In the first summer of the Civil War, the radical Republicans in Congress pressed hard on President Lincoln. Stevens, Sumner, and Wilson demanded instant emancipation and aggressive, destructive warfare against the South. Lincoln was explaining this to a Missouri Senator in the White House one day, and as he stood at the window, sure enough he saw the triumvirate of Stevens, Sumner, and Wilson marching up Pennsylvania Avenue. It reminded him, as just about everything did, of a Western story.
In the old-time frontier schools, which Lincoln and his senator friend had attended, the Bible was the only reading textbook, reading was done aloud in the class, and every mistake earned a whipping.
One of Lincoln's classmates had the misfortune to be reading when the verse came up with the Israelite names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He stumbled through the first, slipped on the second, and went all to pieces on the third. The boy received the expected corporal punishment from the teacher. He bit his lip and returned to his desk, and started reading again, then suddenly let out a yell.
The schoolmaster asked him what was the matter. The boy pointed to the next verse, in the Bible in front of him, and said, "Look there; there comes them same damned fellows again!"
When I had a politically liberal view of things, I felt frustration at my fellow liberals, who conceded American history to the conservatives. American history is a rich field, full of ammunition for progressive arguments. Aggressively theocratic Christians, especially, tend to make twisted, simplified presentations of the Founding Fathers. Yet these tend to go unanswered. Liberals just shrug. I think they feel alienated from American history because on every page, they encounter "them same damned fellows again": Slavery, religion, greed.
Every hero in our history book bears the taint of one or the other, in some degree. Better, perhaps my liberal friends thought, to let the past go and concentrate on the future they want to build. The American past, to them, is a hopelessly corrupt country.
This is complicated; I don't pretend to offer more than a partial answer. And I am not generalizing all "liberals" or whatever you choose to call yourself. I know many who disagree with me on current events, but who can appreciate U.S. history in its complexity, in its lack of purity, who can see America as a muddled human adventure. They can love this place that nurtured them, even as they lament its wrong turns and oppose what they fear it will become. They appreciate that they live in a country where dissent and disagreement have a worthy tradition, a place that allows more diverse cultures to flourish than any other place on earth ever has.
But some others are pure iconoclasts. Their summation of U.S. history is "Lies My Teacher Taught Me." Except those teachers evidently didn't do a good job, because the iconoclast often only knows the scrapings of the story he's gleaned since leaving school.
Iconoclasts have a certain use, especially academic ones. They put a reality check on excesses. They force the dominant views to stay in shape, to defend themselves. They introduce balance by reminding people of what has been left out of the stories. In an integrated culture, where most citizens have essentially the same solid education, iconoclasts are a positive good, if an annoyance. In a land where the basic and accepted version is well-known, a scholarly historian can take a tilt at it and give a fresh perspective.
As an example, I'd give Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's "Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men," which ought to be every history buff's second book about the Civil War. Your first, these days is likely to be McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom," but it really doesn't matter. Hummel brilliantly takes on all the sacred cows and received wisdoms, North and South, and stacks up the best evidence against them, or for alternative views.
However, we live in a dis-integrated culture. Our intellectual society is a hive of echo-chambers. So what begins as, or pretends to be, corrective iconoclastic history can become the pure view of the past, in many people's minds. And you no more want a history entirely based on iconoclasm than you want a climate that only rains.
"The People's History of the United States," by the contrarian historian Howard Zinn, was published in 1980. It started out as an iconoclasm. But by now, in its 25th printing, with more than 1 million copies sold, it has crossed over into the mainstream. Whole college courses are taught based on it. Many more courses use it as a central text.
Here's what the Amazon.com review of it says:
If your last experience of American history was brought to you by junior high school textbooks -- or even if you're a specialist -- get ready for the other side of stories you may not even have heard. With its vivid descriptions of rarely noted events, "A People's History of the United States" is required reading for anyone who wants to take a fresh look at the rich, rocky history of America.
Woo-hoo. Except Zinn's attitude toward America is all rocks, no richness. And if you stopped paying attention after 8th grade, you're exactly unsuited to use this book as Zinn claims it is intended to be used: as a counterweight to the prevailing views.
One of many extensive critiques of Zinn's book is here. But the objections can be boiled down to three points: rigid Marxist views, some factual errors (in a book with so much ground to cover in so short a time, they are bound to crop up) and too much left out of the picture.
The last is the most serious. Really, the last two blend; omissions create inaccuracies. Here's an example, a case that is particularly infuriating to me, because I lived close enough to it to understand it in a way the distant "social justice" zealots never can:
According to Zinn, it was Mumia Abu-Jamal's "race and radicalism," as well as his "persistent criticism of the Philadelphia police" that landed him on death row in the early 1980s. Nothing about Abu-Jamal's gun being found at the scene; nothing about the testimony of numerous witnesses pointing to him as the triggerman; nothing about additional witnesses reporting a confession by Abu-Jamal—it was Abu-Jamal's dissenting voice that caused a jury of twelve to unanimously sentence him to death.
But the book features omissions in wholesale as well as in detail. As the "Frontpage" article lists them:
Washington's Farewell Address, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and Reagan's speech at the Brandenburg Gate all fail to merit a mention. Nowhere do we learn that Americans were first in flight, first to fly across the Atlantic, and first to walk on the moon. Alexander Graham Bell, Jonas Salk, and the Wright Brothers are entirely absent. Instead, the reader is treated to the exploits of Speckled Snake, Joan Baez, and the Berrigan brothers. While Zinn sees fit to mention that immigrants often went into professions like ditch-digging and prostitution, American success stories like those of Alexander Hamilton, John Jacob Astor, and Louis B. Mayer -- to name but a few -- are excluded. Valley Forge rates a single fleeting reference, while D-Day's Normandy invasion, Gettysburg, and other important military battles are left out. In their place, we get several pages on the My Lai massacre and colorful descriptions of U.S. bombs falling on hotels, air-raid shelters, and markets during the Gulf War of the early 1990s.
Zinn makes no pretense of presenting a complete overview of the past. But he does aim to change the future. As Zinn explains on the Amazon.com site devoted to his book: "My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all) -- that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth."
Note that. He equates "socialism" and "Western civilization" as paired examples of "progress" worth (or not worth) fighting for, as though "headache" was equivalent to "head." And if all this begins to look like the Chomskyite/Michael Moore/Euro-intellectual view of American history, it should.
OK, we all know where Mr. Zinn is coming from. "Publishers Weekly" has him pegged: "According to this classic of revisionist American history, narratives of national unity and progress are a smoke screen disguising the ceaseless conflict between elites and the masses whom they oppress and exploit. Historian Zinn sides with the latter group in chronicling Indians' struggle against Europeans, blacks' struggle against racism, women's struggle against patriarchy, and workers' struggle against capitalists." The book is "a definitive statement of leftist, multicultural, anti-imperialist historiography."
Marxism can have its uses in academic history. Especially if it shines some light on economic motivations in American history. A great many historians come from the social sciences and have a pathetic lack of understanding of money, how it works, and what getting it means to most people. But Zinn's book overlooks some examples crying out for exposure, such as the influence of the tariff on Southern secession, and only calls attention to those that serve his polemical purpose. And, as the "Frontpage" article describes it,
Zinn's Marxism extends beyond economic concerns. If classical Marxism can be boiled down to "worker=good, entrepreneur=bad," cultural Marxism's primitive grunt might be translated into "minorities, good; white guys, bad." In a "people’s history," the "people" include feminist women, racially conscious blacks, socialists, and other politically attuned folks. Conservatives, believing Christians, rich guys, and other such people aren't "the people," at least the ones Zinn is referring to.
I have the older edition of "People's History." According to PW, the chapters added to the new one "deplore Clinton's pro-business agenda, celebrate the 1999 Seattle anti-globalization protests and apologize for previous editions' slighting of the struggles of Latinos and gays." The reviewer concludes: "It's too bad that Zinn dismisses two centuries of talk about 'patriotism, democracy, national interest' as mere 'slogans' and 'pretense,' because the history he recounts is in large part the effort of downtrodden people to claim these ideals for their own."
Yet even while seeing through the smoke, PW finds Zinn's work "a vital corrective to triumphalist accounts."
What triumphalist accounts? Where are they in the reading lists of the college students who are assigned Zinn's book? Hell, even the middle school textbooks were purged 20 years ago of the old "march of progress" style. Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary in the Department of Education under Bush père, later serving on the National Assessment Governing Board, writes that students now are reading history books that, to avoid the appearance of "ethnocentrism," eschew the very idea of progress. According to an "L.A. Times" article [4-28-03]:
One middle school textbook that Ravitch describes "lauds every world culture as advanced, complex, and rich with artistic achievements, except for the United States." Textbooks "sugarcoat practices in non-Western cultures that they would condemn if done by Europeans or Americans .... They condemn slavery in the western world but present slavery in Africa and the Middle East as benign ...."
