Associated Press

My friend, the great historian, Howard Zinn died in his Santa Monica hotel room on January 27th. I was going to have dinner with him next Sunday. His “A People’s History of the United States” was a classic. I am told Matt Damon is planning on making a documentary of it. Here’s a beautiful quote of Howard’s:

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.

(Howard Zinn, The Optimism of Uncertainty: The Nation, 9/20/2004)

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  1. Jane, great post and wise words indeed.

  2. Matt Damon and Josh Brolin did a show with Mr. Zinn called the “The People Speak”, it was on the History Channel in Dec. Great show.

  3. Thanks Jane for taking the time out from writing and all other projects to give that insight.
    I been reading on that very subject and doing some more writing myself. I just found out that I will be published in a Journal for Art and poetry from a University in Trukey , the Jouraal is sent out in both Trukish and English , for a better view of people and Art , a interaction between people. HOWARD ZINN did bring a new view to history , subject so important “If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.”
    You can see that in full view in history , the worlds and our own lifes.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. That was a lovely quote of his…very inspiring!!

  5. What a wonderful and inspiring quotation.

  6. Ms. Fonda,

    We are all better people because of Dr. Zinn. Thank you for sharing this piece.


  7. Aw that is so sad. I have Zinn’s book “A People’s History of the U.S.” and over the last few days have been thinking over and over of picking it up again and reading it all this time. How ironic that this was right before he passed away.

    Beautiful quote you posted Jane. I whole-heartedly believe in that sentiment.

  8. Hola Jane,

    I just read this news in my mail, is somehow sad news…but is also a fortune to know today this wonderful man who wrote and think magically.

    How valuable can be our lives, if we believe in the goodness of those with best energies, give us hope in humanity, that I just read in the mail written by
    the great historian, Howard Zinn, give me lights…in the midst of this political hurricane in my country Venezuela. Only in a few lines I have more hope for our future.

    Although I must say I am very sorry, and give my condolences, these very specials peoples always remain alive with all their wonderful ideas.

    An embrace of solidarity,
    excuse my English.

  9. Very sad about Howard Zinn’s passing but grateful for his life and message. Wish more people he wrote about knew him. Hope they Google search his name and become inspired to read/learn more. Thank you Jane for including him in your blog.

  10. wonderful quote of Howard Zinn! avoiding to look on the dark side ,always be turn on light!historical optimisn, staying eager to build up great things,not being narrowminded, from an infinite of presents,building up a great future! always ahead! Frederique dhenein

  11. Hi Jane,
    It was very sad to hear about Howard Zinn’s passing, what a brilliant man he was. I wanted to let you know that matt damon did do a documentary that will be available in February.The People Speak (Extended Edition)
    Starring: Howard Zinn, Matt Damon Director: Howard Zinn, Chris Moore Rating: NR (Not Rated) Format: DVD
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  12. Dear Jane,

    Thank you for writing about Howard Zinn. He had a profound effect on me and on thousands (tens? hundreds? more?) of people who read his work.

    Thanks for your blog, and for the opportunity to communicate with you. I am a fan and an admirer of your films and your activism. You have made a difference in the world, and I am grateful!

  13. That`s a nice quote by Zinn, but I must admit little admiration for him. Here is a guy who chose to emphasise ,in his book ” A People`s History of the US” , obscure anarchist and pacifist sects in his chapters on WW2, instead of backing Roosevelt`s war effort and that of the Allies. Typical of the stupidities of the mainstream radical Left . Marco

    • To each his own, Martin

    • Marco,
      I can’t understand how you could write about Zinn, someone who fought in WW II:

      “Instead of backing Roosevelt`s war effort and that of the Allies.”

      How much more could he have backed the war effort than by being willing to sacrifice his life?
      (Though he later learned about the insanity of war, saddened by his participation in the first use of napalm on innocent citizens.)

      And you say
      “Typical of the stupidities of the mainstream radical Left.”
      What is the mainstream radical left? (Isn’t that an oxymoron?)

      Sui generis would describe Zinn, there was nothing typical about him, and there will never be another like him.
      The world has suffered a loss that will leave us mourning for a very long time, but we were lucky, so incredibly lucky, to have him with us for so long.

      • hmm Leeza, I never said “Typical of the stupidities of the mainstream radical Left.” W here’d you hear that one?

        • Sorry, Jane, no, you didn’t say that; my response was to Marco – i was quoting his words in his comment.

