Farewell to America’s Favorite Radical

After six decades of dissent, Howard Zinn has been laid to rest, but his legacy is alive and will continue to challenge the status quo

The original bad boy of American radicalism: Howard Zinn, 1922-2010 | Photo courtesy of Drury University

“If those in charge of our society – politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television – can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.” Surprisingly, these are not the words of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, but those of American historian, activist and author Howard Zinn, a man who was both loved and loathed, a man whose ideas will matter long after he’s gone.

Zinn passed away on Jan. 27 at the age of 87, leaving behind a legacy that in many ways defined the anti-war, anti-government movement in the United States. The value of his far-reaching contributions to the debates on war, civil rights and American identity are hard to overestimate. His seminal A People’s History of the United States – first published in 1980 – is a benchmark of American historical revisionism, contesting American exceptionalism and uncovering the dark underbelly of U.S. history. For this, Zinn encountered virulent animosity from large swathes of American society, many of whom labeled him a communist and a dissident – unpatriotic and anarchistic.

But to others he is something else entirely. For those who dare to question the status quo, fearlessly second guessing the wisdom of the political elite, Zinn is a hero. Before Noam Chomsky and others became caught up in the zeitgeist of the Sixties, Zinn distinguished himself as a patriotic radical, ardently fighting for the rights of all Americans. Before the hippie movement or the Vietnam War woke up the rest of society, Zinn took a cold hard look at his nation and decided: all was not well.

Already a veteran social activist, Zinn became one of the most respected voices of the anti-Vietnam War movement. What set him apart from the rest of the frenzied rabble that comprised the anti-war movement was the academic character of his criticism. Never militant, never reduced to slogans, the increasingly pacifistic Zinn intelligently put forth the argument that, “war in our time is always discriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children.” A consummate academic, Zinn protested through writing – not by throwing his fist in the air.

Unlike many of his anti-war colleagues, Zinn was a veteran. Volunteering for the Army Air Force during World War II, he flew bombing missions over Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Affected by his wartime experiences, Zinn, unlike many who have seen the ravages of war, became sensitized – not desensitized –to human suffering.

There was none of the populist, “fight the system” rhetoric in his work; Zinn wrote with a humanity – and indeed a patriotism – that sought to better the United States, not ignore its faults and over blow its virtues. He was not simply a “bleeding heart” or a baseless lefty; he was an ardent and talented academic who cared about his country to the point of asking, “shouldn’t we be better?”

His first call to action became the civil rights movement, which he became involved with in 1956. Publishing a string of abolitionist texts, articles and papers, Zinn drew a line in the sand, decrying the ongoing and institutionalized hypocrisies that were America’s segregation laws. His pen as his rifle, Zinn became an intellectual warrior battling for America’s soul – or at least its consciousness. Criticized as un-American, his message was anything but. He was an advocate of America’s founding ideas in their most literal forms. To adhere to them properly included the abolishment of segregation and abstinence from military action, which almost invariably resulted in the deaths of innocents.

Perhaps his greatest contribution will forever be his ideas on American identity. As a historian, Zinn wanted nothing more than for his countrymen to understand their nation’s past – in particular its sins – to the end of improving and advancing the American project. Considered an opponent of the concept of American exceptionalism, Zinn rejected the idea of an infinitely virtuous, faultless America – his interpretation was more along the lines of, “greatness is not an intrinsically American quality, we have to work at it too.”

Ultimately, Zinn’s struggle was against those who had a fundamentally divergent definition of patriotism – those who consider it patriotic to lie about and cover up their nation’s flaws, as opposed to identifying them and fixing them. Zinn, in A People’s History, made it clear that there was a story of America beyond the Founding Fathers, beyond legendary generals, beyond Lincoln and FDR. There was a history of the people, the farmers, factory workers, slaves, Indians and immigrants – and this story is not so pretty. To understand our past, especially our mistakes, is to reflect and grow; to ignore these injustices and arrogantly bask in the bountiful glories of construction and mythology is to fool oneself into perpetuating injustice. This was the message Zinn offered.

“We all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have,” Zinn stated in 2005, “causing them to rethink long-held ideas.” This perceived responsibility defined him; a man who never tired from participating in the relentless expedition for truth and justice he began over 60 years ago. That expedition is now over, but Howard Zinn leaves behind a body of work singular in its contribution to the art of “rethinking.” As the struggle over the soul of America continues, let us not forget that sometimes, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

 

Books by Howard Zinn:

A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present, Harper Perennial, 2005
You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Beacon, 2002
The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, SOS, 2003
Voices of a People’s History of the United States, Seven Stories, 2010
A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, City Lights, 2006

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