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Elegy for Howard

john.halle's picture

(Having Boeing Lobbyist-Mike Lux-writing a remembrance for Howard Zinn on his access blog was just too much. Some kind of retaliation is necessary, so here goes. Comments appreciated.)

An Elegy for Howard

The gorgeous four part harmonies pour forth from the Democracy Now! live webstream. Howard Zinn is dead and Samuel Barber's Elegy seems to tug at the same heart strings which attached us to Howard.

And it stands to reason that it does.

For it was the Adagio movement from Barber's String Quartet in it's arrangement for orchestral strings which was performed at funeral services for FDR and some of the same feelings of loss and gratitude felt by millions on that day are part of the mixture of emotions which we feel for Howard.

But there are, of course, huge differences.

The most obvious was that FDR was in many ways an entirely conventional politician of exactly the sort about which Howard taught us to be skeptical, and even cynical.

The best that could be expected of politicians is encapsulated within a famous anecdote which has FDR responding to a request issued by legendary Sleeping Car Porter Union head A. Phillip Randolph with the phrase: "You make me do it."

Randolph and many others pushed and Roosevelt allowed himself to be pushed. And it is for this reason that millions revere him to this day.


Howard's People's History had little good to say about our leaders-or any leaders, for that matter, and insofar as it did, this had to do, almost exclusively, with their willingness to fulfill the aspirations of people's movements.

While Howard tends not to do so, the same standard can be applied to the movements themselves:

People's movements succeed or fail based on how well they push-how effective they are at forcing the kinds of concessions from governing elites that constitute real change-to use a much abused term.

And this recognition forces on us an unpleasant truth when we come to where we are now. For it would seem that the movement, and those of us who, like Howard, define ourselves by it, needs to be judged plenty harshly.

To take one of many examples, the day of Howard's death finds the President (an indisputable, if unacknowledged, beneficiary of the work of Howard and others in the movement) issuing an executive order to establish a deficit commission which may turn out to be the first of many final nails in the coffin of Social Security.

And, the same State of the Union address realizing this nearly century-old dream of reactionaries finds the imposition of a Hooveresque spending freeze in the midst of a major recession, not to mention increases in the military budget required yet another de facto cold war, clinically insane statements on clean coal and nuclear power, double talk on banker's bonuses and an insurance company bailout masquerading as a health care reform.

Howard, who, unlike far too many, did not fall prey to Obama's charms, would not have been surprised by any of this, describing the latter as "a mediocre president . . . which means a dangerous president."

Mediocre and dangerous Presidents are, of course, par for the course described in Howard's People's History as is the trajectory of capitulations, wanton violence and abridgements of human and civil rights enacted by them.

But what is disconcerting is that none of these outrages succeed in rousing from the people's movement anything more than the slightest stirrings of opposition. United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, Progressive Democrats of America, all of which promised to hit the streets should the right wing rhetoric of the Obama campaign become realized as Obama administration policy--none was to be found on the steps of the capital.

That is not to say there is nothing: A few days before, a White House die in was organized and enacted by a few protesters of Howard's vintage from Minnesota. And the wonderful Margaret Flowers and Carol Paris of Physicians for a National Health Plan were arrested picketing an address by the insurance and pharmaceutical companies chief Washington asset the day after.

These scattered disruptions, all too easily ignored and trivialized, remind us of the corollary to Howard's evaluation of the role of mass movements in creating something which has at least resembled civilization during the last decades of the 20th century: if it is the movements which can take credit for whatever progress was achieved in the past, we must share the blame for the unchecked descent into barbarism in the present and to figure out what the hell we're going to do about it.

Insofar as our mourning Howard's death prevents us moving forward towards this recognition, I'm sure he would be the first to shout "Genug!"

It is now time for all the pieces of the movement to commit ourselves to protests whose size, frequency, and, above all, intensity begin to approximate the enormity of the crisis we are now facing and the impending planetary catastrophe which awaits our children's generation.

That would be a celebration of Howard's life in the spirit in which it was lived.

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BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

Unfortunately, I read the Mike Lux piece and, yes, an antidote was desperately needed. Thanks for providing it.

Here are shorter pieces at The Distant Ocean and A Tiny Revolution. Both of them emphasize Zinn's humanity.

Submitted by lambert on

Context? History?

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

size, frequency, and intensity of action, there's the matter of agenda.

One of the biggest failings of modern "progressives" is the ability to be distracted by fake goals, such as "the Obama movement" or "public option," and to proxy out agenda-setting to false prophets, such as access bloggers.

Rigorousness of thought is essential, as is clarity and worthiness of goals.

Some goals are straightforward: "no war in Iraq." Others are less so: "reform healthcare," "clean up elections."

In the latter case, it's quite easy for idiots and opportunists to set the agenda, or for there to be reasonable disagreement on precisely what to demand (which can lead to either inertia or steamrollering).

Any thoughts on how to keep movements from being co-opted, wrong-headed, wafty, etc.?

john.halle's picture
Submitted by john.halle on

VL: Keep in mind that I'm referring to what Howard called "people's movements". And that, by definition, excludes elite driven agenda items like the "public options." Or I should say, both by definition and also in practice since it is impossible to develop a mass movement around any position which is incoherent, as the PO is.

This, as has been pointed out very perceptively and on numerous occasions, by you VL and of course Lambert, is a feature not a bug of the PO. But for that reason, I'm not concerned that a mass movement will foolishly attached itself to it, since it was, in fact, designed to prevent precisely this happening.

What I'm more concerned with is the opposite-namely elite technocrats who manage to get their noses under the tent of mass movements and manage to co opt them by co opting their organizations.

This is what happened with UFPJ which, as you will remember, brought over 2 million people onto the streets on Feb. 15, 2003 but which essentially got folded into the Democratic Party apparatus and hasn't been heard from since.

In any case, hope this at least advances the conversation if not answers your question.

As for Lambert's concern-I suppose I shouldn't assume everyone knows Yiddish (or German).

But Howard would certainly have know what genug meant.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

"Movementiness" has been used (well, once in comments, anyway) as a variant of "Movement-ness" from the notorious Jonah Goldberg (no links for DCOW reasons), but something like it ought to be kept handy.

Perhaps it's nothing new, but the left is awash in activities and meta-activities that offer the self-satisfaction of actual movements with none of the legitimate urgency (beyond "donate now now now") and clarity of a genuine social movement.

While Goldberg sees liberal fascism in such activism, the truth is often the perfect opposite: "progressives" banding together for such vaporous fancies as hopey change and "public option" are sacrificing liberalism at the altar of the status quo.

I mention this because the distinction between a legitimate popular movement and movementiness may, for some anyway, be non-obvious.