The Best of What A Human Can Be, and Do In Life

Abby Zimet

We will miss Howard Zinn, who fought the good fight long and hard, passionately and eloquently. To pay tribute to him and the clarity of his vision, read "A People's History of the United States," and carry on the work.

Zinn on what he admires in the U.S: "Let me make it clear – the United States is not the government. There is very little in the government that I admire, but there is much I admire in the United States, and what I admire is the spirit of independence and thought which has allowed so many Americans to protest against policies they disagreed with...the noble tradition in America of working people getting together and doing what the government will not do for them."

On the term 'radical historian': "I believe radical solutions are needed. Radical means getting to the roots, means going to fundamental things, and I believe we need fundamental changes in our society, fundamental changes in ending policies of war and expansion, fundamental changes in our economic system, fundamental changes in dealing with the environment – all of those are radical."

On the civil rights movement: "Being involved in the southern movement, and being aware that what was happening at the grass roots in the South was not being recorded, made me very conscious of the idea of a people's history. Most history skims the surface and records things from the top, tells us what presidents did, or Congress, or the Supreme Court...What was happening below, in the South – the church meetings, the things that ordinary black people were doing to struggle against segregation – these things were not being recorded. So what that experience did was to give me a different idea of what democracy is...What I realized is that democracy does not come through (governmental) institutions. These institutions are very often obstacles to democracy, and democracy comes alive when ordinary people get together and create a social movement for change."

On the 'ideological choice' that informs most history: "To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves – unwittingly – to justify what was done...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 excess in morality. The easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress – that is still with us...We have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. 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.

On his vision of history: "My viewpoint in telling the history of the United States is that we must not accept the memory of states as our own...The history of any country conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners."

"I will not try to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. But I do remember, in rough paraphrase, a statement I once read: 'The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don't listen to it, you will never know what justice is.'"

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