Howard Zinn Quotes

Howard Zinn Quotes
For the Howard Zinn Centennial, we share quotes by Howard Zinn from his books and speeches.

Join us and share your favorite Zinn quote with #HowardZinn100.


Quote Source Themes
Our problem in foreign policy is not a particular mad adventure: the Spanish American War or the Vietnam War, but a continuous set of suppositions about our role in the world, involving missionary imperialism, and a belief in America’s ability to solve complex social problems. Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest foreign policy
Our problem with justice is not a corrupt judge or bribed jury but the ordinary day-to-day functioning of the police, the law, the courts, where property rights come before human rights. Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest criminal justice
I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is. A People’s History of the United States systems of oppression
I’ve always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked of how, in America, if you worked hard you would become rich. The meaning of that was if you were poor it was because you hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie, about my father and millions of others, men and women who worked harder than anyone, harder than financiers and politicians, harder than anybody if you accept that when you work at an unpleasant job that makes it very hard work indeed. You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times American dream, poverty
The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to the small number who are not pleased. There is no system of control with more openings, apertures, leeways, flexibilities, rewards for the chosen, winning tickets in lotteries. There is none that disperses its controls more complexly through the voting system, the work situation, the church, the family, the school, the mass media — none more successful in mollifying opposition with reforms, isolating people from one another, creating patriotic loyalty. A People’s History of the United States system of control, patriotism
What most of us must be involved in — whether we teach or write, make films, write films, direct films, play music, act, whatever we do — has to not only make people feel good and inspired and at one with other people around them, but also has to educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world. Artists in Times of War and Other Essays change agents
The Constitution. . . illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the Blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law — all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity. A People’s History of the United States patriotism, Constitution
Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts Declarations of Independence neutrality
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. hope, role of history
The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, and occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare. A People’s History of the United States
I can understand pessimism, but I don’t believe in it. It’s not simply a matter of faith, but of historical evidence. Not overwhelming evidence, just enough to give hope, because for hope we don’t need certainty, only possibility. Which (despite all those confident statements that “history shows . . . “and “history proves . . . “) is all history can offer us. Failure to Quit; Zinn Reader, p. 656 (orig. Z Magazine, 1990)
My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all) — that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly. A People’s History of the United States historical memory, objectivity
My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners. A People’s History of the United States nationalism
Patriotism doesn’t mean support of government. Patriotism means support of the principles it’s supposed to stand for. NCSS Keynote in 2008
We’ve never had our injustices rectified from the top, from the president or Congress, or the Supreme Court, no matter what we learned in junior high school about how we have three branches of government, and we have checks and balances, and what a lovely system. No. The changes . . . have not come from those three branches of government. They have reacted to social movements. NCSS Keynote in 2008
The current infatuation with World War II prepares us — innocently on the part of some, deliberately on the part of others — for more war, more military adventures, more attempts to emulate the military heroes of the past.
The so-called war on terrorism is not only a war on innocent people in other countries, but it is also a war on the people of the United States: a war on our liberties, a war on our standard of living. The wealth of the country is being stolen from the people and handed over to the super-rich. The lives of our young are being stolen. And the thieves are in the White House.
An Occupied Country” in The Progressive, 2003 terrorism
In war, good guys always become bad guys.
They have the guns, we have the poets. Therefore, we will win.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places and there are so many where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
If those in charge of our society politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.
Civil disobedience, that’s not our problem. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
How can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?
We’ve never had our injustices rectified from the top, from the president or Congress, or the Supreme Court, no matter what we learned in junior high school about how we have three branches of government, and we have checks and balances, and what a lovely system. No. The changes . . . have not come from those three branches of government. They have reacted to social movements.
Before I became a college professor I was a shipyard worker. Before I was a writer I was a warehouse worker. But whatever I did, I was always a member of a labor union. I think the only job I had where I couldn’t join a union was when I was a bombardier in the Air Force — and it might have been a good thing if we had one — maybe we would have gotten together and asked the question: Why are we dropping bombs on this peaceful village this morning? “Fellow Workers” album by Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips, May 1, 1999 organized labor
When I was going through the history training process, being trained as a historian — you know, they snap a whip and hold up a book and you jump at it — I learned very little about labor history. Then I began to read on my own about labor history. I was interested because I had spent three years working in a shipyard and I thought, hey, that’s what interests me. I saw what hadn’t been told about labor history, what magnificent events had taken place, what struggles people had gone through, what sacrifices, what risks, what courage had been shown, what had been demonstrated about the possibilities of what human beings can do once they get together, what people had gone through and what drama there was. I wondered where Hollywood was. Talk about drama! Hollywood was struggling to get a bit of drama into some stupid movies and here were some of the great dramatic events in American history. It wasn’t there in our culture, our books, our literature, on the screen. That’s how whatever modicum of economic justice we have was gained. Howard Zinn Speaks: Collective Speeches 1963 to 2009 [University of Colorado at Boulder, October 25, 1989] organized labor
So yes, they depend on our obedience. When we withdraw it, their power disappears. It’s important to know that. It’s important to know that every little thing we do helps. We don’t all have to do heroic things. All we have to do is little things. And at certain points in history, millions of little things come together and change takes place. Howard Zinn Speaks: Collective Speeches 1963 to 2009 [University of Colorado at Boulder, November 30, 2006] organized labor

When I was eighteen, unemployed and my family desperate for help, I took a much-publicized Civil Service examination for a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. . . My salary would be $14.40 for a forty-hour week. . . It was also an introduction to world of heavy industry. I was to be an apprentice shipfitter for the next three years. . . What made the job bearable was the steady pay and the accompanying dignity of being a workingman, bringing home money like my father. . . Bust most importantly for me was that I found a small group of friends, fellow apprentices — some of them shipfitters like myself, others shipwrights, machinists, pipefitters, sheetmetal workers — who were young radicals, determined to do something to change the world. No less.

We were excluded from the craft unions of the skilled workers, so we decided to organize the apprentices into a union, an association. We would act together to improve our working conditions, raise our pay, and create a camaraderie during and after working hours to add some fun to our workaday lives.

This we did, successfully, with three hundred young workers, and for me it was an introduction to actual participation in a labor movement. We were organizing a union and doing what working people had done through the centuries, creating little spaces of culture and friendship to make up for the dreariness of the work itself.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train organized labor

You never know what spark is going to really result in a conflagration. After all, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott there had been other boycotts. Before the sit-ins of the 1960s, there had been sit-ins in sixteen different cities between 1955 and 1960 that nobody paid any attention to and that did not ignite a movement.

But then in Greensboro, on February 1, 1960, these four college kids sit in, and everything goes haywire. Then things are never the same.

I think this is an encouragement to people who do things not knowing whether they will result in anything. You do things again and again, and nothing happens. . . . It requires patience, but not a passive patience — the patience of activism.

The Historic Unfulfilled Promise (2012; pp. 46-47) activism
I think it is important for people who maybe are wondering whether they should become involved in social movements and to work for peace and justice, to know that this does not mean that they are going into a monastery but that they are going to be part of an enterprise which is joyful and fun and life-giving. Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics (“Critical Thinking” chapter) activism


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