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happy birthday, zinn

August 24, 2012

Today marks what would have been Howard Zinn’s 90th birthday. Zinn, who died on January 27, 2010, was many things in his relatively long life: A WWII veteran, historian, author, playwright, social activist, teacher, the list goes on. I never really knew anything about him until I bought one of his short plays, Marx in Soho, at the local bookstore about four years ago.

I had locked myself out of my apartment, and Annie wasn’t going to be home from work for a few more hours, so I went to look around the local bookstore for something to read until she got home. I happened to notice the small, reddish book sitting in the philosophy section—it was short and cheap, so I grabbed it. I spent the rest of my time reading it at a nearby coffee shop.

Not long after that, I rented a documentary about Zinn called Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train from the local video store. It was an excellent documentary, and from that moment on, Zinn became one of my heroes. But more importantly, it got me interested in American history, especially the history of the American labour movement. I ended up buying a copy of A People’s History of the United States, and that book (true to Will Hunting/Matt Damon’s words in Good Will Hunting) knocked me on my ass!

Zinn not only taught me a lot about the American labour movement, but he helped me to find my political bearings as well. At the time I discovered Zinn, I was in the process of figuring out where I stood and how far I wanted to go with my political activism. Zinn inspired me to get politically active for progressive causes at a time when I could easily have been lulled into being just another passive voter. So, in memory of his life, my favourite Howard Zinn quote:

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

RIP, comrade.

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