Friday, January 29, 2010

A Tribute to the Extraordinary Life of Howard Zinn

On January 28th, Howard Zinn died suddenly at the age of 87 in Santa Monica, California. Although he will probably be best known for his seminal book A People's History of the United States, Zinn was much more than a historian.

His early teaching career took him to Spellman College in Atlanta, a leading African-American institution, where he taught history and was fired for supporting a student rebellion at the school in the early days of the modern racial desegregation movement. He later went on to teach at Boston University

Howard Zinn was a respected a leader in both the movement for civil rights in the United States, and was one of the few white Americans to rise to a leadership position in the predominantly black Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized voting rights and anti-oppression campaigns throughout the South.

In his opposition to the U.S. war in Indochina, Zinn, along with the late Daniel Berrigan, made a highly visible-and controversial-visit to North Vietnam to bring home three U.S. prisoners of war. His book, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, was a major analysis of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam and a call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the war-a war which finally ended with the defeat of the U.S.-backed regime in South Vietnam in 1975.

For those of us who are old enough to remember the early desegregation and anti-war movements of the 1960's, the intellectual works and radical historical analysis of Howard Zinn were central in the formation of an alternative view of American history and politics. Central to Zinn's writing and teaching is the understanding that popular, and radical, social movements were ( and are) fundamental to the advancements of society in general.

And as Muslims engaged in our own struggle for equality and fairness in this nation, we owe a tremendous debt to the late Howard Zinn for reminding us that, in his own famous words, we cannot be neutral on the moving train of history.

An excellent retrospective on the life and works of the late Howard Zinn can be found on the home page of Amy Goodman's syndicated radio program Democracy Now, which aired on the morning of January 28th. You can hear the program by visiting the link at :

Ibrahim Ramey

Thursday, January 28, 2010

President Obama's First State of the Union Address: What He Said, and What He Did Not

In one sense, you can't help but be impressed by President Barrack H. Obama's first State of the Union Speech on Wednesday, January 27th.

The 65 minute speech to a politically divided and anxiety-wracked nation was a difficult one for him to give, in light of the recent surge of public opinion critical to some of his political agenda, and especially in light of the resurgent, and aggressive, attacks on his administration from the Right.

But according to the estimates of many pundits and politicians alike, Obama stood his ground, and he stood tall: he explained the political and economic turbulence that he inherited when he assumes office a year ago, he articulated a feeling of steadfast optimism for the nation in a time of continued difficulty, and he reiterated his own commitment-and that of most of his political party-to national health care reform, social investments for the betterment of the nation, and an overall determination to "stay the course" on creating a renewed, and more globally competitive, economic reality for the nation in the second decade of a new century.

Some of us-many of whom are on the conservative end of the national political spectrum-are worried about the price tag attached to this bold new vision. Others of us are uncertain about the potential cost of the political compromise that the President, and the Democratic party, may feel compelled to make in the Washington world of realpolitik, and in light of the recent loss of the 60 vote Democratic "super-majority" in the U.S. Senate.

Are health care reform, social investments, and serious job creation necessary for the common good of the people of this nation? Absolutely. Did the President make a convincing argument for the critical importance of these projects in the construction of a new, and better, national future? Yes, he did.

But I am still concerned about a number of things that this memorable speech did not address. Let me mention four of them:

First, President Obama did not take on the question of the structural poverty in the country, and the debilitating rise of hunger, homelessness, and social misery for the 37 ( or so) million people trapped at the bottom of the American economic well. It was nice to hear the platitudes about programs and initiatives for working Americans, but there was not mention of the poor-let alone any concrete initiatives designed specifically to engage in a real "war on poverty" that creates transitional programs for urban renewal, rural development jobs, and social services for the legion of poor people far worse off than the struggling American middle class.

Second, there was no recognition of the role that a militarized national economy plays in the structural deficits and collateral problems of the USA. Is "national defense" a sacred (corporate) cow immune from closer scrutiny? Do nuclear subs ( and the continued parasitic existence of the nuclear weapons labs) really safeguard American from airplane bombers and hijackers? Some of us, particularly ( like this writer) saw, in the election of President Obama, the beginning of a possible transition to a demilitarized national economy and a different vision for promoting nonviolence in a violent world; sadly, the President seems to simply be going on with the flow of business ( and thinking) as usual.

My third observation has to do with civil rights and civil liberties. Why didn't the President address the continues existence of those nefarious Fusion Centers that collect data on Muslims that are absolutely no threat to the safety of the nation? Why no attention to the extraordinary, and persistent delays, in acting on both asylum and citizenship applications from Muslims, especially Muslim men? Why no relief for the ferocious attack of Muslim charities, like the Holy Land Trust, Kind Hearts and others, that save real lives in areas of conflict?

We still live in a society that exhibits disturbing examples of racial and religious prejudice. I'm disappointed that these issues received no attention in the speech at all.

Finally, our President could have enhanced the stature of the United States in the world by taking a principled stand on the issue of the blockade of Gaza and the denial of the human rights of the Palestinian people by the governments of both Israel and Egypt. These nations are the two largest recipients of U.S. aid, and the potential leverage that America could have on resolving the Israel-Palestine issue is enormous. Yet the U.S. commitment to universal human rights seems, consistently, to stop at the door of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

Isn't colonialism and ethnic cleansing wrong for everyone perpetrates these crimes, Mr. President? Breaking free from the clutches of the pro-Israel lobby-while still affirming the fundamental rights of Israelis as well as Palestinians-is essential to establishing real peace and justice in the Middle East.

Osama Bin-Laden, among others, is aware of this moral contradiction in American policy , and he plays it for his own sinister, and violent, purposed.( Note: the contradiction has gotten louder with U.S. aid to the Egyptian government for building the barrier on their border with Gaza). The President could have dealt a serious blow to the prestige of the Jihadists if he simply stood up, with moral conviction and courage, for the end to the blockade of Gaza, and the collective punishment of the people there-as Representative Keith Ellison and some 55 members of the House of Representatives have asked him to do. But he did not.

In some ways, even the highest elected official of the nation is constrained by the plethora of political and economic interests that surround him. But if President Obama is committed to moral politics for the benefit of the whole nation, that morality needs to go all the way-and challenging the essential, and structural, evils of violence, poverty, and racism that persist in the fabric of our national life.

Those are indeed the "evil triplets" that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought to eradicate. And even at the cost of political popularity, that is a fight that our President needs to fully, publicly, and unapologetically take on. And I believe that he should have done so, especially in his most important speech of the new year.