Tag Archives: Barry Crimmins

Barry Crimmins: Call Him Lucky

1 Mar




Barry Crimmins  (circa  2001) Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

(Originally published: May 21, 2001)

 In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I consider Barry Crimmins, social satirist, political parodist & activist, universal commentator, a friend and brother-in-arms in the struggle to promote social justice here and around the world and in the battle against the tyranny of ignorance and economic exploitation.

I first met Barry in 1989 when, knowing his stand on the US war being waged against Nicaragua, I asked him to help out with an ad hoc benefit/organization called “Baseballs for Nicaragua.” He, of course, did and was part of an effort that, on a cold January evening in Boston, Massachusetts, raised $12,000 (to send baseball equipment to a war-ravaged Central American country). I have been fortunate to know him and see him ‘perform’ ever since.

Barry Crimmins was a central figure in the Boston comedy scene for years and was no small contributor to the launch of a number of careers. He has devoted and donated his talents to progressive causes for most of his life and continues his dedication and support for those causes. Recently, Barry has settled in rural New York State with his companion Karen and his dog Lloyd near Elmira, New York, where two people that have greatly influenced him are buried: Mark Twain and Ernie Davis.

For more information on Barry visit his web site or as he suggests, file a freedom of information brief with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C.

Robert Birnbaum: We are sitting here in Troupsberg, New York. You grew up close to here?

Barry Crimmins: About two hours. Two hours northeast of here. The thing about getting around the Finger Lakes is, getting around the Finger Lakes. Nothing is the proverbial “straight shot.” Although, all directions around here are given in increments of straight shots. “It’s a straight shot to your first turn. Then you wanna take…” (laughs) But you gotta get around them, you know. You gotta figure what you are gonna cut up. So here, we would cut up, we’d probably go up 414, head up the west side of Seneca Lake and then, Christ, all the way up Seneca, then cut over, I don’t know, whatever Seneca Falls, Auburn…

RB: People don’t say, “As the crow flies”?

BC: No…Well, they do. There are some people that do. But, you know, they’re sophisticated. They’ve probably been to Canada.

RB: Is there a sense in which you living here now is—I hesitate to say coming full circle—that there is something symmetrical about it?

BC: Yes. I’ve been a lot of other places where a lot of other people are from, and I mouthed off a lot about what I thought should happen in those places. Now that I have practiced doing that enough, I’m going to risk it where I’m from. (Lloyd the dog barks)

RB: What do you mean by saying you are going to “risk it”? Are you going to run for political office?

BC: No! Certainly not. Run from it. I didn’t come to the country because I want to avoid conflict. I think that there’s conflicts to get in, out here, that a lot of people aren’t dealing with. There’s a lot of ignorance. There’s a real pro-gun, Christian Right, bigoted, anti-environmental sentiment in the country and this is where I’m from. This is my ‘hood, and I want some stuff to be straightened out around here. I’m sick of this part of the world—somewhere as beautiful as this—being dominated by two things, prisons and Wal-Mart. That’s basically what’s happening here. And animal-rights abuses. So, uh, there’s just some stuff to do. And it makes me think about it.

I don’t know how I’ll directly take people on here—as much as I need the stimulus—to comment on it. There’s a lot of things to comment on. It’s interesting how much a factor, for example, race is around here, when there’s such little diversity in the area. It becomes a real factor when people matter-of-factly presume you’re a racist and say racist things to you thinking you’re going to snicker with them at it. There’s a lot of stuff like that to think about. Plus I’m from the region and there is something primal about being where you are from. It stirs up stuff. Now that I’m doing more writing, in my old age, I feel this will be more provocative for me. The most provocative place that I can be. Or evocative. It’s deep in me. As annoyed as I can get with a lot of what goes on around here—the ignorance—there is still something where I feel like I belong here. So I’m happy to be here. I’m not up here to hang with a bunch of people that I’ve known for a long time. I’ve got a few old pals that will show up. But basically I’m far enough away from where I’m from that I might as well be in Tunisia to those people. [in dialect] “What’re you doing way down there? Two hours.”

RB: So this is like home, but it’s not really home?

BC: No. This is temporary. We will probably move closer, even closer. So it will be an hour or an hour and a half. But I’ll never be stupid enough to live in the snow belt. It’s clearly marked. All you have to do is live X amount away from Lake Ontario and you lose…Ithaca gets five feet of snow a year less than Syracuse. Yet, Ithaca is a smaller city than Syracuse. I don’t need to tell you anything more about people from upstate New York than that. (both laugh)

RB: There is one thing you can say. They must like snow.

BC: Apparently. Well, you know—[dialect] “I just sit in my house and work on my alcoholism ‘til I can get the door open again”—That’s winter up here.

RB: My first thoughts about your move here from Cleveland was that you were using this as a place to recharge your batteries and make forays into the world at large. But this conversation suggests a greater intimacy with your locale. This is not a retreat, so much.

BC: I wouldn’t say it’s a retreat. But it serves that purpose because I feel like I belong here, so my personal rhythm is more in sync than it would be elsewhere. Therefore I think the batteries take a better charge here. Also, just being on this property, there’s a lot of stuff to take care of and that’s good. I have to do something other than just sit around and be a wise ass. I actually have to go out and mow the lawn and fix the gardens up and take care of things.

It’s interesting because you can go kind of snow blind just staring at a computer all day. You can do your work at the computer for a few hours and then you go out and do something worthwhile. Even if you don’t write anything worth a damn all day at least you get the lawn mowed. So, I like that.

There are things that are more jarring here, for me, than anywhere else. Particularly because I know the people and I know what goes on. Karen and I stopped at a yard sale. And this guy started telling us this story about selling his cows to this guy we know. “Jewed him down, a bit.” He just matter-of-factly said, “I Jewed him down.” And Karen was completely shocked, but I thought it was good for her because she romantically thinks everybody is wonderful, that they’re these rural pastoral figures come out of a Grandma Moses portrait. When in fact they are—vile.(laughs) Although this guy wasn’t completely hateful. That’s the complexity of it. That’s just a term he’s used his whole life. He’s a seventy-year-old man. But just matter-of-factly anti-Semitism rolled off his tongue. He’s completely fluent in it. Karen headed off and I stayed for a minute pretending I was looking at a tractor and then I told him afterwards, “Well, you know she’s Jewish.” (laughs)She’s a quarter Jewish, but that’s plenty Jewish. That’s enough to get you sent to a death camp, at one point. I figure that’s Jewish enough to refer to her as Jewish. And the guy felt badly, as if he had injured somebody. I could tell. So they are not all evil.

RB: Would you have had any compunction about saying she was Jewish, even if she wasn’t, as an investigative technique?

BC: Oh yeah. That guy was gonna get something for that, you know. (Both laugh) Something was coming, I just didn’t know what. Karen fit perfectly in the equation.

RB: What’s the name of the town you grew up in?

BC: Skaneateles. S-k-a-n-e-a-t-e-l-e-s. If you can spell it you are in the second grade. It’s an Indian word that means “beautiful lake surrounded by fascists.”

RB: And you went to school at Syracuse?

BC: No, I ended up at Miami. University of Miami. I took the intensive one-year smuggling program and then I went to colleges all over.

RB: And you when you told people where you were from, was the response usually, “Where?”

BC: Yes, either you say you are from New York and they immediately think you are a sophisticated person. People apologized to me around the country, “Oh, you’re from New York? You’re probably…”“No I’m from the Midwest, I’m from upstate New York.”

RB: I never thought of it that way. You could actually claim the Midwest began outside of Philadelphia. Or just outside of Boston?

BC: Oh yeah. It starts outside of Boston and it stops for a minute in New York and… New Jersey isn’t exactly the Midwest. But, there’s goobers there.

RB: Big deer-hunting area.

BC: That’s for sure. It’s just you hide behind junked cars more often.

RB: A lot of ’67 GM cars and a lot of Range Rovers.


