A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, by Howard Zinn

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress is a collection of recent essays by radical historian and social commentator Howard Zinn. Publication history information is minimal, but my impression is most or all of these pieces have been previously published.

I don’t find collections like this the most satisfying reading. All else being equal, I would prefer an author put the effort into creating a book length, coherent, argumentative essay for some thesis or set of theses—yes drawing upon his previously published shorter pieces where relevant, but not simply cobbling them together as is and sticking them between two covers.

From the title, I expected these essays to all be about civil disobedience or “people power”-type movements against oppression. And I suppose interpreted very, very broadly, they do all fit that theme. (Though interpreted that broadly, they could be said to fit any number of other themes as well.) But really it’s just a collection of whatever Zinn happened to write in the last few years before he died.

I’ve always admired Zinn as someone who is an intelligent, reasonable, compassionate person on the side of the underdogs and calling for a better and more humane world.

He is just short of a total pacifist, arguing that there may be unusual Rwandan genocide-type cases where quick, temporary, military-style violence with limited and clear objectives can be justified, but that anything beyond that—which is to say virtually all wars in human history—cannot be.

He’s pretty much of the “a pox on both their houses” school of thought when it comes to the Republicans and the Democrats, dismissing them as working together on almost all issues that keep the powerful on top and the rest of us on the bottom. He’d prefer a Nader-like alternative, or really that people defy the state and create a better world themselves rather than seeking to do so through government. So he’s close to being an anarchist (though that term has a myriad of possible meanings and connotations).

The essays consist of facts and idealistic rhetoric. The facts mostly have to do with such things as all the horrific things U.S. military and economic power (not just U.S. certainly, but he’s an American so he’s mostly talking about American cases) has been used for, and how consistently that’s been lied about, spun, and/or ignored by politicians, the mainstream media, textbooks, etc.

These things he points to are important and indeed too often neglected. He’s quite effective, for instance, in supporting his claim that the Bush administration’s lies to trick people into supporting invading Iraq should have fooled no one nor seemed like some new tactic, by listing numerous instances of similar blatant dishonesty by other American leaders in connection with other such military adventures. If only we would learn from history, we’d cease to be taken in by such degraded rhetoric.

Though in a sense I’m a philosophical anarchist, I am not completely untroubled by Zinn’s seeming position that bad laws and governmental policies carry no weight and can and should be defied. I’m inclined to say they carry some (non-absolute) weight, which varies based on multiple factors, and thus generate some (non-absolute) degree of obligation.

The civil order and stability of a system of laws that people actually obey has some positive value in itself. It’s value that can be overridden, but it’s value nonetheless.

So one would want to look at factors such as how bad the law really is (is it probably bad but in a gray area that reasonable people can disagree about, or blatantly and unambiguously evil?), how much is really at stake (are we talking about stopping a war, or some unfair zoning law causing a mild inconvenience?), how the law itself came about (was it the fiat of some dictator, or the result of a reasonably democratic, reasonably fair system that just happened to produce a clunker this time?), and so on.

Presumably we want the law to mean something when we agree with it. We want Roe v Wade or the Civil Rights Act or a progressive income tax or Congress forbidding aid to the Contras to be regarded as binding to some extent even on those who disagree with them, and we criticize those who treat such things as generating zero obligation. So when we lose, it would be hypocritical to not recognize some (non-absolute) obligation there too.

Not that Zinn is necessarily guilty of this inconsistency. He may well be willing to accept that all parties are justified in disregarding the law when they believe it is unjust. But that position is not without its problems either. There’s no point in seeking any of the sorts of things mentioned in the preceding paragraph if they have no effect on the moral landscape, if people’s obligation to do X is unaffected by X being mandated by law, X being forbidden by law, or X not being addressed by law.

Disobedience should be the exception, the last resort. Gandhi’s position was that the civil resister actually has to be a greater respecter of law than the average citizen. Such a person needs to be even more meticulous than others about obeying the laws he agrees with, the laws he’s neutral about, and almost all the laws he disagrees with. Picking out the few laws so egregious that they have to be defied on principle is a matter of great gravity and should be undertaken only by those who’ve shown the utmost respect for law in general and the order it represents.

I find myself more inclined toward Gandhi’s views here. At times Zinn seems almost cavalier about disregarding laws one disagrees with.

Zinn makes the same type of points about the judicial branch. He finds it appalling that a judge would ever see himself as bound to issue a ruling he disagrees with because the law or Constitution requires it. He should instead recognize, Zinn holds, that the law and the Constitution are like the Bible, always open to multiple interpretations, including whichever one fits what your conscience tells you is right.

And again I find myself uncomfortable with that. If the Constitution says a slave is 3/5 of a person or whatever, that may be a reason for a Supreme Court justice to resign and lead a movement to amend that out of the Constitution, but I don’t know that I want him pretending it doesn’t say that or giving it some convoluted interpretation that reverses its meaning.

Still, while I may differ here and there with Zinn on the details, on strategy, on philosophy, I’m with him on far, far more than I’m against him. I think of him as very much an ally.

There’s plenty more I could talk about concerning A Power Governments Cannot Suppress—the biographical material on such figures as Thoreau, Debs, Berrigan, etc. is certainly worthwhile—but this will have to suffice. It didn’t blow me away, tell me a lot I didn’t know, or seriously alter my worldview, but it’s a book I’d recommend, maybe especially to those for whom this is not all old hat. There may well be plenty of eye-opening stuff for a fresh reader here.


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