Archive for January, 2010

Howard Zinn remembered

Howard Zinn, the distinguished American historian and professor emeritus in the political science department at Boston University, died on January 27, 2010 in California. He was 87. Zinn went on to become an activist in the people’s movements for civil rights, civil liberties and peace, and he wrote extensively about all of those things, among which is the most celebrated A People’s History of the United States.

Below is a commencement address that Zinn delivered on May 15, 2005 to students of Spelman College in Atlanta, the very college that once expelled him in June 1963 for siding with the students in agitating for a change to the college’s traditional emphasis on producing ‘young ladies’ rather than fighters for black freedom.

Although meant for the graduating college students, the speech (below, which is reproduced in full) is equally applicable to ordinary folks who are concerned with issues of democracy, justice, peace, compassion, racism and nationalism, among other salient things in life.

May he rest in peace.



Howard Zinn’s address to Spelman College, 2005

I am deeply honored to be invited back to Spelman after forty-two years. I would like to thank the faculty and trustees who voted to invite me, and especially your president, Dr. Beverly Tatum. And it is a special privilege to be here with Diahann Carroll and Virginia Davis Floyd.

But this is your day — the students graduating today. It’s a happy day for you and your families. I know you have your own hopes for the future, so it may be a little presumptuous for me to tell you what hopes I have for you, but they are exactly the same ones that I have for my grandchildren.

My first hope is that you will not be too discouraged by the way the world looks at this moment. It is easy to be discouraged, because our nation is at war — still another war, war after war — and our government seems determined to expand its empire even if it costs the lives of tens of thousands of human beings. There is poverty in this country, and homelessness, and people without health care, and crowded classrooms, but our government, which has trillions of dollars to spend, is spending its wealth on war. There are a billion people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East who need clean water and medicine to deal with malaria and tuberculosis and AIDS, but our government, which has thousands of nuclear weapons, is experimenting with even more deadly nuclear weapons. Yes, it is easy to be discouraged by all that.

But let me tell you why, in spite of what I have just described, you must not be discouraged.

I want to remind you that, fifty years ago, racial segregation here in the South was entrenched as tightly as was apartheid in South Africa. The national government, even with liberal presidents like Kennedy and Johnson in office, was looking the other way while Black people were beaten and killed and denied the opportunity to vote. So Black people in the South decided they had to do something by themselves. They boycotted and sat in and picketed and demonstrated, and were beaten and jailed, and some were killed, but their cries for freedom were soon heard all over the nation and around the world, and the President and Congress finally did what they had previously failed to do — enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Many people had said: The South will never change. But it did change. It changed because ordinary people organized and took risks and challenged the system and would not give up. That’s when democracy came alive.

I want to remind you also that when the war in Vietnam was going on, and young Americans were dying and coming home paralyzed, and our government was bombing the villages of Vietnam — bombing schools and hospitals and killing ordinary people in huge numbers — it looked hopeless to try to stop the war. But just as in the Southern movement, people began to protest and soon it caught on. It was a national movement. Soldiers were coming back and denouncing the war, and young people were refusing to join the military, and the war had to end.

The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies. I know you have practical things to do — to get jobs and get married and have children. You may become prosperous and be considered a success in the way our society defines success, by wealth and standing and prestige. But that is not enough for a good life.

Remember Tolstoy’s story, “The Death of Ivan Illych.” A man on his deathbed reflects on his life, how he has done everything right, obeyed the rules, become a judge, married, had children, and is looked upon as a success. Yet, in his last hours, he wonders why he feels a failure. After becoming a famous novelist, Tolstoy himself had decided that this was not enough, that he must speak out against the treatment of the Russian peasants, that he must write against war and militarism.

My hope is that whatever you do to make a good life for yourself — whether you become a teacher, or social worker, or business person, or lawyer, or poet, or scientist — you will devote part of your life to making this a better world for your children, for all children. My hope is that your generation will demand an end to war, that your generation will do something that has not yet been done in history and wipe out the national boundaries that separate us from other human beings on this earth.

Recently I saw a photo on the front page of the New York Times which I cannot get out of my mind. It showed ordinary Americans sitting on chairs on the southern border of Arizona, facing Mexico. They were holding guns and they were looking for Mexicans who might be trying to cross the border into the United States. This was horrifying to me — the realization that, in this twenty-first century of what we call “civilization,” we have carved up what we claim is one world into two hundred artificially created entities we call “nations” and are ready to kill anyone who crosses a boundary.

Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary, so fierce it leads to murder — one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred? These ways of thinking, cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on, have been useful to those in power, deadly for those out of power.

