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Howard Zinn Warns of Democracy in Crisis

Challenges Democrats to pull themselves together

Howard Zinn, a professor emeritus of political science at Boston University, returns to BU on Thursday, November 2 to give a talk called Bring Democracy Alive.

The historian and war critic is the author of A People’s History of the United States, a book both lauded and derided for telling American history from the perspective of minorities, immigrants, laborers, and others Zinn felt had been excluded from traditional textbooks.

Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants, the former shipyard worker attended New York University on the G.I. Bill and taught at the all-black women’s Spelman College from 1956 until 1963, when he was fired for encouraging students to fight segregation. Zinn taught at BU from 1964 until his retirement in 1988. Tomorrow’s lecture, the first in the Howard Zinn Lecture Series, an annual talk viewing contemporary issues from historical perspectives, is at the Tsai Performance Center at 7 p.m.

BU Today spoke with Zinn about how he sees the state of politics in the United States.

BU Today: What is the state of democracy today?
Zinn: We’re in great trouble. Historically, foreign policy has not been democratically decided. The voters vote every four years for the president, but they rarely vote for one particular foreign policy or another. They voted for Woodrow Wilson in 1916 on a pledge of, “I’ll keep you out of the European war,” and then he got us into the war. They voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 in the same way, and he got us into the war. With this administration, it’s even more undemocratic than ever before. Here’s an administration which is impervious to dissent and to criticism and ruthless in the way it goes about making its decisions, getting us into two wars in just a few years. When you go to war, there’s always an effect on civil liberties, and that’s certainly true in the recent passage by Congress of the law in which habeas corpus is essentially eliminated, giving the president the power to pick up anybody, really, and detain them without any due process, without any right to counsel or fair trial.

Then there’s the issue of economic democracy, which requires that if you have wealth in the country, if the country is very technologically advanced, then the benefits should be available to the whole population. That certainly is not true. This is an extremely productive country with a huge gross national product. A lot of it consists of military expenditures, and a lot of it consists of luxury items for the rich. All you have to do is look at the magazine section of the New York Times and you see apartments in New York selling for $20 million or wristwatches for $22,000. And in the meantime, 40 million people are without health insurance.

Would you say the media is failing in its obligation to democracy?
Unfortunately. One of the requirements of a democracy is a media that informs the people so that they can make decisions, so they can, if they want, protest the policies of the government. The media in its ideal form would be an investigative arm of the population and not a spokesperson for the administration. But that’s not the way the media has been operating. They went along with the war, they supported the war, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. As soon as the president announced it, the television stations began showing flags, and I remember Dan Rather talking about policy in terms of “we,” associating himself immediately with the government. The media should be independent, not an arm of the government.

Do you see any solution?
The only solution is for people to develop their own alternative sources of information and to demand that the media become what the media should be. During the Vietnam War, alternative newspapers sprang up around the country. It was an alternative news service that broke the story of the My Lai massacre — not the New York Times or the Washington Post or any of the other major papers. So we need alternative sources of information. There are probably 200 small radio stations around the country that depart from the orthodoxy of the major radio stations. Essentially, if you want to do something about the undemocratic character of our national policies, it takes popular revolt.

Is the two-party system, in which people often vote for what they consider the lesser of two evils, a problem?
One of the ways you can judge the state of our democracy is by whether we truly have a two-party system — that is, whether we have an opposition party to the one in power. The Democratic Party has been pitiful as an opposition party. People like John Kerry and Hilary Clinton and leading members of the Democratic Party voted for the war. Republicans and Democrats voted almost overwhelmingly for the Patriot Act. While there were Democrats who opposed the recent passage of the Military Tribunals Act, there also were many Democrats who supported it. So we don’t have a functioning two-party system right now, and it will take a kind of rebellion by rank-and-file Democrats to turn the Democratic Party into a true opposition party.

Do you think between now and 2008 might be the time for that to happen?
If there ever was a time for it to happen, this is the time, because the Democrats don’t even have an excuse of, “We need to see where people are; we can’t be too out in front of the people.” They’re way behind the people! Most of the population opposes the war. It’s a golden opportunity for the Democrats to come out boldly on the war. If they did, I think they would sweep into Congress and sweep into the presidency.

Do you think there’s a danger to democracy from the new electronic voting machines, many of them built and controlled by partisans?
I think it’s a very dangerous situation when we cannot be sure about the honesty of the voting process. Take Florida in 2000, when paper ballots were tampered with and thousands of people, mostly black, were just stricken from the voting rolls. So there are all kinds of ways of tampering with the election process and the machines are one of them. The machines are especially insidious because you have no way of checking up on them.

In A People’s History, you wrote that your students at BU in the early ’80s didn’t seem as selfish or politically disconnected as youth then were supposed to be. How about today? Do you have a sense of young people’s level of engagement?
Obviously we’re not seeing the kind of campus demonstrations that we had during the ’60s, but I do believe there is an idealist way of thinking that young people always have, in any era. It just needs to be awakened by some crisis that comes along, and I think right now the war is that kind of crisis.