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Citizen Zinn | The Nation

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Citizen Zinn

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When Howard Zinn died last year, the commentary about his life relayed his warmth and humor, his many protests against war and racism, and the wild popularity of his book, A People’s History of the United States. As a friend and student of Zinn’s, I find these descriptions incomplete. At the same time, “serious” historians dismissed A People’s History as superficial and ideologically driven. In both views—much less in the condemnations from the right-wing—something very central about Zinn is overlooked: throughout his life and work, he was fashioning a living concept of what it means to be a good citizen.

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John Tirman
John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. His latest book, The Deaths of Others:...

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Howard Zinn as the paragon of righteous citizenship would strike many, including some in his legions of friends and admirers, as a peculiar way of describing this remarkable man. In the more commonplace view, he spent decades angrily decrying America’s treatment of every downtrodden minority, avidly protested against every US military intervention, and excoriated America and capitalism for the impoverishment of large swaths of the country and indeed of the world. Is this the stuff of citizenship?

That so many of his insights about US policies at home and abroad were spot on and often prescient is a sidelight. What emerges most powerfully from his voluminous writings about the civil rights movement, US war and imperialism, class in America, and related matters is a deep sense of involvement—with the forgotten people, the causes to reverse injustice, the outrage against senseless killing—framed by a consistent set of ideas that are in fact the fundaments of the American Republic. In this deep immersion in American society and ever mindful of the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a vibrant citizenship was nourished.

Like all the great progenitors of American democracy, he was so many things in his 87 years that this doubtlessly enabled him to grasp the core ideas of why and how an American should learn and care and act. He was a longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks, a bombardier in the Second World War, a teacher and scholar, an organizer, a journalist, a playwright. In a deprived childhood and from the docks he understood economic injustice. In the unnecessary bombing raids in France he witnessed the absurd violence of war. He wrote about these experiences in compelling essays (such as “The Bombing of Rouen” in The Politics of History) and a short autobiography.

It was in the South in the 1950s and early 1960s where he found his voice and his characteristic style of citizenship. Here was the great struggle for black emancipation. Zinn and his young family had moved to Atlanta in 1955 to take up his first teaching post at Spelman College. There he mentored the likes of Alice Walker, Marian Wright Edelman and Julian Bond, among others, but at the same time he was experiencing, chronicling and interpreting the civil rights movement in articles for The Nation and other political journals. He was, quite unlike most academics, writing from the inside as an activist, aiding the uprising in many ways. The sit-ins, the marches, the protests, the bold challenge to segregation and its legal underpinnings were outbursts of citizenship, of ordinary people demanding rights and protections that had been guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Much of Zinn’s most memorable writing about the civil rights movement was reportage from Selma, Hattiesburg, Atlanta and other venues where black people sat-in or marched or simply stood defiantly to bear witness to the segregation and indeed the degradation of centuries. Using the method of oral history that he helped pioneer, he gave voice to these activists as they moved from acquiescence to action: the sit-ins and other protests, more than anything, awakened blacks and whites to the actual circumstances of oppression and to the obligations for equal standing guaranteed by the America’s founding documents. The Freedom Day actions in Mississippi left the movement “battered and uncertain,” he wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists. “It moved on to Greenwood and other towns in the Delta, grew in numbers, gathered thousands of supporters throughout the state. In places like Hattiesburg it took blows, but it left the town transformed, its black people—and possibly some white people—awakened... The long silence was over.”

This notion of awakening ordinary people to their rights, that the powers-that-be are not reliable protectors of rights, was Zinn’s relentless theme. At a commemoration of the Bill of Rights in 1991 in Faneuil Hall, Zinn made it clear that rights conveyed by the Declaration or Constitution are not automatically put into practice. Free speech is constrained in war time (“exactly when free speech is most needed”); the protections against search and seizure are different for the rich than for the poor; even the simplest expression of citizenship, voting in elections, was blocked for decades after the Civil War. “We are not given our liberties by the Bill of Rights,” Zinn declared, “certainly not by the government which either violates or ignores those rights. We take our rights as thinking, acting citizens.”

