Long live Zinn
A close friend reflects on the life and times of ‘people’s’ historian Howard Zinn
I sit here in shock, having just read The Boston Globe headline, “Howard Zinn, historian who challenged status quo, dies at 87.” I knew the day would come. I dreaded it. I flew to Boston last year to spend a day with him just so I wouldn’t read a headline like this without having seen him at least one last time. And now I sit here. Devastated.
Much will and should be written about Zinn’s contributions to the world, how his A People’s History of the United States changed the way we understand America and, like all great histories, shed the light of truth upon our present.
My personal remembrances of Zinn the human being will be no less moving and true. I have met many political people in my lifetime. Zinn was the most honest, human, open, kind, generous, gracious, sweetest, humorous and charming of them all. By far. I was not the first to be reminded of Abraham Lincoln, not only because of the physical resemblance, but also his profound humanity. His personal warmth and gentleness, combined with his political fire and passion, were entirely unique in my experience. He looked you in the eyes. He listened. He reacted appropriately to what you were saying. He was as interested in my ideas and experience when we talked last January as he had been 40 years ago.
But to me there is an even more important aspect of his life, like that of his friend and colleague Noam Chomsky, that transcends the personal.
To many of us, “Zinn” and “Chomsky” have not only been admirable human beings. They have been something far more, something difficult to put into words, something perhaps even risky to try and capture—but something that, nonetheless, one feels driven to express at a moment like this.
Many of us were upended on the deepest possible level during the ’60s. Growing up in the aftermath of the “good war,” we, the children or grandchildren of immigrants who believed deeply in America, had a profound faith in this country’s goodness and decency. And when we saw not only our leaders, but also an entire generation, betray and spit upon and destroy these values in Indochina, we were undone. Our moral universe, the basic set of understandings needed to remain human, was shattered.
It was during these morally chaotic years that “Zinn” and “Chomsky” became more than people. As elders who did not sell out, who acted as well as taught, who did not compromise, who did not abandon genuine American values and ideals, who did not lose a passion for social justice, who did not fail to side with the poor and downtrodden and victimized, and who above all spoke the truth, “Zinn” and “Chomsky” became, quite simply, two of the most important nouns of our life.
Even if we did not always agree with this or that “position” they took, they represented something far higher. “Zinn” and “Chomsky” represented a tradition and state of being that meant we were not entirely on our own, beacons of:
—The deepest possible compassion. At any given moment, the world is divided into those who hear the screams of the innocent victims and those who do not. Most of us, certainly myself, go in and out of hearing the screams. “Zinn” and “Chomsky” is a state of being that consistently hears the screams, from Vietnam to inner-city ghettos, from East Timor to Haiti. It is a state that is unable to close itself off from the pain of the world.
—Intellectual clarity. They have told their truths in their writings and speeches to millions, never compromising for the sake of political expediency like so many contemporaries. Many of us were terminally confused by the conflict between America’s image and reality. “Zinn” and “Chomsky” provided explanations and understandings that helped keep us sane.
—Moral courage. They went beyond mere speech-making and writing, and joined with those opposing the war, risking imprisonment or physical injury.
—Passion for social justice (an antiquated concept these days). “Zinn” and “Chomsky” has meant never losing the passion for justice, a passion that Zinn realized as a bombardier in World War II, when he was often bombing the innocent not out of military necessity but mere inertia and indifference.
—Integrity, authenticity and wholeness, above all. “Zinn” and “Chomsky” are embodiments of that word so often praised but so rarely practiced. They have practiced what they have preached. I have never seen either act out of character.
I remember well when I first met Zinn in Laos in 1968, as he and Dan Berrigan were on their way to Hanoi to escort U.S. prisoners of war home. I asked him what political system he believed in. He smiled in his wry way, grinned his wide grin and answered in that soft, Brooklyn-tinged but clear way of his: “I guess the closest is the kind of anarcho-syndicalism they had in the Spanish Civil War,” he responded.
As we talked, I understood that he knew too much to put faith in any government, right or left, and that “anarcho-syndicalism” was a way of saying he remained idealistic that humans could theoretically live sanely. But he never fell into the trap of projecting ideals onto the fallible humans who hold power in any system, left or right, and who are inevitably corrupted by it.
The integrity conveyed by the words “Zinn” and “Chomsky” is, in the end, impossible to pin down. They have been cut from an older, different cloth. Their roots lie in an earlier time when those fighting for peace and social justice did so because of who they were, not because they sought personal power or to realize fantasies of “revolution.”
I asked Zinn last January what kept him continuing to fight, write and speak for peace and social justice when it all seemed so hopeless. His answer was as simple as it was profound. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.”
The deepest role Zinn has played in my life only became apparent to me in recent years, as I began to explore my unconscious. I realized that he represented a kind of moral center, a compass, a guiding star. This or that politician in whom I had believed might turn out to have feet of clay. I might betray my own ideals. I might drop out for a while, become despairing. But knowing that Zinn did not, that he fought consistently for his ideas, meant that somewhere, someplace, there remained a still point of integrity in this world.
I at times saw Zinn as naive. When I talked to Zinn shortly after John Kerry was nominated for president, he said forcefully that Kerry had better run against the Iraq war if he wanted to win. My internal reaction was something along the lines of “Oh, there he is, good old Howard, naive romantic to the end. No one can hope to win the presidency without supporting the Iraq war.”
I did not foresee that Kerry’s key losing moment of the campaign would be saying he voted for the Iraq war before he voted against it, or that Barack Obama would win the presidency largely for opposing the Iraq war at a time when the conventional wisdom, embodied by Hillary Clinton, still held that supporting it was necessary to win.
I did not foresee that, a few years hence, I would see myself as naive on this question, and Zinn ultimately more realistic.
I also did not foresee that, as the horrors of the Bush years wore on, and the disappointment of Obama Year One would kick in, that I would find myself increasingly embracing what he has taught and what he has embodied—that he would be serving even more as a lodestone to me in these years than he did in my youth.
Zinn’s death is thus a shock transcending the normal death of a friend or even loved one. Yes, the personal memories come tumbling out: watching a theatrical presentation in a cave north of Hanoi as Richard Nixon got elected in November 1972; marveling at the morale of the Vietnamese compared to the despair we felt at the prospect of four more years of killing; spending the night in adjoining jail cells during the Redress demonstration; being so buoyed in the morning by his cheerfulness, smiles, wry but never cynical humor; marching together in a small march in Lexington, Mass., and then hearing him speak, out of the deepest possible knowledge and feeling, about how the ideals of the American Revolution, as contrasted with its reality, required opposing the Vietnam war today; our e-mails, phone conversations and visits over these 40 years, with Zinn always gracious, always committed, always kind, always interested and always interesting.
But this feeling of devastation at his loss far transcends even these personal memories.
There is, you see, no “Zinn” among we baby boomers, let alone the generations that follows us. One of our beacons of integrity has now flickered out. Our world has suddenly become a little darker, a little colder, a little more bitter, a little more insane.
My only consolation at this moment is knowing that though Zinn the man has died, “Zinn” has not. I know that many of us will continue to be sustained in the difficult years to come by the answers we will receive when we find ourselves asking:
What would Howard think, how would he see it?
What would Howard say?
How would Howard feel?
And, most importantly: What would Howard do?
Zinn has died. Long live “Zinn.”