BC: That’s right, they make a good blinds.

RB: Do you think about growing up in a small town in upstate New York in the 60’s in counterpoint to your travels?

BC: That’s the amazing thing, and it’s sort of part of why I’m back. I feel like I…I was thinking this yesterday, and I almost said this to you when we were driving around. I almost said, “Every kid I see, I feel like saying, ‘Get out of here! Just go away from here for a goodly period of time. Go elsewhere! Cuz there just isn’t enough here for you. Someday there will be more than enough here for you. But you have to bring a big chunk of that back with you. If you just stay here it’s not enough.’”

When I think of it, the stuff I’ve done, the people I’ve worked with, what my work is noted for and who I’m aligned with and where I come from, the odds against that—I think you are going to go a long time before you’re going to find another leftist political satirist of any note at all who hails from a town that is basically a permanent staging area for the Republican convention.

And that’s been a funny thing over the years, ‘cuz those people from my home town would see me on television and say, “Christ, we seen Crimmer on the TV.”

And then they’d lean forward and hear what I’d say and they’d get whiplash. “What’re you a Communist?”

There is the funny and true story about when I was at my high school reunion and some guys pulled me aside and asked me—first off I wouldn’t drink Coors with ’em—”Coors is the One.” So is Nixon. You know that old thing I do. Coors gives lie detector tests to its employees about their sex lives. “Do you masturbate?” “Not in the vat.” That’s all you’ve got to know, Adolph. I wouldn’t drink Coors with ’em. Then I wouldn’t eat meat with them. “You were on the football team, what happened to you?”

The same week I had appeared at the reunion of the surviving Attica inmates. Surviving and released inmates of the Attica Uprising in New York, at the Village Gate…we did a thing for them. A few days later I’m at my high school reunion, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who made both of those soirees. Fortunately, I went to the Attica one first, which mellowed me out for what I was about to deal with in Skaneateles. So anyway, I won’t eat meat, I don’t drink Coors with ’em. Finally, a couple of ’em pull me aside and say, “Crimmer, we gotta ask you a question. We heard when you were over to Boston you dun an AIDS benefit. Now this isn’t true, is it?” (Both laugh, heartily.) And I said, “Yeah, I’ve done dozens of AIDS benefits”… “You’re not a queer are you?”… “I’m whatever threatens you. I’m a Communist with AIDS and I bite.” But these guys are asking me if I’m gay. These are guys who couldn’t get laid in a women’s prison if they came with a truckload of cigarettes.

RB: Are they asking in benign amusement? Wonder? This all kind of friendly banter, isn’t it?

BC: No. they’re giving me a chance to clear my name. Absolutely. “You don’t say that about a man, not Crimmer.”

RB: The odds of someone like you coming from a place like this to do what you do…

BC: Everyone there isn’t like that. There are some all right people, too.

RB: And were they asking you questions?

BC: They don’t even know how to frame the questions. I’m in my hometown, there are so many funny stories since I’ve been there. I was there one time in 1988 to bury a friend of mine and I’m bummed out. I’m in a bar at the Sherwood Inn, which is a nice place. We’re watching a Syracuse basketball game on TV. People are just, “Nigger this and nigger that.” I couldn’t even take it on. First of all they’re all rooting for Syracuse, and there’s a bunch of black kids on the team, you know. That’s where my civil-rights roots come from, rooting for guys like Ernie Davis [Syracuse Heisman Trophy winner] when I was a kid. I met Ernie up at Syracuse. That inoculated me against all the racism that was rampant. I, in the pure heart of a child, thought it would be bad luck to think these hateful things about someone and then root for them the next minute because I wanted to be lucky. That’s all. That’s where it came from, it’s almost stupid on a certain level. But on another level it’s a very beautiful thing and really speaks to what a great thing Jackie Robinson did. That worked! That was a really great thing! That’s what saved me. Jackie Robinson saved me. Ernie Davis saved me. So, I went a cross the street—it being January, they were giving a way those little cheap calendars, for free, at the pharmacy—I went and got a box of ‘em and just handed em out to everyone at the bar, “Here it’s 1988. In case, you hadn’t noticed, 1988. It’s 1988. Oh, you better have two. It’s 1988…”

RB: We were talking about the unlikeliness of some with your point of view coming from here. We visited Mark Twain’s grave site in Elmira, what was the prevailing culture a hundred years ago when Twain lived and worked here?

BC: First off, I think he was with the Buffalo News but then he married Olivia Langdon and her family they’re all from Elmira, and they had the Quarry Farm up there where he spent his summers, and he did a lot writing up there and he loved it. He went on effusively talking about it. But that was, of course, right after the Civil War. During the Civil War this was a hot bed of abolitionism. This was a very progressive area. It was very vibrant, economically. People had jobs with living wages and they did well. The Industrial Revolution was doing okay by upstate New York at that point. But as one of the first places that made that “progress” it was one of the first places where that progress receded from because of the scurrilous nature of modern day capitalism—maybe capitalism is always scurrilous?—I suppose it is. Workers up here got organized sooner than most other places, so they got abandoned sooner. Before they [industry/capital] headed south and then further south…

RB: It was also a hotbed of feminism. What was it called then?

BC: Suffragettes, yeah up in Seneca Falls. Syracuse had a lot of abolitionist stuff. There was a riot there, to free a slave who had been captured in Syracuse. The underground railroad passed through my hometown and the house I grew up in was built in the 1830’s and had secret trap doors in it and stuff. I don’t know if it’s been established, but yeah, there were secret passageways in my house…

RB: So tell me, have you thought of this? An area represents certain social/political values…

BC: Right.

RB: …and then it changes. It seems as if those values should…

BC: This place has mirrored the Republican Party. It used to be the progressive party. Actually, Jim Jeffords mentioned it was the party of Lincoln the other day. I don’t think many of those other people think about that often or if they do they stay with it anyway. They stay with the Republicans anyway.

RB: Here’s one take on it. I have been observing for quite some time that most Americans are ahistorical. ‘Lincoln’ is just a name on a paper bill. The ‘Founding Fathers’ just words…

BC: Yeah, of course. And in fact they don’t know the real history. That’s where someone like Howard Zinn comes in so handy.

RB: Americans don’t even know the faux history…or the pop history.

BC: Well, what they know about the Civil War is what they saw in that horrible movie Gone With The Wind. “Oh, we’ll help ya, massa. Fight them Yankees….get them Yankees outta here. We don’ wanna be free” (Laughs) Right. Yeah. Right. That explains Nat Turner.


Barry and Lloyd Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

RB: In Walter Wetherell’s book, Morning, he writes, “Television has no history. It’s all immediate.” If you have people who, growing up, have been informed mostly by the TV, I think their ability to look into the past is challenged.

BC: Right. Without corny and manipulative music involving harmonicas …which aren’t really harmonicas now, the sounds are produced by software now. How can you expect people who can’t stay in the present to have the patience to deal with the past at all and to want to know anything about it? At this point—at least from what the media tells us—we can’t sit and watch a baseball game. We want sixteen other things going on. We got crap running across the screen. We want noisy stuff—every time you put up the score—it’s gotta go “Pshhhewww.” It has to have all these other dimensions to it. You couldn’t possibly just sit there and watch the game. Basically, by the time the game is on—god forbid some bad weather comes through the area—the game ends up on a postage stamp in the corner of the screen. And you’re watching sixteen separate things at once. On some level people are absorbing all of and absorbing none of it, and it keeps everybody distracted and sort of jarred. How are you gonna expect these people to sit down and read history, read a book, that’s not doin’ anything?

