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Friday, January 13, 2006

An Interview With Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn is professor emeritus at Boston University. He is a noted historian, activist and political analyst. Among numerous other books, plays and commentaries he is the author of A People's History of the United States. For more information visit: , Wikipedia

After seeing a performance of Mr. Zinn's play Marx in Soho, Stefan, of Cultureblog, was able to ask him a few questions.

CB: For the past fifty years, you have witnessed and analyzed many significant shifts in the character of the United States. What have been the biggest changes in America's political and popular culture over the past half-century and how have they affected the rest of the world?

HZ: I think the most important changes have been the new conciousness of the race question, the new conciousness of the issue of sexual equality and a critical division in the thinking of Americans about the nation's place in the world.

CB: I once heard Molly Ivins speak and she made the remark that "To say you're not interested in politics is to say: 'I'm not interested in my own life'." And yet, outside of certain activist groups, this apathy is palpable both in voting statistics and in daily conversation. Am I just hanging out with the wrong people or is political malaise among Americans a growing reality? And if so, what might be the cause?

HZ: What is called "apathy" is, I believe, a feeling of helplessness on the part of the ordinary citizen, a feeling of impotence in the face of enormous power. It's not that people are apathetic; they do care about what is going on, but don't know what to do about it, so they do nothing, and appear to be indifferent.

CB: On a similar note, it seems as though 'hard news' has all but disappeared from our media. With the rise of what some are calling 'infotainment' our understanding of world affairs is becoming about as clear as a Dadaist mosaic. The lines between reality television and televison of reality are blurring as we continue to wage a war between commercial breaks. How does this manner of distortion affect the ability of our democracy to function and what can be done about it?

HZ: Democracy depends on citizens being informed, and since our media, especially television (which is the most important source of news for most Americans)reports mostly what the people in power do, and repeats what the people in power say, the public is badly informed, and it means we cannot really say we have a functioning democracy.

Coming Soon!

Stay tuned for an interview with Howard Zinn...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Ends Justify the 'Mean'...and Everything Else

Bill O'Reilly of Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" was on Letterman two nights ago. I usually don't watch Letterman, A)Because he's basically Conan O'Brian's comparatively boring Uncle, and B) Because he reminds me of a disturbed bartender who probably clips suspenders to his underpants.

This evening, however, in a brief spurt of channel-surfing, I ran across the unusual sight and paused to take it all in.

The topic of conversation between Dave and Bill was one that's been common in recent months and, apparently, remains unexhausted. Namely, the bi-partisanly manhandled warmother, Cindy Sheehan.

Whenever men like Bill discuss Cindy Sheehan, they quickly mumble the obligatory "ohnoonecandenyherlossandshecertainlyhastherighttosaywhatevershewants" lead-in before launching into what they really believe -namely the opposite. Someone like Cindy Sheehan, directly affected by the conflict in Iraq, has the right to her opinions, as long as those opinions are not too radical (translation: anti-war), or too loud (translation: audible).

After all, she has been know to say outrageous things such as:
"We haven't been happy with the way the war has been handled. The president has changed his reasons for being over there every time a reason is proven false or an objective reached."

How outrageous!

She has also made the villainous statement that: "The people that are being killed in Iraq are not terrorists."

This being the central conceit of the war in Iraq, the Right began gnashing it's teeth immediately. When Mrs Sheehan referred to the insurgents as "freedom fighters" while being interviewed by CBS reporter Mark Knoller, they began to get bitey. Because the quote is so often bastardized, it is reproduced below:

"You know that the president says Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, don't you believe that?" asked Mark Knoller of CBS, surrounded by a host of other reporters.

"No, because it's not true," Sheehan replied. "You know Iraq was no threat to the United States of America until we invaded. I mean they're not even a threat to the United States of America. Iraq was not involved in 9-11, Iraq was not a terrorist state. But now that we have decimated the country, the borders are open, freedom fighters from other countries are going in, and they [American troops] have created more terrorism by going to an Islamic country, devastating the country and killing innocent people in that country. The terrorism is growing and people who never thought of being car bombers or suicide bombers are now doing it because they want the United States of America out of their country."

