Sunday, January 31, 2010

Howard Zinn

Last Wednesday, the historian and social activist Howard Zinn died at the age of 87. I was delighted to see Bob Herbert's tribute to Zinn in the Times' Saturday edition, but I cannot resist weighing in with a brief appreciation of my own.

Zinn was raised in Brooklyn, earned his BA from NYU after serving in World War II as a bombardier on B-17s, and then went on to get his doctorate at Columbia. He was a New Yorker born and bred. His academic career, however, began far from New York. His first appointment was at Spelman College, the historically Black Women's College in Atlanta where he became immersed in the Civil Rights Movement before being fired for insubordination in 1963 for actively opposing the idea that Spelman's mission was to "turn out young ladies." Soon thereafter he accepted an appointment as a professor of Political Science at Boston University. He continued at BU until he retired in 1988. His battles with long-time president John Silber were legendary, with each trying to get the other fired over many years of contention.

From the beginning, Zinn was intent on telling the stories of ordinary Americans and what they did to make their communities more humane and democratic. He was also an unyielding and often annoying critic of the great men of history, from Columbus to Lincoln to FDR. I say annoying, because so much energy and historical scholarship is invested in reinterpreting and reaffirming the greatness of historical figures like these. When someone like Zinn comes along to take them down a peg or two, the folks who write these histories get quite angry and find all sorts of reasons to marginalize people like Zinn.

When I first encountered Zinn's work in my twenties and then for many years after that, I regarded him as a marginal figure, a little bit kooky and not really to be taken seriously. Many years later, though, when I reread him and encountered much of his more recent work, I found his perspective incredibly refreshing and invigorating. For one thing, he was totally committed to nonviolence. He has never supported any post-World War II military engagement by the U.S. and has never himself engaged in any kind of protest that was anything but nonviolent. I must add here, and I am ashamed to come so late to this point of view, that I now agree with Zinn completely that there is not a single case of United States' military intervention since World War II that can be successfully defended, either with respect to the reasons for initiating the intervention or with respect to outcomes.

Just as important, I came to deeply, deeply respect how Zinn thought about history. Despite the seeming irresistible desire to glorify great men, his goal was always to explore what it had looked like in the past for people to work toward a society where everyone could have a fair share and no one would be given special privileges. I have particularly benefited from a recent volume called "A Power Governments Cannot Suppress." For instance, he says on page 11 of this volume, that his goal is to write "in order to illustrate the power of people struggling for a better world. People, when organized, have enormous power, more than any government." Rejecting nationalism, he declares on page 154: "We need to assert our allegiance to humanity as a whole, to all living things, and not to any one nation. We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history." And arguing always that one of our great enemies is war itself, Zinn writes on page 196: "My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race."

What I love most about Howard Zinn, though, is his use of history to show his love for humanity. His interest has always been in the 99% of the people who do not get included in the history books, the every day, ordinary people who work so hard to make life better and who stand up, often risking their reputations and their lives, for the rights and respect that they and their neighbors so richly deserve and yet so rarely receive. Zinn understood that history should be used as a lens for making the future more decent, more humane, more committed to tapping into the brilliance and creativity of the bulk of humanity. We need people like Howard Zinn, not only to instruct us about the lessons of history, but to inspire us and give us hope that real change is possible. Here's to Howard Zinn and those who will follow in his footsteps to show us a better way.

1 comment:

  1. While we're seeking comment in the lines of others, I'll say that Zinn is something like a star:
    'Steadfast...not moving from its sphere.
    It asks a little of us here.
    It asks of us a certain height.
    So when at times mob is swayed
    To carry praise or blame too far,
    We may choose something like a star
    To stay our minds on...' [Frost]