Whatever anybody could have said about TV ten years ago, those were the pastoral days of television compared to what they are doin’ now. Now they’re trying to make it look like the Internet. (in deep broadcast announcer voice) “Interactive. We care. About you. And we’re gonna talk to you during this and tell you you’re important and spend our time saying that so we don’t say a goddamn thing about anything that actually matters here because we wanna keep you distracted from the corporate scam that’s going on here. Look an eagle. Flying across the sky where Americans look in the land of our people and a wonderful place [Robert starts laughing]. This land of America. By the way, we just have this score…” During the Super Bowl, when I looked, they were showing who was finishing 19th in the Phoenix Open. The ball is in play, in the Super Bowl, and they are showing me who finished 19th in a golf tournament, at that point. They just won’t leave you alone. They won’t let you sit still…[Dogs interrupt, barking]…That’s what I like about the country.

RB: You’ve written for television.

BC: Oh yeah, for a little while. But I just basically wrote what I write. I would chime in a little bit on some of the other things, but mostly I wrote jokes for the monologue for the Dennis Miller Show. The old one, the syndicated one.

RB: Who was the genius at Miller’s show who wanted you?

BC: Kevin Rooney. Who is a genius, who really had a lot to do with establishing Jay Leno and then Miller. Rooney is one of the funniest stand-ups I ever saw. Consistently too smart for the room. But still, so smart, he could overcome it. Just one of the funniest people ever. And he was very helpful. And Miller wanted me, too. They started the show, I wrote some stuff for them from afar, and after the first week they were on the air they said, “Come on out here.” And so I went out and I did it. It was an—interesting—experience. That was when the Carson Show was in its last year. And then the Leno Show was in its first year. It was almost impossible to get decent guests on that show. We’d write a hip monologue and the first guest would be the swimsuit model from Sports Illustrated. That would contradict the pro-feminist jokes we just did.

RB: Why wasn’t that a great guest? By the producer’s standards…

BC: Right, right, right. Ten days into the thing—when I first got there I said that I didn’t want to go to meetings—ten days into it, I wasn’t allowed to go to meetings anymore.

RB: You wrote what you wrote…

BC: Well, I had to tool it a bit for him, but basically…

RB: I took what you meant that you didn’t write for the medium, for ‘television’. You didn’t concern yourself with how people saw it or heard it…

BC: I think about how people see or hear anything that I write in that sense. But no more or less, really. I probably learned a few tricks. With Dennis if you could smuggle a pop-cultural reference or two in you could smuggle in more content. They might not realize that until the calls came in that night. (both laugh)


RB: Is it safe to say that—I won’t ask for specificity—in general, that it’s possible that the deliverers of the jokes are not fully aware of the ramifications of the material?

BC: That could happen, on occasion. Dennis is a smart guy. In many ways. Like a lot of smart people he often gives you cause to wonder WHAT THE HELL HE’S THINKING. I left after a while because I just didn’t want to be out there. And they take it personally. I kept writing for the show until it ended. It was just one of these rules, “Oh you have to be on this lot everyday to do these things.” And I would do the same things I could do at my house at the show. I wasn’t allowed to go to meetings and…

RB: I don’t get that part. You had to be out on the West Coast…to do the promotional tour?

BC: No, just to be tortured. “Sit here, you must come here everyday.” I hated it. I hated having to be somewhere everyday where there’s these people and this vibe, and clearly after a point it was becoming a death march.

RB: You were out on the West Coast…

BC: For a little while…

RB: When you weren’t actively working on the show, what did you do? Besides surfing…

BC: Yeah, right, besides the surfing. I went to book stores and I hung with the few radicals. I have a lot of friends in L.A. between performers and writers and musicians. I tried to forget I was there and basically attempted to manage a crumbling personal life on the East Coast. It crumbled completely and has now been rebuilt in a new location.

RB: Were you tempted to pursue other writing opportunities in broadcast or film while you were there?

BC: I’m really a failure or I’m really hip to something. I’d like to think that I’m somewhat hip to something. And that is I just never expected the corporate powers that be to allow me to stand on their soapbox and tell everyone that their soap is polluting the river. Basically, that’s what I end up doing. I end up in trouble. I’m almost untouchable with those people out there. I can’t work with them for long ‘cuz there’s just such…lying is just so deeply ingrained…being phoney and showing false concern about and whatever, and I have an honest face and I’m easily bored and I just didn’t click. But I still think that if they wanted to do something good they could produce one—gimme one HBO special—and it’ll get good reviews and be a real nice piece of work. There are some people out there that are hip enough to do it. These people know how to insinuate themselves in situations where they can get some stuff done. And there’s a lot of good people who have gotten a lot of good stuff done.

My problem has always been that I am just too head-on. I’m too literal. I’m a non-fiction comic. I’m odd because I’m non-fiction and yet I’m sort of jazzy because I experiment with themes and riff a lot. But still it’s basically non-fiction and it’s head-on and you know where I’m coming from. And I’ll say, “Yeah, I’m a leftist.” And everyone is scared they’d getting the label ‘Hollywood Liberal’. I’m pretty sure Joseph McCarthy did his job. Even though they make a nice movie every ten years about Edward R. Murrow saving the world, he didn’t save that world. You still get red-baited in Hollywood. I get baited and get baited a whole bunch of other ways. I take shots at stuff that other people…well, others will sometimes…but I take ’em maybe at more subjects. I almost did the Tonight Show. The guy liked me but he goes, “We need to know a little more about you…Where you from? Bup bup ba.” And needless to say I didn’t do the Tonight Show. I probably should have. What it came down to back then—was Nicaragua. I wanted to talk Nicaragua and what was going on in Central America…

RB: Please, let me stop you. There is an irony in your reference to red-baiting in Hollywood given the frequent attacks on Hollywood as a spawning ground of leftism…

BC: As it makes another action movie about killing Arab terrorists, yeah…

(Big noisy truck rumbles by…)

BC: (semi-shouts) Nice to be out here in the country…That’s a milk truck though.

RB: Barbara Streisand and Alec Baldwin…

BC: By the way, that sort of element is terrified of me because I dump on their crap, too. I’m no limousine liberal.

RB: That’s “SUV liberal” today…

BC: SUV limo liberal. I suspend my beliefs concerning the death penalty if you are driving one of those things. At least they do something with their money, at times. And they help a bit. There’s definitely a line that’s drawn and they’re selectively morally indignant. If they had thorough moral indignation, I think they might live a little differently than they do. You don’t need as much stuff. That’s part of the thing with Hollywood. Once you are out there, you gotta live there and once you got to live there, you gotta spend a lot of money, and that’s how they get ya. And that’s how they whore ya up. You just gotta keep makin’ that nut. And, you know, the nut is ridiculous. It’s just a ridiculous amount of money…compared to what it costs to live here. So I can live here and be somewhere nice and leave whatever kinda trail I’m gonna leave. Or I could go out there and write—whatever. You name it. “…He writes the interstitial material on a reality show. And makes enough money to live in a little house in Hollywood Hills. Or the Valley, probably.” I know people out there and the amount of money they have to spend to live is just ridiculous. So here comes the game shows.

RB: That reminds me of a cover story of New York Magazine in the mid eighties, “Going Broke on A $120,000 a Year.” What’s the poverty threshold in this country?

BC: Yeah, right, and it’s way higher than that in L.A., obviously. You need two of those incomes to live there, shabbily.

RB: I once asked a writer who lives in Vermont why she didn’t live in Manhattan. She quickly made the connection between money and murder. She said, “She’d have to kill too many people.” She bypassed quite a few propositions on the causal chain to get to that conclusion.

BC: Right. [To the dogs] You boys all need to lie down. We’re over run with dogs, birds and frogs…In L.A., they got ya on a really nice treadmill.

RB: That mirrors the rest of what you are talking about.

BC: That’s the thing with everything. People get so paranoid about the media. Basically you are dealing with a bunch of people that, whatever way, they end up being these corporate drones, who are scared to death that they are going to lose their health insurance. That’s the bottom line. Everyone’s worried about keeping some sort of gig with some sorts of benefits. When people talk about “the press is this and the press is that”—I’ve got a lot of friends that work at daily newspapers around the country. All have, slowly but surely, been bought up by the same three or four concerns. They are all dealing with the same struggle that’s been blueprinted at the home office somewhere. Here’s how you screw over these workers, here’s how you threaten them, here’s how you undermine them. And it works.

