Holden Caulfield and the Passing of Howard Zinn

February 1st, 2010 by Amelia

With the passing of J.D. Salinger, for the first time in years I was reminded of the immortal teenager, Holden Caulfield. It had truly been a long time since the famous rebel occupied any of my conscious thoughts.

Apparently that was not true for others. The enormous outpouring of interest on the web gave clear indication that Holden is one of the most remembered characters in the history of America.

Unfortunately, timing being everything, there was another passing last week, one that drew far less attention. The passing of Howard Zinn, Professor Emeritus at Boston University, flew largely under the radar.

For some, the death of Professor Zinn did not rise to the same level as a legendary and reclusive author’s passing. But for me, the passing of the longtime proponent of compassion over vengeance was far more notable.

Howard Zinn

An activist in every sense of the word, Howard Zinn is credited with being a key force in helping young people understand the importance of dissent to a democracy. The historian wrote one of the most important books of all time, A People’s History of the United States (1980). {Fans of “Good Will Hunting” might recall Will (Matt Damon) recommending the People’s History to his shrink Sean (Robin Williams)}.

Zinn served as bombardier during World War II, attaining the rank of second lieutenant. He entered New York University on the GI Bill at the ripe old age of 27. Working nights in a warehouse loading trucks, Zinn worked his way through school earning his bachelor’s degree from NYU, and later, master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.

Zinn taught at Upsala, Brooklyn and Spelman colleges. Marian Wright Edelman and Alice Walker were two of his students at the historically black Spelman. During that time, Zinn became active in the civil rights movement and participated in numerous demonstrations. In 1964, Zinn became an associate professor of political science at BU and was later named a full professor in 1966. At that time his focus shifted to opposition of the Vietnam War.

History has it that Zinn ended his final class at BU 30 minutes early so that he could join a picket line. He also urged his 500 students in the lecture hall to join him – estimates indicate roughly one hundred did.

News accounts that spent time discussing this important man cited his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994). In it, Zinn wrote:

“From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

Opposition to Afghanistan

In late September, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Zinn penned a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education. As we consider the current issues facing our country, hemorrhaging money in Iraq and Afghanistan yet so deep in debt we are finding it near impossible to solve our own problems, Zinn’s thoughts in 2001 are particularly prescient:

The images on television have been heartbreaking. People on fire, leaping to their deaths. People in panic and fear. Terror in hijacked airplanes. The scenes, the images horrified and sickened me.

Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment. We are at war, they said. And I thought: They have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the 20th century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counterterrorism, of violence met with violence, in an unending cycle of stupidity.

Will we now bomb Afghanistan? Then we will, inevitably, kill innocent people, because it is in the nature of bombing to be indiscriminate. Will we then be committing terrorism to “send a message” to terrorists? We have done that before. It is the old way of thinking, the old way of acting. It has never worked. Reagan bombed Libya, Bush made war on Iraq, and Clinton bombed Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, to “send a message” to terrorists. Isn’t it clear by now that sending “a message” to terrorists through violence only leads to more terrorism?

Haven’t we learned anything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Car bombs planted by Palestinians bring air attacks and tanks from the Israeli government, and then there are more car bombs. That has been going on for years. It doesn’t work. And innocent people die on both sides.

We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action — in Vietnam, in Latin America, in Iraq. We need to think about the anger of Palestinians, who know that the weapons used against them are supplied by the United States. We need to understand how some of those people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism.

We need new ways of thinking. A $300-billion military budget has not given us security. Military bases all over the world, warships on every ocean, have not given us security. Land mines, a “missile-defense shield,” will not give us security. We need to stop sending weapons to countries that oppress other people or their own people. We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times.

Our security can only come by using our national wealth, not for guns, planes, and bombs, but for the health and welfare of our people, and for people suffering in other countries. Our first thoughts should be not of vengeance, but of compassion, not of violence, but of healing.

Change We Can Believe In?

Those of us who fell in love with the Obama campaign harbored hope that we were electing a man who might usher in a new way of thinking.

The loss of that hope is perhaps why I feel so disillusioned today just one year into this new president’s term.

We were looking for someone like Zinn, someone who could inspire a new way of viewing our current issues, someone who could help us create a transcendent America. Instead, we find ourselves stuck, unable to move forward.

One can’t help but wonder, would Holden be far more disillusioned were a young Salinger to pen such a famous work today?

In the meantime, we can’t help but wonder what it says about our current state of affairs when we pay more attention to a fictional teen and the passing of his reclusive creator than we do to the death of one of America’s truly great thinkers.

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1 Comment


    “Those of us who fell in love with the Obama campaign harbored hope that we were electing a man who might usher in a new way of thinking.

    The loss of that hope is perhaps why I feel so disillusioned today just one year into this new president’s term.”

    I think this illustrates something. The left may be able to criticize America, but many of its ideas are fundamentally flawed. They do not work in real life. So it should be no surprise that Obama is letting people down now.

    By Phid on March 4th, 2010


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