Here in the United States, we are brought up to believe that our nation is different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral; that we expand into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy. But if you know some history you know that’s not true. If you know some history, you know we massacred Indians on this continent, invaded Mexico, sent armies into Cuba, and the Philippines. We killed huge numbers of people, and we did not bring them democracy or liberty. We did not go into Vietnam to bring democracy; we did not invade Panama to stop the drug trade; we did not invade Afghanistan and Iraq to stop terrorism. Our aims were the aims of all the other empires of world history — more profit for corporations, more power for politicians.

The poets and artists among us seem to have a clearer understanding of the disease of nationalism. Perhaps the Black poets especially are less enthralled with the virtues of American “liberty” and “democracy,” their people having enjoyed so little of it. The great African-American poet Langston Hughes addressed his country as follows:

You really haven’t been a virgin for so long.
It’s ludicrous to keep up the pretext.

You’ve slept with all the big powers
In military uniforms,
And you’ve taken the sweet life
Of all the little brown fellows.

Being one of the world’s big vampires,
Why don’t you come on out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France,
And all the other nymphomaniacs of power.

I am a veteran of the Second World War. That was considered a “good war,” but I have come to the conclusion that war solves no fundamental problems and only leads to more wars. War poisons the minds of soldiers, leads them to kill and torture, and poisons the soul of the nation.

My hope is that your generation will demand that your children be brought up in a world without war. It we want a world in which the people of all countries are brothers and sisters, if the children all over the world are considered as our children, then war — in which children are always the greatest casualties — cannot be accepted as a way of solving problems.

I was on the faculty of Spelman College for seven years, from 1956 to 1963. It was a heartwarming time, because the friends we made in those years have remained our friends all these years. My wife Roslyn and I and our two children lived on campus. Sometimes when we went into town, white people would ask: How is it to be living in the Black community? It was hard to explain. But we knew this — that in downtown Atlanta, we felt as if we were in alien territory, and when we came back to the Spelman campus, we felt that we were at home.

Those years at Spelman were the most exciting of my life, the most educational certainly. I learned more from my students than they learned from me. Those were the years of the great movement in the South against racial segregation, and I became involved in that in Atlanta, in Albany, Georgia, in Selma, Alabama, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Greenwood and Itta Bena and Jackson.

I learned something about democracy: that it does not come from the government, from on high, it comes from people getting together and struggling for justice. I learned about race. I learned something that any intelligent person realizes at a certain point — that race is a manufactured thing, an artificial thing, and while race does matter (as Cornel West has written), it only matters because certain people want it to matter, just as nationalism is something artificial. I learned that what really matters is that all of us — of whatever so-called race and so-called nationality — are human beings and should cherish one another.

I was lucky to be at Spelman at a time when I could watch a marvelous transformation in my students, who were so polite, so quiet, and then suddenly they were leaving the campus and going into town, and sitting in, and being arrested, and then coming out of jail full of fire and rebellion. You can read all about that in Harry Lefever’s book Undaunted By The Fight: Spelman College and the Civil Rights Movement, 1957-1967.

One day Marian Wright (now Marian Wright Edelman), who was my student at Spelman, and was one of the first arrested in the Atlanta sit-ins, came to our house on campus to show us a petition she was about to put on the bulletin board of her dormitory. The heading on the petition epitomized the transformation taking place at Spelman College. Marian had written on top of the petition: “Young Ladies Who Can Picket, Please Sign Below.”

My hope is that you will not be content just to be successful in the way that our society measures success; that you will not obey the rules, when the rules are unjust; that you will act out the courage that I know is in you. There are wonderful people, Black and white, who are models. I don’t mean African-Americans like Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell, or Clarence Thomas, who have become servants of the rich and powerful. I mean W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker and good white folk, too, who defied the Establishment to work for peace and justice.

Another of my students at Spelman, Alice Walker, who, like Marian, has remained our friend all these years, came from a tenant farmer’s family in Eatonton, Georgia, and became a famous writer. In one of her first published poems, she wrote:

It is true —
I’ve always loved
the daring
Like the Black young
Who tried
to crash
All barriers
at once,
wanted to swim
At a white
beach (in Alabama)

I am not suggesting you go that far, but you can help to break down barriers, of race certainly, but also of nationalism; that you do what you can — you don’t have to do something heroic, just something, to join with millions of others who will just do something, because all of those somethings, at certain points in history, come together, and make the world better.

That marvelous African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who wouldn’t do what white people wanted her to do, who wouldn’t do what Black people wanted her to do, who insisted on being herself, said that her mother advised her: Leap for the sun — you may not reach it, but at least you will get off the ground.

By being here today, you are already standing on your toes, ready to leap. My hope for you is a good life.