I don’t know what’s going on now, but a couple of years ago at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, they weren’t even letting those people leave the building…without a really good excuse. It was like a detention hall. You wonder why your newspaper sucks, your reporters aren’t out on the street anymore because you won’t let them go on the street. They used to have reporters on the street because there used to be competition. It’s funny about these capitalists. They’ve gotten to the point where there’s no competition anymore and that’s exactly what they want. Their professed love for capitalism was a bunch of huey. They’re into competition as much as Stalin was. They wipe out and absorb everything.

RB: Sadly, they don’t see it that way. The CEO or the senior manager’s mandate is not to screw the workers or to oppress. Their mandate is to do little things that they rarely connect to the dire consequences that are visited upon their employees.

BC: Not in the front of his head.

RB: If you told a corporate manager he was imperiling lives, he would respond that he was giving jobs…

BC: There are some that would chuckle. There are a lot that need to delude themselves and are good at it. That delusion works. It’s the same thing everywhere…we’re getting told how great the economy has been, but I don’t know how good the economy is for real working people in this country. Or how good it’s been for years. I think it’s been crappy. Real wages have gone down, benefits have lessened. Workplace safety is deteriorating. They’re working longer, for less money. Oh yeah.

RB: Wow, a hummingbird.

BC: Yeah, they like those purple flowers. (A dog barks persistently in the distance.) That’s what ignorance can breed—mean Golden Retrievers. That’s what’s across the road. It takes really dumb people to make a Golden Retriever mean and they’ve done it. Those are the same people that set up a trampoline at an angle on a hillside, “Hey! This don’t work. Ow!”

RB: You’ve benefited. You are able to do know what you’ve had in mind for a while. Which is to come to a slightly isolated part of the country—in a specific sense of the word ‘isolation’—and be in constant contact with the immense informational pool that you need and desire. The phone lines and cable infrastructure and the software wouldn’t be available to you…

BC: It’s a beautiful thing. These greedheads have sold us so much crap that we didn’t need, that eventually they got around to selling us a few things we can use. And it’s blowing up in their faces. That’s the good part of the Internet.—Al Giordano’s Narco News.com—him going down to Central and South America and covering the drug war for real, what it’s really about, and then putting it on the Internet everyday. And they can’t do a goddamn thing about it. They try but they’re gonna fail. All they’re gonna do is publicize it.


Barry in Color Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

RB: Perhaps he was poisoned by a Black Widow planted by some agent of the Mexican newspapers?

BC: He’s okay. No, the Mexican newspapers are actually with him. It’s the Mexican banks that don’t like him. Mexican newspapers are much hipper than American papers…We can record and transmit history—People’s History like Howard Zinn taught us about—in a way that we never could before. At least for now that genie is out of the bottle. And it does do wonderful stuff. I can sit here and be in better contact, get more information sitting here way out in the country than I ever used to be able to get sitting in Boston, ten or fifteen years ago. I’m going to use that. That’s fun. I literally have a nerve center way out here in the middle of nothing. A lot of other people can do that too.

RB: The paradox of our culture and way of life is that all kinds of information has always been available to us.

BC: Up until now it was much more managed, it had to go through a funnel a lot more than it does now. It turns out we didn’t need the citizen band radio, we didn’t need whatever…a lot of the other crap. We didn’t need that, but computer and digital technology is pretty good because we can take this audio and play it on the Internet. And it’s there and if somebody wants it they can go back and look at it. Somebody wants to know what this nut was all about—either Birnbaum or Crimmins—they can go back and find this, at some point. Should I be thankful to the big corporations for this?

RB: What is our responsibility to pay attention, to seek out information, to understand the world. Is it okay to say, “Well, huge forces brainwashed our culture”?

BC: There have always been people that have sought out the real information and corrected the record. We’ll always need to continue to do that. That will be more participation in that on an immediate basis now because of these advances in technology. We shouldn’t run away from them and we shouldn’t use fascist terms like ‘computer illiterate.’ A very interesting thing has happened over the past few years, with Columbine High School and Bill Gates and all these other things. We’ve learned that—we’ve had a myth destroyed for us—that myth is The Nobility of the Dork. It turns out that the dork—given an opportunity—will be just as much as a fascist as anybody else. Or certainly has the propensity, just like anyone else.

Sure, there are wonderful dorks and cruddy dorks. The good dorks are at Apple. You can just use your computer like you use your brain rather than have to ship your brain to Seattle every five minutes for clearance like Bill Gates makes you do. Then they come up with the term ‘computer illiterate.’ You know what that term really means? [in a whiney nasal voice] “Guess you gotta talk to me now. You would never talk to me in high school, but you gotta talk to me now, doncha. Hah, hah. You gotta talk to me now. Oh suddenly you want to talk to me. You’re talking to me now aren’t ya? Why? Yeah, Because I’m computer literate and you’re illiterate aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not illiterate, I just want to use this keyboard and type this crap…” When I use the Mac, I’m on the side of my brain I use to be creative and I can stay there. When I use those other things it’s like trying to repair a carburetor and write a poem at the same time. The two are in conflict with one another.

RB: Windows seem to be the long way around.

BC: It’s just like a fake Apple system on top of DOS. And DOS in Spanish is, “number two” (both laugh). I can get through and play it to a tie but why bother? I feel so bad when someone says to me, “I don’t have a computer, I’m computer illiterate.” Sort of hat-in-hand. Do you say you are car illiterate because you can’t take your manifold apart and fix it?

Years ago, my car, something happens and it’s steaming and I bring it in. And the guy goes, “Well, it’s gonna need a gasket.”

And I’m going, (raises voice) “Oh great, take my whole wallet. A gasket. Go ahead, take it! Gasket! I was gonna ago on vacation this year but I need a gasket. How much is that?”

“Eighty cents.”

“Get one for everybody!”

Am I car illiterate? Are you microwave-oven illiterate because you can’t repair that when it doesn’t work? It’s just ridiculous that you are supposed to be this technician with something that has too many moving parts that can get screwed up and conflict with one another. They can make them better. It’s just too bad Apple blew their marketing and made a lot of terrible decisions. They’re responsible in this thing, too. Their stuff works and makes sense. I can call a file what I call it. I write something, “Bush Sucks,” to me, that’s my little note. Hopefully what I wrote is more clever than that, but to me I know, “Oh that’s the ‘Bush Sucks’ essay.” Actually, I put in one the other day and found out there was already one from 1991, but that’s a different story. I never call anything ‘Doc.’ Except, if I’m sick. It’s too bad. though. It’s sort of like AOL. Inertia. People get that kind of computer, they stick with it. They’re on AOL, they stay there. You know how that goes…

RB: (Both laugh) Is this the part of the program where I foreswear AOL. “Okay, I’m giving it up, soon.”

BC: Good, good. Satan.com. See that yellow thing there. That’s called (fake announcer’s voice) The Sun.

RB: I’ve been reading David Hadju’s book about the Fariñas and Dylan and Baez. Which has a lot to do with creative relationships and relationships between creative people. Here you and I are roughly contemporaries of those people…

BC: Well, you do what you do. If you sit around. I don’t know, I never…

RB: Well, they were really influential people and the most fascinating [to me] character was killed in a motorcycle accident on his wife’s 21st birthday. What could he have been?

