FREE SPEECH ZONE | Zinn and Wise Challenge American Exceptionalism


A Duo of Dissidents Debunk American Exceptionalism: Howard Zinn Dissects America’s “Holy Wars”; Tim Wise Decries the Downside of White Privilege. By Steve Clemens. April 9, 2009

In my youth when I was bored on a Saturday afternoon, I would occasionally turn on the TV and end up watching the charade known as “Professional Wrestling”. Even though the matches seemed highly scripted, it was interesting to watch the “tag team” matches where often you would have two “bad guys” paired against two “heroic types”. After the first wrestler pummeled his opponent senseless, he would quickly reach over to his tag team partner, slap his hand and the fresh “wrestler” would continue the attack on the helpless opponent, who, in turn, was trying desperately to get to his partner so he could get relief.

I witnessed a tag team event on Tuesday evening just off Summit Avenue in St. Paul. One “wrestler” was the thoughtful, scholarly historian/activist, Howard Zinn. He began the “match” at 5PM in a packed ballroom at Macalester College before a crowd gathered for a Philosophy lecture. Down the street, anti-racist author/activist Tim Wise was waiting for the “tag” so he could continue the fight against the same opponent at 7PM in an auditorium at the University of St. Thomas. The opponent: the myth of American Exceptionalism. By the end of the night, they had their opponent up against the ropes begging for mercy if one judged success by the reception of both audiences.

Both men hammered home a common theme: The myth of American Exceptionalism endangers both us and our world. The reputed and oft-claimed mantra that our nation or the American people or our “way of life” are somehow more moral, better, more noble than other nations or peoples is not only demonstrably false but those delusions of grandeur put us at greater risk.

Howard Zinn’s lecture asked the question, “Is a just war possible?” He said to answer this question, it might be best to look at the three wars in American history which are widely considered to be “just”. If you are familiar with Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a landmark book for reading history from the prospective of those on the lower rungs of the ladder of success and power, much of what he shared about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II was not new information. What was powerful for me was how he linked all three of these wars as “Holy Wars” within the dominant American mindset. These are the wars that few Americans are willing to criticize publicly because they are considered “just wars”.

Throughout his hour plus talk, this historian asked rhetorically of his student audience: I bet you didn’t hear this story in your history classes in school, did you? Beginning with the war with England for American independence and following in chronological order the War Between the States and the war against the fascism in Germany and Japan, Zinn described the commonly assumed causes, listed some of the costs involved, and then commented on some of the results of these wars which are often seen as “just”. Even though there were questionable actions taken during these wars, for most people their just causes remain intact. But Zinn stressed the distinction between a just cause and a just war. War is not the best remedy for a just cause – and he made his case convincingly.

The Revolutionary War is often perceived as an “easy war”. There were “only” 25,000 soldiers killed on the side of the rebellious colonies. But, Zinn informed us, with a population of only about three million, the mortality rate was equal to 2 ½ million causalities in the U.S. today – no small figure. That is certainly part of the cost. But weren’t the results –independence from the empire of England – worth it? It depends on from whose perspective. One-fifth of the colonial population in 1776 were black slaves. Did their status change with independence? No, slavery not only remained, it was institutionalized in the Constitution! George Washington didn’t want blacks serving in his revolutionary army. I’m sure he realized the danger of training and arming folk who might not want to return to servitude afterward.

Did “Indians” benefit from the war for independence? The revolution was disastrous for them, Zinn contends. Prior to the war, the British Proclamation of 1763 prohibited whites from living west of the Appalachians, thus ceding the territory to Native Americans. It was “Indian Territory”. After the war, there were no limits to where whites would seek to possess the land and expel the previous occupants.

Women? The Declaration of Independence declared “all men are created equal”. There was no women suffrage. Women just weren’t considered in the calculus of the day. The “working poor”? Zinn called us to look at the Revolution in terms of class. There was conscription for the Revolutionary army –but the rich could buy their way out. The privates in the army were treated like dirt. Many had no shoes; they often weren’t paid –while the officers were well-clothed and well-fed. Did we ever learn about the numerous mutinies during the Revolutionary War?
Washington had the leaders of the mutiny in New Jersey executed by their own fellow mutineers. The Constitution was a class document that benefited the wealthy class.

