Forum:A People's History of the United States

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Starting shot[edit]

Following the discussion here, I have located the time to read several chapters in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, cited as a high-quality example of revisionist history. I can now safely say that Zinn, and those producing historical-revisionist works of quality equal to or lesser than his, are bullshit peddlers, conspiracy theorists, essentialists, and generally people who, in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 18:47, 25 September 2010 (UTC)

I haven't read Howard Zinn, but I honestly didn't think you were this small minded. MarcusCicero (talk) 20:10, 26 September 2010 (UTC)
I hardly think that it is "small-minded" to object to the notion that (if I may be allowed to cite the whammy I was hit with on the first page I read) Jacksonian democracy was an elaborate sham invented by an enormous conspiracy of industrialists.
From what I can gather, academic historians consider Zinn's book to be of rather poor quality, objecting to it on the grounds that it is a cut-and-paste job based on secondary sources. One called it "deranged;" I concur with that analysis.
I imagine that the works you cited on the other page are of higher quality, but if Zinn's book is held up as a good example of revisionist history, it gives quite a poor impression of the whole genre. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 01:59, 28 September 2010 (UTC)
I'm curious - LX, can you present some evidence of your own to counter Zinn's analysis of Jacksonian democracy? Because I'm starting to get the feeling that your preconceived notions of American history are getting in the way of a clear-headed reaction to the revisionist school. FortunaImperatrixMundi (talk) 02:28, 28 September 2010 (UTC)
That notion of Zinn's is called a conspiracy theory, exhibiting what William F. Buckley, Jr. called "the Birch fallacy;" furthermore, Zinn used it as a premise rather than a thesis. It does not need to be dignified with any serious refutation.
But, if you insist: (1) The industrial interests were, at that point, not quite so powerful as they became later. (2) The other elements of the "elite" at that time, such as landowners and the banking establishment, were the ones hardest hit by the Jacksonian measures of expanding the franchise and ending the federal banking monopoly. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 02:49, 28 September 2010 (UTC)
I cannot comment on Zinn. From what I've heard he is a bit whacko so I'm not surprised you had this reaction. On the other hand, to dismiss the entire school of 'revisionism' (Which varies greatly from author to author and from idealogue to idealogue) on the basis of a couple of chapters of what is allegedly a poor exemplar... well... Its a bit silly. Besides, every historian engages in revisionism; if they didn't there wouldn't ever be any history books. We'd only ever have one canonical chronice that 'tells the story'. However source material changes its meaning over time as other factors (Economic, social etc.) come into play and greater scrutiny. One can look at an event through a chasm of political change without taking into account economic and social metamorphis - ones conclusions will thus differ according to the degree of relevance you attach to either institutional, political or economic forces. And then there is the power of personality, of personal charisma. If history were so simple that historians never had to question causation then listener might have a point. But he doesn't, because there are often several different arguments concerning causation with any single event - and I defy anyone to claim that absolute objectivity is even possible. In short, Listener, The world isn't that simple. MarcusCicero (talk) 14:44, 28 September 2010 (UTC)
I will have to back off a bit from my remarks about "fact-chronicling," which as Bondurant pointed out on the other page, is probably me putting too much stock by science. But I will continue to hold that the proper response to bias and to the impossibility of objectivity is to make an effort to minimize the bias, rather than legitimize it.
Again, I would only use Zinn's book to condemn the whole of revisionism insofar as his work is a high-quality example of it. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 03:02, 29 September 2010 (UTC)
I'm inclined to agree with ListenerX. A lot of people interpret it as a different perspective of history from the eyes of those who aren't the victors, or those who were the underdogs at certain eras. The preconceived notion that "history is written by the victors" fuels this belief. At the root of what Zinn is saying throughout the entire book is just that. He's pushing a socialist, anti-capitalist agenda in his book. Not even the good kind. The conspiracy theory kind. --emc [TALK] 03:10, 29 September 2010 (UTC)
I consider some of Zinn's claims that his viewpoint had been "sidelined" prior to his book's publication to be false; in particular, his claims about the labor movements. For example, I was at one point taught the history of the Lowell mill system; later, when I read some more about it, I came to the conclusion that what I had originally been taught greatly overemphasized Lowell's significance in U.S. history.
I believe that Zinn is on record as saying that his primary purpose in writing the book was to drum up revolutionary consciousness, rather than to contribute to the field of history, which means that (regardless of whether one agrees with that goal) he is by definition a bullshitter. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 03:41, 29 September 2010 (UTC)
P.S. Did you have to read A People's History for a high-school class? Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 04:02, 29 September 2010 (UTC)
I had to read Zinn for my high school AP US History class - A People's History was kind of like the secondary textbook. I don't think Zinn could be considered a "bullshitter;" however, he was a kind of history gadfly, taking very unconventional positions to try to stimulate debate and reconsideration of even the most established theses. I don't believe he is right, necessarily. No historian is ever right. Blue (pester) 16:31, 29 September 2010 (UTC)
That makes him a bullshitter, according to Harry Frankfurt's definition (a person who does not care about the truth of his statements as some other goal is paramount).
I was very surprised to learn that this book was being assigned as reading in high-schools. If high-schoolers are being given this sort of dreck in volume, it is no wonder they come into college semi-literate. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 02:04, 30 September 2010 (UTC)

