“As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty.
Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”
Howard Zinn was, and still is, years after his death, a polarizing figure.
His landmark work A People’s History of the United States was received with both great love and great vitriol; but by that time, he was no stranger to controversy.
Zinn was a radical social activist, protesting alongside Noam Chomsky and many other important figures against the Vietnam War. And years later, to no one’s surprise, he also vehemently opposed the war in Iraq.
While Zinn wrote and spoke on many topics ranging from the importance of social activism to our educational system’s faults and failures, the main underlying theme of his work seems to be relentless civil disobedience.
“Howard’s dedicated activism continued, literally without a break, until the very end, even in his last years, when he was suffering from severe infirmity and personal loss, though one would hardly know it when meeting him or watching him speaking tirelessly to captivated audiences all over the country.
Whenever there was a struggle for peace and justice, Howard was there, on the front lines, unflagging in his enthusiasm, and inspiring in his integrity, engagement, eloquence and insight, light touch of humor in the face of adversity, dedication to non-violence, and sheer decency.” – Noam Chomsky
Howard Zinn was against conformity and the herd-like acceptance of claims and actions by those in power.
“Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”
He was skeptical, even cynical, of the way our government was being run, and he was dismayed by the amount of U.S. citizens who had accepted this corruption without the slightest tinge of unease.
And, perhaps the most significant fact about Dr. Zinn that made him so polarizing was that he never shied away from criticizing his own country.
A kind of American exceptionalism has become the norm today: This idea implies that the United States doesn’t have to follow the “rules” because, well, it’s the United States. And it also perpetuates the notion that all harsh criticisms of U.S. policies should be labeled unpatriotic, and those who put forth these criticisms should be marginalized and eventually banished from mainstream society.
Zinn, of course, did not buy into this standard.
“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”
“If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.”
Regardless of the nation committing horrible acts, the horrible acts, and the ideologies behind them, should be criticized. No exceptions.
Again, we return to the main theme of Dr. Zinn’s work: civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is not reckless opposition to everything that could be considered “status quo,” it is simply the willingness to stand up against the forces of tyranny and corruption.
“Civil disobedience is the deliberate, discriminate, violation of law for a vital social purpose. It becomes not only justifiable but necessary when a fundamental human right is at stake, and when legal channels are inadequate for securing that right. It may take the form of violating an obnoxious law, protesting an unjust condition, or symbolically enacting a desirable law or condition.
It may or may not eventually be held legal, because of constitutional law or international law, but its aim is always to close the gap between law and justice, as an infinite process in the development of democracy.”
“Nonviolence does not mean acceptance, but resistance. Not waiting, but acting. It is not at all passive. It involves strikes, boycotts, non-cooperation, mass demonstrations, and sabotage, as well as appeals to the conscience of the world, even to individuals in the oppressing group who might break away from their past.
Direct action does not deride using the political rights, the civil liberties, even the voting mechanisms in those societies where they are available (as in the United States), but it recognizes the limitations of those controlled rights and goes beyond.”
On Civil Disobedience
“A lot of people are troubled by civil disobedience. As soon as you talk about civil disobedience, they get a little upset. That’s exactly the purpose of civil disobedience. To upset people, to trouble them, to disturb them. We who commit civil disobedience are disturbed too and we mean to disturb those who are in charge of the law.”
On “The Law”
“The law is not a holy thing…The law is made by very mortal people, very limited people, very opinionated people, and people who have very special interests. They make the law, they tell us what the law is, and then they act as if it’s holy writ.”
The only aspects of our lives we can truly be in charge of are our ideas, and to some extent, our actions.
But many people have mindlessly conceded these freedoms under the guise of security or patriotism or whatever. This is dangerous: we have to remain in charge of ourselves. If we can’t, and if we give up our power to act and to disobey, we will not only not make progress, we will go backward.