Zinn: US 'In Need of Rebellion'

Howard Zinn is the author of, most notably, A People's History of the United States, a National-Book-Award-nominated text that investigates US history from the standpoint of the oppressed. Other books by Zinn include Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology and his 1995 autobiography, You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train.

Zinn: US 'In Need of Rebellion'

Al Jazeera speaks to Howard Zinn, the author, American historian, social critic and activist, about how the Iraq war damaged attitudes towards the US and why the US "empire" is close to collapse.

Q: Where is the United States heading in terms of world power and influence?

HZ: America has been heading - for some time, and is heading right now - toward less and less world power, less and less influence.

Obviously, since the war in Iraq, the
rest of the world has fallen away from the United States, and if
American foreign policy continues in the way it has been - that is
aggressive and violent and uncaring about the feelings and thoughts of
other people - then the influence of the United States is going to
decline more and more.

This is an empire which is on the one hand the most powerful empire
that ever existed; on the other hand an empire that is crumbling - an
empire that has no future ... because the rest of the world is
alienated and simply because this empire is top-heavy with military
commitments, with bases around the world, with the exhaustion of its
own resources at home.

[This is] leading to more and more discontent and home, so I think
the American empire will go the way of other empires and I think it is
on its way now.

Q: Is there any hope the US will change its approach to the rest of the world?

HZ: If there is any hope, the hope lies in the American people.

[It] lies in American people becoming resentful enough and indignant
enough over what has happened to their country, over the loss of
dignity in the world, over the starving of human resources in the
United States, the starving of education and health, the takeover of
the political mechanism by corporate power and the result this has on
the everyday lives of the American people.

[There is also] the higher and higher food prices, the more and more insecurity, the sending of the young people to war.

I think all of this may very well build up into a movement of rebellion.

We have seen movements of rebellion in the past: The labour
movement, the civil rights movement, the movement against the war in

I think we may well see, if the United States keeps heading in the
same direction, a new popular movement. That is the only hope for the
United States.

Q: How did the US get to this point?

HZ: Well, we got to this point because ... I
suppose the American people have allowed it to get it to this point
because there were enough Americans who were satisfied with their
lives, just enough.

Of course, many Americans were not, that is why half of the population doesn't vote, they're alienated.

But there are just enough Americans who have been satisfied, you
might say getting some of the "goodies" of the empire, just some of
them, just enough people satisfied to support the system, so we got
this way because of the ability of the system to maintain itself by
satisfying just enough of the population to keep its legitimacy.

And I think that era is coming to an end.

Q: What should the world know about the United States?

HZ: What I find many people in the rest of the world don't know is that there is an opposition in the United States.

Very often, people in the rest of the world think that Bush is popular,
they think 'oh, he was elected twice', they don't understand the
corruption of the American political system which enabled Bush to win

They don't understand the basic undemocratic nature of the American
political system in which all power is concentrated within two parties
which are not very far from one another and people cannot easily tell
the difference.

So I think we are in a situation where we are going to need some
very fundamental changes in American society if the American people are
going to be finally satisfied with the kind of society we have.

Q: Do you think the US can recover from its current position?

HZ: Well, I am hoping for a recovery process. I mean, so far we haven't seen it.

You asked about what the people of the rest of the world don't know
about the United States, and as I said, they don't know that there is
an opposition.

There always has been an opposition, but
the opposition has always been either crushed or quieted, kept in the
shadows, marginalised so their voices are not heard.

People in the rest of the world hear the voices of the American leaders.

They do not hear the voices of the people all over this country who
do not like the American leaders who want different policies.

I think also, people in the rest of the world should know that what
they see in Iraq now is really a continuation of a long, long term
of American imperial expansion in the world.

I think ... a lot of people in the world think that this war in Iraq
is an aberration, that before this the United States was a benign power.

It has never been a benign power, from the very first, from the
American Revolution, from the taking-over of Indian land, from the
Mexican war, the Spanish-American war.

It is embarrassing to say, but we have a long history in this
country of violent expansion and I think not only do most people in
other countries [not] know this, most Americans don't know this.

Q: Is there a way for this to improve?

HZ: Well you know, whatever hope there is lies in
that large number of Americans who are decent, who don't want to go to
war, who don't want to kill other people.

It is hard to see that hope because these Americans who feel that
way have been shut out of the communications system, so their voices
are not heard, they are not seen on the television screen, but they

I have gone through, in my life, a number of social movements and I
have seen how at the very beginning of these social movements or just
before these social movements develop, there didn't seem to be any hope.

I lived in the [US] south for seven years, in the years of the civil
rights movements, and it didn't seem that there was any hope, but there
was hope under the surface.

And when people organised, and when people began to act, when people
began to work together, people began to take risks, people began to
oppose the establishment, people began to commit civil disobedience.

Well, then that hope became manifest ... it actually turned into change.

Q: Do you think there is a way out of this and for the future influence of the US on the world to be a positive one?

HZ: Well, you know for the United States to begin
to be a positive influence in the world we are going to have to have a
new political leadership that is sensitive to the needs of the American
people, and those needs do not include war and aggression.

[It must also be] sensitive to the needs of people in other parts of
the world, sensitive enough to know that American resources, instead of
being devoted to war, should be devoted to helping people who are

You've got earthquakes and natural disasters all over the world, but
the people in the United States have been in the same position as
people in other countries.

The natural disasters here [also] brought little positive reaction - look at [Hurricane] Katrina.

The people in this country, the poor people especially and the
people of colour especially, have been as much victims of American
power as people in other countries.

Q: Can you give us an overall scope of everything we talked about - the power and influence of the United States?

HZ: The power and influence of
the United States has declined rapidly since the war in Iraq because
American power, as it has been exercised in the world historically, has
been exposed more to the rest of the world in this situation and in
other situations.

So the US influence is declining, its power is declining.

However strong a military machine it is, power does not ultimately depend on a military machine. So power is declining.

Ultimately power rests on the moral legitimacy of a system and the United States has been losing moral legitimacy.

My hope is that the American people will rouse themselves and change
this situation, for the benefit of themselves and for the benefit of
the rest of the world.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.