Effect Measure

Advice from Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn is gone, now, but he left us plenty. Here is a short piece he wrote a little over ten years ago in Z Magazine (hat tip, SR). It’s typical of his style: inspiring, humble, practical, especially in these times:

On Getting Along

Howard Zinn, March, 07 1999

You ask how I manage to stay involved and remain seemingly happy and adjusted to this awful world where the efforts of caring people pale in comparison to those who have power?

It’s easy. First, don’t let “those who have power” intimidate you. No matter how much power they have they cannot prevent you from living your life, speaking your mind, thinking independently, having relationships with people as you like. (Read Emma Goldman’s autobiography LIVING MY LIFE. Harassed, even imprisoned by authority, she insisted on living her life, speaking out, however she felt like.

Second, find people to be with who have your values, your commitments, but who also have a sense of humor. That combination is a necessity!

Third (notice how precise is my advice that I can confidently number it, the way scientists number things), understand that the major media will not tell you of all the acts of resistance taking place every day in the society, the strikes, the protests, the individual acts of courage in the face of authority. Look around (and you will certainly find it) for the evidence of these unreported acts. And for the little you find, extrapolate from that and assume there must be a thousand times as much as what you’ve found.

Fourth. Note that throughout history people have felt powerless before authority, but that at certain times these powerless people, by organizing, acting, risking, persisting, have created enough power to change the world around them, even if a little. That is the history of the labor movement, of the women’s movement, of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the disabled persons movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the movement of black people in the South.

Fifth: Remember, that those who have power, and who seem invulnerable are in fact quite vulnerable, that their power depends on the obedience of others, and when those others begin withholding that obedience, begin defying authority, that power at the top turns out to be very fragile. Generals become powerless when their soldiers refuse to fight, industriaists become powerless when their workers leave the jobs or occupy the factories.

Sixth: When we forget the fragility of that power in top we become astounded when it crumbles in the face of rebellion. We have had many such surprises in our time, both in the United States and in other countries.

Seventh: Don’t look for a moment of total triumph. See it as an ongoing struggle, with victories and defeats, but in the long run the consciousness of people growing. So you need patience, persistence, and need to understand that even when you don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that you have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile.

Okay, seven pieces of profound advice should be enough.

I think about this a lot, these days. It’s a long struggle. It started before we were born and it will go on after we are dead. Howard Zinn is gone now. But the struggle goes on, with other good people, in something worthwhile.

Comments

  1. #1 Chris
    January 30, 2010

    Thank you

  2. #2 K
    January 30, 2010

    THANK YOU

  3. #3 Alex
    January 30, 2010

    Brilliant. Just brilliant.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    January 30, 2010

    Thank you so much for these wise words from a man who lived it. I need to print and tack up this post to remind myself of all the good people – you, for example – who I am fortunate to have in my life as those examples.

  5. #5 Leo
    January 30, 2010

    I’m sorry, but this is utter pablum and leaves out the most important lessons to be learned from Zinn for “getting along”.

    Eighth: Be a tenured professor with a comfortable salary and good health insurance
    Ninth: Have a perennially selling book from which you collect royalty payments and get paid to update every few years
    Tenth: Collect lots of large fees for speaking
    Eleventh: Luck out in the genetic lottery to have the health to enjoy all of the above

    Nobody disputes the benefits of philosophical detachment, historical perspective and community support for not succumbing to cynicism and depression. It’s all too easy though for someone in Zinn’s position to write glib platitudes like this while enjoying the very sort of privileged position he excoriates in his writing. Even worse, it’s dismissive of the very real pain and suffering of the people it’s addressed to.

    I’m sorry for sounding trollish, but this is the sort of hypocritical claptrap that breeds disillusionment with and contempt of left wing politics.

  6. #6 revere
    January 30, 2010

    Leo: Since you didn’t know him you don’t know how wrong you are about all of the above. And you are not in the least sorry about sounding trollish.

