Skip to main content _

Barry Crimmins

words to live near


Howard Zinn - A Remembrance Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn - A Remembrance

Howard Zinn 1922-2010
(Photos courtesy Robert Birnbaum)

(NOTE: The following expands on some thoughts I posted upon first hearing the news of the passing of Dr. Howard Zinn)

Howard Zinn's voice, his literal voice, is what I will always remember best about him. Measured, wise, gentle and kind, his calmly assertive tone rose to every important political occasion for the past sixty or so years. It never once became shrill.

But did he ever get his point across. With microscopic shifts of inflection, you could hear the arch of an eyebrow, a sniff of disdain or a mettlesome refusal to succumb to unjust authority. It didn't hurt that this vocal artistry had lyrics featuring Howard's always perfectly chosen words.

Professor Zinn's not-so-secret ingredient was a large measure of optimism. This positiveness during daunting times was rooted in parallel moments in history when regular folks (the great historian had unearthed and illuminated) stood for what was right despite lopsided odds. Again and again Howard dulcetly delivered inspiration by speaking of how the courage of such everyday heroes led to change that benefitted us all. Because he knew from whence we came, he had hope for where we were headed. And so he was unflappable. His voice and writing were like his conscience -- clear. He taught us that the most difficult choices were actually the easiest ones to make, provided our moral compass's true north fixed on compassion and courage.

There seemed to be extra hours in the day for Howard. He was always traveling, reading (was there any respectable political publication he didn't blurb?), writing and speaking. He still found time for a rich life with his wonderful wife and editor Roslyn (a magnificent artist whose work continues to bring beauty to us two years after her passing) and their children Jeff Zinn and Myla Kabat-Zinn and their spouses and children.

No one I know could keep up with Howard yet he never seemed rushed or stressed. I think this was because as a preeminent historian, he experienced life in a very sensible context. Howard understood that the bad guys would eventually lose. The task before us was to resist the inevitable stupidities of the moment and make sure to leave a trail that would eventually lead others to the truth about our times. He knew that no matter how badly things were trending, at least a few people of good faith could eventually buck such trends.
crimmins 9026

The professor joyfully spoke before, and met and listened to, the throngs that greeted him wherever he traveled. Howard knew the value of a crowd. He understood that not only is there strength in numbers but there is also strengthening in them, providing you present a persuasive case. It is one thing to read a rousing political tract by yourself and quite another to realize the same wisdom simultaneously with hundreds of your friends and neighbors.

Therefore Howard appreciated anyone who tried to make crucial information accessible to as many people as possible. When we met, rather than look past a young man who made his living grousing in nightclubs, he encouraged me in every possible way. He compared my work to that of my hero Samuel Clemens (even I had to question him on that one), Finley Peter Dunne, Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. He and Roz came to my shows many times and always enthusiastically expressed appreciation for my efforts. He  even introduced me on my album, "Kill the Messenger" back in 1991( audio file below). Whenever I published a piece in the Boston Phoenix or elsewhere, he called with praise, proclaiming that I had outdone myself. In later years he sent emails that implored, "Write, Barry! Write! We need you!" He recommended me to Seven Stories Press and his endorsement resulted in my 2004 book, Never Shake Hands With a War Criminal.

What I remember most fondly are the dozens of marches, protests, picket lines and rallies we attended together. It seemed like it was always freezing at those events. Howard would get up and dazzle the masses with his precise wisdom and reassuring persona. I would then pitch a fit like a lunatic. He could have said his piece and left long before my caterwauling but usually he and Roz would be waiting for me off to the side of the stage when I was done. There they stood bundled in winter coats, hats and scarves, smiling as smoke billowed from the compliments they heaped upon me. They'd tell me that I had delivered exactly what was needed to be said and gushed about how proud they were of me. And then they'd introduce me to friends of theirs ranging from Daniel Ellsberg to Ed, the guy who is organizing the bus mechanics. Soon we'd adjourn to somewhere for a meal where we'd warm up and the Zinns would make sure that everyone got to know just how wonderful everyone else was. It took me quite a while to believe I actually knew these people, let alone could count them as my friends.

