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The Zinning of America: How to Watch "The People Speak" on The History Channel on Sunday Night

Part II

I must confess that I have not seen the actual program. The producers, knowing that the media is more than willing to cooperate with them in the hype, obviously do not want advance criticism from those who they know will have sound criticisms. So what one can write depends only on what is on the show’s website. Although we have some examples and videos of material that is on the program, what they do not give us is the narrative that ties the episodes together, that is written and spoken by Zinn and written with his co-author Anthony Arnove (who also is a co-producer of the program and co-author with Zinn of some of his books).

I tried to get the DVD in advance, but was unsuccessful. Arnove e-mailed an associate to send me one, but it never came. He did let me know he despises my ideology but was glad,  he wrote, that at least I wanted to see the show before criticizing it. (He also thanked me for taking him and my son many years ago, when they were in college, to a Bob Dylan concert.)

Zinn, I suspect, would like to paint all his detractors as nutty right-wingers, and he can easily write off criticism coming from people like Daniel Flynn, David Horowitz, or Mark Tapson who has blasted him at BigHollywood.com. Tapson’s article speaks to those who already agree with him, and knocks Zinn for being the far leftist we all know he is already. It’s easy to prove that, and Zinn and company can respond that attacks like these are simply ideological, and not to be taken seriously.

As Zinn sees it, America is a story of dissent. A favorable critic, Mary McNamara, writes in The Los Angeles Times that democracy is a political activity, and that all social change came from the rebels who demanded it often using violence to gain their ends. She writes that the dramatic readings “provides a striking, exhilarating and at times horrifying reminder of not just our indomitable ability to change but also this country's collective history of oppression.”  But even McNamara has her reservations. She writes:

Class division is a drumbeat throughout "The People Speak," which is a primer of liberal ideology with a decided bent toward socialism; no one's reading a few rousing passages of Ayn Rand's, for instance. The letters and journals and speeches selected cover the American timeline, from the abolitionists through AIDS activists, but the theme of personal and political enfranchisement, tolerance, peace and American humility is the consistent theme. Equal rights, protection of workers, protection of children, even rent control are celebrated while concepts such as patriotism -- the last refuge of scoundrels, according to pacifist and anarchist Emma Goldman -- and national security are portrayed as the whip and cattle prod used by the power elite. Even World War II is cast as a false model for American military domination.

Evidently joining the likes of Pat Buchanan, the Zinn film (which she has evidently actually viewed) puts World War II in the pantheon of unnecessary wars and the result of America’s reaching for global hegemony.

The Critique of Michael Kazin

Therefore, one must read some of the brilliant serious critiques that have appeared over the years about Howard Zinn. The most important and serious comes from a first-rate historian who happens to be openly a man of the Left, but whose commitment to history rather than political ideology leads him to have authored the single most devastating attack written on Zinn. I urge readers to hit this link and read the entire article by Michael Kazin, which was published in a left of center journal that should be dear to Zinn’s heart, Dissent.

Kazin argues, and goes on to prove, that “A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?”  As Kazin says: “History for Zinn is thus a painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed. He describes the American Revolution as a clever device to defeat "potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership."

In Zinn’s eyes, therefore, the people are rather stupid, since the rulers are always able to hoodwink them, somehow making them believe that the system they support and the country they live is not really evil. To learn the truth, all they have to do, of course, is read Howard Zinn and watch this program. One would wonder after reading Zinn, as Kazin notes, why anyone but the very rich would ever want to come to America and stay here. After all, whenever they win victories, even those are ruined when the capitalists take away all meaning. The civil rights movement smashed Jim Crow and ended segregation, but the black masses were not able to destroy capitalism, thus guaranteeing them perpetual misery. Kazin captures it perfectly. “Ordinary Americans,” he writes, “seem to live [for Zinn] only to fight the rich and haughty and, inevitably, to be fooled by them.”

