Howard Zinn, historian on the left
Source Dave Anderson
Date 99/05/01/22:41

/* Written 12:42 AM Dec 29, 1998 by in igc:labr.all */
/* ---------- "'Howard Zinn'" ---------- */
Date: Mon, 28 Dec 1998 19:42:06 -0700 (MST)

PROFILE: Howard Zinn, historian on the left


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (December 28, 1998 12:15 p.m. EST - As the teacher talks to his students, his
hands tell a story. They rise above his ears and point like knives.
They chop the air in straight, swift lines, as if cutting through a
wall of lies.

At a public high school near the Harvard campus, Larry Aaronson is
calling for a relatively unconventional way of thinking about the
Civil War.

"The war was not fought to free the slaves!" he insists, hands coming
down on every word. "The war was fought to destroy the planters'
control over the Southern states because the planters have taken the
Southern states out of the Union!"

Seated before his class at the Pilot School, Aaronson talks about
class conflict in the South and racism in the North. He emphasizes
that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves and that it
was late in the war before Lincoln's reasons for fighting changed.

"Only THEN it becomes a fight about ending slavery," he says. "Lincoln
sees there's only one way to get out of this: `I'm going to mobilize
the entire black population. I'm going to overcome a lot of my
resistance and I'm going to allow blacks into the military."'

Aaronson is not departing from the text; he is teaching it. The
students in this U.S. history course have been reading Howard Zinn's
"A People's History of the United States," a left-wing interpretation
that has made some wonder how much they really knew.

"It makes me sort of question everything else I've learned because
I've only learned one side before, the conqueror's point of view,"
said one student, Rowena Potts.

"In principle, I am sort of against having biased history books," said
another student, Santiago Rohenes. "But the chance of getting to read
the other side of the story is important and unbiased books are sort
of impossible to have."

Published in 1980 with little promotion, "A People's History" has sold
more than half a million copies and sales have accelerated over the
years. Although Zinn was writing for a general readership, his book is
taught in high schools and colleges throughout the country. Thanks to
a couple of famous admirers, it may reach an even wider audience.

Matt Damon, the star and co-writer of the movie "Good Will Hunting,"
is a family friend of Zinn's and a former student of Aaronson's. Damon
gives Zinn's book a plug in the film - his character calls it a "REAL
history book" - and now he and co-star Ben Affleck are working on a
television dramatization of "A People's History" for the Fox network.

"It's all serendipity," said Aaronson, a former civil rights activist
who has used Zinn's book in his classroom for several years. "Both
Matt's and Ben's moms are educators, progressive educators. And Matt's
family used to live next door to Howard and his wife. Everyone shares
similar ideals.

"Before I had Matt as a student, I had Matt's older brother, Kyle. I
was teaching Howard's book. And he said, `Oh, my God. We know who this
guy is.' And they were all excited and they got all excited about the

At a time when few politicians dare even call themselves liberal, "A
People's History" offers an openly anti-establishment narrative. It
charges Christopher Columbus and other explorers with genocide and
picks apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin Delano
Roosevelt. It celebrates workers and feminists and war resisters.

"`People's History' was a really important historical event," said the
linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, a longtime friend of
Zinn's whose book "Manufacturing Consent" also receives a compliment
in Damon's film. "It brought an alternative perspective about American
history to a really substantial number of people."

"Before Howard's book there was nothing like it," said Bill Bigelow, a
history teacher at Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., and
co-editor of the educational guide "Rethinking Our Classrooms:
Teaching for Equity and Justice."

"So much of what is in traditional U.S. history textbooks start from
the standpoint that this is the greatest country in the world,
everything is fine and let's see how it got that way. Zinn's book
starts from the premise, `Let's see what this country's history is
really about."'

In Aaronson's class, the book has influenced not only students, but
parents. Rowena Potts said when she first told her mother what she had
learned about Columbus, her mother refused to believe it.

"But now she's much more interested," Rowena said. "She said there's
so many facts that nobody had even told her. I thought it was kind of
distressing, how she reacted at first, but now she's much more open to
these ideas. She wants to read the book now. My father has started
reading it."

"It happens every single time," Aaronson said. "Parents have gotten
intrigued by the book and have actually gone out and bought it."

Zinn's book has caused little controversy in schools. Some historians,
however, have objected.

"I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary," said Arthur
Schlesinger Jr., a family friend of the Kennedys. "And I don't take
him very seriously. He's a polemicist, not a historian."

Added Oscar Handlin, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and professor emeritus at
Harvard University: "He doesn't know anything. Scholarship? I wouldn't
use that word for what he does."

An admirer of Zinn's, Columbia University professor Eric Foner, has
praised "A People's History" for its "vivid descriptions of events
that are usually ignored" and called it "a step toward a coherent new
version of American history." But only a step. Reviewing the book in
1980 for The New York Times, Foner also criticized Zinn for a "bottom
up" view of history that was as limited as history written from the
top down.

"What is needed," wrote Foner, "is an integrated account incorporating
both Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, Andrew Jackson and the Indians,
Woodrow Wilson and the Wobblies, in a continuing historical process,
in which each group's experience is shaped in large measure by its
relation to others."

Zinn, who lives in nearby Auburndale with his wife, Rosyln, agrees
with his critics on a couple of points. He was not trying to write an
objective history and he was not trying to write a complete one. He
calls his book a response to traditional texts, the first chapter -
not the last - of a new kind of history.

