Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

The following is taken from Jacob M. Appel's 2004 portait of Howard Zinn, who died today of a heart attack in Santa Monica, CA.
After "knocking around in various bad jobs"—digging ditches, waiting tables, working in a brewery—Zinn followed the GI Bill to New York University. Yet his undergraduate education was decidedly untraditional. "I was an older student, I was a ex-GI, I had a family," he explains. "I didn't hang around." He admits that he hardly attended classes. "If it was a choice between going to class and going to the library, I went to the library, because I found that I learned more from one hour in the library than from one hour in class." He cites an independent study in labor history as the most transforming academic experience of his undergraduate years. "There was no labor history at the time," he reflects. "There were no courses in labor history...and there was nothing in my textbooks about labor movements." Soon Zinn stumbled upon a relatively obscure book by a poet named Samuel Yellen that recounted crucial moments in the struggle of American workers—the railroad strikes of 1877, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, and the San Francisco longshoremen's strike of 1934. "None of this had ever appeared in any of my classes, in any of my history books," explains Zinn. "I wanted to know: Why aren't they telling me about this?" While studying at NYU, Zinn also worked the "four to twelve shift" loading trucks and continued his union activism. Later, he wrote a master's thesis at Columbia University on the Colorado coal strikes of 1914. Among his teachers at Columbia—where he later penned a doctoral dissertation on Fiorello LaGuardia—were legendary figures Harry Carman, James Shenton, Henry Steele Commager, William Leuchtenberg and David Donald. Zinn recalls Donald, a southerner, speaking with tears in his eyes of the anti-slavery movement. "That impressed me enormously," Zinn recollects. "It was rare to find teachers with tears in their eyes.... you might say he influenced me in the sense of seeing how important it was for a teacher to be emotionally involved in a subject and not simply detached."

Zinn brought a similar passion to his own teaching career at Spelman. When Zinn first arrived at the all Black college, he was stunned to find that they offered no courses in African-American history. Instead, history majors were required to enroll in a yearlong course on the history of England. "I remember coming into my first class," says Zinn, "and seeing on the blackboard what had been left over by the previous teacher. It was this genealogical chart of the Stuarts and the Tudors. These young black women were expected to learn about the monarchs of England, the difference between Charles I and Charles II, but not anything about Black history." During his time in Atlanta, Zinn warmly recalls living on campus and—although a white northerner—essentially becoming part of the Black community. He taught Constitutional law at the height of the Civil Rights struggle and advised students who wished to protest against segregation along Atlanta's exclusive Peachtree Street. Zinn recalls that "reading Constitutional law...was especially revealing because what you could see [was] the huge gap between what the law said and what the reality was." He had to warn students that while their right to protest was constitutionally protected "theoretically"—the Supreme Court decisions were very clear on the right to distribute leaflets on the public street—"the reality was that the policemen's clubs were going to be more important than the Supreme Court's decision in Marsh vs. Alabama." He carried the lessons from these experiences to his teaching at Spelman and later at Boston University: "I discovered that if you go back and forth from the arena of social struggle to the classroom, your motivation for learning is enormous. It's very powerful motivation when you're looking at the law to see if people's rights are being violated."
If you don't freaking know who Howard Zinn is, then, well, find out.

UPDATE: You might have trouble getting connected to Zinn's website, linked to directly above, because of all the traffic going there since news of his death. His wikipedia entry is also very informative.

The Case of Geert Wilders: Islam, Free Speech, Tolerance, and Politics

It turns out that "tolerance" is a trick -- a cynical ploy foisted on our poor brains by right-wing liberal populist islamophobic elites.

The problem, according to Dutch Trotskyist Paul Mepschen, editor of the socialist webzine Grenzeloos (, is that these islamophobic elitists have cleverly wrapped themselves in the RAINBOW flag in order to mask their islamophobicness behind a pretense of non-homophobicness. At least this is what Mepschen argues in his recent contribution to the juggernaut that is Marxist Theory: Islam, sexuality, and the politics of belonging in the Netherlands. The article appears in the "Theory" section of the online Trotskyist journal International Viewpoint, under the subheading "Against Tolerance."

Dutch leftists (and western leftists generally) are in somewhat of a bind these days (well, for about half a century or so, really). Ever since the working class stopped giving a rodent's buttocks for Karl Marx, leftists have struggled to fill the void with single-issue "campaigns" and identity politics, preferably combining or at least overlapping both whenever possible. The goal being to replace the former ideal of a united working class fighting for a socialist "program" with a coalition of "oppressed groups" fighting for a laundry list of "demands". Of course that is a very old story already, as anyone who remembers the early 70's knows all too well.

