Howard Zinn died this past week.
The historian Howard Zinn died this past week. Unlike most people who criticized it I did try to read his most well known work, “A People’s History of the United States”. Even though I may have to acknowledge a basis in fact for much that he wrote about, I couldn’t stand his eagerness to always find my country, and his, to be on the wrong side of everything. There seemed to be a knee-jerk anti-americanism to everything he wrote that was too often at odds with the way I saw things.
Zinn titled his autobiography “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train.” He says of himself: ”From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it.”
“To relinquish the safety of silence – that is the thing. As much as I talk, I am too often silent about what really matters, all because it would upset life as I and others know it. It will be my silence that will be my greater sin, not how much I talked but what I refused to talk about.”
He reminds me of Gore Vidal. Vidal is another writer that is not easy to read or listen to in interviews. He can seem so bitter , so sharp in tone and so apparently ungrateful to the land of his birth. But it should be acknowledged that along with all that, he speaks some truth about our country too.
I don’t agree at all with those who would like to silence people like Zinn or Vidal. We need to have people like them who dissent from the majority, no matter how ugly and distasteful their words are. And I often have found their words ugly and distasteful. But I think we are strengthened by being the sort of country that has the capacity for self criticism.
We can do better than we are doing. We can be better than we now are.