Howard Zinn may be a historian, but he lives in the present.
As demonstrators for immigrant rights made their way around New Haven on May Day, Zinn assumed the stage at the Center Church on the New Haven Green, stressing the need for youth to engage in activism, to understand the darker aspects of American domestic and foreign policy, and to distinguish between allegiance to a government and allegiance to a country.
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Evoking a rare mixture of political seriousness and light-hearted wit, the 84-year-old history professor spoke conversationally, prompting many audience members to laugh at his sense of humor or applaud when his musings culminated in calls for change.
“Our interests are not the same [as the government’s], despite our culture and the way it tries to indoctrinate us into thinking our interests are the same … we and the government, Exxon and me,” Zinn said to long, drawn-out laughter.
“Bush,” he then said with a pause, “and the young person he sends to war do not have the same interests.”
Strenuous clapping ensued.
The event, sponsored by Labyrinth Books, coincided with the release of Zinn’s “A Young People’s History of the United States,” a youth-oriented articulation of his seminal “A People’s History of the United States.” Though he emphasized that the two books do not differ substantially and that his message was the same to Americans both young and old, Zinn’s speech on Tuesday focused on the need for the “next generation of youth” to question the government and understand its complexities — an implicit criticism of what he sees as older Americans’ failures to do the same.
“We need something better,” he said. “With the situation we’re in, we can’t afford to have another generation that will go along with war. Or another nation that will go along with the nation’s enormous militarism.”
Youth today need to recognize the presence of social upheaval in America’s past in order to recognize the importance of activism, Zinn said, but history teaching has traditionally emphasized American unity while ignoring social movements and conflicts of interest that steered the country toward historical change.
As a result, he said, young people become discouraged when only 20 people show up for a war protest rally; they have no idea that the civil rights protests failed on multiple occasions before the movement saw even an inkling of attention or success.
Also lost upon American youth is the nation’s history of ignoring the interests of common people, Zinn said. He said events such as the Vietnam War exemplify the United States’s long record of using foreign policy to acquire needed resources, while operating under the guise of liberty, self-determination and freedom.
In short, youth today have the daunting task of separating themselves from a self-righteous national culture, Zinn said. In spite of the hubbub over America’s greatness, the historian said, the nation significantly trails many other countries when it comes to literacy rates, infant mortality and the promotion of human rights. Illustrating what he termed the hypocrisy of America’s condemnation of nuclear weapons, Zinn recalled a letter that his friend, the late Kurt Vonnegut, had sent to the New York Times.
“Not saying anything about Iran or North Korea, his letter just said this: ‘I know of only one country that has dropped nuclear weapons on defenseless people,’” Zinn said. “The Times did not print his letter.”
Most in the audience were old enough to have lived through the 1960s and ’70s, when Vonnegut first attracted a cult following, although young adults nearly composed a third of the audience. For New Haven resident Pat Topitzer, Zinn’s words reminded her of her own youth protest experiences and addressed what she considered a pressing issue.
“I think for people … it is startling [to see] the lack of involvement of young people,” she said. “We had [an anti-war] demonstration last year on the corner of Elm and York streets and it absolutely rocked me — there we were on the corner of two residential colleges and only one college student came out.”
Local resident Baub Biden said he found the youth turnout at the talk encouraging, but that it would take more than a re-evaluation of American history to change young people’s mentalities.
“You have a lot of people you are distracted by VH1, MTV, BET, and every time you turn on the TV there’s a reality show that’s kind of catchy,” Biden said. “So these people are at home, and they’re watching all of these distractions and they’re all talking about Britney Spears cutting her hair.”
Although he was not in attendance at Zinn’s speech, history professor Jean-Christophe Agnew said he had a great deal of respect for Zinn’s historical work, which he called highly influential and widely used. Though historians make it their work to study the past, it is not unusual for prominent professors such as Zinn to weigh in on current events, he said, citing a resolution opposing the war in Iraq that was recently ratified by the American Historical Association.
But that does not mean that all historians share the same point of view.
“In these moments of crisis, when the country is split … so historians are split,” Agnew said.