Zinn in Jail

A short story about scuffle between famed peace activist and reactionary media


Zinn in Jail
by Kaveh Afrasiabi

(For Roz)

You cannot be neutral in a developing war!

I first learned of Howard Zinn’s arrest by noticing his photo in Boston Globe’s front page, next to the headline: famed historian, activist jailed for punching a man -- and knowing Howard’s life-time credential as a non-violent civil rights leader, I was naturally curious, to say the least, actually down right skeptical, and then, when I read the news story and discovered that the “victim” was a "distinguished" member of right-wing Fox TV, I allowed my suspicion a couple of notches down yet sufficiently in gear to warrant a healthy doubt about the veracity of the story – that Zinn had “attacked” him after a heated, accidental, exchange over wars in the Middle East.

Still, while I could imagine Howard engaged in verbal assault, the thought of seeing him crossing the line, well maintained over dozens of decades, and adding a physical punch to his habitual volleys of words against the American media warmongers, was still hard to swallow. On the other hand, the report’s allusion to Howard’s old age, frail health, etc., invoked in the reader’s mind the suggestion that this unusual and rather “unacceptable” behavior on the part of one of the leading voices of US peace movement must be attributed to factors other than purely political or even personal, but rather to a short temper born by decaying body and mind.

The next day’s paper revealed more details about the incident that had been picked up by the New York Times, in the small “national news” section buried in the back pages, outright accusing Zinn of “aggression.” Globe’s follow-up was about Zinn’s adamant refusal to pay the nominal bail and his insistence on an “apology.” A spokesperson for Fox TV had tersely rejected Zinn’s demand and called him a “lunatic.”

Smacked in the middle of the page was a big photo of some Zinn supporters picketing the jail’s entrance with banners that read “Free Zinn Now” and “Fox TV lies!”. A preliminary hearing had been set for later in the week, sufficient time to boil things over to a mini national scandal, with the pro and anti-Zinn speakers fielding the news shows on radio and TV, and more people protesting for Zinn’s freedom.

Would that be Zinn was manipulating a small incident for a greater cause, or that he had deliberately caused it, as Zinn’s long-time nemesis, once-upon-a-time philosopher-turned autocratic president of Boston University, John Silber, charged without the slightest hesitation, accusing Howard of a “desperate media ploy to focus attention on himself”? The mere fact that Silber and other like-minded Bostonian reactionaries had jumped on the anti-Zinn bandwagon, providing amplifications on the “moral bankruptcy of peace movement” raised my suspicion that the “Zinn incident” may be a hatched little conspiracy not only against Zinn but also the entire peace movement that felt rightly empowered by the exoneration of its fears and concerns over another “war of choice” in the volatile Middle East. “Zinn is an embarrassment to the US peace movement that let him speak for it for decades,” read an article in The National Review. “Zinn must receive the firmest punishment for attacking a member of the media whose only fault was to ask him if he felt any regrets about backing the wrong horse in the war?”

”I had seen Zinn lose his cool before,” confided one of his long-time friends on the progressive network, Democracy, adding, “a couple of times I had seen it. Once when he was part of the civil rights march in Salma, Alabaman, and reacted when he saw the white cops let their dogs loose on the demonstrators, and the second time when he was escorted out of a court room by the judge’s order after hearing Zinn’s testimony on behalf of the Chicago Seven, heard him yell at the judge, “that black robe so illuminates the sad state of justice here your honor.”

Less than a week on and the tables were beginning to turn on Fox TV and its horde of warmongering commentators who were openly thirsting for Zinn’s blood. A placard reading “Zinn throws punch at leopards of darkness” had captured the front page of Progressive, and in Mother Jones a caricature showed Zinn pulling a reporter by the tie out of a dungeon labeled American media. The evening TV shows on Hollywood gossips broke the news that one of Zinn’s famed disciples, actor Matt Damon, was planning to attend the hearing and, if need be, testify as Zinn’s “character witness” just as Alice Walker, another Zinn loyalist had said she would.

