Friday, January 29, 2010

Your moment of Zinn

Howard Zinn has died of a heart attack at the age of 87.

Unlike, I suspect, a lot of folks, my first exposure to Howard Zinn - at least the first I recall - was not through A People’s History of the United States but through a small book called Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order, written in 1968 as a rebuttal to Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas' book, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience.

As I was wont to do at the time, I wrote a lot of notes in the margins of both books. The Fortas book was all genteel legal posturing about "acceptable" protest. It impressed a lot of establishment types but not activists, especially when he went on about how actual civil disobedience (deliberate breaking of a law for a political purpose) was never ever - well, okay, maybe almost never ever - justified but that in any case the really really important thing was for all forms of protest to be for lack of a better phrase very polite.

Zinn would have none of that and went after Fortas point by point. There were, again, lots of marginal notes, but as I recall, the one area where I clearly disagreed with Zinn was his contention that protest need not be nonviolent. ("Nonviolent," realize, does not mean passive and it does not necessarily mean legal. It means nonviolent.)

My recommendation is that if you want to explore Zinn's life, go for You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train; if you want to explore his thought, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy is what you want.

Footnote: If you want to check out a book by a Supreme Court justice that did impress '60s activists, you want Points of Rebellion by William O. Douglas, available online at this link.

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