“The fact [is] that these demonstrations are unprecedented. The Occupy movement is unprecedented.” These inspiring words were spoken by linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky to a crowd of thousands spilling into the streets at Occupy Boston. Professor Chomsky is one of the many speakers who have come to Occupy Boston as part of the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series.
The Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series has been an integral part of the new discourse that the Occupy movement has fostered. Since Occupy began, there has been a torrent of conversation on topics and issues such as inequality, capitalism, racism, and war. According to the Series’ website, the organizers’ goal is “to create a series of lectures in which academics lead a dialogue with Occupy Boston participants on issues of economic, political, and social justice.”
The series was born out of the conversations between a few radical academics who met during a mass march on the first night of Occupy Boston. Among them were local professors Joseph Ramsey, Emilio Sauri, and Pankaj Metha, who then started an ongoing dialogue about how academics could connect with the new movement in a meaningful way.
Ideologically, the Zinn Series takes its inspiration from the late political scientist, teacher, historian and activist Howard Zinn. In his seminal work, “A People’s History of the United States” Zinn sought to retell the history of America from the point of view of ‘common’ people – such as workers, political radicals and minorities – rather than elites. “A People’s History” also contains one of the earliest uses of the statistical and rhetorical distinction between the 1% and 99%, a distinction used frequently by the Occupy movement . Zinn saw himself as a historian taking the side of the people. In his words, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
Since its inaugural lecture by Victor Willis in early October, the Zinn Series has brought many nationally and internationally renowned academics – such as Richard Wolff, Fred Magdoff, Vijay Prashad, Elaine Bernard, and Noel Ignatiev – to Dewey Square. The speakers have addressed issues as diverse as capitalism, race, feminism, and the environment.
Listeners braved a harsh rain to hear economist Rick Wolff give a talk about the causes of the current recession. Arguing against those who would blame particular corporations or “greedy” individuals, Professor Wolff said that, “When everyone plays by the rules of the game and the game’s results are awful, the problem is the game. It’s the system.” Wolff argued that the Occupy Movement has changed the nature of discourse in the country so that now,“We can debate an economic system that does not work.”
Fred Magdoff, a professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont, talked about the environmental crisis and the state of agriculture under the current system. Citing the growth of hunger and malnutrition across the world, he pointed out that capitalism is not “designed to provide for people’s needs, but to produce a profit.” He argued that there is no hope for the environment to be sustained under capitalism, and that what is needed is “a real economic and political democracy where people make decisions about the economy; people need to make decisions about what to invest in instead of…private corporations.”
Another speaker was Vijay Prashad, a professor of International Studies at Trinity College and frequent contributor to Counterpunch.org. Prashad highlighted problems within academia, “where to be educated is to be indentured.” His talk raised questions of how there can be free and meaningful education in a society that serves elite interests.
Despite audio problems, Harvard law professor Elaine Bernard’s message was heard loud and clear. She spoke forcefully of the assault on public sector unions across the United States. Professor Bernard explained to her audience that democracy doesn’t just happen in a voting booth, but depends on strong unions to make the financial struggles of the working class more widely understood.
A particularly provocative talk was given by Noel Ignatiev, a professor of history at the Massachusetts College of Art, who spoke on the issue of race and the Occupy movement. Professor Ignatiev stated that “there exists in Black America a deep current of sympathy to what this movement represents.” As part of addressing the issues of race, he said that Occupy should call for the “unconditional and immediate abolition of prison.” Ignatiev’s talk produced a wide-ranged discussion of what a society without jails would look like.
Channeling Zinn’s spirit, speakers in the series have brought with them ideas outside of conventional political discourse, concepts that challenge the status quo. They have sought to use their abilities as academics to not just to understand the world, but also to change it, bringing their knowledge ‘off of the campus and into the streets’.
For a summary of the Victor Wallis’ inaugural lecture, see Their Crisis and Our Response.
The Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series is archived online at zinnlectures.wordpress.com. Those interested in learning more can contact the Series organizers at [email protected].