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Howard Zinn (1922–2010) was an American left-wing activist, author, historian and professor of history and political science. He is most famous for writing A People's History of the United States and knocking Matt Damon on his ass.
A controversial historian, Zinn's belief in social justice determined how he approached researching and presenting U.S. history. He paid great attention to many shameful chapters of American history that textbooks sanitize, and praised the elided reformers who fought to right these wrongs. Yet as his views on social democracy became increasingly unacceptable, within the USA itself he was increasingly accused of having partisan goals which compromised his empiricism and nuance. Today, his socialism causes his works to be dismissed by some academics within his own country. Yet they and those of his fellow socialist pariah Noam Chomsky remain mainstays of international courses on US history.
He started out his academic career in 1956 as a history professor at Spelman College, a black women's college in Atlanta, Georgia. He was eventually sacked from this position for assisting the students in anti-segregation efforts.
Later, he became a central figure in the movement against the Vietnam War, authoring an early work calling for the U.S. to withdraw quickly and unconditionally, and also traveling to Vietnam as part of an attempt to get U.S. prisoners of war released. He also played a part in an attempt to get the American Historical Association to pass a resolution against the Vietnam War. To overcome the objections of the majority of its members, who did not wish to see the AHA get involved in politics, Zinn snatched the speaking microphone in an effort to get the relevant proposals heard; this resulted in an impromptu wrestling match between him and the AHA president for control of the microphone, which Zinn compared in magnitude to the Spanish-American War.
He described himself as "something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist," although the anarchists to whom he gave this description considered it contradictory. In A People's History of the United States, he expresses a fondness for the American Indian tribal social order, which seems to largely be because said social order was later obliterated by the villains of that book, as discussed below. In the rest of the book he tends mostly toward the straight-up anarchistic view, espousing a preference for large, leaderless grassroots revolutionary movements working by direct action, though a socialistic view also makes an appearance in his positive portrayal of the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. The democratic part does not seem to be present, as he did not have very much good to say about democratic institutions (or, as he often termed it in the form of a snarl word, "electoral politics"), which in his view mostly assumed the role of Satan, seducing the hearts of social activists. For example, at one point he downplayed the significance of the very long-lived and moderate farmers' organization, the National Grange, in favor of the short-lived and radical Farmers' Alliance, in order to criticize it for moderating itself into the Populist Party. However, Zinn sometimes supported candidates, including John Kerry in all swing states in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. In the early 1960s, Zinn traveled across the Deep South helping to organize voting drives against Jim Crow.
“”Zinn was born in Brooklyn, New York and died at the age of 87 on January 27, 2010. As a young man, he worked as a shipyard hand and served in the U. S. military as a bombardier during World War II. Returning from the war, he became involved in a number of left-wing political causes, some of them associated with the activities of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). In 1949, the FBI opened a domestic security investigation on Zinn (FBI File #100-360217). The Bureau noted Zinn’s activities in what were called Communist Front Groups and received informant reports that Zinn was an active member of the CPUSA; Zinn denied ever being a member when he was questioned by agents in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the Bureau took another look at Zinn on account of his criticism of the FBI’s civil rights investigations. Further investigation was made when Zinn traveled to North Vietnam with Daniel Berrigan as an anti-war activist. The investigation ended in 1974, and no further investigation into Zinn or his activities was made by the FBI.
However, the actual evidence for him being a card-carrying CPUSA member was quite slim, and Zinn was opposed to Soviet communism, the association being mostly a result of his willingness to make common cause with communists on certain social and labor issues. If not a member of the party, he would instead have been what at the time was called a "pinko" or a "fellow traveler." However, this minor complication did not stop wingnuts from wetting their pants with excitement and calling Zinn a commie when the FBI's file on him came out via a FOIA request.
Views on bias in history
As a socialist, Zinn did not believe that there could be such a thing as an objective, unbiased approach to history. His greatest concern with historical memory was not the distortion of fact by authorial bias, which he regarded as inevitable, but the wholesale elimination of facts which historians eliminated precisely because they could not be distorted to fit into their biased narratives.
