January 29, 2010

Howard Zinn Died Today

I was up before six. The sky was still dark and the floors too chilly to navigate without socks. Hunched over the computer in nothing but my boxers; I scanned my email for word about a job. I saw it on Facebook first. Howard Zinn died today. Although he was eighty-seven, and it was only a matter time for him to go, I felt a sudden pang of sadness sweep over my body.
“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world."
I credit Zinn more than anyone else for igniting my radicalism, if I can even still call it that. I remember I was in a class at Columbia, and the subject of politics came up. Someone referenced A People’s History of the United States, and my curiosity was piqued. I bought the book within the week and my worldview hasn’t been the same since.

Form the opening line, “Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.”

Zinn weaves a gripping narrative, that even after reading perhaps a hundred books about history and politics, I still find the most poignant and accurate account of the vicitims of the American Dream. His book was everything I knew had been omitted from my high school history curriculum. Page after page, I felt I was witness to someone finally exposing the great lie. I could see that America the great, the same one I refused to pledge allegiance to in the 4th grade, because I knew something wasn’t right, was in fact, as I had suspected, nothing but a beacon to greed and expansion, another imploding empire, like the long litany of others before it.

He once and for all, at least for me, proved that all the propaganda, all the marketing, all the textbooks were nothing more than poorly told lies. But, what separated Zinn, from say, Chomsky, was that he used his avuncular voice to slowly walk you through the story, the history. He was not using his intellect to reason with you, but rather he used his heart to appeal to your sense of common decency and truth. By telling the story of every group of people who had been ignored, abused, and murdered throughout the history of United States, Zinn simply reveals what we all already knew was there, uncompromised hypocrisy.
“I'm worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel - let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they're doing. I'm concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that's handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers.”
Howard Zinn was perhaps the greatest American patriot of all time. His words and his legacy will live on for generations to come. He taught us that dissent is the highest form of patriotism, and for that I am thankful.

...and the river shall open for the righteous...someday...

... I only know one party,and that is freedom...


  1. I think the country you hope to find hasn't been created yet. How do we balance liberty and safety? How can we counter corruption with altruistic leadership? We are human and that means we are subjects to the mean pettiness of the worst of us as well as the grandiose beauty of the best of us (both of which can be found in all people at some point.)

    Have you read Thomas Jefferson's writings? He wrote that each generation needs to have its own revolution, casting off the norms of the parents and rewrite societal expectations. As unworkable as I find it to be, it may be the only, best hope for changing the world permanently

  2. Had to add this:

    "Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don't "win," there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.

    An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time.

    To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory," - Howard Zinn,

  3. A friend of my mind recently emailed me the following Howard Zinn account, and I felt it fit better here:

    I was fortunate enough to register for a class at SFSU in 1997 under the Ethnic Studies program. It's title was Critical Thinking of the Third World and it served some requirement for graduation. It took place once a week, on Tuesday nights, and was taught by a diminutive man, who avidly played lacrosse and was Native American. He also wore glasses and his hair looked as dry as straw.

    This class was more responsible for who i am today than (see: anything). A People's History of the United States was on the syllabus' reading list along with Lies My Teacher Told Me and other I can't remember. I bought the former and was shocked by its size and weight. I was strong in my conviction that I would in no way read this book to its entirety. Why would I? I read the newspaper, supported the invasion of Iraq, watched local news, believed people who told me Bill Clinton was great, saw Indian casinos as a good thing, celebrated Columbus Day, hated Manuel "Pineapple Face" Noriega, slept easy knowing that the CIA was protected me, equated freedom with America.

    Another history book? I knew about Vietnam, Slavery, the Great Depression, Mao, Magellan, Casper Weinberger, General Sherman, Fred Douglas, John Brown, and the Puritans. I understood the world because I was told what to believe. And this made sense.

    Howard Zinn changed everything and his effect on me resonates each day whether through a book I'm reading, a film I'm viewing, a program I'm watching, or a class I'm teaching. My final for the class was a 10-minute presentation of the US invasion of Panama in 1989 and I will always remember the look on my teacher's face when I walked back to my seat. He had profoundly reached me and that's all we can ever ask as teachers.

    The Zinn book was the start to something I will one day finish. When I, like Zinn, board the final train.


    How about you? Do you have a Zinn memory you would like to share?