R.I.P. Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

Activist and historian Howard Zinn, best known for his A People’s History of the United States, has died at age 87.

As leftist activists go, Zinn may have generated as much hatred as Noam Chomsky. Yet his People’s History is an essential and important work. Zinn looks at the history of the U.S. from the standpoint of the outsider, minorities and the poor. You can call it revisionist history and no one can argue that it gives only one viewpoint. Zinn himself even says in the book that it “is a biased account,” one that is “disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.”

Many find it easy to disregard Zinn because of that. Yet the bias in that work was the bias of people who are rarely heard or too often overlooked in telling the story of America, its people and its government. Zinn recognized something crucial to understanding America and the world. If we don’t take into consideration a variety of perspectives, we are operating with blinders. He tried to at least poke a couple holes in the blinder.

Fortunately, he achieved some success. A People’s History reached one million sales in 2003, in part because it was used in high schools and colleges around the country. The impact was seen in my own household late last year. One of the items my youngest daughter, a college freshman, wanted for Christmas was the latest edition of The Zinn Reader. She undoubtedly knew I was a soft touch for a Zinn book and it was among her Christmas gifts. She’s fortunate she has it with her in her dorm room some 1,200 miles away because my urge to borrow it has grown.

…it became clear to me that the really critical way in which people are deceived by history is not that lies are told, but that things are omitted. If a lie is told, you can check up on it. If something is omitted, you have no way of knowing it has been omitted.

Howard Zinn, April 20, 2001

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