Dissent In Pursuit Of Equality, Life, Liberty And Happiness
An Interview With Historian Howard Zinn
Sharon Basco is executive producer of TomPaine.com.
Howard Zinn is an historian and author of A People's History of the United States. Sharon Basco interviewed him for TomPaine.com.
TomPaine.com: Dissent these days seems to be a dirty word. The Bush administration has, at least since September 11th, usually termed any criticism of its policies "unpatriotic."
Howard Zinn: While some people think that dissent is unpatriotic, I would argue that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. In fact, if patriotism means being true to the principles for which your country is supposed to stand, then certainly the right to dissent is one of those principles. And if we're exercising that right to dissent, it's a patriotic act.
One of the great mistakes made in discussing patriotism -- a very common mistake -- is to think that patriotism means support for your government. And that view of patriotism ignores the founding principles of the country expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That is: the Declaration of Independence makes it clear that governments are artificial creations set up to achieve certain ends -- equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness -- and when governments become destructive of those ends it is the right of the people in the words of the Declaration, to alter or abolish the government.
In other words, obedience to government certainly is not a form of patriotism. Governments are the instruments to achieve certain ends. And if the government goes against those ends, if the government is not defending our liberties, but is diminishing our liberties, if the government is sending young people into war or making war which is unjustified, well then the government is not following the principles of caring about life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. When the government is taking huge sums of money from education and health, and using that money for military purposes, that's a violation of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. And a government like that cannot be obeyed. To obey a government like that is not being patriotic. At that point, when a government behaves like that, it is the most patriotic thing to disobey the government.
TP.c: Is it odd that a country founded by a bunch of dissenters now seems to have a population who are largely disapproving of dissent?
Zinn: When you say the country was founded by people who believed in dissent, well, they believed in their own right to dissent in the relationship with England. But it happens very often that people who believe in their own right to dissent, when they gain power they don't really accept the idea that other people have the right to dissent. And so, for instance, when the Founding Fathers, who very powerfully defended their right to dissent against the British when they expelled the British, and then they were faced with dissenters, like the former rebels of Shay's Rebellion in 1786, they sent an army to put them down.
Then when they were installed in office, and the new government in 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made dissent -- that is, criticism of the government -- punishable by going to jail. So the right to dissent has always been a very difficult thing to defend because the people in power generally do not grant that right to those people who are out of power.
TP.c: Does the United States' lack of dissent have anything to do with the fact that we generally enjoy a reasonably prosperous economy?
Zinn: What other reasonable and prosperous societies are there? Not too many. I mean there are countries in western Europe that are reasonable and prosperous -- what we call the advanced, industrial countries, you know: Britain, France, Germany, the Scandinavian countries and so on -- they I think have a stronger tradition of allowing dissent than the United States does. And I think it has to do with the degree to which the United States has become a world power, an expansionist power, a military power.
It is always easier to suppress dissent when you are in a war, when you are engaging in military activity, and therefore when you can claim dissent cannot be allowed because it's dangerous to the security of the nation.
And since the other empires fell, since the Dutch and French and Germans and British empires have gone and the United States remains the one great empire of the world, then the United States is in a position to say, "Well, we're at war." And we are at war a lot. We've been at war a great deal since the end of World War II. And whenever we're at war, or near war, or worried about war, or finding an enemy -- whether it's communism or terrorism -- in a situation like that (and that's a situation that the other countries I mentioned are not facing), when you're in a situation like that, when you're a military power, expansionist power, then it becomes easier to argue that you must not allow dissent because national security is involved.
TP.c: If we see the Bush administration quashing dissent are we seeing something unusual? Or is this just the way presidents behave during a crisis or in wartime?
