If you wake up and read the newspaper, you wake up to find important people have died. This is how my morning often begins. Most of the time I can function reasonably well, and I suspect today won’t be substantially diffferent.
But I’m not sure today. This morning I woke up to find that Howard Zinn died yesterday in California at the age of 87.
If you don’t know who Howard Zinn is, it’s your loss. Zinn was the author of numerous books, most notable A People’s History of the United States. Derided by some, idolized by many, it’s hard to argue this book changed the way a lot of people thought about the history of the United States. In the opening pages, Zinn identifies the core problem of history driving his book:
My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress…that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts… to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.
It was those lines that led me into his most well-known book, the reading of which ran concurrently with a period in my life when I could be called, for better or worse, an activist.
For a few amazing years of my life I went to meetings, talked about injustice, wrote letters, and yelled my head off in the streets. I met some amazing people, far more dedicated than I, who challenged me by their very presence to do more — to know more. That’s when I discovered Howard Zinn.
Eventually, my active participation in human rights issues moved to my teaching. I reasoned — correctly — that I was in a position to do more for the world by effectively teaching students how to read, write and think. And eventually my copy of Zinn’s book went up on the shelf.
But I’ve still got it. Perhaps I’ll reread it before long. It’s a shame that it takes the death of an author to break into the day-to-day routine.
But Zinn’s book was one of many that changed how I saw the world. For that, I — and all of us — owe him a lot.