The Question Period in Kalamazoo

I had been invited to give a talk in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was the night of the final televised presidential debate of the 1992 campaign, and to my surprise (did they need a break from election madness?) there were several hundred people in the audience. This was the quincentennial year of the Columbus landing in the Western Hemisphere and I was speaking on “The Legacy of Columbus, 1492–1992.”

Ten years earlier, in the very first pages of my book A People’s History of the United States, I had written about Columbus in a way that startled readers. They, like me, had learned in elementary school (an account never contradicted, however far their education continued) that Columbus was one of the great heroes of world history, to be admired for his daring feat of imagination and courage. In my account, I acknowledged that he was an intrepid sailor, but also pointed out (based on his own journal and the reports of many eyewitnesses) that he was vicious in his treatment of the gentle Arawak Indians who greeted his arrival in this hemisphere. He enslaved them, tortured them, murdered them—all in the pursuit of wealth. He represented, I suggested, the worst values of Western civilization: greed, violence, exploitation, racism, conquest, hypocrisy (he claimed to be a devout Christian).

The success of A People’s History took both me and my publisher by surprise. In its first decade it went through twenty-four printings, sold three hundred thousand copies, was nominated for an American Book Award, and was published in Great Britain and Japan. I began to get letters from all over the country, and a large proportion of them were in excited reaction to my opening chapter on Columbus.

Most of the letters thanked me for telling an untold story. A few were skeptical and indignant. One high school student in Oregon, assigned my book by his teacher, wrote: “You’ve said that you have gained a lot of this information from Columbus’ own journal. I am wondering if there is such a journal, and if so, why isn’t it part of our history? Why isn’t any of what you say in my history book?” A mother in California, looking into a copy of A People’s History her daughter had brought home from school, became enraged and demanded that the school board investigate the teacher who used my book in her classes.

It became clear that the problem (yes, I represented a problem) was not just my irreverence toward Columbus, but my whole approach to American history. In A People’s History, I insisted, as one reviewer put it, on “a reversal of perspective, a reshuffling of heroes and villains.” The Founding Fathers were not just ingenious organizers of a new nation (though they certainly were that) but also rich white slaveholders, merchants, bondholders, fearful of lower-class rebellion, or as James Madison put it, of “an equal division ofproperty.” Our military heroes—Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt—were racists, Indian-killers, war-lovers, imperialists. Our most liberal presidents—Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy—were more concerned with political power and national aggrandizement than with the rights of nonwhite people.

My heroes were the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion, the black abolitionists who violated the law to free their brothers and sisters, the people who went to prison for opposing World War I, the workers who went on strike against powerful corporations, defying police and militia, the Vietnam veterans who spoke out against the war, the women who demanded equality in all aspects of life.

There were historians and teachers of history who welcomed my book. A number of people, though, were upset; to them I was clearly out of order. If there were criminal penalties I might have been charged with “assault with a deadly weapon—a book,” or “disorderly conduct—making unseemly noises in an exclusive club,” or “trespassing—on the sacred domain of historiographical tradition.”

To some people, not only was my book out of order, my whole life was out of order—there was something unpatriotic, subversive, dangerous, in my criticism of so much that went on in this society. During the Gulf War of 1991, I gave a talk to a high school assembly in Massachusetts, at a private school where the students came from affluent families and were said to be “95 percent in favor of the war.” I spoke my mind and to my surprise got a great round of applause. But in a classroom afterward, in a meeting with a small group of the students, a girl who had been staring at me with obvious hostility throughout the discussion suddenly spoke up, her voice registering her anger: “Why do you live in this country?”

I felt a pang. It was a question I knew people often had, even when it went unspoken. It was the issue of patriotism, of loyalty to one’s country, which arises again and again, whether someone is criticizing foreign policy, or evading military service, or refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag.

I tried to explain that my love was for the country, for the people, not for whatever government happened to be in power. To believe in democracy was to believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence—that government is an artificial creation, established by the people to defend the equal right of everyone to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I interpreted “everyone” to include men, women, and children all over the world, who have a right to life not to be taken away by their own government or by ours.

When a government betrays those democratic principles, it is being unpatriotic. A love of democracy would then require opposing your government. It would require being “out of order.”

