He was a truly inspirational individual. He helped make history interesting and provocative by showing that nothing in history was inevitable, that it took the efforts and the heart wrenching work of regular people to create progress, as opposed to merely the efforts of presidents or other elites. He spoke for the power of the people and warned against seeing change as something that could only be wrought by the powerful few.
He taught me to spurn sloganeering, tolerate complexity, and cherish nuance.
Most of all, he allowed his readers and students to look at America in its totality. So much American history is taught devoid of conflict, as if America has never, or could never, do anything wrong. He was able to show that America was truly representative of us all i.e. a reflection of our own individual strengths and achievements and our own individual weaknesses and failures.
It was his honesty, his willingness to be frank, to see that readers and students would prefer to not be presented with just a glorified history of seemingly endless victories, but that we yearn to see not only how good we are or have been but also where we have made mistakes and where we have done ill.
I know of no person who is perfect, so it was with relish that as I read Howard Zinn he was willng to show me that no nation, not even America, can possibly be perfect either. But instead leaving me cynical he was able to show me that imperfection did not mean good could not, or did not occur, only that blindly seeing everything as good limits our ability to continue to do further good because we fail to correct for our mistakes. He taught me that having the humility to admit a wrong gives me the strength of character to correct my course and so it is with a nation.
The only thing inevitable in our nation’s future is that mistakes will be made, I only hope that some other historian can help us see that these mistakes must be acknowledged and that we the people must take responsibility for rectifying them. Such a historical education will produce individuals capable of humility in the face of complexity; individuals to whom questioning is integral to their soul and therefore are unlikely to cede that right to anyone; individuals resistance to hyperbole or demagoguery. In short, individuals prepared to function in a democratic society.
It is largely due to the power of his writings and his own actions where he stood up for the ideals he espoused that has inspired me to be an activist and a teacher. I don’t know that I will ever affect others the way he has affected me but, thanks to him I know that I have the power to try.
For those unfamiliar with Howard Zinn I leave you with these highlights:
A short interview with an independent media outlet:
Q: Your critics on the right often accuse you of being a “revisionist historian.” How do you counter that charge?
A: Of course I’m a “revisionist,” although I don’t like the term, as it tells you nothing about the so-called revision.
Anyone who wants to give a new version of history different from the traditional one, escaping the orthodox point of view, is “revisionist.”
To put it another way, we should always be revising history to escape outmoded accounts and to give fresh viewpoints and fresh information.
Q: Recently conservative writers, such as Ann Coulter, have tried to portray Senator Joseph McCarthy and the witchhunts of the 1950s in a positive light. What is the most effective rebuttal to that line of thinking?
A: Point out the effects of those witch hunts – to deprive people of jobs, to put hundreds on FBI lists, to create the anti-communist hysteria which led the U.S. to overthrow democratically-elected governments in Guatemala and Chile and support dictatorships all over the world and led the U.S. into Vietnam (international McCarthyism) leading to millions of deaths.
BILL MOYERS: Is your conclusion that we should not fight wars then because there will be civilian casualties?
HOWARD ZINN: Yes. (LAUGHS) Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Does this make you a pacifist?
HOWARD ZINN: No. I– I– I avoid the word pacifists. And the reason I avoid it– is that it suggests passivity. That is people think of pacifists as somebody who are going to sit by and do nothing while, you know, maybe mediate, while terrible things go on in the world. No. I mean– I think– I keep coming back to the fact that political tyrannies like Iraq have to be juxtaposed against other problems in the world which are very, very serious. I don’t believe in passivity. I believe we should do something about these problems. But we should not do war. Because war makes things worse than they were before. War has consequences which you cannot predict.
BILL MOYERS: How would you have us fight terrorism?
HOWARD ZINN: What I’m suggesting is change our posture from that, from a military superpower to a humanitarian superpower. We are enormously wealthy. Let’s use that wealth to send medicine to Africa. Let’s use that wealth to help change social and economic conditions around the world.
BILL MOYERS: So, here we are a few days away from that decision and possible war. What do you think is going to happen?
HOWARD ZINN: I don’t know. I’m a historian. Historians don’t know what’s going to happen. They guess like everybody else. I think– we’ll probably go to war. I’m not sure. I hold out– always hold out a hope that– the President will look around and think there’s not enough enthusiasm in the country for the war. And maybe when they see the casualties, even a small number of casualties– maybe my– and then this is the way he’ll think about it. Maybe my political fortunes will decline instead of rise. Maybe I’ll be blamed instead of praised. I’d like to think that that’s a possibility. But I think it’s only a possibility. But you act on the basis– not of probabilities, but of possibilities. If you act against war, even if you think that probably we’ll go to war, because you know that in the past, there have been times when something only seemed possible and yet it came to pass.
From a recent issue of The Nation—Howard Zinn’s review of President Obama:
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. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still treats the prisoners there as “suspected terrorists.” They have not been tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he’s not advancing the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he’s gone into court arguing for preventive detention, and he’s continued the policy of sending suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.
I think people are dazzled by Obama’s rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president–which means, in our time, a dangerous president–unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.
Some great videos:
Oh my friend Joseph Canitia just sent me this article by Dave Zirin who generally discusses politics and racing in the sporting world but also authored A People’s History of Sports in the United States.
At the end of the article, Zirin aptly sums up Zinn’s legacy: “Howard Zinn taught millions of us a simple lesson: Agitate. Agitate. Agitate. But never lose your sense of humor in the process. It’s a beautiful legacy and however much it hurts to lose him, we should strive to build on Howard’s work and go out and make some history.”
I don’t know what else I can say, I know Zinn was a controversial man and that his focus on teaching history from a bottom up perspective full of critiques and criticism of those in power often created ire amongst others, particularly those sitting in the current positions of power, so rather than defend his self-admitted bias i.e. that he readily taught history from the perspective of the indentured servant, the woman, the slave, the migrant worker, the Native Americans, etc. I will leave you with his own words:
“From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
To Howard and his family, for what it is worth–you changed us all.