Howard Zinn and The Politics of History
By Dr. Joseph A Palermo
Joseph A Palermo.com
The President of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, deservedly became the target for censure recently in academic circles after emails surfaced exposing his ham-handed attempt to purge Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States from the Indiana curriculum.
Shortly after Zinn died on January 27, 2010 at the age of 87, then Governor Daniels wrote to the state’s top education officials that:
“this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away . . . A People’s History of the United States is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history.”
Mitch Daniels’s attempt to erase Zinn from the Indiana curriculum unveils him as an anti-intellectual who is clueless about the discipline of History as well as the historical profession.
If Daniels finds Zinn’s work “truly execrable” he should at least be required to point out exactly where the objectionable material can be found, enter into a debate, and act like a college president. Daniels probably never read A People’s History and his dance on Zinn’s grave is a reflection of his own reactionary politics and authoritarian demeanor.
Thankfully, both the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the two preeminent scholarly associations among historians, condemned Daniels’s proclivity for book burning.
A group of 90 Purdue faculty members followed with an open letter to President Daniels: ”Most experts in the field of U.S. history do not take issue with Howard Zinn’s facts, even when they do take issue with his conclusions.”
A People’s History
A People’s History is based on secondary sources and was intended from the outset to be a textbook with the aim of filling a gap in what at the time was the standard narrative of American history.
Written in the late-1970s, Zinn’s book is a synthesis of the works of other historians at the time. Sweeping in scope beginning with the first European settlements in the Western Hemisphere, ther narrative sketches out descriptions of the power struggles of American society and politics from the colonial period through the Vietnam War era and beyond.
The majority of the criticism heaped on A People’s History from historians does not take into account Zinn’s explicit goal of writing an alternative narrative, nor do they usually acknowledge that the book is a synthesis of secondary sources that existed up to the late-1970s.
Even so, Zinn’s sources include many of the works from the most important historians and social scientists in America at the time he was writing, in addition to essays from people like Upton Sinclair, Emma Goldman, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Betty Friedan, and others.
Just a cursory glance today at the field of American women’s history alone that has grown so rich since the time A People’s History was published shows that American history has moved more in Zinn’s direction than toward the typical monumental history narrative that preceded it.
Zinn fired off some of the first shots analyzing the agency of ordinary people and the role that race, class, and gender play in American history.
He set a template for interpreting the meaning of power relations that American historiography since 1980 has expanded and refined. African-American history, Latino/Chicano history, Borderlands history, the history of immigration, (with countless monographs on Irish, Jewish, and Chinese immigrants), labor history, Native American history, and LGBT history, and so on, are now considered part of the “mainstream” narrative.
The de-centering of the powerful great white males didn’t happen by accident.
And it’s precisely this de-centering that got Mitch Daniels’s knickers in a bunch. Zinn couldn’t help it if he was ahead of his time and pointing the way forward. ”There are a thousand stories that are part of the larger one and that remain untold,” Zinn writes.
All one needs to do is look at the American history books that have won the highest praise and the most prestigious prizes in the field to see how well A People’s History fits into contemporary historical studies.
In the years since A People’s History was published the Bancroft Prizes and Frederick Jackson Turner Prizes have gone to books by American historians that are not monumental in orientation, but focus mostly on ordinary working people, women, or ethnic and racial minorities and their associations that were originally excluded, subordinated, overlooked, or ignored.
The historiography since 1980 vindicates Zinn’s work:
“The real heroes are not on national television or in the headlines. They are the nurses, the doctors, the teachers, the social workers, the community organizers, the hospital orderlies, the construction workers, the people who keep the society going, who help people in need.
They are the advocates for the homeless, the students asking a living wage for campus janitors, the environmental activists trying to protect the trees, the air, the water.
And they are the protesters against war, the apostles of peace in a world going mad with violence.” (Zinn, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress)
Mitch Daniels et al.
Many of Zinn’s detractors condemn him for missing the “nuance” of viewpoints at odds with each other.
Would one try to seek to reconcile slaves and slave masters? Or urge indigenous peoples to grumble unobtrusively about those who are engineering their extermination? Or find a shining path of “moderation” between the Ku Klux Klan and a terrorized Southern black population? Why should the “middle” for eternity be the most sensible place to stand?
Unlike many of his critics, (with or without “impeccable leftist credentials”), Zinn never accepted the pretense of the “liberal” state being a perfect manifestation of the public will nor as a “neutral” arbiter between capitalism and its critics.
For the sake of legitimacy, the “democratic” state always tries to appear benign and representative. That is, until the critics look like they’re winning. Then you can count on water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets, and an occasional tank to come out.
Zinn simply made it a point to remind us that most of the reforms we now regard as cherished characteristics of liberal society – suffrage for all women and men over 18 years of age, public education, the right of workers to organize labor unions, freedom of the press, etc. – were won by popular struggle in the teeth of often merciless ruling-class opposition.
