By Fred Branfman
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.
Many of us were upended on the deepest possible level during the ’60s. Growing up in the aftermath of the “Good War,” many of us the children or grandchildren of immigrants who believed deeply in the America to which they owed their very lives, we profoundly believed in America’s goodness and decency. And when we saw not only our leaders, but an entire older generation not only betray but spit upon and destroy these values in Indochina, we were undone. When we saw them mercilessly, pitilessly, amorally, criminally, deceitfully and undemocratically murder millions of innocent civilians over a period of weeks, months and years—each week a lifetime of agony—we were thrown into an emotional, intellectual and spiritual abyss, an abyss from which we have never really fully emerged. Our moral universe, the basic set of understandings needed to remain human, was shattered.
It was particularly during those morally chaotic years that “Zinn” and “Chomsky” became more than people to many of us. As elders who did not sell out, who acted as well as taught, who did not compromise, who did not abandon genuine American values and ideals, who did not lose their passion for social justice, who did not fail to side with the poor and downtrodden and victimized, and who above all spoke the truth, they became to many of us, quite simply, some of the most important nouns of our life. Even if we did not always agree on this or that “position” they took, they represented something far higher.
“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.
—Passion for social justice, an antiquated concept these days, in which a new generation of Americans has come to believe that “collateral damage” is inevitable in war, the very idea of war crimes irrelevant, and that the poor are responsible for their poverty. “Zinn” and “Chomsky” have meant never losing the passion for justice, a passion that began for Howard when he realized, as a bombardier in World War II, that he was often bombing the innocent not out of military necessity but mere inertia and indifference.
—Above all integrity, authenticity, wholeness. “Zinn” and “Chomsky” are embodiments of that word so often praised but so rarely practiced. They have practiced what they have preached. I have never seen either act out of character. I remember well when I first met Howard in Laos in 1968 as he and Dan Berrigan were on their way to Hanoi to escort U.S. POWs home. “What political system did he believe in?,” I asked. He smiled in his wry way, grinned his wide grin, and answered in that soft, Brooklyn-tinged but clear way of his: “I guess the closest is the kind of anarcho-syndicalism they had in the Spanish Civil War,” he responded. As we talked, I understood that he knew too much to put faith in any government, right or left, that “anarcho-syndicalism” was a way of saying he remained idealistic that humans could theoretically live sanely. But he never fell into the trap that many of us have of projecting our ideals onto the fallible humans who hold power in any system, left or right, and are inevitably corrupted by it.
The integrity conveyed by the words “Zinn” and “Chomsky” is, in the end, impossible to pin down. They have been cut from an older, different cloth. Their roots lie in an earlier time when those fighting for peace and social justice did so because of who they were, not because they sought personal power or to realize fantasies of “revolution.” I asked Howard last January what kept him continuing to fight, write and speak for peace and social justice when it all seemed so hopeless. His answer was as simple as it was profound. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.” The meaning of the words were far less important than the wave of feeling that moved through me as he said them, a wave of feeling that cut through the rationalizing and intellectualizing and connected with the deepest part of me that feels the same way.
The most important role that “Zinn” and “Chomsky” (whom I also met in Laos, in 1970) have played in my life has been to serve as nouns reminding me of my highest self. I cannot describe how often, consciously or unbidden, I have found myself thinking, “How would Howard see this? What would Howard say? What would Noam do in this case?”
And the deepest role they have played in my life became apparent to me only in recent years, as I began to explore my unconscious. I realized that they represented a kind of moral center in my life, a compass, a guiding star. This or that politician in whom I had believed might turn out to have feet of clay. I might betray my own ideals. I might drop out for a while, become despairing. But knowing that “Zinn” and “Chomsky” did not, that they fought consistently for their ideas, did not get corrupted by the temptations of power, meant that somewhere, someplace, there remained a still point of integrity in this world.
Somewhere, someplace, it was possible to remain a human being with compassion, intellectual clarity, moral courage, a passion for social justice and, above all, integrity. Somewhere, someplace, the world was not entirely sick, corrupted, confused or compromised.
These “Zinn” and “Chomsky” states of being, which meant so much to me, also made me feel conflicted about the persons Zinn and Chomsky at various points in my life, particularly when I went into electoral politics in the 1980s. I projected onto them that they, who had kept their integrity, would look down on me for getting involved in electoral politics. I assumed they would find my rationale for doing so morally or intellectually compromised. I tended to avoid them during this period.
I also sometimes saw them as naive. When I talked to Howard shortly after John Kerry was nominated for president he said forcefully that Kerry had better run against the Iraq war if he wanted to win. My internal reaction was something along the lines of “Oh, there he is, good old Howard, naive romantic to the end. No one can hope to win the presidency without supporting the Iraq war.”
I did not foresee that Kerry’s key losing moment of the campaign would be saying he voted for the Iraq war before he voted against it, or that Barack Obama would win the presidency largely for opposing the Iraq war at a time when the conventional wisdom, embodied by Hillary Clinton, still held that supporting it was necessary to win. I did not foresee that a few years hence I would see myself as naive on this question, and Howard more realistic. Nor did I foresee that when I met with them again neither would judge me negatively for my forays into electoral politics. It had all been a projection on my part.
I also did not foresee that as the horrors of the Bush years wore on, and the disappointment of Obama Year 1 would kick in, that I would find myself increasingly embracing what they have taught and what they have embodied; that they would be serving even more as a lodestone to me in these years than they did in my youth.
Howard’s death is thus a shock transcending the normal death of a friend or even loved one. Yes, the personal memories come tumbling out: watching a theatrical presentation in a cave north of Hanoi as Nixon got elected in November 1972, marveling at the morale of the Vietnamese compared to the despair we felt at the prospect of four more years of killing; spending the night in adjoining jail cells during the Redress demonstration, being so buoyed in the morning by his cheerfulness, smiles, wry but never cynical humor; marching together in a small march in Lexington, Mass., and then hearing him speak, out of the deepest possible knowledge and feeling, about how the ideals of the American Revolution, as contrasted with its reality, required opposing the Vietnam today; our e-mails, phone conversations and visits over these 40 years—with Howard always gracious, always committed, always kind, always interested and always interesting.
But this feeling of devastation at his loss far transcends even these personal memories.
There is, you see, no “Zinn” or “Chomsky” among we baby-boomers, let alone the generations that follows us.
One of our beacons of integrity has now flickered out. Our world has suddenly become a little darker, a little colder, a little more bitter and a little more insane.
It is bad enough when a loved and admirable person dies and one realizes they can never be replaced, that there will never be another one remotely like them. It is worse when that person’s death leaves a hole in the entire moral universe, that a spiritual vacuum has been created that can never be filled. The pain is more intense, the feeling of irreplaceable loss even stronger.
My only consolation at this moment is knowing that though Howard Zinn the man has died, “Zinn” has not. I know that many of us will continue to be sustained in the difficult years to come by the answers we will receive when we find ourselves asking:
—What would Howard think, how would he see it?
—What would Howard say?
—How would Howard feel?
And, most important:
—What would Howard do?
Zinn has died. Long live “Zinn.”