"Who are all those people out there?" asked Howard Zinn. The 80-year-old historian and activist had just arrived at Voz Alta, the arts and spoken-word performance space in the East Village. But the crowd that showed up on a Thursday evening to hear him speak was far too big to fit in the small storefront, and more than 100 people were left on the sidewalk outside, spilling out onto E Street by the time his lecture began at 10:30 p.m.
And still, no one left. Many of the lucky people inside had been waiting since 7 p.m., listening to a succession of local spoken-word poets. The throng outside stood patiently, hushed and still, straining to hear Zinn's words over the inadequate PA system. They strained for a glimpse through the plate-glass front window, like street urchins watching fresh baked rolls through a bakery window, ignoring the occasional drunk Gaslamp revelers stumbling by and wondering what all the commotion was about.
Zinn, professor emeritus of Boston University's Department of Political Science, is the author of several books, most notably the best-selling A People's History of the United States. That book, like all of Zinn's work, tells the story of America from the perspective of the oppressed and voiceless-the story of Columbus from the viewpoint of Native Americans, the story of the Civil War from the viewpoint of the slaves. The book has become a touchstone for a certain subsection of people-young, educated, skeptical of authority, but politically active-a description that pretty much covered Thursday's crowd.
They listened respectfully as Zinn answered questions about homelessness, the Democratic party ("If the Democrats had any sense, they would immediately denounce Bush"), the Al-Jazeera network, the power of the Internet (considerable, except he wishes he didn't get so much spam), the democratic system ("We don't have free elections. Elections cost; they cost money"), John Kerry, copyright laws ("I've never believed in copyright laws"), the United Nations (the U.S. is trampling all over its authority), orange alerts, the invasion of Afghanistan (motivated by military expansion and oil interests, not terrorism) and the power of information.
When someone in the audience asked where to get reliable news, Zinn advised accessing foreign newspapers online and listening to Pacifica Radio. When the audience told Zinn that Pacifica, the activist liberal radio network, doesn't have a San Diego affiliate station, Zinn had more advice. "Move to San Francisco," he said jokingly.
Zinn offered his belief that "governments in general are evil" and that the job of people everywhere is to force governments to do what they don't want to do-namely, work for the benefit of all the people, not just powerful interests. It's this mission, presumably, that keeps him writing and lecturing into his ninth decade. Zinn was in town to give a lecture at the University of San Diego but agreed to stop by at the tiny Voz Alta afterward for a more informal chat.
Given Zinn's political philosophy and the U.S. invasion of a sovereign nation, it wasn't surprising that most of the evening's questions involved Iraq. America has been an expansionist power since the end of the Revolutionary War, Zinn said, and American expansion is behind the true motivations for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "There's a word for it," he said. "The word is "imperialism.'"
He noted that while President Bush sees a divine mission to invade Iraq, the Pope-supposedly the earthly voice of God's will-has denounced the war. "Something is wrong there," he said with an ironic chuckle.
He told the audience that support for the war is shallow, pointing out that most of the American people supported the Vietnam War at first, but over time public opinion turned against it. "I think the American public is going to turn against Bush, is going to turn against this war," he said.
The historian's broad perspective is what many in the crowd had come for. Not just another talking head with shallow credentials giving real-time commentary on Fox News or MSNBC, Zinn sees current events through the prism of history, not just nightly news.
Where does Zinn see the nation in two years? "I'm a historian; I only know the past," he replied, getting a big laugh. "I'd like to see a great social movement in this country," he said. That movement would demand that wealth be used for the needs of all Americans, instead of to fund war.
"Don't stop," he told the crowd. "Don't give up. If people persist and persist and persist-boom!-something happens."