You Can't Be Neutral
American historian, playwright and social activist Howard Zinn died yesterday, aged 87.
The author of the million-plus bestseller A People's History of the United States, which gave a leftist view of American history, died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California, his daughter Myla Kabat-Zinn told the Associated Press today.
Zinn wrote more than 20 books and his plays have been produced around the world, but it is for A People's History, first published in 1980 with a print run of just 5,000 copies, which the historian is best known. Told from the perspective of America's women, Native Americans and workers, the book provides a revisionist view of American history from the arrival of Christopher Columbus - who Zinn charges with genocide - to president Bill Clinton's first term.
"My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality," wrote the author in the bestselling book. "But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all) - that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth."
Growing up in an immigrant, working-class family in Brooklyn, Zinn became a shipyard worker at 18, later joining the air force and flying a bomber during the second world war. His experiences shaped his opposition to war, and on his return he took a PhD in history at Columbia University, later working with civil rights movement activists including Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman, and leading antiwar protests. Professor emeritus at Boston University, Zinn received a host of honours, most recently the 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr Humanitarian award from New York University for embodying "a vision of peace, persistence in purpose, and inspirational action".
In December, a documentary narrated by Zinn and based on A People's History aired on the History Channel. Intended to give a voice to those who spoke up for social change throughout US history, producers on the film included Matt Damon and Zinn himself, with performances from Morgan Freeman, Bob Dylan, Viggo Mortensen, Bruce Springsteen and others.
The Zinn Education Project, which promotes the teaching of A People's History in schools throughout America, said it was "deeply saddened" to learn of Zinn's death. "His incredible energy, wit, knowledge, political analysis, vision, and dedication had us convinced that he would outlive us all," the project posted on its website. "At 87, he continued to inform and inspire in his presentations across the country, radio interviews, essays, and film-making."