Friday, January 29, 2010

People's Historian and Progressive Hero Howard Zinn Dies

From the Boston Globe courtesy of

Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam... died of a heart attack today in Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling, his family said. He was 87.

“His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our lives,” Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, once wrote of Dr. Zinn. “When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide.”

here for the rest.

This is sad. I mean, I didn't even know about Howard Zinn's work until he was in his mid 70s, so he's always been an old man to me, but still. He changed my life.

Or rather, his great book A People's History of the United States changed my life. Before reading it, the phrase "class struggle" was something alien to me. Sure, I was already a liberal by the late 90s when I first read it, but such seemingly Marxist rhetoric had no place in my understanding of the way things work here in America. Zinn taught me that you don't have to be a communist to participate in the class struggle--indeed, I learned from him that we're all participating in the class struggle whether we care to characterize it that way or not. And perhaps more importantly, Zinn taught me that the class struggle has been going on since before the Revolutionary War, that fighting the wealthy elites who oppress the poor and working classes is, in fact, as American as apple pie.

That is, Howard Zinn gave me an intellectual framework for my leftism which has allowed me to love my country while at the same time criticizing it for failing, again and again, to live up to the standards for which it was supposedly established. At the age of forty two, I believe, more than ever now, in the simple ideas we were all taught as children: America is about freedom, equality, justice and democracy. I cannot accept establishment voices telling me that we have all that, when I can simply glance around and see that we don't. Howard Zinn deeply understood the difference between what we say we are and what we actually are, and researched warehouses full of facts to back him up.

Those who dismiss his writing by calling it too liberal or radical just don't get it. A People's History is a book of facts. The events described in it actually happened. Ideology cannot change the reality: we are a nation of haves and have-nots, a nation of the powerful and the powerless, and Americans on the short end of the stick have always resisted this unjust social order, always insisted that we live up to our values.

That's the tradition I want to be a part of. The true American tradition. And he taught me that.

Farewell, Howard Zinn.

(Listen to NPR's story on Howard Zinn here.)