Governments are established by people to achieve certain ends, Zinn explained to a standing-room-only crowd at the Auburn Avenue Research Library Wednesday evening. When a government does not serve the people, it should be abolished, he intoned.
After a well-timed pause, the 81-year-old radical deftly poked fun at his own rabble- rousing reputation. "I didn't say that; Jefferson said it. I'd never say anything like that," he said to a burst of laughter and applause.
All right, so Zinn may not quite be at the same level on the guffaw meter as Al Franken, Bill Maher or Jon Stewart, but he proved to be a far cry from the image of the worried, painfully sincere or even somber (see Nader, Ralph) figure that Americans have come to expect of its elder liberal activists.
Even more remarkable was the fact that a scholar of Zinn's reputation could seem so relaxed and spontaneous while discussing the quagmire of Iraq deep doo-doo in which our country now finds itself.
Does Zinn know something the rest of us don't?
At both of his Atlanta appearances -- including a convocation at Spelman College, where he taught from 1956 to 1963 -- Zinn remarked that, in his speaking tour around the country, he's detected a shifting of sentiment toward the war in Iraq.
"Even though the TV news media is gung-ho for war," he said, everywhere he goes he sees people reacting to having been "bamboozled" by the Bush administration.
After his Spelman talk before more than 600 students and visitors, Zinn told CL he's heartened that middle America seems to have woken up to the damage that's been caused by the Bushies' imperialist agenda.
"So many people are catching on who hadn't been part of the traditional left," he said.
It's possible that Zinn's perception could be skewed by the understandably small turnout of Fox News fans at his appearances. But his conclusion is bolstered by the feeling that his message is appealing to more than just ex-hippies, neo-socialists and those seeking autographed copies of his watershed tome, A People's History of the United States.
Along with the usual crowd of threadbare activists and leftist professor types who showed up for the Oct. 22 event in a too-small library meeting hall were a surprising number of high school and college students.
Of course, the Spelman event -- overflowing into four classrooms with closed-circuit hookup -- was attended almost "exclusively by students; many were there for class credit, but many others seemed genuinely interested in hearing a political perspective they aren't likely to get from "World News Tonight."
An Army flier who flew bombing raids "during World War II, Zinn said he decided, after seeing the devastation caused in Europe and Japan, that war is never justified -- and "is often waged for reasons other than those given to the public.
Zinn didn't discuss whether U.S. troops should pull out of Iraq, an issue that brought tens of thousands of war protesters to the streets in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and other cities over the weekend.
The applause that greeted parts of Zinn's unscripted talk clearly showed that the old guy at the microphone was not viewed simply as a relic from a distant past who's offering out-of-touch abstractions.
"If you don't know the history of American foreign policy, it's like you were born yesterday," Zinn told the packed auditorium. "If someone tells you we need to go to war, you might just believe him."
In addition to honing our skepticism, "We should all be insubordinate," he said, referring to the reason he was unceremoniously fired from Spelman in 1963.
Back then, he said, he defied college administrators by encouraging his students to become active in the Civil Rights Movement. Last week, Zinn likewise urged his listeners to get involved, to not be afraid to start small, and to not be intimidated by the heroic stature now accorded to '60s radicals like himself.
It will be interesting in coming years to see if the doctor's prescription is taken to heart.
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