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Noam Chomsky, "Remembering Howard Zinn"

Remembering Howard Zinn
Noam Chomsky

[Editor's note: January 27, 2012 was the second anniversary
of the death of Howard Zinn. An active participant in the
Civil Rights movement, he was dismissed in 1963 from his
position as a tenured professor at Spelman College in Atlanta
after siding with black women students in the struggle
against segregation. In 1967, he wrote one of the first, and
most influential, books calling for an end to the war in
Vietnam. A veteran of the US Army Air Force, he edited The
Pentagon Papers, leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, and
was later designated a "high security risk" by the FBI.
His best-selling A People's History of the United States
spawned a new field of historical study: People's Histories.
This approach countered the traditional triumphalist
examination of "history as written by the victors", instead
concentrating on the poor and seemingly powerless; those who
resisted imperial, cultural and corporate hegemony. Zinn was
an award-winning social activist, writer and historian - and
so who better to share his memory than his close friend and
fellow intellectual giant, Noam Chomsky?]

It is not easy for me to write a few words about Howard Zinn,
the great American activist and historian. 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
marvellous person and close friend. Also sombre is the
realisation 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 summarised 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
labour activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was
teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a black
college that was open mostly to the small black elite.

While teaching at Spelman, 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 organised 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, organising
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 organisation 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 honour 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.

A Civilising Influence

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 co-operation - 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. In later years, however, after
his retirement, he gained the public honour 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
per cent 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 civilising 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
organisers. He also took part at once in the sanctuary
actions that had a remarkable impact in galvanising anti-war
protest. Whatever was needed - talks, participation in civil
disobedience, support for resisters, testimony at trials -
Howard was always there.

'History From Below'

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
world.

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 US 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 US 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; a light touch of humour in the face of
adversity, and 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 the 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 honourable 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 honourable
life should be lived.

[Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the MIT
Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the author of
numerous bestselling political works, including 9-11: Was
There an Alternative? (Seven Stories Press), an updated
version of his classic account, just being published this
week with a major new essay - from which this post was
adapted - considering the ten years since the 9/11 attacks.]