Saturday, January 30, 2010

People's historian of United States passes away

 Howard Zinn, 87 died of a heart attack last Wednesday in Santa Monica, California. He was an extra ordinary personality. He was a Historian, author, teacher and  an activist in civil rights,civil liberties and anti-war movements of USA. He was the author of more than 20 books, including  the very popular 'A People's History of the United States'.
Born in New York in 1922, Mr. Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants who as a child lived in a rundown area in Brooklyn.
Zinn  joined the  Air Force during World War II to fight fascism, and he bombed targets in Germany, France,Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Zinn's later anti-war stance was, in part, formed by his own experiences in the military.

After the war, Zinn attended University  graduating with a B.A. in 1951 and  an M.A. (1952) and a Ph.D. in history.

Zinn worked as Professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia and Boston University. He was also Visiting Professor at both the University of Paris and University of Bologna.

A People's history of the United States

He wrote his most famous book ' A People's history of United States' in 1980. Zinn  believed that the point of view expressed in traditional history books was often limited to that of conquerors and victors. The 'other' view point is always absent. This book was his attempt to shine light into hidden truths.

Published  with little promotion “A People’s History” slowly became a people’s best-seller, attracting a wide audience through word of mouth and reaching 1 million sales in 2003.  His book was even taught in some high schools and colleges  as an alternative to standard textbooks , and numerous companion editions were published, including “Voices of a People’s History,” a volume for young people and a graphic novel. It has been frequently revised, with the most recent edition covering events through 2003.

Here are some excerpts from the 'People's History'.

About the wiping out of original inhabitans of Americas by Europeans...

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts..........

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the American mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.......

Columbus and his successors were not coming into an empty wilderness, but into a world which in some places was as densely populated as Europe itself, where the culture was complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world.

They were people without a written language, but with their own laws, their poetry, their history kept in memory and passed on, in an oral vocabulary more complex than Europe's, accompanied by song, dance, and ceremonial drama. They paid careful attention to the development of personality, intensity of will, independence and flexibility, passion and potency, to their partnership with one another and with nature.

Was all this bloodshed and deceit-from Columbus to Cortes, Pizarro, the Puritans-a necessity for the human race to progress from savagery to civilization?
how certain are we that what was destroyed was inferior?

About the 'noble' intentions of 'founding fathers' of USA he writes,

Were the Founding Fathers wise and just men trying to achieve a good balance? In fact, they did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at that time. They certainly did not want an equal balance between slaves and masters, propertyless and property holders, Indians and white.

As many as half the people were not even considered by the Founding Fathers .... They were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, they were absent in the Constitution, they were invisible in the new political democracy. They were the women of early America.

About Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation against slavery:

When in September 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, it was a military move, giving the South four months to stop rebelling, threatening to emancipate their slaves if they continued to fight, promising to leave slavery untouched in states that came over to the North:

Thus, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1, 1863, it declared slaves free in those areas still fighting against the Union (which it listed very carefully), and said nothing about slaves behind Union lines...

About US as a 'defender of helpless countries':

For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless countries matched its image in American high school history textbooks, but not its record in world affairs. It had opposed the Haitian revolution for independence from France at the start of the nineteenth century. It had instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It had pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain, and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base, investments, and rights of intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had "opened" Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared an Open Door Policy in China as a means of assuring that the United States would have opportunities equal to other imperial powers in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations, to assert Western supremacy in China, and kept them there for over thirty years. .......

Zinn's book was critisized by many Historians as subjective, incomplete,too radical etc.
In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Zinn acknowledged he was not trying to write an objective history, or a complete one. He called his book a response to traditional works, the first chapter — not the last — of a new kind of history.
“There’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete,” Mr. Zinn said. “My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.”

A life of activism

During the civil rights movement, Zinn served as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and in 1964, he wrote the book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Mr. Zinn encouraged his students to request books from the segregated public libraries and helped coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. Mr. Zinn also published several articles, including a then-rare attack on the Kennedy administration for being too slow to protect blacks.

