Friday, January 29, 2010

Howard Zinn (1922-2010): In Lieu of Flowers, Organize

By Al Giordano

This segment of a Bill Moyers interview with Howard Zinn came after the production of last month's History Channel special, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport, based on the works of Howard Zinn.

Almost everyone who lived and organized in New England during the past many decades found yourself on a picket line or in a rambunctious assembly hall with Howard, who passed away yesterday at the age of 87 after a long life that anyone should consider successful. A Boston University professor during much of that time, Howard practiced the art of looking at - and participating in - history from below.

Where other leftish icons across the Charles River have spent these decades gnashing their teeth, lecturing and bemoaning how awful everything that happens up above has been (as if most folks born down below didn't already know that by the time we were eight), Howard answered the call, again and again, to help us do something about it. He walked out to the picket lines every time he was called - by neighborhood organizers fighting against his university's real estate grabs, by striking workers that cleaned and fed the students and professors, by almost anyone who organized and fought that asked, and often before they asked, for his support.

To those of us who were part of the Clamshell Alliance and related anti-nuclear struggles of the seventies and early eighties in New England, Howard would drive out to the countryside, consult and call attention to our organizing campaigns and acts of civil disobedience whenever asked. He did this before his 1980 book, A People's History of the United States, published by Harper & Row, turned him into a national and international icon.

In 1986, when students at the University of Massachusetts occupied school offices to block CIA recruiting, joined by my pal Abbie Hoffman and presidential daughter Amy Carter, and went to trial (a case that I was involved in at least to the extent of getting my attorney Tom Lesser to represent Carter and advise Abbie and the others how to turn the tables and put the CIA on trial in what was meant to be a mere criminal trespass case), Howard came to Northampton, raised his right hand, and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. His testimony - about the patriotic and fully American traditions that the occupiers had practiced - was key in convincing the jury to acquit the defendants.

In 1990, when Boston University president John Silber sought and won the Democratic Nomination for Governor of Massachusetts, Zinn drove out to Springfield regularly to co-captain my WSPR radio show and explain to the populace in the western part of the state the authoritarian nature of this bizarro-land political candidate whose autobiography, Howard quipped, should have been titled Mein Campus. Howard understood the inspiring power of humor, too.

Last night and today the Internets were ablaze with worthy praise for this great narrator of authentic history, the history from below. But I must say I am puzzled (although not surprised) by how many folks who don't practice what Zinn preached have joined in the hagiography-fest because they either really believe they are part of his tradition or merely to co-brand themselves with his now hallowed name.

Howard, at least in the decades I knew him (and I don't claim to have been any particularly close friend - just another among thousands of comrades who knew him from where the work was being done, inside the foxholes of community organizing) never once whined, never committed an act of poutrage, not feigned, not real. He didn't view the world and its discontents as too overwhelming to change and he understood the non-linear nature of change. He was pragmatic to the core, optimistic in word and deed, and as he says in this recent video interview with Moyers, the real struggles happen down below.

The 1920s and 30s labor strikes that led to the New Deal and the 1950s and 60s civil rights actions that ended legal segregation were not per se aimed at those up above; they were struggles by real people to change their daily lives on the most local of levels. That they led to big national legislation and change were incidental benefits for the many of what they had already won directly for themselves; a better wage at better conditions, the ability for they and their children to play, study and shop in the same places white folks did.

Watch the video and listen, really listen, to what Howard said during his last months on earth, the culmination of what he had been saying and learning throughout his wonderful life. He was no whiner nor Chicken Little. He had the same attitude about Obama (in '08 we published his qualified endorsement which, in sum, said that it made sense to elect someone under whom the space would expand for us to organize and win our own battles for ourselves) that he'd had about every leader during his lifetime: that we, down below, have more power than we know to change things and we ought to stop waiting for others up above to hand it down to us.

The doctrine of Authentic Journalism and its emphasis on turning the cameras and microphones and pointing them below - instead of obsessing upon how bad everything is up above - is Zinnism in praxis, beyond mere repetition of theory.

(And my pal from the old Bedford Park neighborhood in the Bronx, Eddie C, has posted the rest of these final Zinn interview videos over at DKos, check 'em out.)

Howard Zinn didn't want or need flowery eulogies. He wanted us to get out there and do the work he chronicled. In lieu of flowers, organize, document and tell the stories of that organizing so that others may, too, be inspired to do the same. That - and not a book on a coffee table - is the legacy of Howard Zinn. Like the song says, if you wanna go to heaven, you gotta raise a lotta hell.