Chris Hedges: "Why the Feds Fear Thinkers Like Howard Zinn"

Chris Hedges has written an excellent article on the FBI’s recently released files it kept on historian Howard Zinn. Hedges points out the FBI feared Zinn not because he was a criminal (because he wasn’t) or because he advocated violence (because he didn’t) or even because he was a member of the Communist Party (which the FBI repeatedly claimed to Zinn’s repeated denials). Why, then, did the FBI really fear this nerdy historian?

Zinn… did not advocate violence or support the overthrow of the government, something he told FBI interrogators on several occasions. He was rather an example of how genuine intellectual thought is always subversive. It always challenges prevailing assumptions as well as political and economic structures. It is based on a fierce moral autonomy and personal courage and it is uniformly branded by the power elite as “political.” Zinn was a threat not because he was a violent revolutionary or a communist but because he was fearless and told the truth.

Though the FBI spied on Zinn constantly, they amazingly never found any dirt on him. Nevertheless, they still considered him a high-security risk:

At one point five agents are assigned to follow Zinn. Agents make repeated phone calls to employers, colleagues and landlords seeking information. The FBI, although Zinn is never suspected of carrying out a crime, eventually labels Zinn a high security risk. J. Edgar Hoover, who took a personal interest in Zinn’s activities, on Jan. 10, 1964, drew up a memo to include Zinn “in Reserve Index, Section A,” a classification that permitted agents to immediately arrest and detain Zinn if there was a national emergency.

Over 10,000 people lost their jobs and careers through anti-communist witch hunts:

FBI agents in November 1953 wrote up an account of a clumsy attempt to recruit Zinn as an informant, an attempt in which they admitted that Zinn “would not volunteer information” and that “additional interviews with ZINN would not turn him from his current attitude.” A year later, after another interrogation, an agent wrote that Zinn “concluded the interview by stating he would not under any circumstances testify or furnish information concerning the political opinions of others.”

While Zinn steadfastly refused to cooperate in the anti-communist witch hunts in the 1950s, principals and college administrators were busy purging classrooms of those who, like Zinn, exhibited intellectual and moral independence. The widespread dismissals of professors, elementary and high school teachers and public employees—especially social workers whose unions had advocated on behalf of their clients—were carried out quietly. The names of suspected “Reds” were handed to administrators and school officials under the FBI’s “Responsibilities Program.” It was up to the institutions, nearly all of which complied, to see that those singled out lost their jobs. There rarely were hearings. The victims did not see any purported evidence. They were usually abruptly terminated. Those on the blacklist were effectively locked out of their professions. The historian Ellen Schrecker estimates that between 10,000 and 12,000 people were blackballed through this process.

Hedges has been teaching Zinn’s People’s History of the United States to a class of prisoners, and the book truly speaks to them:

Zinn’s book is revered in my cramped [prison] classroom. It is revered because these men intimately know racism, manipulation, poverty, abuse and the lies peddled by the powerful. Zinn recorded their voices and the voices of their ancestors. They respect him for this. Zinn knew that if we do not listen to the stories of those without power, those who suffer discrimination and abuse, those who struggle for justice, we are left parroting the manufactured myths that serve the interests of the privileged. Zinn set out to write history, not myth. And he knew that when these myths implode it is the beginning of hope.

“If you were a Native American,” one of my students asked recently, “what would have been the difference between Columbus and Hitler?”

Posted by James on Wednesday, August 04, 2010