Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn, A People’s Historian, Dies at 87

Howard Zinn helped shape the discussion in America for more than 50 years. His A People's History of the United States is often required reading for students. He died yesterday at 87 from a heart attack. Our thoughts are with his friends and family.

Here are some selected commentaries on his passing, as well as some examples of his thought.

From TruthDig:

Howard Zinn, A People’s Historian, Dies at 87

Posted on Jan 27, 2010

Howard Zinn changed the way we think about our history. The author of the revolutionary “A People’s History of the United States” died of a heart attack Wednesday in Santa Monica. He was an inspiration to us all.

Zinn was a fierce thinker, speaker and activist who led a fascinating life. Take this early episode, recounted by the Associated Press: “War continued his education. Eager to help wipe out the Nazis, he joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 and even persuaded the local draft board to let him mail his own induction notice. He flew missions throughout Europe, receiving an Air Medal, but he found himself questioning what it all meant. Back home, he gathered his medals and papers, put them in a folder and wrote on top: ‘Never again.’”

He was fired by a Southern black women’s college for being too pro-civil rights and resented by the Kennedy administration. He was intellectually consistent and consistently tough. One of his final works was published just recently—an attack on the Obama administration.

More of Zinn’s AP obituary here.

A more fitting tribute by a Truthdig contributor can be found here. —PZS
From CounterPunch, an interview with Zinn (2008).

An Interview with Howard Zinn on the State of the Empire
Zinn Speaks By WAJAHAT ALI

At 85 years old, the indefatigable Howard Zinn still maintains the prolific activist and academic jab fueled by his political and social activism nurtured during The Civil Rights Movement. The esteemed historian and controversial rabble rouser’s seminal work, The People’s History of the United States, taught in high schools and colleges across the nation, has been adapted as a documentary, The People Speak, featuring readings by Sean Penn, Matt Damon, Viggo Mortenson and Marisa Tomei. Still touring and giving lectures, Zinn shows no signs of stopping, however his hectic schedule has slowed to devote more time for his family obligations. After nearly a month of back and forth emails and missed opportunities, Professor Zinn agreed to an interview reflecting on his historic and memorable time at Spelman College in the ‘60’s, his thoughts on the Democratic Party, his philosophy of dissent as democracy, and his hope for America’s future.

ALI: Your experiences and acts of civil disobedience at Spelman College are, by now, thoroughly well known. However, in the 21st century, one could look at the student body at many liberal college campuses and see that fiery protest and consciousness replaced by apathy and materialism. Where has that fighting spirit gone? You spoke against “discouragement” at the 2005 Spelman College commencement speech - what of it now?

ZINN: What you describe as the difference between the Sixties and today on campuses is true, but I would not go too far with that. There are campus groups all over the country working against the war, but they are small so far. Remember, the scale of involvement in Vietnam was greater – 500,000 troops vs. 130,000 troops in Iraq. After five years in Vietnam, there were 30,000 U.S. dead vs. today we have 4,000 dead. The draft was threatening young people then, but not now. Greater establishment control of the media today, which is not reporting the horrors inflicted on the people of Iraq as the media began in the U.S. to report on U.S. atrocities like the My Lai Massacre. In the case of the movement against the Vietnam War, there was the immediate radicalizing experience of the Civil Rights Movement for racial equality, whose energy and indignation carried over into the student movement against the Vietnam War. No comparable carry over exists today. And yes, there is more materialism, more economic insecurity for young people going to college – huge tuition costs putting pressure on students to concentrate on studies and do well in school.

ALI: You were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement that dealt not only with racial empowerment and equality, but also re-examination of U.S. foreign policy and withdrawal from the brutal Vietnam War. Here we are now in 2008 with a seemingly unending, and many say illegal, occupation of Iraq. “Racism” has emerged as a contentious topic due to Obama running for President and his Reverend’s controversial comments. Yet, most say he and other candidates talk “pretty” but are unwilling to fundamentally confront and change the problems of race and foreign policy. As one who has observed this socio-political climate from the grassroots since the 1960’s, what has changed if anything in regards to racial enlightenment and the humanizing of non – American, “foreign others”?

Zinn: The Civil Rights Movement was an educational experience for many Americans. The result was more opportunities for a small percentage of Black people, perhaps 10% or 20%, so more Black youth going to college and going into the professions. A greater consciousness among White people - not all, but many - of racism. For most Black people, however, there is still poverty and desperation. The Ghettos still exist, and the proportion of Blacks in prison is still much greater than Whites. Today, there is less overt racism, but the economic injustices create an “institutional racism” which exists even while more Blacks are in high places, such as Condoleezza Rice in Bush’s Administration and Obama running for President.