Ah, but.....[edit]

Since I have read and own a copy of A People's History, I am curious as to where you, Listener, got the impression that this book would be anything close to the mainstream interpretation of history, when Zinn himself (in the introduction of my copy, at least) is forthcoming with the fact that the book is an alternative interpretation of history "from the perspective of history's losers." The Goonie Punk Can't sleep, clowns will eat me! 08:23, 29 September 2010 (UTC)

Where exactly did I say that I thought it was a "mainstream interpretation"? I knew it was "alternative," but I am sorry to say that it is worse than I expected it to be when I picked it up. I thought Zinn was just going to follow the usual pattern of going light on the factual claims and heavy on the drivel, maybe do a little white-lying at worst. Nope. Conspiracy theories, outright falsehoods, and the seam-lines almost showing on the boundaries between where he copy-pasted from one source saying "black" and from another saying "Negro." Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 02:01, 30 September 2010 (UTC)
Which chapters did you read, and can we have page numbers supporting your claims? I'd like to re-evaluate my copy, which I read cover to cover. ħumanUser talk:Human 02:16, 30 September 2010 (UTC)
All right, examples. (I have started with the second volume since it came in first at the library and Blue said the chapters could be read independently.)
The conspiracy theory is pretty much throughout what I have read, that a sinister cartel of industrialists had sufficient power to make a con-game out of the whole U.S. government. Not just influence it enough to pass desired laws, but control it with that complete control that these sinister conspiracies so often wield. The "black" vs. "Negro" business was most notable in "Slavery Without Submission."
In "The Empire and the People" (page 94 in the copy I have) he makes the claim, with no source as far as I can see, that the U.S. bombarded Greytown, Nicaragua "to avenge an insult to the American Minister," when it was actually a response to the Nicaraguan government (at that time a British protectorate) charging tolls to American ships passing through.
In that chapter he also claims that the labor unions at that time "opposed American expansionism" (page 99) but only quotes those unions as opposing war, the only connection being that the war being opposed is the Spanish-American War. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 02:45, 30 September 2010 (UTC)
Thanks. "a sinister cartel of industrialists had sufficient power to make a con-game out of the whole U.S. government" as true today as it was then. And the Spanish-American War was a war of expansion. We got to own the Philippines, eh? ħumanUser talk:Human 02:50, 30 September 2010 (UTC)
Pardon me. That level of control only exists in deranged fantasies. Industrial cartels could influence the system a lot, and even subvert it to some degree, but they never had total control. And even assuming such control was possible, they did not have it in the time of Andrew Jackson.
My objection was not to the idea that the Spanish-American War was a war of expansion, but to Zinn's claim that the labor unions opposed the war for that reason. Labor unions are not the oh-so-culturally-sensitive saintly conclaves that fill Reds' delusions, and the main reason that unionists were against war then was that the big-shots used it to set various groups of industrial workers apart; the Third World got very little attention from them. The concept of the "subaltern" was invented later for this very reason. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 03:04, 30 September 2010 (UTC)
You said "sufficient power" not "total control". The US government ignored industry murdering striking workers, do you deny that? The rest of your response is verging on delusional reactionarianism. So they were against it because the titans were using it to wreck the labor movement? Good reason, IMHO. ħumanUser talk:Human 03:28, 30 September 2010 (UTC)
The power sufficient to pull off the feats Zinn is talking about is total control. The preferred method for getting the government to ignore assassinations was to buy off the local police, which was not particularly difficult in those days, especially since the principle of locality in government was much more in vogue.
I am completely unaware how you got "delusion" or "reactionary" out of my last paragraph; I was merely repeating the things Zinn's own sources were saying (without making any remark on their validity), and also noting that most American workers at that time were at least somewhat racist. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 03:58, 30 September 2010 (UTC)
"The power sufficient to pull off the feats Zinn is talking about is total control." Then use that phrase the first time around. I doubt you are right anyway, "a lot of control or influence" is enough. You're a "reactionary" in the sense that you know or have heard that Zinn a bit of a leftie, and you are "reacting" to that by ignoring the point of his book. ħumanUser talk:Human 06:26, 30 September 2010 (UTC)
Then use that phrase the first time around. The level of power referred to was implicit in the statement and did not need mentioning. A very interesting thing, how people duck and dodge their way around calling a conspiracy theory what it is; I could make an effort to spell out in detail just how far out Zinn's theory is, but remembering my efforts with PJR makes me wonder if it is worth it.
Note that I have addressed only factual concerns here; if I were to get onto all the ways I merely disagreed with Zinn, I could probably ramble on for hours, but his politics are not the first concern here.
Precisely what is this point I am ignoring? Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 04:45, 1 October 2010 (UTC)
That history is "written by the winners". His book takes the perspective of the "little people" - the striking miners murdered by government troops, the poor, the hungry, those whose names are not in history books. By the time I got to Kent State, I was like, "meh, the government killed a few kids? So what else is new?" ħumanUser talk:Human 04:54, 1 October 2010 (UTC)
I am quite aware of his "point." I am unaware that telling the story from the perspective of Marxists Little People excuses bullshitting, conspiracy theorizing, and scholarly sloppiness. Because that is implied by your using that "point" to counter my claims. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 05:14, 1 October 2010 (UTC)

