Internationally celebrated author, philosopher and “father of modern linguistics” Noam Chomsky and filmmaker and editor Anthony Arnove made presentations and answered questions in tribute to the legacy and life’s work of the late American historian and activist Howard Zinn (1922-2010) on Sunday Dec. 4 to an audience of about 1600.
“I am proud to have played a part in stimulating dialogue on this campus about how to make sense of inequality in today’s world,” said Assistant Professor Benjamin Junge (Anthropology). “It was a great honor to have Professor Chomsky and Anthony Arnove on our campus, and makes a solid case for inviting major politically-engaged public intellectuals here again in the future.”
After Junge welcomed the audience, he announced that New Paltz was honored to have Howard Zinn’s sister-in-law and her two daughters, Laura, Carla, and Sylvia Zinn in attendance. Junge then commented that few people were as qualified to discuss Zinn’s influence on social justice in America as Zinn’s longstanding colleagues and close friends, Noam Chomsky and Anthony Arnove, two powerful intellectuals in their and thinkers in their own right.
Junge explained that Zinn’s landmark publication, “A People’s History of the United States” which deconstructed popular historical narratives, while highlighting the perspectives, actions and movements of people on the margins provided a “vision which had mass appeal for the general public.” Zinn also played a critical role in America’s most significant grassroots struggles for social justice since the 1960s namely the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movements.
Arnove described the impact and scope Howard Zinn’s work and life had during his lifetime, but also the inspiration that he continually generates within new generations of academics, thinkers and citizens. He recalled personal stories and anecdotes such as the first time he spoke with Zinn, Eddie Vedder’s invitation to Zinn to speak at a Pearl Jam event, and Zinn’s organization of performance readings of “A People’s History.”
“It’s so beautiful to see the allegory of interest, enthusiasm and excitement around Howard’s work, not just here today in New Paltz, but at Occupy encampments, struggles and activities around the country,” Arnove said. “It’s bittersweet to be in this moment of such exciting possibility…of people organizing, because Howard would have loved to be among the people taking part in these demonstrations. He would have been so inspired by the creativity, dynamism, by the energy. He can’t be here..but yet he is so present.”
Chomsky discussed the Occupy movements, the country’s economic inequality, developments in Egypt and the Middle East and the expansive power and impact of Zinn’s work and vision that has spread across the country.
“Whenever I think of Howard…there are words of his that always resonate in mind,” said Chomsky. “There is a call to focus our attention on (Zinn’s words) ‘the countless small actions of unknown people that are the foundation for those great moments that ultimately entered the historical record.’ It’s no exaggeration that he changed the consciousness and conscience of a generation–no small achievement.”
Chomsky had requested an opportunity to meet with only students for a question and answer session prior to the event. Accordingly, Junge students’ questions ranged from the Israel-Palestine conflict, Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, the characteristics of human nature, the fate of public higher education, and the presidency of Barack Obama.
Wendy Cohen ’12 (Latin American Studies/Spanish) attended the student’s session with Chomsky and worked as a volunteer for the event.
“The question and answer session earlier in the day was much more intimate than the formal lecture. That’s when I realized what a privilege it was to have this dialogue with an influential thinker like Noam Chomsky,” said Cohen.
“What I took away from the event was a feeling of connectedness to past social movements through these great movers… when you hear someone like Chomsky describe his experiences at different marches and rallies alongside Zinn and other grassroots leaders, it’s extremely empowering.”
Instructional Media Services opened an additional 12 classrooms to accommodate the unprecedented crowd. Originally they planned to direct the spill-over crowd into Lecture Center 102 and the CSB Auditorium once Lecture Center 100 reached its capacity, but Lecture Center 100 was full an hour before the event started. Evening Supervisor Keron Lewis (Instructional Media Services) and Director Emily Trapp (Instructional Media Services) worked quickly to open additional classrooms and equip them with live stream to accommodate the continuous flow of attendees.
“This was the first time in all the years I have worked here (since 1993) that I ever witnessed so many people for an event. A special thanks is owed to Greg Bray and his Communication and Media student volunteers who recorded and ran the live-stream,” said Trapp.
“The talks by Anthony Arnove and Noam Chomsky were inspiring and warmly received,” said Dean James Schiffer (Liberal Arts & Sciences). “We had a capacity crowd, much larger than we anticipated, and that too was a fitting tribute to the life and work of historian Howard Zinn. Many students, faculty, and staff worked together to make the event a success, but no one deserves more credit than chief organizer Ben Junge.”
Student Wendy Cohen said:
“The speakers noted that movements are not achieved overnight, but they are a long-term process of social change. I felt a sense that their work is being passed on to us.”
To view the recording of the “Honoring Howard Zinn” live-streamed event: http://zeus.newpaltz.edu: