On the Anniversary of Howard Zinn’s Death


Some time ago, one of my students, who is significantly more savvy about internet like-type stuff than I am, suggested that I start moving some of the posts from my old blog site, what is now called The Original Mad Sociologist, to this site. Meh. I’m really not one to rehash old projects, but I had to admit that the young man had a point. During the past few weeks I mulled over how I might do that. Today I found my answer. 

Six years ago I learned that one of my academic/activist heros, the irreplaceable Professor Howard Zinn, had passed. I celebrated his life by writing what I believe is one of the best posts I’ve ever tapped off my keyboard. 

Today, I remember the amazing lessons I learned from Professor Zinn by republishing that memorial under a new category here at the Mad Sociologist Blog. Introducing “MSB CLASSICS! with a reprise of…

The Train Keeps Moving: A Small Tribute to Howard Zinn

Zinn I don’t remember exactly when I discovered Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. It must have been about 2000, after I’d stopped working in the wilderness program and after I received my degree in sociology. If I’d read Zinn’s seminal work before ’96 I almost certainly would have become a historian rather than a sociologist as history was and remains my first love. But like many students of history I was not sure of the direction I wanted to go with it. History was fascinating, but most histories were a regurgitation of the same paradigms with some minor innovation to justify their existence.

As fascinating as I thought history was, I wanted to make a real difference in the lives of living people, everyday people. I was interested in kids failing school, getting into trouble, trying to navigate the stormy seas of society without the adequate moral compass to keep them from addiction, gang participation, crime, violence or sexual precocity and confusion. I was interested in the victims of our society’s regimes of knowledge.

Up to that point the most interesting historical perspective I’d discovered was that of the French social critic Michel Foucault. He taught me that history is important because how we know the world and how we know ourselves is grounded in historical regimens of knowledge. Since these regimens were all pervasive throughout the social body, and since they tended to reinforce existing power arrangements we could define history as a vector of what Foucault referred to as power/knowledge.

That was great, eye opening stuff. It was also pretty convoluted reading bogged down in postmodernist phraseology. In a profound act of literary masochism I read everything I could by Foucault…, even Archeology of Knowledge (sheeesh!) As difficult as it was to read I respected Foucault’s perspective as he always offered the prospect of resistance to what appears to be overwhelming power/knowledge arrangements. But what was my role?

Then Howard Zinn came into my literary life. I read People’s History and it rocked my world. This was exactly what I was looking for. People’s History was an unapologetic rejection of the status quo for understanding history. It began with a devastating critique of Christopher Columbus, setting the stage for the rest of the book. As a sociologist who specialized in knowledge I appreciated Zinn’s honesty in recognizing that “unbiased” works of history were impossible. That through the tremendous volume of data historians have to work with and the emphasis that they put on certain details, such as the courageous voyage of Columbus (and to be honest it was courageous) over other details, such as the open brutality of Columbus’ expeditions in the new world, constituted bias. Zinn didn’t pretend to academic objectivity. Instead he explained his bias from the very start and let the reader decide how to deal with it. And anyone familiar with Zinn’s work knows that this bias was consistent through his life, “in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners. (People History 10)

“…in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First world War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.” (People’s History 10)

For this perspective, Howard Zinn was considered a radical, —a label which he embraced. Isn’t it funny? Had Zinn written a run of the mill history in which he glossed over the atrocities of Columbus, or ignored the human element of the firebombing of Tokyo, or accepted the use of atomic bombs in Japan as a necessary and understandable evolution of warfare, nobody would have suggested that his history was anything but an objective retelling of events. But to suggest that the Age of Exploration involved violently uprooting and eliminating indigenous people, or that the atomic bombs incinerated real people, civilians, children and babies, is “radical.” Then, to suggest that slavery, genocide and mass slaughter are wrong, are never justified by any forces of history such as Manifest Destiny or a cock-eyed concept of just war, is “leftist” propaganda. To suggest, however, that Columbus is a hero, or that dropping the atomic bomb is justified, is not considered “rightist” propaganda.

