Historian Howard Zinn ascended the stage at renowned Faneuil Hall in Boston on Patriot's Day, the Massachusetts holiday commemorating the start of the American Revolution. The "shot heard round the world," the first shot of that revolution, was fired April 19, 1775, in Concord, Mass.
He spoke about patriotism: "What is patriotism, and what is not? Who is patriotic, and who is not?"
"Patriotism is about dissent. It's about criticism and civil disobedience," Zinn began. Not far from Faneuil Hall, Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord, built a little hut on Walden Pond. Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience," which profoundly influenced Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Zinn continued, "He was arrested for not paying his tax because he was protesting the Mexican-American War in the way there are tax resisters today for protesting the war in Iraq." Thoreau went to jail. While there, his mentor, the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, is said to have asked Thoreau, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" Thoreau replied, "What are you doing out there?"
Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," with well more than 1.5 million copies sold, is essential reading for anyone hoping to truly understand the U.S. in its current role as sole superpower. He tells the story of America, from the bottom up. Zinn, 84, with a grandfatherly smile and self-deprecating wit, defiantly smashes the icons of American history, exposing the myths that are so often invoked in defense of bad policy.
Zinn continued his homage to patriots, like Helen Keller. Everyone is taught that she was deaf and blind, yet went on to great success. What the textbooks don't tell children, Zinn says, is about Keller's deep-seated political beliefs. "Helen Keller was a patriot. She was a radical, an educator, an agitator, a socialist. She spoke at Carnegie Hall against war, supported the labor unions of her day. She refused to cross a picket line at a theater that was showing a play about her."
Zinn praised Mark Twain's patriotism. Twain spoke out after President Theodore Roosevelt congratulated a general involved in a 1906 massacre in the Philippines. The late Kurt Vonnegut read these words of Twain at an event celebrating the work of Zinn, a fellow World War II veteran: "It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make these people free and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way; and so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."
As Zinn spoke Monday night, they were counting the dead in Blacksburg, Va., after the horrific shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. The figure was 32 dead, plus the shooter himself, also a student at the university. I thought back to three months ago, to a similar horror. This one in Baghdad, at Mustansiriya University. On Jan. 16, a double car and suicide bombing there killed 70 students. Those killed were mainly young female students leaving classes.
As our country mourns the dead at Virginia Tech, we are at the same time inured to the daily slaughter in Iraq. Imagine attacks of this scale happening to Iraqi young people day after day.
Zinn has seen war, has seen its effects. He has seen violent civil strife in the U.S. He says the answer is to bring out those voices who say no to the violence:
"To omit or to minimize these voices of resistance is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have the guns. ... I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color or women—once they organize and protest and create movements—have a voice no government can suppress."