There’s no doubt that our culture induces fear, even among those who have no real cause to be afraid. One of the best examples of this is the fear that has been created by the government and reinforced by the media. That somehow, some evil enemy is out there waiting to devour us. The ironic thing is that the U.S. is in many ways the least vulnerable to disaster of any country in the world.
We are a very powerful and rich country, we have an ocean on both sides, nobody is going to invade us, but still, fear is created. As a matter of fact, that fear was extremely intense in the period following World War II, when the Soviet Union and Communism were held up as serious threats to the U.S. That fear then enabled the government to take away the liberties of people, which led to many people losing their jobs and a hysteria about Communism, which caused blacklists in the culture and within the entertainment industry.
The “specter of Communism,” which Marx used in the first words of The Communist Manifesto, haunted the U.S. and was spread very deliberately by the government, because it served a useful purpose — it enabled them to justify the expenditure of huge sums of national money for military weapons, including nuclear bombs. It also enabled controls over what people did, what people said, to intimidate them and to distort their own behavior in order to remain safe.
Then, when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989, and presumably there was no more threat from Communism, it didn’t stop the government from maintaining an atmosphere of fear, sometimes to absurd lengths. Going into war after war — into Iraq and then Afghanistan, all because the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, created a justification for going to war against an unseen enemy, terrorists who couldn’t be identified.
The irony was, it was this very creation of an artificial fear in the country that led to a foreign policy which was aggressive and warlike and which led to American military bases all over the world, which then created a real basis of fear. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were unquestionably a response to American power in the world and the way it was exerted. You had a classic case where the very thing that you do presumably to alleviate your artificial fears then creates a situation where there is something real to fear. Living in the United States, in an atmosphere of fear — of Communism, of terrorism — the government and its corporate allies are able to benefit from the spreading of this fear.
Are the American people able to combat this fear now that we’re aware of its propagation?
I think we are, in the sense that the American people who supported the war in Iraq initially, by a very large margin, have in the course of the last number of years, turned against the war by an equally large margin, which shows that the fear that was created after 9/11 is no longer as virulent as it was for the first few years of the war. It means that the American people today are not as fearful of the threat of terrorism, because they’ve now had the experience of seeing a war which was initiated to stop terrorism and has not. They’re able to evaluate more calmly the government’s claims that we face a terrorist threat.
I think a learning has taken place. A learning which was the result of the simple observation of reality — the observation of the dispatch of troops to Iraq, the occupation of Iraq for years and years. It’s now been nine years since the war in Iraq began, and I think it’s been a learning experience for Americans to see that this war hasn’t accomplished anything. It’s led them to question whether the initial fears created by the U.S. government were justified.
How large of a role did fear play in your activism in the anti-war and civil-rights movements?
I associate different fears with the civil-rights movement, with the situation in the South and with racism. Firstly, there was the fear that existed among Southern whites, which was, again, a manufactured fear by the white leaders of Southern society. This fear of black people created a hysteria that enabled the South to maintain the system of ironclad racial segregation and was crucial in maintaining the humiliation and violence against blacks. This fear was palpable in the South.
Then there was the fear among black people who grew up in the South, who understood that they were feared by white people and who knew that that fear led to violence against them. You’d become fearful of stepping out of line, and mothers cautioned their children to not play with white kids because they understood what the consequences might be.
So eventually the fear of black people that existed in the white population became mirrored in the fear of black people of what might happen to them if they stepped out of line. Now, not all the people in the South had this fear, although they observed the rules and understood the limits of their freedom, but what happened in the South in the 1950′s and 1960′s was that black people began to overcome that fear of crossing the boundary.
And the more black people crossed over the line, the more it encouraged others to do so, and the more courage it gave them to overcome their own fears. So you might say that the history of the civil-rights movement is a history of more and more black people overcoming their fear of breaking the law, of going to jail, of being beaten. Overcoming their fear because they felt the collective protection of their community as more and more people were doing what they were doing. Whereas individuals who were stepping out of line were totally vulnerable. But when 10,000 people march together in Birmingham, well, they can overcome their fear because of the collective courage that is created.
Did you have any cause to fear your personal involvement in the civil-rights movement?
I wasn’t free of fear. White people who supported the black cause were vulnerable to attack, there’s no question about that. When a white person was seen as supporting the cause of black freedom, that person became a target, so while I was not a victim of violence of the South, I was arrested once for being with a black person in a car. I was taking a student home, and she was sitting next to me in the front seat, and we were stopped by the police and then arrested. This was a scary moment, for myself and for the student too.
Any time I was involved in a situation that pointed me out to white people in the South as a supporter of the black cause, there was a certain amount of fear, but I recognized I wasn’t in the same position as black people, who were in constant fear and who were in a more dangerous situation than I was.
In what ways did your fears evolve as the civil-rights movement progressed?
The fear lessened as the movement grew, but there were specific moments of fear depending on your involvement in the movement. In Mississippi, there were many, many moments of fear, especially in the summer of 1964, called Freedom Summer, when there was a great number of people organizing in the South. I remember riding in the car at night, which had both white and black people in it, along unlit roads and knowing that we were vulnerable. Just the sight of white and black people in a car together was an inducement of violence. That combination of white and black people that created hysteria and violence to the point of murder was a definite fear. Anytime you were in a situation like that in Mississippi, there was fear.
Once, my wife and I were in Mississippi, and we attended a gathering at a black house. After we left and were walking along the street late at night, we were stopped by a policeman because we were in a black district. He looked very threatening and asked why we were in this black district, what were we doing there. So there were always moments of tension in our daily lives.
What made you continue your involvement in the movement despite your fears?
If you believed very fervently in what you were doing, if you believed that what you were doing was right, then you were fearful, but you overcame it. Otherwise, you succumbed to those fears and wouldn’t do things that led to fearsome situations. But being involved in a cause you believed in, and also working together with other people, was very important in diminishing my fear. Collectivity reduces fear. Community reduces fear. Doing something with other people reduces fear. I’m sure that soldiers overcome their fear because they are together with other soldiers, even though they still have reason to fear. For me and other people during that time, being part of a movement you believed in and being associated with other people who believed in the same thing, helped you overcome your fear.
What inspiration has been revealed to you through your and others’ struggles in activism?
The greatest gift for me has been to see other people behaving with courage and compassion and kindness in situations that are very, very difficult. It’s been a blessing to be in a position to observe the heroic behavior of ordinary people in difficult situations. That has been one of the most encouraging and heartening things for me.
What do you tell your students about overcoming their fears about fighting injustice?
I try to be as honest as possible with young people, in the sense of recognizing what fears are realistic and what fears are exaggerated. I try not to minimize or conceal the threats that exist in society, not to ignore them but to understand that it’s possible to overcome them. I give examples of people who have overcome their fears and suggest that the best way of overcoming fear is to confront the cause of that fear, and to join with other people.
One of most important things you can do in education is to overcome individualism and idealism, that you must do things and compete as an individual. In teaching, I tried to get my students not to simply work on individual projects, but to work with other students or people in the community on collective projects that gave them a strength and confidence they might not have had working individually.
I saw it happen in the South. I saw it happen in the movement against Vietnam, facing police and facing hostility. People felt they could do it if they did it with other people, if they did it as part of a group. Through that came a learning and a sense of overcoming.
Have your fears changed over the years?
When I was a teenager going to my first political demonstration, I was knocked unconscious by a policeman, and for a long time after that, whenever I was on a picket line or at a demonstration, I would stay as far away as I could from any police.
Gradually, I steeled myself against my fear by getting closer and closer to police and there came a time in Selma, Alabama, in 1963, on a day of great tension between the black community and the forces of law and order, that I found myself walking past a long line of heavily armed police without any fear.
Of course, I’m not in the same situation as I was then, and I’m not as directly involved in physical confrontations, although if I were arrested tomorrow, I would become fearful of being put in prison, because I know that when you’re in jail, you’re helpless. I was arrested a number of times after the Civil Rights movement ended and in the movement against the war in Vietnam, in demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and the outskirts of Boston supporting immigrant workers. Every time I was arrested, there was a certain amount of fear, because I understood that when you’re in the hands of police or prison guards, you’re isolated, vulnerable and in danger.
So getting arrested always scared me, and while I don’t face these situations very often these days, I know that whenever I’m in a situation that might lead to arrest, a fear is brought up within me.
What helps you gain a clearer perspective on your fears?
The accumulation of experience, working with people in movements over the years, has strengthened my ability to deal with my own fears and has taught me how to teach other people about the overcoming of fear. I try to remember earlier times when I was fearful, unnecessarily so, and the fears I had were not realized, and I learned they were exaggerated. I also find it very helpful to keep close to friends during particularly difficult times so that other people become a buffer against the dangers of the world.
What is a personal, undeniable truth you’ve confirmed in your life, after having gone through all of your experiences, that you only believed before?
What is now undeniably true to me, that I would have claimed I understood in the past, but which I only knew theoretically, is that the love of those closest to you is more important than anything else in the world.
About: Howard Zinn was a historian, social activist, playwright, and professor of political science, best known for his book “A People’s History of the United States.” In 1956, Zinn became a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, a school for black women, where he soon became involved in the civil-rights movement. When he was fired in 1963 for insubordination related to his protest work, he moved to Boston University, where he became a leading critic of the Vietnam War.