BC: I think. What do I think? Hmm. You can’t become overwhelmed with whatever the contemporary results of your art are, the obvious manifestations of your art. I think everyone you mentioned is a wonderful artist and has done great stuff, and as it happens their stuff has clicked and they’ve been able to have a good audience for what they’ve done and that’s wonderful. If you look at the history of all sorts of art and literature you find a lot of people who put things down and recorded things, painted things that they just did because they were obliged to do so. And not even in their entire lifetimes did they realize that they would have this profound effect upon people for generations after they were gone. Art in some ways has to be an act of faith and an act of responsibility and you don’t know when what you do is going to kick in or if it’s going to kick in. Maybe, it isn’t supposed to be all about that. I think all we can do is leave some sort of a trail. That’s where the technological stuff comes in handy, we can leave much better trails with that and maybe it’s for someone else to sort out. Who knows, maybe all your photos that you’ve taken, that’s an unbelievable piece of history, that stuff is there and it’s tangible…who knows what will come of it.

RB: I don’t.

BC: We are conditioned to think we suck because we are not completely celebrated everyday. I just celebrate because I don’t have to go to work at NormoCorp everyday. I’m sitting out here in the early morning with the sun, with the birds singin’, and the dogs lying here, talkin’ with you, about whatever we want to talk about. We already won. We already won. They didn’t get me. I’m not worried about dealing with some nitwit middle manager all day who’s makin’ me feel stressed out and screwin’ up my life. I’m sittin’ here. I have to fly to New Mexico tomorrow to talk about why the drug war is stupid. That’s all I gotta do.

RB: I think when you mount your final show, that the big production number ought to be that Sinatra tune, “My Way.”

BC: I was thinkin’ more of a Gordon McCrae song, (sings) “This is my country, land that I love…”—which I was singin’ the other day when Jeffords aced Bush. Being a good son of Vermont, Senator Jeffords knows when the sap is running and when to run from the sap. Right now my life is in inverse proportion to most people’s in one way. Professionally, something as dark and looming as the Bush administration come along, again. Everybody’s feeling pretty gloomy—everybody, being people that might be of like mind and heart—but for me it’s oddly invigorating. This re-energizes my audience, people want to hear from me now. It provides me with the opportunity to rail against stuff I enjoy railing against. It’s the ultimate mixed blessing. I would much rather remain in the background and not have something this terrible happen. It’s fun. It’s like being a hitter in baseball and you’re hot, you see everything, the rotation on the ball. I see the rotation on everything that these clowns throw at us. I could hit the hell out of the ball, before. I could hit this guy’s father and he was a better pitcher. Maybe the most optimistic thing you can say about it is: It will give us another chance to galvanize progressives and progressive thought and enlarge the progressive community. If we are going to do that, we have to repair a lot of stuff that’s wrong with progressives in the first place. A lot of that is just they’re no fun.

RB: An Oscar Wilde anecdote comes to mind. He was asked why he wasn’t a socialist and responded, “I prefer to keep my evenings free.”

BC: Whether it’s the Dennis Miller Show or politics—meetings, that’s the problem with the left. Meetings are group therapy for a couple of dominant malcontents. Whoever the Type A misfits are. “I have a few things I’d like to share before we get on with discussing that BABIES ARE BEING BOMBED OVER THERE. A few personal issues first.” The first thing I do when I go to one of those meetings is say, “The first thing I want is consensus on consensus. Unless everyone agrees to there being consensus we don’t have consensus. Okay. That’s not what we’re gonna use.” That screws ‘em all up. So please, everybody remember that ploy. Consensus. Why don’t you just call it what it is. Paralysis. We have to make it seem fun and attractive to be progressives. We have to welcome converts. We have not to treat people in a condescending manner when they show up and seem interested. Not, “You don’t know about this. You don’t know about that.” There are so many people that are so cutting and negative and cruel to people who come in. “I just wanted to help. But now that I realize that was scum for not being here three years ago like you, I guess I’ll leave,” And we’re back down to havin’ nobody. There’s a lot of people in the Movement. Or the Stagnant or whatever you want to call it that are happy. They know how to fail. They’re good a failure and so they’re scared of succeeding. They would rather spend their whole life fightin’ over little chunks of turf than lift up their heads and see that the whole world is there to gain.

RB: Isn’t part of the pathology of a progressive that they have to be self-critical, sometimes self-hating and certainly contentious. Consequently social skills seem to suffer…

BC: You can be skeptical without being self-loathing. You have something there because you end up discussing all the time how much people hate themselves. That has be sorted and gotten over to realize they’re okay and were just some nice kid who got betrayed in one way…

To be continued.




All fotos by Robert Birnbaum / Duende Publishing.



Howard Zinn with Robert Birnbaum Dialogue #2

13 Jan
Howard Zinn circa 2000 [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Howard Zinn circa 2000 [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]


Howard ZinnHoward Zinn grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn where he became a shipyard laborer and later, in World War Two, an Air Force bombardier. After the war, he attended Columbia University under the GI Bill and earned his Ph.D. in history. He has taught at Spelman College in Atlanta and later at Boston University. He has also been a history fellow at Harvard University and a visiting professor at the University of Paris and the University of Bolgna. Professor Zinn has won numerous awards and honors including The Thomas Merton Award, The Eugene V. Debs Award, The Upton Sinclair Award and The Lannan Literary Award. In a career that has spanned over forty years, Howard Zinn, as a professor, radical historian, progressive political theorist, social activist, playwright and author, has brought a fresh, thoughtful, humane and common-sensical approach to the study and teaching of history. Among his twenty books and plays are La Guardia in Congress, Disobedience and Democracy, The Politics of History, The Pentagon Papers: Critical Essays, Declarations of Independence: Cross Examining American Ideology, You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train (his autobiography), The Zinn Reader, Marx in Soho and, of course, the seminal, highly celebrated A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present. Howard passed away in January 2010


As you should note, this conversation with Howard Zinn ,which took place in 2000, was my second with him. I subsequently had three more chats with him almost up until the time of his death. You can find  invaluable information about Howard Zinn and his vast and significant legacy at The Zinn Project here.



Robert Birnbaum: After years of teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, you came to Boston University?

Howard Zinn: Hmmm…

RB: That’s a yes?

HZ: It’s a yes. [laughs] I had a year in between. [1960-61]

RB: A significant year?

HZ: Significant because I was fired from Spelman College. [laughs] And to make up for the fact that they were firing a person with tenure, who was chair of the department and who was a full professor, they gave me a check for a year’s salary. $7000. Which was the largest amount of money I had ever held in my hand. We thought, “What will we do, I have a year and seven thousand dollars. We’ll go to Boston.” We had spent a year, I had been a fellow at Harvard for a year. We loved Boston. So we decided to come here. And during that year I wrote two books on the South: My book on SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) and in that year I kept going back and forth to the South. The other book was called The Southern Mystique. During that year, Boston University offered me this job at the political science department, although I was a historian — but I never paid much attention to what is called “discipline” in the academic world — so it was a good year. We lived on Newbury Street, by the way, right above the Winston Flower shop.

RB: Back then, did people talk about Boston as the ‘Athens of America’?

HZ: [chuckles] Bostonians did. Boston was considered an intellectual hub — Harvard, MIT…they didn’t talk about Boston University or Northeastern or any other place. In the year that I spent here in Boston, it certainly was that for me. There I was at Harvard, and I could have lunch with Stuart Hughes and be impressed by the way he talked French to the waiters. [both laugh] He took me to Henri Quaitre. It was on Winthrop Street. The waiters all spoke French — at least when they got someone like Stuart Hughes speaking French with them. I was, you might say — a hick up from the South — he wanted to talk to me about the civil rights movement — so he bought me lunch. We loved Boston. We grow up in New York and in Atlanta we felt landlocked. In Boston we found a city with a river flowing through it. We almost thought it was Paris and the Seine…and it’s close to the sea and close to New Hampshire…we loved the city.

RB: You have said that one of the books you greatly admire is Upton Sinclair’s novel Boston?

