"In this world of war and injustice, how does a person manage to stay socially engaged, committed to the struggle, and remain healthy without burning out or becoming resigned or cynical?
"I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world."
—Howard Zinn (1922-2010)
(Swans - February 8, 2010) QUICK UPDATE: Our libertarian friend Jim Stiles has come up with another great edition of The Zephyr. Don't miss it, and remember that small journals have historically led the way to the future, whether sane or not!
CIVIL LIBERTARIANS, old and young, have been condemning Obama's repeated assaults on civil liberties and his continuation of Bush's policies both in the foreign and domestic realms. Their critiques are mordant -- written with flair, rhetorical flourishes, and reasonable accuracy -- but they repeatedly eschew the roots of the predicaments.
NAT HENTOFF, in a recent Village Voice article, fulminates about "George W. Obama", who "is continuing much of the Bush-Cheney parallel government and, in some cases, is going much further in disregarding our laws and the international treaties we've signed." Hentoff -- an anti-abortion activist, former long-time columnist at The Village Voice, and current senior fellow at the Cato Institute (yes, Left meets Right again!) -- was never a fan of Barack Obama. In a December 11, 2009, interview with John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute, Hentoff said, "I try to avoid hyperbole, but I think Obama is possibly the most dangerous and destructive president we have ever had," and added that Obama was "much worse" than George W. It may be worth recalling that in a May 26, 2008, Op-Ed in The Washington Times, "Sarah Palin as McCain's VP," Hentoff wrote, "I offer my unsolicited suggestion for vice president: the first woman -- and youngest -- governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who is an unstereotypical and effective Republican." (Which may have been the straw that broke the editors of The Village Voice's back and led them to send him packing to the Cato Institute...)
GLENN GREENWALD, another civil libertarian, has been lambasting the Obama administration on his salon.com blog for months, denouncing the remarkable continuity between Bush and Obama, and how much Obama gets a lot of neocon support in matters of foreign policy. Last December, he justly highlighted in "The strange consensus on Obama's Nobel address" that "(1) the vast majority of leading conservatives -- from Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich to Peggy Noonan, Sarah Palin, various Kagans and other assorted neocons -- have heaped enthusiastic praise on what Obama said yesterday, i.e., on the Obama Doctrine; and (2) numerous liberals have done exactly the same." Puzzled by such convergence he asks: "Why did so many Bush-loving neocons and progressives alike react the same way to Obama's comprehensive foreign policy speech yesterday? What could explain that?"
I SENT HIM AN E-MAIL to direct his attention to my piece "The First Obama Year: Business as Usual, but with a Friendlier Face." I wrote: "[The article] places the Obama administration in an historical context and shows that decisions made and actions taken are by and large a direct and transparent continuation of the policies implemented by the former Bush II, Clinton, Bush I, Reagan, and Carter administrations. The rhetoric may change, but the actualities have not. In other words, a difference without a difference. That's why you can find a consensus between the liberal 'humanitarians' and the neocons." That Greenwald has yet to figure out that the two parties are nothing more than the two sides of the same coin is truly baffling. He and his liberal-minded fellows seem to believe that the POTUS is sitting in the driver's seat of car-USA and that directions can be changed at the driver's will. So, they feel disappointed and become highly critical when car-USA does not make the turns of their liking. But their beliefs are misplaced, or misconstrued. A much better analogy that I read some time ago (I can't recall the name of its author) goes thus: The POTUS ought to be compared to the conductor of a train -- train-USA. The conductor stands at the controls of the locomotive but the train travels on a track. The only thing the conductor can do is to regulate the speed of the train but the track sets the direction. He can make the train go slower or faster, but he cannot alter its course.
PEOPLE TEND TO focus on the conductor and the train while ignoring or disregarding the track, but it is the track that needs to be replaced if one ever hopes to change direction. The predicaments are systemic, not personnel-induced. It's the system that must be addressed, not the people managing it. When is everybody going to come to terms with this evident paradigm?
THE WORLD LOST A GOOD MAN on January 27, 2010, when Professor Howard Zinn died of a heart attack. Not only was Zinn a good man, he had a joyful, hopeful, deeply humble, and humorous personality -- and he certainly was not dull, as some academic dolts have portrayed him, all the while attacking and disparaging his scholarship and his bona fides ever since he passed away -- people like Jill Lepore, Michael Kazin, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, who thankfully have been shredded to pieces, mere digital pulp they do not even deserve, by my comrade Louis Proyect in his February 4, 2010, piece, "Howard Zinn's detractors." Dullness was not a part of his quiver. Love was, however. Love for the other, the people, the little ones, us all.
I CORRESPONDED twice with him in 2004 and again in 2008 to gently chide him for calling to vote for respectively John Kerry and Barack Obama in the name of lesser evilism, and in both occasions he answered with kindness and magnanimity pointing out the well-known and worn-out argument that in the absence of a credible alternative on our side we were left to try to limit the damages by helping elect the lesser-evil -- that darn line of thinking that gets my blood boiling each and every time. But I had so much respect and affection for him that I could not even get mad or send a rejoinder -- only, "thanks Howard; I understand..."