These Iraqi 'terrorists', as Bill maintained to Dave with characteristic bluster, kill women/children/innocents! How could anyone call them freedom fighters? Well let's ignore for a moment that Mrs. Sheehan was in fact talking about border-crossing fighters and not Iraqis and let's ignore also that many of them are indeed fighting to free Iraq of the American occupation. First of all, I don't know what he meant by that. What women and children? Does he mean the "collateral damage" incurred by insurgent bomb-attacks on American forces? Sounds reminiscint of our invasion and current occupation. Just like us, they have an enemy and are willing to incur civilian casualties to strike at that enemy.

But putting hypocrisy (very briefly) aside, let's examine the given that is the implicit foundation of nearly everything the Right says about Iraq. Namely, that all of America's declared enemies are terrorists. But wait - these aren't the people responsible for 9/11 are they? There weren't any Iraqi highjackers on those infamous planes. Bill seems confused.

But of course all those angry, brown people in the Middle East are basically the same aren't they? Thanks to people like Bill, the psychological sleight of hand that our government performed so deftly after 9/11, went as smoothly as could be. At least 14 of the hijackers were Saudi, but they were organized by the Taliban right? So bombing Afgahnistan made sense didn't it? Surely while killing all those women and children with our genius-bombs we would hit a terrorist or two.

People were recovering from shock in the United States. Our daily sense of security had been badly rattled. We needed a purpose. We needed an enemy. And quickly came the answer, yodelled out over the suburbs like the clarion call of a swiss goatherd - OOOOOOOOOOOOOOSaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAMMMMMMMAAAAaaaaAAAAAA! Osama! Fine. It seemed clear that this man had a very direct hand in the deaths of close to 3,000 Americans. He was going down, and rightly so. This fact seemed like enough to justify our hammering of Afghanistan. But where was he? We searched high and low. Smoked out every cave. Still - nosama. Public opinion began to rumble.

Then came the trick - the sly translation that Bill and his fair and balanced friends helped make so smooth. Afghanistan = Iraq, Osama = Saddam. Did you catch that? It happened so quickly. But why not? Patato, Patato. They were all terrorists...weren't they?

In a vague but real way, we bought this lie.

Swiftly, steadily - all the 9/11 momentum, the fury and the blame was transferred. Cleverly redirected to a completely unrelated issue. Americans were still feeling unsafe. "Saddam..." chanted our leaders, repeating the mantra with increasing fervor. "Saddam...Saddam...Saddam.." Invade Iraq. Remove Saddam. That, we were told, would make us safe.

Where were the brave at that moment? Who was asking the one vital question? Namely - WHY??? Huh!? Iraq? Where did that even come from? What did Iraq have to do with our safety? The answer is of course, nothing. Then came the WMD fiasco, which I won't slog through here, but which was above all, what lead us to war. It was not bringing Iraq democracy, nor liberating its people that concerned us. Although trumped up recently, these issues were footnotes in the governments original justifications. What scared up American support almost exclusively were those simple, frightening words: Weapons of Mass Destruction. The evil Osamadam monster (that our government had created) was stockpiling weapons to destory us - we HAD to act. Of course now that we're comfortably ensconsed in a war our president readily admits that we invaded under false pretenses.

Well that's swell.

But as folks like Bill O'Reilly tell us, it no longer matters what happened in the past. In fact, anyone who continues to dig up the past is hurting America. What matters now is a focus on the present and the future. Makes sense right?

For the republicans it certainly does. Being dismissive of past realities as unhelpful and accusing war-critics of "dwelling" has proven itself an effective strategy. Similarly, the guise of being practical and future-focused goes great lengths to conceal a tactical unwillingness to admit past mistakes that could be learned from. Why focus on old errors when you can blunder into new ones?

And so it goes. The Right learned its lesson during Vietnam; it learned that protest can change public opinion and end a war. Therefore, whenever someone like Mrs. Sheehan surfaces and speaks her mind she will be called a nut, will be decried and insulted; smear tactics that are, of course, intended to force the Left to cut its ties with her, to muddle her usefulness as a political weapon. The Bill O'Reillys will continue to smear and distort, paralyzing real debate and laming healthy democratic progress, and while they're doing this, people on both sides will continue to die.

(From and

U.S./Coalition soldiers dead: 2,388 Wounded: 16,185
Iraqis civilians/police dead: 27,736 - 31,263 Wounded: Unknown

As I finish writing this, I'm listening to ABC in the background. "Another five soldiers killed in Iraq..." drones the calmly serious voice of the anchor, " a roadside bomb." Like millions of other Americans watching the news, I wonder what else is on.