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Zinn: Take part in social causes

By : Eric Coker

Howard Zinn has some simple advice for those wondering how they can make a difference: “Look around you.”

“See what’s going on,” the 86-year-old author/activist/historian told a standing-room-only crowd at the Anderson Center’s Osterhout Concert Theater on Nov. 8. “Is there an immigrant having a problem? Is there an environmental issue that has come up? Is someone being fired unnecessarily?”

Zinn suggested that the vision can then be taken to groups that work to help others.
“If all of us do the little things, there will be a critical mass and the little things will add up,” he said. “Life becomes more interesting and rewarding when you become involved with other people in a great social cause.”

Now professor emeritus in the Political Science Department at Boston University, Zinn delivered the keynote address at the SUNY Social Justice Conference held Nov. 7-9 at the University. Zinn is best known for writing A People’s History of the United States in 1980. As an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s, Zinn was active in the civil rights movement. He also has been among the critics of the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

Zinn said the criteria for social justice should be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948 and says everyone has the right to things such as education, food, housing and medical care.

“If you get a chance, take a look at it,” Zinn said. “Google it. Google is the answer to everything,” he added, drawing laughter from the audience.

There are obstacles, however, standing in the way of making the Universal Declaration for Human Rights a reality, Zinn said. Powerful economic interests are one.

President-elect Barack Obama has not yet challenged these interests, Zinn said, as his economic team represents “old-style Democratic, stay-put leadership.”

The second obstacle, Zinn said, are the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which are preventing implementation of bold social and economic programs.

“There’s no reason for us to engage in aggressive wars,” said Zinn, who lobbied for America to become a humanitarian superpower instead of a military superpower. “We have to renounce war as an instrument of foreign policy. We’d save a lot of money. … The American people are not war-minded. I believe they’d welcome a turn away from war.”

Zinn drew enthusiastic support when he discussed the need to change the mindset that got the United States into the Iraq war. He pointed out the dangers of what he called “American exceptionalism” — the belief that the U.S. society is better than others.
This drew a loud “right on!” from an audience member.

“I haven’t heard that phrase since 1968,” Zinn said. “It shows progress has not been lost.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08