April 13, 2001

Howard Zinn Lectures On Political and Historical Misconceptions

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There was a full house at Bailey Hall last night — and not for a concert or for Psych 101 either. Rather, members of the Ithaca and Cornell communities gathered to hear Howard Zinn offer his answer to the question, “Is Democracy Possible?”

Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States, received a standing ovation even before he began to speak.

“So often we’ve been fooled, but of course I’m not going to fool you,” Zinn said.

Zinn explained that he came from a working class family and “grew up class conscious.”

He began working at a shipyard for three years, where his only skill, he said, was organizing workers, and then became enthusiastic soldier during World War II, a teacher at Spellman College and finally a civil rights activist.

During his teaching career, Zinn heard all sorts of comments about his methods.

“‘You’re going to give your point of view in class? Indoctrinate those innocent students?'” Zinn recalled.

“But they’re not innocent,” he said. “They’re 18, 19 and 62 years old.”

Zinn then discussed his views on various political and historical misconceptions. He said that terms such as “free market” and “national security,” were commonly accepted political terms that have no real meaning behind them.

“Every market is dominated by those who control the education system and the media,” he said.

Zinn said that, over the years, he has wheeled his “little pushcart into the market place” with his view of history.

“I knew history wasn’t objective, no matter how fat the textbook is,” he said. He used the Sunday New York Times as another example, saying that it was so thick that one would think, “I guess [all the news] is there, what else could there be?”

Zinn stressed that he believed the media and historians often commit sins of omission.

“The worst deception is not when they lie to you, but when they leave things out. Because then you can check up on it, but if they leave things out, how do you know?” he said.

Zinn’s next step towards coming closer to the possibility of democracy was addressing the matter of the class society in America. “The history books I was given did not reflect society. I saw the rich at the top, the poor below and the nervous people who never knew what the next day would bring them in between.”

According to Zinn, the main question through American history has been that of class struggle.

During the American Revolution, for example, American society was agitated by bread and flour riots, the conflicts between slaves and their owners, tenant farmers and the landowners and indentured servants and their masters.

The class struggle has never ceased to exist because “the class differences continued,” Zinn said.

He criticized those who seek to worship the Constitution as an infallible document. “Ronald Reagan wrote an article on the Constitution … which appeared in Parade Magazine,” Zinn said, as the audience burst into laughter. “In it he wrote, ‘perfect document, it could only have been fashioned with the guiding hand of God.'”

A member of the audience commented on this after the lecture. “The framers of the Constitution did not create the rules of democracy with the intention of the good for all people, and we as citizens, still need to fight for democratic ideals,” audience member Jen Doyle said.

Zinn praised students who were willing to protest what they considered injustice.

“I come here and there are students demonstrating for the Kyoto protocol … God bless Ithaca,” he said.

“Movements like this develop from little movements,” he said. “If you don’t do anything, nothing will come together.”

Hill Bobrow ’99 said, “The life and work of Howard Zinn are a phenomenal inspiration. Democracy is coming to the USA and it is a pleasure to see so many local teachers and activists here tonight.”

Zinn’s lecture appealed to many people from various backgrounds. “Coming from Russia, I have always suspected that having been to jail can be a sign of a good person,” said Alissa Agafonova ’02. “Thanks to Mr. Zinn, who has been to jail eight or nine times, I now know that the same holds true for America.”

Zinn concluded his lecture with two poems and took questions from the audience.

Archived article by Veronika Belenkaya