Meanwhile, Zinn’s publishers were the net beneficiaries of this unfolding saga, reporting a four fold increase in the sale of Zinn’s history books and announcing a new, updated edition of Zinn’s classic on the student movement, The New Abolitionists, carrying a new title, New New Abolitionists, and a play house in Cape Cod adopting Zinn’s play on the anarchist, Emma Goldman, this while another theater in Soho sending a press release about their intention to add Zinn’s Marx in Soho to their portfolio the coming Fall season. All this was fresh log to the foxy insinuations that Zinn and his associates had cunningly plotted this accidental scuffle with the said reporter to benefit themselves and their “bankrupt, dying movement.”

There was, of course, nothing dying about a peace movement that had seen its ranks swell to tens of thousands of fresh souls occasionally filling the streets of nation’s capital, as well as other cities, marching against war and “US imperialism.” Zinn had granted a telephone interview with a local station and had answered the question of “what do you think about your critics’ suggestion that you are unpatriotic and you should be supporting the American troops instead of criticizing them” by answering, “well, this is the same logic that would lead supporting the soldiers massacring the Vietnamese villagers in Mai Lai, and I would say support the troops by turning them into peace keepers and, really, why does the US refuse to support the UN peacekeeping operations?”

“Zinn the traitor, what do you say to that?”

”Well, I am definitely a traitor to false nationalism, the kind that ignites hatred of others and triggers war, sending kids to wars’ slaughterhouses when they should be the global engines for peace.”

”I see, and in your opinion, what will you accomplish by sitting in jail when you can set a nominal bail and be free.”

”You are overestimating my financial means. It is, however, a question of costs to justice.”

”Come on now, don’t tell me you can’t afford the bail? Matt Damon has said that he will cover all your legal expenses if need be?”

”That’s nice of him, but I don’t think that will be necessary. I have already set the condition for my release and it is up to the court to decide which is fair and which is a tissue of foul cry and wrongful charges?”

”Are you saying that you did not punch a reporter from Fox TV?”

“It was not meant for him, it was for their entire system of falsehood that breeds hatred and fabricates national security threats in order to upgrade its ratings. War is good for corporate media you know, and yet, look at Iraq today, over a million dead, four million refugees, and an entire generation growing up in the midst of bombs, misery, and foreign occupation.”

”Some say that the world would be a lot worse without the US playing a leading role, do you disagree?”

”Sure, the world would be a lot worse for Blackwater and Halliburton, but not so for people around the world who see their rights trampled in the name of exporting American democracy, as if we have a god given right to “remake the Middle East” or any other part of the world. That is easy to digest the moment we hear someone from another land talking so blatantly about “remaking America.” Let me ask you, what would your instinct reaction be if you heard such a thing?”

”Well, I thought I ‘m the one asking the questions! But, honestly, my reaction would be ‘keep to your own hat’.”

”Precisely, my point and, sadly, we don’t seem to get it, our political leaders that is, irrespective of all the horrible results and costly blow-backs for their misguided policies.”

“But professor Zinn, we are here to discuss the charges against you and not to debate world politics, so if you don’t mind, please tell us what happened, your version of the incident?”

”I have already answered that question and see no need to labor the point any more.”

”I see. If that is the case, then I trust you have no qualm with my conclusion that you indeed admit that you threw a punch…”

”Yes I did, but did I hit him?”

”Did you?”

”Of course not, otherwise he ‘d be in hospital now. I may be frail, but I’ve got a lot of punches left in me, so beware.”

”So, if you didn’t hit him, my next question is did you intend to hit him or just to scare him?”

”The answer, frankly, is neither. Initially I intended to hit him, call it ombudsman punch on behalf of millions of American disgusted with their warmongering trash and then, half way through swinging it, in split mili-seconds, my conscience got the better of me and forced me to deflect it, or rather shorten it, so it whizzed by his nose without touching it.”
”But how do you explain his nose bleed then?”

”I have no explanation, except that he must have chickened out, that speaks volumes about people advocating wars – that are never fought by them but by others paying for their pernicious ploys, lies and disinformation dominating the air waves.”

“Ok. Just one final question? How are you spending your time in jail?”

”Well, other than playing cards with one of the guards, who says he has read my People’s History several times, I’ve been working on new pillars for the peace movement.”

