A voice of optimism in the struggle for justice


A Power Governments Cannot Suppress

By Howard Zinn

City Lights Books, 2007

293 pages, US$16.95


"If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasise 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 win."

So begins Howard Zinn in the first chapter of his new book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress. This latest work of Zinn's, a compilation of nearly three dozen essays written largely during the last seven years of the Bush administration, serves as a reminder of the indispensable role this veteran activist and radical historian continues to play as a voice of constant optimism in the fight for social justice.

This is a collection of Zinn's reflections on a wide array of topics, including immigration, the Supreme Court, Henry David Thoreau and the global justice movement. However, despite the myriad of topics covered, one theme runs throughout the book — the insuppressible power of protest and its ability to arise out of dark times and bring the most oppressive regimes to ruin.

Composed of many short chapters, Power is written in a very familiar tone, with a readable and accessible style. Zinn also exhibits his characteristic gift for explaining the injustices and oppressions in our world in a way that renders them easily understandable and transparently absurd.

In his chapter titled "Nationalism", he writes: "There [is] something horrifying in the realisation that, in this 21st century of what we call 'civilization', we have carved up the world into 200 artificially created entities we call 'nations' and have armed ourselves to arrest or attack anyone who crosses a boundary."

On the topic of "national heroes", Zinn puts forth the contention that we ought to dispense with the heroes we are offered in our high school civics classes and look elsewhere.

Instead of revering Andrew "Trail of Tears" Jackson, we ought to look to John Ross, the Cherokee chief who fought against the dispossession of his people. Or maybe we should remove the face of Theodore Roosevelt from Mount Rushmore, and put the face of the prolific anti-imperialist, Mark Twain, in its place.

In a few places, Zinn seems to come across as contradictory. For instance, at one point, he writes, "I acknowledge the possibility of humanitarian intervention to prevent atrocities, as in Sudan". This call contradicts his surrounding comments on how the US government has never used intervention anywhere but to profit, plunder and destroy.

But these inconsistencies (which are few) hardly take away from the overall contribution this book makes to an understanding of the power of protest.

In the end, whether Zinn is telling us about the 1919 general strike in Seattle or the 1999 Seattle rebellion against the World Trade Organisation, his message is an important one: that "the real heroes are not on national television or in the headlines. They are the nurses, the doctors, the teachers, the social workers, the community organizers ... and they are the protesters against war, the apostles of peace in a world going mad with violence."

[Reprinted from US Socialist Worker <http://socialistworker.org>.]

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