Zinn's principal teaching was defy the authorities and throughout his later life he lived true to that teaching, showing that it can be lots of fun and very rewarding, for almost everyone involved. He is remembered most famously for his book "A People's History of the United States," which was a home-run into left-field at a time when many historians were caught off-guard. While they snickered at the score in the press box, Zinn kept his eyes on the ball, stepped up to the plate, and 2 million copies later, he is now considered one of history's rock stars, alongside Herodotus, Gibbon, Lord Acton, and others. In an age when few public intellectuals had any staying power, Zinn maintained a popularity that was grounded in a captivating and inspiring reading of history. In a world of worker ants he was the disquieting fly, buzzing around, and reminding everyone of the untapped potential that laid within each of them. If you imagine Goliath to be history, then Zinn has played the role of David the historian.
In Zinn's version of history, the underdog is the hero, and the conqueror is the psychopath. If politics is an equation, Zinn reinserted a long-abandoned variable - the people's voice, whose numbers can upset historical calculations. The political implications of this view for the world are huge, so the fact that the mainstream media downplayed his significance in the culture is not surprising at all. It was because he was not a radical that he was practically banned from appearing on mainstream television, but that did not stop him from reaching new generations. What he had to say did not fell on deaf ears because it made so much sense, and the individuals in power knew it.
A bottom-up view of history was long over due in America because the page of history was turned in 1776, when a people-powered revolution showed once and for all that although elites can control and sway the people when they are asleep, or distracted, or deceived, trickery and institutional power are no match when the people are fully awake and safely operational.
In a country that prides itself in being a
democracy it's very bizarre to call a man a 'radical' who simply
proposes the idea that regular individuals possess the power to create
positive change and affect government policy for the good, as opposed
to presidents, central bureaucracies, or secret councils. The truly
radical view is the one that says presidential leadership plays the
most important role in a democratic country. The pundits
who appear on Sunday talk shows and whose articles dutifully grace the
pages of mainstream newspapers every week are radical and extremist.
Zinn's People History of the United States is based in the tradition
of Paine's Common Sense, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, and
Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, which are all documents of the nation's
moral and political conscience. To say that people should rule is not
radical, it is American.
If anything, Zinn should be called
a modern founder, because in an age of war and organized lying he
told important truths and retransmitted the power of rebellion to a
dumbfounded people. After a brief stint as a bomber pilot, he lived
true to his moral purpose, preached against thoughtless obedience, and
was willfully defiant to every act of crime by the US government.
Instead of a Johnson memorial I think we should build a Zinn memorial
because he did way more for his country. Americans don't know how
lucky they are. Think for a minute. Did Rome have a Zinn? Who did
Egyptian slaves turn to for an reexamination of their life and
purpose in history?
To be clear, I don't believe his
bottom-up historical accounts are definitive, but his alternative
views opened the floodgates for new investigations of what really
happened in history. Historians grounded in Zinn cannot realistically
look at "official history" as gospel ever again. But I disagree with
his lack of emphasis on great men. I believe that a captivating and
dynamic spirit moves history and transforms politics just as much as
people from below. A Washington, a King, or a Ghandi can do more for a
movement and a cause then the man on the street ever can, and I don't
think that a Washington or a King is akin to the man on street. They
are different. And that is good. The people be praised, but a history
without individual superiority is a history without human achievement,
without heroes, without poetry, without drama.
Zinn himself was a great man. If it is the duty of the historian to distinguish true history from mythology then Zinn's work helped tremendously in that effort. Unlike others in the profession he didn't minimize the importance of individual acts, of personal participation in political changes, of the fact that human responsibility has always played a big role in the world. But he also did more than that. He advocated for the need of a new relationship between morality and politics, and he believed this was possible. He enthusiastically affirmed that if conscious individuals get together for a common purpose the illusion of the state's immovability would vanish on the spot. His unshakable hopefulness came from his fundamental belief that a transformation of men is much more likely to happen than a transformation of society's institutions. In one of the last interviews he gave to promote his recent documentary "The People Speak," Bill Moyers, citing a clip in the film of a Cesar Chavez speech, asked Zinn if the day will come when the people of America and the world will achieve economic and political justice, and Zinn, noted for his zingy humor, responded "I do. I can't give you a date.. "
Zinn didn't just write history, he lived it. He made fiery speeches in anti-war rallies in the sixties, stood by the patriot Daniel Ellsberg, and denounced the current wars in the Middle Easts. In his memoir, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train," he wrote:
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, to be prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This of course was a recipe for trouble.
his essay "The Storyteller," the German literary critic and
philosopher Walter Benjamin said that: "The first storyteller of the
Greeks was Herodotus."(1).
Though Zinn does not share the same honor among his people as
Herodotus does, he is one of the few who can be considered as an
American storyteller, along with Studs Terkel, who also passed away not
too long ago. When Zinn gave a lesson on war, he drew from his
experience in the second bankster's world war, and when he spoke about
the power of social movements he could analyze his own impact in the
civil rights struggle as a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta.
While other WWII veterans and history professors remained out of sight,
he communicated his own disillusionment so forcefully that he made it
onto the FBI hit list. His activist work made an impact because it
was based in the raw and emotional experiences that he had with State
But what he accomplished as a storyteller was greater than any of his activist work because it is no small thing to continue to convey a message of peaceful disobedience at a time when practitioners of that philosophy were murdered in broad daylight. And we should not forget that individuals who participate in modern wars don't usually come home and vocally denounce them in front of others, especially those who have killed innocent human beings. Most keep quiet, and some remain stubbornly pro-war. But not Zinn. Maybe if he was a combat marine instead of a bomber pilot his destiny would've been different because he would likely be less able speak on war so easily. As he has himself said numerous times, being a pilot separates a human being from the consequences of war. In this case, we can be grateful for that fact because Zinn has used it to humanity's advantage. He was not paralyzed by his experience in war like others, which allowed him to speak up without retreating one inch, and that is a great victory.
To go back to Benjamin, in the same essay, he wrote:
Zinn tried all he could to stop that destructive process from advancing any further. Through his efforts, he has helped humanity to slowly find the inner voice that speaks to our compassion, understanding, and love. At a time when athletic excellence and singing talent are lauded on billboards and television, Zinn's moral excellence should make us reflect, and question what type of human beings we should hold in the greatest esteem in our society. Instead of messages of "be a tiger," or "be like mike," why not promote a billboard campaign that says "be like zinn"? I, for one, will try to be like him.
With the [First] World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent-not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? (2)
1. Benjamin, Walter. "The Storyteller." From Illuminations. p. 89
2. Benjamin, Walter. "The Storyteller." From Illuminations. p. 84