”Which are?”

”Reverence for truth, tenacity, sacrifice, wisdom (of course, we can’t have dumb movement that reacts only), and self-criticism.”

”I see. What do you think is the secret of peace movement’s success.?”

”I thought you had asked your final question?

”Sorry I was but as you can see I am provoked to new questions by each answer.”

”No problem. I would say its clarity of purpose, that rests in turn on the purity of its conscience that is found in praxis.”

“Praxis, isn’t that a Marxist term for dialectic?”
”I ‘d prefer to say Hegelian.”

“I see. So where does the dialectic of peace come from? I ask this because your own life history, of starting as a WWII bombardier and then becoming a civil rights activist committed to non-violence, your own evolution from war to peace, is there a lesson to draw from there?

”The only lesson is that peace should not be regarded as war’s anti-thesis and, instead, should claim a turf entirely on its own, which is why I have always preferred peace activist over anti-war. Put in other words, it is not enough to want to abolish wars, the new new abolitionists ought to be more visionary in terms of the peaceful utopia of a peaceful planet ruled by the norms of peace, i.e., tolerance, reciprocity, equality of rights, etc., but above all a fundamental commitment to freedom – of speech, assembly, and so on.”

“Listening to you, I am inclined to think that you don’t necessarily like what the Times has written about you as “the last soldier of the left” and perhaps prefer something less warrior-life, am I right?”

”Exactly. But first of all there are still a few of us left, my friend Noam Chomsky for example, and I suppose I speak for both of us when I say we prefer to be viewed simply as humble servants of peace.”

“And what about socialism, the economic utopia that lurks behind every sentence you’ve written, is that possible, dead or alive now?”

”Now you’re starting to ask tough questions! Socialism as the spirit of true equality never dies and, in fact, is more viable today, in the face of global capitalism’s crisis affecting the lives of millions of working class people around the globe, than ever before, precisely because it represents the only remedy to capitalism’s logic of wealth-creation for the few, not to mention its war-making logic and destructiveness, of nature in particular in pursuit of wanton profits. You ask me, socialism’s relevance is eternally nested in the facts of labor exploitation.”

”And the defeat of socialism in the East does not bother you?”

”Of course it does, because socialism with a humanist face, which is what I advocate, was long buried by the terror of bureaucratic Stalinism and, yet today, that is no longer the case and we are ripely poised for socialism’s second comeback, this time without the distortions of the past and by relying on all the precious, and terribly expensive, lessons of the past, one of which is that socialism is either democratic or none at all.”

“Okay. This is my final final question, promise. Professor Zinn, if as you say socialism has not been defeated because of collapse of Soviet empire and you see in that experiment the genesis of a new socialism, I wonder then if you, personally, have known any defeats?”

”Only one, but if you don’t mind I prefer not to talk about it.”

“Thank you so much. I am sure this has been an insightful experience for our audience. I wish you good luck.”

”Thanks, I wish you good luck too.”

Controversial Zinn Freed Without Posting A Bail, read the next headline, but the final line belonged to Zinn himself calling from his retreat in Naples, Italy, informing the world that he had no clue what was going on and that it had all been the work of an imposter who somehow must have known about his planned vacation! "Obviously a smart fella, any one who thinks capitalism is barbarism is my friend."


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more from Kaveh Afrasiabi

A very absorbing humorous piece!

by maryamt59 on

I am big fan of Howard Zinn. Thank you Mr. Afrasiabi for your humorously intellectual contribution riveting on Zinn. His The peoples history of US, is a must read. Even my 14 year old son has enganged in reading Zinn's work. Truly magnificent. Please write more. Expert prose in writing.




humorous satire

by tim on

Another BIG congratulations to Afrasiabi for his creative imagination. Wonderful humorous satire.


Side by side

by Fred on

What a coincidence, the same sort of media shenanigan is taking place simultaneously in the Islamist republic against Ahamad Batebi a non violent human rights advocate who has actually endured many torture sessions and spent nine years in their dungeons. Perhaps the proponents of the Islamist republic would care to follow the two cases side by side hightlighting the similarities.