Uncommon Sense

People who keep scorecards don’t really know what’s happening in the world.

The point is not how much has been done – the point is how much has to be done, and which isn’t being done. How much power does Kennedy have which he is not utilizing? Here’s a man who is in control of the most fantastic aggregate of power that any nation has ever held in the history of the world. And he can’t do anything with it to protect one or two people in a little town in Mississippi. This is incredible.

(A baby in the audience cries loudly)

The newly-minted Professor Zinn at his first job, Spellman College

You see?


Surprise. No, it’s not Kennedy it goes beyond Kennedy and it goes, I think, to our national history and to our national political structure, to our system, and to our values. It’s much more deep-rooted than that.

I suppose the problem is that basically we’ve always – even when we’ve been fairly liberal at times – it’s been a white liberalism. Racism has been dominant in our history and in our actions throughout. What I’m really arguing about, I think, is that we’ve got to look at our national political structure and we’ve got to recognize that there’s something about the national political structure – no matter who is in power, whether it’s the democrats or the republicans – there’s something about this which gets in the way of solving the basic human problems that have to be solved in our time.

This is important because here we have a bunch of people who are going out registering people to vote; doing a great job. What do you do when you walk up to someone and say “I think you ought to register”? What do you tell these people? Do you tell them “I want you to register to vote because that really is all that’s missing. All that’s needed. You see, we have a beautiful, working democratic mechanism, here, the only problem is that you are left out of it. If you will just enter this beautiful democratic mechanism, and join in it, you will then be able to do the things you want to do.”?

Well, I don’t think this is an honest statement. I don’t think this is true.

I think it would be truer to say, “If you register, and if you vote, you will then have as much power as the rest of us, which is very little. Very little.”

And I’m not singling out the American democratic system against other systems – I’m not saying our system is worse than other systems, I’m just saying it’s not that much better. And I mean this, for this reason: any mammoth social organization in the 20th century places huge obstacles between people’s needs and power. And this is as true of the United States as it is of any huge political mechanism in the world. We sort of fool ourselves, we read the constitution, we recite everything about the separation of powers, pluralism, and three houses of congress and voting and so on – and everything on paper looks good. But when you get down to it, there is something fundamentally wrong in that we cannot translate what people need into what is done at the top of the political mechanism.

There’s a test for whether a political structure works – any political structure. A political structure exists in order to make sure, and this is supposedly what we set it up for; we set up a political structure to make sure that nobody takes advantage of anybody else. Because if we didn’t have a political structure we assume that people would ride rough-shod over other people. And so we set up a political structure to defend us against this. We set it up, supposedly, so it will prevent people from exploiting others: to prevent some people from getting very rich and keeping other people very poor, to prevent some people from holding all power and denying power to others, to prevent people from discriminating against other people for irrational reasons – and we also set up a political structure to keep the peace. Because this is important to people: they don’t want to die.

On every one of these counts, most political structures in the world have failed. And on every one of these counts, the American political structure, in 1963, is failing. It is certainly failing in the area of equality. It’s failing also in another very important area – in making sure that the wealth of this country, which is incredible, does not get siphoned off into a relatively few hands and is not kept away from millions and millions of people. In the last year or so, poverty has been discovered in America. I mean that, it’s really been discovered. People have suddenly begun to write about the poor; they’ve been here all this time, they’ve been all around us, like the negro has been all around us. He can be right there, but you don’t see him. Ellison wrote about the invisible man – well, the invisible man not only applies to the negro, but it applies to the poor man. And we find that there are about eight and a half million families – 40 million people – in America who earn under $2,000/year but the picture we present to the world, and very often to ourselves, is of an affluent society – everybody is just doing great.

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Since Howard Zinn said that in 1963, wealth disparity has increased dramatically. Not only has it increased dramatically, it has done so on a racial axis: the number of black people who have any wealth at all is basically zero. Most of the financial gains since 1963 have gone to the richest 1%, and the rest have gone to white people down the spectrum.


  1. Bill Spight says

    It is true that the US has grown much more unequal than it was 40-50 years ago. And the US remains a racist society. But that does not mean that the vote is not important. That is why the Democrats suppressed the Black vote after Reconstruction and the Republicans suppress minority voting today. In this midterm election year the Democrats talk about getting their members out to the polls. But what they need, and we need as a society, is another voter registration drive, aimed at minorities, the working class, and the poor. But the Dems are unlikely to do that, even though it would be very likely to help them in the polls, because their donors do not really want “all those others”, as Nixon called them, to vote. Why, they might take over the party!

  2. says

    Bill Spight@#1:
    But that does not mean that the vote is not important. That is why the Democrats suppressed the Black vote after Reconstruction and the Republicans suppress minority voting today.

    That’s true, the fact that they wanted to suppress it shows it has some meaning.
    So, now that they more or less have, what does that say?

    Zinn’s interesting – he seems so cynical (or is it clear-eyed?) about some things, yet he’s still hopeful. I can’t imagine what living through WWII does to one’s sense of optimism about humanity.