A close friend called me today and notified me of Howard Zinn’s death. After a half hour of the requisite investigatory quest through the digital abyss, the news seemed to coalesce in my mind with the myriad headlines of the day. The modern information onslaught indeed seems malleable to me, over time becoming little more than a monstrosity of factoids. How the whole has become less than the sum of its parts.
Over tea and thought, however, my knowledge of the good professor’s passing became quite real, substantive, and sobering. After all, Zinn remains among my biggest inspirations.
As a student of history, he shattered the myth of objectivity with a forceful blow, displaying in a massive tome the hollow nature of facts; it is instead our perspectives, our manipulations, and our conclusions that smack of bias and are deeply flawed. While we all know the adage that ‘history books are written by the winners,’ Zinn overwhelmed us with the sheer tragedy of this mantra, and exposed the ugly underbelly of our collective memory.
As an American, he upheld the virtues of the Declaration of Independence, even if he admonished its author. He fought more tirelessly and earnestly than any populist politician for the dream of an all-inclusive society that ignored the boundaries of race, class and gender. His desire to learn the stories of how the other half lives was a true frontiersmanship that rivaled the boundless ambitions of Lewis and Clark. His commitment to dissent, whether in the domestic arenas of the Civil Rights and working class struggles, or the international imbroglios of Vietnam and Iraq, was an exercise of the first amendment in its purest form.
And as a Jew, he revitalized the calling of the prophets. To be sure, he was far from a religious man. Yet I have always viewed Howard Zinn as one of the great Jewish thinkers. As it is, are Jews not products of their time, the very prisms by which to judge a society’s character? The great Jewish figures – Spinoza, Einstein, Freud, Maimonides, Herzl – are infused with the ethos of their people. The Judaic narrative, with its ardent focus on this world, with its victories and shortcomings, its qualities and blemishes, has altogether molded the Jewish contributions to philosophy, science, medicine, politics, and art. So it is with Howard Zinn. He may have been a 20th century secularist, but he embodied the spirit of Amos, Micah, and Isaiah with his fierce calls for social justice. True to the root of the word Israel, he struggled, refusing rest as the inequities of humankind haunted him. And true to the greatest of the Jewish works, the Torah, he invoked the message of Leviticus, thereafter repeated by the sages Hillel and Akiva: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.