Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

Historically, the most terrible things - war, genocide,
and slavery - have resulted not from disobedience,
but from obedience.

— Howard Zinn

I was saddened by the news this morning (Australian time) of the death of Howard Zinn.

Zinn was a renowned social activist, historian, and author. For many, he’s most famously known for his book, A People’s History of the United States. Although I never met Zinn, I did hear him speak on two occasions in the Twin Cities. On one of these occasions I photographed him (left) for my Faces of Resistance online exhibit.

Following is part of the commentary that accompanies this photograph on the Faces of Resistance website.

Commenting on Howard Zinn’s address to an overflowing crowd at the University of St. Thomas, journalist John Tribbett noted in Pulse of the Twin Cities that Zinn “used his colorful history — being raised in a working class family, later becoming a bombardier in World War II and eventually earning a Ph.D. from Columbia University — as a backdrop to highlight the evolution of his beliefs and how they apply to current issues in the United States. [Zinn] spoke about his opposition to the current war in Iraq, the American media’s failure to cover the victims of American-led attacks there, the conservatives’ hijacking of the term ‘patriotism’ and the takeover of the presidency by George W. Bush.”

Along with his great knowledge of U.S. social/political history and his fiery oratory skills, what impressed me about Zinn was his overall gentle manner and wry wit. In so many ways, he was (and remains) an inspiration to many.

That’s not surprising, really, for as Noam Chomsky notes , Zinn “made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture . . . [He] changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.”

I wonder how the foreign policies of the United States
would look if we wiped out the national boundaries
of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all
children everywhere as our own.

— Howard Zinn

In October 2008 I shared on The Wild Reed (as part of my “Progressives and Obama” series), Zinn’s reasons for voting for Barack Obama. Here’s part of what he said:

One might assume . . . that I see no difference between McCain and Obama, that I see them as equivalent. Not so. There is a difference, not a significant enough difference for me to have confidence in Obama as President, but just enough for me to vote for Obama and to hope he defeats McCain.

Whoever is President, the crucial factor for change will be how much agitation there is in the country on behalf of change. I am guessing that Obama may be more sensitive than McCain to such turmoil, since it will come from his supporters, from the enthusiasts who will register their disillusionment by taking to the streets. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a radical, but he was more sensitive to the economic crisis in the country and more susceptible to pressure from the Left than was Herbert Hoover.

One year later, in October 2009, Zinn was asked what he would urge President Obama to do. Following is how Seth Robein
reported Zinn’s response.

“It’s a very delicate question,” he mused. “Why? Well, it’s not easy to talk about.” Everyone wants to support Obama, he continued, or at least everyone in his circle. Everyone wants to love Obama. But let’s face it: “His presidency doesn't measure up. I have to say that. But why? How? How come?”

Militarism, he answered. Obama has kept the troops in Iraq. He’s sent more troops to Afghanistan. “He’s continued a military foreign policy.”

Not to be a know-it-all, Zinn said (“though I do know it all,” he joked), but those who expected great change from this president were fooling themselves. Look at history, he urged, invoking his mantra; Democrats are as aggressive as Republicans.

“They’re all in this for war,” he said. “That’s what we call bipartisanship.” Those surprised or disappointed are those who “exaggerated expectations, romanticized him, idealized him. Obama is a Democratic Party politician. I know that sounds demeaning. It is.”

“There’s an enormous weight left over by the Bush administration,” Zinn said. “Unfortunately, he has done nothing to begin to lift that weight.” Change can happen only by grassroots protest strong enough to move entrenched interests.

“I’ll say it: turmoil,” he concluded.

What matters most is not
who is sitting in the White House,
but who is marching outside the White House,
pushing for change.

— Howard Zinn

I conclude this post by sharing a video of Zinn speaking on human nature and aggression. It’s from the DVD You Can’t Be Neutral On a Moving Train (2004).

Civil disobedience is not our problem.
Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that
people all over the world have obeyed the dictates
of leaders . . . and millions have been killed because of
this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient
all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation
and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that
people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves
. . . [and] the grand thieves are running the country.
That’s our problem.

— Howard Zinn

Recommended Off-site Links:
Howard Zinn, Historian Who Challenged Status Quo, Dies at 87 - Mark Feeney and Bryan Marquard (Boston Globe, January 27, 2010).
“People’s History” Author, Howard Zinn, Dies at 87 - Hillel Italie (Associated Press, January 27, 2010).
Social Historian Howard Zinn Has Died - Carolyn Kellog (Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2010).
Goodbye Howard Zinn - Peter Rothberg (The Nation, January 27, 2010).

UPDATE: Howard Zinn (1922-2010): A Tribute to the Legendary Historian with Noam Chomskey, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein, and Anthony Arnove - Democracy Now! (January 28, 2010).

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