You’re in for a real treat. This collection of Howard Zinn’s work for The Progressive contains more wisdom and insight and vision and hope than you’d be able to find almost anywhere else in a book this size.
As you’ll see, there is nothing intimidating about his writing. He didn’t gussy it up with $100 words or incomprehensible constructions. He wrote not to show off but to communicate to as many people as possible.
The words are not challenging, but the concepts are, in the best sense, because he challenged us to examine the precooked meals we’re fed every day as Americans about our identity as a nation, about the necessity of war, about the desirability of capitalism. And he challenged us not only to imagine a more humane, peaceful, democratic, and just society, but also to work toward that goal with persistence and joy.
Some advice at the outset: Get out your yellow highlighter or your red pen because you’ll feel the irresistible urge to mark line after line, paragraph after paragraph.
He had a knack for aphorism: For instance, “War is itself the most extreme form of terrorism,” and “In between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.”
And he had a sly sense of humor, which would also come out in his talks and in his personal interactions. You can detect his characteristic wit in his first essay here, where he ridiculed Boston University for kicking Students for a Democratic Society off campus for being violent while allowing the Marines to continue to recruit there since, as Zinn wrote, “the Marine Corps had a well- known record for pacifism.”
Or take this opening from “Artists of Resistance”: “Whenever I become discouraged (which is on alternate Tuesdays, between three and four).”
He could be very self-effacing. When he’d e-mail these columns in, he’d often write something like, “You don’t need to publish it if you don’t think it’s any good.” And when we did the most minor editing (he didn’t need much), he would thank us for doing more than we did.
Which reminds me of the time I was interviewing him on Progressive Radio about his memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. As I recall, I said, “I’m surprised you’re so humble, or at least you fake it real well,” and he laughed, and said, “Is that a compliment?”
He was a lovable leftist. He took the extra time, even in e-mails, to try to say something considerate. And he liked simple pleasures. After he spoke to a huge crowd in Madison one time, it was getting late, so I asked him if he wanted to go get a drink. “No, but what I’d really like is a milkshake,” he said. So we went down the block and had one (I think he ordered a malt), and while we were there he gladly gave a few autographs to people who came up to him.
His wit and graciousness went hand in hand with a profundity that speaks to us today, loudly and clearly, and will serve as a clarion call for generations going forward.
For he was a teacher above all.
He taught his students at Boston University and his readers all over the world how to study history, how to examine power, how to think radically—and how to resist.
In the very first essay in this collection, he wrote about the need to “move toward the ideals of egalitarianism, community, and self-determination,” which he called “the historic, unfulfilled promise of the word democracy.”
His commitment to egalitarianism comes through in the great interview he did with David Barsamian: “If I had to say what is at the center of left values,” Zinn explained, “it’s the idea that everyone has a fundamental right to the good things in life, to the necessary things of life, that there should be no disproportions in the world.” And then he made it real by adding: “It doesn’t mean perfect equality; we can’t possibly achieve that. I notice that your sweater is better than mine. But we both have a sweater, which is something.”
This egalitarianism underlies his internationalism. He insisted, as he told Barsamian, that “the lives of children in other countries are equivalent to the lives of children in our country.” And note the next sentence: “Then war is impossible.” Because of his experience as a bombardier in World War II, he knew to the depths of his soul that war murders innocent people, including children, and that the only way people tolerate war is by dehumanizing the victims.
Zinn refused to dehumanize any and all of war’s victims. In “Our Job Is a Simple One: Stop Them,” he did not exempt even enemy soldiers. “I don’t want to insist on the distinction—and this is something to think about—between innocent civilians and soldiers who are innocent.”
He invoked as evidence the notorious Turkey Shoot in the first Gulf War when the U.S. military mowed down Saddam Hussein’s conscripts, who were in full retreat.
Zinn understood that soldiers give their lives not for some noble purpose but because of the actions of power-crazed leaders. U.S. soldiers who died in the Iraq War “did not die for their country,” he wrote. “They died for their government. They died for Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. And yes, they died for the greed of the oil cartels, for the expansion of the American empire, for the political ambitions of the president. They died to cover up the theft of the nation’s wealth to pay for the machines of death.”
So he asked, in “After the War”: “Should we begin to think, even before this shameful war is over, about ending our addiction to massive violence and instead using the enormous wealth of our country for human needs? That is, should we begin to speak about ending war—not just this war or that war, but war itself?” He grasped that this is a matter of global survival: “The abolition of war has become not only desirable but absolutely necessary if the planet is to be saved.”
Trained as a historian, Zinn had a unique ability to take the long view on social change. He would notice the fragility of governments and the possibility of breakthroughs when most of the rest of us would come down with a bad case of pessimism, or even resignation. That’s one of the things that makes him so inspiring.
As he wrote in “A Chorus Against War”: “There is a basic weakness in governments – however massive their armies, however wealthy their treasuries, however they control the information given to the public – because their power depends on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists and writers and teachers and artists. When these people begin to suspect they have been deceived, and when they withdraw their support, the government loses its legitimacy, and its power.”
Oh, how I wish Howard Zinn had been alive in the year 2011 to see this prophecy come true in the Arab Spring. And oh, how I wish he could have seen the worker uprising in Wisconsin and then the Occupy movement take hold in the United States—and around the world. As he told Barsamian, “You never know what spark is going to really result in a conflagration. . . . You have to do things, do things, do things; you have to light that match, light that match, light that match, not knowing how often it’s going to sputter and go out and at what point it’s going to take hold. That’s what happened in the civil-rights movement, and that’s what happens in other movements. Things take a long time. It requires patience, but not a passive patience – the patience of activism.”
He would not have been surprised at all by the Occupy movement because he pinpointed, in “Operation Enduring War,” what he called “the core problem: that there is immense wealth available, enough to care for the urgent needs of everyone on Earth, and that this wealth is being monopolized by a small number of individuals, who squander it on luxuries and war while millions die and more millions live in misery. This is a problem understood by people everywhere.” They understand with “supreme clarity,” he added, that “the world is run by the rich.”
Zinn retained hope for a better system, and he wasn’t afraid to call it socialism. “I want socialism to have a good name,” he wrote in “A Murderous World.” No defender of the Soviet Union, he upheld the vision of “Karl Marx, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Helen Keller.”
And like John Lennon, Howard Zinn wasn’t afraid to call himself a dreamer. In “Changing Obama’s Mindset,” he wrote: “Yes, we’re dreamers. We want it all. We want a peaceful world. We want an egalitarian world. We don’t want war. We don’t want capitalism. We want a decent society.”
He had a soft spot for artists, actors, singers, filmmakers, and writers. “They wage the battle for justice in a sphere which is unreachable by the dullness of ordinary discourse,” he wrote in “Artists of Resistance.”
When Kurt Vonnegut died, I made the obvious call and urged Howard to write an appreciation. He delivered a lovely little eulogy. He wrote: “Kurt Vonnegut was often asked why he bothered writing. He answered this way: ‘Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about. . . . You are not alone.’ Millions and millions of people, all over the world, reading him, do not feel alone. What could be a more important achievement?”
I feel less alone having known Howard Zinn through our editor-writer relationship. And I feel less alone having known Howard Zinn simply as a reader of his words.
You’ll feel less alone too.
For me this book has been an extra pleasure. It’s been like spending another couple of evenings together with Howard. (I just wish I could go buy him another malt.)
Now it’s your turn to enjoy his company.
From The Historic Unfulfilled Promise by Howard Zinn. Copyright c 2012 by The Howard Zinn Revocable Trust. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.