He wrote A People's History of the United States as a work of propaganda, with the intent that it be read by people "beginning to take power within the institutions," inducing them to start a "quiet revolution." On the first point it has been a success, making a few high school history reading lists; on the second, not so much.
He claimed that A People's History was an important work as the first textbook written from that perspective; as a historical work, in general, it was of course not terribly original, as Zinn could not be stuffed to utilize primary sources and borrowed most of its talking points from Marxist historians such as Eugene D. Genovese, causing history professor Michael Kammen to liken it unto "a scissors and paste-pot job." It does read rather like a CMI article in some places, blowing off a large number of historical works because they are not written by people whom the author counts to be on his side, and also featuring ellipsis-filled quotes from neutral or opposing sources but fuller quotes from sympathetic sources.
Zinn is often criticized for his biased approach, although since he is quite frank about his bias, this puts these critics in the ridiculous position of "exposing" bias everyone already knows about.
Views on truth in history
When the literary critic Walter Kirn attacked Zinn in the New York Times on account of A People's History being propaganda, insinuating that Zinn did not believe telling the truth to be the first goal of historians, Zinn defended himself by stating his belief that there is no such thing as objective truth.
A People's History of the United States
At Zinn's death, the history professor Eric Foner wrote of him:
“”Friedrich Nietzsche once identified three approaches to the writing of history: the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical, the last being history "that judges and condemns." Howard Zinn, who died on January 27 at 87, wrote the third kind. Unlike many historians, he was not afraid to speak out about the difference between right and wrong.
...I have long been struck by how many excellent students of history first had their passion for the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn. Sometimes, to be sure, his account tended toward the Manichaean, an oversimplified narrative of the battle between the forces of light and darkness. But A People's History taught an inspiring and salutary lesson — that despite all too frequent repression if America has a history to celebrate it lies in the social movements that have made this a better country. As for past heroes, Zinn insisted, one should look not to presidents or captains of industry but to radicals such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Eugene V. Debs.
What is meant by "Manichaean" is that Zinn responded to the traditional apportionment of heroes and villains in grade-school history, not by taking a more rounded and nuanced approach to the questions of heroism and morality, but by simply recasting most of the heroes as villains (and, to a lesser extent, vice versa), producing a work that is on the whole more essentialistic than the works it is intended to supplant.[note 1] Several critics, including Foner himself in a positive review, objected to Zinn's very selective cherry-picking of incidents, which, Foner said, effectively caricatured such groups as African-Americans and workers "either as rebels or as victims."
Zinn wrote from a broadly Marxist perspective of class struggle and economic determinism. But while much Marxist historical work — including Karl Marx's own — simply involves analyzing tendencies without ascribing ulterior motives to individual players, Zinn did assign such motives. One of the central premises of A People's History is that the U.S. government has been, for the whole of its history, controlled or influenced by self-interested oligarchs (Zinn labels the Founding Fathers and the financier J.P. Morgan oligarchs) who played prominent roles in the American Revolution, the Jacksonian realignment, the Civil War, and the activities of most labor unions except the Wobblies, in aid of duping the people so as to prevent a popular revolution. Of course, the anti-Communist US historian Oscar Handlin has called this internationally uncontroversial notion a "deranged fairy tale", claiming that Zinn quote-mined sources and omitted facts.[note 2]
Michael Kazin, writing in Dissent magazine, felt the book's intention praiseworthy but its execution poor. In particular, it refused to recognize the use of actual ideologues who believed they were doing the right thing by serving oligarchic power (e.g. Southerners who genuinely believed that African chattel slavery was God's will), rather simply assuming that "all right-wingers really care about is keeping all the resources and power for themselves". He also consistently implied that people in the past would think in terms of labor relations (hating those who exploited them unless such hatred were diverted somewhere else by flummoxing), and that the 9/11 terrorists were primarily acting to change U.S. government policy, as opposed to acting against the entire U.S., or for the Islamist cause. Ironically, Zinn's obsessive focus on class warfare as the driving force behind all of American history leads him to ignore another popular Marxist concept for why capitalism remains in power: that of false consciousness, the idea that people are led astray from the Red Light by things like religion, ethnic nationalism, and other doctrines that go against communism. Not everybody places the same value on the relationship between the rich and the poor.