The publication of A People’s History led to requests from around the country for me to speak. And so there I was in Kalamazoo that evening in 1992, speaking about why telling the truth about Columbus is important for us today. I was really not interested in Columbus himself, but in the issues raised by his interaction with the native Americans: Is it possible for people, overcoming history, to live together with equality, with dignity, today?

At the end of my talk, someone asked a question which has been put to me many times in different ways. “Given the depressing news of what is happening in the world, you seem surprisingly optimistic. What gives you hope?”

I attempted an answer. I said I could understand being depressed by the state of the world, but the questioner had caught my mood accurately. To him and to others, mine seemed an absurdly cheerful approach to a violent and unjust world. But to me what is often disdained as romantic idealism, as wishful thinking, is justified if it prompts action to fulfill those wishes, to bring to life those ideals.

The willingness to undertake such action cannot be based on certainties, but on those possibilities glimpsed in a reading of history different from the customary painful recounting of human cruelties. In such a reading we can find not only war but resistance to war, not only injustice but rebellion against injustice, not only selfishness but self-sacrifice, not only silence in the face of tyranny but defiance, not only callousness but compassion.

Human beings show a broad spectrum of qualities, but it is the worst of these that are usually emphasized, and the result, too often, is to dishearten us, diminish our spirit. And yet, historically, that spirit refuses to surrender. History is full of instances where people, against enormous odds, have come together to struggle for liberty and justice, and have won—not often enough, of course, but enough to suggest how much more is possible.

The essential ingredients of these struggles for justice are human beings who, if only for a moment, if only while beset with fears, step out of line and do something, however small. And even the smallest, most unheroic of acts adds to the store of kindling that may be ignited by some surprising circumstance into tumultuous change.

Individual people are the necessary elements, and my life has been full of such people, ordinary and extraordinary, whose very existence has given me hope. Indeed, the people there in that audience in Kalamazoo, clearly concerned with the world beyond the election returns, were living proof of possibilities for change in this difficult world.

Though I didn’t say so to my last questioner, I had met such people that evening, in that city. At dinner before my talk I was with the campus parish priest, a man built like a football linebacker, which in fact he had been years before. I asked him the question I often ask people I like: “How did you come by the peculiar ideas you now have?”

His was a one-word answer, the same given by so many: “Vietnam.” To life-probing questions there seems so often to be a one-word answer: Auschwitz … Hungary … Attica. Vietnam. The priest had served there as a chaplain. His commanding officer was Colonel George Patton III. A true son of his father, Patton liked to talk of his soldiers as “darn good killers,” hesitating to use the word “damn” but not the word “killers.” Patton ordered the chaplain to carry a pistol while in the combat zone. The chaplain refused, and despite threats, continued to refuse. He came out of Vietnam against not just that war but all wars. And now he was traveling back and forth to El Salvador to help people struggling against death squads and poverty.

Also at dinner was a young teacher of sociology at Michigan State University. Raised in Ohio by working-class parents, he too had come to oppose the war in Vietnam. Now he taught criminology, doing research not about robbers and muggers, but about high crime, about government officials and corporate executives whose victims were not individuals but the whole of society.

It’s remarkable how much history there is in any small group. There was also at our table a young woman, a recent university graduate, who was entering nursing school so that she could be of use to villagers in Central America. I envied her. As one of the many who write, speak, teach, practice law, preach, whose contribution to society is so indirect, so uncertain, I thought of those who give immediate help—the carpenters, the nurses, the farmers, the school bus drivers, the mothers. I remembered the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who wrote a poem about his lifelong wish that he could do something useful with his hands, that he could make a broom, just a broom.

I didn’t say any of this to my last questioner in Kalamazoo. In fact, to really answer him I would have had to say much more about why I was so curiously hopeful in the face of the world as we know it. I would have had to go back over my life.

I would have to tell about going to work in a shipyard at the age of eighteen and spending three years working on the docks, in the cold and heat, amid deafening noise and poisonous fumes, building battleships and landing ships in the early years of the Second World War.

I would have to tell about enlisting in the Air Force at twenty-one, being trained as a bombardier, flying combat missions in Europe, and later asking myself troubling questions about what I had done in the war.

And about getting married, becoming a father, going to college under the G.I. Bill while loading trucks in a warehouse, with my wife working and our two children in a charity day-care center, and all of us living in a low-income housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

And about getting my Ph.D. from Columbia and my first real teaching job (I had a number of unreal teaching jobs), going to live and teach in a black community in the Deep South for seven years. And about the students at Spelman College who one day decided to climb over a symbolic and actual stone wall surrounding the campus to make history in the early years of the civil rights movement.

