Howard Zinn has some amazing lessons for the Trump era -- this is what you need to know
Historian Howard Zinn (Jim/Flickr)

Historian and activist Howard Zinn died in 2010, and the progressive world greatly misses his spirit and guidance. One wonders what he’d have to say about America today — one in which senators create legislation in secret and a president denigrates foes and allies alike via Twitter. What would he, a former Cub Scout, think about the president’s recent speech in which he exhorted Boy Scouts to boo a previous president? We can be pretty sure that he’d be dismayed and disgusted by an America where CEOs make 271 times the pay of an average worker and where the top 0.1 percent hold 11 percent of the national income. He’d certainly be no fan of a culture that made serious, though unsuccessful, attempts to ban his signature work, A People’s History of the United States.


But Zinn might also be heartened by the explosion of activism that the Trump administration, especially the outcry over health care, has spawned in American society. Back in 1970, Zinn was invited to debate philosopher and former US assistant secretary of state, Charles Frankel, about the legitimacy of civil disobedience. Zinn argued that there is a fundamental difference between respect for the law as set down by the Bill of Rights and the law as made in everyday practice. Combatting injustice wasn’t a matter of anarchy or treason — but one of respect. Zinn did more than hold his own.

His words from nearly 50 years ago are a powerful reminder of who holds the reigns of power in this country and how the populace must come together to get it back. Here are some excerpts from his speech.

Zinn on Inequality

I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.

I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down. — Howard Zinn

Zinn on Respect for the Rule of Law

Civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. — Howard Zinn

Law is very important. We are talking about obedience to law — law, this marvelous invention of modern times, which we attribute to Western civilization, and which we talk about proudly. The rule of law, oh, how wonderful — all these courses in Western civilization all over the land. Remember those bad old days when people were exploited by feudalism? Everything was terrible in the Middle Ages — but now we have Western civilization, the rule of law. The rule of law has regularized and maximized the injustice that existed before the rule of law, that is what the rule of law has done. Let us start looking at the rule of law realistically, not with that metaphysical complacency with which we always examined it before…

We are asked, “What if everyone disobeyed the law?” But a better question is, “What if everyone obeyed the law?” — Howard Zinn

And the answer to that question is much easier to come by, because we have a lot of empirical evidence about what happens if everyone obeys the law, or if even most people obey the law. What happens is what has happened, what is happening. Why do people revere the law? And we all do; even I have to fight it, for it was put into my bones at an early age when I was a Cub Scout. One reason we revere the law is its ambivalence. In the modern world we deal with phrases and words that have multiple meanings, like “national security.” Oh, yes, we must do this for national security! Well, what does that mean? Whose national security? Where? When? Why? We don’t bother to answer those questions, or even to ask them.

Zinn on Constitutional Law

The law conceals many things. The law is the Bill of Rights. In fact, that is what we think of when we develop our reverence for the law. The law is something that protects us; the law is our right — the law is the Constitution. Bill of Rights Day, essay contests sponsored by the American Legion on our Bill of Rights, that is the law. And that is good.

But there is another part of the law that doesn’t get ballyhooed — the legislation that has gone through month after month, year after year, from the beginning of the Republic, which allocates the resources of the country in such a way as to leave some people very rich and other people very poor, and still others scrambling like mad for what little is left. That is the law. If you go to law school you will see this. You can quantify it by counting the big, heavy law books that people carry around with them and see how many law books you count that say “Constitutional Rights” on them and how many that say “Property,” “Contracts,” “Torts,” “Corporation Law.” That is what the law is mostly about.

Zinn on the Society of Law

There are other problems with the law. It’s a strange thing; we think that law brings order. Law doesn’t. How do we know that law does not bring order? Look around us. We live under the rules of law. Notice how much order we have? People say we have to worry about civil disobedience because it will lead to anarchy. Take a look at the present world in which the rule of law obtains. This is the closest to what is called anarchy in the popular mind — confusion, chaos, international banditry. The only order that is really worth anything does not come through the enforcement of law, it comes through the establishment of a society which is just and in which harmonious relationships are established and in which you need a minimum of regulation to create decent sets of arrangements among people. But the order based on law and on the force of law is the order of the totalitarian state, and it inevitably leads either to total injustice or to rebellion — eventually, in other words, to very great disorder.

This article was originally published at Moyers & Company