Josna Rege

337. Lessons from a Historian

In 1970s, Books, Education, Family, history, parenting, people, Stories, United States on July 4, 2015 at 9:49 am
Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Years ago, around 1978, I participated in an anti-nuclear rally on the Boston Common where Howard Zinn spoke. I can’t remember the exact occasion of the rally or the main thrust of his talk, but one piece of advice in it stuck. Zinn’s words of wisdom have since come back to me in numerous very different situations involving negotiations with those in power.

“Always ask for what you want,” he told us, “never what you think you can get.”

He went on to explain what we have all experienced in one setting or another, but I had never quite articulated to myself as a political principle.

If an employee asks for a pay increase, for instance, probability is that the employer will come back with a lower offer rather than meeting the demand—that is, if he entertains it at all. People who feel themselves to be powerless start negotiations timidly and self-defeatingly by asking for less than they really want; but this guarantees that they will never get it, since the rules of power dictate that the powerful will always drive it down.

Power is (almost) never relinquished voluntarily, only under pressure, and of course a group of people can collectively exert more pressure than most individuals could ever hope to do. Another reason to articulate what you want, then, is to inspire other people. An individual going up against Power alone may gain something for him/herself, but the gain will be individual and limited; it cannot spark a movement for lasting social change.


When I heard Howard Zinn speak all those years ago, he must have been in the process of writing A People’s History of the United States (first published in 1980, most recent edition, 2005), which sets out to present American history through the eyes of the common people rather than political and economic elites. Of course, historiography—and the book’s title—tells us that this is one of many approaches to telling a story, and not the dominant one; Zinn’s popular and influential book has been challenged by many who question his political perspective. It is axiomatic that history is written by the powerful, so his approach is an important corrective to the history that most of us have been taught in school.

(from Occupy Oakland)

(from Occupy Oakland)

Children become masters in dealing with power in the persons of their parents. So it is no wonder that our son had internalized Zinn’s lesson long before he even learned to read; in fact, he went one better. His strategy was to make an outrageous demand, asking for much more than he knew was possible and then bargaining us down to what he really wanted. He invariably ended up with much more than his parents, putty in his hands, ever intended. So at bedtime, for example, he might ask me to finish reading the book and then bargain me down to “just” three chapters. (Come to think of it,  that doesn’t make a good analogy, since what he really wanted was usually what I wanted too.)

I write this on July 4th, Independence Day in the United States. Yesterday, a public radio station was asking listeners to share what it was that made them feel patriotic. I started making a mental list, which included national parks and public libraries. Add to that list the late Howard Zinn. howardzinnreadin

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  1. Hi Josna

    I have learned a new word – historiography – from your very interesting post.

    And, like Kristin, find patriotic feelings difficult to locate in my own breast. It is a short step from there to jingoism I feel. (During the Falkland Islands war, when the General Belgrano was sunk by the British navy, the Sun newspaper’s headline was ‘Gotcha.’ Hundreds died.)

    And, watching the tennis at Wimbledon yesterday with a friend yesterday, my friend pointed out there were virtually no black faces to be seen amongst the spectators. And also that the crowd roared with approval when a non-English player (playing against an English man) lost a point.

    I struggle to feel patriotic when there are celebrations of a local military presence. But I also feel guilty; I know that civilians should be grateful for this defence of this country and its democratic institutions. I suppose I am struggling with my stereotype of the military and perceive them to be lacking in humility, perception and thoughtfulness – and at the mercy of the calibre of their leaders and the budget they command.

    But, as you say – and looking around me – I am grateful for the parks, the work of many charities, the art upon the street and in museums and for the taken-for-granted principles of free speech and opportunity to engage in a free vote. May all that last forever and partly it continues to exist due to the defensive actions of the military.

    E x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love these conversations with you, E.
      I share your and Kristin’s feelings about patriotism. As far as I could tell, that Falklands/Malvinas war was orchestrated for the express purpose of whipping up jingoistic feelings. About Wimbledon–well, I suppose only certain people can afford the training to get to Wimbledon and the audience is probably limited by the cost of the tickets as well. (I know that tennis was and is a very popular sport in India, and as a child I remember following it (the Davis Cup) with my Dad on the radio.) I hate it, though, when audiences are so rude to other countries’ players, especially when they are hosting those players. I remember squirming with shame at the disrespectful behaviour of Britons when England played Germany in the World Cup a couple of decades ago.
      I worry that the freedoms we take for granted aren’t extended to all of us even in the countries where they are supposed to be guaranteed to all citizens, and also that they are being eroded before our eyes. I suppose we must remain vigilant–and here I’m not talking about vigilance against external threats.
      Thanks as always for your comments. x J


  2. I’m not even sure what feeling patriotic would be for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean, Kristin. My feelings on this are expressed in an older post, “A Immigrant’s Reflections on Independence Day” ( For a very long time I felt no patriotic stirrings whatsoever toward my adopted country, and still have a deep suspicion of all nationalisms. I remember one conversation during grad school when I was complaining to my African American professor that I still didn’t have a “we-feeling” about the United States after 25 years of living here; she looked at me with a wry smile and said “join the club, honey.” It had been nearly 400 years for her and she still felt like an outsider. That shut me up!
      Thinking about the radio announcer’s question yesterday, at first I couldn’t think of anything; but today I realized that I really do love and admire some of the United States’ public works and civic institutions, and think that it is worth fighting to save the government funding (our own tax dollars, that is) that sustains them.


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