HZ: It was novel based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case. It’s not even fair to say it was based on it because that suggests a novel loosely based on fact. Actually, the novel Boston, though it has a couple of fictional characters, is really a journalistic account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. And maybe one of the best non-fiction accounts — even though it is a work of fiction — of the case that I have seen. I grew up loving Upton Sinclair, grew up influenced so much by his work. Not just The Jungle, but The Brass Check, Oil, King Coal. He wrote so many. Then a publisher in Boston decided to bring out Boston, which had been long out of print. And asked me to write an introduction to it, which I did. The Sacco and Vanzetti Case remains important in my thinking and it’s one of those things that happen in history which you can’t forget. I try to imagine how many people in America have been affected by that case, by the powerful emotions generated by that case. There are certain moments in American history that had that effect on people. Sacco-Vanzetti was one. The Rosenberg case was another. The Haymarket Affair for an earlier generation…Emma Goldman, when she was a kid, was influenced by the Haymarket Affair.

RB: How much does the history of Boston — Sacco & Vanzetti, Salem Witch Trial, Boston Police Riot, Blues Laws — affect people today? How aware are they?

HZ: Not very much. It’s always amazing to me how people live in a city and don’t know the history of that city. I’ve been to Lawrence, Massachusetts, and I would bring up the textile strike of 1912 and nobody would know about it. In Boston, aside from the Freedom Trail…

RB: Soon to be the Hood Freedom Trail or the Raytheon Freedom Trail…

HZ: The Revolutionary War and Paul Revere and the cemeteries, yeah. But other than that, things like the Boston Police Strike of 1919, people don’t know about that.

RB: Were there book burnings or just book banning here in Boston?

HZ: I don’t know if they actually burned books, but they certainly banned a lot of books. Sometimes it’s a short step from banning to burning. Boston still has that reputation. Outside of Boston, what Boston is known for is being ‘blue’, being sensitive to anything connected with the church, especially Catholicism. I don’t think it deserves that reputation anymore.

RB: What reputation does it deserve? Is it a distinct place or a generic modern American metropolis?

HZ: For people living in it, yeah. Boston is distinguishable from other cities, which begin to resemble one another very much. It does have special character. I talk to people who come here from other places, and they feel that Boston has a special character. They connect it with history. They do connect it with age. Of course, to a European, it’s not very old. But still, for Americans, they connect it with the American Revolution.

RB: Does it seem like tourists are more conscious of Boston’s place in history than its residents?

HZ: I think that’s almost always true, that tourists read the tourist guide. And they learn things about a city and the people in the city are not paying any attention to that. I think that’s generally true…

RB: But tourists won’t find out about Sacco and Vanzetti, The Police Strike, etc., in tour literature.

HZ: There is no radical walking tour in Boston like there is in New York. There is a guy in New York who takes people to where Emma Goldman lived on 13th Street and this Union Square where…

RB: What would that feature?

HZ: They could say, “This is the spot on the Charles River where a copy of the Pentagon Papers went from hand to hand and ended up with the Boston Globe.” Think of all those things that happened during the Vietnam War in Boston. One thing Boston is known for, in the 60’s, Boston became known as a hub of anti-war resistance. The meetings on the Common, I don’t know if anyone has written a history of the Boston Common as protest place. Or Fanueil Hall. The Boston Common was a mirror of the growth of the anti-war movement. I spoke at the first anti-war meeting on the Common in the Spring of 1965. There were a hundred people there. Then I spoke there again in the 1969 Mobilization and there were 100,000 people there. So, many things have happened there. Yeah, Boston is a special place.

RB: Speaking of anti-war protest, Barry Crimmins [1]— as is his wont — is outraged at Bush’s court-appointed presidency. George Bush seems to be bringing back the good old days: a new cold war, an economic downturn and a return to Eisenhower-era morality. What do you think?

HZ: It’s really interesting. Here the guy wins the presidency by the most nefarious of methods and without a popular mandate. Losing a popular vote by a larger margin than Hayes lost the popular vote in 1876, but then moves ahead with aplomb, with total arrogance as if the country is his. My feeling is that we are living in an occupied country. Really, that we’ve been taken over, a junta has taken power and now the problem for the American people is to do what people do in an occupied country…

RB: Hunker down? Create a black market? Some resist, many collaborate…In the Spy Plane Incident, commentators were heartened to see Bush “rise above the politics” and call in ‘experts’ like his father and Henry Kissinger. Recently Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay in Harper’s about Henry Kissinger’s culpability as a war criminal[2]. Is Henry Kissinger a war criminal?

HZ: It’s certainly true that he is a war criminal. In the sense that he was part of the apparatus and an a intellectual leader and adviser of that bureaucracy which carried on the Vietnam War, which carried on the secret illegal bombing of Cambodia, which helped engineer the coup in Chile in 1973. And so Kissinger is responsible for much of the atrocious conduct of American foreign policy. The idea that he received the Nobel Peace Prize made a number people dismiss that award after that. Christopher Hitchens’ piece was well deserved and it’s good to call attention. I saw a satiric piece in the Washington Post about the Hitchens essay by a former student of mine, Peter Carlson. He asked, “Why are they getting excited about Kissinger as a war criminal? He’s a wonderful dinner guest.”

RB: The response to the charges against Kissinger are curious. Some say, “Well, other administrations did comparable acts.” As if that relieved Kissinger of any blame. But whatever the truth or falsity of the charges isn’t there a prima facie case and therefore a trial would be in order to determine the ‘truth.’

HZ: Sure. Let’s have a trial. The advantage of a trial is it brings everything out into the open. It’s an educational opportunity. The South African trials didn’t result in people going to prison. I’m not interested in putting Henry Kissinger in prison, you see. I mean if we are going to put people in prison, we’d have to put the whole American establishment in prison for the things that have been done to people all over the world. But certainly for calling attention to what’s been done, it would be a very useful thing to do. I didn’t want to see Pinochet — for all his barbaric deeds — put in prison. But to call attention to what he did. Yes, a very useful thing.

RB: You feel the same way about recently discovered French collaborators from World War II?

HZ: Yeah. The whole concept of punishment is foreign to me. And revenge. To me the only useful thing about bringing these people before the bar of justice is as an education. In a way, by doing that, we are going back to a very primitive approach to punishment…some of the Indian tribes and other indigenous peoples where their idea of punishment is to shame people before the tribe. They’d exile them or send them out in the forest with a glass of water.[laughs] But they’d shame them and that’s a useful thing to do…more serious than putting them behind bars. So, Kissinger deserves to be shamed and the people who have had him as dinner guest deserve to be shamed. Although we should stop short of putting on trial anyone who made a dinner for him.

RB: Besides writing plays, what are some of the other things you are doing?

HZ: I’m doing an awful lot of speaking, going around the country speaking. That’s why I’m not missing my teaching.

RB: Does it seem like people are paying more attention to you now than when you were actively teaching and publishing?

HZ: No doubt. No question. Almost entirely because of A People’s History of the United States. The reasons I get these invitations to talk is because of A People’s History, which has now sold 800,000 copies. And it sells more each year than the year before, which is a very rare thing in publishing.

RB: A popular groundswell…

HZ: Yeah…and so I get all these invitations to speak because my book is being used by high school and college classes, community groups, book clubs and discussion groups in communities here and there. So as a result, I’m very busy. I have to say no to an awful lot of things now, that I would have been glad to do years ago when I was hungry for invitations.

RB: What does it suggest to you that your book, originally published in 1980, grows more and more popular?

HZ: What it means, I think, is that there is a very large number of people who are receptive, even hungry for new ways at looking at American History and new ways at looking at American society. I think we are deceived by the attention that media gives to our political leaders. By that I mean that, because all we see on television are congressional leaders and the President and the members of the cabinet and so on, we begin to think that they do represent the thinking of the country. If you consider that half of the voting population did not vote and that of that half only half voted for whoever is president — and this is true in almost every election, not just in this recent election — there is a huge number of people who did not vote for the existing president, and many who did vote voted without enthusiasm only because they didn’t have much of a choice.

