Civil obedience

About midway through my time living in Japan, I bought Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which tells American history from the side of conquest’s victims instead of its victors.

When I’d finished reading it, I set it aside and classified it as representing interesting perspectives. That was the extent of my engagement with its material: “interesting perspectives.” I left my copy of the book in Japan, and thought little of it afterward.

I just checked out the audiobook from my library. I’m still very early in, but it’s discomfiting to approach the same text with such different understandings of the world. 

2005 me thought the book interesting, but failed to engage with it in any meaningful way. 2017 me looks back and wishes my 2005 self had tried just a little harder to look beyond the moments captured to instead explore the themes, patterns, and power dynamics they reflected.

None of this is “just history.” History is the foundation on which the present continues to be built; its cruelties and assumptions are perpetrated today, as long as people broadly assume that then was then, now is now, and there’s not much understanding then can do to improve now.

While I am still a small part of the American problem, I’m nevertheless heartened–in one regard–to compare these two points in time. Now, at least, I recognize that there is a problem.

With any luck, 2029 me will have gone yet another step beyond, having moved from seeing the problem to effectively working to change it.

So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don’t think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.

And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them.

Howard Zinn

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Author: Deborah the Closet Monster

Grew up dirt poor, found myself a comfy bubble, and forgot poverty. Now trying to forget bubbles and end poverty.

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