  7. #7 Alex
    January 30, 2010

    About the following from Leo:

    “I’m sorry, but this is utter pablum and leaves out the most important lessons to be learned from Zinn for “getting along”.”
    >>Zinn did not give lessons for “getting along”. This is not a feel-good philosophy from an intellectual living in the ivory tower, doing nothing all day but theorizing. The first sentence was: “You ask how I manage to stay involved and remain seemingly happy and adjusted…”. What do you think he meant by “stay involved”?

    “Eighth: Be a tenured professor with a comfortable salary and good health insurance”
    >>Zinn came from a working class background and was a bombardier in WWII. He only became an academic later on and had to work hard to pay for his studies. If you tried to portray him as an elitist, it’s a fail.

    “Ninth: Have a perennially selling book from which you collect royalty payments and get paid to update every few years”
    >>Zinn gave a lot of his money to charities such as Artists for Peace and Justice. He never lived “the American dream” and as anyone who knew him knows, he never cared to.

    “Tenth: Collect lots of large fees for speaking”
    >>Same thing as for “Ninth”. And if you think Zinn collected large fees for speaking, clearly you don’t know Bill Clinton. Clinton was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by many universities to make shitty speeches, in which he would praise US imperialism, by refering to it as humanitarian aid or other euphemisms. Most of your criticism should be directed at Clinton. Unfortunately, while Clinton came to speak at my university last fall, we never had the chance to have Zinn speak.

    “Eleventh: Luck out in the genetic lottery to have the health to enjoy all of the above”
    >>The genetic argument is pure nonsense, as any serious biologist would know. Many people who are born with disabilities, or who become disabled later in life, still achieve remarkable things (example: Terry Fox).

    “Nobody disputes the benefits of philosophical detachment, historical perspective and community support for not succumbing to cynicism and depression.”
    >>Zinn put his life on the line many times for what he believed in. A good example is when he was beaten up and arrested by police at an anti-war protest in the 60’s. How’s that for “philosophical detachment”?

    “It’s all too easy though for someone in Zinn’s position to write glib platitudes like this while enjoying the very sort of privileged position he excoriates in his writing.”
    >>Again, Zinn did not always have a privileged position and once he did have one, he used it to inspire and help others.

    “Even worse, it’s dismissive of the very real pain and suffering of the people it’s addressed to.”
    >>Zinn’s writings did just the opposite. They brought to light the suffering of those in the depth of misery and gave many the incentive to fight for civil liberties.

    “I’m sorry for sounding trollish, but this is the sort of hypocritical claptrap that breeds disillusionment with and contempt of left wing politics.”
    >>I’m sorry for sounding trollish, but this is the sort of hypocritical claptrap that breeds disillusionment with and contempt of left wing politics.

  8. #8 revere
    January 30, 2010

    thank, you Alex.

  9. #9 kim w
    January 30, 2010

    Revere, thank you for this post. I had been brooding on Obama’s comment to the bankers, regarding us as peasants with pitchforks, the brief flash of unorganized protest that is crushed to ashes quickly enough as those who have the power (i.e. most of the money) insure with their calculated means that fires of hope are quickly extinguished.

    I should be old enough to know better, but I had such hope after Obama was elected, saw the people dancing joyously in the streets in D.C., where I was born. But it’s turned out to more of the same old, same old in many ways, hasn’t it?

    In this rough winter, I was beginning to feel as paralyzed as the traffic stuck in road, tires spinning stupidly in the snow. I was beginning to be glad that I am as old as I am now, mid-fifties, that I won’t see the worst of the erosion of the middle class, the poverty become unspeakable, the steady wearing down of the pride of those who want to work hard, but will still lose.

    The vast extension of the middle-class was a great movement, for the brief moment that it lasted. I benefited, one of the first of my relations to get a four-year degree, although almost all of my aunts and uncles and cousins ended up being successful without one. I paid $200.00 a semester my first year. But those roads are closing. College begins to require an inherited fortune to afford. The nation is eroding down into mostly low-wage, no benefit alternatives, and the US is infamously the first world country with the worst safety net for its citizens. It’s returning to what civilization has been through most of human history, the very few with power and money, the rest degenerating into lives that will become brutish and nasty, and short, too, without access to health care.

