In another lecture, delivered to presumably young, independent filmmakers at the Taos Talking Pictures Festival in 1999, Zinn exhorts them, too, "to transcend conventional wisdom" and make films that not only deglorify war but "will make war abhorrent to people." There are plenty of real and exciting historical stories to base these on, Zinn suggests, from stories of lower-class Revolutionary War soldiers who desert the army when they're betrayed by their officers, to the story of how President James K. Polk lied to Americans to drive them into war with Mexico, to the tales of American brutality in the Philippines in the opening years of the 20th century. "War needs to be presented on film in such a way as to create a new population of people who simply say 'no' to war." Here Zinn sometimes seems naive himself, thinking filmmakers are going to get financing to make such bummer stories (look what happened when Oprah made Beloved). But though he doesn't make the case himself, once in a while progressives do break through to popular consciousness. Think of Errol Morris's new film on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, or Michael Moore's docu-comedies, or Warren Beatty's sly Bullworth.
Zinn doesn't take on some of the more interesting aesthetic questions surrounding the political engagement of artists—such as how to create a shimmering piece of art if it's laden with political ideology that tends to simplify complex realities. But that's probably not a question for a historian, and Zinn is a historian, one of the two or three best the left has. It'd be nice if this little book got read, argued over and coffee- and cigarette-stained beyond the obvious places—student cafes in Berkeley or Madison or Greenwich Village. How about Fullerton, Santa Ana, Irvine and Costa Mesa?
Artists in Times of War by Howard Zinn; Seven Stories Press. Paperback, 112 pages, $9.95.