Books seized in not-so-funny Malaysia

Two books, 1Funny Malaysia and Where Is Justice?, were reportedly confiscated in Penang and Melaka by the authorities under Section 18 of Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA).

The first book is a compilation of the works of political cartoonist Zunar while the second one touches on the issue of death and brutality in police custody.

And these are the things in those books that the paternalistic authorities insist  “could pose a threat to public order, morality, security”.

Confiscation of reading or printed materials is tantamount to overt censorship, which is undemocratic because it reduces diversity of opinions and a wide range of publications that are made available to the general public.

Is breaking up with someone hard to do, PKR?

Well, that seems to be the question asked by Zaid Ibrahim of PKR about his party’s apparent inability to take a decisive action against maverick Zulkifli Noordin. See here and here for Zaid’s hard-hitting comments.

In fact, Zaid had actually called for the immediate sacking of Zulkifli from the party in the wake of the latter’s action of lodging a police report against a colleague from PAS over the “Allah” issue. For Zaid and others in the party, Zulkifli has indeed crossed the line.

Zulkifli has been a thorn in PKR’s flesh for quite some time now, and he has been behaving of late in ways that can be considered as not in keeping with the standing of a PKR politician.

Or for that matter, as implied above, the Kulim Bandar Baru MP has been a nagging ‘problem’ for the Pakatan Rakyat as a whole, the latest being his spat with Pas’ Khalid Samad.

So, given this kind of history, it does make concerned Malaysians wonder why Zulkifli has become somewhat of an ‘untouchable’ in PKR.

A twit and the corrosive culture of the Internet

Malaysian government’s connection with the Internet is something of a love-hate relationship. This is especially so after the 2008 general election when the activities of Net users were said to have caused to a certain degree the ruling coalition to experience heavy electoral losses.

So the quibbling of Information and Communication Minister Rais Yatim over the purported dangers of Twitter, Facebook and blogging can only be read as reinforcing the said sentiment of the federal government.

But this time around, the minister concerned argued that the use of the Internet might run counter to the values supposedly promoted by revealed religions such as Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.

What he failed to state is that religions exhort their adherents to search for truth and justice wherever it may be, and this includes the Internet vis-a-vis the mainstream media whose credibility has tumbled.

And, apparently, if everything else failed in his urging, Rais warned Muslims and other religious groups to be “wary of the Internet as it was introduced by the West”.

If we were to follow through his argument to its logical conclusion, then we will have to stay away from the television set (through which programmes from RTM, TV3 etc are beamed) that was also first introduced by the West. On second thought, this (i.e. to shun television) may not be a bad idea after all.

Words I couldn’t say

The latest development from word-sensitive Malaysia, according to a report from The Malaysian Insider, is that Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor (JAIS) and Majlis Agama Islam Melaka (MAIM) have each issued a directive that prohibits the use of a collection of ‘Islamic terms’ by non-Muslims in the country.
For the uninitiated, this came in the wake of the ‘Allah’ controversy that has literally rocked the country.
These forbidden terms range from sheikh, haji, mubaligh, hadis, Injil, fatwa, mufti, al-Quran to Kaabah.
If this development is true, then a number of problems may arise as a result. For instance, a non-Muslim may be discouraged from pursuing her interest in Islamic studies because she cannot use these ‘Islamic terms’ in her scholarly work.
In other words, Islam may be seen as a religion that is inaccessible to non-Muslims particularly in Malaysia. Worse, Islam and its adherents could be misconstrued as being anti-intellectual.
Besides, it would be rather difficult for the non-Muslims to explain or understand certain aspects of Islam and its teachings without using those specific terms. For example, how does one talk about the pilgrimage without using the term hajj or the circumambulation, or the tawaf, around the Kaabah?
And, would a non-Muslim be penalised for using the term ‘mufti’ to describe a religious scholar in Islam? Would he still be punished for using the same word ‘mufti’ when he means a civilian dress used by a person who normally wears a uniform?
Needless to say, I am lost for words.

Leaving on a jet plane

This 60’s number that was made popular by famous trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, is about human relationship.

But listening to it right now in Malaysia somehow gives a different feel to it. It goes beyond the sense of a possible loss of love between two individuals.

The song now evokes a sense of a colossal loss experienced by Malaysians as a group of taxpayers and concerned citizens.

What’s even worse, this heavy loss makes it impossible for most Malaysians to even take a flight of fancy to any corner of the known world.

In fact, Malaysians can’t possibly leave for 2010 without still feeling very much stuck and also insecure in 2009, which isn’t good at all. Besides, there are too many baggages for them to carry along.

Put another way, Malaysians may not be able to propel themselves to greater heights of achievement for as long as they’re deprived of the very engine that can spur economic growth and hasten moral vigour.

January 2010

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