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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 srolbein@bu.edu.

9 Comments

9 Comments on The Return of Howard Zinn, and Company

  • Anonymous on 10.29.2009 at 7:26 am

    Conflicted

    While I agree that Prof. Zinn deserves his recognition at Boston University, especially in light of all he has published and the scope of his impact on scholarly argument and liberal thinking. I have been conflicted about Prof. Zinn and his character since being a student in his class in 1987. The class met on Wednesdays in the old Nickelodeon movie theatre. The first day, he jazzed everyone up in the class as he expounded on the unjust nature of the registrar’s policies – specifically capping on the number of people in class. He said he would take everyone who wanted to be here, and then spend the next 45 minutes signing people in. Once done, he told people they no longer had to come to class, and that all they had to do was submit a journal at the end of the semester. I would say that only 60 or so students attended the class regularly. Not the 150 who seemed to be in the standing room only theater on that first day. In the weeks to come, I saw time and time again, Prof. Zinn demean students who did not simply revel in his opinion and repeat his anti-establishment (read: anti-Silber) mantras. Especially hard hit were those in ROTC uniform. You see, on Wednesdays, ROTC students were required to be in their uniforms as this was ROTC class day. Prof. Zinn refused to call on them in class, he avoided them, called them horrible names and made for a very un-democratic learning environment. One day in class, a young man in uniform stood up, with his arm extended and shouted out that he wanted to be called on, he wanted to participate in class, and that he wanted to earn his grade. Prof. Zinn shouted back that he refused to let a murderer have any part in his class. Prof. Zinn may be a scholar, but he is no teacher.

  • Osvaldo on 10.29.2009 at 9:30 am

    full video

    Will the full video be placed on Boston University’s iTunesU ?

    This was a great lecture and needs to be seen in its entirety.

  • Anonymous on 10.29.2009 at 12:48 pm

    Re: Conflicted

    I think you missed the boat on the experience that is Howard Zinn. I took his class in 1980 and was mesmerized by him, and enhanced for the rest of my life by the experience. I was an SMG grad, and went out of my way to take his CLA class. He is about ideas and constructs and their deconstruction and review from different angles. He uses the mechanics of the classroom to help underscore awareness and understanding of this deconstruction. Seeing the anguish in the soldiers face gave understanding of their plight. In the end, everyone had to leave their ego and sense of a typical classroom by the door.
    His term, “the best defense is no defense” has stayed with me my whole life, yet it does not make me think we should terminate our armed forces. It makes me THINK.

  • Anonymous on 10.29.2009 at 1:13 pm

    Vision

    I attended the event and was fairly disappointed with a luck of vision of Howard Zinn. His criticism of Obama is not constrictive and it may, if anything, undermine his efforts. Obama needs support from the masses and H. Zinn did mention that however he did not connect it to Obama’s ambitious but attainable agenda. The bright star of the evening was Mary Gordon who was able to see far beyond the surface. She was fabulous with her spirit, common sense and intellectual capacity that the other three panelist were clearly lacking – with all due respect for their accomplishments that they were praised in introduction. I did not know any of them and was quite ‘panelist naïve’ and certainly expected more wisdom from them.

  • Alan Wong on 10.29.2009 at 1:43 pm

    Glad wasn't in his class

    As a foreign student and later an immigrant to the US, I had to spend many years after the years at BU to really appreciate this great if imperfect country. If I had taken Prof. Zinn’s class, just imagine how much longer it would have taken me to unlearn the far left ideology.

    I understand that university is a place for the diversity of voices but I just don’t see an equivalent lecture series hosting moderate, libertarian or conservative thinkers.

  • jane goldberg on 10.29.2009 at 3:51 pm

    howard zinn

    Howard Zinn in the 60s inspired me to change careers completely and helped pioneer the tap dance revival all throughout the US and Europe. His speeches were threatening at first, but once you read what was going on in the world, it wasn’t hard to start reading more of what Dr Zinn suggested. He might be “left-wing” but he’s also an incredibly humane genuine human being. I know this from his encouraging words towards me in my journalism and dance life

  • Anonymous on 10.31.2009 at 9:44 am

    Dear Foreign Student: You

    Dear Foreign Student:

    You can see an equivalent lecture series by conservatives any time on our television news programs and C Span and in our newspapers in the U.S.
    What is rare in America is a lecture series like this one.

    Conservatives have owned media for years and shoved it down our throats.
    Please don’t ask for “balance”. Balance is all around you.

  • Anonymous on 10.31.2009 at 2:48 pm

    @ Conflicted

    I, too, took Prof. Zinn’s class in 1987 (I am ENG ’88) in that old Nick theatre and I attended regularly. Nice break from ENG classes. However, I never witnessed anything that you are referring to. Sorry.

  • Carax on 01.28.2010 at 12:44 am

    Conflicted said: “Prof. Zinn may be a scholar, but he is no teacher”

    Well, we’ll have to take your word on this.

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