One of the most provocative re-thinkers of the current day, historian Howard Zinn, is dead at 87 of a heart attack.
Darling of liberals and bane of conservatives, the self-described (but not self-important) socialist seamlessly combined double careers as a revisionist historian and political activist. Zinn tried to teach dissent as a noble pursuit.
He was a lifelong bomb-thrower (here he is at left as an Air Force bombardier in 1945). Zinn’s best-known book, A People’s History of the United States (1980), digs far below the surface of the Founding Fathers and other establishment figures to find characters and themes.
Even more remarkably, for a book that dares to dwell on such things as — Heaven forfend! — class conflict, the tome has continued to sell well. The book has spawned several side ventures, including the multimedia site “Teaching A People’s History,” part of the Zinn Education Project.
Lionized by lefty students and liberal actors like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Zinn backed up his revisionist writings and activist classroom work with political action, most notably against war.
As a Boston University professor, he long fought against President John Silber. He led a strike against Silber and faculty moves to oust him, and Silber said Zinn was one of those bad guys “who poison the well of academe.”
Zinn’s bomb-throwing started long before that. He was an Air Force bombardier during World War II, dropping bombs on Berlin and many other places. It was one of his last runs, on the French town of Royan in April 1945, that freaked him out, however. The war was basically over, but he and his fellows were ordered to bomb the little town anyway, and they were instructed to use some newfangled stuff called napalm. They did.
Zinn recalls that episode, and much more, in a terrific hour-long chat from March 2000 on C-SPAN’s Booknotes series. The unobtrusive interviewer Brian Lamb and the personable Zinn make for great conversation (free video, transcript).
You can catch Zinn talking with Jon Stewart, Woody Harrelson, and many others. Or Zinn by himself on “The Stupidity of War.” Or Viggo Mortensen narrating Zinn’s “A People’s History of American Empire” (click above video).