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The Citizens Among Us

Science, The Public, and Social Change

August, 29 2008

By Howard Zinn
and Gabriel Matthew Schivone

Author and activist Howard Zinn was one of the speakers at a critical 
social forum held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 
Cambridge, on March 3, 4, and 8, 1969, in which MIT students and 
scientists had joined together and organized a research stoppage to 
protest the unexampled levels of U.S. government violence in 
Southeast Asia.  The event known as "March 4" included some of the 
world's most eminent and influential scientists coming together to 
make what they called a "practical and symbolic" gesture of halting 
their research activities to discuss the misuse of science in world 
affairs, particularly the relationship of American science-and the 
shared responsibility of American scientists-with the deaths of 
hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam.
           Together with a powerful invocation (known as the March 4 
Manifesto, signed by 48 MIT faculty) having been written for the 
event, addressed to the academic community and the public at large, 
the activities of March 4 (including several panels on engrossing 
subjects as intellectual responsibility and the impending perils of 
weapons of mass destruction) were organized into recognizing the 
"dangers already unleashed"-those which presented "a major threat to 
the existence" of humanity-while providing possible solutions and 
raising serious alternatives to overcome them.
           To the small group of determined organizers and concerned 
scientists, reason for their actions was self-evident: As a heavily 
bloody and calamitous war was being waged by the most powerful 
country on earth-while the majority of its academic community 
observed with relative silence-the very gesture of leading world 
intellectuals halting their professional, daily activities before the 
public and the world in order to consider the human consequences of 
their scientific work was to say, quite simply, that their role as 
human beings precedes their professional title of "scientists."
           I sat down with Professor Zinn (who had participated in one 
of the March 4 panels entitled "The Academic Community and 
Governmental Power") in his office at Boston University on Wednesday, 
July 23, 2008, to discuss some of the issues.  (This dialogue is part 
of an ongoing collection of interviews and essays on the subject of 
March 4 being organized for publication.  Note: Parts of the text 
have been expanded after follow-up correspondence between the 
authors.)

Science and War: A Macabre Dance

GMS:  Let's start with the second resolution of the March 4 
Manifesto: "To devise means for turning research applications away 
from their present emphasis on military technology toward the 
solution of pressing social and environmental problems."  Would you 
explain the importance of this idea of scientific reconversion?

ZINN:  It's been a long-standing problem of science being used for 
destruction or for construction.  It goes back to Hiroshima and 
Nagasaki-it goes back to the atomic bomb.  In fact, that probably was 
the first really dramatic instance of the use of the latest 
scientific knowledge to kill human beings.  And the development of 
modern weapons technology-the atomic bomb and other weaponry-all that 
has become much, much more important in recent years as war has 
become more technological, and as the scientists have become more 
important in the making of war.  So I would say that issue, which was 
put forward in the March 4 Manifesto, is even more important today. 
At that time, it was important because the war in Vietnam was going 
on, and there was a direct connection between science used for 
military purposes and the deaths of people in Vietnam.

What has been, and is, the relationship of American science and 
scientists with the State throughout history until today?

Well, until World War II, I don't think the relationship between 
science and government was a particularly critical one.  Now, sure, 
we had Alfred Nobel creating dynamite and therefore creating the 
possibility of weapons, bombs that used dynamite.  In other words, 
there was always a scientific component to modern war.  I mean, you 
can argue that as soon as guns became used, science became involved 
in their manufacture-rifles, machine guns, artillery.  So, yes, 
there's always been this connection.  But it wasn't until World War 
II, in as I said before, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki that this 
relationship between science and government took an enormous leap 
forward.  Or, you might say, backward .  And then science became 
inextricably intertwined with governmental policy-and that's the way 
it's been ever since.

What are some examples of scientists and intellectuals engaging their 
support of various war efforts?

  In the First World War, intellectuals (who had first declared 
themselves against war) rushed to support the war, carried away by 
government propaganda against the Germans.  John Dewey, Clarence 
Darrow, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, lent their names and their 
prestige to the war effort.  Historians organized a committee to put 
out pamphlets in support of the war.

In the Second World War, virtually all intellectuals supported the 
war.  (Dwight MacDonald and a small group of Trotskyists were 
exceptions, of course.)

