Say, for example, that a gang of obscenely rich mercenaries with questionable ties and histories had taken power with the intent to destroy institutions so they could loot the country, further impoverish and disempower the citizenry, and prosecute, imprison, and demonize dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities. Such a scenario would cry out, one might think, for civil action on a never-before-seen scale. Millions, one might imagine, would either storm the castle or refuse to obey the commands of their new rulers. We might describe this situation as a topsy-turvy turn of events, should, say, such an awful thing come to pass.
Topsy-turvy is exactly the phrase Howard Zinn used in his characterization of the U.S. during the Vietnam War, when he saw a situation like the one above, one that had also obtained, he said, in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia.
“I start,” he said, opening a debate, in 1970, at Johns Hopkins University with philosopher Charles Frankel on the question of civil disobedience,
from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.
And with this preamble, which you can hear read by Matt Damon in the video above, the historian and activist began to make his case that civil disobedience “is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience.”
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. Even in Stalin’s Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people.
But “America is different” than other world empires, says Zinn, anticipating the usual claims of exceptionalism. No, he says, it isn’t. “It is not that special. It really isn’t.” Later in his speech, Zinn calls the “voting process” a “sham.”
Totalitarian states love voting. You get people to the polls and they register their approval. I know there is a difference—they have one party and we have two parties. We have one more party than they have, you see.
What is called for, he argued, is not a return to the past nor a rejiggering of the political machinery, but a political consciousness that recognizes common struggles across borders:
People in all countries need the spirit of disobedience to the state, which is not a metaphysical thing but a thing of force and wealth. And we need a kind of declaration of interdependence among people in all countries of the world who are striving for the same thing.
Damon’s reading took place during the 2012 performance in Voices of a People’s History, a now-yearly event that since 2003 has dramatized “the extraordinary history of ordinary people who built the movements that made the United States what it is today, ending slavery and Jim Crow, protesting war and the genocide of Native Americans, creating unions and the eight hour work day, advancing women’s rights and gay liberation, and struggling to right wrongs of the day.”
The words of Howard Zinn feature prominently in all these events, and “The Problem is Civil Obedience”—which was published as an essay two years after the 1970 debate—has proven a popular choice. In 2004 at the second Voices of a People’s History, Wallace Shawn (above) read the text, and Zinn himself was in attendance. Shawn is best known for his comic turns in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, and Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, and he can’t help but bring his wry humor to the reading simply by sounding like himself.
In another reading of Zinn’s speech, Grey’s Anatomy actor and outspoken activist Jesse Williams takes on the text, introduced by a recording of the 2004 introduction to Shawn’s reading. These three different readings from three very different actors and personalities all have one thing in common: their audiences all seem to recognize the situation Zinn described in 1970 as entirely relevant to their own in 2004, 2012, 2014, and… perhaps, also in 2017.
You can find Zinn’s essay published in the collection: The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy.