Howard Zinn, who died of a heart attack yesterday at age 87, was an Air Force bombardier before becoming a politically engaged historian, civil-rights activist, vital Vietnam War opponent, prolific writer, indefatigable instigator, and probably the country’s best-known demystifier of American mythology, largely through his best-selling 1980 book, A People’s History of the United States. As others have said, he was a historian who made history and we seemed to be in the middle of a Howard Zinn revival at the time of his death.
In Democracy Now’s excellent rapid-responsive tribute to Zinn, the poet Alice Walker recalls her former professor speaking to a crowd in Atlanta, where he taught at the all-female Spelman College from 1955 to 1963. “Well, I stand to the left of Mao Tse Tung,” he declared to his staunch, pre-civil rights audience, admitting something close to a hanging offense at the time. Noam Chomsky, Zinn’s less entertaining but equally brilliant and provocative close friend, says of Zinn, “He was fearless, he was simple, he was straightforward. He said the right things, said them eloquently, and inspired others to move forward in ways they wouldn’t have done….He could look back on a life of real, unusual achievement.” Last year The History Channel screened The People Speak, a documentary inspired by ordinary people who fought back against the powers that be. It was narrated by Matt Damon and featured readings and performances by Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan, Lupe Fiasco, Josh Brolin, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Pink, Morgan Freeman, Benjamin Bratt, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Marisa Tomei, Bruce Springsteen, and John Legend.
The point of civil disobedience, Zinn says in the documentary inspired by his 1994 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is “to upset people, to trouble them, to disturb them.” He was a rabble-rouser for sure. But even more, according to Naomi Klein, “He was everybody’s favorite teacher, the teacher who changed your life. But he was that for millions and millions of people….We just lost our favorite teacher.” Zinn, Klein adds, taught people “to believe in themselves and their power to change the world.”
For what may be his last published piece, The Nation recently asked Zinn what he thought the high point of President Obama’s first year has been, as well as its biggest disappointment. His reply is especially resonant the morning after Obama’s impressive State of the Union address last night:
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.