RB: You no doubt have heard Michael Moore’s characterization of the Bush-Gore election as one of “The Evil of Two Lessers”…

HZ: [Laughs] Leave it to Michael Moore. I love the last line in his last movie, “One evil empire down, one to go.” To me this means…let me put it this way, I think there is a very large number of people in this country — this even borne out by public opinion polls which over the last ten or fifteen years have shown that on issues — the public is ahead of both major parties. That the public has been consistently willing to take more money out of the military budget and spend it for education and housing and human needs. I believe there are huge numbers of people in this country who would be willing to have radical changes in our economic and social system in order to make it a more egalitarian society and do away with homelessness and hunger and clean up the environment. But these people have no voice. They have no way of expressing themselves. Elections give them no way of expressing themselves. I go around the country and I speak and not to audiences of radicals.

RB: Given your busy schedule, one can assume that your audience is much larger than the core progressive community…there aren’t that many radicals.

HZ: [laughs] No, there aren’t. I go to speak to California Polytechnic Institute in San Luis Obispo. How many radicals can there be there? How many liberals can there be there? Fifteen hundred students show up. And they listen to me and I’m talking about the economic system and the profit system as being wrong and inhuman and I talk about the necessity to abolish war as a means of solving problems and to not have any more military interventions and to seriously cut down the military budget. I talk about these things and they…agree. I found this, I talk to audiences in Oklahoma and Texas and here and there and mostly to audiences of people who don’t really know my work. I certainly don’t expect them to be sympathetic to my ideas. When I express my ideas — and they are radical ideas — except that I don’t start off by saying, “I’m now going to tell you radical ideas.” Or, “I’m now going to expound ideas of socialism or attack capitalism.” Or, “This is going to be a hate imperialism talk.” None of that. People respond to commonsense ideas about foreign policy and domestic policy. It encourages me about the potential in this country, despite who is running it.

RB: Joe Conason in a recent New York Observer column characterized Trent Lott as running the Senate like it was a jukebox. To coin a phrase, “Where’s the outrage?” Does this get people thinking?

HZ: I think people are thinking, but they have no way of expressing their thoughts, no ongoing movement to connect it with, no movement close to them that they can see. But if a movement got started in this country — and after all, that’s how movements grow, from small to large. People in the 1950’s didn’t talk about racial segregation in the South as something to do anything about. When the first steps were taken, the first pictures appeared on television of people resisting and people thought about it — it was an obvious wrong. And there are so many obvious wrongs going on today.

RB: Can we talk about the irony of the Republicans accusing their opponents of inciting class warfare?

HZ: [laughs heartily] It’s very interesting to me. When the Democrats are attacked for that they shrink back. They don’t say what obviously should be said, “Yes, there is class warfare. There has always been class warfare in this country.” The reason the Democrats shrink back is because the Democrats and the Republicans are on the same side of the class war. They have slightly different takes. The Democrats are part of the upper class that is more willing to make concessions to the lower class in order to maintain their power.

RB: Blacks and minorities can get into Democratic country clubs.

HZ: Yes. Exactly. Republicans have fund-raisers where you need $400,000. Democrats only require $300,000. This country began on the basis of class conflict. The Constitution was set up to control people like Shay’s rebels of Western Massachusetts.

RB: Wouldn’t it be easier to “sell” the notion of class conflict if it wasn’t an a priori element of radical analysis?

HZ: Americans are brought up to believe that we are one country and we are united and we have language to justify that approach. We have phrases like ‘national security,’ ‘national interest.’ ‘National defense.’ The implication being that anything that’s done for the ‘national interest’ is done for everybody. The ‘national defense’ defends everybody. ‘National security’ is for everybody, it’s not for somebody’s securities. And so there’s been a hesitation — really a fear of allowing the notion of class to enter into the popular consciousness. And yet when they ask people — this is shown again and again in public opinion polls — “Do you believe a small group of powerful people run the country?” Eighty-five per cent said, “Yes.” People know this.

RB: If you polled the small group of people who do run the country, what do you think they would say?

HZ: [laughs] It would depend if it was off the record or not. Maybe some would admit it. Some would be afraid to admit it.

RB: I would think no one would be afraid to admit to such glaringly obvious realities. What would the reaction be? Are people going to resurrect the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of The World)?

HZ: You mean they really have no need to be afraid. Although they have no need to be afraid, they are still very fearful that something small might become something big, you see. That’s why a picket line with three people will suddenly attract twelve policemen. That’s why Nixon went hysterical when one person was picketing the White House. That’s the whole idea of repression. That’s the idea of putting a few people in jail in order to scare the rest. Even though there is a kind of general recognition that this true, they would rather not emphasize it by talking about ‘class.’

RB: That does point big arrows at the concept of Hope? The power of a small idea to mushroom into something grand.

HZ: Yeah. You might say that the people who run the country have more of a sense of history than the masses of people. And because they have that sense, they keep that history of struggle and victory over the powerful out of the history books.


A People's History of The United States by Howard Zinn

A People’s History of The United States by Howard Zinn


RB: I take it you are heartened and hopeful about the forthcoming film version of A People’s History?[3]

HZ: Well, I’m half-hopeful [both laugh]. Anybody that deals with Hollywood, anybody who deals with the film industry has to be very cautious. I’m not at all sure that the book will be turned into film although HBO has signed contracts with three writers. Each of whom will write a two-hour script. Howard Fast to do the revolutionary War, John Sayles [4] to do something on the Lowell Mill girls, and a Scottish writer, Paul Laverty, to do something on Columbus and Las Casas. So HBO has agreed to finance the scripts, and after the scripts are done they will decide whether they will make a film. That’s standard procedure in Hollywood. They are very often are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the writing of scripts and then not make a film because the film will cost 5 or 10 million dollars. So, that’s why I say it’s still up in the air. Yes, I’m half-hopeful, especially because we have good writers.

RB: I’ve been collecting stories about how long some projects take. Ed Harris’ Pollack took 8 years…

HZ: Oh yeah. The bureaucracy in both film and television is amazing. The films take years to do and in the meantime the bureaucracy changes hands. All sorts of things happen…

RB: You are listed as an executive producer. Is that a titular position or are you actively involved?

HZ: No, it’s real. There are four executive producers. They call us the Gang of Four. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, me and Chris Moore. Yeah, we will supervise and, of course, HBO will have final say over things. We have been involved in choosing the writers, going over the scripts and be involved at every stage of the process. The idea of us being executive producers is really to stand guard over the sanctity of the point of view of People’s History so that Howard Fast’s story of the mutinies in the Revolutionary Army doesn’t become Mel Gibson’s The Patriot.

RB: You are still writing plays?


"Marx in Soho" by Howard Zinn poster

“Marx in Soho” by Howard Zinn poster


HZ: Well, yeah. My most recent play, Marx in Soho, has been done all over the country, San Francisco, Chicago, here. It’s still being done. More recently, I wrote something, a one-person play. And I don’t know if you want to call it a play, Boston Playwright’s Theater insists on calling them Ten-minute plays. I’ve never done it before, and this coming Sunday there will be a whole bunch of them including mine being shown at the Boston Playwright’s Theater.

RB: What’s the subject or story?

HZ: Well unlike Marx in Soho, which is a fun play about Karl Marx as well as having serious things to say, this a serious play about a hospital situation, a family situation involving a dying mother…

RB: In ten minutes? When asked to identify yourself what do you say?

HZ: I call myself a writer. I like it. It’s a more lofty designation than professor. Do you know what I mean?

RB: In Europe anyway. How is it here when you tell people you are a writer?


Three Plays by Howard Zinn

Three Plays by Howard Zinn

HZ: I would rather think of myself as a writer than as a professor. I refer to think of myself as a historian, as a writer. I am also working on a screenplay with poet and playwright Naomi Wallace.

RB: Who is doing good history today?


