace, justice and democracy. He's the renowned author of numerous books such as A People's History of the United States and You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, as well as the play Marx in Soho, about Karl Marx.

In early February--a few weeks after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president--Howard spoke at the independent bookstore and gathering place Busboys and Poets. Here, with his permission, we publish his thoughts on the future of the struggle in the Obama era.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE now to come to Washington, D.C., without being cognizant of how different the atmosphere is today--an amazing difference. When Obama's victory was announced, the overwhelming feeling was a sense of relief: Wow, they're gone. The only thing that remains is to put them in jail.

We're making this documentary based on Voices of a People's History of the United States, which Anthony Arnove and I put together, and we have these actors who are reading historical documents--a wonderful array of stars with social consciences, who are happy to do this, because they believe in it and are so glad not to be doing the usual Hollywood stuff.

We've had a number of these events around the country, and of course, the point is that it's the people who are important. Not the people up there; it's the people down here. The point is resistance not acceptance, and disobedience not obedience.

One of our readers is Viggo Mortensen. We were in the green room, and Viggo Mortensen says, "I'll be back in a minute." And when he comes back, he's taken a magic marker and written three words in big letters on the t-shirt that he's going to wear onstage to read. The three words are "IMPEACH, REMOVE, JAIL." We're not at that point yet, but who knows?

Standing up for justice in the age of Obama

And who could not feel some sense of wonderment that this has happened? How moving it was, watching on television and seeing the faces of people in the crowd when Obama's victory was announced. To see Jesse Jackson weeping, to see the face of John Lewis, to see the faces of people who have been involved in the struggle for a long time.

For me, there was an especially poignant moment when they showed students at Spelman College. That's where I taught for seven years during the era of the civil rights movement. They showed those students at Spelman College, and the looks on their faces and their shouts of joy were overwhelming.

I felt all of that, and I have to say all of that before I discuss Obama soberly. Coming off that high and that amazing intoxication, you get to a point where you say it's a wonderful thing that happened, but now let's see what needs to be done.

And so I'm going to talk about Obama and his administration--what's going on, and what there is for us to do.

Because we are citizens, and Obama is a president. Obama is a politician. You might not like that word. But the fact is he's a politician. He's other things, too--he's a very sensitive and intelligent and articulate and thoughtful and promising person. But he's a politician. We have to remember that. Lincoln was a politician, and Roosevelt was a politician.

What else to read

Howard Zinn's books include A People's History of the United States, Voices of A People's History of the United States and You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

For more about the two-party system in the U.S., with a focus on a socialist history of the Democratic Party, see Lance Selfa's The Democrats: A Critical History.

Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States is an excellent history of the labor struggles that have shaped U.S. history.

If you're a citizen, you have to know the difference between them and you--the difference between what they have to do and what you have to do. Although there are things they don't have to do, if you make it clear to them they don't have to do it.

From the beginning, I liked Obama. But the first time it suddenly struck me that he was a politician was early on, when Joe Lieberman was running for the Democratic nomination for his Senate seat in 2006. You may recognize that name with the same amount of distaste that I utter it--Joe Lieberman, who says he's a Democrat, who's really a Republican, and who's actually worse then both.

Lieberman--who, as you know, was and is a war lover--was running for the Democratic nomination, and his opponent was a man named Ned Lemont, who was the peace candidate. And Obama went to Connecticut to support Lieberman against Lemont.

It took me aback. But I say that to indicate that, yes, Obama is a politician. We have to understand that, and understand therefore that we must not be swept away into an unthinking and unquestioning acceptance of what Obama does. He will do some good things--he has already done some good things. He will do some bad things, and has done some bad things already.

Our job is not to give him a blank check or simply be cheerleaders. It was good that we were cheerleaders while he was running for office, but it's not good to be cheerleaders now. Because we want the country to go beyond where it has been in the past. We want to make a clean break from what it has been in the past. We want to go farther than where another liberal Democratic president will carry us.

I HAD a teacher at Columbia University named Richard Hofstadter, who wrote a book called The American Political Tradition, and in it, he examined presidents from the Founding Fathers down through Franklin Roosevelt. There were liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, and there were differences between them.

But he found that the so-called liberals were not as liberal as people thought--and that the difference between the liberals and the conservatives, and between Republicans and the Democrats, was not a polar difference. There was a common thread that ran all through all American history, and all of the presidents--Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative--followed this thread.

The thread consisted of two elements: one, nationalism; and two, capitalism. If you study American history, you see that these priorities run through the most liberal presidencies, like Franklin Roosevelt's: Nationalism and capitalism. And Obama is not yet free of that powerful double heritage.

We can see it in the policies that have been enunciated so far, even though he's only been in office a short time. Some people might say, "Well, what do you expect?" And the answer is that we expect a lot. People say, "What, are you a dreamer?" And the answer is, yes, we're dreamers. We want it all. We want a peaceful world. We want an egalitarian world. We don't want war. We don't want capitalism. We want a decent society.

