Howard Zinn, Communicating History, and Gross Misunderstanding

“As for the subtitle of this book, it is not quite accurate; a “people’s history” promises more than any one person can fulfill, and it is the most difficult kind of history to recapture. I call it that anyway because, with all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.

“That makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction–so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements–that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”

-Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, “The Coming Revolt of the Guards”

A significant part, in my eyes, of what makes Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States a genuine and unique work is the author’s thoughtfulness in recognizing the inherent limitations of his work, and of any historian’s work, such as in the passage above. Indeed, in the three chapters we read collectively this week, Zinn paused at least twice to comment at length on his decisions and thought processes in constructing the particular history he has written. Another excerpt from an example in the first chapter goes as follows: “Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history,” Zinn has chosen to represent those often less represented.

The fact that Zinn is explicitly cognizant of the limitations and inevitable biases he faces as a historian is refreshing in itself, and immediately sets his work apart from other works of history that are not so explicit, and by omission of such thoughtfulness perhaps claim to having made more of a complete representation of the past than words can ever achieve. But as Zinn implies in the preceding quote, selection and emphasis are inevitable. Operating in an existence characterized by finite time and an ever-growing past, choosing which parts of that past to teach is a necessity and an art. While some less inspired teachers may give this fact hardly any thought and proceed to teach a similar orthodox story to what they themselves were taught without much knowledge of events outside it, the choice of which histories to teach is just that, a choice–whether made consciously or by going-through-the-motions osmosis. As a result, because of the finite time of the learner, the choice can never be neutral or objective. It must be shaped by the chooser’s own world view, whether or not the chooser recognizes that.

This is obvious to some, but I think it is nonetheless worthy of extreme emphasis in any lengthy discussion of history. Many history teachers in high schools and universities are cognizant of any history’s limitations and emphasize this in their classes, some with Zinn as their aid. In fact, Amazon lists Zinn’s paperback version of A People’s History as their #5 bestseller currently in all books about democracy, #39 in all books about U.S. history (I’ve read about this being in the top 10 at times), and #703 in all books period.* Zinn is being read and discussed in many courses at the high school and college levels (in subjects outside of history too, such as economics, political science, and feminist studies), and by individuals outside of school. But that is far from an indication that everyone is on the same page with him.

(*I tried to figure out more on what these statistics mean, i.e. the timeframes used and such, but couldn’t find any hard numbers. From what I read it seems as though these sales ranks are current trends and not historical bestsellers, and updated hourly. However, I’m not sure how far back the current trending takes into account when configuring the numbers.)

A quick Google search of “Zinn’s People’s History” will direct you, right under the links to buy the book on Amazon, to an article published on George Mason University’s “History News Network” written by a man named Daniel J. Flynn, author of the newly-released Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies That Have Obscured Our Nation’s Greatness (which sounds like a case-in-point title for some of the points I’ll make soon on elements of the English vocabulary constraining the ways we think…or on how current money-driven aspects of our society reward sensationalism, and thus foster skewed thinking…or on any other number of cognitive biases for that matter…). Flynn’s first paragraph in the article refers to Zinn as the “unreconstructed*, anti-American Marxist Howard Zinn, whose cartoon anti-history of the United States is still selling 128,000 copies a year twenty years after its original publication. Many of those copies are assigned readings for courses in colleges and high schools taught by leftist disciples of their radical mentor.”

(*I found it incredibly and tragically ironic that Flynn uses the word “unreconstructed”, which I found means “stubbornly maintaining earlier positions, beliefs” to describe the author of perhaps one of the most progressively thinking books in history. As I comment on below, Flynn would be well off to consider this word for describing himself instead.)

While my first instinct while reading Flynn’s article was to get a bit depressed at the vast misunderstanding that is possible with a work like Zinn’s, and indeed in so many other areas of life, and while my second instinct was to wonder how much reading such gross misunderstandings are a waste of my time, I feel compelled to try to understand how people like Flynn think. I think open-minded empathy in such cases is key to forming arguments that can unlock the other’s prejudices rather than perpetuate the cycle of disagreement and push opposing interpretations even further apart. Flynn I think has fallen victim to self-justification, being inclined to build up his own already-held notions of history, at the expense of self-inquiry, looking within himself to see the commendable parts of Zinn’s writing that could push his perception of the world to a more accurate view.