The People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael

The People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael

HZ: Well, there are bunch of relatively young historians who are doing a new kind of history. Eric Foner wrote a wonderful book on the Reconstruction period replacing some very bad books on the Reconstruction. A lot of really good Black history is being written…Vincent Harding, who was involved in the Civil Rights movement and is a historian, he’s been writing good stuff. There is a new book out on the American Revolution which is excellent. It’s called The People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael. And there’s a wonderful, funny novel written about the American Revolution by Paul Lussier [5] called Last Refuge of Scoundrels (from Samuel Johnson’s “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”) It’ll be interesting to see whether the way he treats the revolution gets him into trouble. Trouble in the sense of will they make a film out of this. It’s a very funny book.

RB: It’s a Warner Book.

HZ: And Warner has an option. Will they do it? He told me that some people who were going to interview him on radio programs canceled because thought it would be troublesome. To answer your question, yes there is some very good history being done. And Ray Raphael, a writer on the West Coast, has written on other subjects and interestingly enough is not a professional expert but has written a better book than any I’ve seen on the American Revolution. You don’t have to be an academically trained Ph.D historian to write a very good book on history.

RB: That seems almost to go without saying. There seem to be a strong self-interest in the mandarin class to protect the myth of intellectual expertise…

HZ: Of course, of course. There’s always a little resentment at someone who writes a history book that everybody reads.

RB: Some people must be very angry at you.

HZ: Some of them are.

RB: You are about as non-dogmatic and ideological a thinker as I’m familiar with, but are there any Zinnists? Any disciples?

HZ: Zinnism? There are just people who read my books, that’s all. A lot of people show up at my talks. Big crowds. Yeah, people who read my books…

RB: Lest you think my question totally absurd, it has been my experience that when I post my conversations with writers I invariably am contacted by their official website — the keepers of the flame…

HZ: There is a website that somebody did for me which I didn’t know about until somebody told me about it.

RB: Do you think about your legacy?

HZ: We all think about our mortality.

RB: Yes, they go hand in hand…

HZ: Yes that’s right. Legacy, mortality…I suppose in preparing myself psychologically for the end I ask, “Do I feel okay?” “Yeah.” There are huge numbers of letters that have been written to me by people who say, “Your book changed my life.” They say extravagant things. Things I would never say. So I feel I made a difference in the lives and thinking of a lot of people. So that’s good.

RB: You feel like you’ve done good work?

HZ: [Chuckles] Yeah, sure.

RB: You laugh as if there is some thing qualifying that?

HZ: Well, I could have done more. Everybody probably says they could have done more. But yeah I think I’ve done…I feel good about the things I’ve done. I feel good that I’ve been able to do that work and have a family, children and grandchildren and to wrestle with the tension between the two. Which is always difficult.

RB: Do you think maybe the real problem facing advanced societies is the decline in opportunity to do “good work”?

HZ: Well, for instance, the profit motive in publishing has kept out of bookstores lots of wonderful writing and lots of wonderful poetry. Poets have such a hard time getting published.

RB: I was thinking in a broader way. How it is that economic fluctuations might restrain initiative and adventure and experimentation…

HZ: I think that pressure exists on young people who want to be poets, actors and musicians. Both because their parents are looking in on them and wondering how their kids will survive and paying huge tuition for them and also thinking themselves of their own future and decide, “No, I can’t be a poet. I can’t be a musician because I won’t be able to survive.” So yes, it’s a culture so dominated by the need to make money and be successful in the orthodox sense that it cripples creativity…




1.)   My 2001 conversation with Barry Crimmins

2.)  Conversation with Christopher Hitchens  and I  about Henry Kissinger as a war criminal

3.)  The HBO film project for A People’s History transmogrified into the THE PEOPLE SPEAK. which  brings to the USA’s rich history of dissent and shows its importance for todays movements. The trailer is here.

4.) My second conversation  with John Sayles is here.

5.) My Identitytheory conversation with Paul Lussier is here.


Copyright 2001, 2016 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing


18 Aug

The only news here is why the Times waited to report this previously well reported information

Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert, John Oliver, Keys & Peele, Barry Crimmins are great but these guys paved the way

Brady Vs Goodell: Being paid 46 million dollars a year to front a 10 billion dollar a year enterprise doesn’t necessarily make you the worst person in the world. Right?

There was a time when Maureen Dowd was worth reading and I get that The Short Fingered Vulgarian is hot stuff currently and that you get clicks by mentioning him but any regard I had for MS. Dowd has vanished. She now completes the troika of to be avoided Times columnists.

Amazon is a white collar sweat shop and the New York Times did some good work presenting that—which is plain to see if you have the old fashioned attention span to go through its 5100 word reportt

Jeff Bezos, the fifth richest person in the world, of course, demurs.Perhaps you are not famiiar with business magbate BEZOS:

That Amazon’s so called fulfillment centers were literally sweat shops is old news

Two things (at least) to note are that the Times Amazon expose garnered 5100 (and counting)comments and it stimulated bloviating pundits to moral ideation

Meta item of the day

DISPOSABLE  FUTURES by Brad Evans and Henry Giroux

DISPOSABLE FUTURES by Brad Evans and Henry Giroux

From Disposable Futuresby Brad Evans & Henry Giroux

It was against twentieth-century forms of human dispos- ability that we began to appreciate the political potency of the arts as a mode of resistance, as dystopian literatures, cinema, music, and poetry, along with the visual and performing arts, challenged conventional ways of interpreting catastrophe. We only need to be reminded here of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, Bertolt Brecht’s The Interrogation of the Good, Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rain, and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 to reveal the political value of more poetic interventions and creative responses to conditions we elect to term “the intolerable.” Indeed, if the reduction of life to some scientific variable, capable of being manipulated and prod- ded into action as if it were some expendable lab rat, became the hallmark of violence in the name of progress, it was precisely the strategic confluence between the arts and politics that enabled us to challenge the dominant paradigms of twentieth-century thought. Hence, in theory at least, the idea that we needed to connect with the world in a more cultured and meaningful way appeared to be on the side of the practice of freedom and breathed new life into politics.

And yet, despite the horrors of the Century of Violence, our ways of thinking about politics not only have remained tied to the types of scientific reductions that history warns to be integral to the dehumanization of the subject, but such thinking has also made it difficult to define the very conditions that make a new politics possible. At the same time accelerating evolution of digital communications radicalizes the very contours of the hu- man condition such that we are now truly “image conscious,” so too is life increasingly defined and altered by the visual gaze and a screen culture whose omniscient presence offers new spaces for thinking dangerously. This hasn’t led, however, to the har- nessing of the power of imagination when dealing with the most pressing political issues. With neoliberal power having entered into the global space of flows while our politics remains wedded to out dated ways of thinking and acting, even the leaders of the strongest nations now preach the inevitability of catastrophe, forcing us to partake in a world they declare to be “insecure by design.”

Miscellany #47: 7 August 2015

7 Aug
Show Me A Hero by Lisa Belkin

Show Me A Hero by Lisa Belkin

David Simon’s forthcoming HBO mini series Show Me A Hero is based on Lisa Belkin’s excellent account of the (Yonkers NY) landmark public housing case.

The book/show’s title is taken from an F.Scott Fitzgerald’s incisive aphorism, “Show me a hero and I’ll write ….”

This story may or may not be interesting but the picture

In case you are interested in the Israeli occupied territory of Gaza—here are pictures


Mont Blanc, Agatha Christie fountain pen

Mont Blanc, Agatha Christie
fountain pen

I own a few fine writing instruments and I still like to handwrite checks so I might use them and retain some small contact with this disappearing craft

Progress? The Chicago Police Department actually worked out an agreement with the ACLU…

BobCat Goldwaith’s film Call Me Lucky, on anti papist Barry Crimmins

Barry Crimmins ,circa 2001 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Barry Crimmins ,circa 2001 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

My 2001 chat with Barry Crimmins

Feets don’t fail