Zinn: Well it is, if you look at, I mean Lincoln suppressed dissent during the Civil War. In World War I, Woodrow Wilson (who was a liberal, a Democrat; I mean, just to show that dissent is not limited to conservative Republicans like Bush). But Wilson, a liberal Democrat, passed legislation just as Bush has passed legislation, the Patriot Act; and in Wilson's time, the Espionage and Sedition Act, which sent 1,000 people to jail. And it was under Wilson that they rounded up thousands of non-citizens and sent them out of the country without due process. I mean, civil liberties were really smashed under Wilson.
So, yes, Bush is not the first. Although this is one of the worst cases that we've had. But still it is typical in American history, and particularly in the 20th century, particularly as the United States has grown in military strength and has engaged in more and more military operations. It doesn't matter who the president is -- liberal, Democrat, Republican, conservative -- we get attacks on civil liberties. It was true of Truman as much as Eisenhower.
TP.com: And the citizenry must not mind, since we see Bush's approval ratings bobbing way up in the stratosphere.
Zinn: I believe that those numbers that register large degrees of popular support for Bush have been misleading. That is, I think there is an immediate tendency when a nation goes to war, for the public to rally around. Especially since, when a nation goes to war, the public has no other information given it about the war except what the president gives it.
Just as the nation supported the war in Vietnam at first because it got all of its information at first from the government. It's only when other kinds of information begin coming in, and when people start questioning what the government does, and become skeptical and have second thoughts about their support for the government, it's only then that you begin to get more and more dissent.
And I believe that already -- I've seen signs of it myself just going around the country speaking to many different groups of people, including many high school students -- I see signs of more and more skepticism about Bush policies, about the war on terrorism, and more and more worry about the attacks on our civil liberties.
I'm not saying that what I'm talking about has yet become a majority phenomenon. The majority probably still supports Bush. But, after all, during the Vietnam War we saw the public opinion change dramatically from support of the government's policy on Vietnam to opposition to the government. And of course it took a couple of years in the case of Vietnam.
I don't know how long it will take in this instance, but I certainly think that the direction in which we are going is a direction in which there is going to be more and more questioning of the government and its presumed omniscience about foreign policy. I think more and more people are going to question what we're doing. And in questioning what we're doing, they're likely more and more to defend the right of other people to question what we're doing.
TP.c: If the war against terrorism continues apace and yet shows no result, do you think that will erode Bush's success with the public?
Zinn: I think that's so, although it's impossible to predict at what point that happens.
It is possible, if you look at the situation in Israel for instance, and you see that the suicide bombers in Israel are met with overwhelming force by the Sharon government, and the people in Israel are of two minds. That is, on the one hand they declare that they'd like to see a Palestinian state; on the other hand they support Sharon because they're afraid of the suicide bombers. And yet, as the military action against the Palestinians grows, becomes more intense, and it doesn't stop the suicide bombers, I believe there begins to be an uneasiness among the Israeli people about whether this policy of Sharon, of using force against terrorism, works.
And I think in the case of the United States, we've been at war bombing Afghanistan for over six, eight months, and there's no sign that the threat of terrorism has abated. No sign that the American people feel more secure. Every day we get more and more warnings of possible terrorist actions. And it seems to me that at a certain point the American people must ask if this is so, if we still live under fear of terrorism which has not lessened at all, then what in the world was the government doing, spending all this money and expending all these lives -- the lives of other people -- in bombing Afghanistan. And now possibly going to bomb, or possibly invade another country like Iraq. I think there's bound to be -- and I don't know when this will happen -- but there's bound to be a growing disillusionment with such a policy.
TP.c: As an historian, you're used to looking at the big picture, and today's big picture has another very dark cloud looming, and that's the misdeeds of corporations now rattling the economy.
Zinn: I think there's a connection. Whether people are drawing that connection, I don't know. And whether people will draw that connection I'm not sure. But, yeah, here are these two things going on simultaneously. Here is this war on terrorism, and here is a kind of sickness in the economy -- that's how I would describe what this scandal represents -- emerging. And it seems to me at some point one must begin to affect the other.
Published: Jul 03 2002