Zinn did not apologize for his radicalism. “That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.” (People’s History 11) And this approach was exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t accept the common notions of history as my particular discipline demanded that I recognize history as a technique of power that reinforces existing power arrangements. Yet here was Zinn, offering the voices of the disenfranchised, the poor, the victims, the imprisoned, the beaten and killed. Here was Zinn offering us a look at the human stepping stones to what we have been socializaed to understand as “progress.” Here was an historian who made you see the humanity in that great wave of history.

Despite the absurd suggestion that Zinn’s history is biased, as if that was not true of “real” history, the reader will find that his assessments are remarkably consistent. Sociologists recognize that human beings derive a sense of identity from what we call reference groups. These are larger cohorts such as liberal and conservative, or social groups, by which we identify ourselves. It is understandable for us, once we identify with a reference group, to defend that group as being good and just, to condone the actions of those considered part of our reference group as being justified in their actions even when the same actions performed by others are judged as being wrong.

Zinn didn’t fit this pattern. Those whom he held up to his particular brand of social critique were treated with remarkable consistency, …even the liberals. He subjected Kennedy to the same standards as Reagan, Woodrow Wilson to the same standards as Teddy Roosevelt. When he assessed wars he did so without regard to our contemporary reverence for what he called the three holy wars, the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. To all so called history makers and all of the accepted great moments in history Zinn asked the same questions: Who benefited? Who was exploited and victimized? He had a stubborn human ideal for evaluating history that emphasized the rights of the individual to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” (a lofty ideal that Zinn never failed to point out was changed to “life, liberty and property” when it was time to actually write the laws that would govern people’s lives; laws written by and for property owners). For Zinn, the Holocaust was qualitatively the same as the genocide of Native Americans, a moment which US history books call Western Expansion, or Manifest Destiny.

As a historian Zinn never locked himself in the ivory tower. He was personally involved in his discipline as a social actor, an activist, a dissident, even a law breaker when the laws were clearly biased against the human good. When his students were protesting injustice it was not uncommon to see Howard Zinn standing with them. His works are so compelling because of that humble human element. The reader always knew that here was a man who understood how we are all, great or common, tied in to the historical frame.

The term I would use is empathy. He understood what it meant to be beaten and jailed for a cause because he, himself, was so beaten and jailed. He knew what it meant to be a poor working man because he, himself, had been a poor working man. He knew what it meant to be a cog in the machine of war because he was such a cog as a bombardier during World War II. The history he wrote was tempered with his own experience. Probably the most powerful prose he’d ever written came from his fabulous book Declarations of Independence:

“…some of us were invited to a house in Hiroshima that had been established as a center for victims of the bomb to spend time with one another and discuss common problems. We were asked to speak to the group. When my turn came, I stood up and felt I must get something off my conscience. I wanted to say that I had been an air force bombardier in Europe, that I had dropped bombs that killed and maimed people, and that until this moment I had not seen the human results of such bombs, and that I was ashamed of what I had done and wanted to help make sure things like that never happened again. I never got the words out, because as I started to speak I looked out at the Japanese men and women sitting on the floor in front of me, people with horribly burned faces, people with no eyes in their sockets, without arms, or without legs, but all quietly waiting for me to speak. I choked on my words, could not say anything for a moment, fighting for control, finally managed to thank them for inviting me and sat down.” (27)

It’s that intrinsic sense of humanity that makes Howard Zinn’s history so palpable. Zinn recognized himself as a part of the historical fabric, and insisted that his readers do the same. As a reader of Zinn you are not some Martian standing over the events of time, separate, observant, unemotional. You are the subject of his text. He’s having a conversation with you.

