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Americans should scrutinize government actions, says Zinn

by Sherry Fisher - October 2, 2006

If we lived in a culture that really taught history, Americans would be less vulnerable to government deception.

That's the view of historian and political activist Howard Zinn, who spoke at Storrs on Sept. 26. The lecture was co-sponsored by nearly a dozen University groups.

"If you know history - that is, orthodox history - you'd know how many times presidents have lied to the public," he told the audience that packed the Student Union Ballroom.

Zinn, a professor emeritus in the political science department at Boston University, is a legendary American liberal.

He is perhaps best known for his book, A People's History of the United States, which presents American history through the eyes of those he believes are outside the political and economic establishment.

His talk, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: Equality in America," is also the title of his memoir.

Zinn said Americans need to "interfere" with the government. "With a war going on and kids going hungry, you can't pretend to be neutral and detached," he said.

"We're in a situation today where a small group of men have taken over the country. They have gotten us into wars. They've taken the wealth of this country and squandered it on military actions."

Zinn said it is not human nature, as some believe, to become involved in wars.

"You have to work at it," he said. "One reason they get away with it is there's no free press to do the job. An independent press scrutinizes and investigates what the government is doing."

He charged that the news media play the role of "yes men" to the government, instead of doing what a free press should do in a democracy.

He gave Iraq as an example: "Here's a small country that's been devastated by wars and economic sanctions, and they're a threat to us?" he asked, calling the treatment of Iraq in the media a propaganda assault by the government and the press.

When former Secretary of State Colin Powell gave evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the press "went for it" Zinn said.

"It was all lies, but the press did not investigate and ask questions.

"What is it about our culture that makes our population believe television and newspapers?" he asked.

"I argue that it has to do with the loss of history, or historical amnesia. It's as if we were born yesterday. Anyone can get up behind a mike and get us into a war."

He said the 1846 Mexican-American War was not justified.

Although President James Polk alleged that Mexico had "shed American blood on American soil," Zinn said the real motive was different: "If you knew history," he said, "you'd know he wrote in his diary, 'It would be nice to have California.'"

The United States has historically invaded countries "to help and free them," Zinn said with sarcasm, citing the history of U.S. relations with Cuba, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Panama.

"History helps us see the deceptions of government," he said.

One of the largest lies Americans are told is that "we have something in common with the government," he said, noting that phrases like "national interest," "national security," and "national defense" perpetuate that belief.

"National defense means we're defending the nation," he said. "If you're sending an army thousands of miles away, it's hard to call it national defense."

He said Communism formerly played the role that terrorism does today.

"We took it and exaggerated it," he said.

"The Russians never caught up in the arms race. After the Cold War, the U.S. government realized they overassessed the danger. We built up the military against a threat that wasn't that real."

Zinn said that in spite of what he called "government control of the airwaves and media," the American people "do have power. They may appear powerless at first, but when people join in and don't lose hope, it brings change."

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