by Black Russian, February 2010
The death of Howard Zinn should give us all a moment to pause and reflect on a remarkable life, one that was spent almost entirely in service of people. What he served for and for whom he served are, of course, the most important questions. The mainstream media, as well as people who do not have the intellectual curiosity to investigate a great hero of working people, have tried to pigeon-hole him as an icon of The Left, but such a reduction is a terrible disservice to his name. Zinn was, in the opinion of this undergraduate, a champion for all decent human beings.
Zinn’s first great service in the name of humanity was his enlistment in the Armed Forces, eager to fight the onslaught of fascism in Europe. In the aftermath of the Cold War, it is difficult to remember that during World War II capitalists and communists united (with exceptions in both cases) against the common enemy of Nazism. Herein lay one of the most important misconstructions regarding Howard Zinn. I remember reading the New York Times obituary, which implied that the brutality of World War II engendered his anti-war attitudes, but the truth is Zinn’s anti-war activism stemmed from his orders from higher military personnel to bomb soldiers and civilians even after victory was clearly won. Zinn asserted that the decision was not one in the name of victory but of ambitious military officials seeking to rise in the chain of command. Zinn’s anti-war organizing stemmed not from hatred of America but rather from distaste of militarism and what it does to people.
Zinn’s service continued long after the end of World War II. He earned both a bachelor’s degree and a PhD on the GI bill while working menial jobs to provide a means for himself, eventually leading to a life spent teaching at the university level. Beloved by his students, arguably his greatest contribution was A People’s History of the United States. I personally picked up the book in high school, and I was only one of many who drew inspiration from a text designed to provide a history of people left out of conventional textbooks. This was not a Left-Right or liberal-conservative issue. Anyone who has been subject to the biases of power in the education system (especially but not exclusively racism, sexism, and classism) owes Howard Zinn a debt of gratitude.
Zinn never claimed to be objective, nor did he try to be. Instead Zinn proved that the United States did indeed have a powerful history of working-class democracy like the previous imperial power, Great Britain. Our country owed as much if not more to that tradition than George Washington, Andrew Jackson, or Abraham Lincoln. It lay in the abolitionist movement, particularly the wing that refused to compromise with an immoral economic order. It was in the Populist Movement, living proof that capitalism was never embraced by “Middle America” but rather was met with stiff and fervent resistance. It was with the Socialists who opposed the nonsense that became known as World War I, and even the pacifists of World War II. If anyone had the right to emphasize the latter, it was a former soldier ordered to bomb civilians and enemies in retreat. It was in the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and so many more. Zinn celebrated people organizing themselves instead of waiting for salvation from corrupt politicians and exploitative corporations.
In West Africa funerals are not only meant to mourn death but also to celebrate life, and the life of Howard Zinn deserves such a sendoff. He was not just a great “Leftist” or even just a great American. He was a great human being. Zinn undoubtedly would have wanted those of us eulogizing him to remind people that he himself was no hero, but rather heroism comes from working people united in solidarity against the corporate parasites, corrupt politicians, dishonest university presidents and boards of trustees, and everyone else seeking to exploit working people. As a discipline of Howard Zinn, I finish by encouraging my fellow students and fellow human beings to do what Zinn encouraged us to do his entire life: ORGANIZE!!!!