Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Human Train

There are some people whose passing just makes you weep. Howard Zinn was decidedly one.

For any American who wakes up to the reality of our empire and fixed political system, Zinn is a vital stop. His seminal "People's History of the United States" remains majestic, widely read, taught, discussed, despised by reactionaries, distrusted by imperial liberals. Zinn laid out the brutal march of American "progress" so simply, so accessibly, that only the willfully dumb would miss the obvious point. A man who dropped bombs in World War II came to oppose them on the ground, and from there Zinn built his historical case against exploitation and butchery.

What really floors me about Zinn was his easy-going demeanor in the face of cruelty and corruption. Even at my most tactical, I could never convey the quiet humanism that made up Zinn's personality. If he was ever angry, depressed, frustrated, or pessimistic, he sure as hell didn't show it. Zinn remained warm, connected, smiling and chuckling to offset the madness he ably dissected. You almost took Zinn for granted; he carried the hope you may have lost or rejected. I honestly don't know how he did it, but I'm better for it, as is anyone exposed to Zinn's work and humane example.

My friend Barry Crimmins understands this well. Barry was quite close to Zinn and shared many public stages with him (Nick Zaino recounts this relationship in a 2002 Boston Globe piece). I spoke to Barry last night, offering my condolences. While there was evident emotion in his voice, Barry steadily described Howard Zinn's essence as he experienced it. It was clear how deeply Zinn affected and influenced Barry, and he offered me a closer glimpse of a man I never had the honor to meet. Of all the heroes and influences I've conversed with and gotten to know, Zinn was one I'd missed. Part of me regrets this, but after talking to Barry, I recognize that Zinn put himself out there for everyone. No hidden agendas. No diva moments. Just a guy who wanted to share not only his knowledge and perspective, but show how all of us possess the same possibilities.

Many people are calling Zinn a radical. I suppose he was, in the getting-to-the-root-of-matters sense. But to me it reveals how fucked our system remains that a person as plain spoken, down to earth, and direct as Howard Zinn is viewed as a fringe figure, an oddball lefty who took a "contrarian" stance against the status quo. If Zinn was weird, then let's be weirdos too. Thank you, Howard.