He was loved by students, but not by administrators. In 1963, Spelman fired him for “insubordination.” (meaning activism) .
His years at Boston University were marked by opposition to the Vietnam war. Zinn wrote one of the earliest books calling for the U.S. withdrawal from its war in VietNam. (VietNam: The Logic of Withdrawal 1967) A year later, he and Father Daniel Berrigan traveled to North Vietnam to receive the first three American prisoners of wars released by the North Vietnamese.


Along with Noam Chomsky, Zinn edited and annotated the copy of 'The Pentagon Papers' which described the internal planning and policy decisions of the United States government during the Vietnam War.
Later in a criminal trial for theft, conspiracy, and espionage in connection with the publication of the Pentagon Papers Zinn was a witness for the Defense.
He said
"...there was nothing in the papers of military significance that could be used to harm the defense of the United States, ....the information in them was simply embarrassing to our government because what was revealed, in the government's own interoffice memos, was how it had lied to the American public. The secrets disclosed in the Pentagon Papers might embarrass politicians, might hurt the profits of corporations wanting tin, rubber, oil, in far-off places. But this was not the same as hurting the nation, the people,"

Mr. Zinn retired from the University in 1988, spending his last day of class on the picket line with students in support of a strike. Over the years, he continued to lecture at schools and to appear at rallies and on picket lines.

Besides “A People’s History,” Mr. Zinn wrote several books, including “The Southern Mystique,” “LaGuardia in Congress” and the memoir, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,”  He also wrote three plays.

Some of ZInn's famous quotes include:

"Historically, the most terrible things - war, genocide, and slavery - have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience."

"“We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children”"

"How can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?"
"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."
Noam Chomsky, USA's best known dissident intellectual and also Zinn's close friend and associate paid tribute:
'He was just—he was fearless. He was simple. He was straightforward. He said the right things, said them eloquently, and inspired others to move forward in ways they wouldn’t have done, and changed their minds. They changed their minds by their actions and by hearing him. He was a really—both in his life and in his work, he was a remarkable person, just irreplaceable.

Links and references
A People's history of United States
Howard Zinn

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti - Natural disaster on man-made tragedy

The massive earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12,2010 is estimated to have killed around 200000 people. The World's attention is on Haiti now.
Where is this Haiti?What kind of people live there? What is their history? Let us try to find out some answers.

The country of Haiti makes up the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. Hispanola is between Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the eastern two-thirds of the island is the Dominican Republic.The capital of Haiti is Port-au-Prince.

Haiti is one of poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Eighty percent of residents live in poverty,Haiti is one of the most densely populated country in Western Hemisphere with a population of about 10 million. 95% of the people are Blacks and are mostly Roman Catholics. French is the official language.

A history of man-made tragedy

The island of Hispaniola, of which Haiti occupies the western third, was  inhabited by the Taíno Indians, speakers of an Arawakan language.
Christopher Columbus landed on the island on 5 December 1492, and claimed the island for Spain.
Columbus described the people he found as "lovable, tractable, peaceable, gentle, decorous," and their land as rich and bountiful. Hispaniola was "perhaps the most densely populated place in the world,"
But the arrival and conquest by the Euopeans changed all that in a few decades.
Bartolomé de Las Casas a 16th-century Spanish Dominican priest and writer wrote,
"a beehive of people," who "of all the infinite universe of humanity, ...are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity." Driven by "insatiable greed and ambition," the Spanish fell upon them "like ravening wild beasts, ... killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples" with "the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before.
 "from my own knowledge of the acts I witnessed." "It was a general rule among Spaniards to be cruel," he wrote: "not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings." "As they saw themselves each day perishing by the cruel and inhuman treatment of the Spaniards, crushed to the earth by the horses, cut in pieces by swords, eaten and torn by dogs, many buried alive and suffering all kinds of exquisite tortures, ...[they] decided to abandon themselves to their unhappy fate with no further struggles, placing themselves in the hands of their enemies that they might do with them as they liked."

