Greenpeace Southeast Asia


A brush with People’s Greatness: recalling Howard Zinn by Chuck Baclagon

From Making Waves

Yes, I did feel a bit silly asking Howard Zinn to pose for this souvenir picture, but if it bothered him he was kind enough to pretend it didn’t. Zinn is of course the handsome white-haired man on the left, I am the woman in purple on the right and my friend Philippe the man in the middle.

This picture was taken in 2005. Philippe and I lived in Paris and had traveled to the States to make a movie about the US anti-war movement for ARTE.

We wanted to know if the American people were really as apathetic about the war in Iraq as the European press had been reporting.

For this we had interviews set with politicians, movie stars and full-time activists; but it was the interview with Zinn that we had planned our trip around. We needed someone who could provide a rational, thought-out analysis for the state of American society and were hard-pressed to find anyone else to plausibly play this role.

We met with Zinn in the office he occasionally occupied as Professor Emeritus of American History at Boston University. The room was decorated with memorabilia unabashedly announcing Zinn’s political convictions. While most of us whisper, Zinn never hesitated to speak out, most often for the underdog. That is exactly what he did with his most famous book, “A People’s History of the United States” where he asked us to stop looking only at the Big Guys, the Winners, and suggested instead that we take the time to study those upon whose backs history is often forged.

On meeting Zinn the first thing to strike me was the openness of his greeting, the second his gravely voice and the third his habit of chuckling between thoughts. The whole was an air of gentleness, wisdom and even optimism that said “I’ve seen this before and can assure you that it too will pass”.

Yes, the American people were “failing the rest of the world” he told us, but they would wake up.

I think about Zinn sometimes in relation to the work I do at Greenpeace. He was right about the American people – the majority did wake up to the wrongness of Bush’s war in Iraq. What, I wonder will it take for them (and others around the world) to wake up to the danger and injustice of climate change, which is caused primarily by the rich but is felt first and hardest by the poor? Would Zinn be as optimistic?

Once the interview was over and we had taken our souvenir photo, he led us down several flights of steps and out into the brisk Boston Fall. 82 years old, he looked a bit tired and frail in the dimming afternoon sun yet he stayed with us a few minutes longer, asking about our backgrounds and future plans. He was very interested to know what the French thought of “freedom fries”. Then he shook our hands, wished us courage and walked off. Howard Zinn passed away January 27, 2010.

Dietlind Lerner
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