In the past few weeks, two best-selling and controversial authors passed away: J.D Salinger and Howard Zinn. Salinger, the more provocative and perplexing of the two, has received more attention, but Zinn’s career should be celebrated equally as much for the work he has done in preserving the “bottom-up” power of this country.
It was in his most successful book, A People’s History of the United States, that Zinn showed that history should not only remember the rich, the powerful and the influential; it must include the workers, minorities and those who said “no” when it was popular to say “yes.”
His alternative look at the history of America has been divisive. To some he is an anti-American anarchist; to others he is a revolutionary demigod. Maybe it isn’t fair to try and encapsulate a man in a single title of cliché ideology. Maybe this particular man was neither, he was simply trying to provide an argument that this country is great, but in an unfamiliar framework.
Zinn believed that this country is great not because of the Hilary Clintons and Sarah Palins, but because of the women that marched down city blocks for the right to vote; not because General Patton gave great speeches, but because men of middle and lower classes stormed the beaches of Normandy for no other reason than for the right to go home; not because President Johnson signed a civil rights act, but because African-American men marched for miles in three-piece suits on a summer day for equality. Maybe Zinn just made the case that our history often forgets the bottom and chooses to reward individuals at the top, maybe because we can comfortably give them a title.
He believed that democracy is something that must be exercised everyday. He believed that if people wanted to be heard, they couldn’t wait for people to listen. He not only wrote about these beliefs, he lived it. After risking his life for this country as a military aviator in World War II, Zinn participated in the civil-rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s and 70s, and was a constant representative of peace, equality, and workers and consumer rights.
He is, in so many ways, what is great about this country: A man who wanted to have his voice heard and make a difference and truly did.
If you haven’t already, make sure to pick up a copy of A People’s History of the United States. Do not be overly cynical or prideful when reading, for Howard Zinn never was, and that is why so many find him and his life’s work so important.