Kazin paints Zinn as a propagandist, not a historian,  who “measures individuals according to his own rigid standard of how they should have thought and acted.” He never mentions those who came here and succeeded---immigrants who build businesses and trade unions, women who were both suffragists and in favor of temperance and opposed to abortion, African-Americans who supported the doctrine of improvement favored by Booker T. Washington, not only the militant path espoused by W. E.B. DuBois. To Zinn, there is only one kind of rebel, and all complexity goes out the window.

Naturally, as Kazin points out, Zinn never mentions conservatism which is obviously a disagreeable thing he would rather forget, or Christianity, a force that motivated much of the reform Zinn supposedly favors. His entire history is one of a catalog of American imperialism’s  onward march of oppression at home and power abroad. It is not surprising his TV film evidently treats WW II in the same way, since in Zinn’s eyes—again I quote Kazin---the war is brought down to its “meanest components:profits for military industries, racism toward the Japanese, and the senseless destruction of enemy cities.” Even then America to Zinn had no real enemies.

Finally, Kazin makes an interesting point, that challenges Zinn’s supporters who believe his perspective is one opposed to passivity. Actually, Kazin argues, it is nothing but “an apology for political failure.” The people never win, because the rulers are so ingenious. They can be freed by learning how they are controlled, but never can win. As for the Left, it was always correct, and never did anything wrong. Zinn lived both through the Communist years of the 40’s and the New Left of the 60’s, but not once does he reveal the CP’s slavery to Stalin’s agenda or the New Left’s commitment to the guerrilla warfare fantasy of Bill Ayers and friends.

Kazin himself is dedicated to social change. He is a radical. But he understands that the rulers Zinn disdains keep getting elected by the people Zinn says he loves, or acknowledge that while revolution failed, reform in fact improved the lives of average people who eschew radical change.  Perhaps conservatives should be happy, since Kazin concludes that Zinn’s “fatalistic vision can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life.”

There are other similar critiques one should check out. At the indomitable History News Network, its editor in chief Rick Shenkman offers “The Left’s Blind Spot,”  in which he writes that  “Zinn plays the role in a self-satisfied often uncritical mainstream culture of the seemingly attractive dangerous rebel.” Zinn, he shows,  keeps up a relentless rage at American horrors abroad, never mentioning that the foreign policy he abhors has been supported over time by the same masses he claims to revere. The People are lionized when they endorse things Zinn favors; they are ignored when they support policies he detests.

The Critique of Aileen S. Kraditor

There is one other source readers should consult, if they have access to a university library or J-Stor. It is an article written by a major American historian, who when she wrote it in 1972, was one of the first generation of new feminist and social historians, Aileen S. Kraditor. Then a radical who was starting to ask difficult questions, she eventually became a rock-ribbed conservative.

In the British Marxist journal Past and Present (August 1972,) she wrote a path breaking  article called “American Radical Historians on Their Heritage,” a piece which had Zinn read, might have given him pause. Virtually everything Zinn has done wrong was taken up by Kraditor, who saw early on the a-historical direction towards which some radical historians were moving.

Kraditor began by noting that the first thing a historian has to do is respect “the pastness of the past.” She goes on to write that a new group of Left historians clearly ignore that. “I believe,” she wrote, “the judgement applies with particular force to those on the Left who have endeavored to find in American history justifications for and forerunners of their own party or movement,” and that many “have been interested in little else.”  History, in their eyes, becomes a “cheering section as they root for the same victims or reformers struggling against the same Oppressors or Interests.” It is a conflict paradigm shared by both liberal and Left historians. They believe only that the people fight the elites, and they never ask about the “consensus about all the values and beliefs that really matter to the maintenance of the established order.”  Instead of asking for examples of the people fighting the interests---as Zinn does today---she says the real question is “Who fought whom and over what issue,” and whether or not the fight affected “the basic structure of the system.” These are, of course, precisely the kind of questions Howard Zinn and his followers never ask.