Zinn's vew is the new triumphalism -- the triumph of negativity. And it's now almost triumphant. America is left with a history without heroes. Only the ones who fought against whatever prevailed in America at the time can claim the heroic mantle, in Zinn's world, and then only if they were some sort of approved minority, and only if they never attained any sort of power (and thus became involved in the next crime). His book scorns the Southern slaveholding aristocrat with all the murderous zeal of John Brown, then it turns around and slams the Northern industrialist for mistreating his workers, using the same rhetoric the Southern slavery apologists used.
Here is Zinn's version of the history of the founding of the United States, as quoted in the "Frontpage" article:
"Around 1776," A People’s History informs, "certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from the favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership."
The "Frontpage" writer then goes to the trouble of poking for holes in Zinn's argument, as though the author actually was interested in discussing any of this: "If the Founders wanted a society they could direct, why didn't they put forth a dictatorship or a monarchy resembling most other governments at the time? Why go through the trouble of devising a constitution guaranteeing rights, mass political participation, jury trials, and checks on power? Zinn doesn't explain, contending that these freedoms and rights were merely a facade designed to prevent class revolution."
Zinn sarcastically adds, "When we look at the American Revolution this way, it was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers deserve the awed tribute they have received over the centuries. They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command." Rather than the spark that lit the fire of freedom and self-government throughout much of the world, the American Founding is portrayed as a diabolically creative way to ensure oppression.
It doesn't matter. People who read Zinn now likely don't read "Frontpage" or anything like it. And the rest of us are increasingly cut off from the complex and heroic character of the great players in America's past. It's in a climate like this that a flaccid history book like Ron Chernow's "Hamilton" can become a popular best-seller.
But if you want to see American history from the point of view of the bitter, coccooned Left, Zinn's book is the place to start. From there, it all begins to make a sad sort of sense.
Today, by sheer chance, I stumbled on a commencement address he gave this year. What an inspiring view of America he imparts to these young minds! Here's what modern America is worth in this historian's view:
My hope is that your generation will demand an end to war, that your generation will do something that has not yet been done in history and wipe out the national boundaries that separate us from other human beings on this earth.
Speaking to a historically black college, he quotes for them Langston Hughes against America:
Recently I saw a photo on the front page of the New York Times which I cannot get out of my mind. It showed ordinary Americans sitting on chairs on the southern border of Arizona, facing Mexico. They were holding guns and they were looking for Mexicans who might be trying to cross the border into the United States. This was horrifying to me -- the realization that, in this twenty-first century of what we call "civilization," we have carved up what we claim is one world into two hundred artificially created entities we call "nations" and are ready to kill anyone who crosses a boundary.
Is not nationalism -- that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary, so fierce it leads to murder -- one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred? These ways of thinking, cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on, have been useful to those in power, deadly for those out of power.
Here in the United States, we are brought up to believe that our nation is different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral; that we expand into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy. But if you know some history you know that's not true. If you know some history, you know we massacred Indians on this continent, invaded Mexico, sent armies into Cuba, and the Philippines. We killed huge numbers of people, and we did not bring them democracy or liberty. We did not go into Vietnam to bring democracy; we did not invade Panama to stop the drug trade; we did not invade Afghanistan and Iraq to stop terrorism. Our aims were the aims of all the other empires of world history -- more profit for corporations, more power for politicians.
Being one of the world's big vampires,
He advises the graduates, "There are wonderful people, black and white, who are models. I don't mean African-Americans like Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell, or Clarence Thomas, who have become servants of the rich and powerful."
Why don't you come on out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France,
And all the other nymphomaniacs of power.
What kind of "history" can a nation hope to have when it is written by such men as this? What's the opposite of "triumphalism"?
One wonders if he would speak so ardently to young people in Turkey or France or Cuba or the Soviet Union -- when there was such a thing -- about the need to devote their lives to erasing their nation from the map, and of denying any special quality in their culture. One wonders if he ever stops to wonder why he wasn't invited to do so.
One wonders if he's really doing a service to these young black men and women by telling them the only good life is a life in opposition, in rejection, a life devoted to avoiding the taint of "power." Other white speakers in the past have told blacks the same thing, but they are not lauded for it today.
Finally, one wonders how reliable a historian is who asserts that the aim of "all the other empires of world history" was "more profit for corporations." Exactly what corporations benefitted from Genghis Khan, anyway, Mr. Zinn?
Howard Zinn, the dean of progressive historians, has got his rant on again. This time he's exercised about "American exceptionalism."
The Wikipedia explanation of "American exceptionalism" is a good one that, I think, many historians would sign on to:
American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States and the American people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from a unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom.