The most dramatic example of scientists involved in WWII was the 
Manhattan Project in which the greatest scientists in the nation and 
scientist-refugees from other countries joined to produce the atomic 
bombs which obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  There was only one 
of these mobilized scientists-Joseph Rotblat-who quit the project 
rather than work on the bomb.  Other scientists developed radar and 
the Norden bombsight.

Prior to the Korean War, scientists worked on the creation of napalm 
which was used in that war and again in Vietnam.  In fact, the Dow 
Chemical Company became the target of anti-War protesters because of 
its role in producing napalm used in Vietnam.

A number of leading intellectuals rushed to support the invasion of 
Iraq in 2003, reflected in the pro-War editorials of the major 
newspapers-the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street 
Journal.

Objectivity and American Science: Image and Reality

Do you see any differences in the social sciences and the hard 
sciences concerning what some people call ideological control?  Do 
you find one to be more or less prone to such constraints on 
themselves or their work than the other?

  Let's put it this way: I think the difference between the hard 
sciences and the soft sciences is very much exaggerated.  And there's 
a kind of traditional notion that scientists are less prone to 
subjectivity and ideology than social scientists-the historians and 
economists, and so on.  But I think that's a delusion, and I think 
that, actually, the same problems apply to both of them.

In the case of scientists, there's more likely to be self-deception 
about objectivity.  I think that social scientists are probably more 
ready to accept the fact that they're not objective, but with 
scientists-just the very nature of science with quantitative data and 
experiment sort of creates the illusion of being objective and being 
free from political and ideological influences.  But I would argue 
that it is an illusion and that, therefore, both hard and soft 
sciences are much closer together in that respect than most people 
think.

What do you think about using scientific method regarding human 
affairs? In other words, if one has such scientific training as we 
find in university, does it make it easier to analyze certain 
catastrophic situations like the Iraq War?  For example, do you find 
it helpful as a historian using such quantitative and qualitative 
methods?

I'm very suspicious of the use of so-called "scientific data" to come 
to moral conclusions.  For instance, in the arena of political 
science: Political scientists in the last few decades prided 
themselves in becoming more scientific.  In fact, what used to be 
called "departments of government" soon changed their names to 
"departments of political science."  And the word "science" brought 
the so-called "political scientists" closer to the illusion that hard 
scientists have.  And the fact that they were using quantitative data 
and statistical measurement made them think that they therefore were 
coming to more accurate conclusions about the world than they had 
before.  I don't think that's true because I think the most important 
decisions are moral decisions.  And no amount of quantitative data 
can really lead you to a correct decision on moral issues.  And, in 
fact, they can deflect you from making moral decisions by sort of 
deceiving you about the scientific nature of what you are studying. 
So, I'm very dubious that using so-called scientific and quantitative 
methods brings you any closer to solving crucial moral issues.

The first point of the Manifesto, "to initiate a critical and 
continuing examination of governmental policy in areas where science 
and technology are of actual or potential significance", stuck out to 
me differently than the others.  It seems very basic to simply 
encourage critical thinking, especially among "educated" people who, 
it's generally assumed, have been taught critical inquiry from an 
early age.  Is this always the case?  It seems always assumed that 
scientists are always objective, critical thinkers.

Yeah, well, of course, that's one of the myths of science: that 
science is above and beyond ideology and politics.  And, of course, 
science has always been tied into ideology and politics-certainly 
more and more in these sixty years or so since World War II.  And I 
think it's very important for scientists to recognize that there's no 
such thing as neutrality in science; that your science has an effect 
on society in one direction or another. And if you hide that fact 
from yourself, well, you're deceiving yourself and deceiving others 
about the role of science in society.

Here's an interesting example from the University of Arizona, in my 
home town of Tucson: There's a yearly memo proclaimed and circulated 
by the president of the university (the one most recently appointed 
being Robert N. Shelton) addressed to the campus community, very 
strictly barring all "political activity" for university employees. 
It encourages UA faculty and staff not to engage at all in political 
activity while on "university time" or with "university resources," 
but rather to do be political if they so wish-"on their own time." 
Now, although it is explicitly stated the memorandum is enforced to 
protect state funding and the outcome of elections, one of the 
implications is that, in order to be effectively objective in their 
scientific professions, and to be good scholars, there must be a 
calling for disinterested scholarship in the face or shadow of 
political matters.

This is the president of the University of Arizona?

