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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Holding On From Socrates to Desegregation with Howard Zinn BY CHAR MILLER THE ZINN READER. By Howard Zinn. Seven Stories Press. Socrates. When offered an opportunity to escape from prison and the death sentence that had been imposed on him for his needling, Socrates, in “The Crito,” a dialogue Plato crafted, responded that he must obey the law, despite the city-state’s unjust ruling. “If I complained about this injustice, Athens would rightly say: ‘We brought you into the world, we raised you, we educated you, we gave you and every other citizen a share of all the good things we could.'” In exchange for these benefits, Socrates determined that he owed Athens his life, and “so I will go to my death.” His compliance, Zinn retorted, set up a Grecian formula for disaster, for every nation-state has since drummed such nonsense into “the heads of its citizens from the time they are old enough to go to school.” Thanks to Plato, and his literary mouthpiece Socrates, those who have called western civilization home for the past two millennia have acted with “blind obedience to that disreputable artifice called government.” This is classic Zinn. Find a particularly instructive historic argument, event, or moment, then conflate time to enable that past to speak directly to contemporary conditions. In this case, his concern is not solely with Plato qua Plato, but with the ascendance in the 1980s of such neo-conservatives as Allan Bloom, whose embrace of the philosopher’s arguments was tied to a denunciation of the radical fervor unleashed during the 1960s, a denunciation that provided an intellectual prop for the Reaganite backlash. Reading the Greeks enables us to get a fix on ourselves, concludes Zinn, for “the ideas of people in Ancient Athens are as familiar as those we read in the daily newspaper.” That this claim is a bit of a stretch is almost beside the point. True, his argument ignores the dramatically different contexts in which Athenian and American politics played out, and thus denies that cultural distinctions matter an odd posture for an historian. Curious too is his lack of interest in challenging Bloom’s appropriation of Plato; many of those unruly radicals whom Bloom had accused of closing the American mind had cut their eye teeth on that text which gives the most unapologetic defense of civil disobedience, Socrates’ The Apology.” But such subtleties do not engage Zinn’s attention nearly as much as the potent and coercive power of the state -of every state. Identifying its existence and combating its reach these have been the defining characteristics of his remarkable career as an activist and academic, and they are on full display in this new and thick collection of some of his most compelling writings. For Zinn, public and private life are con joined, a narrative assumption that shapes the disparate biographical sketches included in this reader \(for a more cohesive and developed biographical material, see Zinn’s 1994 memoir, You Can’t Seeking a source for his early and heightened political consciousness, for instance, Zinn selects a moment. when as a gawky teenager he stood beside \(actually wore an ill-fitting tuxedo. The two were working as waiters at a New Year’s Eve party in New. York City, and it was while bussing dirty dishes that Zinn fils came face-to-face with the manifold layers of class distinctions that played out in that Manhattan every moment of it,” he rememValerie Fowler bers, “the way the bosses treated the waiters, who were fed chicken wings just before they marched out to serve roast beef and filet mignon to the guests; every body in their fancy dress, wearing silly hats, singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ … and me standing there in my waiter’s costume, watching my father, his face strained, clear his tables, feeling no joy at the coming of the New Year.” The protective love he felt for his parent, the familial bond that inten sified, the politicized anger that came to de fine this memory, make it clear why he has such antipathy for Plato’s smug fashioning of a paternal, preeminent state; it is no 1 t’s all Plato’s fault. The Athenian “apostle of civil obedience” staged Socrates’ famed death score the ultimate sovereignty of the state, Howard Zinn argued in a 1988 review of I.F. Stone’s The Trial of THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17 JULY 31, 1998