Dec 10, 2013
Zinn Is Dead—Long Live ‘Zinn’
Posted on Jan 28, 2010
I sit here in shock, having just read the Boston Globe headline, “Howard Zinn, historian who challenged status quo, dies at 87.” I knew the day would come. I dreaded it. I flew to Boston last year to spend a day with him just so I wouldn’t read a headline like this without having seen him at least one last time. And now I sit here. Devastated.
Much will and should be written about Howard’s contributions to the world: how his ‘People’s History of the U.S.’ changed how many of us understand America and, like all great histories, shed the great light of Truth upon our present, explaining what cannot be understood by official propaganda; the pivotal role he played in the civil rights movement during the tough years when he, like so many others, took enormous physical risks for simply wanting justice, a period he told me was the highlight of his life; the thousands of people, well known and not, whose lives were politically transformed by their encounters with him.
And the personal remembrances of Howard the human being will be no less moving and true. I have met many political people in my lifetime. Howard was by far the most honest, human, open, kind, generous, gracious, sweetest, humorous and charming of them. By far. I am not the first to be reminded of Abraham Lincoln when talking with him, not only because of the physical resemblance but his profound humanity. His personal warmth and gentleness, combined with his political fire and passion, were entirely unique in my experience. He looked you in the eyes. He listened. He reacted appropriately to what you were saying. He was as interested in my ideas and experience when we talked last January as he had been 40 years ago. Looking back on his life he was as open and honest about his regrets as well as satisfactions as anyone I have ever met.
But to me there is an even more important aspect of his life, like that of his friend and colleague Noam Chomsky, that transcends the personal.
To many of us “Zinn” and “Chomsky” have not only been admirable human beings. They have been something far more, something difficult to put into words, something perhaps even risky to try to capture but something that, nonetheless, one feels driven to express at a moment like this.
“Zinn” and “Chomsky” represented a tradition and state of being that meant we were not entirely on our own, beacons of:
—The deepest possible compassion. At any given moment the world is divided into those who hear the screams of the innocent victims and those who do not. Most of us, certainly myself, go in and out of hearing the screams. We fight this injustice but ignore that one. “Zinn” and “Chomsky” is a state of being that consistently hears the screams, from Vietnam to inner city ghettos, from East Timor to Haiti. It is a state that is unable to close itself off from the pain of the world.
—Intellectual clarity, as they have told their truths in their writings and speeches to millions, never compromising for the sake of political expediency like so many of their contemporaries. Many of us were terminally confused by the conflict between America’s image and reality. “Zinn” and “Chomsky” provide explanations and understandings that helped keep us sane.
—Moral courage, as they went beyond mere speech-making and writing, and joined with those opposing the war, risking imprisonment or physical injury—as in our “affinity group” during May Day when either could have been arrested, beaten up or maced in the eyes like Dan Ellsberg who was standing next to them, or when Chomsky was a leader of the draft resistance movement. “Zinn” and “Chomsky” mean “committed intellectuals” who do not compromise, intellectuals who align their bodies and actions with their minds and thoughts.
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