Howard Zinn's last advice to America – and to me

Photo of Howard Zinn

Tuesday morning – just two days ago – I wrote half a dozen leaders of progressive thought and action in America, each separately, the letter that follows.

It proposes creating a grand coalition calling for independence from the corporate & military elites that have taken great power over America's future, and gathering in hundreds of thousands all over our country on July 4 -- Independence Day.

One of the people I wrote was the historian /activist Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States whom I have known for 45 years or so. He responded just 90 minutes later, and his response is also below.

I intended this morning, Thursday morning, to write Howard back to ask how to follow up on his comments.

But I can't. Howard died yesterday, at 87.

He was one of the wisest, gentlest, drily good-humored of progressive thinkers and activists. The best of the America he celebrated in his bottom-up history, in which the energies and currents of Blacks, of workers, of women, of religious minorities, of war resisters, were the center –- not Presidents and Senators.

After I share with you this last exchange I'll be able to have with him --perhaps the last commentary he made on the American political scene -- I'll share two stories – one long ago that has stayed lit up for me all these years, and one very recent.

This is what I wrote him Tuesday morning:

Dear Howard,

It seems to me that the confluence of massive disemployment, plus knee-jerk militarism, plus stalemate on the climate crisis and on health care, plus the Supreme Court decision on corporate financing of elections, plus the use of the filibuster in the Senate -- all in what many assumed or hoped would be a year of major progressive change -- has shocked enough people that it should, and might, make possible a progressive coalition.

I am imagining a coalition aimed at “independence from the military-corporate alliance,” with a platform that includes strong planks on climate, jobs, health, ending the present wars, major reductions in the military, transforming campaign finance, and ending the filibuster.

Perhaps with rallies, vigils, sit-downs, etc in state capitals and other centers all around the country on July 4, and support for specific progressive candidates in the 2010 Congressional elections.

Do you think this would make sense?

How would it be possible to begin shaping such a coalition?

Shalom, salaam, shantih --- peace, Arthur

And this letter back from Howard:

Arthur, you are absolutely right, this is the time for the resurgence of a national movement that begins with a co-ordinated country-wide action.

The theme you describe, "independence from the military-corporation" is one that all sorts of people and groups can unite around. I believe millions, probably tens of millions of people are ready for this because there is little left of the early euphoria that greeted Obama's election.

A huge job to organize it, but it was done for Mobilization Day Oct.15,1969, and without the advantage of the Internet.

Someone or some group that is respected throughout the progressive movement would need to take the initiative and summon supporters. With blacks, Latinos, women prominent, and not disdaining celebrities.


I was going to write Howard today to ask whether he'd invite some of those people and a few others to meet to talk about the possibilities.

Since I can't -- is it possible to see those few words as a kind of legacy that we can turn into a new chapter of the "people's history"?

Two stories:

In the mid-'60s, Howard spoke at some gathering in Washington about the Vietnam War. He said that most of the time, the American people – any people – walks around in the dark, bumping blindly into extremely dangerous and hurtful objects -- wars, depressions, racism, drug epidemics, police violence . Literally blind-sided, again and again.

But occasionally, some event would become a lightning flash, illuminating the structures of power behind these disasters. He said Vietnam had become a lightning flash. We were for the first time seeing the connections between the universities and the military, we were seeing the way children were channeled from their earliest years (without regard to their intelligence or creativity) into becoming factory workers, or unemployed, or lawyers, or …

And our job, he said, was to try to turn these lightning flashes into steady light, to help a whole society keep seeing the truth about itself.

And just last month, late December: I had sent out an essay in a satirical vein, pointing up the absurdity of the way Washington is carrying on the Afghanistan war in order to defeat "terrorism." Click here to read my satirical essay Afghanistan.

Several folks wrote or called to tell me they didn't think humor, even or especially bitter humor, was appropriate in talking about a war. I felt dismayed, unsettled, dispirited.

Then I got this note from Howard:

Dear Art, A friend of mine just sent me this piece you wrote -- satiric, powerful -- about Detroit, Islam, Kabul, terrorism. It is a brilliant commentary and I have passed it on to a number of people. Thank you for it . I wish you a peaceful and joyful New Year.


So –

Dear Howard, I'm not so sure about "brilliant," but I'm glad you felt the humor had some bite where our rulers need to be bitten. You revived my spirits.

And --

Dear dear Howard, I wish you a joyful New Year making trouble for the Authorities in Heaven. If ever the memories, the teachings, of a tzaddik – a practitioner of tzedek, justice – could bring blessing to those who are still scrabbling for justice on this stricken earth, it's the memories and teachings you left us.

Shalom, salaam, shantih – peace!