I suspect that the main reason for Mepschen's Marxoid screed attacking tolerance as just another bourgeois myth, is that in the Netherlands "far right" bogeymen Geert Wilders has been campaigning for things like free-speech, tolerance, gay rights, women's equality and so forth. What the fuck is up with that? Nothing, really -- or at least nothing new. Wilders' co-optation of these issues is no more, and admittedly possibly no less, opportunistic than what the left has been up to oh these many decades. In particular, even if Wilders were really after something else, like promoting a selective xenophobia that only targets Muslims, well, hasn't the far left been exploiting the same groups and issues while all along really aiming for something else of their own, like the dictatorship of the freaking proletariat?

Wilders isn't racist, sexist, anti-semitic or homophobic. And on top of that he left the Catholic Church of his birth and now considers himself an Atheist, which makes him even more confusing than Andrew Sullivan (but not as much as you might think, since he still promotes "Judeo-Christian values"??). But he says unpleasant things about Islam (that is to say, he quotes from the Quran and the Hadith) and, therefore he is not only a right-winger, but part of the "far right", at least that is how he is invariably described in the press.

What are the bad things that Wilders says about Islam? Well, according to the charges brought against him, and accepted as a legitimate basis for prosecution by the Amsterdam Appeals Court, Geert Wilders has "insulted Islamic worshippers by attacking the symbols of the Islamic faith." In other words, Wilders is guilty of the same "crime" as Voltaire, Thomas Paine and Elizabeth Cady-Stanton, excepting only that their targets were Christianity and its "symbols", as opposed to Islam.

Paul Mepschen and many others on the left (including many folks who are far more "liberal" than leftist) are straining their brains trying to figure out new and inventive ways of opposing freedom of speech while claiming to be doing nothing of the kind. One very popular approach is for anyone who shows any sign of deviating from the "Islam is a religion of peace" party-line to be shouted down for the unforgivable sin of "hate speech".

But Mepschen demonstrates a willingness to go even further than mere old-fashioned thuggishness. He descends deeply into the depths of pomo lit-crit claptrap with declarations such as "tolerance, power and xenophobia come to be increasingly entwined." You see, tolerance is a "mystifying discourse veiling what is really at the heart of political and social struggle." Bah, seriously, I can't bring myself to repeat any more of the crap that Mepschen spews, but by all means exercise your rights while you still have them and go read what he has to say.

Geert Wilders trial for the high crime of "insulting Islam" got underway on January 20th, although there has been very little coverage of it in the English speaking press. Wilders has made it clear that he stands behind his statements about Islam, and that he intends to show that his statements can be shown to be objectively true, and plans to present witnesses and evidence to prove it (I mean, it's a trial, after all, right?).

In pre-trial statements, the prosecution has, however, declared that "It is irrelevant whether Wilder’s witnesses might prove Wilders’ observations to be correct. What’s relevant is that his observations are illegal"!!

Here is the transcript of Geert Wilders' opening statement:
Mister Speaker, judges of the court,

I would like to make use of my right to speak for a few minutes.

Freedom is the most precious of all our attainments and the most vulnerable. People have devoted their lives to it and given their lives for it. Our freedom in this country is the outcome of centuries. It is the consequence of a history that knows no equal and has brought us to where we are now.

I believe with all my heart and soul that the freedom in the Netherlands is threatened. That what our heritage is, what generations could only dream about, that this freedom is no longer a given, no longer self-evident.

I devote my life to the defence of our freedom. I know what the risks are and I pay a price for it every day. I do not complain about it; it is my own decision. I see that as my duty and it is why I am standing here.

I know that the words I use are sometimes harsh, but they are never rash. It is not my intention to spare the ideology of conquest and destruction, but I am not any more out to offend people. I have nothing against Muslims. I have a problem with Islam and the Islamization of our country because Islam is at odds with freedom.

Future generations will wonder to themselves how we in 2010, in this place, in this room, earned our most precious attainment. Whether there is freedom in this debate for both parties and thus also for the critics of Islam, or that only one side of the discussion may be heard in the Netherlands? Whether freedom of speech in the Netherlands applies to everyone or only to a few? The answer to this is at once the answer to the question whether freedom still has a home in this country.

Freedom was never the property of a small group, but was always the heritage of us all. We are all blessed by it.

Lady Justice wears a blindfold, but she has splendid hearing. I hope that she hears the following sentences, loud and clear:

It is not only a right, but also the duty of free people to speak against every ideology that threatens freedom. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States was right: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

I hope that the freedom of speech shall triumph in this trial.

In conclusion, Mister Speaker, judges of the court.

This trial is obviously about the freedom of speech. But this trial is also about the process of establishing the truth. Are the statements that I have made and the comparisons that I have taken, as cited in the summons, true? If something is true then can it still be punishable? This is why I urge you to not only submit to my request to hear witnesses and experts on the subject of freedom of speech. But I ask you explicitly to honour my request to hear witnesses and experts on the subject of Islam. I refer not only to Mister Jansen and Mister Admiraal, but also to the witness/experts from Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Without these witnesses, I cannot defend myself properly and, in my opinion, this would not be a fair trial.