Sunday, 7 February 2010

Respect is due: Howard Zinn

Great historian becomes history:

In 1980, the historian and activist Howard Zinn published The people's history of the United States, which turned inside out the traditional perspectives of American history. Zinn portrayed many of America's heroes as perfidious villains and transformed the triumphalist narrative of American progress into a litany of unfettered power-abusing and exploitation of the poor, people of colour, immigrants, workers, and all the disenfranchised who had lacked a voice in mainstream histories. Originally published with a print run of 5,000, the book became a staple of many history courses, and its spin-offs, including a young-people's version, a comic-book, and an abridged history of the 20th century, have gone on to sell 2 million copies.

Critics, and even some obituarists, accused Zinn of failing to show "balance", but Zinn insisted his book was one small counterweight to the overwhelming bias of mainstream history toward the political, economic, and social elites, and its implicit assumption of idealistic nationalism, capitalism, and imperialism. His refusal to credit the likes of Jefferson, Lincoln, or the Roosevelts with progressive achievements, while highlighting their shortcomings, infuriated mainstream "liberal" historians, while his steadfast opposition to wars saw right-wingers targeted him as an "appeaser".

But unlike many of his most virulent critics, Zinn had lived out the positions he argued. He opposed war as a decorated military flyer, championed labour as a former shipyard worker, and had risked jobs and jail protesting and working for civil rights and against the Vietnam war. Indeed, this willingness to ignore careerism appeared to infuriate many of his fellow academics as much as his insistence that meaningful change could only arise from the collective will of ordinary people, not heroic leaders. (1)
A remarkable man, he was still writing cogent and insightful columns for the Guardian right up until October last year (2). His death was the result of a heart attack while on a lecture tour. Obviosuly, indefatigable and still optimistic - in spite of his professed belief that individual 'great men' didn't matter all that much - that he was making a difference.
1 -"Howard Zinn: Historian whose criticisms of American social policy made him a hero of the Left," by Michael Carson. Published in the Independent, 5th of february, 2010. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/howard-zinn-historian-whose-criticisms-of-american-social-policy-made-him-a-hero-of-the-left-1889970.html)
2 - The index of Zinn's recent columns for the Guardian, last one dated 10th of October, 2009, can be accessed here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/howardzinn (As of 7th of february, 2010)

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