I don’t think Zinn is scotch free in this department either.* While self-inquiry rules gloriously in the limitation passages I’ve thus far quoted from Zinn, I have to wonder if those admissions of inherent limitations didn’t serve as justifications for some of the simplifications of events he has made in A People’s History. He clearly writes with broad strokes, and such simplifications do not take away from his overall message, but they do make it much more easy for people like Flynn to focus on the holes in his accounts at the expense of missing that overall message. I’m not sure how to mend these kinks in the armor other than turning the 768 page book into a 2,000 page behemoth, but they are important to recognize if we want to better understand the thinking of people (many from various aspects of “the Establishment” I’d imagine) that misconstrue Zinn’s writing.

(*The beautiful difference though is that Zinn would probably admit to this, and recognize the sentences that follow this point as true.)

Zinn’s own writing in Chapter 24: The Coming Revolt of the Guards, I think also is aptly relevant to perspectives on how his writing can get misconstrued by thinkers within “the Establishment.” He writes, “With such continuing malaise [referring in part to the continual disillusionment the 20th century brought], it is very important for the Establishment–that uneasy club of business executives, generals, and politicos–to maintain the historic pretension of national unity, in which the government represents all the people, and the common enemy is overseas, not at home, where disasters of economics or war are unfortunate errors or tragic accidents, to be corrected by the members of the same club that brought the disasters.”

The last part of this passage, in particular the line “where disasters of economics or war are unfortunate errors or tragic accidents” I think gets at very well the point that English rhetoric and vocabulary can very much be used as a way to constrain thought. Let’s take a word like “depression,” in an economic context, for example. From my schooling perhaps, when I think of the word depression it comes with a built-in connotation of ebb and flow. Economic tendencies are cyclical, and therefore depressions naturally come and go.

But what is a depression, really? What have depressions meant for people going through life in them? Joblessness, starvation, homelessness, poverty–in large scale. Surely such human suffering can’t be a result of solely “natural” and “cyclical” forces. Every thirty/forty years or so economics predicts that poverty will sweep the nation, “homeowners” will be kicked out of “their” homes, and working-class people across the nation will be hard-pressed to find jobs. It sounds like bullshit when you say it like that, compared to the linguistically more compelling statement that, Every thirty/forty years or so economics predicts that markets will descend towards a trough, constraining income, output, and employment. Sure our system has cyclical tendencies, but the entire system itself is human-constructed and the tendencies are created and exacerbated by individual human decisions. As Zinn hints at in the stated passage above, disasters of economics (or “depressions”) can become unfortunate, faceless errors to a large degree with accountability somewhat hushed-up by and among those who created and/or profited from it. In this way, language and the connotation of words can influence thought and minimize rebellion among the masses, while the in-power minority further configures the chess board the masses operate on.

In some ways this minimization of rebellion seems necessary, natural, and even beneficial to stability. If the everyday man and woman across the nation is continuously enveloped in strife and revolt, the chess board is upheaved and many factors of “progress” stall or atrophy. But in other ways, indeed the most compelling ways, this language-induced complacence seems perverse and crippling. Perhaps it only seems natural in ways because of the same disempowering paradigm in which aspects of our society operate.

Writing the phrase “disempowering paradigm” in the last sentence caused me to reflect considerably. I necessarily had to make the qualification “in which aspects of our society operate,” because other paradigms our society operates on are very empowering in certain ways. Capitalism itself has at it’s foundation the notion that one has the power to succeed in the system by one’s own ability to devise ways to provide value to others. Recognizing the ability to alter your lot in life based upon your own actions is the basis of empowerment.

However, it doesn’t always work out in a great way, partially due to the fact that the system and the diction we use within the system has led us to “bifurcate [great word] ‘value’ into commercial/material and ethical/spiritual domains.” As Zinn writes, we “give huge incomes to men who make dangerous or useless things, and very little to artists, musicians, writers, actors.” As we have unfortunately learned, capitalism also empowers individuals with the ability to seek commercial rewards in things that are destructive (weaponry, killing machines) and counter to harmonious progress as a society (maybe a more accurate way of saying “useless”).

In a human population as cunning and resourceful as we are, this spells waste and disaster. If only we were cunning and resourceful enough to understand more of what ethical and spiritual value means. Zinn’s an incredibly strong advocate for the compassion that is necessary to do so.

The above is a piece I composed while a student at Stanford University, as an assignment for one of my classes. With deadlines to meet and such, it may not be 100% polished. So feel free to point out any imperfections you may perceive–I’d value being made aware of your thoughts.

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