Sunday, January 31, 2010

With the passing of Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger, America has lost two very important voices. One was an outspoken activist who was unafraid to challenge power, and the other was an iconoclast who drifted into a hermit-like existence. Perhaps drift is the wrong way to put it; perhaps it was his conscious choice to do so, to seclude himself into the nether-regions of New Hampshire. Whatever the case, both men despised phony people, for different reasons. Despise is a word that requires a note of elaboration. At first glance it appears to denote hatred but, in fact, it literally refers to the act of looking down upon. Zinn and Salinger, quite literally, looked down upon phonies, inauthentic people, cogs in machines, because such people chose to become, or had no choice but to be, automatons, serving a higher purpose over which they had no real control.

Much is said about a famous address Zinn made in the Boston Common in 1971, addressing the plainclothes tools of state power interspersed among the listening crowd. He, along with Daniel Ellsberg and others, were beaten the next day, by interlocutors of law and order, although on an individual level the agents wielding heavy batons were at the very least reluctant to carry out their orders and, according to the account Ellsberg has given, expressed their sympathies for the cause.

As for the creator of Holden Caulfield, an ennui-obsessed teenage lost soul who despairs of the world, the impulse to change the world retreats to a desire to escape. It is certainly understandable; the world can be a demented, dangerous place, filled with mercenary, unfeeling people. But that is far from all that it is. Perhaps it was the hope that there are decent people everywhere you go, doing what they can to improve things, even in the smallest ways, that kept people like Zinn going, up to the very end.

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