  14. years ago i read howard and his historical truth
    about the u.s. deeply affected me and helped me heal in my relationship to this country.
    thank you so much for this.. ironic that salinger
    should die also.. deeply affected by both..thank you

  15. Howard Zinn will be greatly missed by my middle schoolers grades 7 and 8 as his book is our main history textbook my students say his book is the best book they ever read on US History
    he allowed them to see all sides of history and to come to their own understanding of what happened

  16. Howard Zinn had always been very authentic as a human being as well as an historian, and so he focused on what was important, the poor and common people in our history, but not just because they are such, but because they are misused and exploited because they are poor or black or female. So there has always been a lot of injustice associated with not being part of a rich or ruling elite. Howard developed a sense of class consciousness from his own life experiences as well as reading Charles Dickens.

    Here is a link to one of his interviews on you tube

    Many of us have been inspired by Howard Zinn. Also, tonight I watched on Booknotes a talk by Amy Bach author of Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court which took her eight years to research and write. Whenever I see a such a scholar who is so devoted to a cause and does such objective research.

    What is the best lesson perhaps is to think for yourself, to feel for others as you like, to have the kind of friends you like without regard to social opinion or any fear of not being popular and also to be part of progressive history in the making.

    One lifespan is too brief not to be anything but authentic and to always profess what you believe. Even if there are negative consequences, you always have the company of those who have also be courageous.Such is a legacy that lives on at every moment and is not bound by a particular lifespan.

  17. Would you have any problem with my copying this and putting it on my blog–giving you full credit, of course?
    Thank you,
    [email protected]

  18. When I was in high school, my AP US History teacher used to quote him all the time. May he rest in peace.

  19. Sadly, I do not remember learning anything about Howard Zinn in school. He sounds like he was a very intelligent man who will be missed. Thank you Jane for letting us know about his passing, and for providing the great quote from him that you did. I will read more about him in the near future. Sorry for your loss Jane. Take care, Mary

  20. Jane, I’ve just found your blog. So sorry I’ve missed it all this time. Met you in the late 90’s at a 9-to-5 event in Atlanta and our chat was so inspiring to me! Don’t expect you to remember, but I’ll never forget your sincere kindness.

    I first learned of Zinn through my boss at BU in the late 70’s – they were 2 of the “BU Five”. Then Zinn’s History – wow. He will be missed! Thanks for highlighting a fantastic, hopeful quote. And sorry for your loss of a friend.

    I’m looking forward to doing some catching up here!

    Be well, take care, Kathy

  21. May he rest in peace. I shed tears when I heard of his death.

  22. Ms Fonda –

    Thanks for marking Howard Zinn’s passing. I went to Emma Willard School like you (you actually spoke at my graduation in 1994) and the great Jack Betterly history instructor at EWS used Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” as the main text book in his American History course.

    It was an eye opening time for me as a woman and to be inspired by Zinn’s words in a classroom setting on a regular basis was priceless. The world has lost a true “man of the people”

  23. I too weep! Zinn was a true patriot in a country of non-patriots. As he considered himself a citizen of the world, in his footsteps I follow. He shall be henceforward remembered as a champion of socialism at it’s finest and a foe of capitalism at it’s worst (the USA).

  24. Godless atheist Communist leaders of communist countries murdered more than 100 MILLION people in the 20th century. Communism is antithetical to the idea and ideals of freedom and each of the Bill of Rights that all Americans share and cherish. Complete subjugation of people is not what Americans cherish – nor will they for very long. Howard Zinn was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party-USA. The text of American
    “history” that he wrote is a malignant distortion of all things factual. He lionizes all things evil and their evil proponents. The rumor that Jane has “repented” of her long held Communist ideas and beliefs is just that – a rumor, with no basis in fact, as her adoration of Zinn reveals herein. Communism has collapsed under its own weight. All that remains is to kill it – permanently. Do you have the guts to print this truth?

    • You are sadly mistaken, Rick. I have never been a communist.

  25. I had the pleasure of being Dr. Zinn’s student as an undergraduate at Boston University. As he gave us our reading assignment for the week, he told us that every one of us – as part of being human – has a tendency to read and remember what we already believe because it reinforces our belief system. He asked us, as part of our education, to notice and consider ideas that differed from ours and our upbringing. This eye-opening comment made an indelible mark on how I absorbed information from that day forward. He made me a better person, someone who considers all sides of an issue, with that brief comment.

  26. Dear Jane, I just came upon this for the first time, believe it or not. I did not know you were to have dinner with my dad although I knew you were friends. In any case, thank you for your wonderful words of appreciation for him (and fending off the assholes.) And thank you for your own wonderful work (a fan since Klute) and activism. Jeff

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