The following is a repost of an article in the Vanderbilt University newspaper, called The Hustler. In the article, Mike Warren, a Senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, welcomed the death of activist and historian Howard Zinn. After reading his article, I could not help but respond, and my response was published. I am making this piece available here because Vanderbilt’s website (insidevandy.com) has been revamped and unfortunately decided it best not to archive the thoughts of its former student, so I have.
When I found out the left-wing pop historian Howard Zinn passed away Wednesday, I couldn’t help but hope his legacy dies with him.
If that sounds harsh, let me explain. Zinn was most famous for his polemical “A People’s History of the United States,” which aimed to provide the “true” history from the eyes of the downtrodden people, rather than the prevailing history propagated by elites. What the book boils down to is an argument that evil white men like me have exploited every black, Indian, Chicano, woman, immigrant, Communist, union worker and hippie vegan to ever walk the planet. Okay, so that’s a gross simplification, but it’s no worse than how simplistically “A People’s History” covers American history. Every leftist historical narrative gets its day in this highly political (and boringly simple) book.
The book’s legacy is that these ideas have trickled down into public education, where all the white “elites” of American history get their comeuppance. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, may have written the Declaration of Independence and doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase, but we all first think of one of this country’s greatest patriots as a slaveholder. As a student of history, I know this is an historical truth and certainly relevant. But is it fair to focus so much on Jefferson’s hypocrisy? After all, I’m pretty sure the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” has outlasted slavery in this country.
To see the logical conclusion of this cultural self-hatred, we need look no further than Britain, a country that has taught generations of its citizens the evils of its imperial history. Sure, the British were the first to abolish slavery, a major source of innovation in science and technology and critical defenders of freedom against Nazi Germany. But what’s more important is that British imperialism exploited foreigners.
We shouldn’t be surprised when some middle-class Muslim kids born and raised in London leave the UK for Yemen to follow an ideology based on the idea that Western civilization sucks. They plan to come back and kill every pasty Brit watching “Big Brother” for taking part in the evil empire. Jihadism is alive and well in the U.K. because its citizens are primed to hate their civilization. Thankfully, things are not so far gone in America.
It doesn’t do any good to lie or cover up America’s uglier side, but refocusing our education at the expense of what makes the United States exceptional in the history of the world has cultural consequences. We’d be remiss not to reexamine how we teach our own history. This time, let’s leave Zinn’s victim politics out of it.
—Mike Warren is a senior in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Mike Warren,
I just read your Hustler article on the death of Howard Zinn (“People deserve better history” Jan, 31, 2010). In the the article you characterize Zinn’s approach to historical narrative as “leftist” and “polemical.” I suggest that you consider Zinn’s form of history as a necessary and complementary narrative to the one you champion with such verve. Like your example of Thomas Jefferson, to include in the greater historical narrative that “one of this nation’s greatest patriots” was also a slave holder is not polemical or leftist. It’s just stating more facts. The facts don’t make Jefferson less illustrious, they’re just the facts. Jefferson helped author the Declaration of Independence, negotiate the Louisiana purchase, and purchased slaves all the while. Zinn’s contribution to American history is that he reveals and meditates on the contradictions that make the American experience such a textured and variegated tapestry of cultural experiences.
Zinn may sound polemical to you, but his one book has raised awareness of the shortcomings of centuries of highly selective historical vision. Maybe he just had to talk a little tough to throw off that yoke.
It is generally true in great societies that progress is made on the backs of the poor. It seems to be the nature of the hierarchies we resort to when building societies. What Zinn’s book does is include those people at the bottom of the hierarchy in the historical narrative. He gives credit to the whole cast that has made America a great country, not just the legislators, railroad magnates, and land owners. The transcontinental railroad owed its completion to underpaid and underfed Chinese railroad workers. It’s not so much about, as you simplify it, “evil white men” exploiting “every black, Indian, Chicano, woman, immigrant, communist, union worker, and hippie vegan ever to walk the planet.” If that’s what you get from Zinn, try reading it again after you cool off.
These “downtrodden people” you refer to so flippantly have, through their actions and sacrifices, directly contributed to our country’s ascendancy to world power status. They just get no recognition for their sacrifices. The significance of a historical approach like Zinn’s is that he tells parts of the American story that we’ve wrongfully learned to ignore as a matter of course. When Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, doubling our country’s size, that land was not some empty parcel, like a lot you’d buy for an apartment building. That land was thoroughly populated with a culture we knew almost nothing about. Now it’s gone. Zinn’s not trying to give America back to the Indians, but we should at least tip our hats for the sacrifice. Zinn’s form of history is not “victim politcs” (which is a tasteless thing to say about Indian relocation and Chinese railroad workers). His approach to historical narrative pulls back the curtain on the machinery that makes the American magic show possible.
We’ve broken a lot of eggs making the delicious omelette that is America. Eggs like the Indians, Chinese, Chicanos, women, and imported Africans. We could not have done it without exploiting and, in many cases, just plain massacring them. Zinn gives these forgotten Americans credit for their direct contributions to our greatness. His approach to history gives them a voice. He didn’t want to tear down the America we hold dear, he wanted to tell the whole story. What do you have against that?
You yourself said that “It doesn’t do any good to lie or cover up America’s uglier side.” But at the same time you “hope his [Zinn's] legacy dies with him.” So you still want to cover up the uglier side of America. Well, grin and bear it. Search out the ugly side that has helped make us so successful. Hiding the uglier side is what makes it so easy for an Arts and Science Senior like yourself to live comfortably cradled in the arms of the great American University system, whining about polemical leftists when someone tries to tell you the whole story.
Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.