[So, what are you reading now?]
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.
[What is your intention or interest in reading it?]
In a word, to find what lies within the belly of the beast.
[I don’t follow.]
I know, it’s all right. A People’s History is something of a known commodity in political circles—or an unknown commodity, as the case may be. The title has become a byword, the definition of which changes, depending on the ideological camp in which it is mentioned. Among liberals, it is typically held in high regard as one of the most fascinating works of nonfiction you will ever read. However, I don’t want to speak too definitively, or in too much detail, about what the liberals have to say about it, because I haven’t met very many liberals who have read it. I haven’t met very many people who have read it at all, but in college, for example, I don’t think I met a single person who had read it.
[Do you have more extensive conversance with conservatives who have read it?]
No, but I do have a lot more experience with right-wingers who have heard of it, and who have an awful lot to say about it.
[They want to speak about it without having read it?]
Oh, don’t look so aghast: you know as well as I do that, when conservatives comment on this book, or on any book of Zinn’s, they speak of it in the same way they would The Anarchist’s Cookbook or Eric Harris’s journal. It’s the Satanic Bible treasured by the Church of Progressivism, or so the aforementioned hardliners would have you believe. Unfortunately for their paranoid suppositions, my failure to encounter a single fan of Zinn’s during my time in college goes a long way towards discrediting their fears.
[How do you mean?]
Well, if we’re going to explain the role, or lack thereof, played by A People’s History politically, then we have to begin with an understanding of “the university system” as that is seen politically. Conservatives, by and large, believe that American colleges are fascistic fortresses maintained by a leftist cult. They believe that, upon admission to such institutions, you are stripped of all of your religious affiliations and handed a copy of A People’s History, which, you are informed, is your new holy text.
[We haven’t even really started in this dialogue, and you are have already written with much more fervor—one might even say, with much more fanaticism—than you exhibited in all of your prior articles combined. Why is this such a touchy subject for you?]
Yes, I must confess that the ongoing political debate over the status and the role of academia is an uncommonly personal topic for me. However, I don’t believe that my own passion was on display in my previous paragraph, the one wherein I referenced “fascistic fortresses”. No, I think that is a perfectly fair and just summary of what the majority of conservatives believe takes place within a typical American university.
[Do you disagree with the conservative belief, or fear, that the universities are dominated by left-wing ideologues?]
Oh, not at all. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge the relentless progressive bias in the American university system is simply being dishonest. However, not everybody who writes about this issue is well-intentioned: all too many of them are simply envious, resentful of their inability to operate right-wing colleges wherefrom even the most innocent progressivism can never be forgiven. There is a melodramatic tendency that pollutes the conversation, an example whereof is the myth that all college freshmen are told to honor A People’s History as they would the Bible.
[You believe, then, that this myth is prominent, that is propagated strongly?]
Without a doubt. I’m not sure when I first heard of A People’s History, but the first time I thought about it seriously was when it was mentioned in America: Imagine the World without Her.
[This is the documentary directed by Dinesh D’Souza?]
“Documentary”. Yes, if that’s what you want to call it. Propaganda, or political pornography, more likely.
[When did you see this film?]
July 16th, 2014. I still have the ticket stub, in case you couldn’t tell. I knew it would be awful, but I wanted to know how awful it could be, so I drove to the theater on a rainy Wednesday afternoon and infiltrated a surprisingly numerous gathering of conservatives. It’s exceptionally rare to find a conservative at the movies, and while this pack was no match for the mob with whom I watched 2016: Obama’s America two years prior, there were enough people in attendance to convince me that they must have come on behalf, or on the advisement of, a local organization. Maybe a church?
[It’s hard to imagine that film generating blockbuster business, especially on the day in question, a day whereon, according to Box Office Mojo, Imagine the World Without Her took in, on average, less than $400 per theater.]
Maybe the theater I visited didn’t sell another ticket for the film for the rest of the day. Perhaps a different theater didn’t sell any tickets for the film that day. Whatever the explanation, there were only a few empty seats for that screening in that auditorium on that day, but there would have been one more if I hadn’t stopped by to see if the film lived up to its condemnatory hype.
[And did it?]
In a way. Better scribes than I have already written pretty vivid criticism of D’Souza’s astounding artistic incompetence, and I don’t need to indulge in such potshots at present, especially if I already have a problem with impartiality. Now, the Right is conspicuously sensitive to the heavy criticism that D’Souza receives, in part because Michael Moore, an unapologetically left-wing propagandist “documentarian”, has been praised highly, and consistently, throughout his career. They think it’s contradictory, and they would be right, if only D’Souza knew how to make movies. His films are amateurish, distinguished by their embarrassingly low production values.
