A Power Governments Cannot Suppress by Howard Zinn, a Companion Guide to Present-Day Life in America


A few things have given me solace in these torturous weeks. One is seeing the enormous opposition to the muslim ban from people all over the country. It’s heartwarming to see people stand up for a demonized minority. I have also found some comfort and inspiration in a series of essays written by historian Howard Zinn in the years of the Iraq war. Grouped together in a book titled A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, Zinn recollects the crimes committed by the government against the people and the oft-overlooked champions of the people. Not the figures we are told to worship like Washington or Adams: people like Douglass and Thoreau who fought for the rights of every American, not just the wealthy or the privileged, and succeeded. It’s good to know that the spirit of these Americans lives on in the protestors today.

Throughout the book, Zinn makes the distinction between the government, who all-too-often serves the interests of corporations and wealthy Americans, and the people. In a chapter on patriotism, he writes that the Declaration of Independence suggests that “a true patriotism lies in supporting the values the country is supposed to cherish: equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (p 112). This is how Zinn expresses his patriotism: by relentlessly criticizing the immoral actions of the government in history and in the present.

It’s almost comical to read about how steadfastly patriotic Zinn has been in this regard. In one chapter, he writes about how he was asked to talk at an event about the Boston Massacre in 1770, where British troops fired into an unruly crowd in Boston, killing five, but he spent the event talking about the massacres of American Indians by the armies of the U.S. (he mentions three such instances: In 1864, 1870, and 1890, in Colorado, Montana, and South Dakota, respectively). He goes on to mention the massacres of black and working class Americans in East St. Louis, IL in 1917, the Bay View Massacre in Milwaukee in 1886, the Tulsa race riot of 1921, and massacres in the Philippines, in Vietnam, in Japan, in Dresden, and even in our federal prisons. Zinn wrote about these atrocities so that the American people would never forget them, but also so they would recognize when our government seeks to commit them now under the guise of national interest. An ardent pacifist, Zinn used his knowledge of history and his own experiences as a WWII bombardier to condemn war, “the indiscriminate killing of large numbers of people” (p 196).

Reminiscent of previous administrations (like Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918, which ZInn mentions a few times), the new administration seems to equivocate dissent with being unpatriotic, implying that criticizing the actions of the president and the failures of the government is un-American. Howard Zinn doesn’t think so, and he draws his inspiration from the Declaration of Independence, “in which governments have no inherent right to exist or to rule, but deserve to do so only when they fulfill the charge given them by the people” (p 140). When the government fails to protect the civil liberties of every American (whether that American is a woman, a muslim, or someone who immigrated to the U.S as a child and is now being threatened with deportation), it is the right of every American to oppose it.

Reading the book has been fascinating, wildly depressing, and uplifting all at once. In one chapter, Zinn catalogues reports of the children murdered by the war in Afghanistan. It is almost unbearable to read, and I can only imagine how difficult it was to write. Zinn’s account of the absurdity of the war in Iraq is of value to anyone wanting to learn more about the it. His inspiring portrayal of his favorite icons, such as Thoreau and Eugene Debs, resonates with anyone interested in the struggle of working class people in America. Zinn mentions obscure historical events (obscure if your knowledge of history is limited to what you were taught in elementary and high school) casually, and so some research is necessary on the part of the reader. However, it is well worth the effort, and aids in understanding Zinn’s unshakable distrust of government. If you get a chance, pick up Zinn’s A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.

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