Failure to Quit – Reflections of an Optimistic Historian (Howard Zinn) [1993]

failure to quit

A collection of interviews, speeches and texts by the one and only Howard Zinn. The title derived from a court document, when hundreds of demonstrators against the American economic blockade of Nicaragua (during Sandinista rule), among them HZ, were charged with ‘failure to quit the premises’ (of whichever building they were occupying). Here are the ‘pearls’:

Background to the Ludlow massacre of 1914 (National Guardsmen slaughtering striking miners and their families):

A letter from the vice-president of Colorado Fuel & Iron to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in New York explained:

You will be interested to know that we have been able to secure the cooperation of all the bankers of the city, who have had three or four interviews with our little cowboy governor, agreeing to back the State and lend it all funds necessary to maintain the militia and afford ample protection so our miners could return to work… Another mighty power has been rounded up on behalf of the operators by the getting together of fourteen of the editors of the most important newspapers in the state.

The National Guard was innocently welcomed to town by miners and their families…

1972 speech on civil disobedience:

…if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong… we have to start from that supposition -that things are really topsy-turvy.

He keeps asking in his speeches: ”Remember?”, ”Remember this?”, ”Remember how the government lied to ordinary people that time?”

This fragment of a sentence, for me, epitomizes him as a teacher:

My students, sitting week after week in Boston Municipal Court…

These realities of wealth and power that determine our everyday liberties will remain unshaken by new statutes, new Justices, new leaders, new court decisions – unless counter-forces appear on the very ground where liberty is taken away: on the street, at home, in schools, hospitals, courts, prisons, places of work.

Freedom of speech:

What resources do you have to speak out? […] How much [freedom of speech] do you have? […] Freedom of speech is meaningless if the sources of information  are controlled…

Discussing whether violence and war is part of human nature:

…then why is it that governments have to go to such tremendous lengths to mobilize populations to go to war?

Brilliantly funny, always – without compromising his scholarship. This is a greater feat than it may seem!

Mexico ”ceded” California and Colorado and New Mexico and Arizona. They ceded all of that to us. Why? Good neighbors. Latin American hospitality… soon we had 40 percent of Mexico.

As he often does, he returns to his own war experience as a bombardier during the last months of World war 2, flying bombing missions over locations he didn’t even know the names of:’

The first use of Napalm that I know of was this mission that we flew a few weeks before the end of World War II. 

This was news to me (or I had forgotten, more likely):

…on August 14 a thousand planes flew over Japan and dropped bombs on Japanese cities. [Nota bene: after A-bombs.]

Z discloses that it was only in the 80’s – while working on his masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States – that he learned of the Columbus missions’ brutality. He notes the uncritical celebrations of Columbus day a century ago, compares them to the quincentennial 1992, where quite a number of demonstrations marked the day – quite often led by indigenous Americans’ movements. Columbus, describing the Indians (in his diary):

”They were the best people in the world and above all the gentlest – without knowledge of what is evil – nor do they murder or steal… they loved their neighbors as themselves and they have the sweetest talk in the world… always laughing. [Elsewhere:] They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all…”

I’ll note my disagreements with this book. There are some – rare – lapses in reasoning, when for instance HZ sets human progress against genocide, and asks: ”progress yes, but at what human cost?” This is a poisonous question, which requires the one who even begins to weigh the first against the latter, to accept the duality of the two. Let’s refuse that. Rather, we can look at the barbarity of imperialism and war – the inevitable trademarks of modern capitalism – as something of the past, which can be overcome in a more civilized society.

At another point, he seems to fall into the notion of WW2 as the good war – which he himself, more than anybody else, has denounced: ”By the end of World War II we had become brutalized.” By this he is referring to the extensive bombings of civilian structures in the aftermath of the Nazi defeat and the imminent Japanese one, aiming to punish the populations and subdue their industries – giving the Allied economies a head-start in the new era. I’m not even going to suggest that he believes WW2 began as anything but a brutal war – and since ordinary Americans (the ‘we’) didn’t learn about the destruction of whole cities, of what did the ‘brutalization’ consist? Most probably this is a matter of unfortunate wording. Minor disagreements, thus. Let’s not fight.

Reading Zinn is a vitamin injection, a kick-start to your political consciousness. He does this through impeccable scholarship and unwavering solidarity, linked with humor, self-distance and by setting an example with his activism. Your despair fades, and somehow, after you put the book down, the world looks a whole lot better than it did before. How many people in your life can do that?

When I hear so often that there is little hope for change in the ’90s, I think back to the despair that accompanied the onset of the ’60s.


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