Howard Zinn’s death yesterday affords us the opportunity to evaluate the remarkable influence he has had on the American public’s understanding of our nation’s past. His book A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980 with a first printing of 5000 copies, went on to sell over two million. To this day some 128,000 new copies are sold each year. That alone made Zinn perhaps the single most influential historian whose works have reached multitudes of Americans. Indeed, Zinn found that his book was regularly adopted as a text in high schools and most surprisingly, in many colleges and universities.
One can easily summarize the argument Zinn makes in that book, as well as on his recent television special on The History Channel and soon to be released DVD, called “The People Speak.” America, he charges, was guilty of waging war on those who really made the American nation: Native Americans, African-Americans, the working-class, the poor, and women. American history, as Zinn saw it, was that of a history of “genocide: brutally and purposefully waged by our rulers in the name of progress. He claimed that these truths were buried “in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth.”
Zinn was aided in getting his book attention by two youthful neighbors, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. When both became movie stars, they used their celebrity to popularize Zinn’s work and to help bring it to a wide audience. As Damon told the press recently, Zinn’s message showed that what our ancestors rebelled “against oftentimes are exactly the same things we’re up against now.” Zinn himself added a few weeks ago that his hope was that his work will spread new rebellion, and “lead into a larger movement for economic justice.”
Zinn wrote his history from the perspective of those in America he claimed were the victims of the nation’s rulers, people who were overlooked in the textbooks. Of course, as any student well knows, “bottom up” social history focusing on gender, class and race has dominated the historical profession for the past few decades.
From Zinn’s perspective, history should not be told from the standpoints of generals or presidents, but through that of people who struggle for their rights, who engage in strikes, boycotts, slave rebellions and the like. Its purpose should be to encourage similar behavior today. Indeed, Zinn candidly said that history was not about “understanding the past,” but rather, about “changing the future.” That statement alone should have disqualified anyone from referring to him as a historian.
Zinn did not exempt President Barack Obama who he thought was both “a mediocre” and “dangerous president” from his criticism. In the last article he wrote, that appeared in The Nation last week, Zinn argued that Obama’s foreign policy was “no different from a Republican,” that he was “nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike.” As for his proposed domestic programs, he found them “limited” and “cautious.” He also did not approve of the apparent decision to try those responsible for 9/11, and referred to them as “suspected terrorists,” who “have not been found guilty.”
Zinn was certainly entitled to his perspective, widely held by many in the academy, but its danger lies in the favorable reception he often got from those who know little. As one of his proteges, Dave Zirin, writes on The Huffington Post: “With his death, we lose a man who did nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States.” That, precisely, is the problem.
One TV critic writing in The Los Angeles Times, said what she learned from Zinn was a “horrifying reminder of not just our indomitable ability to change but also this country’s collective history of oppression.” Zinn, she wrote, showed that patriotism was not only “the last refuge of scoundrels” but that those who worried about our national security were “the whip and cattle prod used by the power elite.” True to form, Zinn, like the right-wing isolationist Pat Buchanan, portrayed even World War II as a false model of American military domination over the world.
Even good leftist historians sometimes broke from the applause given Zinn. While Columbia University professor Eric Foner endorsed his recent TV special and appeared with Zinn before it aired at a Cooper Union forum in the same Great Hall where Lincoln once spoke, Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin wrote that Zinn “reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. History: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?” As Kazin argues, Zinn always depicted the people as rather stupid, since they always lost as the majority accepted rule by “a new, privileged [and greedy] leadership.” As he wisely put it: “Ordinary Americans seem to live [for Zinn] only to fight the right… and inevitably, to be fooled by them.”
Zinn ransacked the past to find alternative models for future struggles. That, of course, is not the job of the historian, but of the propagandist. Zinn did serve his country during the Second World War as a bombardier, for which he should be commended. Possibly he felt guilt at the collateral deaths of civilians his wartime service may have caused. That is understandable. It does not, however, excuse his distortions of the past or his use of it to promulgate left-wing solutions in the present.