Thursday, 28 January 2010

Howard Zinn: 1922 - 2010

This morning I woke up to the sad news that historian and social critic, Howard Zinn, had died. As awful as it might seem, I had been so prepared over recent years for the inevitable news of the death of Noam Chomsky (another awesome octogenarian radical of whom the world should take more note), that it hadn’t even occurred to me that Zinn, six years Chomsky’s senior, might die first.

To say I was shocked would be an understatement.

Perhaps that sounds a little bit morbid – worrying about the death of Noam Chomsky – but when your heroes reach their eighties, it’s really hard to not be concerned.

Howard Zinn was also a hero, and he and Chomsky will be forever intertwined in my mind. Between the two of them – and a healthy dose of Dead Kennedys and Subhumans lyrics – my teenaged eyes were opened up to a whole new way of seeing the world. But whereas Chomsky provided my education through his prolific canon of never-ending texts and articles, and the Dead Kennedys and Subhumans required several records each to shake me from my political stupor, Howard Zinn achieved his life-changing alteration of my perceptions with just one single book.

A People’s History of the United States was a book I only ever read from start to finish once, but it’s effect on how I understood the world has never left me. One simple idea – the telling of history not through the voices of the powerful, but through the seldom-heard voices of the poor, the weak, and the everyday – revolutionized the telling of a history which I thought I already knew. Slave rebellions, worker uprisings, corporate and government corruption – the true tales of history were wrested from the grip of its victors and put back into the hands of the people.

Ever since I read the work of Howard Zinn, I could never trust status quo historians again.

Alongside the influence of Chomsky, both my MA and Ph.D. work would not have been possible without Zinn’s perception-changing insights. When I wrote about just war theory in my Masters Degree dissertation, my arguments were backed up by a historical record of war and conquest radically different from those offered to us by our leaders, yet one no less substantiated by evidence. When I spoke of the democratic failings of our so-called contemporary “democracies” in my Ph.D. thesis, it was with Zinn in mind that I portrayed an accurate, but alternative, history of Western political evolution.

In 2000, I saw Howard Zinn speak at the annual Marxism festival in London. After several days of quite turgid and dogmatic lecturing from different party-line speakers on a variety of different issues, I remember Howard Zinn as being a breath of fresh air from the hitherto stultifying zealots. Here was a man, I realized, who was not afraid to question accepted faith, even within his own doctrines, and a man who made me realize that being politically radical didn’t have to mean leaving your humanity and charm at the door.

Charm and humanity aside, that one simple book and one simple idea could have such a life-changing effect on so many generations of people will be Zinn’s greatest legacy. That simple idea (and that wonderful book) will not die along with him, so long as those of us who learnt the lessons that A People’s History of the United States had to offer, continue to pass them on each and everyday.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but those whose past has been stolen from them by manipulative rulers who benefit, will forever have A People’s History to unchain them. For that, we must thank Howard Zinn.

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