While drawing from the nation’s founding documents, Zinn was keen to expand the notion of rights to benefit ordinary people. As he often said, there are no guarantees in the Constitution for livelihoods or decent housing or nourishment. (Political activism did in fact make these more permanent in federal offerings, possibly fulfilling the Constitution’s opening clause, “to establish Justice... promote the general Welfare.”) What this demand for rights to basic necessities reflected is a vibrant and sustainable form of citizenship, however: the act of caring about others and sharing national wealth to make sure no one goes hungry, homeless or jobless. Defining the purpose of our commonwealth in human terms—to serve the nation, which is to say, the people, and not the state or private wealth—has a corollary in America’s actions abroad. We should, Zinn insisted, create a foreign policy that is not about protecting friendly (often ruthless) states and warring with the inconvenient ones, but about protecting people through our capacity to lead nonviolently.

I think Zinn struggled with how one personally puts into practice the ideals of citizenship he promoted. He did protest racism and war, often getting arrested. He walked picket lines for workers seeking better wages. He delivered fiery speeches intended to spur his audiences to defiance. He testified at trials of dissidents (famously in Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers trial) and took up the cause of many prisoners. What set him apart more than any other acts of solidarity and caring, however, was his role as an intellectual. Not only did he write a breathtaking array of books, articles, pamphlets and plays, but he undertook two distinctive tasks that manifest his thinking about citizenship.

The first is his insistence on encouraging ordinary people to speak up, and indeed recording and utilizing these voices in his writings. “One day I walked unannounced into the Zinn apartment” in Atlanta, Staughton Lynd, another leftist historian, recalls. “Howard was tape recording an interview with two African American young men, [civil rights organizers] who had just been released from jail in Albany, Georgia. A light bulb went on behind my eyes. It was not Studs Terkel, nor was it my native genius, that led me to oral history: it was Howard Zinn.” His “bottom up” perspective not only made A People’s History the all-time best-selling book on America’s past, but it revolutionized historiography. The days of focusing only on the “great men”—the presidents and senators and business tycoons—were gone. History writing and presentation has not been the same. But the device is more than merely innovative. In oral history, the intellectual steps aside, sacrificing, in effect, the role of the omniscient interpreter of events. Citizens speak, and are built a platform to be heard.

The second of these signature contributions was his openly self-conscious discourse about the responsibility of the intellectual, and particularly that of the historian. This was a battle he fought with the academic and journalistic establishments over many decades. “We ought to welcome the emergence of the historian,” he wrote in an essay for the New York Times Book Review in 1966, “as an activist-scholar, who thrusts himself and his works into the crazy mechanism of history, on behalf of values in which he deeply believes. This makes of him more than a scholar; it makes him a citizen in the ancient Athenian sense of the word.”

But this was not only about the engagement of intellectuals in the great causes of the day. It was about how knowledge is created, for what purposes, and who controls it. Anticipating French critical theorists like Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu (and along with his friend Noam Chomsky), Zinn constructed a withering critique of academic “objectivity” and the trivialities scholars often choose as their life’s work.

The objectivity debate—which attends journalism as well—is often misconstrued, however. Engaged intellectuals needn’t (and shouldn’t) distort history to make their case, Zinn argued. Rather, it is the initial choice of topics where the value judgments come into play. “Whether a metalsmith uses reliable measuring instruments is a prerequisite for doing good work, but does not answer the crucial question: will he now forge a sword or a plowshare with his instruments?” he asked in a Saturday Review essay in 1969. “That the metalsmith has determined in advance that he prefers a plowshare does not require him to distort his measurements. That the scholar has decided he prefers peace to war does not require him to distort his facts.”

Tilting at ivory towers was central to the citizenship project because of the way so many intellectual elites have not merely served the interests of the powerful but how such knowledge production fails to address, as completely as it should, real human needs. It would be too large a claim to say that Zinn and his cohort drove universities to be more socially responsible, now with large and diverse programs of service learning and problem solving, but the activism beginning in the 1960s that shamed academe for its insularity and its servitude to monied interests helped create a social conscience on campuses that is lively and expanding.

So the citizen wherever he or she works or lives, of whatever circumstances, is one who questions injustice, demands common rights and does so not for him or herself alone but for all others. “We must begin now to liberate those patches of ground on which we stand—to ‘vote’ for a new world (as Thoreau suggested) with our whole selves all the time, rather than in moments carefully selected by others.” Zinn consistently held—optimistic perhaps to a fault—that people can and do act precisely in those ways to secure a decent society. His role, ultimately, was to shine a light on those acts, those rights and the obstacles to their fulfillment.

He was fond of quoting Rousseau’s famous challenge, “We have physicists, geometricians, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, and painters in plenty, but we no longer have a citizen among us.” America did, or does. His name is Howard Zinn.

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