Are we dreaming? We better hold on to that dream--because if we don't, we'll sink closer and closer to this reality that we have, and that we don't want.

Obama basically believes in a capitalist system. And he's not simply another president coming at any period in American history. Obama has become president at a very special time, when the American capitalist system is falling apart. And good! I'm glad it's falling apart, because unless the system falls apart, we're not going to do anything about it. We're not going to fix it.

We have to do something different. We have to have fundamental changes in the economic system. And Obama has been too ready to yield to corporations and the market.

The market system--be wary when you hear about the glories of the market system. The market system is what we've had. Let the market decide, they say. The government mustn't give people free health care; let the market decide.

Which is what the market has been doing--and that's why we have 45 million people without health care. The market has decided that. Leave things to the market, and there are 2 million people homeless. Leave things to the market, and there are millions and millions of people who can't pay their rent.

You can't leave it to the market. If you're facing an economic crisis like we're facing now, you can't do what was done in the past. You can't pour money into the upper levels of the country and into the corporations, and hope that it somehow trickles down. That's a trickle-down theory. You know about the trickle-down theory? If the money does trickle down, it will be a trickle, and that's all.

WHAT WAS one of the first things that happened when the Bush administration saw that the economy was in trouble? A $700 billion bailout, and who did we give the $700 billion to? To the financial institutions that ruined us--that caused this crisis.

This was when the presidential campaign was still going on, and it pained me to see McCain and Obama standing there, both of them endorsing this huge bailout to the corporations.

What Obama should have been saying was: Hey, wait a while. The banks aren't poverty stricken. The CEOs aren't poverty stricken. But there are people who are out of work. There are people who can't pay their mortgages. Let's take $700 billion and give it directly to the people who need it. Let's take $1 trillion, let's take $2 trillion. They spend that on bombers.

Let's take this money and give it directly to the people who need it. Give it to the people who have to pay their mortgages. Nobody should be evicted. Nobody should be left with their belongings out on the street.

And yes, I'm going to keep telling Obama what he should be saying. He may not be listening. But if all of you listen, and then tell other people, and they listen and tell other people, and they listen, and you write your congressman and tell them this is what you want, that's what happens--the listening reaches more and more and more people.

Obama now wants to spend hundreds of billions of dollars as part of his economic stimulus plan. Which is good--the idea of a stimulus is good. But if you look closely at the plan, too much of it goes through the market, through corporations, through private enterprise.

It gives tax breaks to businesses, hoping that they'll hire people. No--if people need jobs you don't give money to the corporations, hoping that maybe jobs will be created. You give people work immediately.

A lot of people don't know the history of the New Deal of the 1930s. The New Deal didn't go far enough, but it had some very good ideas. And the reason the New Deal came to these good ideas was because there was huge agitation in this country.

There was turmoil in the country, and Roosevelt had to react. So what did they do? They took billions of dollars and said the government was going to hire people. You're out of work? The government has a job for you. No matter what you do, no matter what your line of work, the government has work for you.

As a result of this, lots of very wonderful work was done all over the country. Several million young people were put into the Civilian Conservation Corps. Instead of sending them overseas to fight in a war, there were given money--for subsistence, and enough to send home to their parents--and they went around the country, building bridges and roads and playgrounds, and doing remarkable things.

The government created a federal arts program. It wasn't going to wait for the markets to decide that--the government set up a program and hired thousands of unemployed artists: playwrights, actors, musicians, painters, sculptures, writers. What was the result? The result was the production of thousands of pieces of art. Today, around the country, there are thousands of murals painted by people in the WPA program. Plays were put on all over the country at very cheap prices, so that people who had never seen a play in their lives were able to afford to go.

And that's just a glimmer of what could be done. The government has to represent the people's needs. The government can't give the job of representing the people's needs to corporations and to the market, because they don't care about the people's needs. They only care about profit.

IN THE course of his campaign, Obama said something which struck me as very wise--and when people say something very wise, you have to remember it, because they may not hold to it. You may have to remind them of that wise thing they said.

Obama was talking about the war in Iraq, and he said, "It's not just that we have to get out of the war in Iraq." He said that, and we mustn't forget it. We must keep reminding him: Out of Iraq, out of Iraq, out of Iraq--not next year, not two years from now, but out of Iraq.

But he also said, "It's not enough to get out of Iraq; we have to get out of the mindset that led us into Iraq."

What is that mindset--the way of thinking that got us into Iraq? It's the mindset that force will do the trick. Violence, war, bombers--they will bring democracy and liberty to the people.

It's a mindset that has been part of the history of this country from the very beginning: We will bring civilization to the Mexicans in 1846. We will bring freedom to the Cubans in 1898. We will bring democracy to the Filipinos in 1900. You know how successful we've been at bringing democracy all over the world.

The mindset is we'll do it by force of arms. It's a militaristic mindset. And Obama has not gotten out of that militaristic mindset. He talks about sending tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan.

I took a cab from--do you call it Reagan National Airport?--and I like to get into conversations with cab drivers. And if I think the cab driver has a foreign accent, I will say, "Where are you from?" I asked this cab driver, and he said, "Afghanistan." I told him the truth--that I'd never had a cab driver from Afghanistan before.

