I considered not writing this. I also considered posting a book review of one of the many books of Howard Ziinn’s that I’ve read. But ultimately, I think it’s right to call this guy a world class hacker of history. With his most famous work, A People’s History of the United States, he presented one of the most compelling alternative viewpoints on US history ever produced. His impact on high school and college students throughout the united states has been indelible. And, his passing earlier this week has left me truly saddened. And here’s why…
My father was always a bit strange growing up. He had a massive hand drawn portrait of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat hanging over his bar, despite being Irish. He forced me to read lord of the rings in freshman year of high school, before he would spend another dime on buying me any more books. And, as a young kid I remember curling up and listening to my dad read bed time stories to me from Clancy novels. When it came to history, my dad was, and still is an addict. He once made me and my brothers forcibly watch the entire Ken Burns Civil War documentary in succession. And, when not watching the 24/7/365 police chase network, he’s pretty much tuned directly into the History Channel or some variant of Discovery. As a result, I grew up with a growing addiction to history. I loved it then, and still love it now. There’s no truer drama than the stories of past deeds laid bare before us through the efforts of our worlds historians. If you are looking for a hero to look up to, or a creed to follow, you need look no further than the words of leaders who have changed the world. Understanding them, and the times in which they lived, leads us to an understanding of opportunity and risk that allow us to achieve great things in our own lives. And, it instills a sense of pride in knowing that much of what we are today was defined as much by the sacrifices and triumphs of great men ( I say men as inclusive of women… short form of humans ) as it was by the frailties of weaker men. So I love history.
I first encountered Zinn in my Senior year American history class when I was studying in Brazil. My teacher at the time had a sick sense of humor, which is probably why we got along so well. If the entire class was in agreement regarding an event in history, I’d of course be my usual self and support the alternative view… just because that’s what you do when you are a bored, arrogant, jerk of a teenager. Turns out, I was on to something and had no idea yet. But, Zinn crystallized it for me when my teacher threw that into the mix ( arrogance or not I think he did it just to confuse the crap out of me ). What Zinn did was provide a counter argument to “accepted” american history in the form of primary source accounts of times and events surrounding major moments in history. By reading the words of people who experienced and lived through these times, you could see a view of history not as a story but as a living breathing world that surrounded real people. Suddenly that counter point no matter how small the minority, was poignant and compelling. And, the method of delivery, the literary finesse, and selection choice made by Zinn brought a singular message of perspective home to all of us in that class. I learned that attacking issues from every side no matter how strongly I agreed with them would be a necessary part of educating myself on anything. And it was that little bend in my way of thinking that has given me such a tremendous edge in everything I do. Though, it has its’ down sides too.
Over the years, I’ve engaged in arguments with friends, and colleagues in which unbeknown to them I have occasionally argued an opposing viewpoint from my own. Many of my friends have figured that out in due course as I’ve oscillated with little regard to continuity between positions on various topics. I am often called a troll as a result. ( That and because I occasionally troll people ) But, because I’ve done this I’ve learned a great deal about my own beliefs, and changed them on many occasions. Zinn taught me the awesome power of perspective, when used properly. He also taught me a great deal of history. I heard from voices that had been ignored by history. I was immersed in events that had transformed our nation, through the filtered words of people who had lived those moments. And I learned that history as it’s taught in schools today, is a hell of a lot weirder than I could have ever imagined.
But why would I call Zinn a hacker? Well, if it’s not obvious then I’ll isolate it for you. His changing perspective on history, is directly analogous to the changing perspectives on technology that allows re-purposing, exploitation, and development of technologies by “traditional” hackers. Some call it thinking outside of the box. Personally I think that analogy is silly, but it gets the point across most of the time. And, the way in which he did it was important as well. He let the voices of others speak for him. He used historical sources to paint a picture of a historical landscape we thought we knew, and in doing so produced a view of important motivators and effects that hadn’t been seen in other more traditional work. He demonstrated a flaw that was not plainly visible to students of history. In doing so he raised awareness in young people that would stick with them, and provide them with the presence of mind to look deeper, sidelong, and sometimes backwards and upside down at everything they encountered in whatever field they found themselves in.
I’ve continued to read Zinn throughout the years. I’ve never met the guy, never made an attempt to, and now will never have a chance to. I was happy arguing his viewpoints against mine in my head, jumping from side to side and sometimes coming in from other angles. Passionate Declarations: Essays on War and Justice was his last major work that I read, and I found it to be as brilliant as any work he’s ever written. Even now I can fondly remember the frustration I felt with some of his arguments, and the somber acceptance as he supported some of his positions with a lifetime of experiences.
I can’t say this about many authors. In fact, I’m not sure there’s another author out there I will ever say this about. But, when I heard Howard Zinn would no longer be able to provide that alternative perspective that I always loved to chew up in my mind, I felt like I’d lost a friend. I’d read his books, and come away feeling like I’d just spent several hours engrossed in wild and entertaining discourse with a friend at a bar or coffee shop. And to know that he’ll never be there again to challenge me, leaves me at a loss. I have no doubt he’ll continue to teach kids the importance of perspective long into the future, and join the voices he worked so hard to include in our nation’s history, but I am not sure we’ll ever be able to replace him.
Anyways, if you haven’t read Zinn. You should. You are missing out.
Well said Matt. I unfortunately was first exposed to Zinn much later, but reading A People's History of the United States was a transfiguring experience. First it made me realize how the stories I had learned about the history never entirely made complete sense. For example, if the USA was this great beacon of freedom, why did the Indians join with the French Monarchy to fight against us? People's History filled in the holes and made me feel, for the first time, that I had begun to grasp the history of this nation.
“We were not born critical of existing society. There was a moment in our lives (or a month, or a year) when certain facts appeared before us, startled us, and then caused us to question beliefs that were strongly fixed in our consciousness-embedded there by years of family prejudices, orthodox schooling, imbibing of newspapers, radio, and television. This would seem to lead to a simple conclusion: that we all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas.
— Howard Zinn, 2005″
Very well said. My time came during the Carter administration, when I realized that government programs create far more more problems than they solve.
I happened upon this site looking for something else, and came across your heartfelt tribute Zinn. OK, I'm game. What works should I start with?
Well the quintessential book of Zinn's is the people's history of the United States. I'd start there.
Speaking of the Lord of the Rings and Howard Zinn, I present to you:
Unused Audio Commentary By Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Recorded Summer 2002, For The Fellowship of the Ring (Platinum Series Extended Edition) DVD
Part One: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/2003/04/22fellowship….
Part Two: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/2003/04/23fellowship….