Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

A People's History of the United States is probably the most important history book I have read. It was required reading for a course taught by a professor named Al Smith that I took at Modesto Junior College in the late 1990s. American history, but for this kind of American history we read Zinn and Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror, which was to compliment Zinn's history from below with a history of the relationship between immigration and how we think of the people who make up the United States. So whole class on history with no great men ('It's not made by great men,' I would later hear in one of Gang of Four's funkier and punchier tunes...).

Zinn took history and stood it on its feet. Chronicles of war and great deeds become a constant series of attempts to oppress or calm the fires of social struggle, but the guiding thread is the resilience of people acting from the basic conviction that their rights and their justice won't be realized because these things have been written down on a few dusty documents. They have to be fought for. Zinn was right their in midst of it: like Vonnegut, he learned the right lessons from war's injustices, at Spellman he was radicalized by the growing civil rights struggle at the cost of his job, and then wrote on of the earliest books critical of the Vietnam War, VietNam: The Logic of Withdrawal, published in 1967; A People's History of the United States followed in 1980. He stayed involved, kept writing, kept pissing off other people in his profession and academia for a refusal to be a specialist and to keep to a small academic niche. Some of this is documented in You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Even up to a few weeks ago, he wrote of Obama,
I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That's the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he's not making any significant step away from Bush policies. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still treats the prisoners there as "suspected terrorists." They have not been tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he's not advancing the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he's gone into court arguing for preventive detention, and he's continued the policy of sending suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.

I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president--which means, in our time, a dangerous president--unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.
It's in the second paragraph there: Zinn's saying 'presidents are not much. Kennedy dragged his feet with civil rights, Obama's going to do the same without a movement to push him, because a movement makes history.' Not these teabag jokers but a movement.

A few years ago in Toledo, Ohio, I met Zinn's friend, and scholar and activist in his own right, Staughton Lynd. At an informal discussion he brought up Howard, and I said that his book was probably one of the most influential on the way I thought about history. Staughton smiled, paused, and turned to everybody else to drive home his point: "Do you see?" he said (I apologize but this isn't verbatim), "They won't give him the time of day in academia, and everywhere we go people are reading A People's History, and it changes their lives." A bit in jest; it's not like Zinn was blacklisted. By this time he had already retired. But Staughton's point is that we pay for our convictions. We can write the chronicles of great men, or the histories of people as they demand to be heard, as they demand, and sometimes win, justice. When you don't take the well-worn road to academic comfort and ideological conformity, the other road's going to be difficult. As I'm sure we all know, it's a worthwhile trade off. But at least for us, still young, angry, and able, Howard Zinn walked it first.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Staughton's comment was right on the money. History, the liberal arts, philosophy and literature will continue. It's too bad the academy seems less and less interested in that fact. A real loss to the academy, but also to the thinkers forced to work outside that tradition...

santi said...

As an side note I have been hard at work convincing 5th grade teachers to use A People's History Of American Empire" as a textbook. So far i have only convinced two.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

5th grade? That's impressive.

santi said...

I think the fact that it is in comic book format helps a lot.