Howard Zinn, Silent

Peter Wood

Howard Zinn, who passed away yesterday at age 87, was a fixture at Boston University during much of my time there.  I did not know him personally and looking back I have a hard time recalling hearing him speak. Though I attended events where he spoke, he has somehow stuck in my memory as a figure from the era of silent film—all gesture and expression.

But of course Howard Zinn was a man of many words, not least those that spilled across the pages of A People’s History of the United States. He was a tenured member of the BU faculty, where he was appointed in 1963, after a seven-year stint at Spelman College.  The Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta crystallized his aggressive, anti-establishment brand of political agitation. He was apostle of indignation and spent almost his entire adult life attempting to rouse anger in others against “the system.”   At BU he became a key figure in protests against the Vietnam War.

In 1972, Boston University recruited another feisty veteran of the Civil Rights movement, John Silber, as its new president, but Zinn and Silber were to prove neither friends or allies.  They quickly spotted one another as natural antagonists and Zinn led repeated—and unsuccessful—efforts to have Silber removed from office.  All that happened before my time.  When I joined the Silber administration in 1987 as assistant to the provost, Silber had just finished a legal demolition of the faculty union.  Zinn remained the rabble-rouser-in-chief, idolized by students who imagined the sixties as the Great Moment they had the misfortune to be born too late for.  But his era was over and in his last years at BU, the university was little more than a stopover for him on his way to celebrity appearances on other campuses.

When he quietly approached the administration about a financial settlement that would enable him to retire in comfort, a deal was struck.

Zinn rose to unprecedented fame when his documentary, The People Speak, premiered last month on the History Channel. The program consisted mainly of dramatic readings “inspired by” A People’s’ History performed for a live audience by celebrities such as Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. The Los Angeles Times called The People Speak “a primer of liberal ideology with a decided bent toward socialism.”

I have heard that “Howard Zinn” was a top trend on Twitter today. A highly circulated tweet has been “Howard Zinn RIP...... thanks for teaching me how to rethink history! Get A People's History of the United States, it's a must read!!!!” One person wrote, “I just googled Howard Zinn. I had no idea how influential he was.”

It seems to me undeniable that Zinn was a man who influenced his times and therefore a noteworthy historical figure. That his influence was nearly all for the worse seems plain to me as well.  He was a leading figure in the politicization of the curriculum; a man heedless of academic standards with his own students; a fellow who urged others on to lawless actions who was himself pretty scarce when the police arrived; and a practitioner of a meretricious and dishonest form of scholarship that has beguiled many.  Students whose knowledge of American history is grounded in A People’s History of the United States are worse than ignorant of the subject.  They are entangled in deep deceptions about their country’s past.

Howard Zinn, close friend of Noam Chomsky, author of a play exalting the anarchist Emma Goldman, World War II bombardier turned anti-war activist, almost seems like a cartoon version of a radical professor.  And indeed, one of his last works was a “graphic novel,” a cartoon version of his “People’s History.”  I don’t know if all the good he did will be interred with his bones, but his cartoon politics will surely live after him.

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March 23, 2011


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