Yeah.

Yeah, well, this just shows how little wisdom you need to become the 
president of a university.  Obviously this president has no 
understanding of the fact that neutrality is impossible, that 
objectivity is a myth.  All intellectual work has a moral component 
and works either on behalf of the human race or against it.  And, in 
fact, to claim neutrality and to dissociate yourself from 
participation in the world of ideas and the ideological and real 
conflicts in the world is really to permit the world to go on as it 
was.  In other words, to refuse to intervene-to refuse to use your 
energy, your talent, your knowledge for the betterment of the human 
race-means that you are allowing those people who have been in charge 
of policy to continue in their ways.  It means that they can go in 
their ways unimpeded.  They can do whatever they want because, 
essentially, you have withdrawn an enormous number of people who have 
potential power-brain power, political power-you've withdrawn them 
from the political arena.  And you've left the field to the so-called 
"experts"-who are not experts at all-and whose continued dominance is 
actually a danger to the human race.

It is ironic that the university, which provides itself on its 
intellectual superiority, should discourage faculty and students from 
using their knowledge and their analytical abilities, their moral 
judgment to participate in the social struggles outside the 
university.  In other words, the university then becomes the servant 
of the dominant powers in society, who prefer that knowledge be used 
only to maintain the status quo, to train young people to take their 
obedient places in the existing society rather than challenging the 
people in power.

The Citizens Among Us

Now, is it possible to drop out of this university system, as some 
have suggested, wanting nothing to do with it or its money because of 
the sheer amount of war collaboration?  If so, is this necessarily 
the way to go, in your opinion?

Well, of course it's possible to drop out of the system.  It's 
possible to say goodbye.  But it's very, very difficult because 
peoples' livelihoods, peoples' economic security is very tied up with 
their jobs.  And so giving up your job becomes a very serious 
personal hindrance to the security of yourself and your family.  That 
makes it very difficult to drop out.

Now, there are scientists who have refused to work on projects. There 
were a few scientists who refused to work on the atomic bomb.  Joseph 
Rotblat, as I said before, left the Manhattan Project-he didn't want 
to work on the bomb.  And there've been other scientists who have 
refused to work on military-related technology but they do it at 
risk.  They risk their jobs, their livelihoods.  In other words, it's 
possible to do it, but it's difficult.

Point Five of the Manifesto reads: "To explore the feasibility of 
organizing scientists and engineers so that their desire for a more 
humane and civilized world can be translated into effective political 
action."  How might an organized scholarship-scientists organizing 
themselves around such issues as dissent and 
non-participation-benefit society?

Well, a very important factor in making it possible for scientists to 
move from military projects to civilian projects is having the 
support of your colleagues.  That's why the growth of organizations 
like the Union of Concerned Scientists or the organization of the 
atomic scientists who put out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 
is important as a support for individuals who want to follow their 
consciences rather than their financial success and careers.  So, 
it's still difficult, but it seems to me that when you get together 
with other people and you decide collectively that you are going to 
oppose the use of science for military purposes it becomes easier. 
And we have examples like that.

We have the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear 
War.  There are thousands of physicians of the IPPNW, and they 
certainly have sort of made it a principle for them to speak out 
publicly.  And they've been successful-not successful enough, 
obviously, but successful-in educating the public of the dangers of 
nuclear warfare.

I remember when the IPPNW came out with its study-this was in the 
1980s-of what the effects would be on the Boston area from a nuclear 
blast.  Well, it went into great and horrifying detail and, you know, 
I think that was instructive and educational for a lot of people. 
So, there's great work that can be done by people in the sciences who 
are organized in that way.

Why do you think that the possibility of abolishing war is so 
difficult for people to understand?

Well, one reason it is so difficult is that there's a tendency to 
believe that what has happened in the past must inevitably continue 
to happen in the present and future.  In other words, since the 
history of humankind, there's been a history of repeated wars, almost 
continuous warfare.  It's very hard for people to accept the fact 
that this might come to an end.  Indeed, Tuberculosis was a scourge 
all through the history of humankind and it was hard for people to 
accept the fact that it actually might be done away with.  The 
history of warfare likewise has made it difficult for people to 
accept the fact that there could be a break with history and war 
could be abolished.  That's one reason.

