Our Interview with the People’s Historian, Howard Zinn

Boulder Weekly: You’ve often commented that you look for omissions in history. What do you think is being left out of our current historical situation?

Howard Zinn: 
What is being left out of the discourse or the discussion of what people are talking about, what the press is talking about today — what is being left out is the history of government bailouts, the history of government support for corporations and the rich. So if you don’t have the history, you’re likely to think, ‘Oh this is something new. This is a departure from the way the United States has always been.’ It’s not a departure. It’s a continuation of something that started way back and has been going on through all of American history.

And what has been going on through all of American history can be traced back to the Constitution and the American Revolution. And the fact that the Constitution set up a strong central government, and one of its important purposes was to bail out the bond holders of the Revolution because the bonds that they held — as the result of lending money to the Continental Army, to the Continental Congress during the Revolution – those bonds were really worthless. But the new federal government was able to redeem those bonds in full, give the bondholders the full value of their bonds. And the way they would raise the money to do that was by taxing the rest of the population, taxing ordinary Americans, which is exactly what’s happening today — bailing out these failing financial institutions and planning to pay for that by laying an enormous burden on the average American.

If you start with the American Revolution and draw an arc from that to the present day, you will find many points in between where exactly that same thing happened and that is where the government played the role of using its power and resources to support the wealthy classes. In the case of the Constitution, they used the power of the central government to support slaveholders by ensuring that their fugitive slaves would be returned by being able to raise an army strong enough to put down farmers’ rebellions, which in fact they had to do very soon in the early 1790s when there was what was called the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. [That was] where farmers rebelled against the taxes they had to pay and the Constitution created a government strong enough to support the expansionists — the people who are gonna move out into Indian territory and who would face Indian resistance and who would need the armed force of the national government to deal with those Indians.

And then you follow the arc into the 19th century, into the enormous grants of free land to the railroads in the 1850s and 1860s to the high tariffs that the government placed on incoming goods to help the manufacturers, which in turn raised the prices of goods to American consumers. Go into the 20th century and what you find again is government aid to corporations. The Supreme Court again and again are declared unconstitutional any aid to poor people, declared unconstitutional minimum wages and maximum hours. It wasn’t until the 1930s, that is until we faced a country in turmoil, a country in rebellion with general strikes all over the country — only then that the government passed legislation on behalf of the poor and the middle classes. That was an aberration because after WWII, the government resumed — I shouldn’t even say after WWII. During WWII, the government gave huge war contracts to corporations which profited from the war. After the war, when the aircraft industry was failing, the government bailed out the aircraft industry.

And we know about the oil companies and how the government, by the oil depletion allowance by special tax favors for the oil corporations, have kept the oil corporations afloat.

So in a long answer to your question — you’re not going to get any short answers from me, no! — in a long answer to your question, what is being missed in the present discourse about the Wall Street collapse is a history which shows that this is part of a long pattern of alliance between government and big business to a detriment of the average American.

BW: Considering that continuation, what do you think is the best medium for change?

Well, we need of course a change — a very drastic change in government policy. That change, I believe, should consist of, instead of bailing out these huge corporations, let them founder. Instead of giving a trillion dollars to the corporations in the hope that, by keeping them afloat, the money will trickle down to mortgage payers and ordinary people… instead of that, take the money that would bail out the corporations and use that money to aid the victims of the financial system. Use that money to pay off the mortgages of people who are in trouble. Use that money to guarantee jobs to people that will lose their jobs as corporations downsize. Use that money to create free health care for everybody.

In other words, get to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter when you have an economic collapse — and this is what happened in 1929 — is that the money of the country has been going to the super rich, and the purchasing power of the ordinary person has declined. That gap, as it increases, becomes a bubble which is stretched thinner and thinner and which bursts. The root of it is that the people have been deprived of the wealth of the nation. Therefore, that wealth should be used for whatever the needs of people are in health, education, jobs…

Bypass the corporations and nationalize whatever industries are useful. Most of these corporations are not useful. They are financial institutions which buy and sell papers and don’t produce anything important. But where corporations produce something important, well, they should be taxed heavily.