Europeans also brought new diseases unknown to the Western hemisphere and by 1522 the native population was reduced to around 200.The Taínos became virtually, but not completely, extinct on the island of Hispaniola. Some who evaded capture fled to the mountains and established independent settlements.
Devoid of work force the Spanish governors began importing enslaved Africans for labor.
Spanish interest in Hispaniola began to wane in the 1520s, as more lucrative gold and silver deposits were found in Mexico and South America. Thereafter, the population of Spanish Hispaniola grew slowly. Fearful of pirate attacks, the king of Spain in 1606 ordered all colonists on Hispaniola to move closer to the capital city, Santo Domingo. The decision backfired, as British, Dutch, and French pirates then established bases on the island's abandoned northern and western coasts.
French buccaneers established a settlement on the island of Tortuga in 1625. They survived by pirating Spanish ships and hunting wild cattle. Although the Spanish destroyed the buccaneers' settlements several times, on each occasion they returned. The first official settlement on Tortuga was established in 1659 under the commission of King Louis XIV.
In 1664, the newly established French West India Company took control over the colony, which it named Saint-Domingue, and France formally claimed control of the western portion of the island of Hispaniola. Under the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, Spain officially ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. By that time, planters outnumbered buccaneers and, with the encouragement of Louis XIV, they had begun to grow tobacco, indigo, cotton, and cacao on the fertile northern plain, thus prompting the importation of a large number of African slaves.

"Saint Domingue was the wealthiest European colonial possession in the Americas," Hans Schmidt writes, producing three-quarters of the world's sugar by 1789, also leading the world in production of coffee, cotton, indigo, and rum. The slave masters provided France with enormous wealth from the labor of their 450,000 slaves.The white population, including poor overseers and artisans, numbered 40,000. Some 30,000 mulattoes and free Negroes enjoyed economic privileges but not social and political equality.
The brutal methods employed by French masters are described like this:

"Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat excretement? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man-eating dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?"

Haitian Revolution

The slave revolt which started in 1791 ended on January 1 1804, with the elimination of slavery and establishment of an Independent  Republic of Haiti.
"Haiti was more than the New World's second oldest republic[after USA]," anthropologist Ira Lowenthal observed, "more than even the first black republic of the modern world. Haiti was the first free nation of free men to arise within, and in resistance to, the emerging constellation of Western European empire."
The indigenous Taíno name of Haiti ("Land of Mountains") was given for the new nation.

Revolution aftermath

The rebel victory came at tremendous cost. Much of the agricultural wealth of the country was destroyed, along with perhaps a third of the population. The victory horrified Haiti's slave-holding neighbors, who backed France's claims for huge reparations, finally accepted in 1825 by Haiti's ruling elite, who recognized them to be a precondition for entry into the global market. The result was "decades of French domination of Haitian finance" with "a catastrophic effect on the new nation's delicate economy,"

Haiti was ruled by many leaders from the elite class who fought with each other and the colonial powers used these fights to control Haiti for their vested interests.

US invasions

The US was the last major power to recognize Haiti and that came only in 1862.   Haiti's strategic role in control of the Caribbean became increasingly important in US planning in later years, as Haiti became a plaything among the competing imperial powers. Meanwhile its ruling elite monopolized trade, while the peasant producers in the interior remained isolated from the outside world.

US Navy ships entered Haitian waters several times to "protect American lives and property." Haiti's independence was scarcely given even "token recognition," Schmidt observes in his standard history, and there was little consideration for the rights of its people.

Current situation

Seumas Milne  wrote in 'The Guardian' January 20,2010:

Punished for the success of its uprising against slavery and self-proclaimed first black republic of 1804 with invasion, blockade and a crushing burden of debt reparations only finally paid off in 1947, Haiti was occupied by the US between the wars and squeezed mercilessly by multiple creditors. More than a century of deliberate colonial impoverishment was followed by decades of the US-backed dictatorship of the Duvaliers, who indebted the country still further.