Through his writings and lectures the audience understands the purpose of history. History is the map through which we can guide our futures. Our futures, not the rise and fall of great men and momentous events, but the real life chronicle of people everywhere to gain knowledge, liberty and justice. “We do need to learn history, the kind that does not put its main emphasis on knowing presidents and statutes and Supreme Court decisions, but inspires a new generation to resist the madness of governments trying to carve the world and our minds into their spheres of influence.” (Declarations of Independence 66)

History is a lived experience, and yet it is often put on the back-burner of education. I often hear from social critics that history isn’t being taught. Indeed it is, but it is not being taught in any meaningful way, and therefore it is not being learned. The social sciences are often considered a good cultural exercise, but not particularly important. In Florida history is not tested, which is fine by me, but is an indicator of the disdain held for history in the society as a whole. (This statement, highlighted in blue, is no longer true. American History is tested with End of Course exams, multiple choice balderdash emphasizing trivial pursuit and chart reading. Again, and indicator of the disdain by which history, even the history of our own nation, is held)

As a history teacher I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to sell my particular subject to a largely apathetic audience, …kids who are forced to take my class against their will. And yet there is no more important topic than history. I have students in combat right now. Some of my students are serving their country/society in other ways, as artists and nurses and police officers and business people etc. Some of them are activists and actors for the social good. They are not conjugating verbs or using Pythagorean Theorem. They are doing history.

Shortly after I read A People’s History and Declarations of Independence the director of my school informed me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and that terrorism was suspected. I rushed to my classroom and got my old television going. We had to use a wire hanger, and our own bodies as antennae to see what was going on. When I learned that, in fact, two planes had struck the WTC, and my class watched as the first and then the second towers fell, I knew that I had to do something to help my kids navigate the inevitable clamor for war that would follow. Zinn entered my classroom as I did the best I could to offer my kids all of the history they needed to make their own decisions about their roles in this troubling time. My approach was not always popular with the parents, as I taught my students to question the “facts” that were being presented. We engaged in very heated and emotional discussions when Afghanistan was invaded, and then again the next year when the drums were rolling for an ill-fated invasion of Iraq. During that time I e-mailed Howard Zinn and told him what I was trying to do and the difficulties I faced. He responded to my e-mail and wished me well, reassuring me that I was doing right by my students.

Some accused me of “indoctrination” when I suggested that going to war might not be the right course of action. Of course, they would not have accused me of indoctrination if I approved of militarism. I challenged more than a few to justify this inconsistency and they couldn’t. Ultimately there was no such “indoctrination.” I learned during this time that students are not blank slates who accept without question what is taught them (at least my students aren’t). They have their own opinions and their own priorities. Some of my students agreed with me, some did not; all were welcome to express their thoughts. Many of my students were confused, and that’s all right as the times were confusing. I was proud of all of my students, regardless of their ultimate decisions that they made or the positions that they took, because I knew that they made up their minds knowing the history. Perhaps I’m a radical for expecting my students to think rather than to obey. If so, I can only say that that, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to teaching. The student may as well know that before going on.

In such a time as this, a time of war and hardship and economic injustice, a time when any showman can spew his own particular brand of “history” for the sake of selling advertising space, a time of race baiting, bigotry and political demagoguery, inspirational people like Howard Zinn are more important than ever. In such a time we need teachers who are not afraid to challenge their students to look at history from the bottom up and get them to see their own place in this great epic. We need teachers who are not afraid to open their classrooms to controversy and debate, who are not afraid to turn over the curriculum to their students and help them make up their own minds about how they will do history. And we need teachers like Howard Zinn, certain in their perspective, consistent in their beliefs, to remind us of our responsibilities in the pursuit of history.

I would say that America has lost a great voice for the common man, but I’ve had some days to dwell on this and get past my sadness. Indeed, there is loss when a life well lived ends. The fruits of that life, however, remain. We’ve not lost Zinn’s voice because it exists on library shelves and bookstores and websites all over the world. It exists in the great professor’s many students, those who had the great fortune of sitting in his classrooms, have conversations with him, see his lectures, and those like me who had to learn from a distance, but were captured by his human vision.

In my mind there are three necessary books that must be a part of everyone’s canon: A People’s History of the United States, Declarations of Independence, and Zinn’s invaluable autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. My copies are well worn and full of margin notes.

We are history, and this train is moving. Since neutrality is not an option we must use history as our guide on this journey. The life’s work of Howard Zinn is a valuable guide in this process.

Originally posted on January 31, 2010. Some minor changes were made for stylistic and grammatical reasons. Major changes are highlighted. 

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