Howard Zinn’s Zen Politics

book review: Howard Zinn (1922–2010), The Historic Unfulfilled Promise, Foreword by Matthew Rothschild, Ed. San Francisco: City Lights, 2012, 256 pages. – Published on MRzine, by Jonah Raskin, August 16, 2012.(Find Howard Zinn also on World People’s Blog).

Howard Zinn was called a lot of different names: anarchist, socialist, and communist.  He called himself a lot of different names, too: anarchist, socialist, and communist.  No one ever seems to have called him Zen, but maybe it’s time to start.  He certainly knew the meaning of Zen from his days as a postdoctoral fellow in East Asian Studies at Harvard.  He also met Zen Buddhists when he traveled to Hanoi near the height of the War in Vietnam and secured the release of Americans held hostage. 

You could call Zinn a diplomat, too, a Zen diplomat in the tradition of the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist priest, Thich Nhat Hanh.  Perhaps Zinn’s most direct, vital encounter with Buddhism took place when he visited Japan in 1966, met with Japanese writers, philosophers, and priests, and slept in a 700-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto.  There he met a black-robed Zen Buddhist priest who told him: “There is a major law in Buddhism: not to kill.  Mass killings should not go on; that is the simple slogan that binds Japanese Buddhists to Buddhists in North and South Vietnam.  And this message should be brought to America.”  For the next 44 years, Zinn repeated that message over and over again all across America.  Mass killings should not go on.

The author of A People’s History of the United States, Zinn was the people’s historian par excellence.  Millions have read his version of American history and have viewed the past though his lens.  No American historian in the past 40 years prompted so many Americans to be curious about and to look deeply into their own history.  Academics often treated Zinn’s work condescendingly, but outside of academia it was welcomed, honored, and widely appreciated in large part because Zinn showed that the American people have written their own history.

In an obituary about Zinn for The Nation, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Eric Foner tells a story about visiting St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota.  Zinn had lectured there a few days earlier and the student newspaper ran a story with the headline “Zinn Attacks State.”  Foner mailed Zinn a copy; they agreed that there could not have been a more fitting epitaph for Zinn than those three words, “Zinn Attacks State.”  At St. Olaf’s, and on campuses all around the country, countless students, teachers, and members of local communities were inspired by Zinn’s speeches.  They were also inspired by his essays, including 33 that were published in The Progressive from 1980 until 2010, the year he died at the age of 88, and that are now collected in The Historic Unfulfilled Promise.  The 33 essays reflect Zinn’s abiding belief that the people make history, not by adopting an ideology or joining a party, but by relentless organizing everywhere, all the time, without stopping and without selling out basic moral principles … //

… The Historic Unfulfilled Promise is a testament to Zinn’s Zen politics: his refusal to be silent, to acquiesce, or to sever his ties with the downtrodden.  If he was a Marxist he was an American Gramscian who took Gramsci’s mantra, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” and emphasized the will power of the people, and the hope inspired by meeting face-to-face with neighbors, fellow students, and co-workers committed to democracy and to struggle.  Of all the American radicals, Debs was probably the one who inspired Zinn more than any other.  Indeed, he writes about Debs in several essays and offers a quotation from one of Debs’s most famous speeches in which he said, “I recognized my kinship with all living things and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. . . .  And I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison I am not free.”  That, in a nutshell, is the soulful Zen politics of Howard Zinn, American pacifist.
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  • Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010) on en.wikipedia: … (he)  was an American academic historian, author, playwright, and social activist. Before and during his tenure as a political science professor at Boston University from 1964-88 he wrote more than 20 books, which included his best-selling and influential A People’s History of the United States.[2] He wrote extensively about the civil rights and anti-war movements, as well as of the labor history of the United States. His memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, was also the title of a 2004 documentary about Zinn’s life and work[3] … and it’s many External Links.
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