Articles, Essays & Sermons

Zinn and the Mechanic

Commemorating the anniversary of Howard Zinn’s passing, and that of my father

            This past Tuesday, 27 January 2015, was the fifth anniversary of the passing of Howard Zinn, the historian, activist and playwright who guided many an innocent, blinded-by-the-might nativist (folk like me) to understand the not-so-exceptional history of their country. Zinn was best known for his A People’s History of the United States, of which Matt Damon’s character in the movie Good Will Hunting says, “That book will knock you on your ass.”

            Such a posture, of course, is the starting point of every meaningful spiritual journey (and, typically, includes repeated encounters with that hard ground).

            Tuesday was also the 14th anniversary of my father’s passing. It would take multiple levels of interpretive work for my Dad to understand Zinn’s writing—something I never accomplished. But I kept at it because I believe that—at the core of his sense of honor, and honor was key—he knew the way of the world favors the devious. He consistently refused to give himself to that dishonoring system, though he was mostly skeptical at the prospects of release from its sway.

            He knew the world as relentlessly hard, even treacherous, and suspected joy unreliable. Decades ago, when I—giddy as a goose—called home to say their first grandchild was on the way, Dad was the first to speak, and he said, “Can you afford it?”

            Dad never grew comfortable with the fact that I refused to make “affordability” the determining factor in life choices. (Though I gained much stature in his eyes when I married, my wife who she is. And more so with each granddaughter. Safe to say, I surely married, and fathered, “up.”)

            I invite you to read acclaimed novelist Alice Walker’s remembrance of Howard Zinn, her teacher and later a friend and collaborator. To mark the anniversary, below are a few favorite quotes from Zinn’s writing. (If you haven’t already, see as well the quote at the conclusion of the Signs of the Times No. 7.)

            • “Why should we accept that the 'talent' of someone who writes jingles for an advertising agency advertising dog food and gets $100,000 a year is superior to the talent of an auto mechanic who makes $40,000 a year?” [Mechanic that he was, Dad would have especially appreciated this—though I’m pretty sure he never saw $40k pay, even with 37 years with the same company.]

            •“We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

            •”Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders . . . and millions have been killed because of this obedience. . . . Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem.”

            •”Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”

            •”There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

            •”Most wars, after all, present themselves as humanitarian endeavors to help people.”

            •“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

            •” I don't believe it's possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions, and to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that, is to collaborate with whatever is going on.”

             [My homily at Dad’s funeral is posted here.]

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