In an essay in The Nation, he continued:
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.
|Howard Zinn. |
Photo from Zinn Education Project
In the essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty” (on open access), Zinn questioned the “tendency to think that “what we see in the present moment” will continue.
We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.
He recounted the twists and turns of twentieth century history from the February revolution in Russia in 1917, the “bizarre shifts” of world war two, the “disintegration of the old Western empires” so quickly after it ended, the rapprochement between the Chinese Communist Party and imperialism, and so on. And argued:
Looking at this catalogue of huge surprises, it’s clear that the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervour, determination, unity, organisation, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience – whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union itself.
Howard Zinn (1922-2010) wrote the ground-breaking People’s History of the United States, that focused on the struggle of native Americans against colonisation, slaves against slavery, and workers against employers. He was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and protests against the Vietnam war in the 1970s, and described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist.”
Zinn wrote “The Optimism of Uncertainty” nearly two decades ago, during the barbaric counter-insurgency operation in Iraq, conducted by the US and UK forces that invaded the country in 2003. The battle for Fallujah, in which those forces levied a terrible toll on civilians, was raging.
His words seem relevant now, during the Israeli military operation in Gaza, and I have been sharing them with friends who have, like me, been shocked at the sheer brutality of the war crimes being committed daily with the full support of western governments.