And about my experiences in that movement, in Atlanta, in Albany, Georgia, and Selma, Alabama, in Hattiesburg and Jackson and Greenwood, Mississippi.

I would have to tell about moving north to teach in Boston, and joining the protests against the war in Vietnam, and being arrested a half-dozen times (the official language of the charges was always interesting: “sauntering and loitering,” “disorderly conduct,” “failure to quit”). And traveling to Japan, and to North Vietnam, and speaking at hundreds of meetings and rallies, and helping a Catholic priest stay underground in defiance of the law.

I would have to recapture the scenes in a dozen courtrooms where I testified in the 1970s and 1980s. I would have to tell about the prisoners I have known, short-timers and lifers, and how they affected my view of imprisonment.

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in a democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the crucial issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

I would always begin a course by making it clear to my students that they would be getting my point of view, but that I would try to be fair to other points of view. I encouraged my students to disagree with me.

I didn’t pretend to an objectivity that was neither possible nor desirable. “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” I would tell them. Some were baffled by the metaphor, especially if they took it literally and tried to dissect its meaning. Others immediately saw what I meant: that events are already moving in certain deadly directions, and to be neutral means to accept that.

I never believed that I was imposing my views on blank slates, on innocent minds. My students had had a long period of political indoctrination before they arrived in my class—in the family, in high school, in the mass media. Into a marketplace so long dominated by orthodoxy I wanted only to wheel my little pushcart, offering my wares along with the others, leaving students to make their own choices.

The thousands of young people in my classes over the years gave me hope for the future. Through the seventies and the eighties, everyone outside seemed to be groaning about how “ignorant” and “passive” was the current generation of students. But listening to them, reading their journals and papers, and their reports on the community activity that was part of their assigned work, I was impressed with their sensitivity to injustice, their eagerness to be part of some good cause, their potential to change the world.

The student activism of the eighties was small in scale, but at that time there was no great national movement to join, and there were heavy economic pressures from all sides to “make good,” to “be successful,” to join the world of prosperous professionals. Still, many young people were yearning for something more, and so I did not despair. I remembered how in the fifties haughty observers talked of the “silent generation” as an immovable fact, and then, exploding that notion, came the sixties.

There’s something else, more difficult to talk about, that has been crucial to my mood—my private life. How lucky I have been to live my life with a remarkable woman whose beauty, body and soul, I see again in our children and grandchildren. Roz shared and helped, worked as a social worker and a teacher, later made more of her talents as painter and musician. She loves literature and became first editor of everything I wrote. Living with her has given me a heightened sense of what is possible in this world.

And yet I am not oblivious to the bad news we are constantly confronted with. It surrounds me, inundates me, depresses me intermittently, angers me.

I think of the poor today, so many of them in the ghettos of the nonwhite, often living a few blocks away from fabulous wealth. I think of the hypocrisy of political leaders, of the control of information through deception, through omission. And of how, all over the world, governments play on national and ethnic hatred.

I am aware of the violence of everyday life for most of the human race. All represented by the images of children. Children hungry. Children with missing limbs. The bombing of children officially reported as “collateral damage.”

As I write this, in the summer of 1993, there is a general mood of despair. The end of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union has not resulted in world peace. In the countries of the Soviet bloc there is desperation and disarray. There is a brutal war going on in the former Yugoslavia and more violence in Africa. The prosperous elite of the world finds it convenient to ignore starvation and sickness in poverty-ridden countries. The United States and other powers continue to sell arms wherever it is profitable, whatever the human costs.

In this country, the euphoria that accompanied the election in 1992 of a young and presumably progressive president has evaporated. The new political leadership of the country, like the old, seems to lack the vision, the boldness, the will, to break from the past. It maintains a huge military budget which distorts the economy and makes possible no more than puny efforts to redress the huge gap between rich and poor. Without such redress, the cities must remain riddled with violence and despair.

And there is no sign of a national movement to change this.

Only the corrective of historical perspective can lighten our gloom. Note how often in this century we have been surprised. By the sudden emergence of a people’s movement, the sudden overthrow of a tyranny, the sudden coming to life of a flame we thought extinguished. We are surprised because we have not taken notice of the quiet simmerings of indignation, of the first faint sounds of protest, of the scattered signs of resistance that, in the midst of our despair, portend the excitement of change. The isolated acts begin to join, the individual thrusts blend into organized actions, and one day, often when the situation seems most hopeless, there bursts onto the scene a movement.

