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(en) US, Noam Chomsky Remembers Howard Zinn

Date Sat, 27 Feb 2010 19:15:22 +0200

It is not easy for me to write a few words about Howard Zinn, the great American activist and historian who passed away a few days ago. He was a very close friend for 45 years. The families were very close too. His wife Roz, who died of cancer not long before, was also a marvelous person and close friend. Also somber is the realization that a whole generation seems to be disappearing, including several other old friends: Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmed, and others, who were not only astute and productive scholars but also dedicated and courageous militants, always on call when needed -- which was constant. A combination that is essential if there is to be hope of decent survival. ---- Howard's remarkable life and work are summarized best in his own words.

His primary concern, he explained, was "the countless small actions of
unknown people" that lie at the roots of "those great moments" that
enter the historical record -- a record that will be profoundly
misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots
as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma. His life was
always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and
interviews. It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown
people who brought about great moments. That was true when he was an
industrial worker and labor activist, and from the days, 50 years ago,
when he was teaching at Spellman college in Atlanta Georgia, a black
college that was open mostly to the small black elite.

While teaching at Spellman, Howard supported the students who were at
the cutting edge of the civil rights movement in its early and most
dangerous days, many of whom became quite well-known in later years --
Alice Walker, Julian Bond, and others -- and who loved and revered him,
as did everyone who knew him well. And as always, he did not just
support them, which was rare enough, but also participated directly with
them in their most hazardous efforts -- no easy undertaking at that
time, before there was any organized popular movement and in the face of
government hostility that lasted for some years. Finally, popular
support was ignited, in large part by the courageous actions of the
young people who were sitting in at lunch counters, riding freedom
buses, organizing demonstrations, facing bitter racism and brutality,
sometimes death. By the early 1960s a mass popular movement was taking
shape, by then with Martin Luther King in a leadership role, and the
government had to respond. As a reward for his courage and honesty,
Howard was soon expelled from the college where he taught. A few years
later he wrote the standard work on SNCC (the Student non-violent
Coordinating Committee), the major organization of those "unknown
people" whose "countless small actions" played such an important part in
creating the groundswell that enabled King to gain significant
influence, as I am sure he would have been the first to say, and to
bring the country to honor the constitutional amendments of a century
earlier that had theoretically granted elementary civil rights to former
slaves -- at least to do so partially; no need to stress that there
remains a long way to go.

On a personal note, I came to know Howard well when we went together to
a civil rights demonstration in Jackson Mississippi in (I think) 1964,
even at that late date a scene of violent public antagonism, police
brutality, and indifference or even cooperation with state security
forces on the part of federal authorities, sometimes in ways that were
quite shocking.

After being expelled from the Atlanta college where he taught, Howard
came to Boston, and spent the rest of his academic career at Boston
University, where he was, I am sure, the most admired and loved faculty
member on campus, and the target of bitter antagonism and petty cruelty
on the part of the administration -- though in later years, after his
retirement, he gained the public honor and respect that was always
overwhelming among students, staff, much of the faculty, and the general
community. While there, Howard wrote the books that brought him
well-deserved fame. His book Logic of Withdrawal, in 1967, was the first
to express clearly and powerfully what many were then beginning barely
to contemplate: that the US had no right even to call for a negotiated
settlement in Vietnam, leaving Washington with power and substantial
control in the country it had invaded and by then already largely
destroyed. Rather, the US should do what any aggressor should: withdraw,
allow the population to somehow reconstruct as they could from the
wreckage, and if minimal honesty could be attained, pay massive
reparations for the crimes that the invading armies had committed, vast
crimes in this case. The book had wide influence among the public,
although to this day its message can barely even be comprehended in
elite educated circles, an indication of how much necessary work lies ahead.

Significantly, among the general public by the war's end, 70% regarded
the war as "fundamentally wrong and immoral," not "a mistake," a
remarkable figure considering the fact that scarcely a hint of such a
thought was expressible in mainstream opinion. Howard's writings -- and,
as always, his prominent presence in protest and direct resistance --
were a major factor in civilizing much of the country.

In those same years, Howard also became one of the most prominent
supporters of the resistance movement that was then developing. He was
one of the early signers of the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority
and was so close to the activities of Resist that he was practically one
of the organizers. He also took part at once in the sanctuary actions
that had a remarkable impact in galvanizing antiwar protest. Whatever
was needed -- talks, participation in civil disobedience, support for
resisters, testimony at trials -- Howard was always there.

Even more influential in the long run than Howard's anti-war writings
and actions was his enduring masterpiece, A People's History of the
United States, a book that literally changed the consciousness of a
generation. Here he developed with care, lucidity, and comprehensive
sweep his fundamental message about the crucial role of the people who
remain unknown in carrying forward the endless struggle for peace and
justice, and about the victims of the systems of power that create their
own versions of history and seek to impose it. Later, his "Voices" from
the People's History, now an acclaimed theatrical and television
production, has brought to many the actual words of those forgotten or
ignored people who have played such a valuable role in creating a better

Howard's unique success in drawing the actions and voices of unknown
people from the depths to which they had largely been consigned has
spawned extensive historical research following a similar path, focusing
on critical periods of American history, and turning to the record in
other countries as well, a very welcome development. It is not entirely
novel -- there had been scholarly inquiries of particular topics before
-- but nothing to compare with Howard's broad and incisive evocation of
"history from below," compensating for critical omissions in how
American history had been interpreted and conveyed.

Howard's dedicated activism continued, literally without a break, until
the very end, even in his last years, when he was suffering from severe
infirmity and personal loss, though one would hardly know it when
meeting him or watching him speaking tirelessly to captivated audiences
all over the country. Whenever there was a struggle for peace and
justice, Howard was there, on the front lines, unflagging in his
enthusiasm, and inspiring in his integrity, engagement, eloquence and
insight, light touch of humor in the face of adversity, dedication to
non-violence, and sheer decency. It is hard even to imagine how many
young people's lives were touched, and how deeply, by his achievements,
both in his work and his life.

There are places where Howard's life and work should have particular
resonance. One, which should be much better known, is Turkey. I know of
no other country where leading writers, artists, journalists, academics
and other intellectuals have compiled such an impressive record of
bravery and integrity in condemning crimes of state, and going beyond to
engage in civil disobedience to try to bring oppression and violence to
an end, facing and sometimes enduring severe repression, and then
returning to the task. It is an honorable record, unique to my
knowledge, a record of which the country should be proud. And one that
should be a model for others, just as Howard Zinn's life and work are an
unforgettable model, sure to leave a permanent stamp on how history is
understood and how a decent and honorable life should be lived.
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