Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Not Siding With The Executioners

Around this time last year Howard Zinn passed away. He was most famous for his seminal counter history of the United States A People's History of the United States, but he wrote many other works as well and was a long time activist and support of numerous progressive causes.

After I began teaching World History last year, I found that much of the way I talk about things, even history, tends to be at a level which is hard for your average UOG undergraduate to understand. When you starting talking like Levinas, Derrida, Benjamin, Slavoj Zizek and Avery Gordon to talk about history even if students are interested, they sometimes lack the vocabulary or a friendly framework to even engage with what I'm saying. The first time I taught World History 2 (from 1500- the present) I made the mistake of giving my students Walter Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History, without prepping them much or giving them an idea of what it was about. Needless to say the discussion was gut-wrenchingly difficult, with students twisting and turning in their seats to try and understand what the hell the author was saying and what the hell I was saying when I was trying to tell them what he was trying to say. This doesn't mean that the students couldn't have understood or come to their own conclusions about the reading (other than mampos mappot tumaitai), but more so that they weren't properly prepared or even comfortable in talking about history in that way, and so the gap was an awkward place that we spent 35 minutes wallowing around in.

When I taught history again, I decided to talk about some of the points that Benjamin, Derrida and others mention about history, but also found that one of the easiest and most accessible ways to get students to that sort of critical point is through the ideas of Howard Zinn. In A People's History he sometimes found excellent ways of making clear the stakes involved in learning and knowing history. One of the most important comes in the first chapter on Christopher Columbus, where he discusses why it is important to talk about the atrocities of long ago, even if we may feel an impulse to dismiss them as things long gone (from a different world) or things which other people did which we shouldn't really care about.

He begins by discussing the dangerous and disgusting hero-making that has surrounded Christopher Columbus:
Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas-even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?)-is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure-there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a celebration.

Past the elementary and high schools, there are only occasional hints of something else. Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multivolume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced Columbus's route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide."

That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. In the book's last paragraph, Morison sums up his view of Columbus:

He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great-his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities-his seamanship.

One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.

But he does something else-he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it's not that important-it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.

It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others. This is as natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for practical purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of the bewildering mass of geographic information those things needed for the purpose of this or that particular map.

My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the map-maker's distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian's distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.

Furthermore, this ideological interest is not openly expressed in the way a mapmaker's technical interest is obvious ("This is a Mercator projection for long-range navigation-for short-range, you'd better use a different projection"). No, it is presented as if all readers of history had a common interest which historians serve to the best of their ability. This is not intentional deception; the historian has been trained in a society in which education and knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and not as tools for contending social classes, races, nations.
He then goes on to connect this to contemporary atrocities and how to cleanse history of violence in the name of progress, allows that same dynamic to continue and be celebrated up until today.
To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly-to justify what was done. My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)-that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as "the United States," subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a "national interest" represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.
Zinn connects this point to one that he often made over his life and his writings, namely that we must always make a careful distinction between the country and the people, because there are always those who will take advantage of some perceived unity or community in order to excuse some violence happening here or elsewhere:
"History is the memory of states," wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen's policies. From his standpoint, the "peace" that Europe had before the French Revolution was "restored" by the diplomacy of a few national leaders. But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation-a world not restored but disintegrated.

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been, The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
Governments and powerful factions create fantastic arguments in order to get you to side with the "executioners" of history. They make it seem like violence or domination is the only answer, or oppression is somehow necessary in not just a brutal and immoral sense, but can actually be a good thing. There are great benefits by being the one who strikes first and who strikes without conscience, and afterwards the entire country mobilizes in order to try to keep you from feeling guilty or making up for what you have done. The quote from Camus fits perfectly for all of those who are seeking to live as ethical life as they possibly can.

I ended up writing this post after seeing on the Huffington Post last week a short message from actor Josh Brolin, famous for films such as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, No Country for Old Men who also played President W. in Oliver Stone's biopic W. Brolin was apparently a good friend of Zinn and so he wrote this message a year after his death to remind people of his importance and also just to say that he misses not only his politics but also just his spirit.


Josh Brolin.Producer, actor
Posted: February 3, 2011 02:20 PM
The Huffington Post

It was a year this past January 27th that my friend, Howard Zinn, passed away in Santa Monica, California. He had sent me an email about meeting up the next day. The next day came and, alone in this recently acquired No Man's Land of his death, it hit me that I would never see Howard again.

I had a good friend call me that night in a panic, "I don't know what to do. What are we going to do? What are we supposed to do with this?" as if Howard was never supposed to die, ever.

The impact that Howard Zinn has had on the world of fair, conscientious people is profound, and the impact that he had as a friend will be forever felt by me and by all those that knew him with the deepest, most visceral tickle imaginable. He was mischievous, fun, childlike, and an appreciator of all things beautiful. My wife was so smitten with him and he knew, in that classy old-school way, how to sustain it. We had spoken about women and how we both felt that they are, ultimately, the keepers of all things good. He was a smart man, a gentle man, and a gentleman.

To admit: I still speak with him at times when I am alone. He brings that kind of solace. It's not exclusive to crisis, no -- it's as a friend, as someone I could always have a laugh with, and as someone who could inspire with the simplest glance. He understood that to bring a smile to someone's face was as important to our well being as was protesting the myriad issues that Howard did. His motive, how it resonated in me, was simply to carve a more loving life for our children and those to follow.

You are so missed dear Howard, but your smiles will always live on.

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