Unfortunately, the greater consciousness among Whites about Black equality has not carried over to the new victims of racism – Muslims and Immigrants. There is no racial enlightenment for these groups, which are huge. Millions of Muslims and an equal number of immigrants, who whether legal or illegal, face discrimination both legally from the government and extra-legally from White Americans – and sometimes Black and Hispanic Americans. The Democratic Presidential candidates are avoiding these issues in order to cultivate support among White Americans.

This is shameful, especially for Obama, who should use his experience as a Black man to educate the public about discrimination and racism. He is cautious about making strong statements about these issues and about foreign policy. So, in keeping with the tradition of caution and timidity of The Democratic Party, he takes positions slightly to the left of The Republicans, but short of what an enlightened policy would be.

ALI: You said the democratic spirit of the American people is best represented when people are picketing and voicing their opinion outside the White House. How does this nature of dissent and protest serve as the crux of a democracy and a healthy, functioning civic society? Many would argue this is divisive, no?

ZINN: Yes, dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real divisions in society. Those divisions exist – the rich, the poor – whether there is dissent or not, but when there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.

ALI: The People’s History of The United States is now considered a seminal work taught in high schools and universities across the country. Why do you think the work has had such lasting, influential impact?

ZINN: Because it fills a need, because there is a huge emptiness of truth in the traditional history texts. And because people who gain some understanding on their own that there are things wrong in society, they look for their new consciousness; their new feelings to be represented by a more honest history.

ALI: Minority voters, like Hispanic Catholics, voted solidly for Bush in 2002, and some sons of immigrants have virulent anger and disdain against “illegal” immigrants. It seems many marginalized voices have forgotten their history and now side with those actively intent on keeping them either on the sidelines or in some form “oppressed.” How do we explain this discrepancy?

ZINN: It is to the interest of the people in power to divide the rest of the population in order to rule them. To set poor against middle class, White against Black, Native born against immigrants, Christians against other religions. It serves the interest of the establishment to keep people ignorant of their own history,

ALI: Most say that corporations now own American media. What is the proper outlet for democratic discourse and dissemination of information if indeed there is a biased monopoly over media?

ZINN: Because of the control of the media by corporate wealth, the discovery of truth depends on an alternative media, such as small radio stations, networks like Pacifica Radio, programs like Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. Also, alternative newspapers, which exist all over the country. Also, cable TV programs, which are not dependent on commercial advertising. Also, the internet, which can reach millions of people by-passing the conventional media.

ALI: Will anything change in regards to US foreign policy in the Middle East, specifically on Palestine and Israel, if the Democratic Party wins in 2008?

ZINN: The Democratic candidates, Clinton and Obama, have not shown any sign of a fundamental change in the policy of support of Israel. They have not shown sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. Obama has occasionally referred to the situation of the Palestinians but as the campaign has gone on, he seems reluctant to bring this up, and instead emphasizes his support of Israel.

So, a change in policy will require more pressure from other countries and more education of the American people, who at this point know very little about what has been happening to the Palestinian people. The American people are naturally sympathetic to those they see as oppressed, but they get very little information from political leaders or the media, which would give them a realistic picture of the suffering of Palestinians under the Occupation

ALI: How can “the left” reconcile their assumed indifference to religion with the growing “religious” sector of society siding with the “conservative” parties? Can there be a peace between the two or is this a permanent schism? I’ve noticed bigotry on both sides, between the “secularists” and “religionists.”

ZINN: The Left needs to more clearly make a distinction between the bigotry of fundamentalism and the progressive tradition in religion. In Latin America, there is “liberation theology.” In the U.S., there were the priests and nuns who supported Black people in the South and who protested against the Vietnam War. So, it’s not a matter of being for or against religion, but of deciding whether religion can play a role for justice and peace rather than for violence and bigotry.
Read more.

From Harvey Wasserman at the Palestine Chronicle.
How the Great Howard Zinn Made All Our Lives Better


Thanks, Howard, for more than we can begin to say.

[Doctor Howard Zinn died of a heart attack on January 27, at the age of 87. A well-beloved figure, the author, historian, educator, and social-activist was best known for his tome, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. The telling of American history begins with vivid descriptions of the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the gruesome abuses they inflicted upon Native peoples. Skipping the well-known tales of American destiny, Zinn focused instead on the lesser-known epochs, the stories of the everyday people who struggled to build and mould their country.(Reference: The Examiner.com)]

By Harvey Wasserman

Howard Zinn was above all a gentleman of unflagging grace, humility and compassion.

