February 5th, 2010

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#156 – Dick Bernard: Howard Zinn

Friday, February 5th, 2010

However he’s looking in on we mere mortals, Howard Zinn is probably getting a kick out of all the attention he’s getting in death. Today, for instance, National Public Radio went to the trouble of admitting its obituary of Zinn was unfair. Zinn is likely smiling and would probably agree with the old variously attributed adage: “I don’t care what they say about me, just spell my name right.”

I’ve not yet read Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”, nor his other books. I saw him in person once, April 9, 2009, doing his part in his “Voices of a People’s History of the United States”. He responded to a couple of e-mails I sent him, and he gave me his home address without a clue as to who I was. He came across as a really nice genuine gentle man.

Nonetheless, he was labeled as a radical, and a “revisionist” historian.

The latter label I got a particular kick out of: his task in life seemed to be to correct the earlier and abundant revisionist historical mythology about our own history as a country – more or less our Lake Wobegon view of ourselves, where pats on the national back are all we learned, and all that is acceptable; where outrageous national behavior is not spoken in polite company. We could do, and did, no wrong….

If Zinn was pilloried as departing from the party line of our history, then the worst that could be said about him was that he was the mathematical negative which, when multiplied by another negative, equals a positive. He balanced the national story – which made him frightening to some.

Somewhere I still have an audio tape of a speech he gave in St. Paul in 2002. It is a wonderful speech, gentle, pointed, spot-on. He acknowledges his WWII career in a bomber over Europe. He served his country. He then puts the war part of our national ethic into its less palatable perspective.

As one friend remembers it, Zinn commented in his People’s History that “orthodox history has been written ten times over…no need to do it again.”

Go to YouTube, and enter the name Howard Zinn, and you’ll have a good variety of Zinn-samplers.

The day after I learned he had died, I sent to my list the earliest Howard Zinn writing I had on file in my computer. My post is dated March 25, 2003; I don’t know when Zinn wrote it…doesn’t matter. In peace, Howard.

On Getting Along
By Howard Zinn

You ask how I manage to stay involved and remain seemingly happy and
adjusted to this awful world where the efforts of caring people pale in
comparison to those who have power?

It’s easy. First, don’t let “those who have power” intimidate you. No
matter how much power they have they cannot prevent you from living your
life, speaking your mind, thinking independently, having relationships
with people as you like. (Read Emma Goldman’s autobiography LIVING MY
LIFE. Harassed, even imprisoned by authority, she insisted on living
her life, speaking out, however she felt like.)

Second, find people to be with who have your values, your commitments,
but who also have a sense of humor. That combination is a necessity!

Third (notice how precise is my advice that I can confidently number it,
the way scientist number things), understand that the major media will
not tell you of all the acts of resistance taking place every day in the
society, the strikes, the protests, the individual acts of courage in
the face of authority. Look around (and you will certainly find it) for
the evidence of these unreported acts. And for the little you find,
extrapolate from that and assume there must be a thousand times as much
as what you’ve found.

Fourth: Note that throughout history people have felt powerless before
authority, but that at certain times these powerless people, by
organizing, acting, risking, persisting, have created enough power to
change the world around them, even if a little. That is the history of
the labor movement, of the women’s movement, of the anti-Vietnam war
movement, the disable persons’ movement, the gay and lesbian movement,
the movement of Black people in the South.

Fifth: Remember, that those who have power, and who seem invulnerable
are in fact quite vulnerable, that their power depends on the obedience
of others, and when those others begin withholding that obedience, begin
defying authority, that power at the top turns out to be very fragile.
Generals become powerless when their soldiers refuse to fight,
industrialists become powerless when their workers leave their jobs or
occupy the factories.

Sixth: When we forget the fragility of that power in the top we become
astounded when it crumbles in the face of rebellion. We have had many
such surprises in our time, both in the United States and in other
countries.

Seventh: Don’t look for a moment of total triumph. See it as an
ongoing struggle, with victories and defeats, but in the long run the
consciousness of people growing. So you need patience, persistence, and
need to understand that even when you don’t “win,” there is fun and
fulfillment in the fact that you have been involved, with other good
people, in something worthwhile. Okay, seven pieces of profound advice
should be enough.
Howard Zinn