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Howard Zinn: Rock Star

Tim Goodman, in the San Francisco Chronicle (Oct. 13, 2004):

Last month, Daniel Flynn, a conservative pundit, published "Intellectual Morons," a 304-page book that rips Zinn for "America bashing" and biased writing. The tome also criticizes Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and other intellectuals who've been critical of the United States, but it singles out Zinn for special scrutiny because of Zinn's success with "A People's History of the United States."

"A People's History" has sold more than 1 million copies since its release in 1980, making it one of the most popular works on American history. Conservatives hate the book because it excoriates Ronald Reagan, gives detailed examples of U.S. imperialism, outlines practices that led to the slaughter and depopulation of Native Americans, and even questions the motives of George Washington and other Founding Fathers. (Among other things, Zinn refers to Washington as a member of the elite who personally benefited from the Constitution.)

Zinn is unapologetic about "A People's History," which he wrote during his tenure as a professor of political science at Boston University. Though Zinn retired from the university in 1988 (he's now professor emeritus), he's become even more prolific in the past 16 years because of his public speaking and his spiral of follow-up books such as "The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy." A new documentary, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train," will only add to Zinn's national reputation. The film, which first screened four months ago in Oregon and Massachusetts, begins a two-week run at San Francisco's Red Vic Movie House on Friday and will also screen at the Rafael Film Center....

"The state and its police were not neutral referees in a society of contending interests," Zinn wrote in his 1994 autobiography, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train." "From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country -- not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root."

Zinn's autobiography inspired filmmakers Denis Mueller and Deb Ellis to make their documentary. In both works, Zinn says it's impossible for historians, journalists or anyone writing nonfiction to be neutral -- that if Zinn were a passive observer or chronicler, he would be a de facto "collaborator" with the country's controlling interests, who, Zinn says, want to continue their ways of war and commerce. "A People's History" looks at American history through the eyes of the downtrodden, presenting a view of the United States that was traditionally little covered by mainstream historians. Surprisingly, Zinn uses humor, not vitriol, to dismiss his critics. Zinn's sense of humor may not come across in Mueller and Ellis' documentary, or "A People's History," but it's there in his public speeches, in the plays he has written like "Marx in Soho," a funny solo work that imagines Marx alive in modern America, and in the memories of the students who crowded into his Spelman College and Boston University courses. It's also there in the margins of interviews with journalists.

"It's hard to believe (anyone would dislike me)," Zinn says before getting serious again. "The most common complaint about me is the claim that I'm anti-American and unpatriotic. That comes from a distorted notion of America and what it means to be an American. I argue that America is not the government -- America is a country, the people and the principles on which a country stands. To be patriotic in the most literal sense is to not be for the government but for the country. And there are times when the government goes against the ideals of the country and goes against the people of the country."

Zinn, who describes himself as "a democratic socialist," criticizes both Democrats and Republicans in "A People's History." In the most recent edition, he lumps Jimmy Carter with Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, saying all three presidents stood for the same interests -- corporate wealth and power, America's "huge military machine," and supporting right-wing governments abroad. Zinn is critical of both President Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, saying the candidates are too alike on many issues. Nonetheless, Zinn admits he'll likely vote for Kerry on Nov. 2, saying, "I want Kerry to win this election simply because I want to see Bush defeated. But I'm certainly not a loyal follower of the Democratic Party because I think the Democratic Party has been too much like the Republican Party. The Democratic Party and I have generally not gotten along."

Zinn is 82 now. He always makes time to speak to high schools and other student bodies where he believes he can make the biggest difference. Every year, new generations of students read "A People's History." Last month at Boston's FleetCenter, the rock group Pearl Jam invited Zinn on stage in front of 17,000 fans. Lead singer Eddie Vedder called Zinn "a true American patriot." After Zinn received applause, he told the audience, "Stop the war."...