We are surprised because we don’t see that beneath the surface of the present there is always the human material for change: the suppressed indignation, the common sense, the need for community, the love of children, the patience to wait for the right moment to act in concert with others. These are the elements that spring to the surface when a movement appears in history.

People are practical. They want change but feel powerless, alone, do not want to be the blade of grass that sticks up above the others and is cut down. They wait for a sign from someone else who will make the first move, or the second. And at certain times in history, there are intrepid people who take the risk that if they make that first move others will follow quickly enough to prevent their being cut down. And if we understand this, we might make that first move.

This is not a fantasy. This is how change has occurred again and again in the past, even the very recent past. We are so overwhelmed by the present, the flood of pictures and stories pouring in on us every day, drowning out this history, that it is no wonder if we lose hope.

I realize it is easier for me to feel hopeful because in many ways I have just been lucky.

Lucky, for one thing, to have escaped the circumstances of my childhood. There are memories of my father and mother, who met as immigrant factory workers, who worked hard all their lives and never got out of poverty. (I always feel some rage when I hear the voice of the arrogant and affluent: We have a wonderful system; if you work hard you will make it. How hard my parents worked. How brave they were just to keep four sons alive in the cold-water tenements of Brooklyn.)

Lucky, after stumbling around from one bad job to another, to find work that I loved. Lucky to encounter remarkable people everywhere, to have so many good friends.

And also, lucky to be alive, because my two closest Air Force friends—Joe Perry, nineteen, and Ed Plotkin, twenty-six—died in the last weeks of the war. They were my buddies in basic training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. We marched in the summer heat together. We went out on weekend passes together. We learned to fly Piper Cubs in Vermont and played basketball in Santa Ana, California, while waiting for our assignments. Then Joe went to Italy as a bombardier, Ed to the Pacific as a navigator, I to England as a bombardier. Joe and I could write to one another, and I kidded him as we who flew B-17s kidded those who flew B-24s—we called them B-Dash-Two-Crash-Fours.

The night the European war ended, my crew drove to Norwich, the main city in East Anglia, where everybody was in the streets, wild with joy, the city ablaze with lights that had been out for six years. The beer flowed, enormous quantities of fish and chips were wrapped in newspapers and handed out to everyone, people danced and shouted and hugged one another.

A few days after that, my most recent letter to Joe Perry came back to me with a penciled notation on the envelope: “Deceased”—too quick a dismissal of a friend’s life.

My crew flew our old battle-scarred B-17 back across the Atlantic, ready to continue bombing in the Pacific. Then came the news about the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and we were grateful—the war was over. (I had no idea that one day I would visit Hiroshima and meet blinded, maimed people who had survived the bomb, and that I would rethink that bombing and all the others.)

When the war ended and I was back in New York, I looked up Ed Plotkin’s wife—he had stolen out of Fort Dix the night before he was being shipped overseas, to spend a last night with her. She told me Ed crashed in the Pacific and died just before the war ended and that a child was conceived the night he went AWOL. Years later, when I was teaching in Boston, someone came up to me after a class with a note: “Ed Plotkin’s daughter wants to meet you.” We met and I told her whatever I could remember about the father she never saw.

So I feel I have been given a gift—undeserved, just luck—of almost fifty years of life. I am always aware of that. For years after the war I had a recurrent dream. Two men would be walking in front of me in the street. They would turn, and it would be Joe and Ed.

Deep in my psyche, I think, is the idea that because I was so lucky and they were not, I owe them something. Sure, I want to have some fun; I have no desire to be a martyr, though I know some and admire them. Still, I owe it to Joe and Ed not to waste my gift, to use these years well, not just for myself but for that new world we all thought was promised by the war that took their lives.

And so I have no right to despair. I insist on hope.

It is a feeling, yes. But it is not irrational. People respect feelings but still want reasons. Reasons for going on, for not surrendering, for not retreating into private luxury or private desperation. People want evidence of those possibilities in human behavior I have talked about. I have suggested that there are reasons. I believe there is evidence. But too much to give to the questioner that night in Kalamazoo. It would take a book.

So I decided to write one.



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