howard zinn, naomi klein and why we must let war resisters stay in canada

About 500 people packed the Bloor Cinema in Toronto last night, to hear Naomi Klein speak briefly, and to watch "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train," a documentary by Denis Mueller and Deb Ellis. We also saw a new five-minute film about the War Resisters Support Campaign and Bill B-440, an amazing piece that I look forward to posting as soon we're able to release it.

We were thrilled with the turnout, and even more with the event itself. There's no doubt that Naomi Klein's presence helped fill the house. Her warm and eloquent introduction tied everything together so beautifully.

The idea of this evening, she said - using this movie on behalf of Iraq War resisters in Canada - was born at a memorial service for Howard Zinn, one of her greatest teachers, and towards the end of his life, her friend.

Naomi talked about her parents, who came to Canada as Vietnam War resisters, who achieved official Canadian status in 20 minutes at the border. She contrasted this with the threat of deportation that the current war resisters live under, and the deportations that have already occurred. We need to see this difference, she reminded us, in the context of how Canada has changed, and "the rising mean tide, the smallness of spirit at the highest level" that characterizing the government's policies.

Evidence of this is in the hostile reception recently given to Tamil refugees, in the Harper government's plan to build more prisons, in the attack on dissent and freedom of expression at the G8/G20. And of course, in the increasing militarization of Canada. No wonder the government is hostile to these war resisters, she said. They're a visible reminder of how much Canada has changed.

Naomi recognized that people often say the Iraq War resisters are different than the Vietnam resisters, because the Vietnam War resisters were drafted. (Reminder: at least 10,000 volunteered then deserted.) But Naomi said that, for her, the fact that people did volunteer, and then desert, makes their resistance even more powerful - and makes an even stronger case for allowing them to stay. The Iraq War resisters once went willingly to war. Now, having seen the reality of war for themselves, they have experienced a profound life-altering change. They have gone up against the mighty US military to come to Canada.

Howard Zinn, of course, was a war resister of the highest order. He fought in World War II, the supposedly "good" war - then came to question the very concept, and came to decide that no war can ever be good. When we go to war to vanquish a tyrant, he said, we are killing innocent people who were victims of that tyranny.

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The film itself is a loving and moving portrayal of one of the greatest teachers and activists - one of the greatest Americans - that we have ever known. It follows Zinn through his earliest days, growing up in poverty, then as an airman and bombardier, and a labourer, putting himself through school while working.

At Spelman College, a traditionally African American university, Zinn didn't set out to lead his students into the civil rights movement. But he encouraged them to question, and to speak out, and to organize. "We embarked on a class project," he said. "To end racial segregation." He stood beside his students in struggle - and reserved, conservative Spelman College was never the same.

I won't walk you through Howard Zinn's remarkable life. I highly recommend the book You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn's memoir, which I blogged about here, here and here, back in 2004. And this movie is a must-see. A new version of the movie will soon be released, since both Howard and Rosyln Zinn were alive when it was first released.

But I will point out two notes that gave me chills last night.

In the movie, Zinn talks about growing up in a home with no books. He says this is not an exaggeration: his family did not own one book. He would find books on the street, books other people had thrown away, and read them voraciously. Of course, eventually he discovered the public library.

The newspaper his parents read in their tenement flat in New York City's Lower East Side had an offer: you could send in 10 cents and receive a novel by Charles Dickens. His parents knew Howard loved to read, so they mailed off a dime, and a book by Charles Dickens arrived in the mail. The Zinns continued to do this until Howard had received - and read - all of Charles Dickens novels. Through Dickens, Zinn discovered that the poverty and struggle his family faced was not theirs alone, and it was not a natural and inevitable condition. It was global, and it was the work of men. Of capitalism.

Later, as a student, Zinn heard the song "Ludlow Massacre," by Woody Guthrie, about the brutal killing of 19 striking coal miners and their family members in Colorado in 1913. He looked in his history books for more information on the incident, and found none. There's a terrific scene in the movie where Zinn is addressing a labour gathering, talking about how the giants of the American labour movement were wholly absent from official US history. "I looked for the Lawrence Mill strike, it wasn't there. I looked for Bill Hayward, he wasn't there. . ." As he progressed through his formal education, this never changed. In graduate school, the texts repeated the same point of view as the books he saw in elementary school. This persistent, omnipresent perspective - the point of view of those in power - led him to write A People's History of the United States.

Perhaps some of you have already guessed what I'm getting at. I'm watching a movie about Howard Zinn, one of my greatest heroes of our lifetimes. And I learn that as a young boy, he was deeply affected by Charles Dickens, one of my great writing heroes - and later by Woody Guthrie, also on my short-list of heroes. It's not surprising to learn that Howard Zinn was influenced by people who used their art to crusade against poverty and injustice. But Zinn could have mentioned anyone. He said Dickens, and Woody Guthrie. My heart swelled.

I always wanted to meet Howard Zinn in person. That would have been a lot easier if we had lived in the Boston area. So many of our Red Sox friends heard him speak or saw him at demos! I never had that opportunity. I do have two emails from him that I treasure.

But last night, watching this movie, I felt close to him. I felt the spirit of Howard Zinn alive in the room, in all of us, in every one of us who carries the banner of peace.

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