An illustrative example of Zinn's approach to history is this quote about U.S. President Jackson:
“”If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Andrew Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people — not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.
Zinn, on the other hand, wrote about Jackson the exterminator of Indians and not Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, or democrat — except to write off "Jacksonian democracy" as a con-job cooked up by the warmongers' conspiracy.
Hence, while A People's History serves as a good starting point for learning about the seedy underbelly of American history, it is at best highly incomplete and, taken as a whole, grossly inaccurate. One particular point of concern is that Zinn, in his inversion of heroes and villains, does some whitewashing of his own. One example is, as mentioned before, the positive portrayal of Ho Chi Minh; he positively cites a report that Ho had "eliminated landlord domination," without mentioning that he had done it by mass slaughter of the landlords.
He also, in a 2005 addendum to the book, criticized the Bill Clinton-era "Crime Bill of 1996" (he actually meant the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 but at that point was apparently not concerning himself with irrelevant details that only historians care about, such as correct names and dates) by claiming that around the time it passed, "violent crime continued to increase." In reality, the violent crime rate in the U.S. at that time was in a free-fall that would see it decrease by 2005 to little more than half of its 1991 peak.
On two occasions so far, in Indiana and Arkansas, state authorities have attempted across-the-board bans of A People's History from public classrooms. And yet somehow, in spite of provoking the wrathful scrutiny of free-marketers and flag-wavers, the book managed to win the respect of many—maybe most—of Zinn's peers in the history field,, and even highly critical scholars admit that A People's History was a necessary contribution when it first appeared in 1980.
“”If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
“”I'm worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel - let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they're doing. I'm concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that's handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers.
- Lies My Teacher Told Me, which is heavily influenced by Zinn's work.
- Is A People's History of the United States accurate? Quora answer by a Professor of U.S. History.
- Zinn, Howard, A People's History of the United States, 20th Anniversary edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
- Zinn, Howard, A People's History of American Empire, a graphic history by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle. (2008)
- Zinn goes so far as to state that Supreme Court justices would side against workers for no other reason than because they were born into the middle class; a statement that was questioned even by the publishers of a student's edition of the book.
- No word on what he thinks of that Princeton University study which shows that the US government is essentially run by the rich.
- Forty Years On: Looking Back at the 1969 Annual Meeting, AHA
- "War is the Health of the State: An Interview with Howard Zinn"
- A People's History, Chapter 18.
- Michael Kazin on Zinn
- A People's History, p.285.
- "Ex-Nader Leaders Change Tune". The Nation.
- "On the Road to Voting Rights: Freedom Day in Selma, 1963" HowardZinn.org
- Howard Zinn FBI records
- Here and seriously, Hollywood's most famous historian?
- Howard Zinn, Historian, Dies at 87, The New York Times; "Howard Zinn: The Historian Who Changed The History"
- Conversations with History: Howard Zinn, University of California
- Another interview with Zinn
- "How the Other Half Lived," Washington Post]' Book World, March 23, 1980.
- Children’s Books, The New York Times
- Making History, The New York Times
- Foner on Zinn
- A People's History, p.59.
- Op. cit., p.258.
- Op. cit., p.59.
- Op. cit., p.217.
- Op. cit. pp.171-172, 198.
- Op. cit., pp.323 & 352.
- Op. cit., p.132.
- Op. cit., p.647.
- Graph of DOJ violent crime statistics, 1960-2007
- Rethinking Schools, April 3, 2017
- Howard Zinn Memoriam from American Historical Association
- Stanford Report, December 20, 2012 "Zinn's influential history textbook has problems, says Stanford education expert"
- Zinn quotes on Goodreads