Historically speaking

April 21-27
VOL 124 NO. 15
Historically speaking
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Le Moyne’s annual Peacemaker lecture

The fifth annual Daniel Berrigan, SJ/Ignatian House Peacemaker Lecture continued in the tradition of past lectures by bringing a noted peace activist to town on April 11. Le Moyne College’s Panasci Chapel was the site of this year’s lecture and it was filled to overflowing with students and members of the community. Howard Zinn’s most famous work, A People’s History of the United States, presents American history through the eyes of those on the outside of the political establishment.

With humor and warmth, Zinn spoke of his long friendship with Father Daniel Berrigan, the lecture series’ namesake. Their friendship goes back to 1968, Zinn explained, when he was teaching a seminar at Boston University and was asked to take a telephone call during the class. The caller was another anti-war activist who asked Zinn to make a trip the next day to North Vietnam for the release of three prisoners of war. “They wanted American representatives from the peace movement to come to Hanoi to bring them back,” Zinn remembered. “I called my wife and told her I wouldn’t be home for lunch tomorrow.” By the next afternoon, Zinn and Father Berrigan were on a plane together headed to Hanoi. They spent a week in Laos waiting to get into Hanoi. That week was one filled with intrigue for the two travelers. “We loved it,” Zinn said.

They roamed the city while they waited to get into Hanoi. At one point a Buddhist monk asked the two Americans to come into his class and they were amused to find that they were not known at all by the students — the monk had only wanted the two of them to speak English to his class.

Zinn recalled the days when both Philip and Daniel Berrigan refused to give themselves up to authorities after the Catonsville incident when they had put homemade napalm on draft records in protest to the war in Vietnam. Philip Berrigan was captured first and Father Daniel Berrigan was eventually tracked down months later.

After an explanation of his relationship to the Jesuit priest, Zinn went on to explain the U.S.’s version of democracy. He referred to the Bill of Rights and the country’s Freedom of Speech. “Look here,” Zinn said, “I am speaking in front of you. I can speak to 300 people. Hmm… Exxon can speak to three million people. How much freedom do you have? How many people can you reach?”

Zinn said that the U.S. had defeated a monarchy and now has a democracy. “Not quite,” he said. “We replaced an elite system with a local elite system. One elite was replaced with another.” The fact that the U.S. is democratic, he said, is only half-true.

In reference to the founding fathers of the U.S., Zinn asked, “Where were the black people? Roughly 20 percent of the population then. Where were the Native Americans? Where were the women? Fifty five rich, white men got together and formed the Constitution.”

The author said that all the citizens of the U.S. are taxed without representation. “Does Congress represent the people of this country? The tax system of the U.S. from the beginning has favored the rich,” Zinn said. “We’ve got a class society. A society of rich and poor and in between, a lot of nervous people who don’t know which way they’re going.”

He spoke of the gap between the rich and poor and the need in the U.S. for better health care and literacy, as well as the U.S. approach to children and the elderly. Zinn said that the U.S. has developed an arrogance thinking that its democratic system is the best in the world and must therefore be the best system for all other countries.

“We think we’re different than all the countries in the world,” Zinn said. “We’re the best. When you start with that proposition and you begin to think that everyone desires the same kind of democracy; that’s when you become a rogue state and start looking all over the world to find countries to make democratic. It’s especially dangerous when you think God has ordained this, has given you this power, this right.”

He went on to talk more about the current administration’s religious bent saying that the administration’s notion of God comes into play.

“It is insufferable arrogance to believe that God has hardly anything else to do but concern Himself with forcing the policies of the United States. It is frightening the way religion and God are distorted in this government,” Zinn said.

Zinn’s lecture delved into American history and he challenged the audience with his view of it. He said that the people of the U.S. forget sometimes that most of the country was annexed. “You know,” he said jokingly, “the Indians, they just moved out and we came in.”

He spoke about the use of divine providence when leaders want to make something happen. “[President] McKinley prayed and God told him to take the Philippines. How can we dispute that? The Filipinos did not get that message. There was a war in the Philippines that lasted years and killed about 600,000 Filipinos. You won’t find an account of that in history books,” Zinn said.

Zinn indicated that the notion of U.S. superiority was hardly something new the Bush administration introduced. “Clinton’s administration also acted pre-emptively. One of the first things he did was to send bombers over Baghdad,” Zinn said. “Remember Madeleine Albright said, ‘The U.S. will act collectively if possible, unilaterally if necessary.’”

The lecture focused on the theme of war and terrorism. “The U.S. believes it has the responsibility to hunt down terrorists in the world and to hunt them down by making war. Osama Bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the country so we go and bomb the country,” Zinn said. “Surely if there is a God and He is just and He is wise, surely He understands that war is terrorism and it’s the worst form of terrorism.”

Zinn talked about the common things all of mankind share saying that all the people of the earth have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “We all need the same things,” he said. “We all need shelter. We all need peace.” He said there are examples of wonderful things happening. He mentioned farmworkers in Florida finally winning against Taco Bell, military personnel speaking out about the war in Iraq, and the Gold Star mothers who lost sons and daughters in war forming an organization speaking out against war.

The lecture posed many questions for those gathered. Eugene Govern is a junior at Le Moyne College and this was his first peacemaker lecture.

“He [Zinn] was very impressive,” Govern said. “His message needs to be heard by more people.”

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