You can’t be neutral on a moving train

Historians, such as journalists, focus on the most important people. “What really matters are the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the events of human history”, Howard Zinn once said. Why did he write a history book? Because there wasn’t any like it. It’s A people’s history of the United States, published in 1980 and corner stone of this specific sector. Because Zinn was one of those who changed the narration perspective, placing the last ones with the greatest characters.

Sided but never lined up, Zinn suffered the propaganda of the American media – it goes everywhere, but more in some places than others – harbinger of justice and virtuosity of the Nation. “The public grows up with this idea”, but behind great accomplishments, like the economic miracle or the industrial development after the Civil War, there always had been the exploitation of Chinese and Irish immigrants, cruel repression of strikes, but also won battles.

Fights that, with the civil movements of the Fifties and Sixties, led to a slow but inexorable progress which never made Howard Zinn lose faith on the long term. When you read the international news, things always seem to go bad, but if there were changes in the past, many more will occur. The important thing is that there will always be aware people who are not satisfied with what’s going on.

Born in 1922, Howard Zinn recruited for the aviation during World War II. It was necessary at that time, to defeat a terrible affliction like Nazi-Fascism. He was among those who bombed half Europe, but looking back his vision changed. Not because that wasn’t a “just” war, if ever there’s one, but because of the strategy of Uncle Sam.

Hiroshima after the atomic bomb

The history of the conflict had been written in the name of Nationalism, remarking the (actual) atrocities perpetrated by the Axis and not the ones of the Allies. Not only the indiscriminate destruction of Rome and Berlin, especially the “grand finale”, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, justified by the theory that a quick end would have saved lives. It’s likely, though, that Japan was about to surrender anyway. “Would had we sacrificed 100 thousand American kids to accelerate war conclusion? Of course no”.

The same logic behind 9/11. “The world judged Bush worse than Bin Laden and Hussein, because he didn’t reply to terrorism like a “normal” international police operation, but he killed thousand civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq without damaging Al-Qaeda or terrorism”. Matter fact, from that chaos, Isis was born, but Zinn couldn’t see that.

In between WWII and 9/11, all the memories of the actions in Central America, like El Salvador or Guatemala, plus the infamous Vietnam war. Mainstream media avoided to document reality at 360 degrees for too many times. “War is like a drug”, Zinn said, “a quick solution to discomfort situations which doesn’t bring deep reasoning or alternative answers”. And that incites an epic vision of a society which idolizes fighting heroes, confusing it with patriotism. That’s not honoring the flag or supporting the Government a priori. On the contrary, “when a Government doesn’t pursue equality, freedom and wealth is the people’s duty to overthrow it and replace it”.

Howard Zinn, left, Prof. of Government at Boston University as he addressed an anti-was rally on Student Center steps at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., April 12, 1967. The rally was in protest of the war in Viet Nam. (AP Photo)

Some topics remain a taboo, that’s why Zinn’s book didn’t spread in schools, not because of the teachers reluctance. In the first chapter he exposed the crimes of a myth like Christopher Columbus, parents and institutes boards were against it. “They thought I was a communist”. Things changed through the years, in schools now they can talk about the history of blacks or women. Not because of Howard Zinn, sure, but as the result of the fights of the movements for civil rights.

Zinn gave his contribution, though, as a professor at the Spelman female college, in Georgia, during segregation. “We suffered that situation even if we weren’t rioting”. They carried out a campaign to de-segregate the library in Atlanta, “small deeds, but small deeds build, build, build and maybe in the end something happens”. Like the birth of the Freedom Riders.

Democracy needs to be put in work, an Amendment on the Constitution is not enough. For example, the XIV and XV Amendments already guaranteed the end of slavery, but it took a hundred years more before they became effective. Even worse for the workers, “the Constitution doesn’t have solutions for the economic issues of the people”.

Howard Zinn with Noam Chomsky

How to escape from the historic manipulation? It’s not just avoiding the mystification of facts, “if you say something false it can be verified”. It’s when you omit something that this remains unknown. “During the Civil War the Unionists didn’t only fight the Confederates, but also the Indians. They made massacres, conquered lands. Native Americans, like blacks, women, workers, homosexuals, know what is like to stay out the history books.

The best memory of Howard Zinn probably comes from the famous linguist and communication theorist Noam Chomsky: “He left an amazing contribution to the moral and intellectual American culture. He changed consciences in a highly constructive way. I can’t think of anyone who had such a powerful and benign influence”.


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