    What a horror to return to the age in which most people were regarded as servants, in some cultures not even regarded as fully human, for the benefit of a few. But such as been the way of history.

    To me it seems obvious that people who live by wages rather than investments need to band together, to take it to the streets, but there are so many divisions in America. My Republican brother in NC forwards emails that would make you vomit, the hatred and racism. As a deputy sheriff he ironically forwards and believes in screeds against socialism, for all that a government taxes people and redistributes wealth in order to pay his salary.

    But thanks, Revere, for the post that reminds me to speak my mind about these things, rather that sinking into a depression of a false historical inevitability. But what will be the action? I believe that we have to reach across to other workers without screed, without shouting, to calmly explain what is in their best interests, vs the interests of those already powerful. And even that is a paternalistic sentence, “to explain things to them,” that I would resent, too.

    You have to understand the South, West Virginia, the mid-West, where some values are different: but ultimately we all want to keep America as a good and decent place to live for the average person. As someone who has lived in WV for decades now (the state in which workers went to war against the U.S. government for unfair labor practices), I suggest reading Joe Bageant’s “Deer Hunting with Jesus,” to give blue state people a clue. We’ve got to reach across the stupid lines dividing us.

  10. #10 Alex
    January 31, 2010

    @Kim W: I don’t want to add gasoline to the fire but it was clear, even before the primaries, where Obama’s loyalties lie. I agree that things are getting increasingly out of hand: Supreme Court’s recent decision, Brokenhagen, war in Afghanistan, etc.

    That said, I completely disagree with the following:

    “What a horror to return to the age in which most people were regarded as servants, in some cultures not even regarded as fully human, for the benefit of a few. But such as been the way of history.”

    Firstly, most people were always regarded by those at the top as servants, as objects, as garbage, as disposable, as less-than-human and as useful for the benefit of a few. The idea that government respects or values it’s citizens is part of the histories and memories taught in elementary school history classes and propagated by the mainstream media. We should keep in mind that this little circus, which some call education, happens in the US as well and we should not be surprised when we find out that those in power are lying. And secondly, this kind of defeatist attitude is exactly what Zinn tried to eliminate. In the post above, reread his Fifth and Seventh points.

    Conversely, I completely agree with the following, although it was obvious:

    “I believe that we have to reach across to other workers without screed, without shouting, to calmly explain what is in their best interests, vs the interests of those already powerful. And even that is a paternalistic sentence, “to explain things to them,” that I would resent, too.”

    I once emailed Chomsky about what can be done about Obama’s sending of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. He responded: “What can we do? The usual things.” ‘Nuff said.

  11. #11 K
    January 31, 2010

    Alex, I agree that the people at the top by and large consider all below them as servants. But most Americans are in fact at the top and we don’t usually even consider those who serve us at all. We use copper wire to send electricity to our houses without considering at all the lives of the Chilean copper miners who last about45 years. We by and large don’t think when we buy our clothes about the lives of those who make them. Etc. Those at the top are aware about how they use people and don’t care. We by and large are willfully ignorant. Given the large number of people on planet earth these days by the numbers more people have poor degraded lives than in the middle ages even though the percent who are poor is smaller. About 3 billion live on $2 a day or less. 1 billion live on $1 a day. The living standards for almost all domestic animals is far worse than it was in the middle ages.

  12. #12 Alex
    January 31, 2010

    @K: I partially agree. All your points about exploited South American workers and cruelty against animals are correct. I hope I did not imply that people in the US are worse off than everyone else. If I did, I’m sorry. But this goes back to an argument I heard as a joke a while ago:

    “You think you’re poor because you’re living in a trailer? There’s people living in the street!”

    Yes, the people in the street are worse off than those in the trailer and yes, they would be euphoric if they were given a trailer. However, this does not mean that the conditions of those living in a trailer are justified. Absolute poverty does not justify partial poverty.

    That said, I completely disagree with the following:

    “We by and large don’t think when we buy our clothes about the lives of those who make them.”

    “We by and large are willfully ignorant.”

    >>Many of us do think and many of us take action. There is a growing anti-capitalist movement all over the world and even in the US. There is a Buy Nothing Day, a World Fair Trade Day, a World Day Against Child Labour, an Earth Day, etc. A good book about this is Stephen Gill’s Power and Resistance in the New World Order: “… as the globalization of power intensifies, so too do globalized forms of resistance”. You will be surprised to find out that the majority is no longer willfully ignorant.

  13. #13 K
    January 31, 2010

    Alex, I know there are many who do think and take some actions, but my experience is that the majority of people I meet outside activist circles are ignorant and bristle when you try to educate them. It is easy to be involved in activism and get the sense that you are in a majority, but a trip to Walmart should disabuse you of that sense.

    Meanwhile there is not enough resources in the world for everyone to live a middle class lifestyle so those of us in the middle class (and I put myself there even though I live simply by middle class standards) are using more than our fair share. I figured once that to equalize out living standards for all the people in the world we would all be living on $8 a day. Back of the envelope type calculation but I later saw some official figures that were pretty close. But currently it is estimated that we are consuming 33% more of the world’s resources than is sustainable. So to be fair and sustainable we would have to live on about $5 a day. Do any of the groups you mention advocate such a cut in lifestyle?

  14. #14 Alex
    January 31, 2010

    @K:

    “but my experience is that the majority of people I meet outside activist circles are ignorant and bristle when you try to educate them.”
    >>When I wrote that many of us are aware and taking action, I based myself on facts, not personal experience. Take climate change for example. I live in Canada. A recent study, quoted by Greenpeace Canada, found that 74% of Canadians feel our government should take climate change much more seriously (http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/recent/eu_save_summit). There was a similar study done in the US which gave ~60%, lost the link to that though. I can quote many studies, which found that people are becoming increasingly aware of social problems and acting to solve them. Of course, this doesn’t negate what you said about WalMart. There’s much left to be done. But much has also been done.

    “It is easy to be involved in activism and get the sense that you are in a majority, but a trip to Walmart should disabuse you of that sense.”
    >>Non sequitur. I can easily reverse the argument and say: It is easy not to be involved in activism and get the sense that you are in a majority, but a trip to a local protest should disabuse you of that sense. Is that true? Again, the only way be sure is by looking at statistics. And then you have to look at how well the statistics are done. And whether or not the statistics are on your side, the goal remains the same: educate others, as hard as it is.

    “Meanwhile there is not enough resources in the world for everyone to live a middle class lifestyle so those of us in the middle class (and I put myself there even though I live simply by middle class standards) are using more than our fair share.”
    >>”Middle class” is too vague. Can you be more precise about income, profession, working conditions, etc? And the purpose of the activism I do is in part to make people reject the “middle class lifestyle” and consumerism. I live well enough in a small house, can afford food, education, medicine, etc. I could afford a larger house and an SUV but instead I donate money to NGOs. I am still “middle class”, but not the kind of middle class you’re familiar with. I don’t see how my concept of middle class is unsustainable.

    “I figured once that to equalize out living standards for all the people in the world we would all be living on $8 a day. Back of the envelope type calculation but I later saw some official figures that were pretty close.”
    >>I would like to see some studies showing that we would need to live on $8 a day or less to be fair or sustainable. And if there are, you would need to check the studies and see who funded them. It’s like having studies made about global warming by Shell Royal Dutch or ExxonMobil.

    “But currently it is estimated that we are consuming 33% more of the world’s resources than is sustainable.”
    >>Thus the need for rejecting a consumerist lifestyle and participating in as much activism as possible, regardless of whether or not others are doing as much.

    “So to be fair and sustainable we would have to live on about $5 a day. Do any of the groups you mention advocate such a cut in lifestyle?”
    >>No, but again I seriously doubt this is necessary. Living within your means does not mean living broke.

    Overall, I want to put special emphasis on “whether or not others are doing as much”.