January 31, 2010

Howard Zinn, Voice of the People

The United States has lost a great man with the death on January 27, 2010, at 87, of author, teacher and political activist Howard Zinn. He is remembered most of all for his book “People’s History of the United States”, which  truly lives up to its name by reshuffling the standard roles of heroes and villains.

He certainly opened my eyes. I bought the first edition when it appeared in 1980 and learned of dramatic events ignored in standard history books. Instead of military heroes I found people who protest against war. Helen Keller, for example: a renowned American writer and lecturer who was blind and deaf. But to preserve her as a role model, historians before Zinn skipped over the fact that she was also a firebrand socialist who marched and campaigned against World War I. Why was that side of her kept from us? 

As another example, Christopher Columbus becomes more villain than hero in Zinn’s writing when we read what Caribbean Indians thought of his massacres and enslavements. And President Andrew Jackson, enshrined in our history for forging modern American democracy, also resorted to genocide by sending the  army to drive Indians in the southwest U.S. out of their homes.

Reactionaries charged Prof. Zinn with undermining feelings of patriotism by being too negative, even though they could never fault his research. “Dissent,” he countered “is the highest form of patriotism.” I share that feeling strongly. Only by facing up to the darkest moments in history can a nation understand itself and strive to be just and moral.

Zinn never tried to write a linear historical record of his country, only to publish what he felt was being censored. "It's not an unbiased account; so what?,” he told one interviewer. “If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated, it's a different story."

Zinn's close friend, the linguist and foreign policy expert Noam Chomsky, said it well: "I can't think of anyone who had such a powerful and benign influence. His historical work changed the way millions of people saw the past."

“A People’s History of the United States” was published with little promotion and a humble first printing of 5,000. It became a bestseller and has been made into a documentary and divided into a series of teaching courses. Although he was rarely invited to speak on mainstream television or radio, or to express his views in  the big  publications, there is an interview with him on the  independent TV network C-Span whose transcript you can read here  
and with luck might be able view here.

Howard Zinn was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1922, to Jewish immigrants. His father was a waiter. After high school, he worked three years in the local shipyard, then, eager to help wipe out the Nazis, volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1943. Until the end of the war he was a bombardier in B-17s over much of Europe. Near the end, the bombs contained a new deadly fire called napalm, which years later would be used on North Vietnam.

“You'd bomb from 30,000 feet,” he recalled in the C-Span interview. “You don't see what's happening down there. You don't see people suffering. You don't see people burning. You don't see limbs falling. You--you just see little flashes in the dark. ...”

“Later--only later did I begin to think about it, and I was horrified by what I had done, and I'm still horrified by what I did. But I think that had an effect on my thinking about war, because here I was in the best of wars. And I believed it was the best of wars because I volunteered for it. A war against fascism? I mean, how could you find a more bestial enemy? And yet it's a--it complicated the war for

me. It complicated the morality of the war, and it made me begin to think that war itself is evil. Even when it starts with good cause, even when the enemy is horrible, that there's something about war, especially in our time when war inevitably involves indiscriminate killing--and I came to the conclusion that war simply cannot be accepted morally as a solution for whatever problems are in the world.”

After the war, he stuffed his medals into an envelope and wrote on it, “Never again!”
(See him on this U-Tube video declare that despite what so many sociologists say, war is not part of human nature   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFGCLu3YWwE&feature=related

As a professor, first at Spelman, an all-black university in Mississippi, and later at Boston University, he encouraged his students to stand up to abusive authority, which often meant the White House and Pentagon. “Protest beyond the law,” he declared, “is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”

“Men who have no respect for human life or for freedom or justice have taken over this beautiful country of ours. It will be up to the American people to take it back.”

Back in 2003 when George W. Bush was gunning for Saddam Hussein, Zinn wrote a cover story for The Progressive called “A Chorus Against War.” This is how it ends:

“If Bush starts a war, he will be responsible for the lives lost, the children crippled, the terrorizing of millions of ordinary people, the American GIs not returning to their families.”

As always it was those ordinary people who were the most important to Howard Zinn.

On July 30, 2010, the FBI released its 423-page file on Zinn. It shows that genuine intellectual thought is always subversive. Reading it, says Christopher Hedges, gives one a profound respect for Zinn and a deep distaste for the buffoonish goons in the FBI who followed and monitored him."Zinn was a threat not because he was a violent revolutionary or a communist but because he was fearless and told the truth."

"Why the Feds Fear Thinkers Like Howard Zinn":


Pablo Quesada said...

It´s a nice story of someone to remember.

Ana F. said...

It's great that through Internet we have the opportunity to "attend" that absolutely interesting talk. Thanks for introducing such a unique and passionate figure. I felt bad about not knowing about him and glad I do now.