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A Tough Few Months for Populists: The Loss of Howard Zinn and Ray Browne

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson departs from initial post on the meaning of “union” and various queries into whether it has “a state” regardless of speeches in order to highlight the passing of some ones who have been vitally important in shaping his beliefs about voice, art, and culture: Ray Browne and Howard Zinn.

The losses of Ray Browne, who died last October, and Howard Zinn, who died on Wednesday, provide me with a chance to write something that’s been on my mind for three months. Zinn and Browne shared a view of America starting at the bottom and working up, rather than the more traditional top-down. It’s so often that we highlight the fastest, biggest, richest, most beautiful, and most powerful things as the best, but these men made their lives’ work emphasizing the popular, average, and normal, and turning those words in assets not reasons for derision.

Ray Browne, it’s Ok to Study the Popular…

Calling Browne the founder of popular culture is a misnomer. People have been interested in and examined popular things for some time, but Browne, at least in the American academic system, pushed for the acceptance and respect for popular culture in academics and criticism. For example, his book on Lincoln, Lincoln-Lore: Lincoln in the Popular Mind, argues that understanding Abraham Lincoln as a literal, real person limits the citizen’s understanding of the role that Lincoln has come to hold in American minds, words, and ideals. And that one must examine thing of Lincoln that reach beyond facts and words of him as a man. His work and the works of those who he influenced have spread to the point to almost make what was once unthinkable, almost normal, that we can and should think about our common world and the things we “like” as a part of our intellectual lives.

Howard Zinn, We Must Listen to the Popular…

I am in no way the most devoted to Zinn of my friends, in fact one of my cohort literally made the movie, and so must leave detailed discussions to them. In almost everything Zinn wrote over the past 30-plus years, he emphasizes the need for citizens of America to seek out and actively listen to the voices of the average Americans from throughout our history and through all points on the political spectrum. During the times of my post-secondary education (1997-2007), American popular culture has trended toward the assumption of a nearly blind acceptance of authority that we agree with and rejection of those with whom our beliefs conflict. This period has shown increased reliance on pundit/mediators to break down and keep the gates of our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives, and regardless of whether one agrees with Zinn’s politics, the need for a citizenry to educate themselves on the realities of our collective histories and current place presses on my mind daily as I encounter students with huge gaps in the most basic geographical, historical, and cultural knowledge necessary to make even basic political opinions.

To Me…

The underlying assumptions in Browne and Zinn’s works revolve around a respect and need to understand those that have been labeled mundane or ordinary. These days it grows harder and harder to convince my students, and even my peers, that they have something worthwhile to learn, consider, evaluate, and express, and that they should not also look to the simple or obvious sources for these knowledges but should dig deeply and sift carefully, testing themselves and their environments throughout their daily lives and into their futures.

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Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain  aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in contemporary film noir.