John Tirman on “Citizen Zinn”

John Tirman on “Citizen Zinn”

May 6, 2011

From Howard Zinn’s former student John Tirman, writing in The Nation:

I think Zinn struggled with how one personally puts into practice the ideals of citizenship he promoted. He did protest racism and war, often getting arrested. He walked picket lines for workers seeking better wages. He delivered fiery speeches intended to spur his audiences to defiance. He testified at trials of dissidents (famously in Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers trial) and took up the cause of many prisoners. What set him apart more than any other acts of solidarity and caring, however, was his role as an intellectual. Not only did he write a breathtaking array of books, articles, pamphlets and plays, but he undertook two distinctive tasks that manifest his thinking about citizenship.

The first is his insistence on encouraging ordinary people to speak up, and indeed recording and utilizing these voices in his writings. “One day I walked unannounced into the Zinn apartment” in Atlanta, Staughton Lynd, another leftist historian, recalls. “Howard was tape recording an interview with two African American young men, [civil rights organizers] who had just been released from jail in Albany, Georgia. A light bulb went on behind my eyes. It was not Studs Terkel, nor was it my native genius, that led me to oral history: it was Howard Zinn.” His “bottom up” perspective not only made A People’s History the all-time best-selling book on America’s past, but it revolutionized historiography. The days of focusing only on the “great men”—the presidents and senators and business tycoons—were gone. History writing and presentation has not been the same. But the device is more than merely innovative. In oral history, the intellectual steps aside, sacrificing, in effect, the role of the omniscient interpreter of events. Citizens speak, and are built a platform to be heard.

The second of these signature contributions was his openly self-conscious discourse about the responsibility of the intellectual, and particularly that of the historian. This was a battle he fought with the academic and journalistic establishments over many decades. “We ought to welcome the emergence of the historian,” he wrote in an essay for the New York Times Book Review in 1966, “as an activist-scholar, who thrusts himself and his works into the crazy mechanism of history, on behalf of values in which he deeply believes. This makes of him more than a scholar; it makes him a citizen in the ancient Athenian sense of the word.”

. . . The citizen, wherever he or she works or lives, of whatever circumstances, is one who questions injustice, demands common rights and does so not for him or herself alone but for all others. “We must begin now to liberate those patches of ground on which we stand—to ‘vote’ for a new world (as Thoreau suggested) with our whole selves all the time, rather than in moments carefully selected by others.” Zinn consistently held—optimistic perhaps to a fault—that people can and do act precisely in those ways to secure a decent society. His role, ultimately, was to shine a light on those acts, those rights and the obstacles to their fulfillment.

He was fond of quoting Rousseau’s famous challenge, “We have physicists, geometricians, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, and painters in plenty, but we no longer have a citizen among us.” America did, or does. His name is Howard Zinn.

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