[We haven’t talked about A People’s History of the United States in a while.]
That’s because I put it down a while back.
[You haven’t given up on it, have you? That would be uncharacteristically lazy, even wasteful.]
No, I haven’t given up on it. I just grew a little tired of it, so I decided to take a break.
[That’s odd. I was under the impression that you were really enjoying it.]
I was, to a point, and then the author’s bias became a little overwhelming—a little smothering, in fact. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t struggle to overlook the pervasive prejudice, but in these times, when the media reflects a reminiscent mentality twenty-four hours daily, the intellectual presence of Howard Zinn becomes the straw that breaks the political camel’s back.
[I’m not sure I follow. Are you saying that Zinn is, or was, nearsighted in the way that all too many leftist commentators are?]
Well, it would be terribly disrespectful to a scholar such as Zinn, to a reader such as Zinn, to lump him in with the glib entertainers of American cable news. None of those circus performers would ever hold their own in a real conversation with a true academic, and although I take issue with at least one observation on every page of A People’s History, I would never accuse Zinn of ignorance. My concern with A People’s History pertains to its distortions, to its inconsistent focus and scope, depending on the point Zinn wants to, or must, make.
[I’m sure you have examples.]
Ironically, Zinn begins with a wonderful example, one which should be commonplace to everyone who knows anything of the present political climate. On the first step of his journey, Zinn describes the omission, probably deliberate, of the lurid violence inflicted against the indigenous Americans by the European explorers—or the European invaders, as the case may be. Zinn explains his work as a balancing of the scales of historical perspective, as an effort to shed light on the many hideous sides of American history, sides which are so seldom acknowledged, and even more uncommonly scrutinized, by those who teach us history.
[Such a project seems to be mainstream enough. After all, it’s hard to ignore the controversy that erupts every year as Columbus Day approaches, even though hardly anybody really celebrates the occasion anymore.]
It’s a mainstream undertaking today, particularly in the Trumpish Age, but you ought to note that A People’s History was published in 1980, before Ronald Reagan was even elected. I wasn’t born in time for the book’s release, not by a long shot, but something tells me that its arguments and its ideology were somewhat more remarkable in the days of old. You can’t sit here and argue that our perception of “the historical narrative”, for lack of better word, hasn’t changed at all in nearly forty years.
[That’s a very good point. People tend to forget about intellectual history. We tend to overlook the meaning of a book, or a movie, or anything else, as it would have been understood during the time in which it appeared. Everything is apprehended as it seems to us today, without consideration to how our perception has changed in the course of time. Try showing someone a science-fiction film from the 1980s, or from even earlier, and the viewer is likely to be caught up in and distracted by the unconvincing special effects. Now, try asking people to read a book written decades ago, and to suspend all contemplation of how it comes across now, of what it says about the present.]
And that failing has become far more common on the Left than on the Right. Conservatism: fear of history. Progressivism: blindness to today.
[But shouldn’t you acknowledge your own “historical perspective”, or your own historical bias, as you read A People’s History? Shouldn’t you remind yourself that the familiarity of this material is probably the surest evidence of the book’s success?]
It’s not a matter of familiarity. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Bad Santa, but still, it has never become threadbare to me. The only reason I mentioned A People’s History in connection with the present political culture is because there is a very obvious limit to Zinn’s perspective.
[Oh, yes: you were going to discuss this before we embarked on the question of historical context.]
Well, that question lends itself to this issue, too. You can imagine that A People’s History inspired a lot of criticism, and not just among conservatives, either: several liberal commentators suggested such a task—in short, a fundamental revision of American history—ought, and truthfully needs, to be approached with more solemnity and academic seriousness than Zinn presents.
[Does the book strike you as something facetious, or whatever?]
No, but its portrait is painted with an incredibly broad brush. Zinn acknowledges this, to an extent, in the introduction, when he explains that his purpose is not to provide an exhaustive catalogue of every elemental fact of American history, but to provide a counterweight to the patriotic narrative, the whitewashed and glorified and morally simplistic narrative, that is accepted as the standard—or was accepted at the time of the publication of the text.
[In other words, one should not look upon A People’s History as “the whole story”.]
More importantly, one should not read A People’s History without first understanding the patriotic narrative. A People’s History cannot be understood as a self-contained entity: it has to be read as a response to that pro-American account, to the work of the American apologists, as it were.
[So, you don’t mean it as a criticism of A People’s History when you say the book is incomplete?]
No, and I think that is probably the laziest criticism one can make of historical literature. We have to move past this idea of “the comprehensive account”. We have to overcome this unrealistic wish for a single volume that will tell us all we need to know about a given subject, especially a subject as vast and inexhaustible as national history. There’s always more work to be done, more research to conduct, and more knowledge to gain, which is why I find politics so distasteful: a politician is convinced that he, or she, already knows everything there is to know about everything in the world, but even a momentary glance at the politician’s store of learning will prove that nothing could be further from the truth.
[Well-put, but what, then, is your issue with A People’s History?]
My concern is with the ideological message of the book, which, I think, is different from the initial goal of historical revision. Zinn claims that the book is, above all else, an attempt to rebalance the scales of historical perspective. Obviously, such an undertaking will lead us into politics, and it is probably unrealistic to expect Zinn to leave his political beliefs entirely untouched. However, there is a difference between inadvertent exposure and direct, deliberate contact—and I’m sad to report that Zinn is sometimes guilty of the latter.
[Does his ideology interfere with his message?]
On occasion, yes. For example, nobody who reads A People’s History will miss his very obvious sympathy for communism. It’s not a matter of my personal liking or distaste for communism; I’m not qualified to speak on that topic, and in any case, I like listening to the communist Slavoj Žižek. But in reading A People’s History, I often feel expected to immediately endorse the political views and activities of a historical figure as soon as it’s revealed that he or she was a communist. It seems as if Zinn uses the word communism as a signal, indicating to the reader: “Here’s one of the good guys!”
[And that is limiting. Or, at least, distorting. Have you other prominent contentions with the book?]
Well, he’s definitely a feminist, and that interferes with his assessments, too. Early in the book, he talks about the quasi-matriarchal structure of Native American government, and he describes how the women, at least of certain tribes, had exclusive spousal power of instigating divorce, and how, in many cases, women could exercise political power over men, but the reverse could not be done. This, in his opinion, is a wonderful thing: the less power men have, and the more women have, the better. He’s signaling, much as he is when referencing communism.
[Is he a radical feminist, then?]
I’m not prepared to diagnose his ideology in such specific terms, but the bias sometimes spills over the pages. This is forgiven to the extent that the reader shares his views, which makes for a fairly frigid experience for those of us who question what he has to say. It’s polarizing: if you don’t agree with him on every point and in every implication, then there’s not much of place for you on the journey.
[Kind-of like the problem of opinion as language, eh? Is this an example of opinion as psychology, perhaps?]
That’s a good question, one we will have to revisit when I actually pick the book back up. In the meantime, I have started a book that most certainly opens a discussion of opinion as psychology. I am referring to one of the most commonly referenced, but most seldom read, books of the last hundred years. I am referring, of course, to Mein Kampf.