- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Howard Zinn on History, Dissent, Democracy, and More

 

Happy birthday, Howard Zinn! Here are some quotes from Zinn.

 

“But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is…to tell the truth.”

 

“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it. It is a corrective to the sluggishness of ‘the proper channels,’ a way of breaking through passages blocked by tradition and prejudice. It is disruptive and troublesome, but it is a necessary disruption, a healthy troublesomeness.”

 

“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

 

“Historically, the most terrible thingswar, genocide, and slaveryhave resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

 

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves…(and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

 

“How can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?”

 

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

 

“History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.”

 

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

 

“If those in charge of our society—politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television—can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.”

 

“Americans have been taught that their nation is civilized and humane. But, too often, U.S. actions have been uncivilized and inhumane.”

 

“One certain effect of war is to diminish freedom of expression. Patriotism becomes the order of the day, and those who question the war are seen as traitors, to be silenced and imprisoned.”

 

“If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

 

“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

 

“Whenever I become discouraged (which is on alternate Tuesdays, between three and four) I lift my spirits by remembering: The artists are on our side! I mean those poets and painters, singers and musicians, novelists and playwrights who speak to the world in a way that is impervious to assault because they wage the battle for justice in a sphere which is unreachable by the dullness of ordinary political discourse.”

 

“We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times.”

 

“The term ‘just war’ contains an internal contradiction. War is inherently unjust, and the great challenge of our time is how to deal with evil, tyranny, and oppression without killing huge numbers of people.”

 

“I don’t believe it’s possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions, and to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that, is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I, as a teacher, do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world. I want myself, as a teacher, and I want you, as students, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world.”

 

“Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

 

“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable.”

 

“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

 

“One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and the unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.”

 

“There is the past and its continuing horrors: violence, war, prejudices against those who are different, outrageous monopolization of the good earth’s wealth by a few, political power in the hands of liars and murderers, the building of prisons instead of schools, the poisoning of the press and the entire culture by money. It is easy to become discouraged observing this, especially since this is what the press and television insist that we look at, and nothing more.

But there is also the bubbling of change under the surface of obedience: the growing revulsion against endless wars, the insistence of women all over the world that they will no longer tolerate abuse and subordination… There is civil disobedience against the military machine, protest against police brutality directed especially at people of color.”

 

“The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.

Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson—that everything we do matters—is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.”

 

“Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such as world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”

 

“The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.”

 

“I’ve always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked of how, in America, if you worked hard you would become rich. The meaning of that was if you were poor it was because you hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie, about my father and millions of others, men and women who worked harder than anyone, harder than financiers and politicians, harder than anybody if you accept that when you work at an unpleasant job that makes it very hard work indeed.”

 

“The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to the small number who are not pleased. There is no system of control with more openings, apertures, leeways, flexibilities, rewards for the chosen, winning tickets in lotteries. There is none that disperses its controls more complexly through the voting system, the work situation, the church, the family, the school, the mass medianone more successful in mollifying opposition with reforms, isolating people from one another, creating patriotic loyalty.”

 

“What most of us must be involved inwhether we teach or write, make films, write films, direct films, play music, act, whatever we dohas to not only make people feel good and inspired and at one with other people around them, but also has to educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world.”

 

“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

 

“If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive movements of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

 

“The pretense in disputed elections is that the great conflict is between the two major parties. The reality is that there is a much bigger conflict that the two parties jointly wage against large numbers of Americans who are represented by neither party and against powerless millions around the world.”

 

“There is a power that can be created out of pent-up indignation, courage, and the inspiration of a common cause, and that if enough people put their minds and bodies into that cause, they can win. It is a phenomenon recorded again and against in the history of popular movements against injustice all over the world.”

 

“Politics is pointless if it does nothing to enhance the beauty of our lives.”

 

“The democratic principle, enunciated in the words of the Declaration of Independence, declared that government was secondary, that the people who established it were primary. Thus, the future of democracy depended on the people, and their growing consciousness of what was the decent way to relate to their fellow human beings all over the world.”

 

“Give people what they need: food, medicine, clean air, pure water, trees and grass, pleasant homes to live in, some hours of work, more hours of leisure. Don’t ask who deserves it. Every human being deserves it.”

 

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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