In the Bush administration, the richest 400 people in the United States have gained something like 600 billion dollars during the Bush years as a result of tax breaks. That’s absurd. We need to change the tax structure. Now, Obama has said that he will raise taxes for the rich and do away with taxes for a large part of the population. That’s a step in the right direction, although he must go much farther than that, be much bolder than that in his tax proposals, because we need a really fundamental redistribution of wealth in the country, and a guarantee of the kinds of things that people need to survive.

BW: In addition to that, what are the key issues for voters in this upcoming election?

I think voters should vote for Obama, not because he goes as far as needs to be gone, but because with Obama there is sort of a chance of a movement away from our present situation. Whereas with McCain, he is stuck in the Bush philosophy. With Obama there’s sort of little glimmers of possibility. Our big job is not just to vote for Obama so that there is a possibility, but to turn that possibility into a reality by creating a social movement in this country which Obama will have to pay attention to — because that, ultimately, is what brings about change. The President or Congress have never initiated important change. No, what’s needed is a social movement such as we had in the labor movements of the 1930s, the black movement, the anti-war movement, womens’ movement of the ’60s, a new social movement in this country which will shake up Obama and his conservative cabinets and move them in bolder directions just as the agitators of the ’30s moved FDR in a bolder direction.

BW: You have been a witness to so many American historical and social movements. In what ways does the current climate compare with former social movements?

I suppose it’s different in the sense that the control of the media is greater and more threatening today than it was in the 1960s, but the media have always been on the side of the establishment. There are things today that make it more difficult than in other social movements, but on the other hand, the elements are there for a new social movement. By the elements being there, I mean the growing, growing dissatisfaction in the country — not yet organized, but there. It’s a reservoir of anger, of indignation against the war, against the Bush administration, against the economic system. So there’s this reservoir of energy and anger that hasn’t been organized and hasn’t been pushed into a force that can bring about change. But the potential is there.

In that sense, we resemble other times in history before the movements were effective — when they were just growing, when they were just developing. The anti-slavery movement had to develop over 30 years. The anti-war movement against Vietnam had to develop over four or five years. The Civil Rights movement had to develop over decades and decades. So, we are in a stage of development. You can’t just look at where we are right now and say, ‘Well, we’re not doing it, we’re incapable, we’re hopeless.’ No, we are in a dynamic situation changing day by day with the consciousness of people capable of growing day by day as they look around and see how disastrous the present system is — the system of war and the system of nation states. I think there is possibility and hope.

So much that goes on in this country is not reported. It’s very important to know that so much is being omitted. It’s so important for people, if they are not to despair, to, instead of watching the television, go to the library and read the history of past social movements and how people have despaired in those past social movements, but how they persisted and persisted and something happened.

BW: What role does the media play in manipulating or portraying factually people’s perception of the truth?

The problem of the media is that the coverage is so shallow. They depend on the pundits and the experts and the people in Congress, and you don’t find the media talking about fundamentals. You don’t find them questioning the basic principles that underly what has just happened. This false idea of the free market, the market economy, free enterprise, private enterprise, all of the shibboleth — all of them false slogans that have been poured into people’s ears.

Oh, the idea that, ‘We musn’t have big government!’ which I recall bill Clinton saying, too. Because the Democrats have been complicit with the Republicans in using government for the benefit of the rich. Bill Clinton said, ‘Oh the government musn’t help people!’ [laughs] and so he signed the bill that did away with the New Deal measure and federal aid to families with dependent children. So the media have not been doing their job in challenging fundamentals and giving us the history we need, the perspective we need which would tell us what is needed now is not a sort of mild reforms but a fundamental restructuring of our society.

First published at The Boulder Weekly • Oct. 2, 2008

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