When the liberation theologist Aristide was elected on a platform of development and social justice, his challenge to Haiti's oligarchy and its international sponsors led to two foreign-backed coups and US invasions, a suspension of aid and loans, and eventual exile in 2004. Since then, thousands of UN troops have provided security for a discredited political system, while ­global financial institutions have imposed a relentlessly neoliberal diet, pauperising Haitians still further.

After the Earthquake

It seems the US is more interested in 'securing' Haiti than in providing essential supplies.

Mark Weisbrot again in Guardian writes:
If people do not get clean water, there could be epidemics of water-borne diseases that could greatly increase the death toll. But the US is now sending 10,000 troops and seems to be prioritising "security" over much more urgent, life-and-death needs. This in addition to the increase of 3,500 UN troops scheduled to arrive........Washington's fear of democracy in Haiti may explain why the US is now sending 10,000 troops and prioritising "security" over other needs.

The US, together with Canada and France, conspired openly for four years to topple Haiti's elected government in 2002, cutting off almost all international aid in order to destroy the economy and make the country ungovernable. They succeeded. For those who wonder why there are no Haitian government institutions to help with the earthquake relief efforts, this is a big reason. Or why there are 3 million people crowded into the area where the earthquake hit. US policy over the years also helped destroy Haitian agriculture, for example, by forcing the import of subsidised US rice and wiping out thousands of Haitian rice farmers.

The world-renowned humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders complained that a plane carrying its portable hospital unit with 12 tons of equipment including Dialysis machines was re-routed by the US military through the Dominican Republic. This meant a loss of more than 48 hours and a large number of lives.

Jarry Emmanuel, air logistics officer for the UN's World Food Programme, said: "There are 200 flights going in and out every day, which is an incredible amount for a country like Haiti ... But most flights are for the US military."

Future of Haiti

International Financial Organisations should write off all Haiti's debt. Haiti needs grants and not more loans. USA should encourage a functioning democratic Government of people's choice and reconstruction work should not be used to increase the US Corporations hold in Haiti. Haiti can be saved if the International community comes together in unity, not to control and loot, but to help the people of Haiti.

Haiti is suffering from a natural disaster of gigantic proportion. But looking at its history it becomes clear that the magnitude of suffering is so much because of the enormous man-made tragedies of yesteryears fuelled by human greed and cruelty.

Links and references
Year 501; Noam Chomsky
History of Haiti
Guardian articles 1 and 2
Map from

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Akshardham Temple visit

The Swami Narayan Akshardham temple at Delhi is a magnificent structure. It is not only a temple. As the promoters of the temple proudly claims it 'epitomises 10,000 years of Indian culture in all its breathtaking grandeur, beauty, wisdom and bliss'.

But the visit to Akhshardham temple in Delhi to learn more about the rich history of India was a great disappointment.

The temple is one of the most security conscious structures in India. To enter the temple you need to surrender most of your belongings including your cell phone and camera and go through a time consuming security check stricter than US Airport. There is also a strict dress code for Women, which loudly proclaims shorts; short skirts and burqas are not allowed.

Short skirts and burqas both banned ?????? Why????? Women revealing too much of flesh may be offensive to some people but why dresses that do not reveal anything is banned?

The temple complex contains a large number of statues and sculptures of great beauty.

Bhagwan Swami Narayan's life story is the basis of most of the exhibitions including the Giant screen film and if you are not a Bhakth of the Bhagwan you may not be much impressed.

Soon I was undergoing the much awaited 12 minute boat ride termed Sanskruti Vihar 'to experience the 10000 years of India's glorious heritage'.

I thought the ride will start with the Indus Valley civilization as it the oldest known civilization of India. But I was surprised to realize that no mention was made of Harappa and Mohanjedaro in the show, which was supposed to be about India's history. Why?

