The People’s Real Hope: What Howard Zinn Taught Us About the Hero Within Ourselves

Today, when I read the report that Howard Zinn died, I gasped. Many times our most beloved heroes seem immortal and Howard had an energy and way of communicating that is absolutely timeless. His words and message will never die. Howard was a real progressive, a man who spoke of change and took the veil off our society which so often blankets our understanding of the truth. Most of us were introduced to him through his classic work “A People’s History of the United States”, which changed the way we look at history in America. “The People’s History” was written a quarter of a century ago, sold over a million copies and sells more copies each successive year.

On the night of the President’s State of Union, going through Howard’s work and reflecting on it seems much more productive than listening and watching corporation’s televised P.R. spin. The President, some might say the most powerful man on earth, spoke about issues during what seems to me to be one of the most crucial and dire times in history. You would think someone who monitors a lot of foreign relations news, political and media news, and the politics of media news, would be glued to the TV. Howard’s message of engagement, civil disobedience and community is much more real and heartfelt than anything Obama could say from a teleprompter. Howard said:

“Everything we do is important. Every little thing we do, every picket line we walk on, every letter we write, every act of civil disobedience we engage in, any recruiter that we talk to, any parent that we talk to, any GI that we talk to, any young person that we talk to, anything we do in class, outside of class, everything we do in the direction of a different world is important, even though at the moment they seem futile, because that’s how change comes about. Change comes about when millions of people do little things, which at certain points in history come together, and then something good and something important happens.”

Howard didn’t ask us to volunteer once a year, serve our country by picking up arms or vote once in a blue moon. He asked us to participate daily. He asked us to engage with our community. He wanted us to never give up hope on ourselves. One of the saddest things about Obama’s campaign is that he campaigned using the word “hope”. This was intentional, as all campaigns and State of the Union addresses are. Words are used to uplift, instill fear, bring excitement, make people feel connected to their country, make people feel suspicious of their neighbors, these and many other things are captured in speeches and lectures. Just because Obama hasn’t become the President we hoped in the past year, does not mean our hope should whither, we can’t let a campaign define what hope in America means to us.

But Howard really meant it, he asked us never to give up in finding the truth and reiterated time and time again that it was vital we find truth for ourselves, hold media accountable and understand that a journalists role is to be at the watchdog, all the while telling us that our watchdogs had been asleep on the watch. Howard encouraged us to relearn history, to learn from the past and to grow our understanding of the world. He said, “And the question is, why still did the people believe what they read in the press, and why did they believe what they saw on television? And I would argue that it has something to do with a loss of history, has something to do with, well, what Studs Terkel called “national amnesia,” either the forgetting of history or the learning of bad history”. We need to relearn our history outside of schools, learn it for ourselves.

Every society needs it’s heroes, we all search for our heroes because we want to look up to, emulate and define ourselves through others. We need to see that we are the heroes we are looking for and not take this short life and the energy we have for granted. Everyday receiving our news from independent news sources and asking the question “Why is this newscaster saying this? Who benefits from this kind of speech? Is there a conflict of interests with their sponsors? Does this speech induce hate, fear, or engagement with life and community?”. We must critically evaluate society’s elite, appointed, fake heroes (news pundits, politicians who would rather spend the time lining their pockets and finding campaign contributions then working for the public interest). We must be awaken to the truth that it is only our own might, our own vigilance that will change this country. We must be unified and we must be smart and compassionate in how we organize so we can truly receive the change that we are looking for. For many of us, Howard Zinn’s legacy is a strong reminder that we need to look no further than our own hearts and minds to see the possibilities of a dynamic shift for the better.

Written by Mera Szendro Bok


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