If History is to be Creative
Excerpted from A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
by Howard Zinn; December 09, 2006
America's future is linked to how we understand our past. For this reason, writing about history, for me, is never a neutral act. By writing, I hope to awaken a great consciousness of racial injustice, sexual bias, class inequality, and national hubris. I also want to bring into the light the unreported resistance of people against the power of the Establishment: the refusal of the indigenous to simply disappear; the rebellion of black people in the anti-slavery movement and in the more recent movement against racial segregation; the strikes carried out by working people all through American history in attempt to improve their lives.
To omit these acts of resistance is to support the official view that power only rests with those who have the guns and possess the wealth. I write in order to illustrate the creative power of people struggling for a better world. People, when organized, have enormous power, more than any government. Our history runs deep with the stories of people who stand up, speak out, dig in, organize, connect, form networks of resistance, and alter the course of history.
I don't want to invent victories for people's movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. 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, and occasionally to win. 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.
History can help our struggles, if not conclusively, then at least suggestively. History can disabuse us of the idea that the government's interests and the people's interests are the same. History can tell how often governments have lied to us, how they have ordered whole populations to be massacred, how they deny the existence of the poor, how they have lead us to our current historical moment-the "Long War," the war without end.
True, our government has the power to spend the country's wealth as it wishes. It can send troops anywhere in the world. It can threaten indefinite detention and deportation of twenty million immigrant Americans who do not yet have green cards and have no Constitutional rights. In the name of our "national interest," the government can deploy troops to the U.S.-Mexican border, round up Muslim men from certain countries, secretly listen in on our conversations, open our emails, examine our bank transactions, and try to intimidate us into silence. The government can control information with the collaboration of a timid mass media. Only this accounts for the popularity-waning by 2006 (33% of those polled), but still significant-of George W. Bush. Still, this control is not absolute. The fact that the media are 95% in favor of continuing the occupation of Iraq (with only superficial criticism of how it is done), while over 50% of the public are in favor of withdrawal, suggests a common-sense resistance to official lies. Consider also the volatile nature of public opinion, how it can change with dramatic suddenness. Note how the large majority of public support for George Bush the elder quickly collapsed once the glow of victory from the first Gulf War faded and the reality of economic trouble set in.
Think of how, at the start of the Vietnam War in 1965, two-thirds of Americans supported the war. A few years later, two-thirds of Americans opposed the war. What happened in those three or four years? A gradual osmosis of truth seeped through the cracks of the propaganda system-a realization of having been lied to and deceived. That is what is happening in America as I write this in the summer of 2006. It is easy to be overwhelmed or intimidated by the realization that the warmakers have enormous power. But some historical perspective can be useful, because it tells us that at certain points in history governments find that all their power is futile against the power of an aroused citizenry.
There is a basic weakness in governments, however massive their armies, however vast their wealth, however they control images and information, because their power depends on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists and writers and teachers and artists. When the citizens begin to suspect they have been deceived and withdraw their support, government loses its legitimacy and its power.
We have seen this happen in recent decades all around the globe. Awaking one morning to see a million angry people in the streets of the capital city, the leaders of a country begin packing their bags and calling for a helicopter. This is not fantasy; it is recent history. It's the history of the Philippines, of Indonesia, of Greece, Portugal and Spain, of Russia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Rumania. Think of Argentina and South Africa and other places where change looked hopeless and then it happened. Remember Somoza in Nicaragua scurrying to his private plane, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos hurriedly assembling their jewels and clothes, the Shah of Iran desperately searching for a country that would take him in as he fled the crowds in Tehran, Duvalier in Haiti barely managing to put on his pants to escape the wrath of the Haitian people.
We can't expect George Bush to scurry off in a helicopter. But we can hold him accountable for catapulting the nation into two wars, for the death and dismemberment of tens of thousands of human beings in this country, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and for his violations of the U.S. Constitution and international law. Surely these acts meet the constitutional requirement of "high crimes and misdemeanors" for impeachment.
Indeed, people around the country have begun to call for his impeachment. Of course we cannot expect a craven Congress to impeach him. Congress was willing to impeach Nixon for breaking into a building, but will not impeach Bush for breaking into a country. They were willing to impeach Clinton because of his sexual shenanigans, but will not impeach Bush for turning the wealth of the country over to the super-rich.
There has been a worm eating at the innards of the Bush Administration's complacency all along: the knowledge of the American public-buried, but in a very shallow grave, easy to disinter-that this government came to power not by popular will but by a political coup. So we may be seeing the gradual disintegration of the legitimacy of this administration, despite its supreme confidence. There is a long history of imperial powers gloating over victories, becoming over-extended and overconfident, and not realizing that power is not simply a matter of arms and money. Military power has its limits-limits created by human beings, their sense of justice, and capacity to resist. The United States with 10,000 nuclear weapons could not win in Korea or Vietnam, could not stop a revolution in Cuba or Nicaragua. Likewise, the Soviet Union with its nuclear weapons and huge army was forced to retreat from Afghanistan, and could not stop the Solidarity movement in Poland.
A country with military power can destroy but it cannot build. Its citizens become uneasy because their fundamental day-to-day needs are sacrificed for military glory while their young are neglected and sent to war. The uneasiness grows and grows and the citizenry gathers in resistance in larger and larger numbers, which become too many to control; one day the top-heavy empire collapses. Change in public consciousness starts with low-level discontent, at first vague, with no connection being made between the discontent and the policies of the government. And then the dots begin to connect, indignation increases, and people begin to speak out, organize, and act.
Today, all over the county there is growing awareness of the shortage of teachers, nurses, medical care, and affordable housing, as budget cuts take place in every state of the union. A teacher recently wrote a letter to the Boston Globe: "I may be one of 600 Boston teachers who will be laid off as a result of budget shortfalls." The writer then connects it to the billions spent for bombs, for, as he puts it, "sending innocent Iraqi children to hospitals in Baghdad."
When we become overwhelmed at the thought of the enormous power that governments, multinational corporations, armies, and police have to control minds, crush dissent, and destroy rebellion, we should consider a phenomenon that I have always found interesting. Those who possess enormous power are surprisingly nervous about their ability to hold on to their power. They react almost hysterically to what seem to be puny and unthreatening signs of opposition.
We see the American government, armored with its thousand layers of power, work strenuously to put a few pacifists in jail or keep a writer or an artist out of the country. We remember Nixon's hysterical reaction to a solitary man picketing in front of the White House: "Get him!"
Is it possible that the people in authority know something we don't know? Perhaps they know their own ultimate weakness. Perhaps they understand that small movements can become big ones, that an idea that takes hold in the population can become indestructible. People can be induced to support war, to oppress others, but that is not their natural inclination. There are those who talk of "original sin." Kurt Vonnegut challenges that and talks of "original virtue."
There are millions of people in this country opposed to the current war. When you see a statistic "40% of Americans support the war," that means that 60% of Americans do not. I am convinced that the number of people opposed to the war will continue to rise while the number of war supporters will continue to sink. Along the way, artists, musicians, writers, and cultural workers lend a special emotional and spiritual power to the movement for peace and justice. Rebellion often starts as something cultural.
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 thing we do matters-is the meaning of the people's struggle here in 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 men 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.