Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

I was saddened to learn of the death of Howard Zinn. This is a great loss, because there is no one else on the U.S. left quite like him. There is Chomsky, of course, but, because of the latter’s dry academicism, he has never been able to have the same visceral appeal that Zinn had. Through his writings Zinn was able to make people feel excited about history and about politics. He could present ideas in a way that made people care about them.

Although I knew people who knew Zinn, I never actually met him. (The closest I ever came was when I helped organize a book signing he did in Los Angeles several years ago.) I once did the lighting for an L.A. production of Zinn’s Marx in Soho, which starred Brian Jones. My job was pretty simple. I would turn the lights up at the beginning and turn them down at the end, and I would flicker them a couple of times in between. Sitting through so many performances, I got so that I could recite much of the play by heart. I was struck by the shrewd way the play is constructed. The topics are brought up in such a way as to have a maximum emotional effect on the audience. Zinn had a great feel for the theatre in addition to being a great historian.

I first heard about Zinn in the 1980’s when I was living in Massachusetts. Zinn was teaching at Boston University at the time, and he had gotten in a public feud with the university’s politically ambitious president, John Silber, a darling of neoconservatives. The media sided with Silber, portraying him as an advocate of “tough love” for the university, while dismissing Zinn as “politically correct” and clueless. It’s nice to know that Zinn had the last laugh. His reputation has grown, while Silber has been largely forgotten.

Zinn will be missed.

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