You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Zinn’s working-class roots were always not far from the surface. Unlike most academics he knew firsthand the hardships that working people faced.
In World War Two he served his country as a bombardier, and like the authors Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Douglas F. Dowd, his wartime experiences dramatically influenced his views of war and peace.
His focus on the disconnects between American leaders’ stated goals abroad and the realities he encountered throughout his life from the Vietnam War era to his opposition to George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, gave him insights as a scholar that are often lacking among the armchair intellectual types who comprise the bulk of his critics.
Zinn marched in civil rights demonstrations and was arrested multiple times in the late-1950s and early-1960s. He wrote about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at a time when no other professional historian recognized the significance of this new black student organization.
He protested against the Vietnam War and repeatedly faced arrest. His FBI file is gigantic. He wrote Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal in 1967, and traveled to Hanoi the following year with the peace activist, Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. to secure the release of American prisoners of war. He helped Daniel Ellsberg distribute the Pentagon Papers.
Throughout the course of his 87 years Howard was a living example of the unity of thought and action. He was a life-long activist and commentator on the injustices he saw all around him. He didn’t stay in the Ivory Tower, but tirelessly demonstrated against misplaced power and remained an activist his entire life. Most importantly, he was an inspiration to young people.
The GI Bill, as it did for so many other veterans, enabled Zinn to become a historian in the first place and more than almost any other phenomenon in early post-war America, it was the GI Bill that changed the interpretation of American history.
So many ethnically diverse veterans from working-class backgrounds now had the opportunity to get a college education that their perspectives altered American consciousness.
Zinn was also a gifted writer.
He had the capacity to describe the plight of ordinary people in a compassionate and empathetic manner with clarity and emotion. He could convey irony in American history better than most writers and was also very funny. These qualities contributed to the popularity of A People’s History since people always respond positively to well-crafted writing.
And young people in particular are tired of hearing that the “truth” always can be found in some mushy middle somewhere.
I think there’s a lot of sour grapes aimed at Howard not only for his politics but also because critics are simply jealous that there are 2 million copies of A People’s History in circulation.
A People’s History made Zinn a rock star of sorts, one of the most well known American historians in the world.
People Versus “Patriots?”
At a time when Representatives in Congress, such as Steve King (R-Iowa) openly engage in racism of Mexican immigrants he sees as nothing more than drug mules; or Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) calling Mexican migrant laborers “wetbacks”; or Rush Limbaugh relishing in using the term “nigga”; or the murders of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, Zinn’s uncompromising stand on the history of American racism and immigrant bashing is as relevant today as it ever was.
With right-wing state governments, aided by the U.S. Supreme Court, doing everything in their power to suppress the voting rights of African Americans, Latinos, and young people, Zinn’s analysis of past efforts to strip minorities of political rights is pertinent.
When we see Republicans (and like-minded Democrats) in Texas, Ohio, Kansas, and other states aggressively rolling back women’s reproductive rights and trying to reduce women to second-class citizens, the history of American women’s struggles to win basic rights that Zinn wrote about remains vital.
When the President of the United States seizes the power to assassinate anyone in the world deemed an “enemy” of the United States whether they be U.S. citizens or not without charges or trial; locks up and throws away the key on whistleblowers like Bradley Manning– and would like to do to Edward Snowden– or engages in endless warfare around the globe in the name of combating “terrorism,” Zinn’s thoughts on war and peace and the struggles of peace activists, including himself, are as important as ever.
These actions of the imperial presidency, along with the Guantanamo prison (which Amnesty International compared to a “gulag” in 2005), and the level of incarceration generally in America, the power of the government to do ill to its citizens that Zinn described is still very much alive.
In an economy that is still reeling from the robbery of the “To-Big-To-Fail” banks, and a society with Gilded Age levels of income and wealth inequality, high unemployment, austerity, the organizing efforts of the lowest paid workers in the fast-food industry in large cities across America, we see a perfect example of the unsung “heroes” Zinn wrote about fighting the powerful forces to build a more decent society.
Their efforts mirror the ways workers of previous generations fought for the 8-hour day, the minimum wage, and Social Security. The powerful corporate Right in America that Zinn singled out for ridicule, as it has done in the past, is spending lavishly to keep workers down and stop other vital reforms that would allow working people to get a better deal.
And with all of the ecological threats looming, young people in particular should be exposed to the past activism that established environmentalism as a social movement in the first place.
Surely, with all of the problems American society confronts today relating to racism, sexism, militarism, immigrant bashing, and the assault on working people by corporate power and its influence over our courts and governing institutions — acquainting students and the public at large with the past struggles against those elements in American society that fuel and benefit from a divided and misguided citizenry remains a worthy cause.
Howard Zinn’s work remains not only “relevant” but essential to pointing the way forward for the next generation.
* * * * * *
Before earning a Master’s degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz and his Master’s degree in History from San Jose State University.
An Associate Professor of History at California State University–Sacramento, Professor Palermo’s most recent book is The Eighties.
He’s written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy; and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism.