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Letters from Downunder

Left, Right, Left, Right, Left…

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

(3/10) This month I would like to remember the life of one of the great modern dissidents in American history, Howard Zinn. Born of Immigrant Jewish parents on August 24, 1922 in Brooklyn, he passed away last January 27, aged 87.

His 'A People's History of the United States' is possibly the most important non-fiction book to have been published in the 20th century. It was the runner up for the National Book Award in its year of publication, 1980, and since then has sold over one million copies in English, and countless more in translation. Zinn was awarded Diplomatic Friends of the World prize for the French version of the book in 2003, while various high Schools and Colleges across the United States have adopted it as a reading text.

It's not my intention to review the book - anyone can read it and form their own opinion - but rather to put it in context. Zinn was an avowed leftist, a renowned scholar and teacher, and he was convinced that his duty to all Americans, and by extension, all people, was to expose what he believed to be a conspiracy of the right to (a) remove unflattering history from common knowledge and debate, (b) discredit any and all attempts to tell any truth that was against their interests, (c) promote their world view at all costs, (d) ensure that the great majority came to believe that this was the right and only way for government to be run.

During one of the many interviews he gave on this and associated topics, he said in 1998 that his aim in writing A People's History was the making of a 'quiet revolution': Not a revolution in the classical sense of a seizure of power, but rather from people beginning to take power from within the institutions. In the workplace, the workers would take power to control the conditions of their lives.

The importance of his book is not in the doctrine, but rather in the searchlight he turned on history. Ignorance, in the sense of not knowing what has been covered up, is not bliss, but numbness. The notion of 'ignorant masses' predates history, came to flower in Caesar's Rome, and has been alive and kicking ever since. Attempts in the past to shine a light in dark places have largely failed, as mainstream media is by and large part of the right wing stream, but, and here is the nub of my article, the success of this book could only have happened in a Democracy.

The strength of any nation is directly related to anyone being able to freely tell people the truth. Not some half-baked jingoistic wish list, not some untruth that has the veneer of age, but provable, demonstratable facts. And this is what Mr. Zinn has done. Many, many critics and criticisms have been made of the book, but it has been embraced by many thousands of 'ordinary' Americans, to whom it is primarily addressed. An understanding by the people of all a nation's history is more than power, it gives empowerment, and this was the ultimate aim of this man.

Some of his ideas have, of course, been shown to be based on a less than complete understanding of human nature: Workers may take power over their workplaces, but sooner or later generally become part of the right. Unionists are often less than capable of making sound commercial decisions. Altruism in business is scarcer than hen's teeth, and self interest does tend to rise to the top, whether it's a multi-national or a union. But that, as I said earlier, is a fact of life. Revelations of cover ups, however, are vital if the health of a nation is to remain strong.

Zinn also produced a version for young Americans, and I can do no better than to conclude with his introduction to this. I titled this piece, 'Left, Right, Left, Right, because not only are there two political categories in play, but we all march onwards. With Zinn, may it be towards a more balanced, humane society.

"I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but that it has been taken over by men have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make our ideals a reality."

Let's give thanks to Howard Zinn, and above all, lets give thanks to Democracy.


Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker