Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn

I have to interrupt this series to say something about Howard, who died suddenly yesterday while he was traveling in California. I had the privilege of meeting him a few times back in my days as a Cambridge hippie-pinko-peacenik, when he spoke at various events I was involved in organizing. We'd charge for tickets and pack the people in, and then we'd have enough money to continue with our subversive activities for a few more months.

Howard wasn't the most dynamic speaker. His approach was low key and conversational. He seemed perplexed that people would actually single him out and ask him to stand in front of a room and deliver a monologue, as though there was something special about him. You'd listen because you were interested in what he had to say, not because he was an entertainer. He was the humblest, most regular famous person you'd ever meet.

Anyway, Howard was most famous for his book A People's History of the United States, and it was indeed an extraordinary accomplishment. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was one of the most influential books of the 20th Century, not because of its impact on high powered intellectuals or the people with their hands on the levers of power, of which as far as I know it had none; but because of the way it changed generations of college students. I don't know how many people's view of not just U.S. history, but the world, was fundamentally changed by Howard's book, but you meet them all the time. It might well be millions who he showed how to see through the myths that are conventionally taught as history, and to understand history as it was really experienced, from the ground up, by ordinary people. That's who he was talking to, and that's who he reached.

So farewell Howard, you go out a winner.

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