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The History of Optimism


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Howard Zinn is one of the most prominent and respected historians in the world today, and unusual for an academic who has made history as much as written about it. Despite a career in bringing the worst in human-nature to attention, he remains a decided optimist for the future.

"In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manage to stay involved and seemingly happy?" [1]

One who studies the past for a living is seldom an optimist for the future, but Howard Zinn is not a typical historian. Author of the best-selling “A People's History of the United States, " he is one of the few historians whose work has been featured on prime time drama (The Sopranos) and in blockbuster film (Good Will Hunting—Matt Damon lived next door to Zinn as a child), and unusually for a tenured academic, has made history as well as written volumes about it.

In his first teaching position as Professor of History at Spelman College, Atlanta, Zinn mentored young civil rights activists like Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and Marian Wright Edelman (founder Children's Defense Fund), and joined his students as an active participant in the fight to end racial segregation, a very public stand that eventually saw him fired.

A World War II bombardier who participated in the April 1945 bombing of Royan, France—one of the first ever uses of napalm, tragically killing French civilians and German soldiers waiting to surrender—his war-time experiences sensitised him to the ethical dilemmas of modern warfare, and he later became a vocal proponent of non-violent resistance, and a prominent opponent of the Vietnam War.

In 1968, as a Professor at Boston University, he secured the release of American POWs from North Vietnam during a diplomatic visit in conjunction with Rev. Daniel Berrigan, and as an expert witness for the defence in the Pentagon Papers trial, contributed to the eventual dismissal of the case. He later edited and annotated the copy released to the public.

Zinn continues to be a vocal opponent of war to this day, and proposes that wars will end not through politics but when the broad mass of people refuse to participate in them, citing as historical example the wives of Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War, who rioted over war profiteering and the death of their husbands.

He has received a number of awards including the Thomas Merton Award, the Lannan Literary Award, the Upton Sinclair Award and the Prix des Amis du Monde Diplomatique, and is author of three plays, the latest of which, the historically based “Marx in Soho, " has been performed continuously since 1999.

Having studied and written about the worst in humanity, and seen it first-hand, Howard Zinn remains a declared optimist, stating that change has only ever been achieved by groups of individuals who dared to believe, and work, for something better. As poet Sri Chinmoy declares the difference between optimism and pessimism: "an optimist sees the sun behind the blackest clouds; a pessimist sees the brightest noon as midnight, " [2] so Zinn encourages us also to remain optimists, each doing what we can to hasten the arrival of a brighter future not yet visible:

"An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. 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. “ [3]


1. Howard Zinn, The Optimism of Uncertainty, Z Magazine, Nov 2004
2. Sri Chinmoy, Arise! Awake! Thoughts of a Yogi, 1972
3. The Optimism of Uncertainty

John Gillespie is a designer, web developer and video editor who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. A member of the Sri Chinmoy Centre, he uses his practice of meditation as a source of energy and inspiration for his many creative activities. He also contributes to a site about the writings of Sri Chinmoy.


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