Howard Zinn, Rest in Peace

“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

Howard Zinn, one of the great progressive historians, activists, and human beings of the late 20th century died yesterday. He was 87 years old.

Many people know Howard Zinn, or have at least heard of him, in connection with his seminal work A People’s History of the United States. The book was a revelation to me. In a world where we are taught about presidents and generals and business tycoons, here was a book that set all of that on its head, and told U.S. history through the eyes of “ordinary” and usually oppressed people: women, immigrants, farmers, slaves, Indians, low wage workers, minorities, those living in poverty, etc.

What quickly became clear – and I can only assume this was Zinn’s major point – is that history is not always what we’ve been taught in school. In fact, it rarely is. And that the great advances in human social progress have come about not because of the actions of presidents and generals, but precisely because of the actions, both individual and collective, of the persons that our history books tend to ignore in their narratives confined to the rich and powerful.

Howard Zinn was an enthusiastic bombardier in World War II. Only later did he come to understand and regret what he had done, and to become a fervent and lifelong opponent of war. But the struggle against war was only one of his passions; he enthusiastically supported and joined in the struggle for civil rights (he taught Alice Walker and other young black women in Spellman College in Atlanta in the 1950’s, eventually being fired for supporting their activism), women’s rights, workers rights – you name it, if it was a fight for equality, freedom and human dignity, you could count on Howard Zinn to be  involved.

And as the stories of these struggles became intertwined with the history that Zinn wrote, it also became clear that he understood “the law,” and it’s relation to human progress, more clearly than any other author, thinker or activist I’ve ever encountered.

The law, he realized, was not some holy writ. It was written by people, almost always men (and white men in this country), who were more often than not writing it for the benefit of powerful vested interests. His opinion was that laws should be obeyed when they functioned in the service of human rights and dignity. And that when they were not, they should be vigorously opposed – with one’s body if necessary. He was a vocal proponent and practitioner of nonviolent civil disobedience/resistance, noting (in another quote hanging in my office): “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy. It is absolutely essential to it.”

As you might guess, Zinn’s attitude and behavior ruffled more than few feathers in academia. Some fellow historians considered him an undisciplined polemicist and agitator, despite the well-researched and primary source-filled nature of books like A People’s History. And John Silber, former president of Boston University where Zinn taught (and agitated) for many years, cited him as an example of teachers “who poison the well of academe.”

And so it should be, that those clinging to power attack those who challenge that power and the status quo. Silber’s comments remind of the saying that the greatest compliment old folks can pay to a younger generation’s music is when your parents scream at you to “turn that sh*t off!”

Zinn was in a class by himself. In the words of Noam Chomsky, Zinn’s writings “simply changed perspective and understanding for a whole generation. He’s changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.”

But above all, for Zinn it was always about the ordinary person fighting for  dignity and human rights. I still choke up and get a chill down my spine when I recall his account of one of many civil rights battles in the South he participated in and documented, when a 9 year old black boy who had been arrested was asked for his name by the police, and answered simply  “Freedom.”

May Howard Zinn be long remembered. And may he be remembered as he would want to be, by the activism of people fighting for a better world.

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If you are interested in reading more of Howard Zinn, he never wrote a bad book. You can pick up any one of them and start reading in any place and your life will be enriched. His autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is a great short read.

In addition, you might want to check out this obituary in the Boston Globe, or this short obit from The Nation, “Goodbye Howard Zinn,” which includes a few video clips of Zinn speaking.

And, in recognition of last night’s State of the Union speech, here is Zinn’s concise and cogent analysis of President Obama after his first year, printed just a couple weeks ago in The Nation magazine.

“I’ ve been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama’s rhetoric; I don’t see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies. As far as disappointments, I wasn’t terribly disappointed because I didn’t expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that’s hardly any different from a Republican–as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there’s no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people–and that’s been true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama’s no exception. On healthcare, for example, he starts out with a compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now. I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That’s the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he’s not making any significant step away from Bush policies.”

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