Zinn and Political Engagement

A few years ago, Bernie and I read A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I kept it in the car and we read it whenever we had a drive of considerable distance ahead of us. I liked it because it looked at history from the viewpoint of the folks on the streets, on the farms and in the factories. My own  history education was about political leaders, inventors, and military heroes and about wars (oh, the dates to remember!). The colonists were on the right side of the Revolutionary War, the North was on the right side of the Civil war, the Americans on the right side of the war with indigenous peoples, and the United States was on the right side of every international altercation. No grey areas allowed.

I picked up another book recently, The Future of History, interviews of Howard Zinn by David Barsamian. There are a couple of ideas in my reading this morning that are pertinent to a new direction I want to go in my relation to the political world.

1. Zinn was asked to explain what he believed to be the central value of the American left, which is where his allegiance lay. This is what he said: “…it’s the idea (that) everyone has a fundamental right to the necessary things of life, that there should be no disproportions in the world.” This next statement is important to me because it clarifies a misconception: “It doesn’t mean perfect equality, we can’t possibly achieve that. I notice your sweater is better than mine…but we both have a sweater, which is something.” If the factions in the country could agree on the idea of a right to basic necessities, then the next question is, “What exactly are the fundamental necessities of life?” If the various factions in the political arena could agree on the answer to this question…it would put political discussion miles ahead of where it is today.

2. There are various terms used for different factions in society: Left, Right, Far Left, Far right, Communism, Socialism, Fascism, Anarchy, Democracy, Republic, Progressivism, Conservatism…the list goes on. Zinn suggests that within any group, there are numerable variations. He even suggests that the tensions that exist between subgroups can be more vicious than between major categories. I understand this. Tending more toward Democrat, I am amazed at the variety of reasons people tend in that direction. The same is true when I listen to my friends who consider themselves Republican. I would like to know more about essences of the major groups and of the subgroups. What makes one group different than another and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? This is something I would like to learn more about.

3. Zinn is asked about the media and the role it plays in political discussion. He says: “You hear people on the left who tell people, Don’t believe the media. Then they watch the six o’clock news and come away from it and say, Things are terrible.”  I hear people on the right saying the exact same thing.  Zinn notes: “… it is interesting how all of us fall prey to getting absorbed by the major media, no matter how we rail against them.” I suppose when he says, “all of us,” he is including me and I know he is right. This makes things very difficult when one is looking to support a person running for office, an organization, a movement or a piece of legislation. What I am trying to do is focus on my most deeply held principles rather than personalities. Nevertheless, I want the information I consider to be accurate.

I am like many Americans who are disillusioned with the way our government is working…or not working. I voted in the last election but they say it was the poorest turn out of eligible voters since WWII: 36.4%. I am guessing that people have thrown in the towel on the idea that their vote makes a difference. I felt that way, for sure, but voted anyway. But in the aftermath of the election, I decided to take a look at ways I can make a difference, beyond my voting. Since then I wrote a letter to my representatives concerning my beliefs about national health care. I didn’t do the “for or against” thing. I presented my beliefs about the idea of health care and listed what I think needs to be taken into consideration. My ideas are both consistent and inconsistent with the program we are trying to put into effect right now. I plan to do the same with other issues. I want my letters to be thoughtful, reflecting some knowledge of the issues but also my many years as a citizen. If I can’t bring wisdom to the discussion, life experience hasn’t done its job on me.

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