The war dead from the Civil War battles was over 600,000 – or equal today to 5-6 million killed. Did you learn about the draft riots in the North in your school lessons? What about the violence targeted at blacks in the North? In the South, class divisions were pronounced. Were you taught that slaveholders were a minority of the whites and if you owned 20 or more slaves you were exempted from the Confederate military draft? Plantation owners grew cotton for a cash crop rather than growing food and there were riots led by the wives of white soldiers in the South who were starving.

Sure, at the end of the Civil War, blacks were “free” – but how “free” were they? As the white power structure quickly repressed the radical reconstruction, Jim Crow replaced the unfulfilled promise of “40 acres and a mule”. Instead of being slaves, many blacks were forced economically to work as sharecroppers or tenant farmers –always in debt to the wealthier whites. Was this why the war was fought? Vagrancy and other Jim Crow laws led to the arrest of many black men who were then jailed, sent to prisons, and then “rented out” to white landowners as part of the chain gangs. Did the Civil War “free the slaves” or primarily tweak the nature of the oppression?

World War II is often referred to as “The Good War”. WWII left 50 million dead. Yes, Hitler committed atrocities – but so did we. We adopted a strategy of bombing enemy cities in an attempt to “destroy morale”. Nearly 600,000 German civilians were killed in the bombing of cities like Hamburg, Frankfort, and Dresden. In one night, 100,000 Japanese civilians were incinerated in the firebombing of Tokyo. Zinn talked about reading reports written by John Hersey shortly after Hiroshima was nuked.

Recalling his own participation in that war, Zinn talked briefly about his role as a bombardier. The super-secret Norden bombsight was to give the American bombers the advantage of hitting precise targets. Zinn said he was issued a sidearm so he could shoot and destroy the secret bombsite in the event of their bomber being shot down. Zinn wryly commented that he and his fellow airmen hoped it might fall into German hands so they too would frequently miss their targets like they had!

World War II was a fight to defeat fascists. Zinn asked us, “ What happens when you resemble the fascists in your own behavior?” The military itself is a fascist organization, he observed. War brutalizes everyone who engages in it. Everyone is poisoned by war. When you make war against a tyrant, you end up bombing and killing the people who have already been victims of that same tyrant you are trying to defeat. The civilians in a tyrannical state get victimized twice when war is the weapon of choice.

In war, you all become the bad guys. As far back as the Peloponnesian War, as the war progresses, the democratic Athenians become more and more like the Spartan enemy. War corrupts our language – especially the oft-touted term of “self-defense”. The idea of “defense” is completely absurd when you are bombing people half a world away. The “ends” (goal) of the war may be “just” –but you never know what you’ll end up with. But the “means” of war are certain – they are both horrible and immediate. We have a hard time imagining alternatives to war. Is it possible to wrest control from the powerful without war?

Well, Canada won its independence from England without a war. Yes, it took longer – but at much less a cost in blood and treasure. War is faster but we have to think more imaginatively. War is indiscriminate killing for uncertain ends. Zinn told us the first step we need to take is to change our consciousness and recognize that war is not a solution.

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A few minutes after Zinn finished, anti-racist author and activist Tim Wise gave his audience down Summit Avenue some history lessons as well – but he started at a different, recent place. It has only been several months since the landmark election of America’s first black President. The title of his talk was taken from his most recent book, Between Barack and a Hard Place. Invited to speak on the St. Thomas campus by a diversity committee comprised of faculty and students, Wise clearly had many of the students, especially those of color, verbally agreeing with him. The prolonged standing ovation before the question and answer session following his talk confirmed that he not only communicated well but his message was one that isn’t often heard in academia or in the corporate mainstream media.

The day after Obama’s convincing electoral victory, The Wall Street Journal editorial proclaimed his election heralded a new “post-racial” reality for the United States. The WSJ statement included this: “Perhaps one promise of his victory is that we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country.” Commentators in the media and even the Washington Post were proclaiming that this historical election mysteriously resolved much of the racism that has plagued our nation’s past. But Wise quickly reminded us that some things haven’t changed with the color of our new President.

The poverty rate for blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans still is three times greater than their white American counterparts. Pay gaps for African American males, even with similar professional degrees and positions remain substantial. The net worth, even with the collapse of the housing bubble and mortgage meltdown remains radically disproportionate – average white families net worth is 11-12 times the net worth of average black families. It is not because white families have worked harder, prayed harder, or because we have superior investment strategies. As we have so recently seen, white folk have shown us how to lose a lot of money without any help from black folk! Even though these white bankers have stolen trillions of dollars through this fraud, we whites are still more afraid of a young black man in a hoodie walking the streets.

