Howard Zinn

RIP Howard Zinn, Wake Up Progressives

Howard Zinn believed in our ability to change the world through acting, speaking and writing. Zinn encouraged us to search for truths often brushed aside and hidden beneath political rhetoric. He showed us history through the eyes of the people and not just their governments, leaders and accepted tomes and canons. His seminal book, “A Peoples History of the United States” was published in 1980 and tells the story of the indigenous peoples who lives were destroyed by Columbus and European conquest. He tells the stories of the slaves as well as those who fought for civil rights. The suffragettes who fought for women to have the right to vote. The tales of workers who fought for what the constitution promised them, but corporations and robber barons chose to deny them as our country expanded: the Chinese and Irish who built the transcontinental railroad and the miners in Ludlow Colorado who were massacred.  The stories deemed too unsavory for our history books.

Howard Zinn told the story of our history in all its shades of gray, without making it so clearly black and white, right and wrong, nationalistic, patriotic and one-sided. When he passed away on January 27, 2010, we lost a voice for freedom, for justice, a man with a broad perspective based on his own life experience from a WWII bomber to an anti-war activist.

“I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own,” he wrote. Something I think. Something many people must ponder as well.

We are one world. That is the view of those who have been to space and looked down on our planet. It is so small from their perspective and yet we continue to fight over drawn boundaries–believing we actually possess the land upon which we live. That we are entitled to it somehow. But the land belongs to all of us and if we dont take care of it and nurture it, if we continue to violate the earth with our devices, our garbage, our endless plastic water bottles, sucking up the oil beneath the surface to power our cars and heat our homes, our quest for shiny metals and polished gems, our desire to cut trees and make room for more genetically modified fields of what we call food, what will we have left? We fight over lines drawn in the sand that say this is mine and that is yours when it belongs to all of us and we all must care for and nurture it and share its bounty.

“I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance,” Zinn told Bill Moyers not long before he died. He was promoting the History Channel special called “The People Speak,” based on his book, which utilized actors reading the voices of dissent in America to illustrate our history.

I believe Zinn did his part to awaken that greater consciousness. Having reached more than 2 million readers, Howard Zinn left a legacy. He taught us to question the canon, to question the leaders, to stand up for what we believe in. “Think for yourself. Dont believe what the people up there tell you,” he said to Moyers, referring to up there as Washington DC. “Dont depend on saviors or the founding fathers or our leaders to do what must be done.”
When I worked in the corporate world early in my career, a consultant shared this message with each manager at our company: Nobody is coming. Nobody cares. How does that change how you think about your job and your role? I realized then that we must be self sufficient and self reliant. We must work together for the greater good whether at a company or in a community or a country. This, in essence, was Zinns message. For him, traditional history created passive followers who believed they could go to the polls and elect someone to fix things. In fact, traditional history has created apathy among most Americans–more of whom do not vote or go to the polls believing they have no power. We seem to no longer believe that the supreme power of our Republic is held by voting citizens and that it is the will of the citizens that is to be exercised by our elected representatives. Our representatives are controlled by moneyed interests, lobbyists and corporations who thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling can throw unlimited and unregulated amounts of money at Senate, Congress and the President to do their bidding, not ours. Very few people will participate in our upcoming caucus system. And I cant help but wonder what would change in this country if even 75 or 80 percent of eligible voters actually came to a caucus and actually talked with their representatives and actually wrote them emails and called them to express how they felt about an issue. And what if we actually had a press that would provide information to citizens about the language in proposed legislation. What if we all could read it in clear and simple language?

Zinn told Moyers: “If [President] Obama paid attention to the working people of this country he would be doing much much more than he is doing now.”

I agree. But the working people are not rallying. They are not standing up. The Tea Party people are funneling their anger and frustration into a movement, yet we who call ourselves progressive, sit back and wait for someone to lead us, just as we waited for someone to march and oppose the wars in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq. Why are we not marching on the banks? Why are we not protesting the credit card companies? Why are we sitting back and continuing to invest in Wall Street, when we know Wall Street is corrupt? Why are we giving our power to the less than 1% who control most of the wealth of this country? Why are we not standing up to insurance companies and for profit health care providers and demanding that we return our health care system to one of compassion, not based on profit margins, but based upon taking care of people?

Zinns most recent edition of “A Peoples History of the United States” ends with this quote by the poet Percy Shelley, which was recited by women garment workers in New York at the start of the 20th century.

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you–
Ye are many, they are few!

Zinn believed that democracy does not come from the top, it comes from the bottom. Are we going to let the Tea Party movement be the voice of the people? Its not my voice. Its not my dissent. My dissent is that we are using party politics to divide this country. That we are using soundbites to enlist and establish fear mongering. That we have voices in the media on both sides claiming their opinions as truth. Truth is not simple, truth is complicated, it is not clear, it is opaque and multi-layered. What may be right for me may be wrong to you and we must try and find some common understanding. We must be more open to other ideas and less close minded. We must be more compassionate and universal and less nationalistic. And we must understand that everything we do impacts the entire world in some way.

Rest in Peace, Howard Zinn. May we take up your torch and continue to believe in the power of the people to change the world. Its time we wake up and roar.

Write us your thoughts about this post. Play nice.