──────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────── Actually, I believe what was trying to be said was that Zinn is not, in fact, "bullshitting" or "conspiracy theorizing," and it's your own bias that labels his arguments as such. Blue (pester) 18:56, 1 October 2010 (UTC)

Whether or not something is a conspiracy theory is a fact independent of one's political preconceptions. Karl Marx was not a conspiracy theorist, in that most of his theory was interpretation; Zinn, on the other hand, made definite factual claims concerning his industrial cabal. And again, I am not alone in calling him on this point. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 02:00, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
I don't know if you're blind or dumb, but large corporations pretty much do run the world. Chas. T. Main destabilized entire countries, for example, then used their contacts to install leaders friendly to them. BP threw a hissy fit in Iran and got a popularly elected leader kicked out for a backwards, murderous theocrat who let them keep their pipelines. Money talks, kiddo, and everyone has a price. Spend some time outside your bubble, and you'll see that.UncleHo (talk) 22:15, 1 November 2010 (UTC)
I am not denying that corporations have a large amount of influence, especially in smaller and poorer countries. However, they do not have the total control they are assigned in the conspiracy theories, not now and especially not in Andrew Jackson's time, if for no other reason than that the "military-industrial complex" is not a monolithic unit.
If as I assume you are referring to the 1953 Iranian coup, I was under the impression that the British government organized that, BP being at that time under State ownership. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 03:23, 2 November 2010 (UTC)
Yes, the overthrow of Muhammad Mosaddegh. That was quite literally a textbook example of how intelligence services can multiply their power. That said, it was also a disgusting overthrow of a popular, fairly elected leader for the profits of a corporate interest. It may well have been state owned, but the state (outside of a small group of individuals who had stakes in the affair) knew or cared little. Churchill, especially, had a personal stake in the issue, as did many of his advisors. Because of that, MI-6 mostly flew solo, bribing and fabricating intelligence until America could come bail them out. It was one of the best orchestrated operations in intelligence history, and also one of the most evil.UncleHo (talk) 04:37, 2 November 2010 (UTC)

Zinn on human rights[edit]

Continuation of discussion at Talk:Lost Cause of the South#Zinn.