The show starts with the Vedic period of Indian history and it tries to make people believe that it is 10000 years old. Most of the Historians are of the opinion that the Vedic period must have started from around 1500BC, i.e. only about 3500 years ago. Then how they got this measure of 10000 years?

I saw a large number of school students in uniform among the visitors to this Boat ride. Will they be mislead by this distorted history?

The show also claims many 'firsts' to the Indian Vedic civilization, including the birthplace of democracy, aircrafts, and Sea Trade.

Though the temple is a grand and beautiful structure, the visit for me at least was a big disappointment.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy or Hungry New Year?

For one person out of six in the World, the New Year is unlikely to be a happy one. For them it is another Hungry New Year. In India hunger will be felt more as one person out of 4 may remain hungry in 2010.

Chronic Hunger increasing

The number of under nourished people in the World is steadily increasing for the last 10 to 18 years. From 845 million in 1992, the number of people who eats less than their minimum dietary energy requirement increased to more than 1000 million in 2009. In India the increase was from 210 million in 1992 to 250 million hungry people in 2006. The irony of the situation in India is that this period between 1992 and 2006 was the period of rapid growth in economy in terms of GDP. The realisation that economic reforms have not benefited the poorest section of our society might have been the reason for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh 's recent defensive remark while addressing the conference of Indian Economic Association.

He said,

"As far as poverty is concerned, the facts are quite clear. The percentage of population below the poverty line has certainly not increased. In fact it has continued to decline after the economic reforms at least at the same rate as it did before."

It is true that in the World as a whole the percentage of population who are undernourished decreased between 1992 and 2006 though the absolute numbers continue to increase. Now new estimates of 2009 predict an increase in percentage also of undernourished.

As per Food and Agriculture Organisation's statistics India show an increase not only in absolute number but also in percentage of under nourished population in recent years.

Why hunger is increasing?

A common myth is that people are hungry because there is not enough food available or because of over-population. However, it is almost always poverty that prevents people from buying what is readily available in their local markets, rather than food shortages.

The number of undernourished in the world was actually declining in the 1970s and 1980s in spite of relatively rapid population growth during those decades and the proportion of undernourished in developing countries was declining quite rapidly.

At that time, large investments in the agriculture sector (including for scientific research, rural roads and irrigation) led to rapid growth in cereal yields and lower cereal prices that, in turn, significantly reduced food insecurity. During those decades, the proportion of government spending devoted to agriculture was also relatively high.

During the 1990s and the current decade, however, the number of undernourished has risen, despite the benefit of slower population growth. Primary reasons for this includes increase in poverty, reduced investment in agriculture, reduced production and rise in prices.

Food inflation in India

India is in the grip of scary food inflation with prices of food products going up the roof. The food inflation rate is almost 20%. Failure of monsoons and floods in some States are thought to be the reason. Such high inflation rates will surely increase the number of undernourished in India.

How many are poor in India?

This question is very difficult to answer and we can only get an estimate of the extent of poverty in India. A new debate has started about the methodology of estimating poverty after the publishing of  report of Expert Group on Methodology for Estimation of Poverty, chaired By Prof. Suresh D. Tendulkar and appointed by the Planning Commission.

Using the new method suggested by the Committee, the new poverty lines for 2004-05 have been re-estimated to be as Rs. 446.68 for rural areas and Rs. 578.80 for urban areas (per capita per month). Further, the number of people below this line for 2004-05 is estimated as 41.8 per cent in rural areas and 25.7 per cent in urban areas. These new estimates represent a significant upward revision of poverty in the rural areas, and a small downward revision of poverty in the urban areas. As per the new method, the total number of poor people in India has risen from about 403 million in 1993-94 to about 407 million in 2004-05. In per capita daily terms one out of 4 in urban areas earn less than 19Rs per day while about 2 out of 5 in rural areas earn less than 15 Rs per day.

With so many poor and hungry people around and as the food prices go up and up, 2010 may remain another Hungry New Year to a large number [one Billion]of our fellow human beings.