[Moore’s films don’t strike you as being comparably rough?]
No, and I don’t think his films are as expensive as D’Souza’s. One of the biggest hindrances to all of D’Souza’s work is the man’s insistence on shooting these bizarre historical reenactments, none of which are especially arresting. Moore sticks to the format of a traditional documentary, which is a polite way of saying: he creates fewer opportunities for embarrassing himself.
[And his political leanings have nothing to do with it at all?]
Truthfully, his politics have nothing to do with the objective, technical quality of the film itself. I would never compare Moore to Ingmar Bergman, but there’s a basic functionality that is missing, inexcusably, from D’Souza’s body of work. D’Souza’s films may be easier to hate because of their political messages, but there are ample apolitical reasons, besides.
[I see. Now, you were about to say whether it was as bad as you expected it to be . . .]
It was definitely a step down from Obama’s America, which wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, to begin with, but then again, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t already ten thousand times before from Tom, my white supremacist “coffee buddy” in Laconia. It wasn’t spectacularly offensive enough, that’s all I’m saying.
[Very well. And what did it have to do with Howard Zinn?]
The film was, in a sense, presented as a rebuttal to the “historical worldview” that is supposedly promoted by A People’s History of the United States. Early in Imagine the World Without Her, D’Souza talks about the growing “historical criticism” of the United States. He explains that, every year, more and more people express discomfort and concern with the depiction of America as an indefatigably upright country.
[I’m not sure I follow.]
Yeah, I don’t know why I’m struggling to articulate this. All right: in our schooldays, we were told that America has always been a good country, that it was founded by people with respectable morals, and that the history of the country is, effectively, the story of good triumphing over evil, time and time again. However, this morally dichotomous, and morally simplistic, historical vision has since come into question, and now, there are many people who believe that the history of the United States has been, for the most part, the story of oppression and suffering, and, while perhaps not of evil triumphing over good, of good certainly struggling in the fight against evil.
[And this historical revisionism started, he believes, with the publication of A People’s History?]
No, but he does believe that that book popularized this critical perspective.
[A perspective with which he disagrees, I trust?]
Relentlessly so. Conservatism has always been hostile to any questioning of “the American myth”, as I put. There is a fear among the Right that any critical view of American history, any criticism of America itself, will culminate in some kind of fragmentation and disassembling of our national fabric. In other words, if we doubt that Thomas Jefferson was a saintly figure, then it’s just a matter of time before the country falls apart and we’re overtaken by a foreign entity.
[It’s obvious that you have little patience for D’Souza’s perspective.]
Well, it’s always frustrating when somebody insists, “You can’t question this.”
[Howard Zinn questions “this”, then?]
I’m only about fifteen pages into the book, but he begins with a disturbing chronicle of the violence that Christopher Columbus inflicted on the Arawaks and the other indigenous people of what today we call Cuba. The story is hardly even eye-opening now, considering how often we hear about this and similar atrocities, but then again, perhaps this shift in general awareness has had something to do with the popularity of Zinn’s book?
[And if so, then it follows that D’Souza is right to fear the spread of Zinn’s ideas, although he may be right for the wrong reasons. Does he mention this book by name in Imagine the World without Her?]
Yes, and he provides a very long list of American universities that allegedly include this book on their “required reading lists”. The problem is, he never explains what any of this means. Do these universities endorse the book’s political messages, or is it included only as a part of a comparative analysis? Do all departments of the aforementioned universities assign the reading of this book, or only some of them? And do these universities require their students to read all of the book, or only part of it? You can’t just say “It’s required reading” and then never elaborate. It’s meaningless.
[Didn’t you say that, in your experience, American universities are dominated by leftists?]
Yes, but that doesn’t mean that every particular accusation of left-wing bias is truthful. For years, I’ve been very reluctant to discuss my unpleasant experience in college precisely because I don’t want to lend credibility to unfounded attacks on academia. I don’t want to convince the Right that every single criticism it makes of academia is valid, simply because I have confirmed some of the Right’s suspicions. It’s that balancing act, and the regrettable certainty of misconception, that has made political commentary so treacherous today.
[And you haven’t even finished the first chapter! Imagine what will happen once you really make some progress in A People’s History.]