Another reason is that there are certain wars that have been imbued 
with a grandeur and nobility, that makes people think that war can be 
useful, important, even necessary for valid human purposes.  I'm 
speaking particularly about World War II.

After all the disillusionment that followed World War I, World War II 
made war acceptable again because it was a war against this great 
evil-fascism.  And it is still today considered "the good war."  It 
is still today presented as the example of "the just war."  And while 
I seriously question this characterization of World War II, there is 
no doubt that its reputation has imbedded in people's minds the idea 
that it is possible to have a "good war", a "just war."  I think that 
is a great obstacle to people accepting the idea of the abolition of 
war.

Going off your earlier comment on "experts", a word that's thrown 
around a lot in our society-I hear it a lot especially in 
university-is the word "professionalism."  It's like a rule of 
propriety to people in various professions such as cooks, cleaners, 
retail and food service, artists, teachers, lawyers, doctors, etc, to 
"be professional", and to know their place and not involve themselves 
in matters that are deemed "political."

Yeah, well, this is a recipe for disaster.  That is, to have everyone 
in society work only within their profession, within their job. Not 
to look outside the boundaries of their job means to withdraw as a 
citizen.  It's actually the opposite of democracy.  Democracy 
requires the full participation of all citizens, whatever their 
occupation, whatever they do, whether they're dishwashers, or college 
professors, or scientists.  For them to not devote some part of their 
lives to examining the larger society in which they work is to really 
drop out of the social structure and allow a small number of 
powerful, political leaders to do what they want, 
uninhibited-uninhibited because there's no opposition, because 
everybody in society is paying attention only to their profession, 
essentially neutered, essentially helpless.  So, as I said, this is 
the opposite of democracy which requires the full participation of 
everybody in the political process of decision-making.

You've often mentioned an interesting quote from philosopher 
Jean-Jacques Rousseau about professionalism.

Rousseau wrote: "We have physicists, geometricians, chemists, 
astronomers, poets, musicians and painters in plenty, but we have no 
longer a citizen among us."  He was pointing to the specialization in 
modern times, in which people were divided into professional groups 
who concentrated their attention on their narrow specialties, leaving 
the important decisions in society-war and peace, wealth and 
poverty-to be made by professional politicians.  This was a surrender 
of moral responsibility by people who concentrated on becoming 
"successful" in their own field, and not risking their safety and 
economic security by entering the arena of social struggle and moral 
decisions.

Tying into our discussion: what do you think of the notion sometimes 
referred to as the "responsibility of the intellectual", that is, the 
more privilege you have in society, the more opportunity and choices 
you have and, therefore, the more responsible you are for the 
atrocities of your own government, since you are more able to speak 
out against them?

That is an interesting point.  Intellectuals have a respected place 
in society, and have the ability to communicate, through writing and 
speaking, to the larger public.  Therefore, they have a moral 
responsibility to use this special power on behalf of humane values, 
on behalf of peace and justice.  Their failure to do so is therefore 
especially to be condemned.

Scientists pride themselves on the ability to make pure science and 
come to exact scientific conclusions, but it's also often assumed 
therefore that these sort of people-people with $100,000 educations, 
degrees and technical specialties-are better equipped than others to 
act as experts or to reveal gospel and come to moral conclusions 
regarding human affairs.  Do you agree?  I mean, what do you think 
people need, then, to be able to make moral decisions, if not some 
kind of "special" credentials? 

Sheer knowledge, whether of science, history, or any of the 
disciplines, does not make anyone more capable of making moral 
decisions, which only require common sense, common decency, 
compassion-all of which are traits possessed by all human beings, 
regardless of how much "education" they have had.

During the Vietnam War, for instance, all surveys showed that the 
people with the most education were most likely to support the 
government in that immoral war, and people with only a high school 
education were more likely to oppose the war.

Students and Social Struggle

During the Vietnam War it was students who originally envisioned and 
organized the March 4 event.  What importance do the issues we've 
been discussing today have on young people and students?

I would argue that there is nothing more important that an education 
can do than to turn the student away from the narrow confines of 
material success in the present society.  That is, to turn the 
student away from merely becoming a cog in the machinery of current 
society and have the student think in broader terms of social justice 
and about creating a better world.

