Matt Damon Reads Howard Zinn’s “The Problem is Civil Obedience,” a Call for Americans to Take Action

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.

Read Zin­n’s full remarks here and see new per­for­mances from this year’s Voic­es of a Peo­ple’s His­to­ry at their web­site.

You can find Zin­n’s essay pub­lished in the col­lec­tion: The Zinn Read­er: Writ­ings on Dis­obe­di­ence and Democ­ra­cy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear 21 Hours of Lec­tures & Talks by Howard Zinn, Author of the Best­selling A People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States

Howard Zinn’s “What the Class­room Didn’t Teach Me About the Amer­i­can Empire”: An Illus­trat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by Vig­go Mortensen

Hen­ry David Thore­au on When Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence and Resis­tance Are Jus­ti­fied (1849)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Scott says:

    dis­re­gard last

  • Clifford Browne says:

    So far I like what I have read on your site. Please keep me informed on the email above .

  • Andre Sheldon says:

    The time is here for a Glob­al Move­ment of Non­vi­o­lence, For the Chil­dren (GMofNV), led by women.

    Howard Zinn wrote to me, “Your ‘Call to Women’ is excel­lent. Well writ­ten, clear, strong. No doubt women rep­re­sent non-vio­lence best.”

    The plan for a GMofNV is ready. All the mech­a­nisms are in place and the cat­a­lyst to imple­ment the plan is pre­pared. All that is need­ed is one last step — lead­er­ship.

    A com­plete “STRATEGY” is pre­pared to enlist the lead­ers. Please ask MATT DAMON to con­tact Andre as soon as pos­si­ble.

    MLK said in his Beyond Viet­nam speech, “Over the bleached bones and jum­bled residues of numer­ous civ­i­liza­tions are writ­ten the pathet­ic words, ‘Too late.’ ”

    Peace and Love

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