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What the left thinks: Howard Zinn, Part I

Tuesday, Sep 12, 2006

Every so often, one hears the argument that “Left and Right” are outdated terms, or that there really aren’t enormous differences in the ways the Left and Right view America, the world, men and women, and just about every other important aspect of life. I wish this were true. But the gaps between the Left and Right on almost every issue that matters — including and especially issues of good and evil — are in fact unbridgeable.

That is why, for many years, I have invited leading representatives of the intellectual Left onto my radio show. Not in order to debate them (though I would be happy to do so at any college), but in order to clarify for listeners exactly what the Left believes.

I recently dialogued with an icon of the Left, Howard Zinn, professor emeritus of political science at Boston University, author of “A People’s History of the United States,” lauded by The New York Times as “required reading” for all American students. And, as Wikipedia notes, it “has been adopted as required reading in high schools and colleges throughout the United States.”

Dennis Prager: I think a good part of your view is summarized when you say, “If people knew history, they would scoff at that, they would laugh at that” — the idea that the United States is a force for the betterment of humanity. I believe that we are the country that has done more good for humanity than any other in history. What would you say . . . we have done more bad than good, we’re in the middle, or what?

Howard Zinn: Probably more bad than good. We’ve done some good, of course; there’s no doubt about that. But we have done too many bad things in the world. You know, if you look at the way we have used our armed forces throughout our history: first destroying the Indian communities of this continent and annihilating Indian tribes, then going into the Caribbean in the Spanish-American War, going to the Philippines, taking over other countries, not establishing democracy but in many cases establishing dictatorship, holding up dictatorships in Latin America and giving them arms, and you know, Vietnam, killing several million people for no good reason at all, certainly not for democracy or liberty, and continuing down to the present day with the war in Iraq . . . .

DP: There is evil in the way we treated the Indians, there is no question about it. But there’s also no question that the great majority died of disease and not deliberately inflicted disease.

HZ: That’s true that the great majority of Indians died of disease in the 17th century when the Europeans first came here. But after that — after the American Revolution — when the colonists expanded from the thin band of colonies along the Atlantic and expanded westward, at that point we began to annihilate the Indian tribes. We committed massacres all over the country . . . .

DP: What percentage of the Indians do you believe we massacred, as opposed to diseases ravaged?

HZ: Oh, well it might have been 10 percent.

DP: But 10 percent is very different from the generalization of “we annihilated the Indians.”

HZ: Oh, well 10 percent is a huge number of Indians, that is. So it’s pointless I think to argue about whether disease . . . or deliberate attacks killed more Indians . . . .

DP: No, but 10 percent is very different from what the general statement of “annihilate” tends to indicate. That’s all I am saying.

HZ: Okay.

DP: If, let’s say, Europeans never came to North America and it was left in the hands of the American indigenous Indians, do you think the world would be a better place?

HZ: I’d have no way of knowing.

DP: So you’re agnostic on that.

HZ: Absolutely. We have no way of knowing what would have happened.

DP: Well, we do have a way of knowing. If the Indians had never been intervened with, they would have continued in the life and the values of the societies that the American Indians made.

HZ: Well, I suppose we could presume that. And many of their societies were very peaceful and benign, and some of their societies were ferocious and warlike. But the point is that we very often sort of justify barging into other peoples’ territories by the fact that we are sort of bringing civilization. But in the course of it, if in the course of bringing civilization we kill large numbers of people — which we did in that case and which we have done in other cases — then you’re led to question whether what we did deserves to be praised or condemned.

DP: Well, you can do both. You can condemn the massacres and you can praise the civilization that we made here.

In Part II, Professor Zinn and I discuss the morality of fighting World War II, the moral differences between George W. Bush and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and more.

A complete transcript and broadcast of this interview will appear on

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