Before long Howard and I were meeting for semi-regular coffees in Harvard Square. These get-togethers served as de facto office hours for the professor emeritus. We'd barely settle in before there was an actual line of well-wishers, former students and/or fellow activists. The first few would likely be invited to join us at the table and then Howard patiently spoke with and listened to all comers. I never begrudged these folks their time with the great man. How could I when he and Roz had given so much love, support and guidance to me? Besides, I met dozens of  terrific people during those coffees. There was simply no downside when Howard was around.

Two people who saw me at various confabs with the good doctor were Lewis and Meg Randa of the Peace Abbey in Sherborne, Massachusetts. When I was honored with that remarkable institution's Courage of Conscience Award, it was Howard who did the presenting. As ever, he was philanthropic in his assessment of me. Last night after learning of Howard's death,  I happened to glance at that left-wing Heisman Trophy on my mantle and the tears came and stayed for quite some time. That plaster bird means more to me than any mainstream show biz award ever could.

It is fitting that such a great man of peace had such a disarming personality. Because he was so organically charming and durably gentle, he could forward ideas that many of us dare not even dream about, such as the end of war.

In the April 2006 issue of The Progressive, he made the case in his essay, After the War, excerpted here:
... should we not think beyond this war? Should we begin to think, even before this shameful war is over, about ending our addiction to massive violence and instead using the enormous wealth of our country for human needs? That is, should we begin to speak about ending war—not just this war or that war, but war itself? Perhaps the time has come to bring an end to war, and turn the human race onto a path of health and healing.

A group of internationally known figures, celebrated both for their talent and their dedication to human rights (Gino Strada, Paul Farmer, Kurt Vonnegut, Nadine Gordimer, Eduardo Galeano, and others), will soon launch a worldwide campaign to enlist tens of millions of people in a movement for the renunciation of war, hoping to reach the point where governments, facing popular resistance, will find it difficult or impossible to wage war.

There is a persistent argument against such a possibility, which I have heard from people on all parts of the political spectrum: We will never do away with war because it comes out of human nature. The most compelling counter to that claim is in history: We don't find people spontaneously rushing to make war on others. What we find, rather, is that governments must make the most strenuous efforts to mobilize populations for war. They must entice soldiers with promises of money, education, must hold out to young people whose chances in life look very poor that here is an opportunity to attain respect and status. And if those enticements don't work, governments must use coercion: They must conscript young people, force them into military service, threaten them with prison if they do not comply.

Furthermore, the government must persuade young people and their families that though the soldier may die, though he or she may lose arms or legs, or become blind, that it is all for a noble cause, for God, for country.

When you look at the endless series of wars of this century you do not find a public demanding war, but rather resisting it, until citizens are bombarded with exhortations that appeal, not to a killer instinct, but to a desire to do good, to spread democracy or liberty or overthrow a tyrant...

It [war] poisons everyone who is engaged in it, however different they are in many ways, turns them into killers and torturers, as we are seeing now. It pretends to be concerned with toppling tyrants, and may in fact do so, but the people it kills are the victims of the tyrants. It appears to cleanse the world of evil, but that does not last, because its very nature spawns more evil. War, like violence in general, I concluded, is a drug. It gives a quick high, the thrill of victory, but that wears off and then comes despair.

Now that Howard's gone, we will have to work that much harder. OK, let's take strength from the lesson he taught so many times: there is very little that can't be accomplished by people willing to confront, understand and reclaim history. Consider how much he accomplished on his own and then imagine what we all could do together!

Anyone can make history but changing it is another story. That story was told beautifully by Howard Zinn, whose kind and wizened voice will be what I hear whenever my conscience prompts me to behave like a decent and responsible person. For that and so much more, thanks, Howard.