No American historian has left a more lasting positive legacy on our understanding of the true nature of our country, mainly because his books reflect a soul possessed of limitless depth.

Howard’s PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES will not be surpassed. As time goes on new chapters will be written in its spirit to extend its reach.

But his timeless masterpiece broke astonishing new ground both in its point of view and its comprehensive nature. The very idea of presenting the American story from the point of view of the common citizen was itself revolutionary. That he pulled it off with such apparent ease and readability borders on the miraculous. That at least a million Americans have bought and read it means that its on-going influence is immense. It is truly a history book that has and will continue to change history for the better.

But that doesn’t begin to account for Howard’s personal influence. He was a warm, unfailingly friendly compadre. He shared a beautiful partnership with his wonderful wife Roz, a brilliant, thoroughly committed social worker about whom he once said: “You and I just talk about changing the world. She actually does it.”

But Howard was no ivory tower academic. His lectures were engaging, exciting and inspirational. But they took on an added dimension because he was personally engaged, committed and effective. He chose to write books and articles in ways that could impact the world in which they were published. He showed up when he was needed, and always had a sixth sense about exactly what to say, and how.

Perhaps the most meaningful tribute to pay this amazing man is to say how he affected us directly. Here are two stories I know intimately:

In 1974, my organic commune-mate Sam Lovejoy toppled a weather tower as a protest against the coming of a nuclear power plant. When Sam needed someone to testify on how this act of civil disobedience fit into the fabric of our nation’s history, Howard did not hesitate. His testimony in that Springfield, Massachusetts courtroom (see “Lovejoy’s Nuclear War” via www.gmpfilms.com) remains a classic discourse on the sanctity of non-violent direct action and its place in our national soul. (Sam was acquitted, and we stopped that nuke!)

Three years earlier I sent Howard a rambling 300-page manuscript under the absurdly presumptuous title A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, 1860-1920. Written in a drafty communal garage in the Massachusetts hills by a long-haired 20-something graduate school dropout, the manuscript had been rejected by virtually every publisher in America, often accompanied with nasty notes to the tune of: “NEVER send us anything like this again.”

But I sent a copy to Howard, whom I had never met. He replied with a cordial note typed on a single sheet of yellow paper, which I still treasure. I showed it to Hugh Van Dusen at Harper & Row, who basically said Harper had no idea why anyone would ever read such a book, but that if Howard Zinn would write an introduction, they’d publish it (though under a more appropriate title).

He did, and they did…and my life was changed forever.

Thankfully, Hugh then had the good sense to ask Howard to write a REAL people’s history by someone---the ONLY one---who could handle the job. He did….and ALL our lives have been changed forever.

Howard labored long and hard on his masterpiece, always retaining that astonishing mixture of humor and humility that made him such a unique and irreplaceable treasure. No one ever wrote or spoke with a greater instinct for the True and Vital. His unfailing instinct for what is just and important never failed him---or us. The gentle, lilting sound of his voice put it all to unforgettable music that will resonate through the ages.

A few days ago I wrote Howard asking if he’d consider working on a film about the great Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs, whose story Howard's books have uniquely illuminated.

Eugene V. Debs was beloved by millions of Americans who treasured not only his clarity of a shared vision for this nation, but his unshakeable honesty and unquestioned integrity.

Debs ran five times for president. He conducted his last campaign from a federal prison cell in Atlanta, where he was locked up by Woodrow Wilson. He got a million votes (that we know of). “While there is a soul in prison,” he said, unforgettably, “I am not free.”

Debs had deeply shaken Wilson with his brilliant, immeasurably powerful opposition to America’s foolish and unjust entry into World War I, and his demands for a society in which all fairly shared. In the course of his magnificent decades as our pre-eminent labor leader, Debs established a clear vision of where this nation could and should go for a just, sustainable future. Enshrined in Howard’s histories, it remains a shining beacon of what remains to be done.

Through his decades as our pre-eminent people’s historian, through his activism, his clarity and his warm genius, Howard Zinn was also an American Mahatma, a truly great soul, capable of affecting us all.

Like Eugene V. Debs, it is no cliché to say that Howard Zinn truly lives uniquely on at the core of our national soul. His PEOPLE’S HISTORY and the gift of his being just who he was, remains an immeasurable, irreplaceable treasure.

Thanks, Howard, for more than we can begin to say.

- Harvey Wasserman is Senior Editor of http://freepress.org, where this article first appeared.

Finally, a couple of videos.

Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train



Bill Moyers interviews Howard Zinn








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