I saw that I didn't have a lot more time left, so I had to get to the heart of the matter. I said, "What do you think of President Obama's idea of sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan?" He shook his head. He said, "What they need is food. They need health care. They need houses. That's what they need."

Obama is a very smart guy, and surely he must know some of the history. You don't have to know a lot to know the history of Afghanistan has been decades and decades of Western powers trying to impose their will on Afghanistan by force: The English, the Russians and now the Americans. What has been the result? The result has been a ruined country.

This is the mindset that sends 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and that says, as Obama has, that we've got to have a bigger military. My heart sank when Obama said that. Why do we need a bigger military? We have an enormous military budget. Has Obama talked about cutting the military budget in half or some fraction? No.

The mindset is that we're a tough nation, and we have to remain the most powerful. That's the kind of mindset that leads to having weapons in space. Did you know that we have a program--had one for years--for weapons in space?

We have military bases in a hundred countries. We have 14 military bases on Okinawa alone. Who wants us there? The governments. They get benefits. But the people don't really want us there. Right now, there are huge demonstrations in Italy against the establishment of a U.S. military base. There have been big demonstrations in South Korea and on Okinawa.

The governments may want us, but the people don't want us there. So what do you do? You have to look for a place where you can have a military base and there are no people to oppose you. And where is that? Space.

They want to have platforms in space, where they can aim their weapons hit wherever they want. It's pretty scary, unless you believe them when they say, "Oh, we're very precise. We have the latest equipment. We can target anywhere and hit just what we want." This is what they've been saying all along, right?

But then you notice that with all the sophisticated equipment and so on, they can actually decide that they're going to bomb this one house. But there's one problem: They don't know who's in the house. They can hit one car with a rocket from a great distance. Do they know who's in the car? No.

And later--after the bodies have been taken out of the car, after the bodies have been taken out of the house--they tell you, "Well, there were three suspected terrorists in that house, and yes, there's seven other people killed, including two children, but we got the suspected terrorists."

But notice that the word is "suspected." The truth is they don't know who the terrorists are.

We have to get out of that mindset. And Obama has to be pulled by the people who elected him, by the people who are enthusiastic about him. We're the ones who have to tell him, "No, you're on the wrong course with this militaristic idea of using force to accomplish things in the world. We won't accomplish anything that way, and we'll remain a hated country in the world."

NOW, OBAMA talked about having a vision. You have to have a vision, and now I want to tell Obama what his vision should be.

The vision should be of a nation that becomes liked all over the world. I won't even say loved--it'll take a while to build up to that. A nation that is not feared, not disliked, not hated, as too often we are.

A nation that is looked upon as peaceful, because we've withdrawn our military bases from all these countries. Why do we need military bases in other countries? They're not defending us.

The word defense is one of the most misused words in the English language. "We bombed this country in self-defense." "The Israelis pulverize and destroy Gaza in self-defense." This isn't defense. This is aggression. And we want a country that doesn't commit aggression anymore.

We don't need to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars on the military budget. Take all the money allocated to military bases and the military budget, and--this is part of the emancipation--you can use that money to give everybody free health care, to guarantee jobs to everybody who doesn't have a job, guaranteed payment of rent to everybody who can't pay their rent, build child care centers.

Let's use the money to help other people around the world, not to send bombers over there. When disasters take place, they need helicopters to transport people out of the floods and out of devastated areas. They need helicopters to save people's lives, and the helicopters are over in the Middle East, bombing and strafing people.

What's required is a total turnaround. We want a country that uses its resources, its wealth and its power to help people, not to hurt them. That's what we need.

This is a vision we have to keep alive. We shouldn't be easily satisfied and say, "Oh well, give him a break." Obama deserves respect. But you don't respect somebody when you give them a blank check. You respect somebody when you treat them as an equal to you, and as somebody you can talk to and somebody who will listen to you.

So what I'm saying is that Obama has a lot of wonderful qualities and seems to be a decent man, but he's a politician. And worse, he's surrounded by politicians. And some of them he picked himself. He picked Hillary Clinton, he picked Lawrence Summers, he picked people who show no sign of breaking from the past.

We are citizens. We must not put ourselves in the position of looking at the world from their eyes and say, "Well, we have to compromise, we have to do this for political reasons." We have to speak our minds.

This is the position that the abolitionists were in before the Civil War, and people said, "Well, you have to look at it from Lincoln's point of view." Lincoln didn't believe that his first priority was abolishing slavery. But the anti-slavery movement did, and the abolitionists said, "We're not going to put ourselves in Lincoln's position. We are going to express our own position, and we are going to express it so powerfully that Lincoln will have to listen to us."

And the anti-slavery movement grew large enough and powerful enough that Lincoln had to listen. That's how we got the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments.

That's been the story of this country. Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it's been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn't just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary.

They did all sorts of things to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that's what we have to do today.

Transcription by Alex Read and Matt Korn.

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