I WAS INTRODUCED to the work of Howard Zinn through his 1970 book, The Politics of History. I was struck by his courage to revisit the French town of Royan, which he had helped destroy with the first use of napalm when he was a bombardier during WWII. Zinn had gone back, questioning the ethics of war, of mass civilian casualties, the death of over 1,000 French civilians. After the war, few soldiers questioned the morality of the fighting. Most would refuse to talk about their war experience (like my father) or would brag about their dangerous exploits (like Art Shay) -- the Martin Muries and Howard Zinns were the exception. Even more exceptional was the move these few took from warmongering to pacifism and non-violence. That non-violence part, based on pure ethics, was what drove me to become an admirer of Zinn (and Murie, and Philip Greenspan). The ability, which requires much humility, to look back to one's actions and the consequences on The Other is a quality that too many of us lack. Howard Zinn was a towering figure for those inclined to search for the other side of whatever story peddled by the bien-pensant crowd (like those Louis Proyect takes to task, those so-called liberal academics who cause much damage to social justice).
OF COURSE, Zinn is best known for his seminal work, A People's History of the United States, a book that influenced me like millions of other readers. But I'd suggest he should not be reduced to this historically dissenting achievement. After all, as Professor Mark Lause indicated in a post to the Marxmail List on February 5, 2010:
In the wake of the post-World War II civil rights movement, a number of historians took up the idea of approaching our understanding of history "from the bottom up," acknowledging that this very approach assumed the importance of such a perspective...that of the laboring people and the underclass. Staughton Lynd, Jesse Lemisch and many others generationally fell into the category of "New Left" scholars, so called as much from their readership as their age.
What distinguished Howard Zinn, for me, was that he managed to bridge those New Left concerns with an older tradition of Marxist history, people like Phil Foner (whose name always manages to not get mentioned here despite the enormous volume of work he left behind).
LOOKING FROM the standpoint of the other side was not a Zinn innovation, as Lause intimates properly. What stands Zinn apart in my mind boils down to his ethics, his capacity and willingness to take the path less traveled, and his unremitting faith in the power of the people. Here is the conclusion of a speech he delivered in November 2009 at Boston University where he had been a cherished professor for many years (courtesy of Democracy Now!)
We should look for a peace movement to join. Really, look for some peace organization to join. It will look small at first, and pitiful and helpless, but that's how movements start. That's how the movement against the Vietnam War started. It started with handfuls of people who thought they were helpless, thought they were powerless. But remember, this power of the people on top depends on the obedience of the people below. When people stop obeying, they have no power. When workers go on strike, huge corporations lose their power. When consumers boycott, huge business establishments have to give in. When soldiers refuse to fight, as so many soldiers did in Vietnam, so many deserters, so many fraggings, acts of violence by enlisted men against officers in Vietnam, B-52 pilots refusing to fly bombing missions anymore, war can't go on. When enough soldiers refuse, the government has to decide we can't continue. So, yes, people have the power. If they begin to organize, if they protest, if they create a strong enough movement, they can change things. That's all I want to say. Thank you.
ZINN WAS CORRECT, of course. Yet, no "strong enough movement" has come up to the fore in at least the almost 30 years I've been living in the U.S. The "strong enough movement" we are straddled with is the Tea Partiers, a motley crew of Ron Paul supporters, Raimondistas, Atlas Shruggers' Randians, Birchers, birthers, truthers, deathers, Constitutionalists, conspiracists, Palinistas, gold diggers, militiamen, die-hard Christian evangelicals -- the worse of the worst reactionary crowd. On our side? Silence. We've been displaced long ago by the Glenn Greenwalds of this world and the whining sectarians that overcrowd our depleted ranks. When even Ralph Nader writes that Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! (Seven Stories Press, 2009) you know we are in deep voodoo-land. Perhaps Zinn could have spent more time on the alternatives and shied away from the lesser evil...
SOME FILTHY RICH individual paid $104.3 million (including fees) at Sotheby's in London for Alberto Giacometti's most famous bronze, "Walking Man I." Only six of them were ever cast (with an additional four artists proofs). All of them are held in private collections and a few museums. This one was sold by the German Dresdner Bank, which felt that it was A-okay to use depositors' money to buy trophies of sort. It is Giacometti who once said that if he had to choose between a cat and a Rembrandt caught in a fire, he would choose the cat and set him free; that between art and life he would choose life. From down under in his grave, he must be screaming at the obscenity of our modernity. He was screaming then, already, as was Max Ernst, who preferred "one wild strawberry to all the laurels in the world." The ironic part of the story: Any Chinese company could bring to the market an exact reproduction of the 6-foot-high bronze for a couple of hundred bucks, were they to put their mind to it, which I wish they would. The value of the "originals" would drown in the abyss of nothingness and Giacometti would be elevated once and for all to his true status: A man of the people, a member of humanity who refused the status quo and called for veracity. Veracity, what a quaint word!
. . . . .
C'est la vie...
And so it goes...
La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a difference for Swans.
Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Gilles d'Aymery 2010. All rights reserved.
Have your say
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.
About the Author