I sit here in shock, having just read The Boston Globe headline: "Howard Zinn, historian who challenged status quo, dies at 87." I knew the day would come. I dreaded it. I flew to Boston last year to spend a day with him just so I wouldn't read a headline like this without having seen him at least one last time. And now I sit here. Devastated.
Much will and should be written about Zinn's contributions to the world, how his A People's History of the United States changed the way we understand America and, like all great histories, shed the light of truth upon our present.
I have met many political people in my lifetime. Zinn was the most honest, human, open, kind, generous, gracious, sweetest, most humorous and charming of them all. By far. I was not the first to be reminded of Abraham Lincoln, not only because of the physical resemblance, but also his profound humanity. He looked you in the eyes. He listened. He reacted appropriately to what you were saying.
But to me there is an even more important aspect of his life, and that of his friend and colleague Noam Chomsky.
Many of us were upended on the deepest possible level during the '60s. Growing up in the aftermath of the "good war," we, the children or grandchildren of immigrants who believed deeply in America, had a profound faith in this country's goodness and decency. When we saw not only our leaders, but an entire generation, betray and spit upon and destroy these values in Indochina, we were undone. Our moral universe was shattered.
As elders who did not sell out, who did not compromise, who did not abandon genuine American values and ideals, who did not fail to side with the poor and downtrodden and victimized, and who above all spoke the truth, Zinn and Chomsky became two of the most important nouns of our life. Even if we did not always agree with this or that "position" they took, they represented something far higher:
• The deepest possible compassion. The world is divided into those who hear the screams of the innocent victims and those who do not. "Zinn" and "Chomsky" is a state of being that consistently hears the screams, from Vietnam to inner-city ghettoes, from East Timor to Haiti.
• Intellectual clarity. They have told their truths in their writings and speeches to millions, never compromising for the sake of political expediency like so many contemporaries.
• Moral courage. They went beyond mere speech-making and writing, and joined with those opposing the war.
• Passion for social justice (an antiquated concept these days). They never lost that passion, which for Zinn began in realizing, as a bombardier in World War II, that he was often bombing the innocent.
• Integrity, authenticity and wholeness. "Zinn" and "Chomsky" are embodiments of those words so often praised but so rarely practiced.
I at times saw Zinn as naïve. Shortly after John Kerry was nominated for president, he said forcefully that Kerry had better run against the Iraq war if he wanted to win. My internal reaction was something along the lines of "Oh, there he is, good old Howard, naïve romantic to the end. No one can hope to win the presidency without supporting the Iraq war."
I did not foresee that Kerry's key losing moment would be saying he voted for the Iraq war before he voted against it, or that Barack Obama would win the presidency largely for opposing the war at a time when conventional wisdom still held that supporting it was necessary to win.
I did not foresee that, as the horrors of the Bush years wore on, and the disappointment of Obama Year One would kick in, that I would find myself increasingly embracing what Zinn has embodied — serving even more as a lodestone to me in these years than in my youth.
There is, you see, no Zinn among baby boomers, let alone generations that follow. One of our beacons of integrity has flickered out. Our world has suddenly become a little darker, a little colder, a little more bitter, a little more insane.
My only consolation is knowing that though Zinn the man has died, "Zinn" has not.
Zinn has died. Long live "Zinn."
Fred Branfman, an anti-war activist and writer as well as longtime friend of Howard Zinn, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.