I am shocked and deeply saddened to learn tonight of the death of Howard Zinn; my thoughts are with his family and his students.
He was one of those academics who made a lasting impression on me. His prose, in his famous People’s History of the United States, was incisive and his flair for exposing hypocrisy in modern American political rhetoric was unsurpassed.
Bush-era jingoism enraged the socialist academic and, in his interviews, he never failed to cut through the revisionist invocations of American history, of that great country’s ‘freedoms’.
Zinn argued instead for a redemptive politics of activism that could never be uniquely American, that would be shared by peoples and activists all over the world.
It is in this context that his opposition to the Vietnam War, and subsequent US military invasions can be set.
For me, he stands in the first rank of American heroes, like Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, Emma Goldman, Jack London and Upton Sinclair, all of whom he himself looked up to.
Noam Chomsky once paid Zinn tribute in the following terms: “When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide.”
My last thought is that Zinn’s actions and words can be a lesson to us to be like him, to never give up fighting for our ideals. “Small actions, when multiplied by millions of people, can change the world.”
Today is Martin Luther King Day across the water in the United States. Everyone knows the story of Dr. King, the civil rights campaigner. Fewer people know the Dr. King who opposed the Vietnam War, or who went up against many elements of the civil rights movement to organise mass marches against poverty, and against US spending on the war, and how it took funds away from the War on Poverty.
Whatever one thinks of the US attempts at welfare, half-hearted as they were, the point that Dr. King made in his speech entitled Beyond Vietnam is still valid today:
A few years ago there was a shining moment in our struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor – - both black and white – - through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.
This is just as true of the United Kingdom as of the United States; it is just as true of the War against Terror as the War against Vietnam. The US has spent over a trillion dollars on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, other operations, which are global in reach despite our concentration on Iraq and Afghanistan, are higher still. This does not count what the UK and the other allies have spent.
Dr. King also envisioned plenty of the other moral and political arguments that the Left of today have to make:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.
The US and its loyal allies continue to be the greatest purveyors of violence in the world today, and we haven’t lost our supply of desperate, rejected and angry young men. In the UK, media memes and populist politicians call this group the white working class, though in reality poverty and a feeling of isolation stretch far beyond one colour, whatever the Daily Mail and the BNP would like us to believe.
I would never argue that violence is an impermissible way to achieve a political end, on the basis that violence underpins the creation and continued existence of every State. But I would agree with Dr. King that while our armies are abroad blowing people up and getting blown up, not to mention provoking more terrorist incidents, misdirected, impotent rage and violence on our streets is more likely.
Even were this not true, even were the effects of the wars we’re waging utterly remote from our sceptred isle, Dr. King eloquently exposes the hypocrisy and arrogance of the Western nations.
The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954 — in 1945 rather — after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence…
Our situations are readily analogous. Two weeks after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tony Blair and George Bush broadcast messages that were aimed at the people of Iraq and translated into Arabic. They presented the invasion as a way to liberate the Iraqi people, as a humanitarian intervention, as a way to establish democracy. Pretty much every particular promise was then either abridged or ignored.
Meanwhile, seven years later, American and coalition forces are still in Iraq and the government of the country is neither more grounded in the rule of law nor interested in the service of all the Iraqi people. Instead of giving voice and assistance to the Iraqi people, to overthrow their dictator, as the Vietnamese had done, the UK and US chose their solution, imposed it and killed anyone who disagreed.
Finally, Dr. King struck home with devastating accuracy as regard the general relevance of the movement against the war in Vietnam:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
And so such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam…
His words have proved their enduring petinence. Since Vietnam, there have been numerous American military expeditions, and British military expeditions, culminating in the last eight years of incessant warfare. Each time, the anti-war movements have gathered, supported by religious groups, non-governmental organisations and the other arms of civil society. Each time, the war has been succeeded by another war.
Clearly we haven’t addressed the underlying issues. In the case of America, by and large this is the impetus to interfere in the government of other countries in order to secure friendly regimes. Britain mostly gets pulled along in the wake of its much larger ally, though raising the flag and sending in the fleet has not been out of the question when it comes to pasting the Left in the name of a mythical ‘patriotism’.
Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite overwhelming opposition to attacking Iraq, and the increasing opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan, will be followed by new wars. The sound and fury of the anti-war movement has not secured political accountability, it has not secured a Party that will stand up, “against all the apathy of conformist thought…in the surrounding world.”
Despite his ostensible anti-communism, Martin Luther King’s contribution to revolutionary thought was both to highlight for a popular movement the need for engagement with human agency, to fight the apathy of conformist thought in our bosom, and with the structure of capitalism, by insisting that, “True compassion…comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
In many respects, Dr. King’s message drew on the practical lessons of Marxism, much in the same way as liberation theology.
These are messages we can re-learn today, both to create a broad and deep political movement, and to actually effect change rather than thoughtlessly buying into messianic hype, which means we win a few elections, and then have to revisit the same issues ten years from now instead of having conquered them and the system that created them, so we can move on to new and more important issues.
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