"There's no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete,"
Zinn said during an interview at a coffee shop near Harvard Square.
"My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand
times. If we're going to have a free marketplace of ideas then we
ought to look at the market and who's dominated it.

"I'm not writing it for people who are blank slates. Everybody in the
United States who goes through junior high school, or even elementary
school, gets some American history. So all I'm doing is wheeling my
pushcart into the marketplace."

The 76-year-old Zinn is an impressive looking man, tall and rugged
with wavy silver-gray hair. An experienced public speaker, he is
modest and engaging in person, more interested in persuasion than in
confrontation. P> He has always been a different kind of historian,
one who has lived history as well as written it. He grew up poor
during the Depression, flew bombing missions in World War II and
taught in the South, at a black women's college, during the Civil
Rights era. He helped Daniel Ellsberg leak copies to the press of the
top-secret Pentagon Papers and helped anti-war activist Father Daniel
Berrigan hide from the FBI.

Although retired from Boston University, where he taught political
science for more than 20 years, Zinn continues to lecture at schools
and to appear at rallies and on picket lines.

"He's been involved in everything," says Chomsky, who met Zinn in the
1960s. "He's right in front, directly in the action."

Born in New York in 1922, Zinn is the son of Jewish immigrants who as
a child lived in a rundown area in Brooklyn and responded strongly to
the novels of Charles Dickens. At age 17, urged on by some young
Communists in his neighborhood, he attended his first political rally.

"There were all these people in Times Square, marching around with
their banners. I think they were calling for an end to war," he said.

"Suddenly, I heard the sirens sound and I looked around and saw the
policemen on horses galloping into the crowd and beating people. I
couldn't believe that. And then I was hit. I turned around and I was
knocked unconscious. I woke up sometime later in a doorway, with Times
Square quiet again, eerie, dreamlike, as if nothing had transpired.

"I was ferociously indignant - that here we were, in America, and I
had been told and believed that we had the right to free assembly and
freedom of speech and here were these people peacefully protesting and
they were attacked violently by the police. It was a very shocking
lesson for me."

War was his next lesson. Eager to help wipe out the Nazis, Zinn joined
the Army Air Corps in 1943 and even persuaded the local draft board to
let him mail his own induction notice. He flew missions throughout
Europe, receiving an Air Medal, but he found himself questioning what
he was doing. Back home, he gathered all his medals and papers, put
them in a folder and wrote on the folder: "Never again."

He had married Roslyn in 1944 and after the war they settled in lower
Manhattan. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, which offered veterans
government aid for education, he attended New York University and
Columbia University, where he received a doctorate in history.

His first permanent teaching job came in 1956, in a place where
history would soon violently arrive: He was offered the chairmanship
of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College, an
all-black women's school in the then-segregated city of Atlanta. One
of his students was a confident, "ironically polite" Georgian named
Alice Walker.

"He made us laugh at a time when so much made us cry," said the
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, who remains friends with Zinn.
"Eventually, nobody cared if Howie was white and we even wondered if
he really was. He treated us with such kindness and thoughtfulness.

"He was so funny. I remember he was addressing some very staid
students and administrators at Agnes Scott College (in nearby Decatur,
Ga.)," Walker added with a laugh. "Here he is, Jewish, and there we
were, black, and there they are, trying hard not to think about all
the big changes going on. And he gets up and starts out by saying, `I
stand to the left of Mao Tse-tung!"'

With the Civil Rights movement growing, Zinn thought the best
education was happening outside of the classroom. He encouraged his
students to request books from the segregated public libraries and
helped coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. Zinn also published
several articles, including a then-rare attack on the Kennedy
administration for being too slow to protect blacks.

He was loved by students but not by administrators. In 1963, Spelman
fired him for "insubordination" (Zinn was a critic of the school's
non-participation in the civil rights movement). His years at Boston
University were marked by active opposition to the Vietnam War and by
feuds with the school's outspoken president, John Silber. Zinn retired
in 1988, spending his last day of class on the picket line with
students in support of an on-campus nurses' strike.

"It seemed a fitting way to end my teacher career," he later said.

Besides "A People's History," Zinn has written several books,
including "The Southern Mystique," the acclaimed "LaGuardia in
Congress" and the memoir "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train." He
also has written three plays, including "Marx in Soho" and "Emma," a
piece about the anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman that has been
performed all over the world.

Zinn is a socialist who opposed the "narrow nationalism" of the Soviet
Union, but still believes the United States needs a radical
redistribution of wealth. Although he sees both major American
political parties as controlled by the rich, he confesses to voting
for President Clinton in 1992.

"I thought there might have been a chance he would turn out to be more
decent than the others," Zinn said with an embarrassed smile. "But
that turned out to be wrong, very quickly."

Despite all he has seen, he thinks people are basically good and that
today's students are no less concerned about the world than the
students of the Sixties: They just need a great cause to unite them.
And he still sees himself as a rebel, even if the establishment has
sometimes treated him otherwise.

"That's the American system, one of the ways it sustains itself. If it
fired everyone who was a subversive it would be a totalitarian state.
... It's a mildly liberal state which allows just enough openings and
gives awards to just enough people to make the argument, `You see,
we're not a totalitarian state.

"So here I am," he said, leaning back in his chair at the coffee house
off Harvard Square, "prosperous, drinking cappuccino. But when I read
in the morning paper that a bunch of people were arrested at the state
house for protesting welfare cuts, I become intensely involved. I
wished I had been there."

Copyright 1998 Nando Media

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