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From Our Archives: What Would Howard Zinn Say If He Were Barack Obama?

The Return of Howard Zinn, and Company: A packed house hears a left-wing critique of Obama

Seth Rolbein Editor's Note: This piece originally ran on
CD in October of 2009. It seems appropriate as we mourn his passing
that we reflect on some of his most recent wisdom. In light of
President Obama's State of the Union address this evening, we hope that
somehow this sage advice reaches its intended target. In the end,
however, Howard's words compell all of us to reflect on the wisdom that
he was kind enough to offer throughout his life. Again, we thank him.


the video here, Howard Zinn answers a question from the audience: what
would he urge Barack Obama to do? Photos below by Frank Curran.


BOSTON UNIVERSITY - With the Tsai Performance Center filled to its 500-seat capacity, many
in the audience remembered when that hall was named Hayden, the
University was in turmoil, and Howard Zinn was both lightning rod and radical catalyst.

Much has changed. The Howard Zinn Lecture Series, kicking off Alumni
Weekend on October 22, now celebrates Boston University's distinguished
professor emeritus of political science. As Virginia Sapiro, dean of
Arts & Sciences, welcomed all and introduced three intriguing
writers gathered around the man of the night, cordiality rather than
conflict ruled.

"To have a kindly relationship between us and the BU
administration," said Zinn, his nod to Sapiro drawing swells of
laughter, "well, we're still trying to get used to it."

Yet some things haven't changed. The topic was The Promise of Change:
Vision and Realty in Obama's Presidency
. And the analysis came hard
from the left, with Zinn staking out the far post.

Just as intriguing were the positions of his fellow panelists, each
nuanced, each approaching Obama at least a little more sympathetically.
They were:

James Carroll, a National Book Award winner and Boston Globe
columnist, who first met Zinn during his years as Catholic chaplain at
Boston University, from 1969 to 1974, before he left the priesthood.

Ellen Goodman,
a Pulitzer Prize winner, who has been writing about social change in
America since 1976 and whose column appears in more than 300

Mary Gordon,
New York's official state author, a stuffy title for a writer whose
work marries a piercing intimacy and religious and political

Zinn gingerly took up the cudgel.

"It's a very delicate question," he mused. "Why? Well, it's not easy
to talk about." Everyone wants to support Obama, he continued, or at
least everyone in his circle. Everyone wants to love Obama. But let's
face it: "His presidency doesn't measure up. I have to say that. But
why? How? How come?"

Militarism, he answered. Obama has kept the troops in Iraq. He's
sent more troops to Afghanistan. "He's continued a military foreign

Not to be a know-it-all, Zinn said ("though I do know it all," he
joked), but those who expected great change from this president were
fooling themselves. Look at history, he urged, invoking his mantra;
Democrats are as aggressive as Republicans.

"They're all in this for war," he said. "That's what we call
bipartisanship." Those surprised or disappointed are those who
"exaggerated expectations, romanticized him, idealized him. Obama is a
Democratic Party politician. I know that sounds demeaning. It is."

"There's an enormous weight left over by the Bush administration,"
Zinn said. "Unfortunately, he has done nothing to begin to lift that
weight." Change can happen only by grassroots protest strong enough to
move entrenched interests.

"I'll say it: turmoil," he concluded.


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Carroll weighed in.

"President Obama's administration began in January," he said, then paused. "January of 1943."

Carroll ticked off four events that year: the Allies insisting on
unconditional surrender to end World War II, massive bombings of
civilian sites by the American and British Air Forces, the creation of
the Pentagon, and the forming of Los Alamos National Laboratory to
build a nuclear weapon. Those events put in motion "a current running
below the nation ever since," he argued, and "President Obama is at the
mercy of this current."

This is a permeating force, he said, strong enough to stall antiwar
protests and nuclear disarmament. Its momentum has stopped us from
taking advantage of opportunity after opportunity, from the Cold War's
end to this singular moment. Call it "the military industrial complex,"
as President Eisenhower did, Carroll said, but see it as even more

Still, he was not as dark as Zinn. Obama's speeches, raising
expectations and changing perceptions, also count, he said. "While it
totally freaks me out to disagree with Howard Zinn, I think the words
matter. I think the Nobel Prize went to the right person ... as an
invitation to greatness."

That said, Carroll seconded Zinn's call for protest and pressure to
change foreign policy. "Nothing happens without the grassroots," he
concluded. "That's Howard Zinn's point."

said she found it "shocking, but I'm going to be the resident
optimist." The man hasn't been president for a year, let alone a term.
"We're very impatient," she said, and that's not fair.

Yet her hope for more public civility has died away. Goodman sees an
organized, bitter, and in many ways fabricated right-wing attack on
Obama: the "birthers" (who insist that the president was not born in
this country, despite proof to the contrary) and the "kill granny
group" (who have said that national health care would lead to
euthanasia). They're akin to Holocaust deniers, she said, and they have
powerful sway in the country Obama leads.

"There's an underlying anxiety," said Goodman. "Can you be a healer
and a politician?" While she doesn't feel hopeless about the
president's agenda, "I'm not hopeful about the rise of civility." And
so she returned to the theme of the evening, and made it personal:

"The gap between hope and reality is very much a gap inside ourselves."

invoked Henry James: "Things are much more complicated than you ever
think," she quoted, then adding from Voltaire to build her perspective:
"The best is the enemy of the good. The perfect is the enemy of the

She listed what she sees as major Obama accomplishments: growing
acceptance of the Muslim faith within our nation, changes in
reproductive rights for women, the prospect of a much-improved
health-care system. Each of these is "enormous," she said, but even
more, Obama "opens up our imagination. He reminds us that the world is
a complicated place."

And, she continued, "what will never go back is that African-American kids will look at him and say, ‘The world is different.'

"He didn't say he was going to pull a rabbit out of a hat and there
will be no more original sin," she said. And then she closed a writer's
circle begun with Henry James: "He's not Gabriel García Márquez. He
can't do magic realism. He has to write a realistic novel."

After a round of questions, panelists and posse adjourned to the
Castle for drinks, food, and more conversation. The ornate building was
packed with people and energy and a sense of how history - including
University history - is full of surprising turns.

Sidney Hurwitz, a College of Fine Arts professor emeritus of art, who
taught at BU for more than 30 years, a colleague of Zinn's and fellow
activist during stormier times, summed up:

"When I see Howard up there, giving a lecture, celebrated as he
deserves to be - well, I never thought I'd live to see this happen."

The Howard Zinn Lecture Series, made possible by the gift of Alex
MacDonald (CAS'72) and Maureen A. Strafford (MED'76), is an annual talk
on contemporary issues from a historical point of view.

Seth Rolbein can be reached at

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