How the candidates view the world
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, March 2000
Every day, as the soggy rhetoric of the Presidential candidates
accumulates into an enormous pile of solid waste, we get more
and more evidence of the failure of the American political system.
The candidates for the job of leader of the most powerful country
in the world have nothing important to say. On domestic issues,
they offer platitudes about health care and Social Security and
taxes, which are meaningless given the record of both political
parties. And on foreign policy, utter silence.
That silence is what I want to talk about.
In domestic policy, there are enough slight differences among
the candidates to make some liberals and progressives-desperate
for hopeful signs-seize upon the most feeble of promises. Al Gore
and Bill Bradley take wobbly steps toward covering some fraction
of the forty-four million uninsured, but no candidate proposes
universal, nonprofit, government-guaranteed health care.
John McCain and George W. Bush mutter unintelligibly about
one or another tax plan, but no Republican or Democrat talks about
taxing the wealth and income of the super-rich in such a way as
to make several trillion dollars available for housing, health,
But on foreign and military policy, there are not even mutterings
about change. All the candidates vie with one another in presenting
themselves as supporters of the Pentagon, desirous of building
up our military strength. Here is Mr. Universe- bulging ridiculously
with muscles useless for anything except winning contests and
bullying the other kids on the block (it is important to be #
1, important to maintain "credibility")-promising to
buy more body-building equipment, and asking all of US to pay
How can we, if we have any self-respect, support candidates-Republican
or Democrat-who have nothing to say about the fact that the United
States, with 4 percent of the world's population, consumes 25
percent of its wealth? How can we support them when they have
nothing to say about our obligation to the other 96 percent, many
of whom are suffering as a result of American policy?
What is our obligation?
First, to follow the Hippocratic Oath and "Do No Harm."
Instead, we are doing much harm.
By depriving the people of Iraq of food, medicine, and vital
equipment, we are causing them enormous suffering under the pretense
of "sending a message" to Saddam Hussein. It appears
we have no other way to send a message but through killing people.
How does this differ, except in scale, from the killings done
by terrorists around the world, who also defend their acts by
claiming their need to "send a message".
We pretend we care about "democracy" in Cuba-we
who have supported dictatorships all over Latin America for 100
years and in Cuba itself until Fidel Castro came to power. Truth
is, we cannot bear the thought that Castro for forty years has
defied us, refusing to pay us the homage to which we are accustomed
in this hemisphere. Castro has spurned the invitation to become
a member of the world capitalist dub, and that is, evidently,
unforgivable. And so we impose an embargo on Cuba and make its
Which candidate, Democrat or Republican, has had the decency
to speak out on this embargo, and on the deprivation it has caused
for the children of Cuba? What meaning has the phrase "human
rights" if people are denied the necessities of life?
Which candidate, Democrat or Republican, has said a word about
our obscene possession of thousands of nuclear weapons-while Washington
goes into hysterics over the possibility that some country in
the Middle East may some day have one nuclear bomb? None of them
has the courage to say what common sense tells us, and what someone
so expert on military issues and so tied to the Establishment
as Paul Nitze (a former arms control adviser in the Reagan Administration)
has publicly said: "I see no compelling reason why we should
not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons.... It is the
presence of nuclear weapons that threatens our existence."
While the front pages report the latest solemn pronouncements
of the candidates, professing their concern for the well-being
of Americans, the inside pages report the brutal Russian assault
on Chechnya, with barely a word from these candidates about the
well-being of men, women, and children who were huddled in the
basements of Grozny, awaiting the next wave of bombings.
There have been a few lame expressions of protest from the
Clinton Administration, but it is careful not to offend the Russian
leaders, and so, last October, the Toronto Sun reported: "In
Moscow, standing next to her beaming Russian hosts, U.S. Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed, 'We are opposed to terrorism,
meaning Islamic rebels in the Caucasus fighting Russian rule.'
We can't forget that Clinton supported the Russian war on Chechnya
from 1994 to 1996, going so far (he does get carried away) as
to compare Chechnya to the Confederacy of the Civil War, which
had to be put down for the sake of the larger nation. Yeltsin
as Lincoln-that was a bit of a stretch.
Is it possible that the various candidates-all supported by
huge corporate wealth (it is expected that $3 billion will be
spent on the elections)-do not dare challenge a foreign policy
whose chief motivation is not human rights but business profit?
Behind the coldness to the people of Chechnya and Iraq, there
is the crass matter of oil in that part of the world. Last November,
Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times reported from Istanbul: "Four
nations in the Caspian Sea region took a giant step today toward
embracing one of President Clinton's cherished foreign policy
projects, a pipeline that would assure Western control over the
potentially vast oil and natural gas reserves . . . and give the
United States greater influence in the region." The word
"cherished" suggests an emotional attachment one cannot
find with regard to human rights in the Third World. Does Clinton
equally "cherish" projects designed to eliminate hunger
and illness? Do the Presidential candidates?
The World Health Organization has described the plight of
ten million people-dying of AIDS or tuberculosis-as "a silent
genocide." The numbers make it as serious and frightening
as Hitler's genocide, which our political leaders regularly deplore,
at no cost to themselves. But no candidate proposes that we stop
spending several hundred billions on the military, stop selling
arms to countries all over the world, stop the use of land mines,
stop training the officers of military dictatorships in the Third
World-and use that money to wipe out tuberculosis and stem the
spread of AIDS.
Gore, speaking to the U.N. Security Council a few weeks ago,
promised to increase the U.S. commitment to fight AIDS up to $325
million. This is a tinier commitment than that of other industrialized
countries and less than the money spent for one fighter-bomber.
And that sum pales in comparison to the $1.6 billion proposed
by the Clinton Administration for Colombia, ostensibly to fight
the war on drugs but really to deal with rebellion.
I suppose the problem is that people who are being bombed
around the world, or people who are dying as the result of preventable
illnesses, do not vote in American elections. Our political system
is not sensitive to the needs even of some of our own citizens
who don't vote-the homeless, the imprisoned, the very poor-so
how can we expect it to care a whit about people 5,000 miles from
our voting booths, however miserable their situation?
Since our political system-bipartisan in its coldness to human
rights-imposes a silence on these issues, it cannot be respected.
It can only be protested against, challenged, or, in the words
of the Declaration of Independence, referring to a government
that has violated its responsibility to its people, "altered
or abolished." That's a tall order, but it can be prepared
for by a multitude of short steps, in which citizens act, outside
of the party system, to redress their grievances.
Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United
States, " is a columnist for The Progressive magazine.
Howard Zinn page