Zinn did not have much time to chatter about human rights after he had finished drooling over Ho Chi Minh, who was of course a lovely freedom fighter and "nationalist revolutionary" with the Vietnamese people united behind him, rather than a Stalinist satrap who started shooting people for the crime of owning land as soon as he came to power, and on whose watch about a million Vietnamese fled North Vietnam. In Zinn's attempt to make the Vietnam War seem like an entirely self-serving U.S. operation against the poor, innocent, democracy-supporting, and isolated Viet Cong, rather than the "assholes vs. assholes" proxy war that it was, he stooped to spieling communist propaganda he had obviously learned to repeat during his own tenure as a 1960s anti-war activist, propaganda that post bellum was admitted to be utter fabrication.

This is an illustrative example of a broader pattern in the book, viz., Zinn was just fine with violence so long as it was directed against capitalists, police officers, and others deemed legitimate targets by the First International. To take another example, he treated in a very positive manner the early radical unionists who were advocating outright slaughter of businessmen, etc., and also had no criticism of the use of jury nullification to acquit striking workers of killings performed in the midst of violent labor disputes. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 06:32, 1 November 2010 (UTC)

There's another broader pattern in the book, and that is capitalists and the governments they control murdering regular folk. ħumanUser talk:Human 08:46, 1 November 2010(UTC)
Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Independence movement were one of the few exceptions to the assholes vs assholes ideal of war. Vietnam is a fairly small, poor country. They didn't want superpower status or world domination. They didn't want to invade the free world and spread Communism. They wanted to be left alone to manage their own affairs without outside interference. This is the right of a free people, and the Vietnamese fought very hard for it. Bad things happened, too many people died, but the onus of war did not fall on the Vietnamese. It fell on the Japanese, French and Americans. Had any of them swallowed their pride and left the people alone, none of that would have ever happened. Also, LX, you and all the other right wingers point out all the Viet Minh did, but never bother with what the Western sponsored South did. Most of the refugees from Vietnam were military officers, government officials and collaborators or insurgents. Being as all these people are legitimate targets in wartime, it was an act of mercy allowing them to leave the country. Revolution is a dirty game.UncleHo (talk) 03:20, 2 November 2010 (UTC)
Ah, yes; our dear Uncle Ho did not want to spread communism anywhere else, he just wanted to be left alone to kill his own suspected landlords and make his own personality cult and have socialism in one country.
As I attempted to make clear, I am not trying to downplay the nastiness of the South Vietnamese government or of the U.S. actions there. This is a topic on which Zinn had a degree of first-hand experience, and a large part of what he said about it was perfectly correct and valid — but if as you say "collaborators" and "insurgents" are "legitimate targets in wartime," then South Vietnam was also justified in a large number of its actions against the Viet Cong and their collaborators.
Human, as Zinn does not appear to make a blanket condemnation of murder, that still prompts the question of what he finds so particularly horrible about those particular murders. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 04:08, 2 November 2010 (UTC)
Yeah, much of what the South did was legal, too. Like I said, revolution is a dirty game.UncleHo (talk) 04:21, 2 November 2010 (UTC)
LX, like it or not, most societies due determine that some killing is legitimate and others not, and hardly any societies make a blanket condemnation of murder. Dragging Zinn over the coals for it is hypocritical at best. The only difference between him and conservative historians is that the disagree on whose killing sprees are "legitimate". --TheEgyptiansig001.png 23:29, 16 November 2010 (UTC)
I am not "dragging Zinn over the coals" for that particular position. Some people were arguing that Zinn's major theme was "human rights," which for quite a while now has included a right not to be killed (or, at the very least, not without due process of law), and I felt myself obliged to point out that Zinn's writing did not exactly square with that. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 23:41, 16 November 2010 (UTC)
Human rights is an awkward issue, as I'm inclined to agree with UncleHo, though from a rather more cynical viewpoint (it was arsehole v arsehole in Vietnam, IMHO). Generally, international law recognises that a "combatant" in a war does not have the right not to be killed (unless he becomes a POW). As gitmo has shown, defining who is and who is not a combatant is not a clear cut matter. Furthermore, some HR campaigners also argue for the "Right to Resist" state oppression through asymmetric measures. --TheEgyptiansig001.png 00:29, 17 November 2010 (UTC)