Howard Zinn 1/30/10
I wanted to say a few words about Howard Zinn who died on Jan 27. For people on the left of my generation (I am 59), I cannot think of anyone else, with the possible exception of Noam Chomsky, who made a bigger political contribution to American life.
I did not know Howard personally. I lived around Boston during the 1970’s and I heard him speak many times, often at anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. Howard had amazing presence. He was funny, charming, and direct.
I feel indebted to Howard for his leading role in opposing the insanity that was the Vietnam War. It was a different world
then. Being anti-war was not as acceptable as it is now. Howard had guts. While he is best known for “A People’s History of the United States”, I remember his book “Vietnam:The Logic of Withdrawal”, published in 1967 or 1968. It pushed the anti-war movement. About this, Chomsky said:
“Howard really broke through. He was the first person to say
– loudly,publicly, very persuasively – that this simply has to stop;we should get out, period, no conditions; we have no right to be there; it’s an act of aggression;pull out.”
Of the times I heard Howard speak, the experience I remember the best was not at a rally. I went to BU to see the movie Burn which featured Marlon Brando. Howard gave a talk to introduce the movie. Burn is a story about a slave revolt on a Caribbean island. It was made by Gillo Pontecorvo who also made The Battle of Algiers. Because of its anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist story, the movie was suppressed by the movie industry that made it.
Howard told the story of Burn and its suppression to a large audience. I have to say his talk was fantastic. He was captivating, funny, and utterly entertaining. I do not think I ever saw anyone give a better talk about anything. I don’t know how available Burn is these days. Very worth seeing.
Howard’s counter-narrative of American history remains an absolutely necessary corrective to conventional wisdom. Instead of a history dominated by Great Men, Howard looked at what he called “the countless small actions of unknown people”. That perspective is valid and needs further development.
In reading about Howard this last week, I came across this Zinn quote cited by Matthew Rothschild of the Progressive Magazine:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And, if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that iis bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
I will miss Howard’s presence on the planet. I always looked forward to hearing whatever he had to say. He helped to make the world a saner place. What more could any one person do.