An even more serviceable, because less exclusive, definition is here:
Historical argument that the development of the United States was largely distinctive; contact with Western Europe was incidental to the larger development of the United States on its own terms.
Zinn, however, without alerting his readers that he's doing it, re-writes the definition of "American exceptionalism" before he attacks it. He draws a much narrower circle, and limits it to aggressive and unilateral crusading into a passive world on behalf of some perceived moralistic imperative. His exact definition is, "that the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary ...."
No longer are Americans merely different, but in Zinn's lurid version we insist on forcing other peoples to be civilized or free, with a presumed right to kill them if they resist. It's a straw man that would make Ray Bolger proud -- but then, whoever has the straw concession at Zinn's university must be a rich man by now. Having set up his artificial target, he goes to work on it, telling us this American perversion is nothing new.
It started as early as 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when Governor John Winthrop uttered the words that centuries later would be quoted by Ronald Reagan. Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a "city upon a hill." Reagan embellished a little, calling it a "shining city on a hill." The idea of a city on a hill is heartwarming. It suggests what George Bush has spoken of: that the United States is a beacon of liberty and democracy. People can look to us and learn from and emulate us. In reality, we have never been just a city on a hill. A few years after Governor Winthrop uttered his famous words, the people in the city on a hill moved out to massacre the Pequot Indians.
And so forth through the usual liturgical reading from "The Book of Why America is Evil." Forget "shining" in any sense. The American Revolution and everything that followed from it? Not freedom, not liberty. How could it have been good for the world? It was bad for the Indians.
In fact our celebrated war of liberation, the American Revolution, was disastrous for the Indians. Colonists had been restrained from encroaching on the Indian territory by the British and the boundary set up in their Proclamation of 1763. American independence wiped out that boundary.
I can't tell you how proud it makes me to be, even peripherally, in the profession that is led by an academic whose statement about the American Revolution is no better than that. (No better, but broader. He writes a good deal about the Revolution in other places. All of it ultimately negative, of course.)
But Zinn isn't really interested in history here. He rarely is in the speeches I've read. He's focused on the present, and on shifting the future into the channel he wants to see it take. The past is just his chosen tool to effect that change. As if you didn't know, he's re-defined "American exceptionalism" for the sake of talking about Iraq.
Expanding into another territory, occupying that territory, and dealing harshly with people who resist occupation has been a persistent fact of American history from the first settlements to the present day. And this was often accompanied from very early on with a particular form of American exceptionalism: the idea that American expansion is divinely ordained.
And so the business of conquest and occupation -- the least exceptional thing about the United States -- somehow becomes the focus of "American Exceptionalism" in this article. Along with the horror of leaders who talk and really think about their religion, and who try to discover and do "God's will." And of "progressives" who are so far fallen from grace as to allow America's right to stop a terrorist attack before it happens.
What is the answer to the insistence on American exceptionalism? Those of us in the United States and in the world who do not accept it must declare forcibly that the ethical norms concerning peace and human rights should be observed.
Begging the question, "whose ethical norms?" He can't mean those of the Bill of Rights. That was just about killing the Indians, after all, so it has no legitimacy. Also going a-begging is the question of who does something about it when the Taliban's treatment of women, or Saddam Hussein's treatment of Kuwait, doesn't measure up to the "ethical norms" of peace and human rights.
If those sorts of crimes even register on Zinn's radar screen. They don't seem to. The odd thing is, Zinn exhibits a sort of negative reverse American exceptionalism by being obsessed with America's crimes -- real, alleged, or imagined -- without taking notice of the behavior of any other nation for purposes of honest comparison.
These are fundamental moral principles. If our government doesn't uphold them, the citizenry must. At certain times in recent history, imperial powers -- the British in India and East Africa, the Belgians in the Congo, the French in Algeria, the Dutch and French in Southeast Asia, the Portuguese in Angola -- have reluctantly surrendered their possessions and swallowed their pride when they were forced to by massive resistance.
Wow, I knew so little about history until I started reading this! "Massive resistance" chased the Dutch out of East Asia? And here I thought it was the Allied naval defeat in the Battle of Java Sea along with invasion and occupation by the Japanese Sixteenth and Twenty-Fifth armies. Nazi devastation of the Netherlands prevented any serious attempt to resume the colony after the war.
"Massive resistance" overcame Dien Bien Phu? And here I thought it was more than 200 pieces of Soviet-supplied artillery, including Russian Katyusha multiple rocket launchers. The Portuguese in Angola? Pay no attention to that Cuban support for the MPLA.
