Howard Zinn

“[Political leaders] have learned nothing from the history of the twentieth century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counterterrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity.”

– A People’s History of American Empire

I’m not usually affected by famous deaths.  The last famous person whose death I was really upset about was Joe Strummer.  And when Bob Dylan goes, let’s just say I might be in mourning for a year.  Each of these three has had an impact on my adult outlook viewpoint that is irreversible.  (They also happen left-wing which isn’t coincidental that I would be attracted to each of their works.)

I first read A People’s History of the United States a couple of years for a class presentation focusing on writing for race, religion, and politics.  I figured this would be the perfect book for such a course.  I was right of course, because my presentation extended over an hour and created a lot of open dialogue.  The part that initiated the most discussion?  Zinn suggests that the bombing of Japan was actually the first move in the Cold-War against Russia.  (Russia had secretly agreed to declare war on Japan on August 8th 1945, and The US dropped the bomb on August 6th, thus leaving Japan to surrender to the US.)

If Zinn had only written A People’s History he would be cemented as first-class historian.  But he regularly gave speeches to colleges and universites – urging students to act.  His basic philosophy was that reading and retaining history was not enough.  Students had to act and live up to their social responsibility. According to the Boston Globe, during his last lecture at Boston University he ended class early to join him – about a 100 did.  

Too often in this culture, we’re all obsessed with ourselves and forget the larger cultural and political context.  What I learned most from A People’s History wasn’t dispelled myths or revelations about specific events (such as the Bomb.)  (Though that information is important and vital.)  It was that history is written by the people who live through it and it is not always dictated by the governments.  The only way to achieve change is to make it ourselves.

Of course it also depends on what we do with it that matters most.

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