Kraditor’s observations are so adroit it is as if she read Zinn’s book before he even wrote it. The Left historians, she writes, “have tended…to focus on Our Side’s heroism, dedication, love for

The People—non-historical qualities that they of course see in themselves and want their contemporaries to see in them. In both their views of historical events and their views of their own vocation as radicals they have often underestimated the importance of ideology as a mechanism of class rule.” When they deal with the radicals of the past they eulogize- they almost never discuss what the majority of the people believe or the ideas of the elites of the day. In fact, she argues, when the masses take positions they do not like, they simply see them as “obstacles to overcome, illusions to be dispelled.” They never look at their actual beliefs to see “elements of truth” that led common people in the past to not follow the radicals of their own day. She writes:

The penchant for asking yes-type questions reinforces this elitism, for the historian who seeks evidence that past radicals and the masses were forerunners of himself will tend to overlook the democratic racism, the docile slaves, the militancy of workers struggling for a larger slice of the pie, the customary isolation of socialist movements in the United States, and many other things that do not fit his picture of the past.

Keep this in mind when you see the famous actors reading the words of radicals of the past. Instead of historical context, you will have words uttered meant to show that the issues are the same today, not obsolete and conditioned by the time in which the words were uttered, as Kraditor insists. They cannot be depicted in our own image, as Zinn tries to do. Kraditor puts it this way:

To exclude from our definition…the movement to humanize slavery, or the movement to bar Catholics from office-holding during the nineteenth century, is to distort our image of the past by depicting it in the image of the present, just as it would be to exclude from our definition of past radicalisms that that did not adhere to the small-communitarian ideal. To consider as an unfortunate deviation…the nativist and racist aspects of the suffragist movement is to distort these movements by depicting them in our own image.

Anyone out there willing to make a bet whether “The People Speak” tells its views about the nativism and racism of its past heroes? Will we learn that Gene Debs’ Socialist Party had separate black chapters and saw no need to challenge white racism? I somehow don’t think so. As Kraditor notes, some of the same people who were radical in their political and social views were conservative in their economic views (like William Lloyd Garrison) and others were radical in economic views “and reactionary on the subject of race.” It was a little more complex than the world of Zinnite history has it. Her main point:

To construct a ‘radical’ or ‘reactionary’ tradition in our own terms and for our own purposes, in the way that ‘relevance’ historians do [Zinn, I would argue] not only do we have to lift whole movements out of their contexts; we must also split individual men’s minds and discard half, or, to put it another way, we must match disembodied ideas from the past with disembodies ideas in the present, ignoring the real world in both contexts that gave and give them the only meanings they can have.

Kraditor also raises another point that vividly calls into question Zinn’s beliefs that the words of these past figures inspires one in fighting for the need for revolution. She writes: “The majority of white abolitionists and the majority of suffragists worked hard to convince their compatriots that the changes they advocated were not revolutionary, that far from undermining the accepted distribution of power they would eliminate deviations from the democratic principle it was supposedly based on.” For good measure, she adds that “the racism and nativism in the [suffragist’s] movement’s thinking were not an aberration and did not conflict with the movement’s objective of suffrage.” Their movement was one for reform- a necessary one- but not “a threat to the established order.”

These reforms, she writes, showed what changes society could accommodate without endangering its fundamental structure. Reform movements helped change America, that “a redefinition of certain principles was necessary and possible,” and once enacted, helped stave off further dissatisfaction. But they worked to strengthen the people’s loyalty to the country that showed it could accommodate change---not to move them in the direction of revolution that Zinn presupposes was the case.  These words, I argue, sum up all that is wrong with Zinn’s history:

The point is that a historical account emphasizing how radicals, reformers, workers, have fought heroically to wring concessions from politicians and bosses tells only half the truth, for it focuses on individual men’s morality or clearsightedness, or their opposites, and ignores the system’s power structure and capabilities. The Old Left’s [Zinn’s] historiography is little more than the chronicle of how every working-class advance has been due to the workers’ struggles against ruling-class opposition. The other half of the picture is that each such advance was proved by subsequent events to have been perfectly compatible with the continued hegemony of the class that opposed it.

Thus they ransack the past, and here she finally mentions Zinn, “not for its own sake, but as a source of alternative models of what the future might become.” And this is not the job of the historian, but of the propagandist who distorts the past to present false examples for his own radical prescriptions for the present.