Howard Zinn passed away last week of an apparent heart attack. He was 87. An American historian, Zinn was known primarily for writing “A People’s History of the United States”, an alternative view of our nation’s history up to the Clinton Administration. It was not short of infuriating details, and Zinn did not mince words. If you read the book, it probably challenged your own presumptions. It may have lit a fire under you. It almost certainly pissed you off immensely.
Zinn sought to challenge the traditional history taught in grade school and to upend conventions: The noble work of our Founding Fathers, the legitimacy of the “Under God” axiom, and America’s honorable assent to a global superpower, to name a few. Rarely do we want to be reminded of America’s shameful slave history, the centuries of brutality and intimidation to achieve global dominance, or of presidents who routinely mobilize millions of young men and women to protect economic interests. Such history is typically unwelcome.
As a result of his work, Zinn was relegated to a radical, a nice way of saying an anarchistic nut-job, hellbent on America’s demise. That presumption couldn’t have been more further from the truth.
Bob Herbert, in his phenomenal editorial in Saturday’s New York Times, writes:
“What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?”
Up until his death, Zinn worked tirelessly to bring truth – good or bad – to an increasingly apathetic America. It’s the people, Zinn insisted, who are the only catalysts for progress; Governments, on the contrary, have proven throughout history their propensity for results by “any means necessary”. These means usually come in the form of bombs, mistakenly or sometimes strategically dropped on innocents, Zinn said.
In an era of ideological fanatics and blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, Zinn, with his pen, was an ambassador of common sense and human decency, quick to condemn wars as a fruitless end. His work opened many eyes – including mine – to injustices we fail to observe, that compromising human rights for the sake of progress is not open for discussion.
We could use more Zinns, more visionaries seeking justice for the exploited, more proponents of peace. He will certainly be missed.