By Howard Zinn
Progressive" -- March 2008 Issue -- There's a man
in Florida who has been writing to me for years (ten pages,
handwritten) though I've never met him. He tells me the kinds of
jobs he has held-security guard, repairman, etc. He has worked
all kinds of shifts, night and day, to barely keep his family
going. His letters to me have always been angry, railing against
our capitalist system for its failure to assure "life, liberty,
the pursuit of happiness" for working people.
Just today, a letter came. To my relief it was not handwritten
because he is now using e-mail: "Well, I'm writing to you today
because there is a wretched situation in this country that I
cannot abide and must say something about. I am so enraged about
this mortgage crisis. That the majority of Americans must live
their lives in perpetual debt, and so many are sinking beneath
the load, has me so steamed. Damn, that makes me so mad, I can't
tell you. . . . I did a security guard job today that involved
watching over a house that had been foreclosed on and was up for
auction. They held an open house, and I was there to watch over
the place during this event. There were three of the guards
doing the same thing in three other homes in this same
community. I was sitting there during the quiet moments and
wondering about who those people were who had been evicted and
where they were now."
On the same day I received this letter, there was a front-page
story in the Boston Globe, with the headline "Thousands in Mass.
Foreclosed on in '07."
The subhead was "7,563 homes were seized, nearly 3 times the '06
A few nights before, CBS television reported that 750,000 people
with disabilities have been waiting for years for their Social
Security benefits because the system is underfunded and there
are not enough personnel to handle all the requests, even
Stories like these may be reported in the media, but they are
gone in a flash. What's not gone, what occupies the press day
after day, impossible to ignore, is the election frenzy.
This seizes the country every four years because we have all
been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining
our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in
is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who
have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple choice test so
narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give
it to students.
And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals
and radicals alike. We are all vulnerable.
Is it possible to get together with friends these days and avoid
the subject of the Presidential elections?
The very people who should know better, having criticized the
hold of the media on the national mind, find themselves
transfixed by the press, glued to the television set, as the
candidates preen and smile and bring forth a shower of clichés
with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry.
Even in the so-called left periodicals, we must admit there is
an exorbitant amount of attention given to minutely examining
the major candidates. An occasional bone is thrown to the minor
candidates, though everyone knows our marvelous democratic
political system won't allow them in.
No, I'm not taking some ultra-left position that elections are
totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to
preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are
somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national
crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a
slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of
life and death.
I'm talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the
election madness. Would I support one candidate against another?
Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the
lever down in the voting booth.
But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy,
should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow
citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools.
Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but
energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain
critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in
Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and
Let's remember that even when there is a "better" candidate
(yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George
Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power
of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the
White House will find it dangerous to ignore.
The unprecedented policies of the New Deal-Social Security,
unemployment insurance, job creation, minimum wage, subsidized
housing-were not simply the result of FDR's progressivism. The
Roosevelt Administration, coming into office, faced a nation in
turmoil. The last year of the Hoover Administration had
experienced the rebellion of the Bonus Army-thousands of
veterans of the First World War descending on Washington to
demand help from Congress as their families were going hungry.
There were disturbances of the unemployed in Detroit, Chicago,
Boston, New York, Seattle.
In 1934, early in the Roosevelt Presidency, strikes broke out
all over the country, including a general strike in Minneapolis,
a general strike in San Francisco, hundreds of thousands on
strike in the textile mills of the South. Unemployed councils
formed all over the country. Desperate people were taking action
on their own, defying the police to put back the furniture of
evicted tenants, and creating self-help organizations with
hundreds of thousands of members.
Without a national crisis-economic destitution and rebellion-it
is not likely the Roosevelt Administration would have instituted
the bold reforms that it did.
Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces
a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading
Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they
will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a
system of free health care for all.
They offer no radical change from the status quo.
They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries
out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs
one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to
everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure.
They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the
radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even
trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.
None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken
with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its
predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion
from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not
expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even
begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses:
capitalist greed and militarism.
So we need to free ourselves from the election madness engulfing
the entire society, including the left.
Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be
taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness.
For instance, the mortgage foreclosures that are driving
millions from their homes-they should remind us of a similar
situation after the Revolutionary War, when small farmers, many
of them war veterans (like so many of our homeless today), could
not afford to pay their taxes and were threatened with the loss
of the land, their homes. They gathered by the thousands around
courthouses and refused to allow the auctions to take place.
The evictions today of people who cannot pay their rents should
remind us of what people did in the Thirties when they organized
and put the belongings of the evicted families back in their
apartments, in defiance of the authorities.
Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or
Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its
responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and
Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and
boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of
soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally
useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which
requires direct action by concerned citizens.
Howard Zinn is the author of "A People's History of the United
States," "Voices of a People's History" (with Anthony Arnove),
and most recently, "A Power Governments Cannot Suppress."
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