On January 27, 2010 Howard Zinn passed into the Great Beyond, the place where he and all the other political spitfires sit on top of clouds and shout at each other while watching the world collapse below.
In person, Zinn was an extraordinarily kind, charming, and gentle man. At a fundraiser for The Progressive in Madison, Wisconsin in 2003, where I was a staffer, I was sitting alone at the bar, when he walked over and asked to sit with me. I was instantly charmed and so entranced by the famous eyebrows that I could do little more than nod stupidly, open-mouthed. “Of all the tables, in all the beer joints, in all of Wisconsin, you choose mine” was what I really wanted to say, dashingly channeling Bogart. Instead I slurped my beer, chomped my celery sticks, and listened to him chat with his friends about current events, life, and love.
He later gave a talk that ignited the crowd, bringing even hardened politicos to their feet. He railed against freshly-launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, denouncing the war, and every war, questioning the basis for the claim of a “just” war. His conviction and his years of experience witnessing the horrors of war and its disastrous aftereffects were deeply compelling. “War itself is the enemy of the human race,” he has said – and we’ve seen time and again that this is undoubtedly true.
I wonder what he would have said in response to Obama’s recent State of the Union address. Would his eyebrows have wiggled appreciatively as Obama vowed to pull all US troops out of Iraq by the end of the summer? Would they have risen in excitement at the promise to proceed with further nuclear disarmament? Or would they have furrowed in disappointment at the pledge to stay the course in Afghanistan for at least another year and a half?
We will never know, but it is clear that the legacy Zinn has left is an impressive and daunting one. On civil rights, on every kind of war, on Israel and Palestine, on history, on nationalism, on gay rights—we can only hope to take baby steps towards the vision he saw and the rights he fought for so stridently.
I will miss Howard Zinn and his monthly articles in all the liberal magazines, his occasional New York Times op-eds, his consistency, his stalwart and persistent resistance to war, no matter the justification. In his honor, we should all take up a passionate banner, for whatever belief we may hold, and stare down the opponents with ferocity and energy. I know he would, even at 87, even after having seen it all, even after having been confronted by hatred and ignorance time and time again. Cynicism has no place here, friends. Pick up your banner and march.
Sari Long is an unrepentant vegan living in Brookline who likes kale, politics, and the occasional spelling bee.