Remembering Howard Zinn

The word “hero” gets tossed around a lot, but we’ve just lost someone who was the real deal. Historian, author, playwright, teacher and social crusader Howard Zinn is dead at the age of 87.

Best known for his groundbreaking book A People’s History of the United States, Zinn was both an academic and activist. Having served as a bombardier in World War II, he was an early and important opponent of the war in Vietnam.

Talking to The Boston Globe about the death of his friend and fellow left-wing intellectual, Noam Chomsky said, “He opened up approaches to history that were novel and highly significant. Both by his actions and his writings, for 50 years he played a powerful role in helping and in many ways inspiring the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement.”

Back in 2006, I did an interview with Zinn before he came to town to accept an award from the Cranbrook Peace Foundation, placing him in the company of such notable lefties as John Kenneth Galbraith, South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu and folk singer Pete Seeger.

Two the things I remember most about that interview — and the subsequent speech Zinn gave upon receiving the award — were the intellectual acuity and vigor he displayed well into his 80s, and his persistent good humor. Looking back at our interview again this morning, I see reference to him laughing a few times during a fairly short conversation.

Another item of interest in that interview is his response to a question about the U.S. economy, asked two years before the meltdown, when the stock market was still booming.

“What we saw in the 1920s was a constantly widening gap between the rich and the poor, and a kind of false prosperity with huge fortunes being made on one hand and the buying power of the population not keeping up with that, and the collapse of the economy,” he said. “I think that, although it’s not exactly the same situation, the American economy is heading for a fall right now. One difference is that we were a creditor nation in the 1920s and we’re a debtor nation now. That adds to the economic danger we face. We owe huge sums of money to the Chinese and other people. I think we’re on an economic bubble. You hear people gloating about the Dow Jones average as people gloated about the stock market in 1929 until it exploded.”

Rooted in history, he also proved to be a prophet.

It is a voice that will be surely and sorely missed.