But look at Zinn's "people power" list: all liberal Western democracies. Not a fundamentalist tyranny or a fascistic state on the list. Ever wonder why those Gandhi tactics don't work so well in countries that have real Gulags and real Dachaus?
And look at the indigenous governments that replaced the old imperial ones. In every case except India, the "life and liberty" of the citizens was measurably worse off. India, too, if you take the British colony as a whole, including Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Not just as a hangover from imperialism. The Belgians and Portuguese were particularly poor models of colonizers, because they spent so much time trying to engineer the lives of their native subjects. But what followed them into power did worse, and with less paternalism and more rapine.
Yet even with that, at the time of independence, the Belgian Congo had the highest literacy rate in Africa (42 percent) and a higher ratio of hospital beds to inhabitants than any country in Africa -- more than Belgium, in fact. Belgian rule was not brought down by a popular uprising so much as by rivalries of tribal leaders and mutinous army garrisons. Western interests quickly made peace with the thug who rose to the top, Mubutu, and they all got rich together. Within 20 years of independence, most major roads in the new nation (now called Zaire) were unusable, as were two-thirds of the vehicles that would have driven on them had they not crumbled into mud. Forty-two percent of the population under age 5 was suffering from malnutrition.
Fortunately, there are people all over the world who believe that human beings everywhere deserve the same rights to life and liberty. On February 15, 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, more than ten million people in more than 60 countries around the world demonstrated against that war.
So these people believe Iraqis had liberty before the overthrow of Saddam, but not after. Boy, this history stuff sure is fascinating!
The true heroes of our history are those Americans who refused to accept that we have a special claim to morality and the right to exert our force on the rest of the world. I think of William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist. On the masthead of his antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, were the words, "My country is the world. My countrymen are mankind."
And that's the grand finale. Zinn spends a good deal of his speech deriding George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and their like for various statements they've made that betray, to Zinn, a lack of historical understanding among these men.
Then he turns around and with a straight face presents us a howler like this, expecting us to swallow it and applaud. Garrison? Refusing "a special claim on morality?" Garrison denying a "right to exert our force" for the sake of that morality? Good Lord, Zinn couldn't have picked a truer descendant of Jonathan Winthrop.
He blunders, unforced, into the most embarrassing -- for a progressive -- story of "the business of conquest and occupation" in American history: The violent subjugation and moralistic reordering of the culturally independent Confederate States of America after 1865. So was that a good thing or a bad thing?
He invokes as his ideal American a man steeped in religion, who violated every "ethical norm" of his time and place, for the sake of his moralistic vision. Zinn couldn't have found a more "exceptional" American if he tried.
William Lloyd Garrison shed his apolitical pacifistic beliefs the minute he saw the politically motivated Civil War as the means to achieve his desire to re-order the social fabric of America.
Even before the war began, in the late 1850s, when most Americans hoped for a peaceful resolution of the slavery conflict, Garrison was looking to a military solution. In 1856, The Liberator announced plans for a convention to consider immediate disunion. A resolution read, in part:
Resolved, that the sooner the separation takes place, the more peaceful it will be; but that peace or war is a secondary consideration in view of our present perils. Slavery must be conquered, peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must.
It's almost a straight precedent of Zinn's damning phrase, "to bring ... liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary."
He had another motto on the masthead of his newspaper, not the one Zinn cares to notice, for years: "No Union with Slave-Holders." Having read the South out of the Union, and done everything in his power to make it an alien nation to his own, Garrison then turned around and lent his every power to the cause of military subjugation of that nation for the sake of transforming it through the moral imperative of his own home-grown ideals.
Garrison placed his personal moral vision above every ethic. He burned the U.S. Constitution in public at Framingham, Massachusetts, on the Fourth of July 1854. Even among his own anti-slavery peers abroad, in Britain, he insisted they adhere to his notions of what was a proper morality, or else he broke off from them entirely.
He spoke of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in terms as fervently evangelical as anything George W. Bush ever uttered. They were "instruments in the hands of God to carry forward and help achieve the great object of emancipation." His own newspaper's masthead featured an image of Jesus.
This is all natural for a man whose mother was a lay preacher in the Baptist church, who founded women's prayer meetings in most of the towns where she lived. Garrison was raised collectively by a deeply pious church community, and the form, if not always the content, of his crusade was entirely consistent with Christian missionary zeal. He tried first working through the Northern pulpits before he decided to go around them. Before he burned the Constitution at Framingham, he read aloud from the Bible.
When the Civil War began, the "No Union with Slaveholders" motto was jettisoned and in its place Garrison put "proclaim Liberty throughout all the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof," a verse (via the Liberty Bell) right out of Leviticus.
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