We’re approaching three years since Howard Zinn left us, and to my ear his voice sounds louder all the time. I expect that effect to continue for decades and centuries to come, because Zinn spoke to enduring needs. He taught lessons that must be relearned over and over, as the temptations weighing against them are so strong. And he taught those lessons better than anybody else.
We like to use the word “we,” and to include in it everything the Constitution pretends to include in it, notably the government. But the government tends to act against our interests. Multi-billionaires, by definition, act against our interest. Zinn warned us endlessly of the danger of allowing those in power to use “we” to include us in actions we would otherwise oppose. It’s a habit we carry over from sports to wars to economic policies, but the danger of a spectator claiming “we scored!” doesn’t rise to the same level as millions of spectators claiming “we liberated Afghanistan.”
We like to think of elections as a central, important part of civic life, and as a means of significantly impacting the future. Zinn not only warns against that misperception with incisive historical examples, and with awareness of the value of the struggle for black voting rights in the Southern United States, but he was a part of that struggle and warned against misplaced expectations at the time.
We like to think of history as shaped by important stand-out individuals. We like to think of war as a necessary tool of last resort, as demonstrated by our list of “good wars” which generally includes the U.S. war of independence, the U.S. civil war, and the second world war (debunked by Zinn as ‘The Three Holy Wars’). We imagine that political parties are central to our efforts to shape the world, but that civil disobedience is not. We imagine that we often have no power to shape the world, that the forces pushing in other directions are too powerful to be reversed. If you listen to enough Howard Zinn, each of these beliefs ends up looking ludicrous — even if, in some cases, tragic.
If you haven’t had enough Howard Zinn lately (and who has?), there’s a new book of his collected speeches just published, called Howard Zinn Speaks. Of course it’s just a tiny sampling of his speeches, as he gave innumerable speeches over the years. With one exception, these have been transcribed from speeches given without pre-written remarks. Zinn doesn’t have his footnotes in hand. He paraphrases people rather than quoting them. But he also says what he believes to be most needed, what he has thought about most deeply, what pours out of him in ever-changing variation on his one and only theme: We can shape the future if, and only if, we make use of the past.
The speeches collected here are themselves part of the past. There’s one from the 1960s, two from the 70s, two from the 80s, four from the 90s, and over half the book from the Bush-Obama years. But the examples Zinn draws on, the stories he tells to make his points, go back for centuries into a past that most Americans only dimly recognize.