The Return of Howard Zinn, and Company
A packed house hears a left-wing critique of Obama
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In the video above, Howard Zinn answers a question from the audience: what would he urge Barack Obama to do? Photos below by Frank Curran
With the Tsai Performance Center filled to its 500-seat capacity, many in the audience remembered when that hall was named Hayden, the University was in turmoil, and Howard Zinn was both lightning rod and radical catalyst.
Much has changed. The Howard Zinn Lecture Series, kicking off Alumni Weekend on October 22, now celebrates Boston University’s distinguished professor emeritus of political science. As Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences, welcomed all and introduced three intriguing writers gathered around the man of the night, cordiality rather than conflict ruled.
“To have a kindly relationship between us and the BU administration,” said Zinn, his nod to Sapiro drawing swells of laughter, “well, we’re still trying to get used to it.”
Yet some things haven’t changed. The topic was The Promise of Change: Vision and Realty in Obama’s Presidency. And the analysis came hard from the left, with Zinn staking out the far post.
Just as intriguing were the positions of his fellow panelists, each nuanced, each approaching Obama at least a little more sympathetically. They were:
James Carroll, a National Book Award winner and Boston Globe columnist, who first met Zinn during his years as Catholic chaplain at Boston University, from 1969 to 1974, before he left the priesthood.
Ellen Goodman, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who has been writing about social change in America since 1976 and whose column appears in more than 300 newspapers.
Mary Gordon, New York’s official state author, a stuffy title for a writer whose work marries a piercing intimacy and religious and political explorations.
Zinn gingerly took up the cudgel.
“It’s a very delicate question,” he mused. “Why? Well, it’s not easy to talk about.” Everyone wants to support Obama, he continued, or at least everyone in his circle. Everyone wants to love Obama. But let’s face it: “His presidency doesn’t measure up. I have to say that. But why? How? How come?”
Militarism, he answered. Obama has kept the troops in Iraq. He’s sent more troops to Afghanistan. “He’s continued a military foreign policy.”
Not to be a know-it-all, Zinn said (“though I do know it all,” he joked), but those who expected great change from this president were fooling themselves. Look at history, he urged, invoking his mantra; Democrats are as aggressive as Republicans.
“They’re all in this for war,” he said. “That’s what we call bipartisanship.” Those surprised or disappointed are those who “exaggerated expectations, romanticized him, idealized him. Obama is a Democratic Party politician. I know that sounds demeaning. It is.”
“There’s an enormous weight left over by the Bush administration,” Zinn said. “Unfortunately, he has done nothing to begin to lift that weight.” Change can happen only by grassroots protest strong enough to move entrenched interests.
“I’ll say it: turmoil,” he concluded.
Carroll weighed in.
“President Obama’s administration began in January,” he said, then paused. “January of 1943.”
Carroll ticked off four events that year — the Allies insisting on unconditional surrender to end World War II, massive bombings of civilian sites by the American and British Air Forces, the creation of the Pentagon, and the forming of Los Alamos National Laboratory to build a nuclear weapon. Those events put in motion “a current running below the nation ever since,” he argued, and “President Obama is at the mercy of this current.”
This is a permeating force, he said, strong enough to stall antiwar protests and nuclear disarmament. Its momentum has stopped us from taking advantage of opportunity after opportunity, from the Cold War’s end to this singular moment. Call it “the military industrial complex,” as President Eisenhower did, Carroll said, but see it as even more pervasive.
Still, he was not as dark as Zinn. Obama’s speeches, raising expectations and changing perceptions, also count, he said. “While it totally freaks me out to disagree with Howard Zinn, I think the words matter. I think the Nobel Prize went to the right person … as an invitation to greatness.”
That said, Carroll seconded Zinn’s call for protest and pressure to change foreign policy. “Nothing happens without the grassroots,” he concluded. “That’s Howard Zinn’s point.”
Goodman said she found it “shocking, but I’m going to be the resident optimist.” The man hasn’t been president for a year, let alone a term. “We’re very impatient,” she said, and that’s not fair.
Yet her hope for more public civility has died away. Goodman sees an organized, bitter, and in many ways fabricated right-wing attack on Obama: the “birthers” (who insist that the president was not born in this country, despite proof to the contrary) and the “kill granny group” (who have said that national health care would lead to euthanasia). They’re akin to Holocaust deniers, she said, and they have powerful sway in the country Obama leads.
“There’s an underlying anxiety,” said Goodman. “Can you be a healer and a politician?” While she doesn’t feel hopeless about the president’s agenda, “I’m not hopeful about the rise of civility.” And so she returned to the theme of the evening, and made it personal:
“The gap between hope and reality is very much a gap inside ourselves.”
Gordon invoked Henry James: “Things are much more complicated than you ever think,” she quoted, then adding from Voltaire to build her perspective: “The best is the enemy of the good. The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
She listed what she sees as major Obama accomplishments: growing acceptance of the Muslim faith within our nation, changes in reproductive rights for women, the prospect of a much-improved health-care system. Each of these is “enormous,” she said, but even more, Obama “opens up our imagination. He reminds us that the world is a complicated place.”
And, she continued, “what will never go back is that African-American kids will look at him and say, ‘The world is different.’
“He didn’t say he was going to pull a rabbit out of a hat and there will be no more original sin,” she said. And then she closed a writer’s circle begun with Henry James: “He’s not Gabriel García Márquez. He can’t do magic realism. He has to write a realistic novel.”
After a round of questions, panelists and posse adjourned to the Castle for drinks, food, and more conversation. The ornate building was packed with people and energy and a sense of how history — including University history — is full of surprising turns.
Sidney Hurwitz, a College of Fine Arts professor emeritus of art, who taught at BU for more than 30 years, a colleague of Zinn’s and fellow activist during stormier times, summed up:
“When I see Howard up there, giving a lecture, celebrated as he deserves to be — well, I never thought I’d live to see this happen.”
The Howard Zinn Lecture Series, made possible by the gift of Alex MacDonald (CAS’72) and Maureen A. Strafford (MED’76), is an annual talk on contemporary issues from a historical point of view.
Seth Rolbein can be reached at email@example.com.