Howard Zinn and the State of the Union

February 28, 2010

By Tom H. Hastings

Howard Zinn has crossed over. He was a mensch, a historian and a peace and justice activist. He was not convinced that nonviolence was always the answer, but he often provided expert testimony for nonviolent resisters seeking help in conducting a robust defense of their actions in opposition to militarism and injustice.

He was a public intellectual of staggering stature, producing his germinal People’s History of the United States that shattered myths and provided comfort to people who had been written out of history or misrepresented in our standard histories.

Evaluating Obama’s Policies

At the same time that the news of Zinn’s death flashed throughout the peace and justice world, we listened to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. It is both inspiring and chilling. He is justifying more military, more nuclear reactors, and more coal plants. His righteous rhetoric is great, and I hope more Americans understand that Republicans shame themselves constantly by their disinformation and obdurate obstructionism. But Obama’s actual policies are quite disappointing in many ways. Yes, he’s a pragmatist, but he is also a brilliant orator. He builds up the citizenry’s hopes in his integrity, and he seems to be working to honor his promises, but many of his promises are actually harmful.

Nuclear power is not a solution to any problem we have and will in fact exacerbate them all. Those power plants are the only power that is permanently poisonous.

An increased military budget is not wise, humane, or in anyone’s enlightened self-interest. It squanders our resources and alienates our world neighbors.

Coal power is unnecessary, degrades sacred mountains, wild wooded creeks, clean air and will worsen global warming.

There was no serious mention of disarmament, ecological protection, drawdown of our 1,000 foreign military bases, energy conservation, cessation of small arms and light weapons exports, and no realistic plan for either ending our Afghanistan quagmire or making Rooseveltian strides toward full employment.

Barack Obama is possibly the only public speaker capable of telling us that he’s going to violate us in the name of saving us and we all choke up with gratitude. He is truly charismatic, truly talented, and, I’m chagrined to say, truly unable to change the war system.

Better Than McCain

All that said, I am still so very glad it was not John McCain delivering the State of the Union. Bush was an emetic speaker; McCain would have been harshly flogging a herd of dead peacenik horses with his faux populism and bellicosity — he looks like hot conflict ready to explode, a barely suppressed bundle of hatred who paid some horrific prices decades ago and has been cashing in ever since. He represents all that is most churlish and pugnacious in “his people,” who are not the majority. Obama, problematic as his policies are, is light years ahead of what we might have endured otherwise.

What Zinn Would Have Said

I expect that Howard Zinn would have said, “well, here is what you can do today to help promote peace and justice, and here are several historical examples from which you can draw inspiration.” While I know Howard will rest in peace, I’m hoping the rest of us will act in peace to empower the best in Obama. The war profiteers have moved from the limelight to just off-stage, but their power is still a massive influence, an invisible hand of a marketplace that leaves the working middle class of this country increasingly bereft and no one — no individual — can match their power.

I believe Howard would remind us that only in our collective good and brave actions can we right our ship of state. To Howard Zinn, crossed over at 87: those of us who teach and write will draw endless inspiration and challenge from your lifetime body of work and your example that, in life, was so very living.

Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the graduate program of Conflict Resolution at Portland State University and is on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association.

Zinn drawing: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/63/204402297_2c7a1cefdb_o.jpg

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