Artists in a Time of War
“You’re going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country?” asks Howard Zinn in mock incredulity. “I mean, how stupid can you be?” The audience responds with a modest laugh. “Haven’t we had enough experience historically when leaving the important decisions to the people in the White House, or the people in Congress, or the people in the Supreme Court, or the people who dominate the economy?”
This rhetorical exchange comes early in Zinn’s 50-minute lecture, recorded at The Massachusetts College of Art in Boston on October 10, 2001, setting the informal, accessible and occasionally ironic mood for his musings on the role of the artist in times of war and political tumult. As US and British troops continue to mass by the thousands in Iraq, a $600 billion military budget consumes financial resources that would be best diverted into education and poverty, and North Korea’s belligerent leadership brazenly defies the nuclear status quo in response to this display of unilateralism, the release of this CD could hardly be more timely or more necessary.
Drawing from his experience as a soldier-turned-protester between World War II and the Vietnam War, the social historian and author of A People’s History of the United States emphasizes the professional’s primary responsibility as a citizen, invoking Rousseau’s social contract to emphasize the importance of political involvement on an individual level. In the topsy-turvy socio-political climate following the September 11 assault, Zinn argues that the artist in particular must transcend the “given wisdom” and “the word of the establishment” and act as a balanced, independent voice among blind patriotic frenzy. Citing the examples of Al Gore and TV anchorman Dan Rather, to name but two prominent public figures “rushing to get in line, rushing to get inside the perimeter of power,” he warns of the dangers of unthinking support for President Bush and America’s economically driven foreign policy.
In times of crisis, cool heads are better than gut reactions. Yet as soon as one dares to challenge the position of the Establishment (I write with a conspiratorial capital “E”), a monolithic collective comprising the media, the government and even leading intellectuals, Zinn notes, “the question of your patriotism arises.” “When they accuse dissenters” of disloyalty, he continues, the accusers “have forgotten the meaning of loyalty and patriotism.” Such self-righteous finger-pointing is by nature inimical to the ideas embodied by the Declaration of Independence. In other words, those who adhere most closely to the America’s founding principles are often, quite paradoxically, those at whom charges of treason by those in power are levelled. The United States does not have a monopoly on hypocrisy, of course, but it is one area in which it surely excels. Here Zinn employs quotes by Twain and the playwright Eugene O’Neill – Langston Hughes and Joseph Heller also crop up later on – to point out that this is not a necessarily new development and that it has been, and should continue to be, the duty of the artist-as-outsider to cry bullshit when he sees it. (Unfortunately, in what I think to be an important aside, many of today’s artists are too preoccupied with producing bullshit of their own to notice its presence elsewhere.) What Zinn is asking for above all is reflection and self-questioning, activities that have been in relatively scarce supply since the World Trade Center collapsed into clouds of dust that contained more fear per handful than T.S. Eliot could have imagined.
Zinn’s tone is not the get-off-your-fat-ass-and-effect-a-change inspirational sort, nor is his message especially revelatory. The idea that opposition, even if it is not always in the right, is essential for the health of a democracy and that biased, jingoistic propaganda is part and parcel of any war effort, is nothing that will strike Ink 19 readers as profound. But this artist of history is leading by example; in doing so he has developed a clear, informative and thoroughly engaging argument that American citizens (true patriots, you might say) who disapprove of their country’s absurd unilateralism can rally behind.
If the War on Terror strikes you as simplistic, potentially disastrous solution to a complex problem, you will no doubt enjoy Artists in a Time of War. Zinn willl probably echo more than a few of your own thoughts and concerns. If, however, the War on Terror sounds like a balanced approach to the same complex problem, then make no mistake about it: you need to hear this disc more than anyone.