Unfortunately, our education system is geared to prepare young people 
to become successful within the confines of the present society.  It 
doesn't prepare them to question this present society, to ask if 
fundamental change is needed.  And so I believe the most important 
thing education can do is to take the students out of this narrow 
concern with learning what they need to be successful in their 
profession and make them aware that the most important thing they can 
do in their lives is to play a role in creating a better society, 
whether it's stopping war, or ending racial inequality, or ending 
economic inequality.  This is the most important thing that education 
can do.  And I think our most wise of educators-our philosophers of 
education, like John Dewey-have recognized this as the critical 
problem of education.

In your speech at March 4 you spoke of the young Harvard and MIT 
students, who, along with other classes of people, became enthralled 
by the fervor of the war effort during the First World War and 
eagerly joined the army under slogans like the one in the ironic 
mural in the Widener Library at Harvard that reads, "Happy is he who 
in one embrace clasps death and victory."  However, you noted that 
things had changed for the young students of MIT and Harvard during 
the Vietnam War who were obstreperous and angry at the government. 
It's interesting to me that young people like Harvard & MIT kids 
possess often times debilitating privileges of race and affluence yet 
there are examples of these kind of students placing themselves at 
the barricades, as it were, sacrificing as much as others who are 
more recognizably oppressed.  What do you think accounts for this?

I think it's because young people have an inherent desire to do 
something important in society.  And, therefore, if that desire 
becomes strong enough it overcomes whatever in their background might 
induce them to play a passive role.  And so I'm not surprised that 
students at Harvard and MIT would become active.

But, of course, during the Vietnam War it's very hard to make a 
distinction between elite institutions and ordinary colleges in terms 
of student activism.  Because, in the case of the Vietnam War, 
student activism took place all through the spectrum of universities 
from the most prestigious to the least prestigious.  Sure, students 
at Harvard and MIT were active, but students at Kent State, just an 
ordinary state university, were very, very active.  It's just that 
students at Harvard and MIT, when they became active, their activity 
was especially noticeable because of the prestige of their 
universities.  But, in fact, there was no particular superiority of 
Harvard and MIT in terms of activism when you looked at activism 
around the country.

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress

Also in your speech at March 4 you suggested developing independent 
sources of power to counter the use of force and deception by 
governments. You stated that, "in a society held together by 
falsehood, knowledge is an especially important form of power." But 
how can knowledge overwhelm brute force when it comes down to it?

Well, knowledge can't, by itself, overwhelm brute force.  It's only 
when that knowledge is translated into organization and mobilization, 
and that knowledge is reaching large numbers of people who then can 
resist the power of government, or corporations, or the military.  I 
mean, if you are an ordinary worker, and you have the knowledge that 
you are being exploited as a worker, that obviously isn't enough. 
But if there are enough people in the workplace who have this 
knowledge and then transform what they know into organizing 
themselves, then they can act in unison and they can create a power 
which the most powerful corporation cannot overcome.  Essentially, 
corporations and governments depend on an obedient population to 
maintain their power.  If that population-that is, the people who 
work for the corporation, the citizens of the government, the 
soldiers in the military-withholds its support, stops cooperating, 
then the supposed all-powerful corporation, government, military 
become helpless.  So it's a matter of transforming that knowledge 
into organized power.

The main portion of this interview was conducted in Professor Zinn's 
office at Boston University on July 23, 2008.

*A most especial thanks is extended to Mary E. Barnes for her 
invaluable aid as an editor.

Howard Zinn is an artist, playwright, historian, social activist, and 
Professor Emeritus of Boston University.  He is author of three 
plays, as well as many numerous books and articles on history and 
social justice including the landmark A People's History of the 
United States and his most recent book, A Power Governments Cannot 
Suppress (City Lights, 2006).

Gabriel Matthew Schivone is an editor of Days Beyond Recall 
Alternative Media and Literary Journal. His articles, having been 
translated into multiple languages, have appeared in numerous 
journals such as Z Magazine, Counterpunch and the Monthly Review, as 
well as Contre Info (France), and Caminos (Cuba). He is most recently 
the recipient of the 2007 Frederica Hearst Prize for Lyrical Poetry. 
He is also an active member of the University of Arizona chapter of 
Amnesty International, Voices of Opposition (to War, Racism and 
Oppression), Students Organized for Animal Rights, Sweatshop-Free 
Coalition, and Dry River Radical Resource Center.  He can be reached 
at: [log in to unmask] and [log in to unmask]