Historian Howard Zinn died this week while swimming laps in a pool (not a bad way to go). He was 87. If you're not familiar with his work, I'd strongly encourage you to check out A People's History of the United States. Zinn's genius was to take the well-known phrase, "History is written by the victor" to its logical conclusions. He asked how the victors were distorting history and sought the answer in the perspective of history's "losers." A People's History tells the familiar stories of "discovery," colonialism, rebellion, Civil War, settling the West, and so on, but from the perspective of women, native people, African slaves, Irish indentured servants, and others whose voices are too often ignored by historians.
Despite his acute awareness of the tragedies of history, Zinn was an optimist:
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. "The Optimism of Uncertainty," The Nation, 2004.
Here's an interesting clip where Zinn discusses the much repeated claim that human nature is the underlying cause of war.
If you'd like to hear a bit more from Professor Zinn, check out this interview he did with Bill Moyers a few months ago.
Update: Bob Herbert has published an excellent profile of Zinn in the New York Times, here.