Shunning Howard Zinn’s History
February 6, 2010
“In America you can say anything you want — as long as it doesn’t have any effect.” —Paul Goodman
Progressive activists and writers continually bemoan the fact that the news they generate and the opinions they express are consistently ignored by the mainstream media, and thus kept from the masses of the American people. This disregard of progressive thought is tantamount to a definition of the mainstream media. It doesn’t have to be a conspiracy; it’s a matter of who owns the mainstream media and the type of journalists they hire — men and women who would like to keep their jobs; so it’s more insidious than a conspiracy, it’s what’s built into the system, it’s how the system works. The disregard of the progressive world is of course not total; at times some of that world makes too good copy to ignore, and, on rare occasions, progressive ideas, when they threaten to become very popular, have to be countered.
So it was with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Here’s Barry Gewen, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, June 5, 2005 writing of Zinn’s book and others like it:
There was a unifying vision, but it was simplistic. Since the victims and losers were good, it followed that the winners were bad. From the point of view of downtrodden blacks, America was racist; from the point of view of oppressed workers, it was exploitative; from the point of view of conquered Hispanics and Indians, it was imperialistic. There was much to condemn in American history, little or nothing to praise. … Whereas the Europeans who arrived in the New World were genocidal predators, the Indians who were already there believed in sharing and hospitality (never mind the profound cultural differences that existed among them), and raped Africa was a continent overflowing with kindness and communalism (never mind the profound cultural differences that existed there).
One has to wonder whether Mr. Gewen thought that all the victims of the Holocaust were saintly and without profound cultural differences.
Prominent American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once said of Zinn: “I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.”
In the obituaries that followed Zinn’s death, this particular defamation was picked up around the world, from the New York Times, Washington Post, and the leading American wire services to the New Zealand Herald and Korea Times.
Regarding reactionaries and polemicists, it is worth noting that Mr. Schlesinger, as a top advisor to President John F. Kennedy, played a key role in the overthrow of Cheddi Jagan, the democratically-elected progressive prime minister of British Guiana (now Guyana). In 1990, at a conference in New York City, Schlesinger publicly apologized to Jagan, saying: “I felt badly about my role thirty years ago. I think a great injustice was done to Cheddi Jagan.” 1 This is to Schlesinger’s credit, although the fact that Jagan was present at the conference may have awakened his conscience after 30 years. Like virtually all the American historians of the period who were granted attention and respect by the mainstream media, Schlesinger was a cold warrior. Those like Zinn who questioned the basic suppositions of the Cold War abroad, and capitalism at home, were regarded as polemicists.
One of my favorite Howard Zinn quotes: “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying. It is omission or de-emphasis of important data. The definition of ‘important’, of course, depends on one’s values.” 2 A People’s History and his other writings can be seen as an attempt to make up for the omissions and under-emphases of America’s dark side in American history books and media.
- The Nation, June 4, 1990, pp.763-4
- “Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian” (1993), p.30
Excerpted from an article originally published in the Anti-Empire Report at www.killinghope.org.