307 West 5th Street Austin, Texas wonder that instead Zinn would champion the “admirable obligation one feels to one’s neighbors, one’s family, one’s principles, indeed to other human beings wherever they reside on the planet.” Lending his voice to the cause of those waiters and miners, students and union organizers, civil rights activists and prisoners those who opposed the bosses and bureaucrats seeking to crush them became his charge as an historian. It revolutionized his conception of “history,” too, by forcing him to probe people and subjects little ,studied before the advent in the 1960s of what then was touted as the new social history \(it since has gotten life into a field of study that later would become the title of his most popular book The People’s History of the United States with the historian’s attempt to remain personally disengaged and narratively objective. As he argued in The Politics of History objectivity is frankly impossible to achieve, and counterproductive in any event; only by shucking self-imposed constraints, and writing from an honest, subjective stance, would scholars produce works of great insight and consequence. Always dominant is the notion of relevance. “It is time we began to earn our keep in this world,” is how he opens “The Uses of Scholarship,” an essay plucked from The Politics of History. “Thanks to a gullible public, we have been honored, flattered, even paid, for producing the largest number of inconsequential studies in the history of civilization.” His accusation may seem harsh, Zinn grants, but its justification is manifest when you “read the titles of doctoral dissertations … and the pages of the leading scholarly journals alongside the lists of war dead, the figures on per capita income in Latin America, the autobiography of Malcolm X.” Neutral pedantry is abhorrent: “We publish while others perish.” That is a catchy, if dogmatic phrase: what constitutes “relevance,” as suggested in the examples he cites, is narrowly defined, and can lead to its own orthodoxy. Yet grant Zinn this: no one has more effectively fused words with actions, scholar ship with political engagement. This fusion is most stunningly revealed in the continuing intensity of his writings about the civil rights movement. He and his family had moved to Atlanta in 1956, where he taught at Spelman College. While there he would be fired for insubordination seven years later, and return north to teach at Boston University he embraced the cause his students embraced, teaching them about the historical roots of civil disobedience and social justice, helping them think through the strategies that would best shatter the segregationist hegemony, marching with them in the FOR ZINN, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIFE ARE CONJOINED, A NARRATIVE ASSUMPTION THAT SHAPES THE DIS-PARATE BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES INCLUDED IN THIS READER. streets, and right into jail. His passionate support of the movement led him to write some of the most effective analyses of its actions and prospects, leading in one remarkable year 1964 to the publication of The Southern Mystique and SNCC: The New Abolitionists \(portions of which are rebooks, and the episodes on which they were based, reveal his commitment to the concept and reality of an active citizenry. To this end, he had introduced his students to Charles Frankel’s The Case for Modern Man, in which Frankel argues that a citizen is a “free and mighty agent, who while studying the determinants of social change, can become a chief determinant himself.” The proof of this came as Spelman rapidly evolved into a “Finishing School for Pickets”: its students helped desegregate Atlanta’s public library system and its lunch counters. One episode that Zinn originally had inserted in The New Abolitionists, turned on the actions of Lana Taylor, a “fair-skinned, rather delicate looking” student in one of his classes. She and some of her peers had sat down at the counter in a local eatery, when its foul-mouthed manager grabbed her bodily and yelled: “Get the hell out of here, nigger.” She refused to budge, and grasped the counter. “He was rough and strong,” a fellow protester recalled, but Taylor gamely held on. “I looked down … at her hands … brown, strained … every muscle holding,” and suddenly the manager “let go and left,” as “though he knew he could not move that girl . ever.” Zinn’s choice of anecdote says as much about his ,deft literary instincts as it does about the political message he hoped to convey: individuals’ actions matter hold on! last thirty-five years in books written in opposition to the Vietnam war and in the social commentaries he published in the Boston Globe in the mid-1970s; in his testimony at the Pentagon Papers trial and in the legendary and long-running dispute with John Silber, former president of Boston University. Whatever the format or environment, he has asked troubling questions about the intersection of political beliefs and social structures, has disturbed the often hermetically sealed cultures we inhabit yet rarely analyze, and has rattled our easy assumptions about the benign relationship between concentrated economic power and democratic politics. He has been, in short, a pain in the butt. Wait a second: isn’t that a rough translation of what the ancient Athenians had whined when one of their unrepentant contemporaries tartly, and uncomfortably, reminded them that “the unexamined life is not worth living”? Howard Zinn is more Socratic than he lets on. Contributing Writer Char Miller teaches history at Trinity University. He has completed a collection of essays on politics and culture, many of which first appeared in the Observer. 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 31, 1998
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