Coupled with other reminders of the racial disparities rife within American culture, Wise observed that people in positions of privilege often take for granted what others without that privilege struggle to overcome. He commented that he hadn’t even paid much attention to how he got to the podium that evening. He had taken for granted what a person with physical disabilities could not. He didn’t have to scout out the premises first to see if there was a ramp to use instead of stairs. Using a less politically-loaded example of able-bodied and those with disabilities, Wise helped his audience become a little less defensive as he moved in to tackle the racial divide which has created white privilege in this nation.

But Wise also used another analogy. He read the quote about being “post-racial” once again from the Wall Street Journal and then asked us to substitute gender for race to highlight the absurdity of the position. He asked us to think back to the election of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan in 1988. Could we honestly say that her election signaled the end of sexism and patriarchy in Pakistan? How about when she was re-elected a second time in 1993? Why no one in their right mind would make such a claim!

What about the election of Indira Gandhi in India? Or Golda Meir in Israel? How about Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain? Who would be so naïve to think that the election to Head of State of one of these women would magically end gender discrimination in any of these nations? So why in the world would anyone think American is now “post-racial” solely because of the election of Barack Obama? Our culture has always been in denial about its racism. Denial is not the same as naïveté. Or ignorance. Denial is a much more willful act. It is a conscious or semi-conscious decision not to see things – an unwillingness or inability to see things right in front of us. You can’t solve a problem you can’t see.

Somehow, because many whites voted for Obama, or millions of us watch Oprah, or we can identify with the fictional Dr. Cliff Huxtable family of Bill Cosby fame means we whites no longer have “problems” with black folk. That is as long as folk are as intelligent, articulate, and attractive as those exceptional people of color. Oh, if only all black folk could be like Oprah, Barack and Michele, or Tiger or Conde! Wise identifies this obsession with “extraordinary exceptionalism” in his book as Racism 2.0. It is a software upgrade, an insidious upgrade that gives the impression of progress greater than the reality, running on the same flawed hardware that has poisoned relations between whites and peoples of color throughout U.S. history. Obama becomes the new archetype of acceptable black masculinity. We adopt a meritocracy.

But rather than leaving whites merely feeling guilty and ashamed, Tim Wise recognizes how dysfunctional and dangerous the delusions of white privilege are to those of us identified as “white”. He asked, in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, did any of you see or hear a person of color ask, “Why do they hate us?” Wise has requested anyone over the past seven years to give him even one example of file footage from the media where a person of color asked that question in a public forum. No takers.

People of color in the U.S. know their lived realities don’t mesh with the myth of American exceptionalism. People of color have always had to know what other people were thinking. It is a survival skill in this culture. Only white haves the “privilege” of being oblivious to how others, the rest of the world, sees you. When you are white in this society, you take many things for granted. You don’t need to know what others think about you because your white privilege allows you to cruise along in your oblivion. People of color cannot take that risk in our society. They must always be on the lookout. Those in the dominant group don’t care. If we have a problem with you, we have a $400 billion “defense” budget and we will “light you up!” But 19 guys with box cutters and a bad attitude said, “OK – our boys are going to bring down these buildings anyway. How do you like us now?”

So the privileged folks come up with something stupid: “The hate us because of our freedom”. That is because only privileged people have the luxury to think that they are free. It gets you in trouble. You go into Iraq thinking surely they will greet us as liberators! Most black and brown folk did not think this war was a good idea.

We can’t sit back and wait for President Obama to say these things. Politically, he can’t. It is up to us to say them. After all, it was never his job – it is ours. It is our job to be agents of our own liberation. Change worth happening is always forged from the bottom up. We can’t surrender our agency to a President or anyone else to work for us. We need to be white allies in this struggle.

And that is where we go full circle; back to our historian who bothers to show us the history we were never taught in school. Zinn can remind us of all those brave rebels who have gone before us in the struggle to build a better America – one that is not feared but rather respected. Not an exception but rather a partner.

American exceptionalism makes us think the world sees us through our eyes –and that is dangerous to us because we remain ignorant about how they really feel. Tim Wise and Howard Zinn are reaching over the ropes, hoping they can “tag” us to join the battle against the obstinate foe of American exceptionalism. I’m hopping into the ring, will you?

Steve Clemens –