Catching the Z(inn) Train

It's a Friday evening and the sun is setting in Newport Beach (think Beverly Hills with waves and lots of enhancement and augmentation surgeons). The Travel Channel named Newport Beach one of America's best beaches in 2002 and "Best Classic California Beach," where the "Endless Summer" of the Beach Boys comes to mind (slow, mellow, and hanging 10). Newport Beach is not what comes to mind when you think of the U.S. war on terrorism, or war in general. Nevertheless, I arrive at the Newport Beach Public Library to hear another classic. Howard Zinn is addressing a mix of library benefactors, former students who've found the American dream behind the Orange Curtain (Orange County) and the curious who seem to marvel at the live display of a radical American historian. There are some who come because Howard Zinn is our intellectual rock star. He's a real beautiful mind, author of the seminal work, A People's History of the United States, and outspoken advocate for nonviolence and social justice. I'm hanging 10.

Being in the presence of this octogenarian almost brings on tears, not of pain but of joy. Living in a culture in which I struggle to free myself of endless profit loops in my head from Britney Spears to the latest Miller Lite ad, I get a rare opportunity to hear someone who's so damned authentic. You couldn't manufacture this guy or his history. Born to a working class family, his parents had grade school educations while their son completed his Ph.D. in history at Columbia University. From the slums of Brooklyn, he became a shipyard worker in his college age years. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier in World War II, which gave him access to the GI Bill that financed his higher education. His war, the one that produced the Greatest Generation, shaped his antiwar sentiment. From 35,000 feet you can't hear screams or see blood. From high above, he understood how easy it is for atrocities to be committed in modern warfare. He tells us about his final air mission. Everyone knew that the war was about to end in a matter of weeks. At one in the morning, he was awakened and told that his squadron was going to bomb a town near Bordeaux called Royan. Nobody asked why. They did what they were told."You don't ask questions at war briefings," he says. A couple of thousand German soldiers were holed up in the town, waiting for the war to end. But this time he would carry a different type of bomb, not the usual demolition bomb, but canisters filled with jellied gasoline. It was napalm. The entire town was destroyed, the Germans, and the French who were still there.

A library trustee who had earlier introduced herself as "with the same firm as Ted Olsen," introduces Professor Zinn as "a person whose progressive views are rarely heard in Orange County." Maybe so. But you could also add the United States and the world. In the days following 9-11, Howard Zinn published an antiwar essay, "Violence Doesn't Work" ( where he condemned the old way of thinking that dominates our headlines. He said then, "We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever the reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times."

It's April 19, 2002, and Howard Zinn is reminding us why we can't be neutral on this moving war train. It has a lot to do with opinion control and propaganda slogans. The warriors and those who profit from war try to persuade us that we're one big happy family. It's always 'our' national interest, national security, national defense, instead of 'somebody's' security and interest. These "united we stand, divided we fall" categories obscure real class differences, the rich and the poor, and all those nervous people in between. "War does not solve fundamental problems. What happens in war is that everyone gets corrupted." In the meantime, we're lulled into a false sense of security where Exxon Mobil and the President speak as if their interests are the collective interest of everyone from Watts to Boston's Back Bay.

He asks the Newport Beach library audience to consider something about the war on terrorism. Maybe, just maybe, we didn't go to war in Afghanistan to fight terrorism. Maybe it was an action to stop us from truly thinking about what to do about terrorism. Yes, we had to do something, but as Zinn tells us, the strange logic of war is that when nations don't know what to do, they often go to war or declare war (war on drugs, war on terrorism.) The inverse connection is the evidence from Northern Ireland to Israel that going to war actually increases terrorism.

The next day I catch the Z train at Newport Harbor High where a hundred high school kids arrive at high noon on a Saturday, some with their dog-eared "People's History" in tow. This time it's an open forum where the kids can ask anything. And they do. One student asks, "Is it true that you don't like the United States?" To this he replies, "I like the people; it's the government I'm not too sure of." He tells these young minds to be skeptical of what their leaders tell them. It's clear how much he loves the people of the United States:

"The Declaration of Independence says that governments are artificial creations set up by the people to accomplish certain ends. When governments become destructive toward these ends, it's the right of the people to alter or abolish the government. If we have the right to abolish the government, then we have the right to criticize it. In that case, it's the government being unpatriotic."

His antidote to the corrupting influence of government and corporate power is not the lobby or the boardroom. It's the American street. People must not take this country for granted. They've got to organize, join movements, and become activists. "The ultimate solution is not with the people on top. The ultimate solution is for people in the streets to create an atmosphere for people on top to be accountable."

It is then that I realize that Howard Zinn doesn't really have to be flying across the country from Boston. He's reached the age of retirement as a professor emeritus from Boston University. He's here because he cannot stay neutral on this peace and social justice movement train. He tells the students of an antiwar bumper sticker he saw during the 1960s: War is good for business. Invest your son. That slogan revealed a discrepancy between what we're supposed to be fighting for--peace, liberty, freedom--and what we're really fighting for--somebody's interests. Granfalloons. The Z train has its own slogan: Democracy is good for people. Invest yourself. Now that's some truth-telling.

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