Passion and Propaganda
By Chris Pastor
Howard Zinn is a professor emeritus of Boston University. He wrote A People’s History of the United States, which has sold over a million copies; the only book published by Harper Collins that keeps selling more copies each year. He released Voices of a People’s History, a companion book in 2004, and a documentary film on his life, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train, has just been released on DVD. Noam Chomsky said of him, “it is no exaggeration to say he has changed the consciousness of a generation.”
CLAMOR: How do you see the relation between the arts and politics?
HZ: Almost anything in world of culture is inevitably political in one way or another. You might say it’s political even when it isn’t political, that it makes a statement even when it doesn’t make a statement. If you perform or create something that doesn’t say anything about society, you’re still saying something. You’re saying it’s OK to stand off from what is going on. There’s no such thing as neutrality in art. And what is true of art is true of other things. It’s true of history, of education. Art is emotional. Art adds passion. It adds feeling in that way it enhances everything it touches. And because of that, art has a power beyond the power of simple language or gesture. That is, when the language or gesture becomes artistic, when a prosaic set of words becomes poetry or song, or when gestures become dance, suddenly whatever is being communicated has a greater power than it had before.
I see art as playing a sort of special role in social movements, evening the odds. In society, power is held by people with wealth and who have special powers. Social movements don’t possess that wealth, they don’t possess the guns, the weapons, that people in power have. Therefore social movements need something special to remedy the imbalance. And art, because it has this special power, plays a role in creating a more equal field of competition between the establishment and the opposition.
CLAMOR: How do you see the relation between the arts and war, or the arts and war/peace?
HZ: It’s very clear that people who make war recognize the power of art, because they try to utilize the arts to mobilize the population to war. Martial music is an example of this; posters glorifying military heroism are another. The establishment understands that if you want to mobilize people for war, you have to use every possible technique, and art, they know, is very useful for that. I recall mural in the halls of Widener Library at Harvard. I would walk up the stairs and there I would see this painting showing a fallen soldier, not as a horrible thing, but as heroic. Along with the painting, there was inscribed, “Happy is he who in one embrace clasps death and victory.” That is how art gets mobilized for war.
CLAMOR: Kurt Vonnegut said that during the Vietnam war any artist worth a damn was speaking out against the war. Do you think it’s an artist’s responsibility to take political stands?
HZ: Put it this way, an artist is a human being, and every human being has a responsibility to take a political stand. The fact that one is an artist doesn’t exempt one from that. You might even say the artist has a special responsibility because the artist’s work can affect people in very intense ways. And because the artist has this power, and because the artist is a human being with values, concerned about whether people live or die, the artist has a responsibility to use that power, to use that talent on behalf of a peaceful world. Of course, Vonnegut himself was an example of that in all of his books, but certainly in Slaughterhouse 5, where he writes about the bombing of Dresden in World War 2. You could write, and books have been written, about the bombing of Dresden which are very powerful. But there’s something about what a creative writer can do, what a novelist can do, that raises the awareness of war to a higher level. Vonnegut did that for World War 2. It was very difficult– with the aura that has surrounded World War 2, the Good War– very difficult for somebody to suddenly write a book criticizing it. But you could write a novel like Slaughterhouse 5, which would lead people to begin to think critically about “the Good War.” Whereas if you came out and wrote a non-fiction book against the war, you probably would have been greeted with an enormous amount of harsh criticism.
CLAMOR: Once, you were interviewed simultaneously with Thom Yorke of Radiohead, about politics and art. It seemed in that interview that he was far more reluctant to embrace the idea of art being political than you were. What do you think might make an artist hesitate to make political statements?
HZ: Well, I think that an artist might think that it might corrupt or diminish her art, that she would not be free to express herself in the way she wants to. It would somehow distort, aesthetically, her art. The writer might believe that if he writes political things, it might come out sounding like agitprop, that it would lose the aesthetic quality of good writing. And, of course, there are examples of that. There are people whose politics so overwhelm their art that the artistry is lost in the process. But it’s not inevitable.
Then, of course, there are professional fears. By professional fears I mean fears that you will be marginalized. Because, in our society, as soon as you step outside of the boundaries, you risk your job; you risk your reputation. If you’re in the arts, and you use your music to make a statement, you risk the possibility that the corporations that control the airwaves will try to punish you. I mean, look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks when they spoke out against the war. Suddenly they found that Clearchannel, which controls 1,000 radio stations in the country, was giving orders not to play their music. So, an artist takes risks professionally by speaking out against the war. It takes special courage on the part of artists to do that.
CLAMOR: Commercial success is often pitted against artistic and political integrity, and many artists have been accused of compromising their core values to reach a broader audience. Some see this as betraying the movement, while others see it as a strategic move. Is there such a thing as selling out?
HZ: There is such a thing as an artist selling out. If an artist tailors her art to curry favor with people in power, if an artist deliberately stays away from saying anything political, anything that might be considered critical, that’s selling out. On the other hand, there are, I suppose, compromises that artists may make which are a kind of tactical device to reach a larger audience. Not by going over to the other side, not by being silent, but perhaps by couching their language in ways that they think will not offend too many people, or trying to find common ground with people who are on the other side of the political fence, without sacrificing their integrity. In other words, there are different levels of political statement, different levels of boldness. And an artist might seek to find a level that is not quite so bold, but which still makes a statement in order to reach a larger audience. I wouldn’t consider that selling out.
CLAMOR: Do you think artists today are more limited by censorship and media ownership concentration, or are the actually less limited due to an increased amount of outlets, with the internet, etc?
HZ: Well, I think both [statements] are true. That is, the traditional outlets are more closed, because of the monopolization of the media. The major television networks are closed, even public television is closed, because it has become so much more like the commercial networks. The book publishing industry and newspaper ownership has become more concentrated. On the other hand, the internet has opened up an enormous field of possibility where corporate control of the traditional media can be bypassed by all the information that can flow through the internet, and all the organizational work can be done through the internet, so we have a double phenomenon. And one, I guess, provokes the other, that is, the monopolization of the traditional media provokes the use of the internet in order to bypass [those limitations].
CLAMOR: When and how is what is gained by signing onto a big record label, or with a big publisher, reconciled with the negative impact this has - the dilution of a message to make it palatable or working with corporate media instead of independent media?
HZ: That’s a very important question, and a very difficult one. Just recently, I was on Democracy Now! In New York, talking to Amy Goodman. She raised the same question. She had just published her book with a big publisher, [owned by] the Disney Corporation. And She had been criticized by some people on the left for doing so, and not publishing with a small independent publisher. The problem is that, if you have something important to say, you want to reach a lot of people, and a big corporate entity will enable you to reach fifty times as many people, or, let’s say, a big record label will enable you to reach fifty times as many people. Then, I think, if you are not compromising what you are saying or what you are singing or what you are writing, if you have freedom to express yourself exactly as you want, then I think it’s justifiable to play a kind of guerilla warfare. That is, to use the weapons of the enemy, use the clout that they have, use their profit motive, and take advantage of the fact that they want a profit and you want to reach a lot of people. I’ve published with many publishers, small and large, from South End Press to Harper Collins. Harper Collins published my People’s History of the United States. I think it was a reasonable choice to make. Harper Collins was able to distribute my book in a way that a smaller publisher wouldn’t have been able to do. So, that’s one part of the answer, but there’s another part, and that is that while there are times when you might do that, I think there are other times when you must give your business– your art, song, or book– to an independent publisher or record company in order to help them out. So, I think, maybe a strategy should be to utilize both.