Howard Zinn , Obama, Haiti, the State of the Union, and the future of America

Historian Howard Zinn died today and President Obama is giving the  state of the union address tonight.  The world is still coming to terms with what happened in Haiti two weeks ago.

This is what Zinn wrote in this week’s cover story on Obama’s first year in  The Nation:

I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that’s hardly any different from a Republican–as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there’s no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people–and that’s been true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama’s no exception. On healthcare, for example, he starts out with a compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now.

In Howard Zinn’s A People’s history of the United States: 1492-present, Zinn starts telling the American story by  writing about Haiti.

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

“They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…. They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

“As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?

I’m not as critical of President Obama as Zinn is because I feel that there is a loud and  clear difference between the priorities of Obama and George w. Bush.  It’s perhaps not enough, but Obama still can still be  more than a “traditional Democratic president.”Still, I deeply sympathize with Zinn’s take on American politics and I hope Obama spends some time reading some Howard Zinn these last couple days (Plus, what former community organizer has not read  People’s History?)

America has a powerful role to play in the world and Zinn experienced that as World War II bomber pilot.  His nonviolence and activism comes from  literally having to drop bombs on people.  Nobel Peace Prize winner President Obama has the power to use that powerful to help rebuild Haiti in ways that can at least begin to take us away from imperialismneocolonialism,  and its equally evil twin of neoliberal economics. .  He can also do that domestically and fight to give Americans a country that is less dominated by greed, militarism, consumerism, and racism.

Maybe, we won’t get there, but Obama more so than any other president to be a people’s president.

And if not?  Zinn wrote–perhaps his last words that were published before his death–“that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president–which means, in our time, a dangerous president–unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”


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