Howard Zinn, foreword by Matthew Rothschild, The Historic Unfulfilled Promise (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2012), 253pp.
Howard Zinn (1922–2010) grew up in the slums of Brooklyn, the son of two immigrant factory workers. After high school he worked for three years in the shipyards. After serving in the Air Force, he completed his doctorate in history at Columbia University. From 1956–1963 he taught at Spelman College, the first historically black female institution of higher education; and then from 1964 until 1988 he was a professor of political science at Boston University. Among his more than thirty books, A People's History of the United States is Zinn's best known work, having sold more than a million copies; it typifies his "radical analysis of the structures of power [that] formed the basis of his teaching, writing, and activism" in movements for peace and justice.
This posthumous book collects 33 essays that Zinn wrote for the Progressive magazine from 1980 to 2009. They're a good sampler of the "lovable leftist" who was "proof that you can be radical and still have a sense of humor." Zinn was known for his wit, grace, and self-effacing ways. His simple prose eschewed academic jargon. But it's a little misleading to label Zinn a leftist and leave it at that. He's an admitted dreamer who agitated tirelessly for the promises of the Declaration of Independence, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in his judgment the establishment left was as bad as the right. The Democratic Party? — "so craven and unreliable." The liberal media? — "cowardly" propagandists and "a pitiful lot." Congress? — "craven." LBJ, Clinton, and Obama come in for heavy hitting just as much as Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.
The country doesn't need a cosmetic change from one party to the other. We need a radical makeover toward genuine democracy: open debate, independent thinking, the categorical repudiation of war and all its pseudo-patriotic justifications, a suspicion of state power, a globalization of human rights and not just markets, and the repair of an economic system that's inherently corrupt. All this comes at a steep price for each one of us, because Zinn is the first to admit that there are powerful forces that push us toward safety and security. These essays get a little repetitive if you've read Zinn before; but that's okay. As a Stanford professor once said to me, "some important things need repeating." And there are few writers whose moral passion is more inspirational.